In our classes, we are constantly throwing out words like 'bandhas', 'lower abs', 'pelvic floor'. We know we repeat it a lot but there is a very good reason. The deeper abdominal muscles should be responsible for supporting your body, but many people do not engage them while doing yoga or other exercise.
If you learn to engage those muscles, you will be more effective in yoga, running, or anything requiring stability. Your lower back will thank us for it!
Things to consider:
Transverse abdominis "TvA"
Personal trainers, physios and some yoga teachers will use the term 'transverse abdominis'. In yoga, we also call these our bandhas. Specifically, your uddiana bandha (lower abs) and mula bandha (pelvic floor). Engaging those bandhas will help pull your core muscles in and upward, which helps with yoga in 2 ways:
How to do that small movement
Essentially, you are trying to hollow out your belly - pull your belly button towards your spine. Then squeeze your muscles at base of pelvis upward. You could practice at any point in the day without anyone noticing. The pelvic floor is a hard one to explain in classes. To be blunt, you use the muscles that control your bladder - squeeze in and back tightly.
Poses to engage your TvA
When doing plank or chaturanga (the lowering down bit of press up), you will want to draw in your bandhas (lower abs, pelvic floor). This will draw your muscles in centrally, making the pose more about the core and less about the arms and shoulders. It will actually make the pose easier.
Side plank is another great pose. Again, to support your body, you must draw in those bandhas. In side plank, you are also working your obliques, your side abs.
Scale pose (Lolasana) is a great example of what happens when you draw in your lower abs and pelvic floor, it lifts you up! Start by drawing in your bandhas and push up on hands. It does require some upper body strength but you couldn't do it without tightening those deep abdominal muscles.
To be honest, it's hard for everyone to remember to "draw in their bandhas". Even I forget when doing yoga or running. It's helps when yoga teachers remind you in class, which is what I try to do in our classes.
If you do practice engaging your TvA's, it will dramatically improve many things:
Strong deep abs = happy lower back :)
After doing yoga for a while, sometimes we want a little more than a downward dog or triangle. Sometimes we want to push ourselves a bit further, sometimes not. I did yoga regularly for years and didn't push myself, which is fine, too.
When I started regular yoga in 2001, I dreaded the class where the yoga teacher, Trevor, would say "Next, we are going to try some headstands. You can bring your mat up against the wall..." Ugh. I didn't want to stand on my head, so I just would remain in childs pose or watch the people pop up on their mat or wall.
The best alternative and preparation is Dolphin pose, which is Downward Dog on your forearms. So, every time headstand would come up, I'd remain in Dolphin pose. This built my upper body strength and forearm placement for the time I was ready.
I wasn't ready to push myself into handstand for years to come. When you, as the reader, are ready, follow these steps:
There are other ways people can try headstands. It is always taught that the best way to learn headstands is by coming up in a controlled manner.
However, sometimes, people would like to try to kick upwards to the wall, being supported by their teacher.
Tips for a gentle kick up headstand:
Here is my class this morning, giving it a try:
We have all have had a tumble or two on the ski slopes. It is important to build strength and flexibility BEFORE you get skiing.
Doing high impact exercise can be great for strength and cardio but there is also risk of injury. Doing yoga is zero impact, high intensity exercise that will help you get ready for the ski season.
What to expect in ski fit yoga:
Click here to some great poses for before or after skiing:
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We tried our first glowing yoga class on Halloween. It was really fun to teach.
Some yoga purists might question fluorescent light and glow sticks mixed with respected ancient asanas but it does have benefits.
Doing yoga in the dark:
It was also a lot of fun. We hope to do more of these classes throughout the darker months.
I was training for triathlon in 2004 and couldn't figure out why I was having so many hamstring problems. I constantly stretched, I was going to yoga twice a week at work, and I was careful not to 'overdo' it during training sessions. I had massage, physio and finally went to a sports doctor who MRI'd my lower back. Apparently, those lower muscles around my spine were weak.
So, I was given a set of exercises to build up the muscles. But I still didn't know exactly what your core was.
What muscles are in your core?
In yoga, I often state that you need to tighten your pelvic floor 'mula bandha' and lower belly 'uddiyana bandha'. This is a way of locking those muscles which increases stability. Drawing in these muscles helps you balance and gracefully jump from forward bend to plank.
Your core is directly connected to your hamstrings (backs of thighs), glutes (bum/butt), and lower back. By strengthening your core, you will notice improvements in other areas in the body. Yoga poses do not isolate one particular muscle - it works several other areas at the same time. How efficient :)
Here's a vid of plank instructions:
This summer, we trialed some kids classes. They were 30 minutes long and was designed to get the kids moving in a focused way. The format was similar to adults class: Starting off with 5 long breaths to centre and then start moving into some fun sequences.
The kids liked the names of the poses, as the pose names are either animals (making animal sounds, of course) or strengthening names (bold warrior, strong warrior, etc.). The purpose of the bold and strong warrior poses is to remind the kids that they are indeed strong and bold. It is important that kids learn self empowering messages from an early age.
I integrated some mindfulness activities such as pretending to be a frog, sitting quietly and calmly, observing thoughts but being careful to jump too quickly. In order for a frog to catch a fly, it needs to sit still and concentrate in order to catch the fly. This is a good tool for daily life: Learn to fully concentrate on one thing at a time.
One thing I learned when teaching kids is that younger kids already have the skills to behave mindfully. They can focus on one object naturally. This is something that grown ups seem to lose with all the multi tasking and constant barrage of information. Grown ups need to retrain themselves to be more like children: Give one thing all your attention and you will feel calmer and happier. And have fun while you are doing it!
We aren't sure if we will regularly teach kids classes. Our specialty is sports yoga (or yoga for those who want to keep active/injury free). We had some requests to do some teaching for kids this summer and it was fun to try it out. We might do mini-camps during school breaks and will announce it in future.
How does yoga encourage mindfulness? When you go to a yoga class and start centering yourself, this is the time to reset the mind. This is your hour to allow yourself to let go of your to-do lists, your past regrets or future worries. This is the time to be in the present moment, as this is the only relevant moment. There is nothing you can do about the past. And worrying about the future won't change things either. It takes practice, as I often find I clear my mind, allowing for new exciting thoughts during yoga or meditation. But it's best to just clear the mind, no matter how great those thought seem to be.
In yoga, focusing on the breath can calm the mind. That's easier said than done too. As they teach in Vipassana meditation, you focus on the rising (as you inhale) and falling (as you exhale) of the abdomen. Or you can focus on the feeling of air through your throat. Or focus on the sound you make when exhaling through the nose.
In doing the yoga poses, another way to concentrate is to focus on one object, such as an object in front of you (e.g. your hands, your feet, tip of your nose) which is referred as Drishti. This is a gazing technique that is meant to improve concentration. This is very effective when standing in Tree (Vrkasana) pose. If you focus on one point, you are less likely to fall over. You will notice that when you start thinking of many things in tree, you will fall over. Concentrating on one object will help clear your mind as you are concentrating on only one thing - it feels strange at first but definitely the first steps to developing mindfulness.
What is mindfulness? It is appreciating the present and acceptance for how things objectively are. What are benefits to mindfulness? There have been many legitimate studies done which show that it can reduce stress proven by lower blood pressure or digestive disorders. It can reduce anxiety and depression on all levels. But it takes practice. I am looking in the mirror now and saying that after this email, I am going to spend the next 5 minutes being mindful as I did fly off the handle last week when Max dragged a chair across our new wooden floor. Would the Dalai Lama have yelled at his kid for that?
Article on mindfulness: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-mindfulness-good-medicine/
Tight hamstrings is a common complaint for most people I speak to. The lower back, hips and glutes have to overcompensate and can become strained.
Why do we have tight hamstrings? Most people get tight hamstrings from sitting all day... over an accumulation of years (studying or working at computer). Hamstrings can also become tight from running and/or cycling.
There is an easy set of sequences that can be done on a daily basis to stretch out the hamstrings, lower back, hips and glutes. It can be done anywhere and chances are that your children, flatmates or dogs will want to get stuck in with you as well.
All you knee is your body and a belt or anything you can wrap over foot and hold with one hand (e.g. dog leash).
In yoga terms, it is called Supta Hasta Padangusthasana, reclined hand-to-toe pose. These poses are meant to be done using some effort, drawing the belt tighter as time goes on - make it a strong pose.
Instructions below are for 1 leg doing 4 poses. Please walk through the sequence on the other side. This sequence will take 10 minutes or less, depending on how long you'd like to hold each pose.
Pose 1: Start with leg up
Pose 2: Drop leg out to right side, opening right hip
Pose 3: Leg crosses over to opposite side
Pose 4: The final stretch
Switch legs: Place belt on left ball of foot and repeat the 4 poses, using opposite side
This set of stretches, if done every day, will improve your hamstring flexibility. It will alleviate lower back issues.
And if you are still sitting all day at work, remember to get up every hour and walk around. Take laptop to a counter and stand a bit. If you are cycling/running, try to stretch afterwards (ha, ya right).
And remember to mindfully stretch, breathe into it and observe how the muscles are feeling! They will undoubtedly be whispering "thanks" to you.
In Vinyasa Flow yoga, the Sun Salutation is frequently used for many reasons:
For those who would like to remember this sequence quickly, here it is a quick version:
I can give more explanation but many of my students would like a quick way to remember this sequence.
Thanks to my lovely model, Tim, doing the salutations in Cornwall in the misty sunlight.
Posture tip: Lengthen spine
When sitting at your desk or standing, try to lengthen your spine by lifting the crown of the head towards the ceiling (like we do in mountain pose, tadasana). This will improve your posture immediately.
Mindfulness tip: Focus on 1 thing at a time
Put all your concentration into the task you are doing in that exact moment. If you are washing the dishes, focus all your attention on it, even for 30 seconds. It will calm the mind (admittedly, it does feel a bit strange staring at the dishes).
Nutrition tip: Beetroot's similarities with yoga
Beetroot is delicious cooked or raw. Benefits: Cleans the liver, makes you happy, and helps muscle recovery after exercise. How? Vits, antioxidants and serotonin. Yoga has similar benefits as well.
Tim & Shannon: Part time yoga teachers from Cookham, Berkshire. We thought it would be fun to share our learning experiences with like minded people.