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

A Simple Fix to Save Your Wrists

Certain yoga poses require your hands to support your weight. Many of these poses have modifications, so if you have arthritis or inflammation and pain in your wrists, you can find a variation of the pose that’s safer for you. Downward-facing dog, for instance, can be practiced at a chair or at the wall. Some poses, though, aren’t as easily modified to take weight out of your hands. Plank pose requires your hands to be on the ground, and in the pose, your wrists help support your body weight. If your wrist ailment gets exacerbated by use, you can skip poses that aggravate your condition. There are often substitute poses that challenge or stretch in a similar way. In lieu of plank, a pose like roll down is a good alternative.

If discomfort in your wrists isn’t linked to a chronic condition, it might just be a matter of building strength. Over time as you practice plank or downward-facing dog (in its traditional orientation), your upper body will get stronger and your wrists will feel more supported by the muscles in your upper arms, shoulders, and back. But in the interim, it’s important to care for your wrists.

Problem

As you build strength in your upper body, caring for your wrists is important. If you experience any wrist pain, how do you protect your wrists and still practice poses like plank and downward-facing dog?

Solution

First, anytime you’re on your hands, be sure to spread your fingers wide, so you can see mat between your fingers. Engage the muscles in your whole hand, pressing each finger down on to the mat. This will help distribute the weight, so your wrists aren’t bearing all the work. Another easy fix is to add padding under your hands. You can do this by using a blanket under the base of your palms or by double (or triple) folding your mat. In either case, the padding changes the angle of your wrists and alleviates some of the pressure.

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A blanket under your wrists decreases the bend, making it significantly sweeter.
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If class is moving quickly or you don’t have a blanket nearby, fold up your mat for wrist support.

Finally, you can always make fists and balance your weight on your knuckles, if that feels better. The bottom line: if you have wrist concerns, explore your options. There may be a perfect fix that will keep your wrists supported and allow you to do hands-on-the-mat poses.

—Alexandra

Share Your Questions

Alexandra and Sage
Alexandra and Sage

We are in the home stretch of drafting Lifelong Yoga, our book to be published by North American Books next summer. Our goal is to tell and show you how to develop and modify a practice to take you through your forties, fifties, and far beyond. We’re covering adaptations for common age-related conditions, appropriate expressions of poses for various bodies and needs, and yoga philosophy.

Here’s your chance to help direct the book. What are your biggest questions around making yoga a lifelong practice? How has your practice changed, and how did you adapt? What would you most like to learn about yoga through the years?

Please let us know in the comments and on Facebook. Thanks in advance!

—Sage

Let Your Intention Guide Your Practice

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We talk a lot about intentions in yoga. Intentions are different than goals. If you set an intention at the start of your yoga practice, it’s your starting point for the flavor of your practice. You might set an intention of peace, for instance. Or presence. Goals are different: they’re measurable achievements you arrive at later. You can certainly have goals in yoga, too. You might be practicing plank pose for successively longer numbers of breaths, for example. The number of breaths you’re working toward is your clear and stated goal.

With regard to why you choose to do yoga, it’s useful to have an intention, too. When I started doing yoga, I wasn’t always clear about my intention. I had a lot of goals—mostly based on achievement of certain poses—but I didn’t always have a deeper reason for my practice. This has changed. I do yoga with intentions that generally coalesce around the ideas of meditation, strength, relaxation, and injury prevention. Starting from one of these places, I create my sequences or choose which poses to do on a given day. If my aim is strength, I’ll probably do more core-focused poses; if my plan is to build focus or relax, I may do a restorative practice.

Because my intentions toward my practice are clearer, there are poses that I have stopped doing. These poses don’t feel good for me, regardless of how I tweak my alignment or use props to offer support. These poses don’t feel like they help me build strength, allow me to find meditative focus, or encourage relaxation. They feel stressful to my joints or potentially dangerous to more fragile parts of my body. They don’t align with my intention to use yoga as a tool to stave off injury.

Downward-facing dog is probably the most ubiquitous pose in yoga. If down-dog doesn’t feel good for your shoulders or wrists, try a modification. And if it still doesn’t feel good? If there is associated pain? If you can find alternative ways to strengthen your shoulders? Then take it off your roster of poses—maybe just for a while (as you recover from an injury, for instance, or build strength in another way) or maybe permanently.

If your yoga teachers says “listen to your body,” what he or she is really saying is “let your intention guide your practice.” But this begs the question: why do you do yoga? What intentions flavor your yoga practice? Getting clear on these questions can help you make mindful choices about the type of yoga—including which specific poses—you want to do.

—Alexandra

Breath to Support Stillness in Your Yoga Practice: Back Bends and Forward Folds

We’ve been looking at how your breath supports your movement in your workouts—see “The Right Breath for Now,” “Breath to Support Movement,” “Breath to Support Movement in Your Yoga Practice,” and “Breath to Support Stillness in Your Yoga Practice: Balance and Twists.” Let’s look at how the breath relates to the movement of your spine forward and back.

Breath and Backbends

Use inhalations to extend your spine even longer.
Use inhalations to extend your spine even longer.

In general, we use inhalations to support lifting actions. This holds true in backbends, as well. A full inhalation will decrease the curve of your thoracic spine, extending your back. As you hold a backbend like the chest lift depicted here, notice the sensation of length that rides on every breath in, and try to maintain it as you breathe out.

Breath and Forward Folds

Use exhalations to help you settle in forward folds.
Use exhalations to help you settle in forward folds.

As the spine moves forward, exhalations become your friend. As you hold a forward fold, you’ll notice that every breath in floats you slightly up, then every breath out will settle you deeper. Notice that exhalations can encourage you to round your upper and mid-back. Be careful with this movement, as too much forward flexion can be rough on the spine and disks. Keeping a longer spine is generally a good idea—even if that means you don’t fold very far forward.

—Sage

Yoga for Your Feet, Part 3

In my last posts, I wrote about how important it is for your feet to stay strong and flexible, and I discussed the ways your yoga practice already helps your feet. This week, I’ve included a short video that gives you a few movements to include in your yoga practice to strengthen your feet and create greater flexibility. These simple additions require no special props, and they’re easy to do.

Problem

As we age, we rely on our feet to keep us stable and secure. Our feet get stiffer and weaker over time, and although our yoga practice helps, there are additional ways we can build strength and keep our feet healthy.

Solution

Strengthen your feet with quick and easy movements you can add to your yoga practice or do every morning.

—Alexandra

Yoga for Your Feet, Part 2

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Having strong and flexible feet is important for healthy aging. If your feet are pain-free, you’re more likely to continue hiking, walking, or jogging. Feeling steady on your feet can help you avoid falling, too. Genetics play a role in the sort of feet you have, as I talked about in Part 1. But even if your feet feel strong, age takes a toll. As we age, our feet get wider and flatter, stiffer and weaker. The good news is that your yoga practice is already helping fight back against these age-related foot changes.

This week, let’s look at the best yoga poses for your feet. You’re probably already regularly doing many of these! In my next post, I’ll show you a few things you can add to your yoga practice to get your feet in even better shape.

Foot-Stretching Poses

Downward-facing dog offers a fantastic bottom-of-the-foot stretch, especially if your heels don’t touch the ground. (For most of us, they don’t.) If they do, you can find this  same stretch in a high lunge pose with your back heel lifted. Stretching the bottoms of your feet will feel pretty good, and it can also help relieve the tension that causes plantar fasciitis. The seated pose hero pose gives you the same benefit but without standing up on your feet.

Arch-Strengthening Poses

Standing poses like Warrior I, Warrior II, triangle pose, and extended side angle pose require you to lift your back-foot arch while shifting weight into the pinky-toe side of that foot. This can feel especially challenging if your arches are weak or flat. If you’re newer to yoga, it can be easy to overlook this small nuance, so listen for that cue in your yoga class and lift your arches.

Balance Poses

Any time you practice a balance pose, you’re building foot strength. That gentle burning sensation on the bottom of your foot is a good thing! Tree pose and Warrior III are especially good balance poses, as they are simple (but not easy) which allows you to stay longer.

If you’re great at balance, try making it more challenging by practicing your balance poses on a doubled-up mat. An unstable and soft floor makes your foot work harder; the harder your foot works, the more you’re increasing its ability to hold you up safely over time.

Glutes-Building Poses

There are several poses in yoga that help you build glutes strength, like chair pose and bridge pose. Strong glutes allow you to move with ease and grace and help you feel lighter on your feet. You can also practice donkey kicks and outer-hip leg swings to build strength in your seat.

In my next post, we’ll look at small additions you can make to your yoga and movement practice to keep your feet strong and flexible at any age.

—Alexandra

 

Yoga for Your Feet, Part 1

As you age, maintaining healthy feet is important: pain-free feet mean a lifetime of moving, dancing, and hiking. Healthy feet play a role in good balance, too, and having good balance makes it more likely that you’ll avoid a fall.

My dad does not have great feet. And because a lot of common foot issues—like low arches and bunions—are hereditary, I don’t have great feet either. Even if you won the genetic lottery, your feet will probably get wider, flatter, and a little stiffer with age and time. But here’s the good news: yoga can help. In the next few posts, I’ll show you how yoga poses keep your feet healthy and what you can add to your yoga practice to make your feet stronger.

 

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Lift your toes, then try to lower them independently. It’s more challenging than you think.

In the meantime, try this little exercise a couple times a day: Stand up and plant your bare feet firmly on a hard floor or yoga mat. Lift all your toes off the ground. Look down at your feet. Take a breath in, and as you exhale, slowly lower your pinky toes, then ring toes, middle toes, second toes, and finally your big toes. Try to go slowly and lower each toe independently of the other toes on your feet. Prepare to be humbled, though, as you may find this simple exploration is not quite so easy.

—Alexandra

 

Breath to Support Movement in Your Yoga Practice

IMG_1058We’ve been looking at how your breath supports your movement in your workouts—see “The Right Breath for Now” and “Breath to Support Movement.” You may be most familiar with watching your breath in your yoga practice, especially as many teachers cue your inhalations and exhalations. Here’s the thinking behind this cueing.

Prana

Generally, we use inhalations to help as we lift things. Consider the instructions, “Inhale, lift your arms,” “Inhale, grow tall,” “Inhale, rise up.”

Notice your next few breaths come in, and you’ll probably feel this lifting energy through your chest, and maybe in your belly. As your lungs inflate, your ribs expand outward and upward. Moving your arms up or lifting your torso up then naturally follows this rising energy—what we’d call prana.

Apana

Conversely, exhalations often help as we lower things: “Exhale, hands to your heart.” “Exhale, hinge at your hips.” “Exhale, lower to the mat.” On the other side of the breath, exhalations help you settle down and in. Watch your next few exhalations, and you’ll feel this movement through your chest and belly. It’s a release in your diaphragm that can be assisted by light contraction through your core muscles. This sensation of downward-moving energy is called apana.

On the Mat

Pay attention to the cues your teacher issues, and you’ll see this pattern at play. At home, experiment: try inhaling as you lift, and exhaling as you lower. Then try breaking the pattern and see how that feels. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, and consciously testing them will help you stay present and engaged in the interplay between breath and body.

—Sage

Be a Desk Chair Yogi

This week I have been sitting a lot. Between writing and catching up on end-of-summer paperwork, I’ve logged more time in a chair than I usually do. Yesterday I ran in the morning and later I put down my mat for a lunchtime yoga practice. But today I didn’t have the luxury of extra time, and after a morning of sitting, my body was calling for yoga. Sound familiar? When you have an unusually full day and you’re trapped behind a desk, this 5-step simple sequence is the answer.

Step 1: Go for a 5 minute walk. If you’re home, go check your mail or wander into your backyard. If you’re in an office, take a lap around the building or mosey into the parking lot. Take these 5 minutes alone and with no electronic devices. While you move, bring your attention to your breath. Aim for steadier, deeper breaths, and allow yourself to get curious about your habitual breathing patterns.

Step 2: Seated side stretch. Come back to your desk chair. Sit tall in the middle of your chair. Allow your right arm to settle onto the armrest or relax into your lap. Reach your left arm overhead, and find a side stretch that feels ahhh to you. (Add more: look up toward your left hand and allow your neck to get a stretch.) Hold for 10 breaths. Switch sides and repeat.

Step 3: Seated twist. Wrap your right arm around the back of your chair. Sit tall, and look over your right shoulder, twisting from your core. Your left hand can hold onto the right side of the chair or the right-side armrest to help you twist deeper. Hold for 10 breaths. Switch sides and repeat.

Step 4: Seated forward fold. Take your knees and feet wider than hip width. Settle your hands onto your thighs and sit tall. Engage your core and lean forward, keeping a long spine. You don’t have to go far: a few inches may be all you need. If you have any bone density issues, skip this move altogether. (Add more: take your hands to the back of your chair, and you’ll feel an additional stretch in your arms, shoulders, and upper back.) Hold for 10 breaths.

Step 5: Seated extension. Slide to the front edge of your chair. Reach your hands to the back of your chair and hold on to the seat. Engage your core, and extend your sternum skyward. Draw your shoulder blades down. (Add more: lift your chin and find a front-of-the-neck stretch.) Hold for 10 breaths.

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From upper left clockwise: side stretch, twist, forward fold, and extension, all seated.

More yoga is better than less, but some yoga is definitely better than none. This took me just under 12 minutes, including my walk. It was the perfect midday reset for my body and mind. This is simple to do and simple to remember. The next time you’re stuck at your desk, be a desk chair yogi!

—Alexandra