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Sequencing Solutions: Strengthen your Hamstrings

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
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 SEQUENCE

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.

Natarajasana (Variation)

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.
 

 

Hamstring Curl

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.
 

 

Locust Pose

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.
 

 

Locust (Variation)

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.
 

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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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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The Expert’s Guide To Chaturanga, Part IV

The Best Tips for Transitioning Into Chaturanga

First, a quick, shameless plug: I have exciting news — I’v 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.

Since writing the Expert’s Guide to Chaturanga Parts I, II & III, I’ve gotten tons of questions from readers about transitioning to Chaturanga. This makes sense. After all, Chaturanga is always sandwiched between Plank and Up Dog. So, it stands to reason that Plank is going to affect Chaturanga and Chaturanga is going to affect Up Dog. Students and teachers also need advice about coming into Chaturanga—or lowering all the way to the floor—when they’re dealing with a shoulder issue.

The two most common transitions to Chaturanga are lowering down from Plank and jumping back from Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). So, let’s look at the best practices for these scenarios.

Lowering to Chaturanga from Plank

Lowering to Chaturanga from Plank is a foundational transition in vinyasa yoga. Moving slowly and precisely will strengthen your entire body, especially your core and upper-body. Transitioning with control also lengthens your breath and builds postural awareness. When students transition too quickly, they miss the opportunity to build strengthen and control. Even more, transitioning too quickly often results in a sloppy Chaturanga. So, if you’re moving quickly from Plank to Chaturanga, practice slowing the transition down in order to reap the benefits. If you’re not strong enough to slow down, bring one (or both of your knees to the floor).

QUICK TIP
The most important tip for making this transition skillfully is to move your body forward as you’re lowering down. Think about an airplane landing compared to an elevator lowering. The airplane is moving forward as it descends, while the elevator is moving straight down. You’re the airplane, not the elevator.

The key to doing this tip correctly is your feet. When you’re in Plank, you’re on the ball of your feet. When you transition to Chaturanga, you should rock forward to the tips of your toes.

Chaturanga Dandasana Transition

HOW TO
Come into Plank Pose and notice that you’re on the ball of your feet. Simultaneously rock forward to the tips of your toes and bend your elbows. Feel your chest and shoulders moving forward while you’re bending your elbows and lowering half way to the floor. Engage your thighs, engage your core, and land in Chaturanga. Notice that you’re on the tip of your toes, not the balls of your feet. Although it’s beyond the scope of this article, you might also notice that being on the tip of your toes in Chaturanga makes the transition to up dog much more fluid and accessible.

Jumping from Uttanasana to Chaturanga

Jumping from Uttanasana to Chaturanga is strong, dynamic transition. In all of the modern schools of vinyasa yoga, this is another staple transition. The reason that this transition requires more strength than lowering from Plank to Chaturanga is simple: when you jump back from Uttanasana you have to deal with the momentum of jumping. More specifically, you have to slow down the momentum of springing into Chaturanga without dropping your upper-body too low and compromising your shoulders. But, when you can make this transition skillfully, few things in vinyasa yoga feel as smooth, integrated, and fluid.

QUICK TIP
There are two keys to jumping back with better control and, they’re related. First, you need to bend your knees more deeply and get closer to floor before you jump back. Second, you need to focus on pulling your chest forward as you jump your legs back. The first step brings your body weight closer to the floor so that you can control it better. The second helps you counterbalance the weight and momentum of your lower body moving back by bringing the weight and momentum of your upper-body moving forward.

Jumping from Uttanasana to Chaturanga

HOW TO
While you’re in Uttanasana prior to jumping back, bend your knees deeply. Place your hands on the floor in front of your shoulders. Get nice and low — almost like you’re going to do Bakasana. Look forward. Bend your elbows and lean your weight forward into your hands. Simultaneously, jump your feet back and pull your chest forward. You want these two motions to help counterbalance each other. Land lightly Chaturanga. Take this slowly and repeat it several times to help you integrate this new, more effective pattern.

Lowering to the Floor When You’re Managing a Shoulder Issue

If you’re nursing a shoulder issue and lowering into Chaturanga irritates it, the first step is to bring your knees to the floor. The second step is to focus on the front of your shoulders and your shoulder blades when you descend. You need to control both regions in order to keep your shoulders aligned and stable. Specifically, you want to pull the front of your shoulders (the head of your humerus bones) away from the floor and engage your scapular muscles and draw your shoulder blades toward each other.

QUICK TIP
If you try this approach and it still irritates your shoulder, my advice is to take a breath, back off, and avoid this transition for a while. People will still love you. It’s OK.

Lowering to the Floor When You Have a Shoulder Strain

HOW TO
From Plank Pose, bring your knees to the floor. Slowly roll down while keeping the front of your shoulders elevated. Meaning, don’t lead with your shoulders by dipping them forward and down toward the floor. Instead, keep drawing the front of your shoulders away from the floor and slowly lower your thighs, hips, navel, and front ribs to the ground. Again, keep the front of your shoulders lifted and your scapular muscles engaged while you do this.

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Support Yourself in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I

Eka Pada Rajakapotasana aka Pigeon Pose
{illustrations by MCKIBILLO}

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.

One Quick Tip for Practicing Pigeon Pose

Hands down, Pigeon Pose is my favorite backbend. I love the combination of opening my hip flexors, external rotators, chest, spine, and shoulders at the same time. I also love the feeling of doing a big, demanding backbend. But, I’m not going to lie — I need a belt to hold my foot in the pose. And, when my body is being stubborn I put a bolster under my front leg. The drawing in this infographic isn’t from a photo of me. It’s from a photo I took of Charles, my student. A lot of these pose breakdowns are illustrations of me, but we needed Charles to make this one look pretty.

So, my one quick tip is to embrace whatever help your body needs in order to get the benefits of this pose. Some postures are so demanding that you can’t do them unless you’re a freak of nature or you started gymnastics at age 3. Even with props, you just can’t get a feel for certain postures. But, Pigeon is incredibly easy to prop. And, when you’re humble — and smart — enough to take the support that you need, you can get all the benefits of this posture. Although the props aren’t illustrated above, I’ll tell you how to use them in the “How To” section below.

WARM UP
It’s important to prepare your entire body for Pigeon Pose. More specifically, you need to stretch your hip flexors, external rotators (of your hip), spine, and shoulders. The best way to do this is to do a full backbending sequence that includes Pigeon Pose toward the end. A good option would be to use my sequence for Urdhva Dhanurasana, adding Pigeon after Urdhva Dhanurasana. If you want to create your own sequence, include several lunges to open the quadriceps and hip-flexors; a progression of backbends that include Cobra, Bow, and Upward Bow; and shoulder openers such as Gomukhasana and Dolphin. You might also want to use my 5 Tips for Better Backbends article to get started.

HOW-TO DO PIGEON POSE
1. It’s important that you’re already familiar with the simple forward bending version of Pigeon Pose before you start practicing the backbend. The forward bending version is much more accessible and teaches you how to align your legs and hips for the pose. So, I’m going to assume that you’re already familiar with the basic alignment of forward bending Pigeon before we proceed.

2. Come into Pigeon Pose with your right leg forward. If you anticipate that you’re going to need some help in the pose, grab a bolster (or two blocks) and a strap.

3. The first thing to do if you’re using a prop is to elevate your front hip and thigh. (In this case, your right hip and thigh.) Putting a bolster or a block under you hip alone won’t help. In fact, this might even tilt your pelvis the forward — which is the wrong direction for a backbend. Instead, put a bolster under your right hip, thigh, and knee so that they’re all elevated. If you’re using blocks, put one block under your right sitting bone and one block under your thigh close to your knee. Raising your hip and thigh will decrease the amount of flexibility that is required in your hip-flexors and external rotators to do the pose. It will give you a little boost.

3. The second thing to do if you’re using a prop is to make a loop in your strap, wrap it around the arch of your foot, and tighten the strap snugly. The long tail of the belt will give you something to hold onto if you’re not able to hold your foot.

4. Whether you’re using props or not, walk your hands toward your hips and press your finger tips into the floor. Press your front shin and the top of your back foot into the floor. Lengthen your spine and lift your chest. Take a deep breath as you prepare to connect your hands with your back foot.

5. Bend your back knee, reach back with your right arm and take hold of your inner arch (or your strap). If you’re flexible enough to forego the belt, bend your elbow and rotate it toward the ceiling. Also, change the grip on your foot so you’re holding your big toe or the outside of your foot. If you’re using a belt, bend your elbow and allow some of the strap to slide through your hand. Allow enough of the belt to slide through your hand so that you can bend your elbow and rotate it toward the ceiling.

6. Reach your left arm overhead, bend your elbow, and take hold of your foot (or the strap). Now, that you’ve connected both hands to your right foot (or strap), you’re there. Take a few breaths and refine the posture by having a friend read the instructions in the infographic.

7. Take a moment or two after the pose to appreciate what you’ve done. Even if you needed some help, the pose is worth trying — and, worth savoring.

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)
3-Day Teacher Renewal Program

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