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.

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.

Coming Soon: LIFELONG YOGA

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Contract signed!

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.

—Alexandra

 

Hunchback, Begone! Relief for Your Upper Back, Part 1

Let’s talk about the hunch! It’s been on my mind both over time—I have a prominently rounded, or kyphotic upper back, and have since childhood (one doctor called it “front to back scoliosis,” not what you want to hear as a teenaged girl)—and recently, as a picture of me in a yoga pose with the label HUNCHBACK caught my attention over the weekend. (Don’t worry: it was followed by a picture of me in an extension pose labeled BEGONE!; you can read the full story, and get a yoga philosophy takeaway, on my blog.)

Problem

While a round in your upper back is a normal position of your spine, it can grow more pronounced with age. This hunch is compounded by time spent with your hands on a keyboard, bike handlebars, or tennis racquet. If it’s left to progress, it can create stress in the upper back and neck and, even worse, affect your breathing.

Solution

In this and the next few posts, I’ll offer a three-part approach to warding off the hunch. Happily, the first step is to stretch your chest, and this is a relaxing thing to do.

In this video, I show how you can set up for a passive backbend using yoga props or materials you have around the house (a blanket and a book). Drape your spine against this support, close your eyes, and breathe—the first step toward unhunching is that easy! Enjoy it most days for about five minutes. It makes a nice prelude to bed, or a break in a busy day.

—Sage

Relaxing: An Important Part of Your Practice

A few weeks back, Sage posted about consistency and variety. It’s important to establish a regular yoga practice, and it’s equally as important to make sure your yoga practice doesn’t get so routine that it stops helping you grow. Sometimes the yoga we need in order to grow is the kind that is physically challengingwe find ourselves a little sore a couple of days later. Just as important, though, is relaxing, restoring, and using yoga as a tool for recovery (whether that recovery is from a hard training session or from a weekend with grandchildren.)

There are many restorative yoga poses. Sage offered one last week: Legs up the Wall. My other favorite restorative poses are the ones offered below. They allow you to passively open your chest and shoulders (supported fish), gently support your body in a twist (supported twist), sweetly open the side body (supported side stretch) and turn on your parasympathetic nervous system (supported bridge poseor really all of them!)

As we move into warmer spring weather and get more active, it’s important to take time to unwind, relax, and get quiet. Your body needs it to continue to get stronger and your mind (and spirit) needs it, too.

To explore these poses, gather a bolster, block, and a mat. If you have an eye pillow handy, even better!

IMG_8105(1).jpgSupported fish pose: Lie on your back. Position the bolster raised on an incline on a block. Place the small of your back against a bolster and lie back on it. An eye pillow on the eyes may feel nice, too. Want more options? Check out this post on supported fish, too.

 

IMG_8107.jpg Supported twist: Sit with legs curled to one side. Place bolster with the short-side to your hips. Twist body and drape your belly and chest over the bolster. Your head can turn the opposite direction of your knees for more twisting, as I’m showing here. It may also feel nice to place a block between your knees. (Repeat this on the other side.)

 

IMG_8108.jpgSupported side stretch: Sit with legs curled to one side. Place your bolster with the short-side to your hip. Stretch the side of your body onto the bolster. Your top arm should drape alongside your ear. It may be nice to hold on to the bolster with that hand. Your bottom arm can settle under your head or drop in front of the bolster, if that is comfortable.  (Repeat this on other side.)

 

IMG_8106.jpgSupported bridge pose: This version of bridge offers support for the hips. Place a bolster or a block underneath your pelvis. Stretch arms out to the sides and relax. An eye pillow over the eyes might be nice, too. For a deeper release at the front of your hips, try straightening your legs.

—Alexandra

Just One Pose: Legs up the Wall, with a Caveat

Our Just One Pose posts answer the question, “If I have time for just one pose, what should it be?” If your goal is to relax, Legs up the Wall may be a good candidate—or it may not, so please read on.

_DSC9162

Why

Elevating your legs helps relieve interstitial swelling in your ankles and feet—the puffiness that comes after a long, hot day or workout. The weight of your legs helps settle your pelvis and back, and spreading your arms yields a passive stretch for your chest. Staying in the pose for several minutes while watching your breath engages your parasympathetic nervous system, inviting the relaxation response.

How

Sit close to a wall or a closed and locked door. Swivel onto one hip and swing your feet up the wall. If your hamstrings are tight, you may need to keep your rear end farther from the wall. Keep your neck long, spread your arms to a comfortable position, and stay a while—five to fifteen minutes.

Variations

For less pressure on your back and hamstrings: take your calves to a sofa cushion, chair seat, or coffee table instead.

For deeper inversion: add a block or bolster under your pelvis, bringing it slightly higher than your chest.

Contraindications

The elevation of your legs can increase your blood pressure, so if you have high blood pressure, please speak to your health care provider before inverting, even gently. The same thing goes for folks with a history of blood clots. While legs up the wall keeps your heart and head on the same plane, deeper inversions aren’t appropriate for people with glaucoma; again, speak to your health care provider before turning upside down.

—Sage

Props: Three Ways to Use a Yoga Bolster

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.

Sitting

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.

Restoring

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.

—Alexandra

Just One Pose: Supported Fish

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” When it comes to restorative yoga poses, supported fish is an excellent choice, especially if you’ve recently upped your cycling miles, have just finished a long car trip, or have been sitting for long stretches at a desk. Supported fish is calming, and it allows your mind and body to truly relax.

Why

The benefits of restorative yoga poses are numerous. When we settle our bodies into a restorative pose, our breathing slows down and our muscles release. Supported fish gives you a chance to passively stretch your upper back, shoulders, and chest. It’s a perfect antidote to stress—something many of us experience in the winter holiday months.

How

Place a block at the head of your yoga mat. Put your bolster on top, so it creates a ramp. Sit with your sacrum against the bolster and lie back onto it, so your head is higher than your heart. Drape your arms to the side, letting your elbows rest on the ground. Extend your legs. Close your eyes and breathe, and stay in the pose for 5-20 minutes.

Variations

To do this pose with household props: Use a heavy book as a block and a couch pillow as a bolster. Use a hand towel or washcloth as an eye pillow.

For the deluxe version of this pose: Gather several blankets or towels and use these to cushion your elbows, under your head as a pillow, or under your knees for even more support. Dim the lights, put in ear plugs, and give yourself at least 20 minutes of rest.

Change it up: Try this pose with your legs wide, your knees bent, or your feet touching with your legs in a diamond shape. One of these options might feel even better in your body!

—Alexandra