Just One Pose: Breath Awareness

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.

—Sage

Practicing from the Sidelines, Part 5

In part 1, part 2part 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.

Keeping your back long ensures you don’t exacerbate back pain.

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.

Locust pose will strengthen the muscles that support your spine.

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.

Propping your legs on a chair encourages your back muscles to relax.

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.

—Sage

Practicing from the Sidelines, Part 4

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:

Half happy baby

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:

Full happy baby

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:

Side-lying quad stretch Gentler side-lying quad stretch

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.

—Sage

P.S. We’ve got a final cover for Lifelong Yoga! You can now preorder it at your favorite bookstore—links are here.

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

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 meditation 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

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.

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.

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

Productive Discomfort and Pain

As you’ll know from decades of life and experience with exercise, sensation—even intense sensation—is a byproduct of effort. And this sensation is often necessary for growth. With no stress stimulus, there’s no adaptive response. No challenge, no change. But the trick is to learn how to find the right degree of stress, so that you grow and don’t break down. I wrote about this in Goldilocks and the Gauge.

Depending on where and how you feel it, this pose can be one of appropriate intensity or unproductive pain
Depending on where and how you feel it, this pose can be one of appropriate intensity or unproductive pain.

Your asana practice—doing yoga poses—can be a laboratory so you can begin to discern between productive discomfort and unhealthy pain. This skill then can serve you off the mat, sometimes in unexpected and useful ways. Here’s how to begin to tell the difference; your body, of course, should be your number-one guide.

Productive discomfort can feel like . . .

  • Shaking in the muscles
  • Heat in the muscles (“feel the burn”)
  • A challenge to keep you focused
  • A challenge to keep your breath regular
  • Sensation that fades quickly when you leave a pose

Pain can feel like . . .

  • Sharpness in the joints
  • Aching in the joints
  • Too much to keep you focused
  • Too much to breathe through with a regular rhythm
  • Sensation that continues even after you leave a pose

Use your practice to help you find ways to stay present in the face of discomfort, and to recognize and avoid unproductive pain.

—Sage

Just One Pose: Mountain

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” This one is the most express of all, and you can do it virtually anywhere: mountain pose (tadasana). It’s simply standing there—simply, and profoundly just standing there.

(Smokey) Mountain Pose
(Smokey) Mountain Pose

Why

When you learn to pay attention in mountain pose, both to your alignment and to your breath, you’ll have the ideal foundation for virtually every other pose. And you’ll gain experience in being present with what is happening right now, that is, mindfulness.

How

Stand tall with your feet under your knees and your knees under your hips. Experiment with the most comfortable distance between your feet. Hold your weight even across your feet. Level your pelvis so you feel your core muscles lightly engage. Lift through the crown of your head. Relax your shoulder blades down, and try rolling your thumbs out, as in the photo above, then keep that broadness across your chest and drop your arms by your sides. Take several breaths while feeling the groundedness through your feet and the lift through your spine.

Variations

Mountain pose is portable! You can and should do it anywhere. Shake things up by:

  • Closing your eyes. If that’s too destabilizing, blink in long intervals.
  • Lifting your arms. With your arms lifted, tuck your lowest ribs in so you aren’t arching your back.
  • Lifting your heels. Challenge your balance by creating some space between your heels and the floor. This could be a millimeter or six inches, depending on your balance. Keep breathing!
  • Finding mountain pose in a chair. Keep your ankles and knees in line as you reach your spine tall from your pelvis.

—Sage