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:
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:
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:
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.
P.S. We’ve got a final cover for Lifelong Yoga! You can now preorder it at your favorite bookstore—links are here.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
Strengthen your feet with quick and easy movements you can add to your yoga practice or do every morning.
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.
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!
If you missed our announcement on social media earlier this week, here’s a recap: Sage and I are co-writing a book, Lifelong Yoga, which will be published by North Atlantic Books in the summer of 2017. It’s Sage’s seventh book (!) and my first, and we couldn’t be more excited about collaborating and writing together.
Lifelong Yoga is a book for anyone who wants to continue or begin a yoga practice at any stage of life. The emphasis, though, is on how yoga can be a boon for the changes we experience as we move into our 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. It looks at yoga as a complement for an already-active life and sees yoga as a tool for living a long life of health and vitality. You can expect a lot of what you find on this blog, only in even more detail and with more explanation. We’ll have chapters devoted to the common ailments of aging (and how yoga can help!), sequences that will help you solve problems (“What’s the best yoga before a golf game?,” “How can I prepare for a weekend with my grandkids?”), and photographs of the most useful poses for healthy aging.
To reflect where we’re going—the book—you’ll notice that we’re shifting away from using “Yoga for Aging Athletes” to describe our work. Our social media sites have already changed, and in the upcoming weeks, we’ll update this blog to reflect our book title, too.
We’ll keep you updated on progress and let you know when the book is ready for pre-order. Meanwhile, I have some writing to do! And I just thought of my next blog post: a useful sequence for recovery after a long day of sitting at a desk.
It takes fitness and stamina to be a grandparent—it’s practically a sport. After a few days of watching my parents with my daughter, I came up with a short, simple sequence that prepares you for the physical requirements of grandparenting. Practice this sequence ahead of a visit with babies or before a family vacation with little kids— it only takes about 5 minutes. We’re standing on a yoga mat here, but it’s not needed. You don’t need any props for this sequence, and you can even do it with your shoes on. My dad (Umpa, to his grandchildren) filmed with me and did a great job of demoing!
For a weekend with grandchildren, you need stamina, a healthy spine, and strong glutes (for picking up those little kiddos).
A simple, short sequence you can do anywhere and anytime.
As we age, even if we’re active in a myriad of ways, getting up easily from a chair can get a little harder. We need the ability to stand with strength and ease in order to maintain an independent life.
Practice mindful standing in a series of successively more challenging (and fun!) ways.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about chair pose, a glutes-strengthening pose. When you practice chair, you should feel the pose working muscles of the quads, glutes, core, and back. If you try this pose and you can’t feel it in your gluteus maximus at all, you may be experiencing gluteal amnesia. This means that the glutes aren’t activating as well as they should.
Even though you’re active, you may also sit a lot. All that sitting means the hip flexors get shorter and the hip extensors (primarily glutes and hamstrings) get elongated, weaker, and atrophied. After a while, the muscles of the glutes stop working effectively and other muscles compensate—particularly the muscles that comprise the hip flexors, hamstrings, or low back. This creates imbalance, and it’s also incredibly inefficient: the gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body. We want that muscle doing its job!
Donkey kicks are the perfect solution to the problem of gluteal amnesia. Start by coming to your hands and knees and moving in and out of cat-cow to warm up your spine. Next, find a neutral spine and deeply engage your core. (As you do this movement, you will to keep your core engaged to protect your lower back.) Extend your left leg about level with your hip and bend your knee, as if you were stepping your left foot on the ceiling. This is your starting position:
Keeping your belly engaged, lift your left thigh a little higher, “kicking” your foot up toward the ceiling:
Move in and out of these two positions, making sure to breathe. Continue this movement until you need a break—maybe 10-20 kicks. Rest afterward in child’s pose, and then set up on hands and knees and repeat with the right leg lifted. Try to do this movement a few times a week or add it into your daily yoga practice.
As we age, it’s especially important that our glutes are strong and that they’re activating when they should. We need them for yoga, balance, and athletics, but also to simply stand up from a seated position—something of utmost importance for independent living in our golden years.
In my last post, I wrote about the perils of rolling up from a forward fold position. Many of our students commented that they knew rolling up wasn’t particularly safe, but they loved how good it felt to stretch their lower back. There are more effective ways to find that same sensation. This week, I offer three easy ways to find a sweet (and safe!) low back stretch.
Rolling up to a standing position from a forward fold is not generally safe for the lower back, but for many people it feels good.
In this video, I offer several effective movements and poses that offer release for tight lower back muscles. These are safer than rolling up, although forward folds are still best avoided if you have bone density loss. Try exploring back stretching at a wall or in a doorway, try wiggling around in cat-cow on your mat, or sink back into a wide-knee version of child’s pose.
One of the restrictions of aging is a loss of flexibility and mobility. Not being able to move as much as we used to can lead to not moving much, which creates a negative spiral. One of the glories of aging is knowing that everything changes and developing a sense of acceptance. In yoga, we’d call that santosha, contentment. It’s the key to preventing avidya, wrong seeing, which you can read more about here.
To find contentment in your yoga asana practice, be clear on the purpose of each pose. When you understand why you’re doing something, it’s easier to find a substitute that will get the job done in ways that are appropriate for your body in this moment—not what you had in the last ten years, last year, last month, or even yesterday. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for struggle and “failure.”
Choose the path of right seeing by looking at what is happening right now.