A hamstring targeting sequence

Similarly to the low-back pain sequence, this was requested – though this time by students. It is also a relatively short sequence that can be practiced everyday, by anyone, and would take 15 minutes max. The goal here is to become more flexible and lengthen the hamstrings.

You will need: a wall, and a belt. Bolster and blocks not necessary but if you have them I will indicate where you can use them.

Start with your legs up the wall (viparita karani), no bolster under the hips. Press your heels up towards the ceiling and against the wall. Press the ball of the big toe up towards the ceiling. Open the back of the knee, knee caps “up” (towards your hip), bring the back of the thigh towards the wall. Relax the throat and tongue, hands pressing down into the floor by your hips (palms down).

Repeat 5 times with one or two breaths of rest in between (total around 3′).

 

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See the space between the back of the thighs and the wall? You want to make that space inexistant so that the whole back of the legs presses against the wall. You can bring the palms of the hands down and press them into the floor.

 

Bend the knees and slide back towards the center of the room until you are in supta tadasana with both feet pressing against the wall. Grab the belt, bend your right leg and bring the belt over your right foot, then straighten the leg up. Both legs need to be straight, so only get the leg up to 90 degree angle if you can do so with both  legs straight. Otherwise lift the leg up as high as you can without bending either leg. Make sure your left thigh is also going down towards the floor (no gap between the thigh and the floor).

 

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Supta Padangusthasana I with the wall and a belt. Both sides of the trunk are even, foot presses against the wall, arrows indicate directionality. Credit: https://www.iyengaryoganotes.com/

 

Change sides, 1′ each. Repeat both sides once. Repeat again, quickly bring the leg to the left over the midline, grab the belt closer to the foot and then bring the leg out to the left side (Supta Padanghustasana II):

 

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If you have a bolster, you can use it for support as demonstrated here. If this is a very difficult pose for you bring the bolster closer to your outer hip. Credit: https://sunfloweryoga.net/

 

Keep both legs straight, left thigh presses down towards the floor. Stay as long as you can maintain both legs straight. Change sides. Bend your knees to your chest, roll out to the side and come up to standing.

Ardha Uttanasana with the wall (or blocks, 1′ or as long as you can hold it): this is a great demonstration, nothing more to add – please follow these instructions up to point 4! Use the blocks only when you can keep the chest lifted with straight legs:

ardha uttanasana with blocks.JPG

 

If you have time (optional): Ardha Hanumanasana (half monkey pose or half splits). Kneel onto the mat and bring your hips on top of your knees. Extend your right leg in front of you, heel on the floor – toes up, and slide the leg away from you. Straighten the leg by strongly pressing the heel down into the floor and bringing the knee cap up. Bring the chest slightly forward, back straight. Take support for your hands onto blocks if you have them. Stay 30 seconds up to a minute each side.

 

And finally, downward facing dog – Adho Mukha Svanasana with the hands up on blocks if you have them and heels up against the wall:

 

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Downdog with the heels up against the wall, credits Kasia Zacharko.

 

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Exemple of hands on blocks which you can combine with heels on wall. Having the hands higher up helps taking the weight back onto the legs and feet, which helps with keeping a neutral spine so that the work can be focused on straightening the legs, aka working out these hammies! Credit bodypositiveyoga.

 

Stay in the pose as long as you can maintain the right alignment, then rest in child’s pose. Repeat twice for a total of 3 times. Finish in child’s pose with the forehead resting onto the floor or savasana for a couple of minutes.

As usual, happy to take comments / suggestions / feedback! Let me know if you tried it, and if you liked it! Also if something doesn’t work for you it’s always interesting for me to hear it and find out a way to make the pose work for you.

 

 

 

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Experimenting on myself

Today during savasana I had this realization that I was truly experimenting on myself. I never made the parallel to my day job to that extent before, and how I could rewrite Mr. Iyengar’s quote “When I practice, I am a philosopher, when I teach, I am a scientist, when I demonstrate, I am an artist.” by switching philosopher and scientist – I feel like I think and speak a lot more about philosophy when I am teaching or preparing teaching than when I am practicing. Maybe this reversal happens when a yogi’s more advanced than I am! Or maybe this is the influence of my day job?

Anyhow my home practice has changed. I practice a lot “by the book” or “with the book” now (Light on Yoga, obviously). What didn’t change is that I rarely practice pre-prepared sequences. I “go with the flow”. Interestingly I find that my body often goes against my brain and I end up practicing poses I wasn’t planning to do. Cause not practicing pre-written sequences doesn’t mean I don’t have any idea of what I’m gonna do; usually I have something I want to practice, either a “peak” pose, or a type of poses, and I sequence as I go. Today I thought I would practice backbends. I wanted to do a couple of vinyasas, then go to deep backbends like ustrasana and urdhva dhanurasana. But that’s not what happened, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.

I did start with the vinyasas and my usual handstand / forearmstand practice (balancing away from the wall is getting much more stable, yeah!). But then I don’t remember why, but I did Malasana. And it felt great, but with my T-rex arms, I can’t bind my hands behind my back. So I was working on that, trying to see how far my hands really are with a loop in a belt (answer: VERY.), and I ended up pulling out Light on Yoga. This has been happening almost every time I practice recently. I believe since I cannot manage to get to class regularly, the book has become my teacher right now.

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I really have short arms compared to the rest of my body – I measured them once to prove a point. I compensate with very open shoulders so I can do a lot of the binds; but arm balances like lolasana or jump throughs are terribly tough for me as I just can’t lift up very high.

I’m almost certain it’s physically impossible for me to clasp my hands behind my back in Malasana, but I’d love to be wrong – I have been wrong before about what my body can and cannot do, so…

Somehow after Malasana I ended up practicing more forward extensions, half following Light on Yoga and half what I was feeling like. Reading the explanation on Maha Mudra was very helpful, even though I didn’t feel as intense as when I practiced it in Continuing Education a few months ago (it’s on my syllabus. I was supposed to teach it, but we ended up just practicing it).

I also worked quite a bit on Marichyasana I, which I don’t think I had ever read the description for in LOY previously, shame on me. Between the reading and the studying the picture, I realized I was doing a couple of things wrong, like keeping both hips down on the floor and flexing my foot, which was preventing me from getting forward and touch my forehead to the shin/knee. I am pretty sure I had heard the hip thing once before, but hopefully now it will stick with me.

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Twist only, hip is down, foot pointed

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Forward extension, hip is up, foot still extended. Sorry for the poor picture quality, I could not find any better.

As my practice ended  and I had mainly practiced forward extensions, I realized that my body knew better than my brain. My brain wanted to do the backbends and physically demanding poses, but it’s over 90F in NYC right now, and it was so hot that I took my clothes off to practice (reminder: this is home practice.) even with the ceiling fan on the highest setting. My body was much wiser and dragged me to a practice that was cooler, quieter, and overall really needed to refresh both body and brain. Sometimes you just gotta listen, your body already has the wisdom!

PS: happy 4th of July!

 

 

A quick, daily sequence for (lower) back pain

I just made this sequence for a friend of mine and thought others out there might benefit from it. If you do, let me know what you think! If you have suggestions and/or modifications, by all means leave them in the comments below.

This is meant to be a daily 10-15′ morning practice, but it could also be done in the evening, and could be quite easily shortened or lengthened depending on how much time you have. This sequence is OK for beginners, though you might want to check with an Iyengar teacher in your area first if you can; it’s always a good idea to check with someone who can see your body and who you can talk to directly about your history.

You will need a wall (and a bolster if you have one):
– start with supported supta padanghustasana using a wall:
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Ideally the hip is against the wall / under the foot (90 degree angle) but if that doesn’t work out for you it can be at a smaller angle – this should be relaxing.

(both sides, 1-2 minutes each)

– ardha uttanasana with the wall, hip width apart. 1′, walk forward towards the wall, rest forehead, repeat. Hips on top of the feet, 90 degree angle between the chest and the legs. Bring the hips and thighs back (knee caps up!), lengthen the side chest. Keep the head in between the arms, inner upper arm goes up towards the ceiling.

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– then Downward Dog with heels up on the wall and knees bent. Here you’re not working on straightening the legs / lengthening the hamstrings but rather on lengthening the sides of the trunk and bringing the hips up and back.
I would say hold as long as you can maintain the extension in the spine, so 30 sec to 1′, repeat 3x. Take child’s pose to rest in between, same amount of time. When in child’s pose, after resting, extend the arms forward as much as you can with hands in “cup shape”. On the last repetition you can also walk the cup-shaped hands to the right and to the left.

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Imaginary wall behind her heels that she’s pressing into. Heels can be higher up and knees more bent.

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Child’s pose with “cup-shaped” hands

(bolster / blanket not necessary but can be nice if you have them and then you can also have your forehead resting on them during downdog).

– Jathara parivrttasana, knees bent and resting down on the floor. If you have one you can use a bolster in between the knees. 30sec-1′ each side.

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Use a bolster instead of the block (https://rickphoto.com/gallery/yoga/)

– Savasana (with bolster under the knees if you have one)

If you have more time you could add in “legs up the wall – viparita karani” either with a bolster before savasana, if you don’t have a bolster I would put it between supta padangustasana and ardha uttanasana.

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Viparita karani with bolster (the bolster isn’t against the wall but a block’s distance away so that we buttocks have space to sink in behind it).

Disclaimer: I didn’t think I was going to publish this when I wrote this for my friend, and didn’t write down where the images are from. Google’s reverse image search is not being helpful. If an image from this post belongs to you, please let me know and I will credit you appropriately and/or remove it if you wish it so.

LIGHT ON LIFE, CHAPTER 2: STABILITY – BY REBECCA LERNER (DAY 2)

Alright, alright, let’s be real here. It’s been over 4 months since the workshop and I didn’t take notes at the time, so I remember very little from what we did on day 2. But hey, I guess what I remembered did stick with me!

We kept on working on twists, first standing, then seated. I remember we worked quite a bit on Marichyasana III, going through the different stages.

Light on Marichyasana C

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LOY, Mr. Iyengar demonstrating stage II with the bind.

I believe we also practiced Ardha Matsyendrasana II, which was one of the first times I tried that pose:

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LOY, Ardha Matsyendrasana II

After this we went back to Marichyasana III and practiced going to Dwi Pada Koundinyasana from there (which I always thought was just “straight-legged parsva bakasana”!) though it was ok to use both arms for support.

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Finally we practiced Eka Pada Koundinyasana II which I don’t think I had ever been taught in a class setting before. That was quite interesting. For those who couldn’t practice the full pose, she has the students starts from having the hips resting on one (or two) bolsters and work on getting more and more weight onto the arms. I tried it too, but I found it a bit confusing as I can do the full pose and it felt like I wasn’t getting any lift. I should try it again when I have some time.

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Eka Pada Koundinyasana (EPK as youngsters say) I

Overall I enjoyed the workshop, and it was a good mix of challenging while still able to bring something for all levels.

Thanks again to Rebecca Lerner for coming all the way to NYC and the great teaching.

Light on life, chapter 2: stability – by Rebecca Lerner (Day 1)

This weekend I went to a workshop at the New York Institute with Rebecca Lerner. The theme of the workshop was the chapter 2 of Light on life, which was great for me, as I often lack in stability compared with flexibility. Also, light on life is my favorite yoga book and very high on my list of favorite books, and it was the first time I heard of someone having a workshop centered around a chapter of that book, so I was pretty excited.

There were three sessions: standing poses with a special attention to twists (Day 1), restorative & pranayama (Day 1), and finally arm balances and backbends (Day 2).

We started the standing poses session by working on parsva adho mukha virasana. Keeping the stabilizing arm (right arm while turning to the right) bent, extend the other arm as far forward as possible. Use your hand to help the belly to turn further, then extend again, and finally extend both arms. This created a very intense twist that one might not think possible in parsva adho mukha virasana.

Parsva adho mukha virasana with the stabilising arm bent by szkolajogi

After doing both sides two or three times, we went back to the center and up into Downward Dog. All following poses were stepped into from downdog and we changed sides sliding through prasarita padottonasana with a short rest with the head down. Rebecca mentioned that staying low would help both maintain the energy levels and help with the grounding and stability of the asanas.

The sequence itself was quite classic: parsvottanasana, parvritta trikonasana, parvritta parsvakonasana, parvritta ardha chandrasana. But the focus was on the revolving action, especially the turning from stability in the legs and the hips. She had us touch our hip bones and use our hands to give the right directions to the legs and the trunk. For exemple in parvritta trikonasana, she made us give the direction of inward rotation at the front hip bone to soften the abdomen and allow turning the chest from the stability in the hips. She mentioned that if this slight inward rotation was there, there would be no swaying of the hips on either side while we tried to turn. Furthermore, in all these poses she had us use our hand flat on the floor (as much as possible obviously, if you needed a brick you could use one) and stamp the heel of the hand down. I found it particularly helpful to work that way in terms of stability and connectivity for the shoulder.

Parvritta Parsvakonasana by BKS Iyengar

We then proceeded to sirsasana. There was much attention brought to the positioning of the hands; it seems we are often overcompensating the clasping of the hands and inward rotation of the wrist / lower arms. She had us clasp the hands but not so much that the thumbs would be crossing, simply resting on top of the index fingers. I had my small “yes!!!” moment when she mentioned bidirectionality in the arms, that we are used to going from the elbow to the wrist, but that we also need to learn going from the wrist to the elbow. This change in the hand position seemed to be very strange for most people and quite impactful, but I had been practicing that way for a while now, so it wasn’t a big shock to me. It was more of a shock that the way I was practicing headstand was seemingly not the “taught” way anymore; apparently along the way of home practice I improved (?) or at least let go of thing not serving me. I think at some point I was bringing in my elbows to close by in headstand which was creating issues with my neck, and when I went away from that my grip on the hands changed. I have also been practicing changing hand positions while in headstand quite a bit (I started doing that when I realized most of the weight was on my head anyhow, I could keep my shoulders lifted, and balance quite easily) and I believe that has improved my alignment, or vice-versa. Sometimes you’re really not sure of which came first…

We also practiced a few poses which are not in Light on Yoga, which was quite interesting. Rebecca mentioned that many poses didn’t make it into the final cut of LOY, as otherwise the book would have been too big and too expensive. We practiced two of those poses in headstand: parsva parvritta eka pada sirsasana (like parsva eka pada sirsasana but with the foot on the floor going to the direction of the foot still up, so if your right foot is touching down it would cross the midline towards your left) and akunchasana / parsva akunchasana: knees bent and thighs touching the chest, then swinging the knees to the right, staying and to the left, staying. My abs still remember this pose… But it was very interesting and I’m definitely gonna work on this pose more at home.

akunchasana

The only picture I could find of akunchasana, not sure where the credit is due, please let me know if you know…

Finally (I think, I’m not so sure anymore about the timeline) we finished the morning with mulabandhasana sitting on a bolster, then going into vamadevasana I from a kind of wide knee vajrasana. I was actually very surprised to see I could do this, as I had never even attempted that pose before! I had no idea where we were going and just found myself in the pose, which was a great beginner’s feeling I hadn’t had in a while.

Vamedasana I by Jack Cuneo

Speaking of which, there were lots of talk about aparigraha and not coveting the neighbor’s pose and staying safe, in particular with all of these knee-heavy poses, which I thought Rebecca was very elegantly bringing into her teaching.

After a short viparita karani, we went for lunch, and reconvened two hours later for some digestive poses (supta virasana and supta badakonasana), shoulderstand and variations (we also practiced akunchasana / parsva akunchasana among other variations here, and Rebecca showed us how all the turning in parsva akunchasana was a great preparation for parsva sarvangasana as it enables us to bring the supporting hand really nicely under the tailbone. She also mentioned we could work on extending the legs in this pose using a chair to support the feet, which I’m really looking forward to work on at home). After this, we started pranayama, first lying down in supported savasana, then sitting, and we finished in prone savasana.

I always feel very inadequate writing about pranayama, as I feel very “meek” (Rebecca’s / Mr Iyengar’s words) in that practice. I do not practice pranayama very regularly. I feel guilty about not doing it more often, and I have started working on it a bit more (I even opened Light on Pranayama and read through some passages in the past few weeks) but I still feel very uncomfortable about giving pranayama instructions. However, I was surprised as I could easily sit through the whole session without fidgeting, which is definitely an improvement since teacher training. I guess all this sitting I’ve been doing is starting to bear its fruits. As for the pranayama itself, the only thing I will say is that we focused on keeping the chest bone / sternum lifted, and in particular lifted not only up (towards the head) but slightly forward (towards the front of the body) on the inhale.

Bidirectionality

Movement and resistance. I’ve been working on the bidirectionality in poses, mainly in standing poses for which I feel it is easier to work on this concept. Especially on how bidirectionality in poses helps create connection.

 

I feel like when we try to extend the legs and the arms, we often go only in one direction: from the center to the extremities. And while that is likely useful in the start, when learning to straighten the joints, at some point we need to learn to go back, from the extremities to the core. The awareness should flow freely in both directions, from the chest to the fingertips, and back from the fingertips to the chest. Awareness spreading and centering at the same time.

And I know, in the beginning I didn’t understand these seemingly opposite instructions in class. I remember being puzzled with opposite turning directions, like turning the thigh out in Trikonasana (NOT easy for me, still not today), against which I need to turn the lower leg slightly in if I want to keep standing, as otherwise balance will be lost. I also remember the light bulb moment from my second (?) year of teacher training, when I understood the push-pull of the bent knee in Warrior poses. Yes you want to bend the knee as much as possible, but you also need to draw in from the knee to the hip, especially the outer hip, and I like to imagine one arrow going from my inner hip to the inner knee, and one from the outer knee to the outer hip, with the stability coming from pressing the feet down.

One of my favorite poses to observe bidirectionality in is Parsvottanasana. After I had somewhat mastered how to keep my hips even in the pose, I learned to slide my feet towards each other without actually moving them, and this helped me a lot to keep my hips firm and my inner back thigh rolling back. Then in a class I heard the teacher asking to do the opposite, slide the feet away from each other, and I didn’t get it at all. It seemed completely opposite to what I thought I had learned and was working for me!

Parsvottanasana or intense side stretch. I advise not to work on the end pose with the slippery socks but on the preparatory phases with the hands on blocks / the floor / the hips.

It took me a while to understand that “opposite sliding”, until I decided to work with slippery socks. That’s not the entire reason I started to wear slippery socks for that yoga practice, as I was actually working on jump backs and jump throughs, which for the love of my short arms, I still cannot do even though I am finally getting to a point were I can lift up in Lolasana with the help of blocks. Anyhow, I tried Parsvottanasana with the socks, and it showed me the value of this “sliding away”: more weight onto the front of the front foot, because of that, less overextending of my front leg due to my backslamming of the calf, and more weight also to the outside of the back foot. This resulted in a better pose where both the top of my thighs were more back compared to the sliding in only. While the compactedness of the hips is important for me with my chronic SI problems, I was keeping the hips compact at the expense of the proper extension in my legs and my trunk.

When I slide the feet “in”, then the direction is from the feet to the hips. But when I slide the feet “out”, then the direction is from the hips to the feet. Both are important and bring different parts of the body into action and awareness. Even though this is an easy concept that I had understood in other poses previously, I find interesting it only dawned on me recently in Parsvottanasana. Does this also happen to you, finding out that a concept you learned and understood in a pose can be applied to a different pose? With possibly months or years of practice in between the two “aha” moments? Do you sometimes feel like you’re reinventing the yoga wheel?

Not talking about this yoga wheel, though I’m curious to hear what you think of it if you’ve tried it! (credits to Givamie)