Men and Yoga, Part 2: Tight Hamstrings

“My hamstrings are really tight.”

If you’re a guy in a yoga class, chances are you have uttered this phrase at some point, whether to yourself, a friend, or your yoga instructor. The complaint of “tight hamstrings” is pervasive in yoga, and it’s a comment we often hear men make. In part 2 of my series on men and yoga, let’s look at why tight hamstrings are more common in men and what you can do to make hamstrings-heavy poses friendlier for your body.

Why

Generally, women are more flexible than men, but this is certainly not the only reason men experience tighter hamstrings. An additional exacerbating factor is sitting (a common element of modern jobs.) Sitting for long stretches, over time, results in tighter, shorter hamstrings muscles. But genetics play a role, too: if you’ve been plagued by less flexibility in the backs of your legs since you were young, then you may simply have shorter hamstrings than your peers.

The sensation of tight hamstrings can also be a symptom of tightness or imbalance in other places, like calves, hip flexors, glutes, or your lower back. Sometimes stretching these other areas can create noticeable space and loosening in the hamstrings. The good news is that yoga targets your whole body, so your yoga practice over time will serve a goal of creating more flexible hamstrings.

What to do

If you have less-flexible hamstrings, forward-folding poses might be uncomfortable. So here’s what not to do: don’t just push through, shaking and sweating and gritting your teeth. Instead of pushing your muscles into submission (which won’t happen, anyway, but could result in injury), patiently coax them to slowly and steadily relax and release, by asking less of them. How? Bend your knees.

Bending your knees is the simplest fix for tightness in the backs of your legs. By bending your knees, you can control the intensity of the stretch. Aim for a level 3 or 4 intensity (out of 10), at least for the first half of your yoga practice. As you feel warmer, experiment a little, but always stay below the shaking, teeth-gritting point. (There’s greater risk of injury when you push. Practice patience—make that your intention for your yoga!)

When you bend your knees in a pose, you’re still doing the pose! You’re doing a version that is appropriate for your body and your needs. It’s not cheating to modify. It’s not weak or wimpy. It’s intelligent yoga to make wise decisions that better serve your body.

Here are three common poses modeled with bent knees. This allows your hamstrings to release gradually over time. Less is more!

Downward-facing dog

IMG_7734
Bob L., 59, models a strong downward-facing dog with knees bent.

By bending his knees in downward-facing dog, Bob can get the full effects of the pose in his upper body. The integrity of the pose isn’t compromised by this modification. The bend allows his hamstrings to gently stretch, and he probably also feels a stretch in his calves here, too.

Standing forward fold

Men and yoga
Bob in standing forward fold.

In this version of standing forward fold, Bob’s bent knees allow his glutes to stretch, too. Notice that he’s brought his hands to his elbows. Don’t worry about touching the ground in your forward folds. There’s no need to arrive at any particular destination.

Seated forward fold

In the picture on the left, Bob is showing what not to do. Don’t sacrifice your back (rounding it, as he’s doing here) in order to keep your legs straight. Instead, follow his modeling on the right: deeply or lightly bend your knees. Be sure to sit on a blanket. Lean forward from the chest, keeping your back long and your spine straight. Don’t worry about where your hands go. (No one cares if you touch your toes. Don’t compare yourself to the 21-year-old. You’re not her.)

In my next post on men and yoga, I’ll answer some common questions you might have if you’re a guy beginning a yoga practice.

—Alexandra

Men and Yoga, Part 1

My 70-year-old dad is my favorite yoga student. He is vocal about how good yoga makes him feel and he’s good about knowing his limits in a practice, resting when rest is appropriate. Whenever he’s in town, he comes to one of my weekly Yoga for Healthy Aging classes. He agreed to attend the first few classes with some trepidation—he was concerned he’d be the only guy on a mat. That has never been the case, of course, and in most of my classes at least half the students are guys about my dad’s age.

The demographics have changed since I first started teaching, and I see more and more men in class. The research agrees: according to Yoga Journal‘s recent study, men now make up 28% of all yoga students—and their numbers are growing. Considering that this same study tells us that 38% of all yoga practitioners are over 50, there’s a reason to celebrate: there is more gender and age diversity in yoga.

Men and yoga
Carl, Russell, Ray, Bob, Tom, and Tandy: all men in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s who regularly attend Yoga for Healthy Aging.

While yoga’s roots are male gurus and sages, in the West yoga has long been women’s territory. That’s changing, but what does it mean to be an active, aging man doing yoga today?

In my next few posts, I’ll be writing about considerations, modifications, and specific poses and sequences for men in their 50s, 60s, and beyond. If you’re an active, older guy with a yoga practice, I’d love to hear from you! What questions or concerns do you have? Has yoga helped you physically or in a more esoteric way—or both? What resources do you consult for your home practice?

—Alexandra

 

A Simple Fix to Save Your Wrists

Certain yoga poses require your hands to support your weight. Many of these poses have modifications, so if you have arthritis or inflammation and pain in your wrists, you can find a variation of the pose that’s safer for you. Downward-facing dog, for instance, can be practiced at a chair or at the wall. Some poses, though, aren’t as easily modified to take weight out of your hands. Plank pose requires your hands to be on the ground, and in the pose, your wrists help support your body weight. If your wrist ailment gets exacerbated by use, you can skip poses that aggravate your condition. There are often substitute poses that challenge or stretch in a similar way. In lieu of plank, a pose like roll down is a good alternative.

If discomfort in your wrists isn’t linked to a chronic condition, it might just be a matter of building strength. Over time as you practice plank or downward-facing dog (in its traditional orientation), your upper body will get stronger and your wrists will feel more supported by the muscles in your upper arms, shoulders, and back. But in the interim, it’s important to care for your wrists.

Problem

As you build strength in your upper body, caring for your wrists is important. If you experience any wrist pain, how do you protect your wrists and still practice poses like plank and downward-facing dog?

Solution

First, anytime you’re on your hands, be sure to spread your fingers wide, so you can see mat between your fingers. Engage the muscles in your whole hand, pressing each finger down on to the mat. This will help distribute the weight, so your wrists aren’t bearing all the work. Another easy fix is to add padding under your hands. You can do this by using a blanket under the base of your palms or by double (or triple) folding your mat. In either case, the padding changes the angle of your wrists and alleviates some of the pressure.

img_7591
A blanket under your wrists decreases the bend, making it significantly sweeter.
img_7592
If class is moving quickly or you don’t have a blanket nearby, fold up your mat for wrist support.

Finally, you can always make fists and balance your weight on your knuckles, if that feels better. The bottom line: if you have wrist concerns, explore your options. There may be a perfect fix that will keep your wrists supported and allow you to do hands-on-the-mat poses.

—Alexandra

Let Your Intention Guide Your Practice

20160219-img_7889

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

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

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.

IMG_6930 (1)

 

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.

IMG_6950

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.

IMG_6957

—Alexandra

Sweet and Safe Lower Back Stretches

In my last post, I wrote about the perils of rolling up from a forward fold position. Many of our students commented that they knew rolling up wasn’t particularly safe, but they loved how good it felt to stretch their lower back. There are more effective ways to find that same sensation. This week, I offer three easy ways to find a sweet (and safe!) low back stretch.

Problem

Rolling up to a standing position from a forward fold is not generally safe for the lower back, but for many people it feels good.

Solution

In this video, I offer several effective movements and poses that offer release for tight lower back muscles. These are safer than rolling up, although forward folds are still best avoided if you have bone density loss. Try exploring back stretching at a wall or in a doorway, try wiggling around in cat-cow on your mat, or sink back into a wide-knee version of child’s pose.

—Alexandra

Your Guide to Standing Up

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.

FullSizeRender(3)
Warren, 68, demos rolling up before we discussed the issues with this movement.

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.

FullSizeRender(4)
When you return to a standing position this way, your glutes to do the bulk of the work and your spine doesn’t bear all the weight of your upper body.

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!

—Alexandra

 

Hack Your Yoga for Bone Safety

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).

IMG_2984
Courtney Doi, 36, models standing camel. This simple pose can be done anywhere, and it’s an excellent and safe pose for aging athletes with low bone density.

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.

Forward folds

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.

Twists

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.

Neck-compressing poses

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.

What to do instead: Plank, my favorite core pose! (Read all about variations on plank here.)

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.

—Alexandra

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