Well helloooo, March! It seems you're holding on strong to winter, which I don't particularly appreciate, but that's okay because Spring will be here soon enough.
Though it doesn't feel like it, spring really is just around the corner (woohoo!). And that means that summer (aka swimsuit season) is right behind it (could be another "woohoo" or an "ah crap", depending on how you're looking at it). As such, I think it's a perfect time to give a little extra attention to our core. This is one area I always get requests for in class, and I simply LOVE it.
The core muscles include all of the muscles in your trunk and pelvis, with the majority of them being in the belly, mid- and lower-back, and hip areas. Yep, that's right...your core consists of more than just your abs! For all you anatomy buffs out there, here is a great blog post by a pilates instructor on the core muscles.
These ever-so-popular core muscles are most widely known for holding in/protecting your internal organs and stabilizing most actions of the body. A stronger core means a more stable body all around which is why it's so important to strengthen these muscles! It's also absolutely essential for your core to be strong in order to take on more advanced yoga poses (asanas) like handstands and arm balances. So while 6-pack abs do tend to look nice, I think it's equally impressive to be able to stand on your hands, do crazy arm balances, or even just walk in a straight line without falling over. Don't you think?
That is why March will be devoted to the core. I'll breakdown my most favorite poses and exercises to strengthen this area at the beginner, intermediate and advanced practitioner levels.
To start, let's discuss Plank Pose. Seemingly simple, but I bet that anyone who's had to hold plank for 30 seconds or more will tell you it's anything but.
How to Get There
The Belly Sag: If you hear a teacher tell you to lift your thighs or kneecaps up to the ceiling, you may be doing this:
The Humpback Whale: And if you a teacher tells you to lower your hips or walk your feet back so your heels are over your toes, you may be doing this:
Hope you have fun warming up your core! You'll need the prep work - there's much more to come!
Now that we've all mastered standing on our heads (ha - we can dream!), it's time to talk about taking it up a notch. I often see yogis who rock a mean headstand. At the end of every class, they pop right up into it and can probably stay there for minutes on end. When I see these yogis, though, I can't help but wonder why they're only sticking to the same variation each and every time. I mean, don't get me wrong - it's crucial to "master" the foundations of a pose, and it's awesome once you are comfortable in one to challenge yourself by staying there longer and longer each time. But in addition to being content, yoga teaches us about personal growth and moving beyond our edge. And it seems that we practice this in other poses when we try new variations once we nail the foundation, but for some reason, that is just so much more daunting upside down.
There's no reason it should be, though! Being someone who was deathly afraid of headstands (and still kinda is), I can tell you that playing with headstand variations really isn't that much scarier than getting into headstand in the first place. The concept is the same: stack hips over shoulders. Once you've got that down, you're golden. So if you're pretty confident with your headstand and you're feeling a little motivated this weekend, maybe give one (or all!) of these variations a try!
One of my favorite variations is tripod headstand with Lotus legs. Disclaimer: you should have full Lotus in your practice before trying this - be extra cautious of your knees!
To enter, come into Tripod Headstand, with legs straight overhead. Starting with your more open leg (we all have one side that is more flexible, more open, whatever you want to call it), bring one foot into the opposite hip crease. Easy-peasy, right?? The second leg is a little tricky. You'll bend the leg and cross the shin on top of the other shin, wiggling your foot into the opposite hip crease. Press your hands into the mat and activate your core even more to help maintain balance while you've got the wobbles going on up top.
Flow From Crow Pose to Headstand to Chaturanga
Be a Lady and Sit with Legs Crossed at the Ankles
So unlike the Crow - Headstand - Chaturanga variation, this one is actually much harder than it looks. From Tripod Headstand with your legs straight overhead, draw your knees into your chest and cross your ankles. Slowly inch your hands in, bringing arms towards one another until forearms press into each other and fingers are point out. Actively press your arms into one another and hug your belly in to help maintain balance. You can also bring your knees to rest on your upper arms.
Mukta Hasta Sirsasana
I think this one is the most challenging variation because I also find it the scariest. Your neck is definitely the most vulnerable here, as your hands are not really anywhere near your head to help distribute your weight. So if you have even the slightest of neck issues, you may want to avoid this option.
Again, start in Tripod Headstand with legs straight overhead. Activate your core like you never have before, so much that you can feel your belly button touching your spine. Slowly, inch one hand out a little bit and then inch the other hand out the same distance and repeat this until your arms are out straight. To make the pose more accessible, create a larger angle with your arms (i.e., send your arms more out in front of you). To make it more challenging, send your arms straight out to the sides, keeping your entire body on one plane.
Headstand is already challenging enough so it's perfectly normal if you think it's straight up crazy to make it any more difficult. And it is straight up crazy. But crazy can be a little fun, right? And fun is what makes life worth living so I say give it a go, but take the necessary precautions of course :)
Headstand. Sirsasana. The king of all yoga poses (asanas). It is one of the most powerful and beneficial yoga poses you can do...when done safely and correctly, of course. Some of its many benefits include calming the brain, relieving stress and mild depression, improving digestion, stimulating the pituitary and pineal glands, and strengthening the arms, legs, spine, abdominal organs, and lungs. Sounds good, huh?
This king pose isn't for everyone, though. You should steer clear if you are experiencing back or neck pain, headaches, any heart conditions, high or low blood pressure, or a bun in the oven (this one can go either way, but the general guideline is to avoid completely if you are pregnant and new to headstand). You also may want to steer clear if you are experiencing fear, and if that's you, you are not alone.
But good news is that is something we can work with! We talked about this in an earlier post, 5 Ways to Overcome Your Fear of Falling. There are also two variations of headstand that are both fairly accessible: Bound Headstand and Tripod Headstand. I found the tripod variation to be "easier" so I started to work with that one first and it was a long time before I was able to do the bound variation. But many others think the bound variation is easier. It's different for everyone so I encourage you to try both and see which one is easier, or not as scary, for you.
Since headstand is such a special pose, I think it'll be most helpful to break it down with lots of pictures and options (many thanks to my girl, Lauren, for being my model!).
Tripod Headstand (Sirsasana II)
There are a couple ways to get into Tripod Headstand, but one of the most common ways is to start from a Wide-Legged Forward Bend (Prasarita Paddottanasana):
Take a wide-enough stance so that you can place your hands flat on the mat, directly under your shoulders (it's okay to bend your knees). Bend your arms and place the top of your head on the mat (you may want to place your back close to a wall if you're new to this so that you can find the sweet balance spot on the top of your head).
Your elbows should stay parallel with fingers pointed forward. Your hands should be far enough away from your face so that you can see the tops of your finger tips.
One leg at a time, bring your knee to rest on your arm so that you create an egg shape. Use your core and press into your hands as you lift your knees off your arms, stacking your hips over your shoulders. If you're practicing this for the first time, stay here and practice getting comfortable upside down before straightening the legs.
Pressing into your hands, draw your belly in and slowly start to extend one leg up at a time. Press up through the balls of your feet and squeeze your thighs together. Keep your elbows hugged in and continue to press into your hands, and voila! Headstand!
If you've mastered the upside-down egg, another entry option is from Wide-Legged Forward Bend (Prasarita Padottanasana). This variation takes a little bit of flexibility/openness in the hammies to be able to get your head on the mat, but you can also bend your knees to reach your head down.
From Wide-Legged Forward Bend, place your hands down on the mat, fingers pointed forward, just far enough back so that you can see your fingertips, elbows hugging in. Shift your weight forward, bringing hips over shoulders, and slowly start to lift your legs off the mat, drawing them up and in towards one another. Squeeze your thighs together, and I mean squeeeeeeze! This will help you firm up through the whole body in order to get your balance. When you're ready to come out, use your core to lower down the same way you went up.
Bound Headstand (Salamba Sirsasana)
To enter Bound Headstand, kneel on your mat (towards the back), and place the top of your head down. Interlace your fingers behind your head, as if you're cupping your head with your hands. Press your hands into your head and your head into your hands to help balance.
Press evenly into your forearms as you tuck your toes under and begin to walk your feet in towards your body. Bend one knee into your chest at a time, coming into that upside-down egg shape from before. Slowly start to straighten your legs, one at a time or at the same time for an extra challenge. When you're ready to come down, either lower one leg down at a time or come back into that egg shape and lower down to your toes.
So there are just a couple things left to cover before we get into the juicy headstands. One of them is learning to fall, which is super important, but we will get into that later this week. The other is equally important: counter poses. A counter pose is a pose that moves your body in an opposite direction of the previous pose for the purpose of restoring balance in your body. They're designed to make you feel good again after you reach your edge and they are crucial when it comes to inversions, especially headstand. Without them, you risk injury, and with a pose like headstand, that injury could be to your head, neck, shoulders, back, or some other VIP body part. No bueno, right? I can't say enough just how vital counter poses are to making sure you don't destroy your body so be sure to incorporate them into your practice, especially when playing upside down.
The Counter Poses
To start, let's go super basic and talk about Child's Pose, Balasana. Child's Pose is a great counter pose to heated inversions (aka hard ass poses) like headstand, handstand, forearm stand. In these kinds of active inversions, your core, back, shoulders, and wrists are all firing to turn you upside down and Child's Pose offers a sweet release to all of these body parts. Press your hands into the mat as you sink your hips back on to your heels, stretching your chest down. Feel your shoulders release as your forehead presses into the mat and allow your low back to let go. Taking a wide-kneed Child's Pose (picture below) will offer more of a hip opener, but if you want to focus on your low back, keep your knees together so that your back is rounded a little more. From here, you can also reach your arms towards your toes to further release the back.
A second option is Puppy Pose, Anahatasana. Puppy Pose has a special place in my heart, and it's not just because its Sanskrit name, Anahatasana, has the same first 5 letters as Anahita. Puppy Pose is a legit shoulder opener and a great substitute for Child's Pose if you have any ankle or foot issues. For some people, Child's Pose just puts too much pressure on your ankles so that a pose that is supposed to be amazingly yummy becomes the worst thing ever. In Puppy Pose, though, your hips are stacked over your knees and you aren't putting any pressure on your ankles. It also offers more of a backbend and shoulder release. From table pose, keep your knees over your hips as you walk your hands out in front of you until your forward or chin touch the mat. If you want less of a backbend or shoulder opener, simple! Just don't sink your chest down as a low :)
A third option is Rabbit Pose, Sasangasana. You won't see this pose too often in class, I think because it's a bit difficult to teach in an all-levels class. Not only is it awkward to get into Rabbit Pose, you also need to be careful with the placement of your head so that you don't end up straining your neck. Starting in a kneeling position, shift forward and place the top of your head on the mat, as close to your knees as possible. Reach your arms back and grab hold of your heels, ankles or calves as you lean forward, bringing your hips over your knees. You should feel a wonderful stretch along the back of your neck all the way down your spine. Be careful not to press the top of your head down too hard and enjoy!
One final counter pose is a good old-fashioned neck stretch which is awesome after a practice, but it's also a great way to begin your practice. To start, spend 5-10 breaths taking gentle neck circles 5-10 breaths in each direction, and bring your head back to center when finished. Take a deep breath in and slowly lower your right ear to right shoulder as you exhale. As gently as possible, place your right hand over your head (fingertips will be near the top of your left ear) and apply the tiniest bit of pressure to get a deeper stretch in your neck. If this feels good, you can press your left hand down your left shoulder to get even more of a stretch. Stay here for a few breaths, come back to center on an inhale, and then repeat on the other side.
Lotus Pose. Padmasana. A quintessential yoga pose. It's said that the placement of your hands and feet resemble the petals of a lotus flower, which is referenced throughout ancient yogic texts such as the Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The lotus flower is also used as the visulization of the chakras, or energy points in the body, with a different number of petals for each chakra. Seemingly simple, yet so symbolic and grounding. It's a great pose to improve posture and clear your mind - both of which are sooo important when balancing on your head!
For many of us, this pose is just not going to happen, especially if there is a history of knee or hip injury. But there are some things you can do to work into and/or modify the pose:
If your body doesn't mind Lotus Pose, this is a great pose to practice meditation in. The pose is also a part of many other poses to include Scale Pose (Tolasana), Rooster Pose (Kukkutasana), and Lotus in Headstand (Urdhva Padmasana). Give it a try and see how it works for you, but pleeeeease pay attention to your knees and back off immediately (but slowly) if you feel any sharp or stabbing pains!
Well hello there! Happy Groundhog Day!
Since we are focusing on the head this month, I thought it'd be fun to take it back to the basics for February's first few poses before we step it up a notch later this month. As such, today's focus is on Mountain Pose (Tadasana) and Staff Pose (Dandasana). Now I know I don't normally include two poses in one month so consider this your lucky day! These two poses are just so similar (Staff Pose is basically the seated version of Mountain Pose) and they are the foundation for so many other poses that it only made sense to cover them at the same time. I also think it's SO important to learn the correct alignment of your head with your spine/shoulders/hips/ankles before turning upside and playing with poses on your head.
How to Get There
Most times, it's easier for us to understand what correct alignment looks like if you see yourself doing a pose incorrectly and then correctly. This is definitely the case with Tadasana and Dandasana! When yogis hear the cue, "Stand tall" or "Sit tall", they often overcompensate a slouching position with an overly puffed-out chest, almost always accompanied by some booty popping.
Below you see an overly slouched Mountain Pose on the left and a puffed-out chest and popped booty on the right (my brother-in-law insists this is how women should walk around regularly and I could not disagree more - this is a recipe for chronic lower back pain!!!). The middle picture is the correctly aligned Mountain Pose - see how my entire body is centered along the crown of my head? My shoulders are relaxed and my spine is at its natural curve. I'm not tucking my tailbone under or popping it out. This same alignment holds true for Staff Pose, too, and I've shown you what it looks like to slouch in Staff Pose since I see this all the time.
I don't think we've come across a single pose yet where I haven't talked about the shoulders. Almost always, you want to try to relax your shoulders, which will inevitably invite relaxation into the rest of your body. Think about it: how could you possibly relax if you've got your shoulders all tense and hugging up to your ears, completely drowning out your beautiful neck?? Bottom line: Relax. :)
So now that we've got some basics to master before going upside down, Friday's post will be about a similar base pose, Lotus, and I'll include some tips throughout on giving some TLC to your head and neck before moving into any inversions.
Happy Monday, all! And if you're interested, Punxsutawny Phil will be making his predictions on Winter's end around 7:20 AM EST. You can watch it online here. You're welcome!
Holy wow - I cannot believe January is almost over! We've come to the last day of poses (asanas) featuring the legs so after focusing on poses (asanas) that work your hammies and quads pretty hard, it's only appropriate that we end with one that offers up a fantastic stretch for your thighs, knees, and ankles. Hero Pose, or Virasana, is another pose that you'll likely either love it or hate it. For some people, this pose is heaven on earth and they could (and have) fallen asleep in while lying in the reclined version, Supta Virasana. For others, though, Hero Pose puts way too much pressure on the knees and/or ankles, making it totally and unbearably awful. If that's you, though, don't worry - you have options!
How to Get There
How does this help our legs? You're probably sick of reading this, but this really is a great stretch for your thighs, knees, and ankles! There aren't too many poses that wi
The most common (and most frightening) mistake I see in this pose is people going past their edge. "Going past your edge" may sound a little too yogi for you and it might not make sense, so let me translate in English: it is doing something your body is not ready for yet. For instance, say there is yogi trying this pose for the first time in a class, and they see other yogis taking it back into Supta Virasana. They want to do the same thing everyone else is doing, so they give it a go. This particular yogi's quads are still a little tight, though, so his/her knees end up popping up off the mat (like in the picture below), and/or his/her knees separate way too far apart. I'm willing to bet that at this point, this yogi is feeling some serious discomfort and possibly pain, risking long-term injury. This yogi would be "past his/her edge." He/she should start off sitting upright with a block and/or blanket/towel, and only move deeper when the body is ready for it, and overtime, it will be!
It may be apparent (or obvious) by now that this pose can be scary for the knees, but it really doesn't have to be! It's a great pose to practice patience and stillness while you explore the modification or variation that makes the most sense for your body. Try to relax so that you can enjoy the sweet stretch that happens on the fronts of the thighs and into the knees and ankles! Maybe even force a smile to help take some of the pressure out of your mind...sounds strange, but it really does work!
Chair Pose. Utkatasana. Everyone has their one or two most-hated pose(s) and this one is mine. No matter how many times I do Chair Pose, I still frown and groan whenever it is called out in class. I even get annoyed with myself when I add it into my home practice. And I don't really know why, either. It's definitely not the worst. I guess it is just that this pose works my ankles, calves, thighs, and core all at once and in a way no other pose can compare.
So if I hate Utkatasana so much, then why do it? Because it's good to step outside comfort zones and find a challenge! In life, we are constantly coming up against things that are hard, uncomfortable, scary, or just unpleasant, and one of the best parts of yoga and doing poses like Chair Pose is that it teaches you resilience and strength in moments like these. Yes, yoga is about poses and alignment and controlling your breath, but it's also so much more. It is the best teacher I've found to help me overcome challenges.
How does this help our legs? Utkatasana falls in that "work every piece of the body" poses, but specifically, it can increase ankle, knee, and hip mobility. It also works to strengthen and tone the quads while also teaching good posture and confidence!
That's all on Utkatasana for now, but I'm sure we'll explore it more in the future! Enjoy these options for now, though. Hope you have a lovely Monday!
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the splits (or Hanumanasana, in Sanskrit, after the Monkey God Hanuman)? Ouch? If so, you're not alone. This is a much dreaded and despised pose, but it really doesn't have to be! You may even be thinking, "why bother? I'm not naturally flexible so it's never going to happen," but that's not necessarily true. There are many modifications and steps you can take to work into this. Let's begin!
How to get there
How does this help our legs? Hanumanasana is a great pose for lengthening the leg muscles. It also stretches the inner thighs/groin area and loosens the hips. These things are crucial to mobility and making sure that we can still move around on our own two legs as we get older! Plus, it's a great party trick to whip out in the middle of a dance floor!
More often than not, I see yogis with uneven hips in this pose, and I'm guilty of that, too! It's easy to do and it's not so easy to know when you're doing it. It's also pretty common in Ardha Hanumanasana (Half Splits). Take a look below - do you see how in the picture on the left, the left side of my body is higher? I'm bent further over my knee here, but my hips are definitely not in line. In the picture on the right, I've lifted up a bit so that I can pull my front hip back in line and my back is more level.
As is the case in most hamstring stretches and hip openers, you will most likely either love or hate this pose. But if you hate it, I guarantee you will come to love it after more and more practice! Next time you practice the splits, notice if you're frowning or tensing up through your legs, shoulders, hips, or anywhere else, and then try to relax some of that tension so you can let some resistance go. It'll make the whole experience much more enjoyable, maybe even fun - I promise!
Hope you have a lovely, splits-filled weekend!
One of my favorite heat-building asanas (poses) is High Lunge Pose (Anjaneyasana). This pose is fantastic because there are so many variations/ modifications you can take so that with just one pose, you can tone and lengthen your leg muscles while also working on your endurance. Alternatively, you can take this pose down a notch by lowering your back knee to the mat to make it less-heat building and more restorative.
How to get there
You can take many of the same modifications from Virabhadrasana II here, too! Modifications include:
How does this help our legs? After holding this pose for even just a few breaths, you'll definitely be able to tell that Anjaneyasana strengthens the quadriceps and booty. It also does a killer job stretching the psoas and hips, which are so important for mobility.
I see the below misalignments, or some combination of, all the time. Take a look at my back foot. See how the heel is behind the ankle? This is where you would want to wiggle the back foot back a little more to get the heel over the ankle. This helps protect your knee and ankle and also ensures you're working the muscles the right way.
Also see how my back knee is bent? I'm not getting as good of a stretch in the legs, psoas, or hips as I would if I activated my back leg and lifted the back knee up.
Another thing is that I'm leaning forward here (see how my shoulders are in front of my hips?) and I'm not taking advantage of the chest/heart opener and slight backbend. If I were to draw my shoulders back just a bit so that my arms pointed straight up, I'd have a bit of a chest opener here which is a great stretch for the front torso and back. It's also a great way to lift your mood and spirit!
Finally, you'll want to watch out for your shoulders in Anjaneyasana. As you see in the picture on the left below, I've got my arms closer to one another and my shoulders are scrunched up by my ears. This is a common issue for athletes with tight shoulders. To relax the shoulders, try separating your arms further apart like on the right and rotate your pinkie fingers in towards one another.
That should be enough on Anjaneyasana for now. See if you can be mindful during your next practice to incorporate one of these tips!
Happy Monday, friends!
I’m Anahita Reilly, a Type-A, native Northern Virginian, happiness lover. This blog evolved out of my longstanding desire to share this beautiful thing called yoga with others. Click here to read more...