QUESTION Vinyasa yoga sequences contain much more hamstring stretching than strengthening. How can I modify my sequences to include more hamstring strengthening for my students and promote more safety and balance in this muscle group?
ANSWER It’s true that vinyasa yoga sequences are heavily skewed toward stretching your hamstrings and rarely contain focused strengthening work. You stretch your hamstrings in every Sun Salutation, Down Dog, Standing Forward Bend and most Standing Poses. That’s not to mention the intense opening that you get in postures like Hanumanasana, Reclined Leg Stretch, and most Seated Forward Bends.
There’s a psychological factor that often exacerbates this dynamic: many students push too hard and overstretch this muscle group due to the (often unconscious) internalized belief that more flexibility is always healthy and desirable. Unfortunately, this deeply ingrained mindset can lead to one of the most common and frustrating injuries for a yogi: hamstring tears.
So, what can you do to bring greater integrity to this muscle group while maintaining a dynamic flow practice? Let’s look at the essential anatomy of the hamstrings. Then, you’ll learn to take one simple step in your sequencing to bring greater harmony to these muscles.
THE ESSENTIAL ANATOMY
The hamstrings are a comprised of three muscles: the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus. They run from the sitting bone down the back of the thigh before crossing the knee and attaching to the lower leg. Their primary job is to extend the hip and flex the knee.
The best ways to modify your sequencing is to incorporate specific hamstring strengthening postures into your flow. Assume that your vinyasa sequences already have enough hamstring openers and include more strengthening poses. If you prioritize hamstring strengthening and provide your students with variations, you can create a balance of hamstring flexibility and strength.
I incorporate all of the following postures in most of my classes to bring more awareness, support, and stability to these often overstretched tissues. It’s a good idea to repeat these postures a few times in class and make sure that you hold them long enough that you feel the muscles working.
Most variations of Natarajasana focus on opening the front body. In this version — which isn’t nearly as pretty, by the way — I want you to focus on engaging the hamstrings. It’s like a hybrid of Warrior III and Natarajasana. While standing in Tadasana with your core engaged, raise your right heel toward your sitting bone and move your thigh back. Keep your core intact and maintain the natural curves of your spine as begin. Once you’ve raised your leg, tilt your pelvis forward over your standing leg and lift your chest into a modest backbend.
Let’s face it: none of the postures in this sequence are sexy. These are not big, flashy poses that are going to build your reputation in social media. They are, however, the postures that create stability and strength in an often-overlooked region of the body. To do this Hamstring Curl, simply come to Table Top position. Engage your abdominal core to keep your lower-back fixed (immobile). Keep your left knee bent 90 degrees, flex your foot and lift your thigh toward the ceiling. As you raise your thigh, bring your heel closer to your sitting bone. Do not allow your lower back to increase it’s curve. It’s okay to have a natural lumbar curve, but don’t allow your lower back to sink toward the floor. Feel your hamstrings working diligently as you breath deeply.
In backbends, we usually internally rotate the thighs. This version of Locust Pose is an exception. In this version, you will externally rotate the thighs and bring you inside of your feet together. This combination of actions strongly engages your hamstrings, adductors and external rotators. It’s an ideal strengthener that balances many of the muscles that tend to be overstretched in yoga. Since Locust Pose is low-range of motion pose, it’s permissible to internally rotate the thighs instead of externally rotating them. If this were a backbend with greater range of motion–like Bridge Pose–I wouldn’t recommend externally rotating and adducting the thighs. I would stick to the more common teaching of internally rotating the thighs and keeping the thighs parallel to each other.
Continuing down the road of highly-functional postures that are not glamorous in the least, we have another version of locust. This asymmetrical version of locust is unique in it’s ability to create diagonal strength in the back-body. Meaning, you strengthen one set of calves, hamstrings, and glutes, while strengthening the opposite paraspinal and shoulder muscles. Remember, this is how the body moves: in diagonal, rotational motions. This makes this Locust Variation one the organic, functional way to strengthen your hamstrings–and, the other muscles of your backbody.
QUESTION Some teachers tell students not to “squeeze” or “grip” their gluteal muscles when backbending because this will compress the sacrum and lower back. Others say that it’s essential to use the glutes in backbends. What do you recommend?
ANSWER First, let’s acknowledge that different students may benefit from slightly different actions in any given posture. So, the most accurate way to answer this question is to say that most students will benefit from engaging their glutes in most backbends. Here’s why:
THE ESSENTIAL ANATOMY
The gluteal family is composed of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. When teachers talk about engaging the “glutes” in backbends, they’re referring to the gluteus maximus. When we engage the gluteus maximus—particularly the lower fibers near the hamstring insertion—these muscles extend the hip-joint. This is a good thing because we want the hips to extend slightly when we do backbends in order to help decompress the lumbar spine. Gluteal engagement also helps stabilize the sacroiliac joint—which is valuable because so many long-time yogis have hypermobile and unstable SI joints.
But, let’s answer the question with a little more nuance since some backbends are enhanced by gluteal engagement and others are not. Prone backbends like Locust and Cobra Pose probably don’t benefit as much from gluteal contraction because the weight of the pelvis rests on the floor during these postures. This means that you don’t need gluteal strength to lift the pelvis because it stays on the ground in the pose; you also don’t need the stabilization that the glutes provide because the pelvis is supported by the floor.
In kneeling backbends like Camel Pose and supine backbends like Bridge Pose and Upward Bow Pose, gluteal engagement is more helpful. These postures produce a greater degree of spinal extension so it’s even more important that the pelvis and spine move cohesively. Engaging the glutes near the hamstring insertion, will help maintain this balance by rotating the pelvis slightly back over the top of the legs. This will help reduce lumbar compression—the feeling of your lower-back “crunching.” Even more, the glutes help lift the weight of the pelvis in supine backbends. If you don’t use the glutes in these postures, you might unnecessarily burden less efficient muscle groups.
Some teachers and students are concerned that using the glutes will make the knees splay too far apart. This is a legitimate concern, but it’s easily managed. All you have to do in this situation is co-contract the muscles that line the inside of your thighs, the adductors. Firing the adductors while you engage your glutes will keep your thighs nice and neutral.
In the poses that follow, the prone (face-down) backbends are instructed with passive glutes, whereas the kneeling and reclined backbends are instructed with active glutes. I encourage you to experiment in these postures and observe what works best for your body.
Lie down on your belly. As you exhale, lift your upper-body away from the floor. Root down through the top of your feet and ground the top of your smallest toe. Keep the glutes passive and focus on the work of your spinal muscles.
Again, start on your belly. Place your hands on the floor on either side of chest. Press down through the tops of your feet and your pubic bone as you partially straighten your arms. Draw your shoulder blades down your back and hug your elbows toward your sides. Keep your glutes passive and allow your spinal muscles and arms to guide you into the posture.
Upward-Facing Dog Pose
Come into Upward-Facing Dog from Chaturanga. Once you’re in Updog, allow the glutes to be relatively passive. Focus on grounding down through your fingers, hands, and feet while lifting your thighs, hip-points, and chest.
Lie on your back, bend knees and place your feet flat on the floor, close to your hips. Separate your feet hip-width. You can either keep your arms by your sides or clasp your hands underneath your buttocks. Press down through your feet and raise your hips. Your glutes will fire to help raise your hips. Gently engage your inner legs by imagining that you’re squeezing a block between your thighs.
Kneel on your mat and touch your hip-points with your finger tips. If you have a block, place it between your inner thighs. Lift your hip points up and lengthen your tailbone down. This action will begin to fire your glutes near the insertion of the hamstrings. (One of my teachers, Richard Rosen, calls this part of the glutes the LBMs, or lower buttocks muscles.)
Take your hands to your heels, lift your chest, and lengthen your breath. If there’s a block between your thighs, squeeze it firmly. This engages your adductors and keeps your thighs parallel to each other.
Upward Bow Pose
Lie on your back like you did for Bridge Pose. Separate your feet hip-width. Lift into the posture on your exhalation. Once you are in the posture, bring your awareness to your glutes. Given the demand of the posture, your glutes will be firing. Feel the support that they’re providing while being mindful to simultaneously engage your inner thighs by hugging them toward your midline.
QUESTION I struggle with tight hips and I want to learn Lotus Posture (Padmasana). Can you suggest a sequence that will help me open my hips and do Lotus Pose?
ANSWER There’s a common mistake many of us make when trying to grow a Lotus: We focus too much on stretching the outer hips and forget to open the other muscle groups that make up the hip joint. Don’t get me wrong: the outer hips usually need plenty of help. But, the key to freedom and balance in your hips is working with all the muscle groups that affect the joint, not just your bum. The following sequence will make your hips be happier and healthier — and, if anything is going to help you sit in Lotus, it’s this practice.
THE ESSENTIAL ANATOMY
There are a couple of things to understand about your hips in order to approach them skillfully in your practice. First, your hip joint (coxal joint) is a ball and socket. This is simple enough, but it has big implications. It means that your hip joint is 360 degrees and has muscles around the entire circumference that produce motion in the joint. In order to create a balanced hip opening sequence you need to address all of these muscle groups. Be sure to target each of the following muscular compartments:
These muscles cross over the front of your hip joint and flex the hip.
These muscles that line the inside of your upper thigh are usually left out hip-opening sequences. If these muscles are tight, your knees will remain far away from the floor when you attempt Lotus. These muscles need to be supple so that the thighs can drop as you fold your legs into Lotus.
The hamstrings are not a significant factor in Lotus and they’re not usually thought of as hip muscles. However, they originate on the bottom of your pelvis, cross the back of the hip socket, and run down the back of your leg. The primary joint that they work on is the hip joint. This means that a balanced hip opening sequence will include postures that release this group of muscles.
External Rotators and Gluteus Maximus
Describing the Gluteals and their functions in a few words is tough because this family of three muscles does a lot of different work. Suffice it to say that we tend to think of this region when we think of hip openers. This is the bittersweet part of the body that we stretch when we do Pigeon Pose.
Targeting this region is another key step in releasing hip tension and developing Lotus. These muscles run from the outside of the hip, cross the outside of the hip joint and attach to the outside of the thigh. Since this region is harder to get good leverage on than the external rotators, it is often short-changed in hip opening sequences.
It’s a good idea to warm up for this sequence with 5 to 15 minutes of Sun Salutations.
Focus on rooting down through the top of your back foot and lifting up through your hip points to get the most from this hip flexor opener. Maintain mild abodominal engagement while you do this pose.
Low Lunge Quad Stretch
This posture continues the hip opening that began in Anjaneyasana and digs deeply into the quadriceps.
This wide-legged standing forward bend stretches your hamstrings and adductors. It also prepares you for the more intense squat that follows.
This is the most effective standing posture for releasing tension in the adductors. Use forearms to press your thighs away from the midline to intensify the stretch.
Pigeon Pose with a Twist
This version of Pigeon will help you access part of your adductors and external rotators and lead to more comfort in Lotus. To be effective, lift and turn your torso toward your front leg. Use your hand to pull strongly against your front knee.
Ankle-to-Knee with a Sidebend
To make this posture most effective, be sure to place your top ankle on your bottom knee and flex your foot.
I don’t think of Padmasana as a “hip-opener.” I think of Padmasana as a posture to sit in once your hips are open. Unlike the previous postures, Padmasana doesn’t use effective leverage to stretch the muscles of you hip-joint. In fact, the leverage induced through your shin bones in this posture is more likely to stress your knees than your hips if your hips are restricted. With this in mind, here is a step by step approach to folding your legs into padmasana:
Start with both legs straight in Staff Pose.
Bend your right knee deeply and bring your right heel to your sitting bone. Do NOT simply bend the right knee and drag the foot into Half Lotus. Instead, fully flex the right knee first–without externally rotating it.
Now, that your right knee is fully flexed, externally rotate and abduct your right knee. Then, bring your leg into Half Lotus.
If your right knee is comfortable in Half Lotus, proceed to Step 5. If not, take your leg out of lotus and work on any of the above postures that felt the most necessary.
If your right knee is comfortable in Half Lotus, bring your left leg into Full Lotus.
Make sure to place your feet high enough on your thighs to prevent your outer-ankles from over-stretching.
Take a few breaths before repeating on the other side.
I’m driven and ambitious when I train teachers. I’m ridiculously passionate about yoga. And, I’m opinionated about the need for education to have clarity, consistency, cohesiveness, and practicality.
And so, I drill technique and teach alignment and philosophical details that will help teachers become better at teaching asana classes: I want them to graduate having a more detailed understanding of how the body works. I want them to know more accurate verbal cues and precise manual adjustments. I want my graduates to create sequences that follow a logical, progressive arc and educate their students. I want them to understand the philosophical container of yoga, where yoga comes from, and how to communicate the ancient wisdom of yoga to students in a modern setting.
But, if I’m being honest, I aspire to teach my advanced trainees more than that. I take it for granted that my graduates will be able teach a kick-* class. For a yoga teacher, this is just being good at your job.
And so, there are four questions that tug at me throughout each and every training I conduct:
– What are the core values and essential skills that I want graduates of my programs to embody?
– What type of teacher and professional do I want to help my graduates become?
– How are my graduates different after my programs than before my programs?
– Am I just adding to their bank of knowledge and technique, or am I imparting qualities that go beyond the ability to teach a good class?
To answer the questions above, I’ve come up with the essential values I hope to convey to my advanced training graduates. I believe these values honor the practice and teaching of yoga.
Speak Up—Not Down—To Your Students
Your students are not just in class to workout. Yes, they want to move and use their bodies. It’s undeniable that they might even want to workout and sweat. But, your students have taken their shoes off and they’re in a yoga class. This means that they also want to learn to move more skillfully, safely, effectively, and intelligently. Your students want to learn how to manage their anxieties, fears, and other stresses. They want to learn how to pause, reflect, and find happiness in the life they are living.
Treat your students as though they are teachable, sound people who are capable of learning from this tradition. Assume that they are in your class to learn about themselves, to feel embodied, and to improve the quality of their lives. So, speak up to your students, not down to them. Teach them yoga while you work them out (if that’s the type of class you teach). Students who aren’t interested in learning these dimensions of yoga will simply move on and find a different practice that meets their needs.
Be Critical Thinkers and Engaged Practitioners
I share this passage with my trainees in every setting. It’s from Chogyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. He writes:
“There is a saying in Tibetan Scriptures that ‘knowledge must be burned, hammered and beaten like pure gold.’ So, when you receive spiritual instruction from the hands of another, you do not take it uncritically, but you burn it, you hammer it, and you beat it until the bright, dignified color of gold appears.”
I remind my graduates—nearly every day—that they shouldn’t take my teaching as singular or infallible truth. I want them to be critical thinkers. I want my students to listen, test, and experiment. If what I teach my students is true and accurate, it will stand up under scrutiny. If it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, then it’s my job to reconsider and revise the teaching. I want my graduates to have the confidence to maintain this spirit.
Continue to Grow and Revise
I didn’t know everything about yoga twenty years ago when I started teaching. I don’t know everything about yoga today. In twenty years, I won’t know everything about yoga. No one—not guruji this or panditji that—knows everything there is to know about the massive scope of yoga and the human experience. We need, as a community, to embrace the reality that many teachings—from time-to-time—need to updated based on experience.
Do we get rid of the ancient teachings that have stood the test of time? No. Let’s continue to uphold and cultivate everything that stands up to the test of time. But, let’s not continue to do Triangle Pose a certain way if it’s hurting our sacrum simply because that’s the way it was taught to us. No. Let’s stay up to date. Let’s learn along the way. Let’s be open, honest, and willing to revise our teaching based on our deepening understanding of this tradition and how it affects modern practitioners.
Keep Your Teaching Real and Relevant
The vast majority of the yoga-practicing population is never going to press into Handstand. That doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate this work into your classes, especially if you’re passionate about inversions.
But, Krishnamacharya had a saying: “Ninety percent of the benefit of yoga comes from the simplest ten percent of the practice.” To me, this means that in addition to the big, challenging stuff that’s engaging and exciting and Instagram-worthy, we need to remind our students that doing foundational postures with skill and focus creates a long-term, valuable impact. Let’s continue to build content that is relevant and accessible for our students—not just show the content that is inspirational.
Develop a Point of View Without Minimizing Other Points of View
I believe that everyone has experiences and beliefs that shape their values, worldview, and point of view as a teacher. I also believe that having a point of view as a teacher is natural, normal, and necessary. I have a point of view about, well, just about everything in yoga from the rotation of the bottom arm in Triangle Pose, to the motion of the inner-border of the scapulae in Down Dog, to the components of Patanjali’s teaching that are most relevant to a modern yogi. My beliefs are substantiated by experience. But, this doesn’t mean that my point of view on any given topic is the only valid point of view.
If you take professionals from any trade, you will find that they disagree on countless particulars. If you take ten economists and show them the same data, they may each come to slightly different conclusions. I want my graduates to have the depth, discernment, and confidence to stand behind what they teach without condemning other perspectives.
Be an Advocate For Your Students
I believe that yoga teachers should always have their students’ best interests in mind. And, when appropriate, we should advocate for our student’s wellbeing by encouraging them to find support outside of the yoga tradition.
Suzuki Roshi, the author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, said, “Teaching Zen is not like training dogs.” I believe the same to be true when it comes to teaching yoga. If someone may benefit from therapeutic modalities that are not part of yoga, we should advocate for them. Some students may benefit from physical therapy and orthopedic attention. Some students may benefit from various forms of psychological support. Some students will take medicine because medicine helps them be well.
We should be opening doors in students’ belief systems, not closing them. We live in a modern world with many different forms of help. Let’s embrace them, not diminish them.
Do Not Make Prescriptive Claims
I want my graduates to understand the importance of these three words: “I don’t know.”
Is yoga super good for you? Yes. Do we want everyone to practice yoga forever and always? Yes! Do we know why your back hurts, why your shoulder hurts, or why you’ve been having trouble getting out of bed lately? No. No, we don’t.
Yoga teachers should not put themselves in the position of making claims, performing a diagnosis, or creating prescriptive practices, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. Yoga is inherently therapeutic, but this doesn’t mean that we’re conducting therapy.
Our job is to teach students yoga that works for their body, not fix an ailment. We want to help our students be well. We want to understand how to minimize injuries through effective technique and sequencing. We want to see and understand bodies so that we can help students modify and avoid future suffering. We want to teach good, solid yoga that is relevant to our students’ needs. All of these things often produce a therapeutic effect. This is how yoga works. And, this is very different than telling someone with knee pain and dysfunction that all they need to do is strengthen their quads. We need to understand and respect this boundary.
You Are a Teacher and You’re Teaching a Subject
Yoga is a subject. It’s a body of work. It’s a living tradition. It’s a discipline. It includes anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, philosophy, educational pedagogy, sequencing, manual communication, verbal communication, content creation, and more.
Yoga teachers deal with every component of the human condition and the timeless drive toward transcending the human condition. This means that your job is not as simple as showing up for 60, 75, or 90 minutes and helping people feel better. Sure, this is part of the job. But, there’s something much bigger at play here: Yoga teachers are educators, not just facilitators of flow.
If you were teaching math, you’d want people to learn math. If you were teaching history, you’d want people to learn the themes, concepts, and experiences that different communities have undergone for various eras. If you were teaching photography, you’d want people to understand light, shadow, and composition. As yoga teachers, we’re helping students gain depth, insight, and skill in every facet of the human experience that yoga touches.
Develop a Curriculum
It’s difficult to teach if you’re not clear what you’re trying to teach. Similarly, it’s difficult to learn if you’re not sure what you’re trying to learn. This is why teachers of every single subject under the sun have curriculums. This is why teachers of preschool, kindergarten, primary school, middle school, high school, and university have curriculums. This is why I believe that graduates of my programs should be developing a curriculum. I believe that yoga teachers are accountable to their students for providing them with an education. Developing a curriculum helps clarify the learning and skill development process for our students. It also helps teachers refine and articulate their values and beliefs.
Transitions in yoga—and life—can be choppy, unstable, and erratic. Below, you’ll find five essential concepts that make all transitions in yoga more smooth and skillful. You’ll also find three transitions to incorporate into your practice and teaching in order to refine your mindfulness in the space between your postures.
Essential Concepts for All Transitions
1. Slow Down
Slowing the movement between postures will helps you tune into the subtleties involved. In particular, you’ll observe which muscles have to engage in order to maintain your balance as you make your transitions. I encourage you to take an extra 2 or 3 breaths in your transitions on occasion—especially in the more accessible transitions like in between standing postures.
2. Pick Transitions as Your Class Theme
Focusing on transitions may change the pace of your class, which might feel challenging for students who are accustomed to a faster pace. A skillful way to get students onboard is to make it the theme of your class on occasion. Let your students know that transitions will be your theme and you’d like them to pay particular attention to the space between postures.
3. Focus On the Transfer of Weight
The key to making a skillful transition is to focus on the movement of your weight. This will help you counterbalance your body where its necessary. Essentially, you want to limit the weight of your body from moving too quickly in any one direction. Bringing your attention to your core (specifically your pelvis and lower belly) is usually the most effective way to tune into your weight as it is transitioning.
4. Take Time to Stabilize and Land
One of the challenges with transitions is that they can undermine the quality of the posture that you’re moving into. I always tell my students that they need to land on the note, not bulldoze their way through it. Each pose in a flow—or each pose within a transition—should have its own individual resonance. So, when you transition into a pose, don’t rush. Take your time and land. Stabilize and maintain the pose that you’re transitioning into.
Most transitions are done on the exhalation. Remember, your muscles are usually contracting more strongly between the postures (when moving slowly) than they are in the postures. It’s hard to take a decent inhalation when your body is more tensile. You can, however, take a nice, long exhalation through the course of most transitions. Exhaling during transitions may also help you settle and focus your attention.
Transitions to Explore and Practice
Warrior II to Half Moon Pose
This is such an important set of transitions because it’s common and accessible—and, even more, it lays the foundations for transitions between all of your standing postures.
The key instruction for moving into Half Moon Pose is to place your bottom hand on the floor or block and step your back foot much closer to your front foot before taking off moving into Half Moon. Once you do this, simply lean weight forward so it is split between your bottom arm and standing leg. The key to transitioning back to Warrior to is to slow your movement down by continuing to lean the weight of your upper body into your standing leg and arm while you very slowly step your top leg back to the mat.
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Transitioning into Handstand
There are a few tips that can make the transition to Handstand more effective. First, practice the transition without trying to get all the way into Handstand. Think about the transition into Handstand as it’s own practice—it’s own set of variables to develop without the stress of trying to make it into the pose. This will free you up to learn the technique of the transition.
Second, imagine that your standing leg—the one that you’re jumping up with—is like a pogo stick. You want this leg to feel like it’s pulling straight up when you jump instead of swinging backward. The motion of pulling the leg straight up will help move your pelvis forward instead of flinging it backward.
Third, press your fingertips very firmly into the floor. You should grip the mat with your fingers in order to give you a larger base to balance on—and, because your fingertips are instrumental in keeping your balance. Yes, there are many more details involved in transitioning to Handstand, but these will get you moving in the right direction.
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Malasana to Bakasana
This transition focuses on transitioning your weight from your feet to your hands. It’s not easy, but it’s simple. Students often make the mistake of trying to lift their feet up in the posture, but the real transition here is forward not up.
From a deep squat with your hands on the floor, focus on shifting your weight from your feet forward into your hands. Instead of having your students do Bakasana only once and stay as long as possible, have them practice moving in and out of the pose 5 or 6 times in a row while focusing on the transitions.