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Summer Series! Ep 5: Aspects of the Core We Tend to Ignore

The core is an often-obsessed about part of the body, and yogis are no exception. In this episode, Jason breaks down the component parts that make up the core. He also offers three ideas for tapping into those parts we ignore — from paying attention to rotation, to the paraspinal muscles to learning to, at least once in a while, let your core go and let it all hang out.

As promised, an anatomical view of the core (and many of the muscles we mention in the episode). To learn more, check out the related links below.

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RECOMMENDED & RELATED LINKS
Yoga and Your Core, Part 1
Yoga and Your Core, Part II

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Summer Series! Ep 2: What’s Missing from Your Hip-Focused Practices

We love, love, love to stretch our hips in yoga. Pigeon Pose — oh yeah. Lizard — yep. Thread the Needle — mmmhmmm. But sometimes we focus on how good opening the outer hips feels to the exclusion of creating strength and stability in the support muscles. Similarly, we focus on the part of our hips that screams the loudest (outer hips) while neglecting another tight area that’s quieter (hip flexors).

On this episode, Jason maps out three ways to create balance in the complex network of the hips. After recording this episode, I realized that it’s a metaphor for life: We want to stay open and flexible. And this requires time and attention. But we also need to focus on stability, strength, and grounding. When we find the right subtle balance, we feel happier and more free.

* Note: We refer to a quad opener in the episode, which is sometimes called Twisted Monkey. Jason calls it Low Lunge Quad Stretch. I’ve put the illustration below the player so you can see it and incorporate it into your practice!

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If you like the podcast, please leave a review or rating on iTunes! It makes it easier for others to find the podcast. If you don’t know how to leave a review, here are some step by step instructions. Woohoo! So easy!

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4 Propped Poses to Build Your Hanumanasana

Hanumanasana

Hanumanasana feels different each time I do it. There are days when I can get my pelvis to the floor with my hips square. But these days I focus more on getting the benefits of the pose instead of going all the way into the pose.

There’s a distinct difference between these two approaches. If I’m going for the full pose, I’m more likely to push myself aggressively. I might ignore my quirky left hamstring that sometimes spasms from a decade old injury. I might overarch my lower back because I’m bypassing the tightness in my back hip. Doing those things (and getting my pelvis to the floor) doesn’t make me adept. It just means I’m grasping for something that ultimately causes suffering – in the form of back or hamstring pain the next day!

This isn’t really the attitude I want to bring to mat – I’d rather use my time there to let go of pressure, to experiment, and to be grateful for what I have. This is where the real work is for me.

So. Instead of pushing, I try to focus more on asking my body what’s going to work on that particular day. Is it going to work better if I hold Half Hanuman for a long 10 breaths as I work up into the pose? Or is it going to feel amazing if I just let myself hang out on top of a bolster and work on stretching my back hip?

The truth is, it’s natural to want to take a “final” form of a posture. But, if you can check your ego a bit and ask your body what it needs, you will learn so much more about yourself. You’ll learn to respond to your own needs with honesty and resourcefulness. And when you’re true to yourself and your needs on the mat, you’re building a foundation for being true to yourself and your needs in your life.

These are a few of our favorite poses leading to Hanumanasana. You can use the first four poses as warm-ups for Hanumanasana, or you can substitute Hanumanasana with any of these variations when you take a class. If you’re going to take the former route, I recommend doing poses 1-15 of Jason’s Hanumanasana sequence and then moving into these variations. Let us know how it goes!

1. Half Hanumanasana

half hanumancrop
To come into Half Hanumanasana, start in Down Dog and step your left foot between your hands. Come into a Low Lunge with your back knee on the floor. (If you have sensitive knees you put a blanket or pillow underneath your back knee.)

Draw your hips back as you straighten your front leg. Flex through the front foot and come forward as far as is appropriate for you. Stay for several breaths, feeling into your hamstrings and IT bands.

To come out, bend your front knee and come back into the lunge. Then step back to Down Dog and do the other side.

2. Hanumanasana with a bolster

bolstercrop
This one is sooooo good. Grab your bolster and place it next to your mat. If you’re on the tighter side, grab two blocks as well.

Come back into the Low Lunge and place the bolster under the top of your back thigh. Put your blocks under your hands for support if you need them.

From there, lower your left sitting bone onto the bolster and begin to straighten your front leg. Don’t worry about getting it completely straight. What’s more important is to work on two actions: The first is to square your hips, so that both hip points are facing forward. The second is to resist a forward tilt (anterior tilt) in your pelvis, which leads to compressing and overarching your lower back.

You have to really engage your leg muscles to get these actions — no sinking into the bolster! Press down into your front heel and draw your front hip back. At the same time, tuck your back toes under, press down into the floor, draw the back hip forward. Hug your inner thighs in toward the midline and notice how this creates room for you to draw your tailbone down (resisting the anterior tilt) and lift your spine up!

To come out, bend your front knee and come back into the lunge. Then step back to Down Dog and do the other side.

3. Hanumanasana with a block

block crop
Start in the Low Lunge once again. This time, you place a block just underneath your front sitting bone.

Repeat the actions that you did above: Engage your leg muscles. Press your feet into the earth and hug your legs in toward the midline to make space for your pelvis to come into a neutral position. Breathe into the spaces that need it. Then release, and do the second side.

4. Hanumanasana at the wall

wallcrop
** Please note that I switched legs in this photograph so that you could see the pose better! I am going to instruct it according to the way it looks in the photo.

This one is tricky to get into and requires some experimenting. Start in a shortened Down Dog — hands and feet closer to each other than normal — with your feet about a foot away from the wall. Place your left leg up on the wall, toes tucked under.

Now, check in with yourself — do you need more of a stretch? If so, walk your hands toward your foot and hop your standing foot closer to the wall. Continue to check in and figure out if your body wants to go deeper, all the while keeping up the actions of the pelvis and legs that you did in the earlier postures.

Once you feel like you’ve found a good place to stay, you can come to the top of the back foot. Come out of the pose slowly by walking your hands forward and hopping away from the wall.

5. Hanumanasana

hanumancrop

Before I instruct this pose, a quick disclaimer: I have been doing this pose since I was a gymnast at age 6. It’s always been basically within my reach, even in the years when I was chained to my desk and didn’t do as much yoga. I’m saying this because we rarely openly acknowledge in yoga that some poses come easily to some people — and some poses might never feel great in our bodies. I don’t think I will ever feel great in a deep backbend. I’m OK with that now. And I can still work the preparatory poses to take me through my range of motion and keep me agile in my daily life. That’s the goal isn’t it? To feel our best?

OK, my lecture is done. If the previous poses felt GREAT, then come into Half Hanumanasana and slide your left leg forward. With your back toes tucked under, draw your back hip forward. Hug your inner legs together. When you keep your legs engaged, your pelvis might not touch the floor (notice mine doesn’t here). That’s perfectly OK.

On particular day I was not feeling open enough to lift my arms skyward into that crazy-beautiful-deep expression of Hanumanasana. That’s the truth! If you are feeling gloriously open and you want to reach your arms up, go for it. It feels amazing and playful.

To come out of the pose, place your hands on the floor and lift your pelvis so that you come back to Half Hanuman and Downward Dog.

Try the other side. Notice the differences. Thank yourself for practicing and being present today.

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Your Epic Abs Pose: Paripurna Navasana

Paripurna Navasana

HOW TO USE THIS BLOG
There are 3 ways to use this blog:
1. You can simply practice Navasana using the illustration above.
2. You can learn the steps get into the posture in the “How To” section.
3. Or you can geek out on the sequencing and anatomy details by skipping down to Part II.

GETTING INTO NAVASANA (BOAT POSE)
I don’t like to admit it, but I’m a pretty nostalgic guy. So, when I look back at the years I spent practicing Ashtanga Yoga, I’ve got nothing but good things to say. Wellll…except for that point where you repeat Navasana to Tolasana, over and over again. If you practiced Ashtanga Yoga, this series also got you every time. Right? Admit it, you’ll feel better.

I may have loathed the Navasana series, but I’ve always respected the pose. The posture simultaneously strengthens your hip-flexors, abdominals, and adductors—not to mention your resolve. If you’re looking for one posture that works your entire core, strengthens your body for arm balances and inversions, and builds heat in a very short period of time, you’ve found your match.

One Quick Tip About Navasana:
I instructed my students to sit on the front edge of their sitting bones in this pose for a decade. I’ve long since changed my tune because no one—I mean no one—is actually on the front of their sitting bones in this posture. You don’t want to rock too far back, but if you look at the image below you’ll see that the sitting bones are shaped like a rocking horse. In order for you to truly be on the front of your sitting bones, you’d actually be in the inferior pubic rami, your pelvis would be rotated forward and your spine would be vertical. That’s not happening in Navasana for anyone. More accurately, you’re sitting just behind the center of your sitting bones and the front of your tailbone. Check out the little arrow on the diagram below. That’s where you’re sitting.

sitting bones

If you want to learn more, join me live at my 500-hour Certification Program or join me online for my Sequencing and Anatomy E-Courses.

WARM UP
Navasana strongly contracts your abdominals and hip-flexors. Secondarily, it engages your inner legs and lower back. To warm up your center before doing Navasana, practice “core connector” (see Abs Reboot if you’re not already familiar with this pose). You can also do a few Sun Salutations to get your blood moving.

HOW TO DO NAVASANA (BOAT POSE)
Navasana is a demanding pose, but it’s relatively simple. Here are the steps:
1. Start by sitting on your mat with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Lift your heels off the floor and press your toes into the floor. Imagine you’re trying to pull your mat toward you with your tiptoes. Feel your hip flexors begin to kick into gear.

2. As you hip flexors fire up, draw your lower belly toward your spine. Lengthen up through your spine and lift your chest.

3. Keeping your chest lifted and broad, raise your shins until they’re parallel to the floor.

4. Squeeze your inner legs together to engage your adductors. Reach your arms forward so that they’re parallel to the floor. If you want to challenge yourself, you can reach your arms toward the ceiling.

5. Continue working with your knees bent and your shins parallel to the floor. Or, intensify the posture by straightening your legs. If possible, elevate your legs so that your toes are the same height as your eyes.

6. Refine the posture with the cues in the infographic.

7. After 3-5 breaths in the pose, slowly lower your legs and rest. Repeat 3 to 5 times.

IF I CAN’T DO NAVASANA YET, WHAT SHOULD I DO INSTEAD?
If you can’t do Navasana, you need to work on other core-strengthening postures that are more accessible. Please check out the reclined core postures in this article. And, remember that you can always keep your knees bent and your fingertips on the floor in Navasana if you need more support.

PART II: ANATOMY AND SEQUENCING FOR NAVASANA

WHICH MUSCLES DOES NAVASANA STRENGTHEN?
If you want to see some visuals and understand your core more completely, check out my Illustrated Guide to Yoga and Your Core, Part 1 & Part 2.

Your hip flexors
Your hip flexors (specifically your illiopsoas and rectus femoris) bear the brunt of this posture. The higher you lift your legs and the more vertical you make your torso, the more your hip flexors work.

Your abdominals
Although your abdominals play second fiddle to your hip flexors in Navasana, they are still chugging along. While all of your abdominals are firing away in this pose, your transversus abdominis has the biggest job. It’s responsible for the “navel toward spine” action and it’s working hard to your torso stable and upright.

Your inner legs
Your adductor muscles are working to keep your inner legs squeezed together. To strengthen this group even more, experiment with squeezing a block between your inner legs in this pose.

Your spinal muscles
Your spinal muscles, especially the erector spinae group, are engaging to help your torso stay upright. They’re working with your abdominals to maintain the natural curves of your spine.

SEQUENCING FOR NAVASANA
You can sprinkle Navasana nearly anywhere throughout your practice and classes. Practicing Navasana early in the sequence helps students warm up and connect to their center. Practicing Navasana toward the end of the sequence can help ensure that you and your students feel physically satiated—especially if you want to create a more demanding experience. If you feature Navasana in your practice and do several of them, be sure to include a few hip flexor and quad openers afterward. This will help re-lengthen these muscles after working to fatigue.

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):

Essential Anatomy E-Course
The Art of Yoga Sequencing E-Course
500-Hour Training in San Francisco (2016)
100-Hour Training in London (2016)

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The Surprising Way to Deepen Your Backbends

King Arthur's PoseFor a very long time I thought my backbends were tight because my back was tight. I don’t mean to humblebrag, but, uh, logic is one of my strong suits. Unfortunately, my logic was causing me to see only half of the picture: My hips were impeding me just as much as my computer slouch.

I had to change my perception of backbends: They not only require bending your spine, they require openness along the whole front side of your body. In other words, it might not be your spine and back muscles that are hanging you up in your backbends, it might be tightness along the front of your thighs, hips, and abdomen.

Most of us are tight there as a result of sitting for long periods of time. This tightness makes it difficult to tilt the pelvis backward (posteriorly) — think hip bones lifting, tailbone dropping. This backward tilt of the pelvis is necessary if you want to create an even backbend. If you can’t get your pelvis into position, you’re more likely to compensate by overarching your lower back.

WHY WE LOVE KING ARTHUR’S POSE:
King Arthur’s Pose and its variations intensely targets quads and hip flexors, making it a great prep for backbends. It’s also adjustable: You can press your hips all the way back against the wall to really target the quads. Or you can lower your hips (like a Low Lunge) if you want to get more into the hip flexors and adductors.

WHAT EXACTLY DOES IT STRETCH?
The effectiveness of King Arthur’s Pose stems form the fact that it stretches all of your quadriceps and hip-flexors simultaneously. The technical reason for this is that your knee is flexed and your hip is extended. This means that the posture is stretching your vasti muscles (3 of your 4 quadriceps), your rectus femoris (your 4th quadriceps which is also one of your hip-flexors), and your illiopsoas. If your abdominals are particularly tight, you might also stretch them in this posture.

HOW TO:
A friendly PSA: It can take some experimenting to get into the pose. Be patient and play around with what feels most effective. Knee pain = back off. It is not worth (ever) hurting your bod in an effort to do a pose.

1. Start on your hands and knees with your back facing a wall. Bend your knees and back up, placing your right knee against the wall.
2. Press your right shin and the top of your right foot against the wall.
3. Step your left foot forward so that your foot and your knee at the wall are about the same distance apart as they’d be in a Low Lunge. Take a breath.
4. Place both hands on your front knee and lift your spine. If your knee is uncomfortable, make sure to pad it sufficiently.
5. Refine it: Lift your hip points up, draw your front ribs and navel in, (toward the wall behind you) and reach your arms toward the ceiling.
6. Take 5-6 slow deep breaths before releasing the posture and taking your second side.

BE MINDFUL OF:
Moving your pelvis toward an anterior tilt: If you find yourself sticking your bottom out, it’s a sign that you need to come out of the stretch a little bit. To counteract an anterior tilt, think of lifting your hip points up toward the ceiling as your tailbone drops toward the floor.

Similarly, keep your spine upright, not leaning forward. If you feel any strain, bring your hands to the floor or to blocks.

WHAT POSES WILL THIS HELP ME WITH?
King Arthur’s Pose is an excellent prep for Urdhva Dhanurasana (aka Wheel Pose or Upward Bow Pose) and the whole Pigeon family of poses, which require you to keep your pelvis stable while one leg stretches forward and the other stretches back.

Wheel Pose, Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I, II, & IV

WHERE SHOULD I PUT IT IN A SEQUENCE?
I usually place this pose after Sun Salutations and standing poses. It’s a natural place to pause and give take a breather. As you hang out in the pose for at least 20 breaths, you can remind yourself that this period of focused effort reward you with more playful backbends later.

This is also the perfect “TV watching” or “newspaper reading” pose. Hang out in it while you watch the Bachelorette and your whole family will be impressed!

{illustrations by MCKIBILLO}

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