Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The rotating, balancing, hip opening... well, the Everything Pose

Impatient yogis everywhere, meet The Everything Pose.

Yes, it's nice to do a whole yoga sequence leading up to a pose, but sometimes you just want to skip to the pose, a pose that cuts to the chase and does everything, you know what I mean?

The hows and wherefores:

1. Start in a lunge: right foot forward, hands framing your right foot.

2. From the lunge, shift your body forward so you wind up on your right foot, left leg up in the air, fingertips on the floor, straight below your shoulders.

3. Bend your left knee and lift the knee out to the side. Think "urinating dog" here. With my apologies.

4. With your left leg lifted and rotated, raise your right hand and grab your left ankle. That's right. You're now balancing diagonally.

5. Lift your head, lift your chest, breathe slowly, and stay for 5-10 breaths.

Repeat on the other side.

BENEFITS: Well, you pretty much get a fantastic quad stretch on the raised leg (as well as hip-opening), a great hamstring stretch on the standing leg, a balance position, a chest-opener, and a bit of a back-bend. You see why this is the Everything Pose, right? Plus, it makes you stand straighter at the end (or happy that you survived it).

AVOID IF: Your knees or shoulders don't like it.

OTHER THOUGHTS: Can't reach the raised foot? Try using a belt to bridge the distance to the foot. Can't balance, or can't straighten the standing knee? Try using a block underneath the hand that's supposed to be on the floor. Can't seem to get into it at all? Well, that's why we have the other yoga poses, my dear impatient yogis, the poses you wanted to skip to get to the one-pose-does-all. Before blaming me, from now on, we'll do those first, and then we'll get to the Everything Pose...

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Yogic Tripod

What do people do now that cell phone cameras are replacing regular cameras... and it's hard to find a tripod to mount the phones for those group portraits where you want to include yourself? The yogic tripod is not, I repeat, not a solution to this issue, but it is a nice little inversion/hip opener/quadriceps stretcher. And that's worth taking a picture of.

THE POSE: 1. Lie face down with your arms extended and your palms on the floor next to your thighs. 2. Bend your left knee so your left shin is straight up. 3. Press on your hands, lift your right leg, and rest your right thigh atop your left foot. If you can't quite get the thigh atop the left foot, try the knee. If you can't rest the knee there, try the shin. But the higher up you're able to prop your right leg, the greater the stretch into the hip and quad of the propped-up leg. 4. Breathe. Wait for your body to settle into the pose. Five to ten long breaths is a good general guideline. Yes, you will be slightly tilted to one side in this position. It's normal. Switch to the other side when you feel ready.

BENEFITS: An easy, virtually effortless inversion with the aforementioned quad and hip joint opening.

AVOID IF: The hip on the raised leg hurts.

OTHER THOUGHTS: You can wedge your cell phone camera between the big toe and the second toe on the raised leg and you'll have the tripod you need. But you still won't be able to be in the picture with your friends.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Warrior 1.1

Among the many things in the world that are hard to improve upon, we have cheesecake, rollercoaster rides and bungee jumping. Warrior 1, a staple of any yoga practice, would appear to be in that category. But watch out: fresh out of beta testing, here comes warrior 1.1.

Okay, so we all know the original warrior: feet spaced wide apart, turn toward one foot, bend that knee, keep the back foot sideways and firmly planted through the edge, raise both arms. Our good-natured warrior 1.1 corrects most people's tendency to not turn the hips enough and not align the neck with the spine.

THE POSE: Come into warrior 1 with the right foot leading. Bend your right elbow and drop the right hand toward your shoulderblades while pressing your head back against your right forearm. Reach your left arm forward, drawing your left hip forward as well. Breathe. Enjoy the knowledge you're advancing the cause of yoga by practicing a fractionally upgraded warrior. Repeat on the other side.

BENEFITS: Realigns the spine and hips, strengthens the quads, psychologically helps you be more assertive.

AVOID IF: You have a slipped disk or any other kind of spinal discomfort. Either do it gently enough that you stay shy of pain, or otherwise sit this one out.

OTHER THOUGHTS: Helpful for when you start calculating, in the middle of class, how many warrior 1s you've done in your yoga career -- virtually guaranteed to rein in your (distracted) mind. So go ahead: upgrade your warrior. This isn't Google, so Warrior 1.2 isn't due out for another fifty years. :-)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Balancing Crouching Twist

Welcome to "Crouching Tiger, Balancing Twist." Oh, wait. This is going to the the yoga list, not the Chinese martial arts list. My bad.

THE POSE: 1. With your feet together raise your arms overhead and rise on the the balls of your feet.

2. Keep your heels off the floor and drop to a low squat, twisting to the right and hooking your left elbow onto the outside of your right thigh. Turn your head to the right.

3. Take five deep slow breaths and see if you can lengthen your upper spine without losing your balance (you're still on the balls of the feet).

4. Rise back to standing, keep the heels off the floor, and repeat on the other side.

BENEFITS: Good stretch to the Achilles, often the ability to reset your spine very nicely with the twist and inherent instability of the pose, and good, challenging balance position.

AVOID IF: If your feet cramp with this position, be sure to drink far more water in the course of the day (for everyone, a gallon of water a day is a good rule of thumb - that's 8 sixteen-ounce glasses). If the tendency to cramp persists on other days, discontinue. If your knees hurt, please discontinue immediately and avoid this position altogether.

OTHER THOUGHTS: Another benefit this position offers is the ability to check out whoever is practicing yoga beside you. Just kidding.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The rock-climber twist

This is a great, simple, easy spinal twist that gets just about every part of your spine. But if you’re actually rock-climbing right now, while reading this, you should wait to try it after you’re back on level ground. I’m just sayin’, you know?

Here’s how it goes:

1. Lie face-down on your mat.

2. Extend your right arm up beside your head (so the right side of your body is a straight line between your right leg, your trunk, and your right arm).

3. Bend your left knee and bring it out to the left, so your inner left thigh presses against the floor. This is where you look like a rock-climber, hugging the face of a treacherous mountain wall. Stay a moment and feel the stretch through your pillar-like right arm, trunk and leg).

4. Press down with your left knee, lift your left arm, and move it back as far as you can, lifting the left hip off the floor and revolving your spine, your neck and your head. Stay for ten to thirty seconds; repeat on the other side.

BENEFITS: Gentle, easy way to get range of motion in the shoulder joint, the spine and the neck: gravity does the work for you and you only twist as far as your body’s natural range.

AVOID IF: If you cannot relax in the position because the arm that’s lifting above you doesn’t significantly tilt in the opposite direction, you might want to either curtail it to a few seconds. If any of this hurts, especially on your shoulder or spine, see if you can back off till it doesn’t hurt anymore; or skip it completely.

OTHER THOUGHTS: If you can get into it comfortably, this thing is like WD-40 for your spine. (If you only have a vague notion of what WD-40 is, don’t worry: I just said this to help guys get more comfortable with yoga. ;-) )

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

King of the Hamstring Stretch

I couldn't tell you how many times I've seen non-yoga people do what I'm sure they think is a good stretch. They grab their foot and stand there for five seconds and no doubt feel that they've paid their due to the "stretch after working out" rule (see the inset picture).

If you want a real stretch, though, this one's better. You still grab the foot like before, but then you bring your other hand to the floor or to a yoga block. Or to a stack of books if you don't have a block. Or, if you're of the generation who doesn't know what a book is, stack ten of your most recent mobile phones, and that should do the trick. :-)

BENEFITS: The hamstring on the standing leg is definitely stretched. Ditto for the quadriceps on the leg whose foot you're holding. AVOID IF: Your bent knee hurts (avoid completely) or you IT band or sciatic nerve on the standing leg hurt (back off the intensity of the stretch till you don't feel discomfort.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Standing Knotted Spinal Twist

This one falls into the category of "things to do when you're bored at a cocktail party." Or maybe not.

1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your knees slightly bent.

2. Fold forward and reach your right arm between the knees

3. Bend your right elbow and reach your hand toward the ourside of your right hip (I said the outside of the hip, not the crack of the butt, please. That doesn't look pretty.)

4. Take your left arm around the back and clasp the hands. (If you're going, "Hands? What hands?" you may need a belt or a strap to help you here. If so, let the belt/strap hang from your left hand, then grab it with your right hand.)

5. Without letting go of the hands (or belt), try to straighten your legs, and raise your left shoulder (which will both make your back revolve and lengthen it.) Stay about ten seconds, breathing slowly, and feel the spine elongate.

That's it! Standing knotted spinal twist accomplished! Release, and repeat on the other side (i.e., threading your left arm through, clasping the hands by your left hip and revolving your shoulders to the right this time.)

AVOID IF: You experience any discomfort whatsoever through your knees or your back. Please don't force: if using a strap doesn't help you to get into the position, you may not yet have the range of motion through your shoulders or hips to accommodate this position. I'd rather you back off than strain a muscle. BENEFITS: Fantastic and effective way to release tight shoulders, stretch the hamstrings, and reset the back. ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS: I was kidding about doing this at a cocktail party. But if it suddenly strikes you as a good idea, you may have exceeded your cocktail allowance and need to look for a designated driver.:-)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Quick Mental Refresh Pose

This may look a little weird or sound a little hyped, but you can really reset yourself in as few as eight breaths, or two minutes.

It's based on the yogic principle of pratyahara: sense withdrawal.

THE SETUP: Sit comfortably, on a chair or on the floor. Place your pinkies together just below your lips. Touch the tip of your ring fingers just above the lips. Gently position your middle fingers against your nostrils, but only press them when you're neither breathing in nor breathing out -- during the pauses. Index fingers press your eyelids shut. (Wait, keep them open so you can keep reading the instructions.) Lastly, the thumbs occlude your ears; i. e., they press the flaps of your ears in to keep out sound. THE PRACTICE: With your eyes and ears shut, take 8 very slow breaths, listening to the sound that they make and pausing briefly at the top of the inhalation (and pressing the nostrils shut with your middle fingers) and at the bottom of the exhalation (again pressing the nostrils). Those extra-slow breaths should go in slowly and deeply and come out unhurriedly; all in all, they should take about two minutes to complete. Just pay attention to the sound of movement of air... or maybe even hear blood pumping in your veins. BENEFITS: You get an immediate boost of alertness that's not unlike having slept a little more. It can really re-center your mind in the midst of a chaotic situation, emotional fluctuations, excessive demands, or multi-tasking distractions. Great to do before meditation. AVOID IF: This position is very gentle, so I can't think of counterindications. If you experience shortness of breath or elevated heartbeat, it's because you're trying to hold the breath instead of letting it flow slowly at its own rhythm. Try to adjust it. Also, if the reason you're doing this is to make up for the fact that you only slept 3 hours last night, it may do the trick... but if you only slept 3 hours because you were out partying and drank too many mixed drinks... the bets are off. :-)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The legs-up-the-wall spine release

... also known as the "no, really -- I really am doing yoga" position...

Sit sideways to a wall so your hip touches the wall. As you lie on your back, swing your legs up the wall and sit close enough that your buttocks are against the wall. Stay for 5-10 minutes for best results. If you have access to a wall while waiting for your yoga class to start, it helps focus your attention inwardly.

BENEFITS: This is fantastic for dealing with back aches (lower or upper), for de-stressing, and for promoting hamstring relaxation. AVOID IF: You experience any discomfort to your spine that lasts longer than 10 seconds.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The reclining warrior

... Also known as "Traffic cop standing in front of a truck that doesn't seem to be slowing down.":-) start in a conventional Warrior 2 position (inset illustration). Straighten your front leg. Bend the back knee (it'll point to the side.) Shift most of your body weight to the back foot. Bend your left elbow, with the forearm vertical now. Next, flex your front wrist with your palm facing forward. Hold for 3 slow breaths, repeat on the other side. BENEFITS: Strengthens your thighs, aligns your back, supports deeper breathing. AVOID IF: If your knees feel weak or you have any joint pain, shorten the duration of holding the pose or skip it altogether.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Knuckle Spine Release

The knuckle spine release is not to be confused with that time back in 9th grade when your brutish cousin hit you in the back. :-)... Fists are positioned on either side of the spine and however high up the back it's possible to go. Lie on your back with your hands in this position and use your body weight to sink into your fists. Let the muscles lining the spine soften against your knuckles. Stay for 10-30 seconds, breathing slowly. BENEFITS: Helps release shoulder and back tightness. COUNTERINDICATIONS: If you can't get your arms comfortably in this position, skip it.