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Backbends: When and Why to Engage your Glutes

First, a shameless plug: Registration for my 2018 Teaching Trainings is live! If you want to move your practice and teaching forward, this training is the place to do it!

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.

THE SEQUENCE

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.

Locust Pose

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.

 

Cobra Pose

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.

 

Bridge Pose

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.

 

Camel Pose

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.

This post was originally featured on yogaglo. Please visit yogaglo.com where I offer online classes as well as e-courses focusing on sequencing and anatomy.

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A Balanced Yoga Sequence to Lotus Pose

First, a shameless plug: Registration for my 2018 Teaching Trainings is live! If you want to move your practice and teaching forward, this training is the place to do it!

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:

Hip Flexors

These muscles cross over the front of your hip joint and flex the hip.

Adductors

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.

Hamstrings

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.

Abductors

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.

THE SEQUENCE

It’s a good idea to warm up for this sequence with 5 to 15 minutes of Sun Salutations.

Modified Anjaneyasana

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.

 

Prasarita Padottanasana

This wide-legged standing forward bend stretches your hamstrings and adductors. It also prepares you for the more intense squat that follows.

 

Malasana

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.

 

Padmasana

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:

  1. Start with both legs straight in Staff Pose.
  2.  

  3. 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.
  4.  

  5. Now, that your right knee is fully flexed, externally rotate and abduct your right knee. Then, bring your leg into Half Lotus.
  6.  

  7. 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.
  8.  

  9. If your right knee is comfortable in Half Lotus, bring your left leg into Full Lotus.
  10.  

  11. Make sure to place your feet high enough on your thighs to prevent your outer-ankles from over-stretching.
  12.  

  13. Take a few breaths before repeating on the other side.
     

This post was originally featured on yogaglo. Please visit yogaglo.com where I offer online classes as well as e-courses focusing on sequencing and anatomy.

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My 5 Favorite Yoga Postures (And Why I Love Them)

Jason Crandell in Pigeon Pose

Common wisdom tells you to work on the postures that bring up resistance and challenge you. Personally, I’m okay with this sentiment—after all, there’s plenty of value in exploring the edges of your comfort zone. As a practitioner and teacher, though, I tend to emphasize the opposite—I choose to indulge the postures that I love with egregious frequency. I encourage the teachers that I train to do the exact same thing. We love the poses that we love for good reasons: they awaken us, they ground us, they soothe us, they challenge us, and they nurture our mind’s ability to focus and settle down.

These five postures come up time and time again in my classes because I’m shamelessly enthusiastic about them.

Urdhva Dhanurasana — It Soothes Me

Yep, that’s right, I find Urdhva Dhanurasana deeply soothing. Yes, I’m aware that everyone and their cousin goes on and on about how uplifting and energizing backbends are. But, honestly, my experience is the opposite. A nice, strong Urdhva Dhanurasana (or 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6) actually cuts through whatever narrative my mind is engaged with, focuses my attention, and burns off whatever anxiety I may be experiencing. Urdhva Dhanurasana is never easy for me, but it’s always settling.

Paschimottanasana — It Humbles Me

Paschimottanasana bums me out. I’m always prattling on about integrity of movement being more important than range of movement. Even though I firmly believe this, the first thought that runs through my head when I practice Paschimottanasana is, “Ugh. Is this really as far as I can go today?” This pose continues to reveal how judgmental I can be toward myself and provides me with the opportunity to let go.

Pigeon Pose — It Grounds Me

The bittersweet release of Pigeon is undeniable. While the big, tension-busting stretch in the outer hips steals the show, the posture has another component that helps produce a grounding effect: The vast majority of your body is laying on the floor when you do the posture. Sure, it’s intense for many, but the intensity is always local. The majority of the body has the opportunity to drop, release, and let go into the floor.

Handstand — It Balances Me

There’s a saying in England that black tea wakes you up if you’re tired and quiets you if you’re unsettled. My experience of Handstand is the exact same. If I need an uplifting boost of energy, practicing Handstand does the trick. If, on the other hand, I’m overstimulated, a minute or two in Handstand grounds my energy and rebalances my mood.

Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana – It Unwinds Me

Oh, the poor side body. It can be challenging to access and rarely gets treated to elongation in day-to-day life. Even in asana practice the side-body rarely gets the TLC that the hips, shoulders, core and spine receive. Thankfully, Parivrtta Janu sirsasana digs deeply into the side-body and wrings out tension. When I do this pose I literally have to will myself to get out of it. I want to stay there, nestle in, and take a nap.

I’d love to hear from you. What postures are keeping you calm, grounded, and sane these days?

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Pranayama Ninja

viloma pranayama

Hey everyone!

I have been so busy working on the Yogaland Podcast in the past year that I haven’t had much time to blog. I miss it and I miss you! I have grand plans to get back to it and to create more content this year that will serve you.

For today, I’m going to share something straight-up and simple that’s transpiring for me lately. Here goes: As the working mom of a preschooler with a husband who travels constantly, I can say that unequivocally, it’s my practice that keeps me sane and balanced. (Can I get an “Amen!”)

And so. I am making this commitment to myself and to ALL OF YOU(!) that this year I am NOT completely tossing my practice aside during those times when my schedule becomes excessively wacko or “I don’t have enough time.” I’m gonna try to be a self-care ninja and craftily fit it in where I can.

Lately, I have been surviving on pranayama. When things are going well in my life, a standalone breathing practice is the first thing I toss out the window. It’s not conscious — it’s simply that I’m breathing mindfully during asana and calming my mind during my meditations. So, it seems like it’s all covered.

But when things get exceptionally busy (and I won’t bore you with the details but I’ll just say that a kitchen leak has kept us out of our house for SEVEN WEEKS), pranayama is a godsend. It feels like the perfect bridge between asana and meditation. It channels the prana through my body (like asana) and it settles my energy and thoughts (like meditation). It feels so familiar — because after all, we breathe all day long! But it also feels so special to just take a few minutes to witness this simple act that keeps us alive and ticking.

Here’s the other thing: It’s so portable. I have done pranayama practice during long meetings! Alone in my cubicle! During tense dinners with family! On boring dates! But, admittedly, if you’re just starting out, it’s best to set aside 5 minutes of ideally quiet, alone time to practice.

Lately, pranayama has given me an energy buzz when I need it, a sense of warmth in my heart when I feel cold and paralyzed, or space between thoughts when I’m anxious. There are SO MANY pranayama practices – some are more energizing (like kapalabhati) and others more soothing (nadi shodana). For me Viloma, aka Stop-Action Breath is my go-to to cultivate evenness and balance.

When you do Viloma, you either inhale in three parts and exhale completely. Or do the opposite: You inhale completely and exhale in three parts. (You can also inhale and exhale in three parts.) It might sound confusing, but in practice it’s incredibly simple and soothing. I prefer to start with the latter approach because it’s easier to access and it tends to be more grounding. Here’s how:

PRANAYAMA FOR BUSY PEOPLE


1. Set a timer (that’s not too loud) for 5-6 minutes.

2. Find a comfortable seat – either cross-legged on the floor or on a chair with both feet touching the ground. Place one hand on your belly and the other on your heart.

3. Take a minute to deepen your inhalations and exhalations and to just “warm up” your breath.

4. Then inhale completely, feeling your belly, diaphragm, and ribs expand.

5. Now exhale one third of your breath. Pause. Exhale two-thirds. Pause. Exhale completely.

6. Repeat this cycle until your timer rings.

THE APPROACH
As you inhale, try not to force the breath. Make each part of the exercise light and easy. Feel the beauty and simplicity of the life force in your body. As you exhale, imagine a sense of grounding and rooting through your tailbone into the earth. If you feel strain at any point, return to simply watching your breath.

For some people, it helps to retain the breath for just a few seconds before the exhalation. I tend to do this in the last few minutes, when I’ve warmed up a bit. It’s definitely not something to force. Ideally, when your alarm sounds at five minutes you’re breathing a little more deeply and feeling more clear, grounded, and energized.

Hope this makes your day a little better. And I’d love to hear what your go-to pranayama practice is in the comments below!

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The Expert’s Guide to Chaturanga, Part V

Why Chaturanga is Tough to Teach — and What to Do About It

Chaturanga Dandasana Jason Crandell

Doing Chaturanga is no picnic. But neither is teaching it. In fact, most of us don’t actually try to teach Chaturanga. We just say “Chaturanga” when it’s time for students to do the pose and hope for the best. In the first four parts of The Expert’s Guide To Practicing and Teaching Chaturanga, we looked at the challenges and solutions that occur while practicing Chaturanga. Now, it’s time to turn the tables. As teachers, we need to look at why this pose is so [email protected]#$ hard to teach and what we can do to become more effective at teaching this pose. And, by the way, if you haven’t checked out the first four parts of this series, it’s time to do so.

The links are here:
Part I, A Shoulder Surgeon’s Guide to Keeping Your Shoulders Safe
Part II, How to Strengthen Your Body for a More Effective Chaturanga
Part III, The Best (and Worst) Chaturanga Modifications and Alternatives
Part IV, The Best Ways To Transition Into Chaturanga

And, a quick, shameless plug: I’ve just announced the dates and location for my 2017 Advanced Teacher Trainings. You can check here for more information and register at LoveStory Yoga. OK, now onto the regularly scheduled program.

Challenge #1: Detail vs. Flow

As a technique-oriented vinyasa instructor, I have my work cut out for me—and so do you if you’re providing detailed instructions while teaching flow yoga. The heart of vinyasa yoga is the rhythmic connection between breath and movement. And, honestly, it’s tough to keep things moving—and your students breathing—when you’re laying down nuanced verbal cues. But, the verbal cues are important because they provide key details that build depth, clarity, and safety in the postures. Teaching Chaturanga epitomizes the difficulty of incorporating detailed verbal cues into a vinyasa flow.

Solution
You can’t teach everyone everything about every pose in every class. Please read that sentence again and get it tattooed in Sanskrit next to your Om symbol. If you’re anything like me, it will relieve a lot of anxiety and help you edit your inventory of verbal cues. You can’t teach everything about Chaturanga to everyone in every class. But, you can teach one thing about Chaturanga in each class. Especially if you reinforce your teaching by repeating it many times over throughout class. I always pick one component of Chaturanga for every class and repeat (nearly) every Chaturanga. This might be, “hug your elbows in,” “lower only half-way to the floor,” or “keep the front of your shoulders up.” This way, students will learn the important aspects of the posture over time.

Challenge #2, Detail vs. Duration

It’s hard to teach the details of Chaturanga because very few students can stay in the pose long enough to learn them. Even brand new, sparkling green yogis can stay in most standing postures long enough to hear your cues and do their best to respond. Neophytes can stay in seated postures, reclined postures and, even, Down Dog long enough to engage, lift, lengthen, and open according to your cues. But, reader, drop down into Chaturanga and see how many new insights you can hear from your teacher while maintaining the pose.

Solution
Pretty much every discipline on the planet—from sports, to martial arts, to gymnastics, to performance arts—has figured out that “drills” are a necessary aspect of subject mastery. Except, I think, flow yoga. In flow yoga, we rarely break things down into specific drills that are designed to teach people how to do hard things in a step-by-step manner. Instead, we expect everyone to just catch on while cranking out the flow and sweating to the play list. Sometimes this works. When it comes to Chaturanga, it usually doesn’t. So, from time-to-time, I do drills. Sometimes, I have students do Chaturanga with a block under their chest; sometimes, I have students do Chaturanga with a belt around their arms; and, sometimes, I have students do Chaturanga with their knees on the floor. I do all of these OUTSIDE of the flow. Either before we really establish the flow of class, or, later in class as if Chaturanga is the peak pose of the class.

Challenge #3, Identifying and Undoing Bad Habits

In my experience, Chaturanga is not a beginner’s pose. Unfortunately, it’s frequently included in beginner’s classes. Even with adequate instructions and thoughtful preparation, I believe it’s too difficult to do well until you’re a more seasoned practitioner. When new students are asked to do Chaturanga in a beginner’s class, or new students wander into a mixed-level class, they do their best to keep up with the flow. When they try to keep up the flow and are ill-equipped for the strength and technique that is required, they develop bad habits that can take years to correct.

Solution
If you’re teaching Chaturanga to new students, please reconsider. Instead, teach them the strengthening postures and alternatives that I included in The Expert’s Guide to Chaturanga, Part II. Also, teach them Plank, Cobra, and how to lower to the floor. Even more, reinforce the idea with all of your students that the best way to learn things is slowly and progressively. If you’re teaching mixed-level classes, don’t immediately default to Chaturanga. Instead, include the motion of Plank, Cobra and other strengthening postures prior to teaching Chaturanga in your flow. Then, continue to give these postures as recommendations to “the newer students” in the room. I regularly say, “If you’re in the first year or two of practice, please continue to work on coming to the floor and doing Cobra.” Does everyone listen to me? No. Do I always listen to myself? No. But, offering appropriate guidance is important.

Challenge #4, Chaturanga vs. A Quick Pace

The pace of an asana practice should never preclude attention to detail, precision, or absorption of the postures. Unfortunately, modern vinyasa yoga is often taught at such a quick pace that the breath is rushed—ironically making people quicker, shorter breathers—and details are inaccessible. So, I’m going to say something right here and repeat it in the “solution” paragraph below: If your students can’t do something slowly, they can’t do it quickly. If your students need to move through Chaturanga quickly, they probably aren’t doing Chaturanga. They’re doing a drive-by. And, hey, we’ve all been there. But, doing postures so quickly that they don’t register or become fully formed isn’t worth it. Even more, it increases the risk of injury.

Solution
As promised: If you students can’t do something slowly, they can’t do it quickly. So, here’s my solution: Focus on helping your students slow down, pause, and establish Chaturanga fully before letting them glide into up dog. Have them land in the pose. Have them register it. Encourage them to stabilize it. It’s OK if they can’t do these things. It just means that they will be better served with more strengthening preparations instead of countless Chaturangas.

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