“Am I doing this right?” A few thoughts on alignment

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“Am I doing this right?” 

It’s a question we have all wondered at some point in our yoga journey: Am I doing this pose right?

I asked this question often in my first few years of yoga, craning my neck to get a better view of my yoga teacher in hopes of making my body into the same shape as hers. I cranked myself into all sorts of shapes in those first few years, even if they felt terrible. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized the poses that looked “right” or properly aligned were not always best for my body. I also noticed that making the same shape as my teacher didn’t always mean I felt what she was trying to get me to feel. In pigeon pose, for example, I rarely felt the “hip opening” of the forward outer hip. I mostly felt a general sense of discomfort in my hip flexors. I was making the shape, but not really feeling the intended benefit of the pose. 

Realizations like this led to a sense of curiosity. I learned more about anatomy, taking an online course, populating my bookshelf with books in yoga and the human body, and listening to podcast after podcast on movement and yoga.

I learned that the answer to the question “Am I doing this right?” is “It depends.” It depends on your particular bone and muscular structure, your day, your movement practice, what you’ve had to

eat, whether you’re hydrated, how long you’ve been doing yoga, and what kind. (If you’d like to nerd out about why this is the case, you might look into Your Body Your Yoga by Bernie Clark, Stretching Redefined by Jules Mitchell, or the work of Jenni Rawlings and Francesca Cervero.)

Now I would say a better question than “Is this right?” is “How does this feel?” or even “Where am I feeling this?” The answers to these questions change day to day, and possibly from moment to moment. We have all, for example, experienced that wonderful sense of familiarity that comes with doing a pose twice in a class. A pose that seemed daunting at first might seem easier the second time around as the mind and body relax into a known path. The more we practice yoga, the more familiar the path comes each class—even when there are new twists and turns. 

Ultimately, I believe we practice yoga to become more in tune with our bodies, and to respond appropriately with movement that nourishes, challenges, or both. If we’re doing that, we can rest assured that we’re doing yoga “right.”

Four low or no-cost gifts to give yourself during the holidays

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We spend much of December thinking up gifts to give family, friends, and coworkers — but what about ourselves? Because we all need a little TLC, I’ve come up with a few easy gifts you can give yourself. No need to break the bank on these presents — they are all free or low in cost. Enjoy!

Time.   Time may seem hard to come by in the busyness of the season, but that’s exactly why it’s so important to pause and take time to connect to yourself. Give yourself at least five minutes a day to enjoy a cup of tea, walk outside, journal, pray, or meditate. Be fiercely protective of this time, and make it non-negotiable. You probably wouldn’t skip brushing your teeth on a busy day, and neither should you skip self-care — with benefits for your mental and physical well-being, self-care is arguably just as important to your health as your daily brushings.

Mindfulness.   Mindfulness, which is the practice of being present in each moment, is a gift we can enjoy all year long — and this moment is the perfect time to start. Being present can be as simple as reminding yourself, “I am here,” writing a gratitude list, or paying attention to your breath for a few minutes. If mindfulness seems like an overwhelming task, try reading Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, or The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Han. These books  offer bite-sized tips for enjoying mindfulness daily and are likely available at your local bookseller or library.

Aromatherapy.   Familiar smells can be wonderfully calming when our schedules are full and our holiday cheer is fading. I love drinking a cup of fragrant chai tea, or putting a few drops of clove-infused essential oils in my diffuser. Baking spiced breads or lighting a naturally scented candle may also bring you a measure of calm by way of your senses.

Yoga.   This wouldn’t be a yoga blog without mentioning yoga, right? But seriously, enjoying a little yoga can help you melt away physical tension and become better equipped to walk through mental stress. If you can’t make it to a full class, try a few minutes of flowing at home (I have a couple of videos — both under 35 minutes — that you can try).

As you make your way through December, try not to edge yourself off your gift list.  Pause to enjoy the season, and savor all the joyful moments that come with it.

Three wall-based poses for relaxation

I love a good restorative yoga session, especially after a long, busy day. The point of restorative yoga is to rejuvenate the body through deep relaxation and steady breathing. For that reason, you exert little to no energy in the poses and allow gravity to do most of the work.

Try the restorative yoga poses below to ease tension on tired vertebra, knees, legs, and feet. If you feel yourself straining to remain in the pose, try a modification or rest quietly on your back. Remember to keep your breathing smooth and your mind as relaxed as you can. Enjoy!

Legs-up-the-wall

Try this grounding pose to relieve stress and ease pressure off the spine and legs.

Sit next to the wall with your left hip touching the wall. Turn around so that your back is on the floor and scoot toward the wall until your sitting bones are on the wall. Extend your legs up and rest them on the wall. If you like, bring one hand to your chest and the other to your belly to help calm your breath and connect to your body. Stay here for a few breaths or up to five minutes.

Modify: If legs-up-the-wall is uncomfortable or your legs become tingly, try separating your legs a few inches, bending your knees slightly, or both. If the tingling remains, come out of the pose.

Butterfly pose

Another grounding posture, this pose offers a gentle stretch for your inner thighs.

From legs-up-the-wall, slide your feet toward your hips and bring the soles of your feet to together. Rest the outer edges of your feet on the wall and stay here for a few breaths or up to five minutes.

Modify: To de-intensify the inner thigh stretch, take your hips farther away from the wall, and use your hands to support your legs. Additionally, keep your feet raised higher rather than sliding them all the way to your hips.

Restorative frog pose

Use restorative frog pose to help relieve pressure from tight hips in a gentle, calming way.

From legs-up-the-wall, scoot your hips away from the wall a couple of inches. Separate your legs about a foot, bend your knees, and bring the bottoms of your feet onto the wall; turn your toes outward about 45 degrees or so. If it feels comfortable, separate your feet a little more. Remain here with your arms by your sides, or with one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Stay here for a few deep breaths, or for two to three minutes.

Modify: If this pose feels too intense on your hips, take them farther away from the wall, and support your legs with your hands or with sturdy blocks. You can also hold your legs with your hands for gentle support.

Reclined Cow Face Pose

 

 

After writing my last post on seated cow face pose, I thought about how that version is sometimes inaccessible to me. On those days, I prefer this pose reclined. So, I thought it’d be helpful to offer a brief tutorial on reclined cow face pose, which has many of the same hip-opening benefits of the seated version, but with less pressure on the hips and knees. Try it out and let me know which version works best for you!

Reclined Cow Face Pose

  1. Begin on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor.
  2. Cross your left leg over your right leg so that the back of your left knee stacks, or nearly stacks, above the right knee.
  3. Use your hands and abdominal muscles to bring your knees closer to your chest. Rest your hands on your shins, and use your hands to guide your knees as close to your chest as feels comfortable (see bottom photo). You can also gently pull the shins away from each other.
  4. If you want a deeper stretch in the outer left hip, hold your feet rather than your shins (see top photo); you may need to lift your upper body to reach your feet. If you still want a deeper stretch in the outer left hips, take the feet farther away from the hips.
  5. Remain in the shape you’ve chosen for five to ten breaths, then repeat the steps on the other side.

A Desk-Friendly Sequence to Release Neck and Shoulder Tension

Many of us hold tension in our necks, shoulders, and upper back. The good news is that with about 10 minutes of focused attention, we can relieve some of this tension. Here is a short flow designed to release physical stress in the upper body.

1. Begin by sitting in a chair with your ankles under your knees and your shoulders over your hips. To reduce stimuli and tune into your breath, close your eyes or soften your gaze. Take 3-5 breaths, focusing on inhaling completely, and exhaling completely.

2. Lean your left ear toward your left shoulder. Place your right fingertips on your right jawline, and press gently into the skin there. Continue to gently press as you pull your fingers down the side of your neck, ending just below the right collarbone. When you reach the collarbone, lift your chin slightly higher. Breathe here for 2-5 breaths.

3. Next, place your left hand on your right ear. Use your left arm to cradle your head, and your left hand to gently guide the head toward the left. If you like, allow your right hand to fall to your lap. Stay here for about 2-5 breaths.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 on the opposite side, then return to a neutral seated position.

5. Reach your hands in front of you. Interlace your fingers and press your palms away. If this feels uncomfortably tight for your shoulders, bend your elbows a bit. Sit up tall and draw your belly button toward your spine to help engage your low abdominal muscles. This will give you a more stable seat as you reach your palms toward the ceiling. Maintain connection with both sitting bones to the chair; arch your palms toward the left for 2-5 breaths and then toward the right for 2-5 breaths. Return to center.

6. Reach your right hand under your left arm to touch your left shoulder blades. Now, reach your left hand toward your right shoulder. Your left elbow will rest atop your right elbow or thereabouts. Press your fingers into the back of your shoulders and, at the same time, draw your elbows downward. Look for a stretch along the upper back and the sides of your shoulders as well. Stay here for 2-5 breaths.

7. Make eagle arms in the arms by releasing your hands from your shoulders, and bringing either the backs of the hands to touch, or the palms to touch. To touch the palms, the right wrist will wind in front of the left. Lift your elbows to chin height, and take your thumbs about two three inches away from your face. Stay for 2-5 breaths. If this pose feels uncomfortably tight for your shoulders, skip the eagle arms and repeat step 6 instead.

8. Repeat step 6 on the opposite side. If you did eagle arms, repeat step 7, too. Return to a neutral seat.

9. Reach your right hand to your outer left knee or thigh. Bring your left hand to the small of your back. Look toward your left shoulder, being mindful not to shrug your shoulders into your ears. If this position feels comfortable and you’d like a deeper stretch in your chest and upper back, extend your left fingertips straight behind you. Stay for 2-5 breaths. Repeat on the other side, then return to a neutral seated position.

10. Before you return to your day, take another few breaths to recenter. Nourish your body with these inhalations and exhalations and give thanks for this pocket of time in your day.

Five hip-strengthening exercises (and why you should do them)

Yogis are notorious for developing problematic hips after years of repetitively executing the same yoga poses. Yoga tends to strengthen the quadriceps while stretching the hamstrings and outer hips. This can lead to muscular imbalance: weak hamstrings, tight quads, weak outer hips, weak adductors, and weak gluteal muscles. Lifelong practitioners of yoga may find it necessary to supplement common yoga poses. This will help strengthen the muscles that help knit the legs, hips, pelvis, and low back together.

These exercises helped me in particularly when I was nursing the beginnings of a labral tear in my right hip, and just general unequal distribution of tightness and weakness. I found myself in discomfort regularly, with my hips clicking constantly as I walked. I had to pull back on some of my favorite poses by spending less time with or nixing altogether forward folds and deep psoas stretches. I replaced some of them with the poses below. I tended to do 10-15 minutes hip strengthening any day I did yoga. Sometimes I folded this time into my yoga practice, and other times I let it be a stand-alone experience. Even though my hips are starting to feel normal again, I still regularly incorporate hip strengthening into my physical practice. These are my favorites:

80’s workout video leg lifts

Target: Hip adductors and inner thigh

How: Lay on your right side, propping your head up with your right hand. You will look exactly like you are preparing to take your high school volleyball photo. Bend your left knee and place your left foot in front of your right knee or thigh. Keep the left foot firmly planted on the floor, and your left knee pointed upward. Finally, with the inner right ankle facing the ceiling, lift and lower the right leg. Do 10 reps and repeat on the other side.

Awkward airplane with lifts

Target: Gluteus medius and gluteus maximus

How: Come to a forward fold. Then, lift your back until you find a flat spine. If you like, use blocks under your hands or a chair under your hands for support. Bring weight into the right leg and lift the left foot off the floor while trying to keep the left foot flat. With the left hand, take hold of the left big toe, or, if the hamstrings aren’t having it today, bend your left knee and take hold of it. Flex your left toes toward your face. Press your left foot or knee into your left hand. While standing firmly with the right leg, lift and lower the left leg. Do 5-10 reps and repeat on the other side.

Clam shells

Target: Gluteus medius and piriformis

Optional equipment: Theraband

How: Lie on your right side and bring your knees toward your chest. You won’t quite be in a fetal position, but in a less compressed version of one. Stack your knees. Keeping your feet together, open the left knee. Use your hip abductors (the muscles in the outer hips) to raise and lower the knee open and closed, like a clamshell. For added resistance and additional muscle strengthening, loop a Theraband around the shins. Do 10 reps and repeat on the opposite side.

One legged bridge lifts

Target: Hamstrings, gluteus maximus

Lie on your back with your knees bent toward the ceiling. Bring the feet hip width apart and plant them firmly into the floor. Ensure that the knees are tracking above the ankles. Lift your right leg toward the ceiling and engage throughout the right thigh muscles. Pressing the left leg firmly into the floor, lift your hips and your right foot toward the ceiling. Lower your hips, keeping the right leg lifted. Do 10-15 reps and repeat on the opposite side.

Thigh lifts

Target: Front hip flexors

Equipment needed: Theraband

How: Come to a standing position. Place the ends of the Theraband under your left foot. Lift your right knee enough take the top loop of the Theraband and place it around the right thigh, just above the knee. Point your right toes. Bring your right thigh toward your chest and lower it down. Do 8-12 reps and repeat on the opposite side.

Pose spotlight: Paschimottanasana (Forward fold)

Paschimottanasana roughly translated from Sanskrit means “intense stretch in the back body.” Until viewing instructional videos by Leslie Kaminoff, I always thought of this as a pose primarily interested in the hamstring muscles and secondarily interested in the low back. Really, though, its Sanskrit name suggests that pose offers benefits for the entirety of the back side, from the calves to the nape of the neck. Where you feel the most intense stretch will depend on your body– some people feel it mostly in the hamstrings, others in the low back, others in the calves. To feel the stretch and release more evenly, try making adjustments like bending or straightening the knees, or use some of the props listed below.

If you feel pain, that is your body’s signal to stop or pull back significantly. Start with the first step, and if everything feels good there, try the next step. Be gentle with yourself and enjoy the release in this pose.

Here’s how you do paschimottanasana;

1. Come to a comfortable seat on the floor or bed. Extend your legs in front of you and flex your toes toward your face. Keep a slight to generous bend in your knees to protect the hamstrings and ease the stretch in the low back; you may even feel a deeper stretch this way! If your hamstrings feel pretty open, wrap your peace fingers around your big toes or reach your hands toward your feet. Alternatively, you can loop a strap around your feet. A third option is to place your hands on the floor beside your hips.

2.Bend forward from the hips with a flat spine. You may start to feel a stretch in your hamstrings and calves as you bend. If your hands are on the floor, creep them toward your shins or feet.

3. Keep the spine straight for as long as you can, then tuck your chin toward your face and round the back as you continue to fold. Maintain a slight to generous bend in the knees. Now, you may begin to feel more of a stretch in the back as well. Try to feel this stretch throughout the back body and avoid dumping the weight of the posture into one area of the spine. If you want more support for the upper body, place blocks beneath your forearms, or place a bolster or pillow on your thighs.

If you do this stretch and don’t feel much of a stretch anywhere, try placing a block behind your heels and reaching for it. Or, increase the bend in your knees and take your forehead toward your knees. You won’t look like the version of paschimottanasana found in all the yoga books, but you might be able to feel the back body elongate here.

As you try paschimottanasana, remember that you’re stretching the entire back body and not just the hamstrings. Try the versions above and let me know how it goes!