The definition of yoga is “union.” This union might be breath and body; it might be body and spirit. Regardless of how we define it on a deeper level, this basic definition reminds us that yoga is more than just a movement practice. Yoga is a practice that transcends a typical workout: it’s whole body, including the subtle body (the breath and spirit) and the mental body (the mind).
When you attend a yoga class, you’ve probably noticed that your instructor offers an “intention” for the practice. Usually, an instructor talks about this intention at the beginning of the practice, throughout the practice, and then again at the end. Adding an intention to your movement practice gives it more depth and meaning. Sage and I have talked about this concept a few times on this blog already: here, she discusses how intention changes as we age. And here, I talk about the difference between intention and goals.
Once you’re clear on what an intention is, the next questions are more pragmatic: how do you find an appropriate intention? And how do you use it to guide your practice?
Finding an intention
Intentions can come from anywhere. I enjoy reading poetry, and when I find a poem that speaks to me, I set it aside to use in a practice later. If you enjoy poetry that has elements of spirituality, some authors to check out include Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Hafiz, and Rumi.
Yoga philosophy makes another great source for inspirational intentions. If you feel nervous about diving into ancient Sanksrit texts, have no fear: there are many good, modern translations. The most foundational is probably The Yoga Sutras, which provides short, clear instructions on living a yogic life. There are several excellent translations of the Sutras available, and it may even be a fun practice to read through them, using each one as an intention.
While philosophy and poetry have their place, your intentions don’t always have to be derived from a place so lofty, either. My favorite intentions are often focused on one word. If I arrive on my mat overwhelmed, the intention for the practice might be “peace.” If I’m exhausted, the intention might be “energize.” If I come to my practice mad at my husband (I’m sure you’ve never practiced yoga mad at your spouse!), my intention might be “calm” or “love” or “let go.” These simple intentions can be the easiest to grasp onto when you’re first adding them into your movement practice.
Using an intention to guide your practice
Once you’ve determined an intention that is speaking to you, what does it look like for that intention to “guide your practice”? If the root of your intention is a poem or philosophical proverb, you might begin your practice by reading it again. From there you could lie down or sit quietly for several breaths, allowing your mind to focus on the themes that the intention brings up for you.
Sometimes, the intention will guide specific movements. If my intention is “balance,” inevitably I’m going to add in some poses that challenge and encourage balance, like Warrior III. If my intention is “trust” or “love,” I’m probably going to do poses that are heart-opening, back-bending poses, like camel pose. That’s not to say that all intentions will have a obvious pose association, but some might.
As you move in your practice, make space to return to your intention. You could rest in a pose like child’s pose and hear your word or intention in your mind as you breathe. You could take a longer break in a seated pose and re-read the sutra or poem that is guiding your practice. Make space as you move to return to the emotional, mental, and spiritual part of yoga by reconnecting to the idea you’ve chosen as your foundation.
Finally, return to your intention once more after a rest in savasana, perhaps in seated meditation. You might even decide that you want to come back to your intention later in the day (right before bed is a nice time) or later in your week. An intention isn’t so much a lesson as a flavor, and the best intentions continue to flavor your day as you move off the mat and into the world.
Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” When I wrote on Mountain Pose, I figured I had hit at the root of alignment and awareness with the most basic and fundamental pose. Then my father asked for help with yoga.
This was a fun shock for me, as I’d never thought he’d be interested in yoga asana, and I said as much in the preface to Lifelong Yoga. Dad had some need for core strength, and I sent him a copy of the book and some videos from my Core Strength for Real People series. And like the wise elder he is, Dad disregarded most of the poses and went straight to the crux of the issue: breath.
You have to breathe! Without your breath, you won’t be holding any pose for very long. But with your breath, you’re generating support for and from your torso, abdomen, and pelvic floor. With these areas engaged, any movement becomes more easy.
So here’s the Just One Pose for the month: breathe consciously for a few rounds daily. When you find yourself bored, when you are in line, when you are stressed, when you are about to lift something heavy or embark on any activity at all: Take a breath with full awareness. Feel what happens in your nose, in your lungs, across your ribcage, through your belly, and along the bottom of your pelvis.
Supported fish, pictured here and given the full Just One Pose treatment here, is a good home base if you have the time to give your breath your full attention for one or more minutes. But you can connect with your breath anytime, anywhere, with no need of any particular state of being in your body. It’s the sine qua non, without which no movement is possible.
This post, I’m taking a break from my Men and Yoga series to give you a preview of Lifelong Yoga! One of my favorite parts of the book is Part III, where we offer short and long sequences to be used in preparation for specific life events, whether that event is daily exercise, gardening, a weekend with grandchildren, or an emotional weekend, like a wedding. Yoga is a toolkit for whatever you encounter in daily life, and this section helps you choose the right tools for the occasion, we also have a protein promo exclusive offer for wearetribe.co for all of you guys, is important to have a good source of protein every time you finish a yoga session, and if you wnat to get your hands on prohormones anabolic roids make sure you check them out as well. This simple standing warm-up sequence is one of my favorites: it requires NO props (not even a yoga mat!), you can do it in regular clothes, you can do it in shoes, and you can do it ANYWHERE! The whole thing could take as little as 5 minutes, but it will make you feel so, so much better. I use it nearly every day, and I start many of the classes I teach with this sequence. On this business, we also provide spa baskets for sale for the customers.
Joan (age: 62) and Jeanne (age: 88) demoed this beautifully after class last week. Jeanne correctly calls herself my oldest student, and she moves with ease and grace– a life of doing yoga!
For more sequences, search for “sequences” in the search box on the left of the screen or pre-order our book! It’s officially out as of August 1.
In part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 of this series, we look at ways injury will affect your practice and at strategies for coping. Now let’s look at back pain. It’s a major issue in aging bodies and, for many people, an incentive for beginning a yoga practice. Good! Yoga asana can help counter back pain, as can general relaxation and awareness. However, many of the moves you’ll find in a typical class are not appropriate, depending on the pathology of your own back pain. Have a detailed conversation with your health-care provider and, if you have one, your physical therapist about what is going on, and which moves are indicated and contraindicated as part of your treatment plan.
That said, here are some general and specific ideas for practicing to avoid and counter back pain.
If it hurts to flex your spine/fold forward:
Don’t do it! The rounding your spine takes in a forward fold can exacerbate disk issues and places great stress on the front of your vertebrae, a no-no if you have bone density problems. Instead of rounding in a forward fold, stop with a long back. This may mean you don’t go very far at all, and that’s OK. You can ensure your back stays long by lying down and lifting your leg to stretch, rather than leaning the full weight of your torso over it in a seated or standing forward fold.
Similarly, don’t do roll up or roll down exercises if they hurt. Instead, focus on keeping your back long and moving form your hips, not your spine.
Instead of flexing, focus on extending the spine, which will strengthen the muscles that support a tall posture. Prone backbends like locust pose are especially good for this.
If it hurts to extend your spine/bend backward:
Don’t do it! If muscle spasms mean you have trouble bending backward, invite your muscles to release in a supported pose like legs to a chair.
If it hurts to twist or lean to the side
Don’t do it! Problems with disks, vertebrae, stenosis, or the sacroiliac (SI) joint can cause pain with these movements. Revert to legs to a chair and talk to your health-care provider.
If you’re a guy and you’re thinking about beginning a yoga practice, it’s helpful to know the answers to a few key questions, so you can walk into a class feeling certain that you’re in the right place, doing the right thing. While we encourage a home practice, if you’re new to yoga, checking out a class might be the best place to begin. (And if you’re in the Triangle area in North Carolina, you can take classes with me and Sage at Carolina Yoga!)
Why should I do yoga?
Yoga is a form of movement, exercise, and meditation all in one. It’s generally low-impact and it’s easily adaptable to any injuries you may have. Having a regular yoga practice now means that you’ll still be playing sports with your kids (and grandkids) later. Yoga helps you build strength, flexibility, and stamina. It’s also abundantly helpful for less-physical but just as important things: stress relief, for instance. Research shows again and again that yoga helps with ailments like back pain and depression. Movement is powerful: having a regular movement practice keeps you fit, well, and happy.
What if I can’t do a pose?
The first time you do anything, there are parts you might skip, watch, or modify. Yoga is no different. If the instructor cues a pose that doesn’t work in your body, simply stand or rest seated on your mat. No one will stare at you or think it’s strange that you are opting out of a pose or movement: that’s part of the practice. In a smaller class, your instructor might come over and ask if you need modifications. You can choose to explain what’s going on or just say, “I’m good.”
A common concern I hear from guys is a fear that you’re not flexible enough for yoga. There’s no such thing: you’re there, in part, to get more flexible! Still, as you build flexibility, you might modify common poses to make them more accessible for you. If you have tight hamstrings, for instance, there may be certain poses you need to adapt to your body. You can ask your instructor if you’re unsure what to do to make things work for you. Bottom line, though: if a pose doesn’t feel good or possible, don’t worry about it. Letting go of having to do everything (and letting go of your ego!) is a big part of the practice.
What if I don’t understand what’s going on?
If you’re in a class, you’re there to learn. Approach the practice with a beginner’s mindset, so when things occur that you don’t fully understand, you can access curiosity, not frustration. Depending on the class, the instructor might use Sanskrit words or chant. The instructor might touch you to offer assists. The instructor may burn incense or use essential oils. You can prepare yourself for what generally happens in a yoga class by reading blog posts (or purchasing our book, which offers a helpful overview) or calling the studio in advance to inquire about the type of class you’re attending. Regardless of preparation, you still might encounter new ways of moving, breathing, or being. Remember, that’s part of yoga: you get a chance to break out of what you’re used to and try things that may change you for the better. While it’s never easy to not know what’s going on, the experience of being new and a little confused won’t last long. After a class or two, you’ll have a good sense of how it all works. A few moments of psychic discomfort are worth years of physical health and comfort.
In addition to comfortable clothes you can move in, you can bring a yoga mat if you have one. If you don’t, nearly every studio has mats available for use. You might choose to bring a water bottle, but you don’t need anything else.
And a bonus: many studios have “first class free” specials. Call ahead to check, but you may not even need your wallet!
Keep in mind, though, that the ancient yogis were men, and the practice was largely male-dominated until the last hundred or so years. Yoga is by no means for one gender or the other.
One of my favorite guy yoga students told me that his biggest concern when he first started yoga was “being the dude that farted in yoga.” If this is a concern you share, rest assured that passing gas is common. (In fact, there’s even a pose called wind-relieving pose!) If it happens, it happens: no one is going to look horror-stricken, I promise, and it will probably be ignored. Certainly don’t let that hold you back from attending a class!
In my next post in my Men and Yoga series, we’ll look at some of the best poses for guys for long-term health.
In part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this series, we look at ways injury will affect your practice and at strategies for coping. Let’s drill down further into ways to modify a few common poses to work around injury in the lower body. This could be anything from arthritis in the toes to sprained ankles to knee and hip problems. One of my favorite workarounds is to modify a pose’s relationship to gravity. This can alleviate much of the load in the pose while still addressing muscles, connective tissues, and joints in beneficial ways. Try these only if they feel good; defer to your health care team if you are in immediate recovery from an acute injury or post surgery.
If it hurts to lunge:
Try a half happy baby. Lie on your back and bend one knee in. Depending on what feels best, you can hug your shin, or point the sole of your foot toward the ceiling. By pulling your bent leg more toward center or the side, you can stretch your inner thigh and outer hip with no pressure on the knee, ankle, and foot, and less strain on the hip. As a bonus, this stretches the front of the base leg, too.
If it hurts to squat:
Try a full happy baby. As in half happy baby, you’ll rest on your back with your knees bent, holding your shins, backs or your knees, or feet as feels good.
If it hurts to kneel:
Lie on your side and either hold your foot in your hand or, if that hurts, place your top knee facing up and that foot on the floor. You’ll stretch your quads and hip flexors gently without bringing your knee into deep flexion.
P.S. We’ve got a final cover for Lifelong Yoga! You can now preorder it at your favorite bookstore—links are here.
If you’re a guy in a yoga class, chances are you have uttered this phrase at some point, whether to yourself, a friend, or your yoga instructor. The complaint of “tight hamstrings” is pervasive in yoga, and it’s a comment we often hear men make. In part 2 of my series on men and yoga, let’s look at why tight hamstrings are more common in men and what you can do to make hamstrings-heavy poses friendlier for your body.
Generally, women are more flexible than men, but this is certainly not the only reason men experience tighter hamstrings. An additional exacerbating factor is sitting (a common element of modern jobs.) Sitting for long stretches, over time, results in tighter, shorter hamstrings muscles. But genetics play a role, too: if you’ve been plagued by less flexibility in the backs of your legs since you were young, then you may simply have shorter hamstrings than your peers.
The sensation of tight hamstrings can also be a symptom of tightness or imbalance in other places, like calves, hip flexors, glutes, or your lower back. Sometimes stretching these other areas can create noticeable space and loosening in the hamstrings. The good news is that yoga targets your whole body, so your yoga practice over time will serve a goal of creating more flexible hamstrings.
What to do
If you have less-flexible hamstrings, forward-folding poses might be uncomfortable. So here’s what not to do: don’t just push through, shaking and sweating and gritting your teeth. Instead of pushing your muscles into submission (which won’t happen, anyway, but could result in injury), patiently coax them to slowly and steadily relax and release, by asking less of them. How? Bend your knees.
Bending your knees is the simplest fix for tightness in the backs of your legs. By bending your knees, you can control the intensity of the stretch. Aim for a level 3 or 4 intensity (out of 10), at least for the first half of your yoga practice. As you feel warmer, experiment a little, but always stay below the shaking, teeth-gritting point. (There’s greater risk of injury when you push. Practice patience—make that your intention for your yoga!)
When you bend your knees in a pose, you’re still doing the pose! You’re doing a version that is appropriate for your body and your needs. It’s not cheating to modify. It’s not weak or wimpy. It’s intelligent yoga to make wise decisions that better serve your body.
Here are three common poses modeled with bent knees. This allows your hamstrings to release gradually over time. Less is more!
By bending his knees in downward-facing dog, Bob can get the full effects of the pose in his upper body. The integrity of the pose isn’t compromised by this modification. The bend allows his hamstrings to gently stretch, and he probably also feels a stretch in his calves here, too.
Standing forward fold
In this version of standing forward fold, Bob’s bent knees allow his glutes to stretch, too. Notice that he’s brought his hands to his elbows. Don’t worry about touching the ground in your forward folds. There’s no need to arrive at any particular destination.
Seated forward fold
In the picture on the left, Bob is showing what not to do. Don’t sacrifice your back (rounding it, as he’s doing here) in order to keep your legs straight. Instead, follow his modeling on the right: deeply or lightly bend your knees. Be sure to sit on a blanket. Lean forward from the chest, keeping your back long and your spine straight. Don’t worry about where your hands go. (No one cares if you touch your toes. Don’t compare yourself to the 21-year-old. You’re not her.)
In my next post on men and yoga, I’ll answer some common questions you might have if you’re a guy beginning a yoga practice.
The cover is being finalized, and we’ve just happily reviewed the beautiful inside of Lifelong Yoga: Maximizing Your Balance, Flexibility, and Core Strength in Your 50s, 60s, andBeyond. This is my seventh book and Alexandra’s first—the thrill of holding page proofs never gets old, though, and it makes the whole thing seem very real.
You’ll know it’s real when you’re holding your own copy this summer. Preorder it now from your favorite bookstore! If you like the convenience of Amazon, you can buy there and take advantage of their preorder price guarantee—click here to preorder on Amazon.
The book boasts a very special foreword by my student Roy Williams, who just one his third national championship as coach of the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team. As impressive as that is, Alexandra’s daughter had a few edits:
My 70-year-old dad is my favorite yoga student. He is vocal about how good yoga makes him feel and he’s good about knowing his limits in a practice, resting when rest is appropriate. Whenever he’s in town, he comes to one of my weekly Yoga for Healthy Aging classes. He agreed to attend the first few classes with some trepidation—he was concerned he’d be the only guy on a mat. That has never been the case, of course, and in most of my classes at least half the students are guys about my dad’s age.
The demographics have changed since I first started teaching, and I see more and more men in class. The research agrees: according to Yoga Journal‘s recent study, men now make up 28% of all yoga students—and their numbers are growing. Considering that this same study tells us that 38% of all yoga practitioners are over 50, there’s a reason to celebrate: there is more gender and age diversity in yoga.
While yoga’s roots are male gurus and sages, in the West yoga has long been women’s territory. That’s changing, but what does it mean to be an active, aging man doing yoga today?
In my next few posts, I’ll be writing about considerations, modifications, and specific poses and sequences for men in their 50s, 60s, and beyond. If you’re an active, older guy with a yoga practice, I’d love to hear from you! What questions or concerns do you have? Has yoga helped you physically or in a more esoteric way—or both? What resources do you consult for your home practice?