Men and Yoga, Part 2: Tight Hamstrings

“My hamstrings are really tight.”

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.

Why

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!

Downward-facing dog

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Bob L., 59, models a strong downward-facing dog with knees bent.

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

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Bob in 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.

—Alexandra

Preorder Now: LIFELONG YOGA

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, and Beyond. 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:

By Roy Williams

Men and Yoga, Part 1

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.

Men and yoga
Carl, Russell, Ray, Bob, Tom, and Tandy: all men in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s who regularly attend Yoga for Healthy Aging.

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?

—Alexandra

 

Practicing from the Sidelines, Part 3

In part 1 and part 2 of this series, we looked at the inevitability of injury and how to investigate its cause. Let’s turn now to how to continue a yoga practice in the face of injury. Later in the series, we’ll explore ways to modify yoga poses to work around injuries in specific areas of the body; here are some general guidelines for keeping up your practice while you heal.

Tone it down and dial it back

Taking your injury to a fast-paced group class is a recipe for disaster. If you’re craving the comfort of the studio and the attention of your teacher, choose a slower-paced class. The word “gentle” in the title is usually a good sign. When in doubt, call ahead to the studio and/or teacher to find out if the class is suitable for someone managing an injury. And see Alexandra’s primer on the styles of yoga to further decipher the studio schedule.

If you can find a restorative yoga class, that’s a great opportunity to jump-start your recovery from injury. Or enjoy restorative yoga at home. This post on supported fish can get you started.

Depend on your home practice

Part of the fun of being in group classes is not knowing exactly where the practice will lead—but that’s not appropriate when you’re hurt. Instead, rely on or start a home practice. This gives you the chance to move at your own perfect pace, to work around your injury, and to stop at any point if something doesn’t feel right.

Don’t have a home practice yet? Try these resources:

  • This very blog! Scroll through previous posts to find poses and routines targeting various parts of the body.
  • Find a yoga book. Ours, Lifelong Yoga, is coming soon; meanwhile, my Everyday Yoga is a guide to home practice, and it’s available in both paper and e-book format.
  • Follow along to a video. This is a great place to get started, especially if you’re unsure about just what to do. The Internet is full of free offerings of various quality. For curated content, Alexandra and I both have classes available at YogaVibes (see hers here and mine here). And several of my Core Strength for Real People episodes avoid putting pressure on feet and hands, which means you can get a satisfying workout when you’re injured in those areas.

Take another path up the mountain

Your yoga practice is a chance to feel aware and connected. There are several ways to get there besides doing yoga poses. One is meditation. Read Alexandra’s series on getting into mediation here. Others include being in nature—walk if you can’t run, sit in the sun if you can’t walk—singing, and serving others. Perhaps this is the time to volunteer at your favorite local races, or coach a youth league. You can keep a hand in your favorite sport while you heal.

—Sage

How Much Yoga Do You Need?

Before I had a family, I did yoga most days of the week. I attended a lot of classes, and I also had a consistent home practice. But as my family obligations and career pressures have grown, it’s hard to find time for everyday yoga (and exercise and meditation and cooking and life.) For most of us, the prime years for family and work (late 20s through 50s) are the busiest and most stressful. So how do you make time for yoga when there’s not much time? And how much yoga do you need?

A regular yoga practice confers all sorts of good things: physical strength, better balance, more flexibility, and that’s not to mention the harder-to-measure benefits: a sense of calm and peace, compassion, and better focus. The range of things that preliminary studies suggest that yoga might help includes back pain, insomnia, and even anxiety and depression. In short, yoga is good for you.

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Carl B. comes to my Yoga for Healthy Aging class every Monday. At 81, he’s spry, moves with ease, and is strong in balance poses. His weekly yoga practice includes attending my class, another class, and doing a few home practices. He’s been practicing yoga for about 15 years.

A Little Goes a Long Way

There is no clear answer for “how much yoga do I need?” A lot depends on your age, your activity level, and your body. Still, if you’re looking for a magic number, start with one.

One yoga practice a week can make a big difference in your life: it can set your mood, give you a guiding intention for the week, and help your body feel more open as you go about being a desk warrior or parent. Most of us can carve out the time to attend a weekly class or commit to waking up early one day a week for a quiet home practice. Start there. Commit to a once-a-week practice, if that’s all the  time you can spare. (And although research on this is sparse, at least one study shows that yoga once a week can improve spinal flexibility.)

If you can spare more time, than the next number is two: do a practice twice a week or get to a class twice in one week. From there, keep going: add yoga when and where you can. Unless you’re doing a rigorous leg-behind-the-head practice, you can do yoga every day. (Rigorous practices might necessitate rest days.)

How Much Time Does Yoga Take?

When you think about doing your own practice at home, it doesn’t have to be an hour of mat-rolled-out yoga. You may not even need a mat for a short practice; you could use a wall or do a practice in bed. Adding in 5-15 minutes of yoga to your morning or evening can confer big benefits. A little bit of daily yoga is better than none at all.

The short answer for “how much yoga do I need?”is that a little will make you feel good and more will make you feel better. Do what you have the time and energy for, but be sure to do it.

Make It a Habit

For many of us, making yoga a habit feels challenging, so take the pressure off. Do what you can in whatever time you have, and don’t worry about making it perfect. Just move and breathe. (You can even sprinkle in yoga throughout your day with little effort: practice balance poses, like tree pose or standing pigeon, when you brush your teeth; take a 5 minute stretch break every hour at work.)

If doing a home practice feels intimidating, find a class or a teacher that works in your schedule and fits your needs and go every week or twice weekly. In yoga, devotion to our yoga practice is called tapas. Find your tapas and make a commitment to your practice.

Start Now

Start now. Don’t wait until things are less busy or you have more space in your home or your children are off at school. Find a yoga class or a teacher or buy a book (ours is coming soon!) and get going. There is always a reason not to do the things that are good for us (stress and being busy, chiefly), but starting a yoga practice now sets you up for continued health as you age.

—Alexandra

Practicing from the Sidelines, Part 2

Photo by Tammy Lamoureux

Engage in your sport or in yoga asana long enough with appropriate zeal, and you’ll inevitably get injured. That’s the consequence of testing your limits, as we saw in part 1 of this series. My first piece of advice there is that when you find yourself in a hole, you must stop digging.

The next step is to pinpoint what’s going on. What changed and led to the injury in the first place? In the case of an acute injury, you know exactly what happened: you fell on the trail while running and cracked your kneecap, or while washing your car you tried to whip the hose over it and felt something in your shoulder pop. More common, however, is a slow-onset inflammatory injury: plantar fasciitis in the sole of your foot, bursitis in your hip. When these problems emerge, ask yourself: What changed? You’ll probably emerge with one of these answers, which helps you see how to correct the problem and how to modify your training and yoga practice accordingly.

Q: What Changed? A: Training Load

A change in the intensity, frequency, or duration of your workouts—including yoga asana—will affect the amount of stress your workouts put on your body. When this total stress load is greater than your body’s ability to recover proportionately, injury results. I cover this topic in great detail in my book The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery. If you’ve been lifting more weights, hitting faster paces or putting out more power, training more often, and going for longer, you must match the extra stress with extra rest.

Correction to the problem: Stop digging.

Q: What Changed? A: Habits Outside Training

Your body adapts not only to the stresses you intentionally apply during training, but also to the habits you form and ingrain all day long. If you’ve been spending more time at your desk or on your commute, you may be encouraging a hunch in your upper back and tightness across the front of your chest. If you’ve been caring for an ailing parent or partner, or for grandchildren, the extra time cooking, cleaning, and lifting will add stress to your body. These imbalances show up front to back, top to bottom, and left to right in your body.

Correction to the problem: Yoga poses are one good way to correct these imbalances. Better yet, visit a physical therapist for a full assessment.

Q: What Changed? A: Equipment

In sports that use equipment, a degradation of gear over time (think of running shoes that go flat, or bike cleats that shift out of position) or using the wrong equipment—an ill-fitted bike, a bowling ball that’s too heavy—can invite injury.

Correction to the problem: Consult with a professional about your gear. Buy new running shoes; check your bike fit. (This is one problem that throwing a little money at it can fix.)

Q: What Changed? A: Age

For lifelong athletes, one change is constant: age. Every year, your body becomes less capable of handling the amount of training stress it used to be able to process just fine. If you don’t adjust your training stress to accommodate this shift, you’ll get hurt.

Correction to the problem: Reduce training intensity; emphasize gentle and restorative yoga.

Your Meditation Practice and Healthy Aging

In my last posts, I wrote about the basics of meditation: how you do it, how you make it a habit, and how you might deal with common obstacles that arise. Whether you have a dedicated meditation practice or you’re just getting curious about meditation, you’re probably familiar with some of the benefits of the practice. But what happens when you dedicate yourself to a regular meditation habit? How do you know meditation is “working”? And what particular benefits does meditation confer on our aging brains?

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Kathleen Harris, 63, practices meditation before a yoga practice

 

Regular Meditation and a Changing You

Meditation practitioners report that a regular meditation practice makes them feel calmer, more centered, and more keenly aware of the space between stimulus and response. Another recognized result of regular meditation is greater concentration. But your meditation path might reveal other benefits (like better sleep, more vivid dreams, or a better awareness of posture and your breath) or it might not feel like you experience any of this! Additionally, some meditation sessions might come easily and feel rejuvenating, and some meditation practices might seem exhausting or fraught with constant mental turbulence. Whatever your experience, have faith that meditation is working, and over time you will start to notice the subtle benefits. Research shows this to be the case: in some studies, regular meditation conferred brain changes in as little as 2-8 weeks.

Meditation and Aging

The tangible benefits of meditation are more patience and more presence. But the greater benefit of meditation is a healthier brain. Research suggests that meditation actually changes your brain, creating more gray matter and a brain that is “younger” than your actual age might be. What does this mean, exactly? First, meditation reduces activity in the “me center” of the brain, so your self-focused mind and constantly-streaming anxiety chill out a little bit. In addition to calming your brain, meditation thickens gray matter in key areas, so your brain has an easier time with focus and concentration. In one study, this change occurred with just two weeks of habitual meditation. Finally, meditation might help you regenerate brain cells, allowing for slower responses to stress and a stronger memory. Preliminary studies even show that meditation may help decrease and slow the progression of brain ailments, like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Like yoga and exercise, meditation is a practice. Meditating with regularity will make you feel better on a daily basis, and it will increase your vitality and overall health with every passing year. Ready to start?

—Alexandra

Practicing from the Sidelines, Part 1

Sage Rountree
Photo by Tammy Lamoureux

Earlier this month, my back went out. This condition set in over the course of a day and hung around for two weeks, during which I generally was absolutely fine lying down, but felt the muscles seizing up after only a few steps. (Sleeping? Not a problem. Walking to the coffeemaker? Big problem.) About halfway through this frustrating fortnight, Alexandra wrote to me, “It’s interesting to think about this in the context of the inevitability of aging and injury. You do everything ‘right.’ Yet, this still happened. I think there’s a [B.S.] notion that yoga will save people. Not so. It helps, but there’s no way to avoid injury/illness.”

Yes. Injury is inevitable. If you continue a physical activity—running, gardening, yoga asana—for long enough and if you are interested in improving by testing your limits, you will get hurt. It’s an important part of the learning process; it often shows when you have pushed too far. In my case, my movement activities—running and asana—led to a muscular imbalance. I then found myself with some extra leisure time after we turned in the manuscript to Lifelong Yoga and my business partner and I got Hillsborough Spa and Day Retreat running. I spent this extra time doing more yoga asana than usual, and one or more of those poses found a way to capitalize on the existing imbalance and affect my SI joint. (Happily, this was caught by a wonderful athletic trainer and fixed by a clever chiropractor, and I’m better now.)

In my next posts, I’ll suggest some approaches for practicing from the sidelines. For now, I advise you do what it took me a few too many days to realize: when you’re in a hole, stop digging. I stubbornly kept running and continued my usual movement practices without investigating too deeply what caused the problem in the first place. This just dug the hole deeper. When you find yourself in the throes of injury, the very first step is to stop and get clear on what is going on.

Introduction to Meditation, Part 3

In my previous two posts, I wrote about how to get started with meditation and how to make meditation a consistent habit. This week, we’ll explore some of the common obstacles that might arise when you meditate.

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Shelley Dillon, 56, practices seated meditation before yoga

Meditation Obstacles

Meditation is simple: all you do is close your eyes, focus your attention, and breathe. But despite its simplicity, meditation is not easy. Once you close your eyes, your attention immediately gets pulled in many directions…or you notice an itch…or you suddenly feel the urge to plan dinner. To just stay and do nothing and draw your attention (again and again and again) to an anchor point (breath, counting, or a mantra, for instance) is no small feat. Obstacles to meditation are omnipresent. Here are some of the most common ones and some creative ways to solve them.

Boredom

When you first start to meditate, two minutes is going to feel like a small eternity. Imagine sitting for ten minutes! Or half an hour! Your brain is going to miss your smart phone, your car radio, your coffee—whatever it is you use to distract yourself from what’s happening RIGHT NOW. And since your brain has no option but just to hang out with itself, in the beginning this slow presence is going to feel kind of boring.

What do you do? Sometimes when I don’t feel like running, I make a deal with myself: If I get my running clothes on and run one mile, I can check the box, go home, and be done for the day. Of course, once I’m out there running, I don’t usually opt out. Meditation works the same way: once you get going, it feels pretty good. The boredom fades. So make a deal with yourself: sit for ten sessions, and if you still feel bored you can opt out of meditation and try it again in another few months.

Physical Discomfort

It’s tough to sit in one place for an extended period of time—you may feel a little stiff and creaky.

What do you do? Prioritize comfort when you start meditating. You do not need to sit on the floor. Sitting in a comfortable chair works great. You could even be propped up in bed (although the temptation to fall asleep may be too great there.) Make sure, though, that your seated meditation doesn’t result in legs falling asleep or muscles being pinched. Get particular about your comfort before you begin.

Loneliness

Although you can certainly join a meditation group, even there you are essentially alone in a room of people. Sitting and being present with what’s in your head might feel a little isolating or even lonely.

What do you do? You could make it a point to have a meditation buddy—someone that you talked to about your practice on a regular basis, so the experience feels more shared. The thing is, though, meditation will feel like a lonely endeavor initially, but eventually it becomes a place you go to find solace from the busy world of people. It moves from feeling lonely to feeling solitary. Time practicing helps you make this shift.

Distraction

Distraction shows up in various forms: emotions (like anxiety or anger), desire, planning for the future, ruminating thoughts, or outside distractions, like noises, family, or pets.

What do you do? This is where the discipline of meditation comes into play: when you notice your mind has moved away from your anchor, you gently and deliberately bring it back. Some days, this will be easier and some days this will feel like you are jogging through mud. The easier practices and the more challenging practices are all part of meditation. Over time, you may find you’re distracted less. You may find it easier to stay connected to your anchor during your practice.

In my next post, we’ll look at how you can tell meditation is working and how your meditation practice might offer support for aging.

—Alexandra

 

 

 

Find the Good Spots

So much is going right!

As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday in the States, a thought on gratitude. Lately, I’ve started class with a body scan. It’s natural for the attention to go straight to the sites of injury, tension, fatigue. (As my colleague Sara says, “The mind is a pessimist.”) And these are critical to notice as you begin an asana or meditation practice, so that you can see clearly what you’re working with.

But also take the time to find at least one spot, and ideally more, that feels totally fine right now. This could be “My right pointer finger is OK,” or “I don’t have a headache.” Let this expression of gratitude and appreciation for the good spots grow. Once you’ve found one, you can usually find several more. It makes a sweet practice out of counting your blessings, focusing on the sites of function rather than dysfunction.

All our best for a peaceful Thanksgiving holiday.

—Sage