A common cue you may hear in a yoga class is to “roll up to standing” as you move from a forward-folded position back to standing. But for those of us with athletic builds or aging bodies, there are better and safer ways to return to a standing position.
A couple of weeks ago, I posted about osteoporosis and yoga, and we looked at the poses and movements you might want to avoid if you have low bone density. In particular, forward folds should be avoided by anyone with osteopenia or osteoporosis. But even if your bones are healthy and you practice forward folds, you should still avoid rolling up.
Rolling up to a standing position creates disc compression and stresses the back of the pelvis and sacrum. Rolling up also requires the lumbar spine (five vertebrae, located between the ribcage and the pelvis) to support the entire upper body for the duration of the roll up, with very little support from the relaxed abdominal muscles.
Rolling up probably won’t result in acute, instant injury, but over time it can cause disc problems and pain. When your instructor cues the class to “roll up,” here’s what you should do instead:
In your forward-folded position, bend your knees, and slide your hands onto your thighs. Lengthen your spine. Keeping your knees bent, begin to ascend to standing, leading with your chest.
When I discussed this in a recent class, many of my students lamented the loss of rolling up because it feels like a pleasant way to stretch the muscles of the low back. There are safer and more effective ways to get that stretch. Look for future posts on that!
Bone health begins to decline as we age. This is true for men and women although osteoporosis, and its precursor osteopenia, are more prevalent in women. Living an active, healthy lifestyle can help prevent bone density loss, but there are risk factors that we can’t control, like genetics. According the the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 54 million people have low bone density. They estimate that after age 50, half of all women and a fourth of all men deal with bone issues—like fractures—due to osteoporosis.
So where does yoga come in? Yoga is a useful tool for maintaining healthy bones and staying agile in aging. A recent study lends credibility to the assertion that yoga can even improve bone density, reversing some bone density loss. Yoga also builds muscle and strengthens balance, so you’re more secure on your feet, lowering the risk of falling.
Some poses that may be especially useful for bone health are balance poses, like tree; lunge poses like the warrior poses; extension poses like locust and camel, and supine leg-stretching poses (on-your-back poses that involve moving your legs in various directions).
It’s important to know, too, that there are some yoga poses and movements that are contraindicated for osteoporosis. If you have received a diagnosis of osteoporosis or osteopenia, there are some poses that you’ll want to be careful practicing. There are also poses you’ll want to abstain from doing altogether. Here’s a quick primer to help you modify for safety when you’re practicing in a group class.
What might be offered: Traditional sun salutations, which are typical in a lot of yoga classes, include standing forward folds. Many classes also include a round of seated forward folds toward the end of the practice.
What to do instead: Instead of folding forward from standing, squat to move downward. Or keep a long, straight spine and lean forward, but don’t fold. When sitting, work to sit tall and maintain a long spine, but opt out of moving your heart toward your legs. Instead, sit, engage your core, and work on building your posture.
What might be offered: Twists might be offered throughout a yoga practice in seated poses, supine poses, and in lunge poses.
What to do instead: There’s conflicting information about whether twists help or harm spinal bones. Err on the side of caution and twist very lightly. Don’t “force” a twist and stop at the first sign of discomfort. Come out of any twist very carefully, and avoid jerky or rapid movements.
Jumping or kicking movements
What might be offered: Jumping from one pose to another (like downward-facing dog to standing) or kicking up to a handstand.
What to do instead: Walk forward, don’t jump. Opt out of handstand; instead, explore downward-facing dog, and add challenge by lifting one leg at a time. If doing full downward-facing dog isn’t in your practice, explore variations at the wall or using a chair.
What might be offered: Poses like shoulderstand, plow, and headstand might be offered in a class. These poses are contraindicated because they can compress the bones of the cervical spine.
What to do instead: Try a gentler, but similar, pose. Choose bridge pose instead of shoulderstand and plow. Instead of headstand, try rabbit pose or rest in child’s pose.
(Some) core poses
What might be offered: Boat pose is a commonly-offered core pose in yoga. Building core strength is important for preventing falls, so you’ll want to include core-strengthening poses in your practice. Boat is contraindicated for osteoporosis, though, as this pose places your body weight on just your tailbone and sitting bones.
Yoga is good medicine for our bones as we age. Choosing the right poses for your practice takes knowledge, but doing yoga offers big results. You can expect to find future posts on this blog focused on sequences, poses, and routines for bone health.
Props are an important aspect of a yoga practice. They make some poses more available, some poses more challenging, and many poses kinder for our bodies. In my previous posts on props, we’ve looked at the uses for straps and blocks. This week we look at the sweetest of props: yoga bolsters. Bolsters are versatile, but all of their uses come back to their name: they bolster you. You can sit on them, use them as padding, and relax onto them in supported and restorative poses.
Try sitting on a bolster with your legs in a sweet criss-cross position or try using the bolster as a saddle. Either way, you’ll probably notice that sitting on the ground is a lot more comfortable. You can use a bolster to lift your hips a little higher in any seated yoga pose.
Padding or Propping
Bolsters can be used to pad knees in poses like low lunge. They can serve as props for your hips in poses like pigeon. In a sweet resting pose like child’s pose, they can be used under your head. Any time the ground feels too far away from your body, use a bolster to fill the gap.
My favorite use for the bolster is as a prop for restorative yoga and supported poses. Bolsters can give your upper body a lift in supported fish and can elevate your hips in supported bridge. They can also be used in a traditional savasana pose, slid under the knees for a sweeter experience for the low back.
In Hack Your Sun Salutes, Part 1, we looked at ways to modify the front end of sun salutations. Today: ways to work around limitations on the back end.
It can be tough to step your foot forward from downward-facing dog, either because of tightness, comparatively less strength in the upper body, or issues in the foot and toes of the back leg.
In this video, I offer some workarounds. To modify the step forward, you can take more than one step toward lunge, lift to your fingers, or use a block to elevate your upper body. Or avoid it all together! It’s fine to modify in class—you know you’ve found the right teacher when you feel comfortable leaving out poses that don’t work in your body in that moment.
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.
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.