November 11, 2014

Meet Your Feet

When I want to stretch and strengthen my toes and feet simultaneously, I like to flow through variations of utkatasana that require strength and stabilization through the ankles, feet, and toes, but also require pliability in the toes and general lengthening throughout the foot muscles.

Feet. Boy do feet get ignored. I never realized this until I started going to therapeutic yoga and my teacher Marianne had us do toe exercises. We sat with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. The exercises started off simple, “Lift your big toe up and keep your little toes down,” and progressed often to strange places like, “Big toe down, little toe down, three middle toes up. Okay, big toe and little toe up, three middle toes down!”

Go ahead. I’ll wait while you try that. Oh, and breathe. Breathing is important.

Hard, isn’t it? Our toes, like our fingers, should be able to move independently of one another. But unlike our fingers, our toes are constantly wrapped up inside socks or shoes and rarely experience full sensation or range of motion. Marianne told us not be discouraged, because with consistent practice those neural pathways between the brain and toes could be re-awakened.

Yoga gets you back in touch with your feet and toes relatively quickly. Whether it’s hooking your big toe with the first two fingers and thumb in a balance, grabbing the soles of the feet for happy baby or cobbler’s pose, or shifting weight to/grounding through different parts of the foot, we tend to focus on feet a lot. That’s because every asana, pranayama, and meditation requires a solid base of support. In order to find the “easy comfortable seat” in practice, we must first be able to feel grounded.

When I want to stretch and strengthen my toes and feet simultaneously, I like to flow through variations of utkatasana (awkward pose / chair pose) that require strength and stabilization through the ankles, feet, and toes, but also require pliability in the toes and general lengthening of the foot muscles. Try the sequence below, flowing through it three times.

If you have trouble with the balance, do the sequence with a wall behind you. Not only will it assist balance, it will also help you find the perfect alignment for a nice, straight spine throughout. You can also try the sequence with feet flat on the floor to learn the breathing cues before adding the tip-toes.

Cues for the breath are below the video.

Inhale, and come high up on the toes and bring the arms up parallel to the floor.

As you exhale, slowly begin to sit down on the tops of the toes, keeping the spine long and upright. Press the heels forward, bringing more weight toward the first and second toe to keep the ankles or heels from splaying outward.

Engage the inner thigh muscles and pull the navel back toward the spine. Take a full inhale. On the exhale, slowly begin to hinge at the hips until the torso comes into line with the hips.

Keep sinking the hips low, pushing the heels forward, and drawing the lower abdominals in. Bring the arms alongside the body with palms facing down, or interlace hands behind the back and lift them up on an inhale for a shoulder stretch.

To release, inhale and slowly hinge back up from the hips, engaging the core through the heels, inner thighs, and abdominal muscles.  Return the arms to the parallel position. Hold the upright pose through the exhale.

Inhale, and come high up on the toes with straight legs, and exhale to release to tadasana (mountain pose).

The keys to working through this sequence from the bottom up are:

Ground all of the toes. Really feel as if you are “plugging in” to the ground.

Press the heels forward firmly throughout and let the toes bend.

Engage the inner thighs (as if you were squeezing a ball or block between the legs) to keep the legs in line with the hips and feet.

Pull in the lower abdominals and draw the navel back toward the spine.

Lengthen through the spine. Traction from tailbone all the way through the crown of the head.

Broaden the back and retract the shoulder blades to keep an open chest and lots of space for your even breaths in and out of the nose.

Squeeze all five fingers together. It might seem silly, but this forces the arms to engage all the way through the finger tips and stabilizes their position.

Breathe evenly. The steadier the breath, the steadier the balance.

Steady your gaze. In the upright position, the gaze is ahead. As you fold, slowly shift the gaze to a point on the floor between your toes.

Above all, have fun! It’s just practice and play.
Try more utkatasana variations and standing poses with me at Hot Hatha Detox on Mondays at 10 am, or Hot Hatha Classic on Wednesdays at 6 am and Fridays at 4:15 pm at Mind Your Body Oasis.

Posted in: Asana, Notes
September 17, 2014

“Come on Baby, Let’s Do the Twist!”

Stretch, strengthen, and twist your way into the day. This brief sequence is a wonderful way to awaken the body. Take it with the pace of your breath and allow that breath to lead you through the postures.

Stretch, strengthen, and twist your way into the day. This brief sequence is a wonderful way to awaken the body. Take it moving with the natural pace of your breath and allow that breath to  you through the postures. The video demonstrates the sequence, and cues for the body and breath can be found below the video:

Twist and Balance for Strength and Flexibility from Neen LeMaster on Vimeo.

Begin with the feet together, standing in tadasana (mountain pose).

Inhale deeply and pull the right knee up toward the chest. Exhale to ground the standing leg, squeezing the front of the thigh and rooting through all four corners of the foot.

Inhale and reach for the outside of the right foot with the left hand, exhale and extend the right leg forward as you reach the right arm back into parivrtta padangusthasana (revolved hand to big toe pose. If this hamstring stretch in the right leg is too intense, simply keep the right knee bent and bring the left hand to the outside of the right knee.

Slowly move the gaze to the right and take a full inhale and exhale.

Inhale deeply, and on the exhale release the foot and reach the right leg behind you, as you bring the right hand to the mat and reach the left arm high, coming into parivrtta anjaneyasana (twisted lunge). Exhale.

Inhale and reach the left arm back as the right arm reaches forward, coming into a standing version of the twist, and exhale completely as the gaze moves toward the left hand. Take a full cycle of breath.

On a long, full inhale, shift the weight into the left leg and reverse the motion, reaching for the outside of the right foot with the left hand and extending that leg forward once more as the right arm reaches back. Again, keep the right knee bent if this extension is too intense of a stretch. Exhale and turn the gaze toward the right hand.

Take a full cycle of breath in the twist. Think about lengthening the crown toward the ceiling as you twist toward your back hand. Then exhale and release with control.

Repeat the sequence on the opposite side.

Like this sequence? Want to twist, twist, and twist some more? Join me for Hot Hatha Detox at Mind Your Body Oasis in Crystal City on Monday mornings at 10 am, with Shari on Wednesday evenings at 7 pm, or with Soozie on Friday mornings at 10 am.

Posted in: Asana
August 23, 2014

“Find a Comfortable Seat…”

Finding a quiet place within is challenging in a cacophonous world, so why make it any harder than it needs to be? Why not support yourself?

This is one of those yoga teacher phrases I used to internally roll my eyes at when I was first practicing yoga. If you started practicing after prolonged joint damage, have low back pain, tight hips, sciatica, or sore knees, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

It seems like a lot of folks just fold one leg in front of the other and sit, doesn’t it? Yoga’s second most famous cross-legged seated position (aside from the controversial lotus pose) is sukhasana, which is often translated as “easy seat.” When I learned that during teacher training I gave a sarcastic laugh and mentioned that sitting cross-legged was just about the least comfortable way I could think to sit.

One ankle always fell asleep, I felt like I was rounding in my lower back, my knees were practically up to my chest, and eventually that feeling in the lower back transformed into a dull ache that lasted for hours.

Like many asanas, I assumed that finding ease in this posture was about patience. Just as a childhood full of swimming butterfly had given me a strong back and shoulders, it had also created solid muscles in my hips. And I was not the most intelligent athlete as a younger person. I focused my efforts on strength and endurance with little care about flexibility. So I built those solid, strong muscles, but never allowed them to be pliable. Asking them to simply release, relax, and lengthen right away wasn’t going to happen.

So how could I find a comfortable seat? Even though we almost always meditated after asana practice when the muscles were warmer, it still felt plain uncomfortable every time. It was frustrating because I tried so hard to shut out the fiery soreness that radiated almost like sciatica down my leg that I lost the plot entirely.

Did you ever try sitting on a block?

Wait, I can do that?

I don’t know why this was such a revelation to me. We encourage students to use props in order to help the body align properly in all sorts of asanas. For some reason, I always thought that doing so for meditation meant that I lacked discipline of a sort.

Finding a quiet place within is challenging in a cacophonous world, so why make it any harder than it needs to be? Why not support yourself? And by support yourself, I mean in the literal and figurative sense. Be kind to yourself and be okay with the idea that sitting cross-legged on the floor is not an easy, comfortable seat for you.

Then take one that is! Imagine how much more you could go inside if you weren’t thinking about your foot falling asleep or sore hips?  Imagine what deeper places you could explore if you took the time to eliminate a distraction that doesn’t need to be there?

It’s not a compromise, it’s accommodating your body with compassion.

The world lost one of yoga’s great lights this week. B.K.S Iyengar is the man credited with bringing yoga to the western world. The Iyengar yoga lineage is highly focused on proper alignment in order to facilitate a more profound, deep experience in yoga practice. Mr. Iyengar refined the use of props in yoga in order to make poses accessible to students. Props can open up practice to individuals with physical limitations, support practitioners to work in a safe range of motion, highlight a particular quality in a posture, and/or allow students to balance the effort and surrender in each pose.

Simply putting a block under me raised my hips enough that my knees could relax down and away from my body. With knees no  longer above my hips and pulling on my lower back, the roundness dissipated and the pain down the back of my leg disappeared. My outer hip flexors sometimes get sore since my knees don’t touch the ground, and in those instances I also like to support them on the outside of the knees with blocks or bolsters.

Oh, and then I met the amazing Marianne Meyers who showed me this ultra-deluxe version with two blocks and a blanket. It’s like the royal throne of sukhasana. Seriously, try it. (And then go take one of Marianne’s therapeutic yoga classes and learn all of the ways to really be supported. Taking therapeutic yoga is one of the best things a practitioner of any level can do to learn about healthy movement.)

Sukhasana with blocks side-by-side covered with a blanket.

Sukhasana with blocks side-by-side covered with a blanket.

You don’t need anything special. A thick phone book, the afghan on the chair, even the cushions from the couch can be a prop.

The next time someone tells you to find a comfortable seat, take them seriously. Let it be a balance of ease and effort so that you can be open to receive the benefits of your practice.

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Posted in: Asana, Notes
August 11, 2014

Ardha Chandrasana: An Open Heart

Feel the energy all the way through the fingertips and toes, and expand as if you were trying to radiate across as much space as possible. Open your heart to a feeling of bliss as this energy flows out from you.

I’m not shy about my love for Ardha Chandrasana, or, Half Moon Pose.  To my heart, it is the embodiment of grace and peaceful power. And there are variations to serve students of all levels that still allow each to receive the bliss of this expansive, radiant posture.

On a physical level, the benefits of this posture are numerous and rich: The muscles of the standing leg are strengthened as that leg acts as the main point of structural stability in the balance. The practitioner grounds through the whole foot, engages the quadriceps to allow the hamstrings to lengthen, and engages the muscles around the calf to stabilize the ankle. The muscles of the raised leg are also engaged. The foot flexes strongly so that all five toes point back evenly and the muscles of the calf lengthen. Again, the quadriceps muscle in the front of the thigh is engaged to allow the hamstring to lengthen and the leg to eventually become straight. The upper body is working and stretching also in this posture. The spine is long; if the spine collapses or curves when the bottom hand is brought to the ground, place a block underneath that hand to lift the torso and encourage length from the heel of the raised leg all the way through the crown of the head.

One way to approach this is from Parivrtta Parsvakonasana / Extended Side-Angle Pose. From Extended Side-Angle, reach the lower arm about 6-12 in. beyond the front foot and press the fingertips into the floor. Bring the overhead arm to the top hip. Begin to shift weight into, and ground through all four corners of the front foot (big toe, little toe, inner heel, outer heel). On an inhale, slowly begin to straighten the front leg while simultaneously raising the back leg and extending it until it is parallel (or slightly above parallel) to the floor. Engage the quadriceps of the standing leg to lift the kneecap and allow the hamstring to release and stretch, while continuing to engage the calf muscles and ground through the foot of the standing leg. The more firmly you press the foot of the standing leg into the floor, the more lift and stability you will feel.

Flex the foot of the raised leg as if you were standing on a wall behind you. By flexing the foot, the leg muscles awaken and make this posture feel more stable.

Half moon with hand on hip

 

Inhale and begin to rotate the top hip back, and open the chest toward the sky. If you feel steady, take the top arm away from the hip and raise it straight overhead. Your drishti, or eye-gaze can look either at the toes of the standing leg or up at the top hand. Do whatever brings the most ease and comfort to your neck.

If you have trouble with balancing in this posture or simply want to invite greater length into the spine, try bringing a block under the grounded hand. This will encourage lift and length in the spine while simultaneously offering more stability. A block is especially useful if you find rounding or curving happening in your back as you bring the hand down toward the floor.

Half moon with block

You might also practice this posture against a wall. Even if you have strong balance, I often encourage students to try Ardha Chandrasana against a wall to really understand what it feels like to stack the hips and shoulders evenly. The foot of the standing leg remains pointed directly toward the front of the mat while the rest of the body opens toward the long side of the mat. Think about pressing both shoulder blades, the back of the hips, and the raised leg into the wall firmly in order to open the chest and heart more toward the sky.

Half moon at the wall

Breathe deeply in this pose, reaching and lengthening through all of the limbs and the crown of the head. You can even make this into a little flow, lengthening the crown of the head and flexing to reach strongly through the back heel on the ihales, and stretching the arms apart in opposite directions on the exhales. Feel the energy all the way through the fingertips and toes, and expand as if you were trying to radiate across as much space as possible. Open your heart to a feeling of bliss as this energy flows out from you. Take 3-5 breaths and then slowly bend the front knee and bring the back leg down with control. Repeat the asana on the other side.

Once you feel comfortable and steady in Ardha Chandrasana, there are a few ways to challenge yourself if you wish.

For a deep stretch along the psoas and hip, on an inhale, bend the raised leg and reach back with the top arm to receive the foot. Exhale, relax the shoulder, and kick the foot into the hand. You should feel deep opening in the shoulder and a stretch through the hip flexors, psoas muscle, and quadriceps of the raised leg.

Full moon

If you’re interested in playing with your balance, try bringing the fingertips up off of the ground. I like to rest mine gently on my shin.

Half moon balance

Full moon balance

One wonderful way to explore your body’s center of gravity and challenge your balance is to create a vinyasa (breath linked with movement) between holding the foot in this posture, and Natarajasana / Dancer’s Pose.

Inhale and kick into the hand strongly, using the breath and the traction created between this kick and extension of the front arm to rise up, coming into Natarajasana. Take one full breath in the posture and reach wide. Kick the foot away from you as you reach the chest and fingertips up and forward. Inhale deeply, and then exhale and reach through the front fingertips as you lengthen the spine and fold back down, bringing the hand either all the way to the mat or back to the shin. Think of moving your body like a seesaw with the hips serving as the axis. And again, always feel free to try these variations with your standing leg against a wall so that you can explore with support. Build a solid foundation and the balance will come.

I hope you enjoy exploring movement freely in Ardha Chandrasana. Remember to listen to your breath always, as it will guide your asana practice. Allow it to be calm and even through the nose. If it gets ragged or choppy, or you find yourself holding your breath, try a variation of the posture with more support. Be open and listen to the messages of the body, so that you can experience your practice in the most complete way possible.

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Posted in: Asana