Let Your Intention Guide Your Practice

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We talk a lot about intentions in yoga. Intentions are different than goals. If you set an intention at the start of your yoga practice, it’s your starting point for the flavor of your practice. You might set an intention of peace, for instance. Or presence. Goals are different: they’re measurable achievements you arrive at later. You can certainly have goals in yoga, too. You might be practicing plank pose for successively longer numbers of breaths, for example. The number of breaths you’re working toward is your clear and stated goal.

With regard to why you choose to do yoga, it’s useful to have an intention, too. When I started doing yoga, I wasn’t always clear about my intention. I had a lot of goals—mostly based on achievement of certain poses—but I didn’t always have a deeper reason for my practice. This has changed. I do yoga with intentions that generally coalesce around the ideas of meditation, strength, relaxation, and injury prevention. Starting from one of these places, I create my sequences or choose which poses to do on a given day. If my aim is strength, I’ll probably do more core-focused poses; if my plan is to build focus or relax, I may do a restorative practice.

Because my intentions toward my practice are clearer, there are poses that I have stopped doing. These poses don’t feel good for me, regardless of how I tweak my alignment or use props to offer support. These poses don’t feel like they help me build strength, allow me to find meditative focus, or encourage relaxation. They feel stressful to my joints or potentially dangerous to more fragile parts of my body. They don’t align with my intention to use yoga as a tool to stave off injury.

Downward-facing dog is probably the most ubiquitous pose in yoga. If down-dog doesn’t feel good for your shoulders or wrists, try a modification. And if it still doesn’t feel good? If there is associated pain? If you can find alternative ways to strengthen your shoulders? Then take it off your roster of poses—maybe just for a while (as you recover from an injury, for instance, or build strength in another way) or maybe permanently.

If your yoga teachers says “listen to your body,” what he or she is really saying is “let your intention guide your practice.” But this begs the question: why do you do yoga? What intentions flavor your yoga practice? Getting clear on these questions can help you make mindful choices about the type of yoga—including which specific poses—you want to do.

—Alexandra

Yoga for Your Feet, Part 3

In my last posts, I wrote about how important it is for your feet to stay strong and flexible, and I discussed the ways your yoga practice already helps your feet. This week, I’ve included a short video that gives you a few movements to include in your yoga practice to strengthen your feet and create greater flexibility. These simple additions require no special props, and they’re easy to do.

Problem

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.

Solution

Strengthen your feet with quick and easy movements you can add to your yoga practice or do every morning.

—Alexandra

The Grandparent Game

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!

Problem

For a weekend with grandchildren, you need stamina, a healthy spine, and strong glutes (for picking up those little kiddos).

Solution

A simple, short sequence you can do anywhere and anytime.

—Alexandra

Stand Up With Strength and Ease

Problem

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.

Solution

Practice mindful standing in a series of successively more challenging (and fun!) ways.

—Alexandra

One Quick Move to Strengthen Your Glutes

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.

Problem

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!

Solution

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:

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Chris O, 51, models the starting position for donkey kicks.

Keeping your belly engaged, lift your left thigh a little higher, “kicking” your foot up toward the ceiling:

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As Chris’s left thigh lifts higher, his hamstrings and glutes activate.

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.

—Alexandra

One Quick Move for Outer Hip Strength

When we think about strength in our lower body, we should think first about the most superficial muscle of the glutes: gluteus maximus. But strengthening your seat isn’t the only important focus for hip stability. In fact, there are some smaller muscles of the outer hip (the abductors) that keep you stable in balance poses and sports such as running, tennis, hockey, and skiing. Yoga offers some good poses for abductor stretching, but the quick move offered in the video here is a strength-building variation on a Pilates movement. You can do it just about anywhere: all you need is a wall or chair for a little stability, and you’ll be on your way to stronger outer hips. This two minute video will get you started:

 

—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.

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