Thursday, March 22, 2007

Forward Bends; love ‘em or leave ‘em

Some students love forward bends. Their calf and thigh muscles are very flexible and they enjoy the challenge of stretching those muscles enough so that they can (almost) rest their torsos on their legs. Other students can’t stand them (the poses, not the flexible people). As hard as they try, they can barely reach their knees and only if they round their upper backs. The poses aren’t fun or invigorating—they hurt.

No matter which camp you fall in, it is important to remember that forward bends can improve with practice, but that you need to be very aware of how your lower back feels while you are doing them. It may be that the construction of your spine and pelvis is such that you will never be able to reach past your knees. The flexibility of your legs has something to do with your forward bend “ability”, but it is more related to the length of the muscles and ligaments surrounding the pelvis and lumbar spine. Always respect the sensations of the lower back as you bend; this will tell you if you can work on deepening the pose, or if you are as far you should stretch.

Unless forward bends are really painful, there are simple modifications that you can do to the poses so that they will work for you (lift the sitbones with a higher blanket, use a belt around the balls of the feet). If they are always uncomfortable, just skip them…there are plenty of other asana that open the backs of the legs and are more supportive of the lower spine. We did this sequence in class this week. Try it, and see if it works for you!

Forward Bends
Sukhasana (Easy Pose) Sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position with the sitbones on a folded blanket. Increase the height of the blanket if you can’t sit without rounding the lower back. Take a few minutes to really concentrated on balancing the pelvis and lengthening the spine.

Dandasana + Hastasana (Staff Pose + Overhead Arm Stretch) Extend the legs out in front of you, pressing the soles of the feet away evenly and engaging the thigh muscles. Raise your arms to the side and keep the shoulders away from the ears as you lift your arms overhead. After your initial stretch, begin to fold forward from the hips; keep the arms long and the side ribs lifted. Lead with the belly button as you lengthen the backs of the legs. Come back to center and relax.
Paschimottanasana (Forward Bend) Wrap your belt around the balls of the feet and begin to pull yourself forward, leading with the belly button. You are now tipping the pelvis forward to lengthen the back of the legs. Don’t round your lower back and keep the side ribs lifted as you did in the previous pose. If it’s comfortable, release the spine and fold further over the legs.
Padangusthasana (Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)-Lie on your back and breathe deeply into the back of the legs as you draw your right foot towards you with the belt and press the back of the left thigh to the floor. Try to keep the pelvis balanced (there will be space at the lower back). Lower the leg to the side and rest the thigh on a block so you can concentrate on opening the hip joint instead of tipping over. Bring the leg back to center and lower. Repeat on the other side.
Upavistha Konasana (Wide-legged Forward Bend) Fold your blanket into thirds, so you have a higher base for the sit bones. Spread the legs to either side, but not so wide that you can’t keep the knees and toes pointing to the ceiling. Lengthen the backs of the legs as you press the soles of the feet away, like Staff Pose. Stretch the arms overhead, lengthen the side ribs and begin to fold at the hip crease. As with the earlier Forward Bend, if it is comfortable, release the spine and fold towards the floor.
Tadasana (Mountain) Come to standing and realign the spine, paying attention to the balance of the pelvis. Lift up through the top of the head as you ground through the soles of the feet.
Chair Pose, with a Twist Step the feet hip distance apart, with the inside edges of the feet parallel. Sit back, as if in a chair, as you bend your knees and fold at the hip crease. Stretch the arms overhead and lengthen the side ribs. Fold further forwards and place your right hand on the floor or a block and twist to the left while reaching the left arm towards the ceiling. Repeat on the other side. Come back to standing.
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) Come into this pose softly to release the lower back. Keep the knees slightly bent as you fold from the hip crease. Cross your arms and let the weight of the upper body stretch out the spine. If you want a little stretch in the backs of the legs you can slowly straighten them by lengthening the backs of the thighs. Bend your knees to come back to standing and unfold slowly.

Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Bend) From Mountain, step the right foot back and straighten both legs. Make sure the hips are square and you are lengthening the backs of both thighs. With the arms folded at your lower back, stretch the chest forwards and fold at the hips, so the torso is parallel to the floor. Keep the hips square and the right heel grounded. Release the spine and round over the left leg, if you can. Return to center and repeat on the other side.
Viparita Karani (Legs Up The Wall Pose). Lie on the floor with the backs of your legs and hips resting against the wall and the feet lined up over the hips. Feel the pressure draining out of your feet and ankles. Keep the spine long as you relax the back into the support of the floor. Stay in this relaxing pose as long as you like.
©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Process not Product

It is important to remember that in yoga, as with pretty much everything else, you should always focus on the journey not the destination. Ours is a very goal-oriented society, with all emphasis placed on the finished product rather than on the work and discovery that happens during its creation; it is very hard to shift focus away from results and concentrate on method. But you should try. Whatever it is that you are involved with will eventually end (the Terrible Twos, winter, grad school, spring cleaning), and it seems a shame to be wishing your life away, rather than learning from (dare I say enjoying?) the process.

Now, I’m a lot better at dispensing this advice than following it—so maybe we should practice “being in the moment” in a yoga pose. You can apply this skill to the Big Picture later, once your Triangle/Warrior II/Dog is perfectly observed.

Pick a favorite, but challenging, standing pose—one that improves as you hold it for awhile. Obvious candidates are: Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Dog), Trikonasana (Triangle), Virabhadrasana I or II (Warrior I or II), or Parsvakonasana (Lateral Angle). Come into the pose in stages and notice what part of the body is doing the most work in each stage—grounding evenly through all parts of the foot, squaring the hips, elongating the spine, keeping the shoulder blades down, lengthening the neck—and take a few breaths at each stage so you are fitting the pieces of the pose together like a puzzle.

Once you are in the pose, keep checking in with these key areas. Can you deepen the work in a specific area with an exhale? How does that deepening affect the next area? Keep repeating the cycle and checking in every few breaths, but allowing yourself time to be still in the pose, too. If you start to get tired, see if concentrating on just your breath allows you more time in the position. When you are ready to come out, do it slowly, area by area, so the body unfolds from the pose rather than snapping (or sagging) to attention. Come into a relaxation pose (Balasana-Childs’, Tadasana-Mountain, Sukhasana-Easy) and observe the after-effects of the longer pose.

Obviously the interesting part of this exercise is not coming into the relaxation pose, or even coming out of the more difficult standing pose. See if you can recreate the feeling of discovery and opening that you noticed during this practice in the task that plagues you in your “real” life. It will be a lot harder than balancing your foot or aligning your tailbone, of course, but maybe this awareness will keep you engaged in the process.

I can’t guarantee that this will make tax preparation any more enjoyable, but I’ll bet you will find something interesting and new about how your garden wakes as the snow melts or how you perceive your professional achievements during a job search. Worse comes to worst, you can always just fling yourself back into Dog Pose and enjoy a nice, long stretch—you know that process will make you happy. ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Review of the Literature...

Next week begins a new session at the Y, so I thought I'd update all my links and sidebar information. There's a lot of stuff I've been looking at over the past few months, but hadn't got around to adding it to the blog. Blogger created a new template system, so it's extra easy to add links (if you are fishing around for a new format for your blog)--so I guess my procrastination has paid off.

Yoga Resources This is information and reference material. There's a link to the Stateline Family YMCA with my class listing. Nu-Source is the company I use for yoga props. Yoga Movement and Yoga Journal are good all-over resources; YM for seeking out different web sites and YJ for just about everything yoga-related, with lots of articles and descriptions of poses and practice sequences. Yoga Dancer is a comprehensive list--with pictures--of poses. And Yoga Font is a typeface designed by an Englishman that you can download to write sequences with.

Yoga Books These are books I use all the time when writing this blog and planning my classes. They have invaluable information about the physiology of the poses and ways to modify/intensify various asana.

Yoga Blogs This group of blogs/websites/podcasts are things I've come across on the internet that I think are worth a look. Alan Little has a blog similar to mine, in which he discusses poses and suggests sequences. Body and Breath and Hip Tranquil Chick are site that sell a lot of different yoga items, but have some interesting links. Everything Yoga has some good links, too. Moving Into Stillness is a huge discussion group that covers just about every yoga topic you can think of; the moderator, Suzanne DeForest does a nice job of keeping everything civil. Open Mind Open Body is a thougtful site by Kelly McGonigal, with some good suggestions for meditation, etc. Yoga Dawg and Cupcakes and Yoga are "lighter" sites; Dawg is downright irreverent (and hilarious), Cupcakes is personal and has some nice recepies for, you guessed it, cupcakes. Yoga Peeps is an interview show hosted by Lara Cestone and is downloadable to a MP3 player.

Give them all a look, and let me know what you think. I'll also welcome any suggestions for sites to add--I only have so much time for "research." Happy Surfing!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Snow Yoga

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? We were all out for a wintry walk yesterday morning, because we had to get out of the house. Late winter in Wisconsin can be excruciating for a 2 ½-year-old—and his parents—so we bundled up and headed out to the trail behind our house. It was a clear, crisp day with a several layers of snow on the ground from our last three weekend storms. Jim and I broke through last week’s layer, but Eamonn sailed across on the top, which delighted him (and meant he didn’t need carrying).

The boys forged on ahead into the woods, while I hung back. It was so lovely and peaceful that a quick yoga practice seemed appropriate; I plopped down into Virasana (Hero Pose), closed my eyes and let the sounds of the cool air and birds be my soundtrack. I was bundled enough that the cold didn’t bother me, so it was a really nice, different way to approach a short session of focused relaxation. Give it a try, before the snow melts!

1. Pick a quiet, peaceful spot, without distractions like neighborhood noise or traffic. Make sure you are bundled warmly; being cold will be more distracting than noise and you want to be able to focus on your environment. This won’t be for very long, but you should be comfortable.

2. Find a favorite pose that you can hold for 10 or 15 minutes: Sukhasana (Easy Pose), Virasana, Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), Dandasana (Staff Pose) are all comfortable poses, that you could do leaning against something for more support. Adjust as you need to accommodate your winter wrapping; you will be bulkier, so you may need to modify the position because of your boots, snow pants, etc.

3. Once you are comfortably situated, close your eyes and let yourself settle into the position. Be aware of the noises you hear all around you—wind in the branches, birds, a far-off snow blower, dripping icicles—don’t focus on them but let the sounds enter and leave your awareness as it happens. Stay in this calm, alert-but-relaxed state for as long as you wish.

4. Head inside for some hot chocolate and, remember, spring is only 16 days away! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.