In our Sequence posts, you’ll find a sequence for a specific purpose. This week, we’re looking at snowga! When we get snow in North Carolina (where Sage and I live), things really slow down. Businesses close, sidewalks stay icy, roads aren’t safe for driving for several days. Snow days are nature’s way of reminding us to slow down and do less. But doing less doesn’t mean doing nothing. That’s where this simple, short practice comes in. It’s easy to do anywhere: you don’t need anything except your body and a wall. Bookmark this post, and the next time the weather brings your active life to a halt, take 5 minutes to move. Your core, hips, legs, and shoulders will thank you. (We practice a lot of downward-facing dog at the wall in this video. For a tutorial on that, check out Sage’s Hack Your Down Dog.)
Yoga props can make your practice more productive and kinder for your body. We looked at some of the uses of the yoga block already. This week, let’s look closer at the yoga strap and its three main uses. In poses, a yoga strap can help you connect, stretch, or stabilize.
Yoga straps are 6-10 feet in length, and for most bodies the shorter length is perfect. Straps are made of thick, woven canvas and have a plastic or metal buckle so the ends can be easily connected. If you don’t own a yoga strap, no problem: you can use a tie or a belt in its place.
In this video, I show how you can use a yoga strap to connect, stretch, and stabilize. Grab a yoga strap and come along!
Imagine the yoga strap as an extension of your arm. If you’re reaching for your foot and your hand doesn’t quite reach, your strap can fill the gap of those last few inches and help you make the connection.
Shoulder stretching and hamstring stretching are made most effective by using a yoga strap. For shoulder stretching, place the strap in each hand and open your arms shoulder-width or wider. Reach both arms overhead and explore your shoulders by moving your arms behind you or from side to side. For hamstring stretching, lie on your back and wrap the strap around your foot. Extend that foot skyward and feel your hamstrings get looser as you move your leg around in space.
Sometimes we want to hang out in a passive or restorative shape and use as little effort as we can. The yoga strap makes that possible. In a pose like bound angle pose, the strap can be utilized to keep your body in one shape while you relax.
Sun Salutations are a standard feature in most yoga classes, and a given in vinyasa or flow classes. They serve to build heat, stretch the back of the body, and connect body and breath. To that end, they can be a good dynamic warmup before a workout or at the start of your yoga practice.
Sun Salutations are heavy on the forward folds, and thus can exacerbate issues with blood pressure, vertigo, or injury along the back and in the hamstrings.
In this video, I show you how to modify the front end of the sun salutation—sometimes called the “half salute”—to alleviate the strain on your vestibular system, blood pressure, and back. You can use a chair or countertop as a prop if you want to keep your head above your heart.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For more support: Hold on to your legs. This will lessen the load on your core.
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.)
Downward-facing dog offers a wonderful release for the back side of your body, from your calves up through the hamstrings, back, and shoulders. But it can be tough for aging athletes.
A range of issues can make downward-facing dog a bad idea in your body. These include both high and low blood pressure; glaucoma; a propensity for vertigo; problems with the wrists, elbows, and shoulders; or simple tightness along the posterior chain—the back side—of the body.
In this video, I offer ways to “hack” your down dog—to deconstruct it and customize it to serve your needs. The key is to avoid bearing weight in your hands, and instead to use a chair, counter, or wall for your hands. You can still take the classic L shape with your body, but without leaning much weight into your hands and without lowering your head below your heart.
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 yogablock, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Here are some simple tips on how to build better balance.
Balance is increasingly critical as we age, and especially so for aging athletes. A sense of where your body is in space will not only reduce your risk of falls, it will help keep you nimble.
Spend some time challenging your balance every day. This can be as simple as standing on one leg as you brush your teeth, or as complex as enjoying a lengthy string of balance poses in your yoga practice. Hold your single-leg stance until you feel pleasant fatigue in your lower leg or hip.
Start on a hard, smooth surface, with something nearby to rest a hand or fingertip on. Having a chair back, counter, or doorknob close yields a strong placebo effect and makes balance easier. Move to a carpet, rug, or yoga mat for greater challenge. Folding the mat, or balancing on a folded blanket, makes it tougher still, especially for your lower leg. For more, try standing on a yoga block—being slightly higher in space will test your vestibular system. In any of these positions, a slow blink of your eyes, or holding them gently closed, will enhance the work, as will shaking your head from side to side.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.