Your Resolution: Yoga

 

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Photo credit: Ariel Adams

The brain works like this: each time we do something—a behavior, an activity—neural links form. And every time we do that same thing again, those neural connections get stronger and our action becomes a habit. In yoga, the concept samskara refers to these deeply ingrained patterns, both the ones we’re happy to repeat (daily workouts, for instance) and the ones we’d be happier breaking (daily donuts, perhaps.)

We want to repeat activities and behaviors that make us stronger. But we can all identify some habits we’d like to change. That’s where our yoga practice comes in. A regular yoga practice brings calm, more mindfulness, better posture, better breathing… and so much more. In fact, a regular yoga practice can create the space we need to cultivate vidya, or clear thinking, that will help us continue to make positive changes in our lives.

This new year, make regular yoga your resolution. You don’t have to do a long practice every day. Instead, aim for a single pose or a short sequence every morning or evening. (This blog is a helpful resource, and Sage’s Everyday Yoga offers tools for a simplified home practice.) If daily yoga feels intimidating, no problem. Commit to once a week. Even doing yoga once a week provides stress reduction and more flexibility. Yoga just makes you feel better. In 2016, do more of it.

—Alexandra

Just One Pose: Paused Roll Down

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” This week, the pose to try is paused roll down. This variation on the Pilates roll down doesn’t rely on upper-body support, so if you’re recovering from a shoulder, elbow, or wrist injury, it’s the perfect core-focused pose.

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John, 71, holds paused roll down

Why

If you want to continue to run, bike, and play for the whole of your life, having strong abdominal muscles is key. You can explore plank pose as a stabilizing pose to build core strength. In plank, the spine stays long. In paused roll down, the spine articulates. This is another important way to build core strength and maintain spinal health, and it’s a good alternative to plank when your upper body needs rest.

How

Sit with your legs extended. Draw your shoulder blades down your back and reach your arms forward. Take a breath in and deeply engage your core. (Not sure what “engage your core” means? Check out Core Engagement 101.) Moving with a neutral spine, start to roll down toward the ground. Pause about halfway to the earth—or when it starts to feel a little challenging. Stay here and breathe. Keep your core engaged and deepen the engagement on every exhalation. The “work” of the pose should happen in the front and sides of your body, not in your back. Hold for 5-10 breaths.

Variations

If you have tight hamstrings or hip flexors: Bend your knees. This will give your hip flexors and hamstrings a reprieve, and you’ll still get the benefit of core work.

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Be kinder to your legs: bend your knees

For more support: Hold on to your legs. This will lessen the load on your core.

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Start with holding your legs to build strength

For more spice: Pause with your body closer to the earth. Things may get a little shaky!

If you have disc concerns or stenosis: Instead of rolling down, lean back with a long spine. Don’t lean back very far: pause just a few degrees back. If this pose still doesn’t feel right for you with that change, simply don’t do it. (Not all poses are for every body, but that’s another post.)

—Alexandra

Just One Pose: Supported Fish

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” When it comes to restorative yoga poses, supported fish is an excellent choice, especially if you’ve recently upped your cycling miles, have just finished a long car trip, or have been sitting for long stretches at a desk. Supported fish is calming, and it allows your mind and body to truly relax.

Why

The benefits of restorative yoga poses are numerous. When we settle our bodies into a restorative pose, our breathing slows down and our muscles release. Supported fish gives you a chance to passively stretch your upper back, shoulders, and chest. It’s a perfect antidote to stress—something many of us experience in the winter holiday months.

How

Place a block at the head of your yoga mat. Put your bolster on top, so it creates a ramp. Sit with your sacrum against the bolster and lie back onto it, so your head is higher than your heart. Drape your arms to the side, letting your elbows rest on the ground. Extend your legs. Close your eyes and breathe, and stay in the pose for 5-20 minutes.

Variations

To do this pose with household props: Use a heavy book as a block and a couch pillow as a bolster. Use a hand towel or washcloth as an eye pillow.

For the deluxe version of this pose: Gather several blankets or towels and use these to cushion your elbows, under your head as a pillow, or under your knees for even more support. Dim the lights, put in ear plugs, and give yourself at least 20 minutes of rest.

Change it up: Try this pose with your legs wide, your knees bent, or your feet touching with your legs in a diamond shape. One of these options might feel even better in your body!

—Alexandra

Props: Yoga Blocks for Better Yoga

Doing some yoga? You should give yourself props! And although you deserve accolades for getting to a mat and moving, the props I’m speaking of are the literal ones. This week, let’s talk about the yoga block, an important prop that can help you align, strengthen, and play your edge. In weeks ahead, we’ll explore other uses of the block (it can be supportive, too!) and we’ll look at additional props—the strap, bolster, blanket and more.

Yoga blocks are small, firm rectangular blocks, often made of heavier foam or wood. If you don’t have a block, a thick book can do the job just as well. It’s useful to have at least one on hand, and in some poses two blocks would be even better.

Align

Use your yoga block to help you find optimal alignment. In a pose like triangle pose, it’s easy to reach too far forward of the front shin or to lose integrity in the pose by reaching for the ground. Placing a yoga block under your hand helps you keep your arms in a straighter line, and it allows you to find a “just right” stretch instead of a “too much” one. Any time the ground feels far away (especially in forward folds or lunges), a yoga block can serve as the buttress for better yoga, helping you find safe alignment for your knees, hips, shoulders, and back.

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Chris Mason, 57, explores triangle pose as a counter balance to cycling

Strengthen

Use your yoga block to make poses a little spicier. In poses like plank, bridge, or mountain, you can add a block to build strength. In all three of these poses, placing a block between your thighs and squeezing will help you find more engagement in your legs and inner thighs.

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A block between your thighs will make mountain pose spicier

Play your edge

Use your yoga block to play your edge in balance poses where one or both hands reach toward the earth. In half moon pose or standing split, the block brings the earth closer to you. This creates stability so you can explore the fullness of the pose in your body. By pressing into the block, you can better stabilize the standing leg and find your edge in lifting the extended leg.

Use a block for stability and play your edge!

—Alexandra

Just One Pose: Plank

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” Plank always wins this category for me: it’s simple to do, you can do it anywhere (you just need a comfortable spot for your hands), and the payoff is big. Not only does plank help strengthen your core in a major way, it also encourages strong posture, helps keep your back pain-free, and is a great pose to do before you get moving.

Donnie Barnes, 42, holds plank before a run

Why

Core strength is crucial to aging well. It’s also crucial to good performance in your sport. Having strong abdominal muscles means you’ll have less back pain. But core strength isn’t the only benefit of this pose: holding plank is a balance challenge and provides good work for your arms and upper body. It also has the added benefit of gently stretching the backs of your legs.

How

Come to hands and knees and then lift your knees off the earth, extending your legs fully. Spread your fingers wide, and push down firmly with your palms, knuckles, and fingertips. Pull your belly in and engage your core. If you’re not sure how to get your abdominal muscles to fire up, take a moment to check out Core Engagement 101. Press back through your heels, lengthening your legs. Draw your shoulder blades down your back and keep your gaze down to the earth or just a little in front of your hands so your neck remains long.

Hold plank for successively longer periods of time as you make it a part of your routine. Start with 5-10 breaths and add a few breaths each time you explore the pose.

Variations

If your arms or shoulders need more support: Keep the long line of plank from your head to your tailbone, but drop your knees down to the ground. Focus on maintaining core engagement.

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For sweeter, put your knees down

If your wrists need more support: Try elbow plank. Find this same long spine and core engagement, but put your forearms on the ground. While elbow plank takes the pressure off your hands and wrists, it is more challenging for your core.

If you want more challenge:  Try lifting your leg. Or try lifting and drawing circles with your leg. Or try lifting your leg AND extending your opposite arm. Or try any of these in elbow plank.

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For spicier, lift one leg

—Alexandra

Basics: Core Engagement 101

In our “Basics” posts, you’ll find quick overviews and tutorials for basic ways to stay strong and healthy. Let’s start with the most basic of basics: core engagement. In the short video below, you’ll learn how to engage your core. Since movement needs to originate from the core whether you’re picking up your grandchild or swinging a golf club, this overview is a great place to begin.

Why

You need to engage your core because if you don’t, your back is going to be doing the work your core should. In the long run, this is detrimental—and may even result in back pain or injury.

When

You should be engaging your core all the time! Okay, okay: not all the time, but most of the time. You need to engage your core whenever you are starting a movement: standing from sitting, picking up a grocery bag, swinging your tennis racket, etc. Good movement patterns originate from the core space.

How

Core engagement is best accessed standing, so start there. Then imagine that your core engages from three places: first, pull your low abdominals in and up, as if you were sliding on a pair of extra snug pants. Next, pull your belly button straight back to your spine, as you might do when you’re trying to look good for the camera. Finally, tuck your low ribs down, as if you were starting a little crunch. And then relax a little. And breathe.

—Alexandra