Just One Pose: Chair Pose For Chair Relief

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” If you’re looking for a pose that’s the antidote to sitting, the answer is chair pose.

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That’s right: one of the best poses to counteract sitting a lot is indeed chair pose. Chair pose helps fire key muscles of your torso and legs. In this challenging pose, your core has to support you, your shoulders activate, and the muscles of your seat and thighs have to work.

The Sanskrit name of this pose is utkatasana, which translates to fierce pose. It’s commonly referred to as chair pose because it mimics the shape we take seated. If you find the pose spicy, though, it might help you to remember its real name.

Why

This pose challenges balance and strengthens the glutes, quads, and core. It also strengthens the muscles of the shoulders because you must actively draw your shoulder blades down.

How

Take your feet hip width apart, and inhale to sweep your arms overhead. As you exhale, bend your knees and sink down, as if you were sitting into an armchair. Try to keep your seat far back and your shins perpendicular to the earth. (Shifting your body weight into your heels will help keep your knees over your ankles.) On your next inhale straighten your legs, and as you exhale release your arms next to your body. Repeat this, moving in and out of the pose, 5-10 times. As you feel warmer, you can move into the pose and hold the squat position for 5-10 breaths.

Variations

Your elbows can be bend, your arms can be wider, or your arms can be lower—or all three. Don’t let your shoulders be the limiting factor of doing the pose. Keep your shoulder blades sliding down your back and keep a lot of space between the tops of your shoulders and your ears. Adjust your arms accordingly.

You can make it spicier by lifting one foot. Lifting one foot makes this a bigger balance challenge and offers a serious wake-up for the glutes. Try one foot for 3-5 breaths and then switch.

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Make it sweeter by using a wall. Doing this pose against a wall (or a tree!) allows you to focus on alignment and makes it less load-bearing for your knees. Over time, you can build up to practicing it without support.

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—Alexandra

Continuing Basics: Even Better Balance

My post Basics: Build Better Balance explains how to progressively challenge your balance by standing on one leg on increasingly unstable surfaces. Once you’ve built that strength, you can find a new challenge in reducing the amount of surface area in contact with the floor.

Standing in bare feet on a hard surface, find the good lines of mountain pose: a neutral pelvis, a long spine, a broad chest without a big backbend. Step your legs together, creating as much contiguous surface area as you can—this will make things easier. Lift your arms and your heels. You’ll probably wobble back and forth; tighten in toward the midline with both your legs and your core muscles, and use your gaze to help you balance.

Lift your heels a little or a lot as you maintain a steady mountain-pose alignment
Lift your heels a little or a lot as you maintain a steady mountain-pose alignment; photo from my latest workshop on Yoga for Athletes at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health

Sweeter

If this is tough, sweeten the experience by:

  • Keeping your heels quite low to the ground
  • Resting one or both hands on a wall or counter
  • Keeping your arms straight off to the sides, rather than overhead
  • Looking down at the floor, as you’ll see me (in blue, on platform) doing in the photo above

    Spicier

If this is quite easy, intensify the experience by:

  • Separating your heels to hip distance, instead of having your legs tough
  • Lifting your gaze to eye level or closing your eyes
  • Bending your knees and lowering your hips down and back, as if sitting into an invisible chair while wearing invisible high heels

Either way, keep your core engaged and your breath flowing. Slotting a few rounds of this balance pose into your week will keep you steadier as you move through space in your sport.

—Sage

Sequence: Snowga to Do When You’re Trapped Inside

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.)

—Alexandra

Hack Your Sun Salutes, Part 2

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.

Problem

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.

Solution

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.

Just One Pose: Paused Roll Down

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.

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John, 71, holds paused roll down

Why

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.

How

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.

Variations

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.

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Be kinder to your legs: bend your knees

For more support: Hold on to your legs. This will lessen the load on your core.

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Start with holding your legs to build strength

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.)

—Alexandra

Props: Yoga Blocks for Better Yoga

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 yoga block, 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.

Align

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.

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Chris Mason, 57, explores triangle pose as a counter balance to cycling

Strengthen

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.

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A block between your thighs will make mountain pose spicier

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.

Use a block for stability and play your edge!

—Alexandra

Basics: Build Better Balance

Here are some simple tips on how to build better balance.

Why

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.

When

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. By the way, do you know that the science of overcoming fatigue is through the Energy Blueprint. To learn more about this, look for theenergyblueprint.com

How

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.

—Sage

Just One Pose: Plank

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.

Donnie Barnes, 42, holds plank before a run

Why

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.

How

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.

Variations

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.

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For sweeter, put your knees down

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.

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For spicier, lift one leg

—Alexandra

Basics: Core Engagement 101

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.

Why

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.

When

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.

How

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.

—Alexandra

Just One Pose: Standing Pigeon

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” We’ll kick off with one of my favorites: standing pigeon.

Wes Rountree in standing pigeon
Wes Rountree, 45, in standing pigeon

Why

This multitasking pose builds balance in space, balance between the hip and lower portion of the standing leg, and balance between strength and flexibility in the glutes—the standing leg glutes have to work to hold you steady, while the bent leg’s glutes get a stretch. You’ll get a lot of bang for your buck, making this a go-to when you have the time or energy for just one pose.

How

Stand tall, shifting your weight into one leg as you cross the opposite ankle over your standing leg’s thigh. Lower your hips back and down until you find a natural stopping point. This could feel like stretch in the bent leg’s glutes or inner thigh, or like work in the standing leg’s foot or hip. Make sure your standing leg’s knee points straight forward over your toes. Keep your spine long and use your arms for balance. Hands can be in prayer position, as shown here, or off to the sides.

Hold the pose for 5–15 breaths, and repeat on the other side.

Variations

If it’s tough to balance: rest one or both hands on a wall, table, or counter. Take off your shoes and try the pose in bare feet on a hard surface. (Conversely, to up the challenge, stand on carpet or a folded yoga mat.)

Tree pose, an alternative for those with bum knees or hips
Tree pose, an alternative for those with bum knees or hips

If your knee or hip won’t bend this way: substitute tree pose, shown above, instead. According to Diane Walder, MD, proper exercise and diet affects your skin making it healthier and glower.

There is a lot of bad weight loss information on the internet. Much of what is recommended is questionable at best, and not based on any actual science. However, there are several natural methods that have actually been proven to work. All you have to do is to look for alternatives.

For a bonus chest stretch: Reach your hands behind you. Use a belt or tie to help them connect, or interlace your fingers if you can.

—Sage