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.
As you gather with family over the next few days, get off the couch and onto your mat (or, as pictured here, living room rug). You can work together to keep your back and hips limber by trying these simple partner yoga poses. These are a fun way to connect—even if the cat seems unimpressed in the photos—and a sweet activity for (grand)parents and children.
Communication is key: talk to your partner about how things feel. Don’t push or force. Treat yourself with the same care you spend on your partner. Take several breaths together before moving to another pose.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Along with age comes a greater appreciation for simple things—blue skies, fall colors, family. We grow more content with things as they are. Contentment with the current state of things avoids the suffering caused by avidya, or misperception, wrong-seeing. When we drop the struggle, we can find peace and contentment in the moment. Yoga describes this contentment as santosha, and it’s one of the five niyamas—the prescriptions for how to behave. This Thanksgiving, can you find gratitude for all the wonderful things you’re able to appreciate about your body, your situation, and your existence, as they are right now?
Chuck completed my certification in Sage Yoga for Athletes in 2012. Yoga has been integral in his transition from competitive sports to recreational sports, and in helping him cope with atrial fibrillation, as he details here. —Sage
After thirty years of ultramarathon and time trial cycling, I thought my days on the bike were over when I hit 284 heartbeats per minute during a state championship 40K time trial, went off the road, and crashed. The original diagnosis was atrial flutter, and an ablation was done, which, unfortunately, didn’t work. A flutter became adrenalin-induced atrial fibrillation. It was a sad day when I had to sell the time trial bike and decide how to move forward, and that’s when yoga came to the rescue.
I had been practicing and teaching yoga for over ten years and knew that it would provide the way forward for mind, body, and spirit. First the body: while I can no longer race, I’m still able to ride, and ride I do—6,000 miles this year—for the sheer joy of the sound of the whir of the spokes and the feel of the wind. If I feel my heart rate heading for dangerous levels, I slow down, begin yogic three-part nasal breathing (dirghapranayama, detailed below), and if necessary, the ultimate yogic calmer, alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana). It’s amazingly wonderful how something as simple as pranayama (yogic breathing) that is so easy and has been practiced for millennia can be so beneficial! Second, the mind: being able to still participate in the sport I love—you fellow athletes will understand this—just seems to keep the mind clear. With the body healthy, the mind follows. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, with my daily yoga practice enabling me to keep participating, there is just no room for depression, and the spirit soars!
There is no time like the present to explore the benefits of yoga breathing, so let’s begin with the basis for all the different techniques, dirgapranayama. If you are about to do your yoga practice, sit comfortably up straight on a cushion, and let your hands rest lightly on your knees. If you are not about to practice, just find a comfortable chair in which you can sit up straight. Let your hands rest on your legs, close your eyes, and begin deep, slow breaths through your nose. Nasal breathing promotes peace and calmness. Extend each breath, especially your exhale, letting a long slow exhale inform your next inhale. Place a hand on your belly and feel it move in and out with each breath. As you inhale, your diaphragm’s contraction will be pushing your belly out, letting you feel the depth of your breath. Then, place your other hand just at the lower edge of your ribcage, and feel it expand and contract much like the gills of a fish. You have done the first two parts of your three-part breath; now finally imagine yourself as a vase you are filling with oxygen all the way up to your chin, and take that extra bit of air in. Let your hands relax back to your legs, continue dirgha and enjoy the rhythm of your body as it takes in prana, your life force. (Try dirgha just before savasana at the end of your yoga practice, or for a most relaxing experience just before bedtime, play some relaxing music, place your legs up a wall or bend your knees, rest your legs on a coffee table, and do three part, dirgha breathing.)
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.