You don’t have to press the sitting bone that you’re leaning away from in Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana into the floor. In fact, you may have a better all-around experience posture if you allow that sitting bone to lift up. Yes, you read that correctly. Here’s why:
The pelvis and spine work best when they work together. In fact, the pelvis and spine are so functionally integrated that I think of them as two parts of the same system when it comes to movement. When you do a forward bend with your spine, you do a forward bend with your pelvis (anterior tilt). When you do a backward bend with your spine, you do a backward bend with your pelvis (posterior tilt). There are a few minor exceptions and complications to this rule of thumb, but the logic is sound. In fact, if you take your pelvis and spine and move them in opposite directions you will typically produce excess compression and tension somewhere in the spine. And, while this may look fancy on Instagram, excess tension and compression at spinal junctions is not in anyone’s best interest, nor does it fall under the scope of teachings that we can fairly describe as “yoga.”
Since the spine and pelvis work best when they’re both sharing the same set of motions, I want you to experiment with lifting the sitting bone that you’re moving away from when you do Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana. You read that correctly. Experiment with lifting the opposite buttock slightly instead of pressing it down so that your pelvis can rotate laterally over your thigh bones slightly. You’ll still receive a big ‘ole side-stretch, you’ll produce more length in your spine, and chances are that you’ll reduce excess compression in the lower back and sacroilliac region on the side that you’re moving toward. In short, you’ll probably like it. A lot. If not, feel free to press both sitting bones down and keep it old school.
Use the illustration above to hone your pose and experiment with changing the alignment of your base. Enjoy.
SEQUENCING FOR PARIVRTTA JANU SIRSASANA
You can find a fully-illustrated, 16-pose sequence for Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana here.
WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT ANATOMY, SEQUENCING, AND TEACHER TRAINING?
I offer both online trainings and live, in-the-flesh ones around the world. Here are a few of the courses that are currently open. (For a full schedule, go to my Schedule page):
If you’re not a yoga teacher, you probably don’t understand the utter ridiculousness of our daily commute or schedule inefficiencies. Yes, we’re happy that we rarely sit at a desk for 8+ hours a day. And, sure, having weird times like from 2:00pm to 3:45pm off most days is nice (sort of). But, the reality for most teachers is that we’re hustling from here to there to teach our classes, sub other teacher’s classes, and (often) making ends meet by working a second job. Jumping from studio-to-studio and class-to-class can fray our nerves. This makes it difficult to settle in and be present for our students.
Over the years, I’ve acknowledged that, for most full-time teachers, this is an inherent part of the job. For me, I’ve acknowledged that 30+ weekends of the year, I will do something very similar: I’ll wake up before 5am, fly for hours before arriving in another city (usually in a different time-zone), commute to the studio and go straight into teaching a weekend workshop. I’ve learned to manage these realities more skillfully so that I’m as relaxed and focused as I possible.
I know that if I’m relaxed, focused, and prepared I’ll be present and I’ll teach a class that makes me feel good. These days, I have conscious strategy to settle in before class starts—even if only for a moment or two. Here are my four tips to check your head and make sure you’re ready to teach class.
Take a Moment to Observe Your Body, Breath, and Mood
Let’s face it, we bring ourselves into the yoga room when we teach. Yes, it would be nice to say, “I check myself, my ego, and my issues at the door.” But, the truth is that we usually don’t. Not completely, at least. So, pause for a moment before you teach—before you reach the studio if possible—and become aware of what is happening inside of you. If you’re unaware of what’s happening inside of you it’s more likely that your unconscious patterns will influence your class.
For me, the most common scenario where this plays out is when I’m jetlagged and fatigued. Usually, when I’m in this state I feel flat and I overcompensate by talking too much and making things unnecessarily complicated. Since becoming aware of this pattern, I’ve gotten better at realizing that I’m in a state where I’m likely to overcompensate to everyone’s detriment. Now, I can usually stave this off by relaxing and simplifying.
Focus on What You’ve Been Practicing Lately
I’m going to tell you something that most teachers won’t: my personal yoga practice is only vaguely similar to the classes I teach these days. I practice diligently. I have for a very long time. And, for the first 10-15 years of teaching my personal practice and my classes were nearly identical. I needed the time my personal practice provided me to prepare for my classes. Now, however, when my personal practice is too similar to my classes, it feels like I’m at work. I love my work. I love my practice. I just don’t love when my practice feels like my work. I did in the past. Now, I don’t.
These days, I focus on subtle details in my personal practice more than ever. For example, I might spend a couple of weeks in my personal practice figuring out how to decompress the superior/anterior part of my hip socket in every posture. I’m going to translate all this work into my public classes, but I’m going to do it subtly. I’m going to distill the key things I figure out in my personal practice into viable, easy-to-access instructions. I’m going to make whatever I’m doing in my personal practice a thematic and sequencing focus in my public classes. But, I’m also going to make sure that my public classes have a really solid, compelling flow that covers additional territory my personal practice may not.
So, here’s the bottom line: Your practice doesn’t dictate what you’re teaching, but it will inform what you’re teaching. We’re teaching an embodied practice and you need to be doing practices that keep you attentive to your body. As you develop your plan for class, begin with what has been resonating in your practice lately.
Have a Plan—Even if it’s just a Feeling or an Idea
Some teachers operate best with a clear, detailed plan for class. Other teachers are better with improvisation. Both models can work&emdash;and, usually, most teachers combine the two. Whether you’re a planner or a gunslinger, it is essential that you treat the class like a learning experience for your students and have an idea what you’d like your students to take away from their experience. Sure, you can leave yourself open to changing your plan, but have a theme, pace, and intention in mind before class begins.
Even better, make your classes part of a broader syllabus that reflects the body of work that you’re trying to teach as an educator. Creating a syllabus takes effort and time. But, it also helps you clarify your teaching objectives and builds confidence. Ultimately, having a plan&emdash;even if it’s just an idea or feeling that you want to communicate to your students&emdash;will make the experience of teaching easier and more effective.
Be a Good Host
Imagine that teaching a class is like hosting an event at your home where each participant has to pay $15-20 to participate. If you were the host of such an occasion you’d default to basic social protocol and be nice to everyone and introduce yourself. Remember to follow these basic rules for making people feel welcome in your presence when you teach. While you’re at it, do your best to learn your student’s names. Believe it or not, most students don’t feel terribly comfortable coming to a class if they don’t already know you.
Students are often intimidated and somewhat intrigued by the teacher. Spend your energy putting them at ease. Not only is this the reasonable and humane thing to do, it will help you settle and focus on the students who are in your classroom.
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?
It’s true that vinyasa yoga sequences are heavily skewed toward stretching your hamstrings and rarely contain focused yoga to strengthen hamstrings 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.
YOGA TO STRENGTHEN HAMSTRINGS: 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 yoga to strengthen hamstrings 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.
Some teachers tell students not to “squeeze” or “grip” their gluteal muscles (or glutes) in backbends 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?
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 backbends. Here’s why:
GLUTES IN BACKBENDS: 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 Facing 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.
I struggle with tight hips and I want to learn Lotus Posture (Padmasana). Can you suggest a yoga sequence that will help me open my hips and do Lotus Pose?
There’s a common mistake many of us make when trying to grow a Lotus (Padmasana yoga pose): 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 of hip-opening yoga 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 Pose. 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.