Relieve Neck Tension and Breathe Easier

Whether you are a cyclists or just sit at your desk all day, you probably have neck and shoulder issues. When we round forward over our tasks, the back muscles become long and weak and the chest muscles short and tense. This gives us the “hunched back” look, and actually restricts the lungs since we are closing off the space around the rib cage. With our head forward we begin to put strain on our upper back and neck. Some gentle stretches will help eliminate this poor posture and allow the lungs to breathe easier.

Begin by sitting cross legged or even in a chair, the spine long. Drop your right ear to your shoulder and place your right hand on your left temple. Gently guide the ear closer to the shoulder. After several breaths remove your hand and slowly bring the head back to center. Repeat this on the other side. Making sure the spine is still long, turn to look over your right shoulder. Place your right hand at the back of the head and gently guide the chin closer to the shoulder. You should feel this along the side neck and behind the left shoulder blade. After a few breaths slowly remove the hand and draw the head to center. Repeat this on the other side. Lastly, place a block lengthwise between your shoulder blades and another under your head. Turn the palms up and allow the chest muscles to passively stretch. You can stay here for up to 5 minutes. If you don’t have blocks you can lie over a foam roller for the same effect.

Categories: Alignment, Anatomy, Asana

I just finished my new DVD! You can now buy it for $24.95 by emailing me at Jennifer@YogaJournies.com. Everyone can do this video, whether you are a cyclist, a yogi or not. Once you get comfortable with the warm up, move on to the more challenging core sequence. Relax and stretch with the Yin and Beach sequences.

Categories: Asana, Video

Double Strap Pose/ Supta Padungustasana

Supta Padungustasana or “Reclined Big Toe Pose” is a staple of every class I teach. This version with double straps is great for creating more space in the lower back and hip joint. Often the femur bone (upper leg bone), is forced to the front of the hip socket due to our sedentary lifestyles. This traction version of  the pose helps to pull the femur bone to the back of the hip socket creating more space in the joint. Try it:

Double Strap Pose A

Double Strap Pose A -You will need two yoga straps. Take one and make a loop by feeding the strap though the metal rings and back over a ring and under the second ring. Pull the strap tight to make sure you created the loop right. Lying on your back hold up the loop and put your right leg through. Place the end with the rings in your hip crease so that you can easily adjust it, while the other end of the strap is looped around your left foot. Bring your right leg up to the ceiling and place the second strap over the sole of the foot. The arms are straight and the shoulders are pressing down into the floor. After you have stretched the right hamstrings for a minute or so, bend the left knee and then tighten the strap loop around your right hip. Straighten your left leg and feel the strap pulling the femur bone down towards the left foot. Breathe here for as long as it feels appropriate for you. I usually like about 2 minutes.

Double Strap Pose B

Double Strap Pose B – For the next version of this pose place both ends of the upper strap into your right hand. Externally rotate your right leg (turning your right foot out to the right by moving the leg from the hip joint), and breathe deeply as you begin to lower the leg out to the side. The deeper you breathe the more the diaphragm will work with the core and spinal muscles to keep you stable. Continue to press through your left heel for stability as well. The idea is to keep the pelvis and left hip rooted to the floor, versus dropping the right leg to the floor. As soon as you feel the left hip lifting off the floor stop there and instead try and stabilize the pelvis while drawing the right leg closer to your head. If you are having trouble stabilizing your torso, or if you feel strain in your lower back you can place a block or other prop under your right hip or ankle. Breathe here for 1-3 minutes.

Double Strap Pose C

Double Strap Pose C - For the final version of the pose bring your right leg back up to the ceiling and then take both of the upper straps  into your left hand. Begin to cross your right leg over to the left, rolling over onto your left side stacking your right hip on top of your left. You do not need to lock out the right knee. In fact if at any time during these variations you feel the leg trembling or shaking you can soften the bend in the knee and back off a bit. Sometimes as we try too hard we actually overstretch the nerve which fires and tells the muscle to contract. As it does it becomes counter productive since the muscle is contracting and shortening while you want to relax and stretch it. Remember that  sometimes less is more. Once you have crossed the right leg over you can let it hover at hip height or place your foot on a block for support. Keep both shoulder blades on the floor to complete the twist. You will feel a stretch in the right buttock which is lengthening the muscle that covers the sciatic nerve. This should help alleviate the pressure on the nerve and when done right I find this whole sequence will help to relieve sciatic symptoms. After 1-3 minutes you can come out of the pose and take off the second strap. Lie on your back a moment with your eyes closed and notice the extra length and space in your right hip and low back. Return the loop  to it’s original loop size and repeat the sequence on the left side.

Categories: Alignment, Anatomy, Asana

Surya Namaskar A

Surya Namaskar A is a sun salutation. This salute to the sun is the first in the series of  Salutations. Traditionally a sun salute is done in the morning to greet the new day. This can be considered a full practice since it contains all the necessary elements; breath, forward  folds,  backbends and core. Begin by practicing each step, spending a few breaths in each pose. When you feel comfortable with the sequence you can eventually move at a pace that is one movement per breath. Inhale for backbends and exhale for forward bends. When you feel your ready, try doing 5 cycles of Surya Namaskar A. I have shown stepping back to plank. If you choose to jump back, land in Chaturanga with the elbows bent. This is safer for the joints as it’s less jarring to the body. I have not included the best photo of Chaturanga so be mindful that the elbows are over the wrists, like in Cobra pose. For the end I have shown hopping forward, you could also walk the feet up to the front of the mat. Have fun with your mini practice getting a great start to your day!

Categories: Asana

Plantar Fasciitis

Plantar Fascia on the sole of the foot

Plantar =relates to the action of plantar flexion, which means to point the foot

Tight plantar fascia makes it difficult to bring the toes towards the shin

Fascia = connective tissue

Itis = inflammation

Plantar Fasciitis is the inflammation of the tissue on the sole of the foot. The Plantar Fascia is a thick connective tissue that extends from the heel to the toes and creates the arch of the foot. When walking this tissue is under tension and helps create a spring action to conserve energy and propel the body forward. When the tissue becomes inflamed it may be more difficult to Dorsiflex the ankle, which is to draw the toes toward the shin bone. Pain may be felt in the heel or in the arch when taking the first steps of the day.

Making sure your ankle, Achilles tendon, and calf muscles are flexible can help prevent plantar fasciitis so here are a few poses you can use.

Sitting on the feet/ Vajrasana

To decompress the front of the ankles you can sit on your feet. Start by bringing your feet underneath your sit bones while  keeping the heels together. If this is relatively comfortable you can sit here for a couple of minutes. For those who are a bit more flexible you can place your hands on the floor behind you and lean back allowing the knees to lift off the floor, stretching the front of the ankles. Slowly lower the knees back down. If you ever feel discomfort in the knees then either place a blanket in the knee crease to keep the joint open or you can elevate the hips by sitting on a block or other prop.

Hero's pose/ Virasana with a block

The higher the hips, the less pressure on the knees and ankles. If there is still discomfort in the knees then come out of the pose.  Next, curl all ten toes under on the mat and bring the heels together. See if you can sit on the heels. This will stretch the toes and the plantar fascia. If it is a new stretch for you, you may only be here  for a breath or two. Eventually it will feel more comfortable and you can stay here for several minutes.

Curl the toes under and sit on the heels

Curl the toes under and sit on the heels

Lastly, come to table pose on hands and knees and lift the hips up to the ceiling in good old fashioned Downward facing dog pose. Hands are shoulder width apart and feet are hip width apart. “Walk the dog”, by bending the right knee and press the left heel to the floor with a straight leg. Then bend the left knee and press the right heel to the floor with a straight leg. Continue to walk it out side to side to stretch the calves and Achilles. Straighten both legs and come up onto the tiptoes and then slowly lower the heel towards the floor. When your done with this sequence come down into child’s pose to rest and feel the effects of your practice.

Downdog/ Adho Mukha Svanasana


Categories: Alignment, Anatomy, Asana

Shoulderstand: To prop or not to prop?

If shoulderstand isn’t already integrated into your practice, it may be one day so understanding how to keep this inversion safe will keep you on your mat. First things first, know your body; every pose is not right for everybody. Certain conditions are contraindicated for inversions. If you have a detached retina or any other condition where you know you should avoid an increase in pressure in the head or chest, you will want to eliminate shoulderstand from your practice. If you have a headache,  women on their cycle, or those with neck issues, generally want to avoid the pose as well.

Bridge with 2 blankets/ Setu Bandha Sarvangasana

When deciding if shoulderstand is right for you, work with bridge first. Lying on your back with your knees bent, feet hip width apart. Press your low back into the floor tilting your pelvis up, and then continue to lift your hips off the floor. Clasp your hands underneath your buttocks and then roll each shoulder underneath the torso. Notice that the weight of the pose is now on your shoulders, arms and the back of your head. You should have enough room to slide a pencil between your shoulder blades. This is exactly how shoulderstand should feel, on the shoulders, not in-between them. If rolling the shoulders underneath your body is difficult for you, work with bridge a while before moving on to shoulderstand.

Most students roll into shoulderstand on a clean mat, with nothing underneath them. First of all, if you are unable to roll the shoulders underneath you, all the weight of your body is now on your cervical spine, your neck. Even if you do master getting the weight on your shoulders the back of the neck is flattened on the floor with most of your body weight pressing down on just a couple vertebrae. Over time shoulderstand will flatten the natural curve in your neck by overstretching the nuchal ligament that runs along the cervical vertebrae and helps support the weight of the head.

Shoulderstand with 2 blankets/ Salamba Sarvangasana

So how can you do shoulderstand safely when there seems to be so many contraindications? A supported shoulderstand, like taught in the Iyengar system, is much safer for the neck. The only change from your beloved pose is adding 2-3 blankets. Most blankets at the studio are already folded the way you need for the pose so just stack at least 2 on top of your mat. Have the folded edge facing the back of the room and the fringe edge towards the front. You can always flip the end of your mat on top of the blankets to give you some extra traction. Lie back on the blankets with your head on the floor, not the blankets. Feel that you have about two inches between the edge of the blankets and your shoulders. Now roll into your shoulderstand. Look at the ceiling to avoid turning the head to either side. The extra height of the blankets may seem strange at first but now your neck can maintain it’s natural curve while the weight of the body is distributed to the shoulders and the back of the head.

Categories: Alignment, Anatomy, Asana

Inversions: Should you invert on your cycle?

Have you ever gone to practice and heard the teacher say that if you are on your cycle to avoid inversions? Then you may go to another class and the teacher may say, “just listen to your body to decide if you should invert or not.” Well, which is it? Should you invert or not? I  ran across this quote in Yoga Journal and thought it would shed some light on the subject.

“During the menses, the pelvic vascular bed contains more blood than at other times of the cycle. The uterine blood supply enters the uterus from the right and left sides of the pelvis. These blood vessels are located in the broad ligaments that suspend the uterus from the pelvis. The uterine arteries are thick-walled and muscular. The uterine veins are thin-walled and easily collapsed. During inversions, the uterus is pulled towards the head by gravity, causing the broad ligaments to be stretched. This can cause stretch and partial collapse or occlusion of the thin-walled veins, while allowing the uncollapsed arteries to continue to pump in blood. Thus, more blood enters the uterus via the arteries than can be carried away by the veins. The vascular congestion that results can lead to increased menstrual bleeding.” Mary P. Schatz, M.D.

I tell my students to wait to invert if they on the first few days of their cycle. The body is naturally trying to flush so inverting and turning the body upside down is counter productive. Legs up the wall will invert the legs without elevating the pelvis or sitting in Hero’s pose can help eliminate some cramping symptoms.

Hero’s pose/ Virasana

Legs up the wall/ Vipariti Karani

Categories: Anatomy, Asana

Quick Tip: Warrior 2

Warrior 2 is one of the basic poses we all learn. As a teacher I find that even the most advanced students could still benefit from spending some time at the wall. Here’s how:

Warrior 2 at the Wall/ Virabhadrasana 2

Stand with your back to the wall and step your feel about 3-4 feet wide.Turn your left foot out 90 degrees and your back foot in 45 degrees. Place your hands on your hips and bend the front knee and make sure it aligns directly over the ankle. Place a block between the thigh and the wall. Press your thigh firm into the block to activate your external hip rotators. Make sure that you can see your big toe which means that your knee is pointing over your second toe. Reach your arms out to the sides and feel the pinkies touch the wall along with the back of the head. Remember that the shoulders square to the wall but the hips will slightly rotate towards the front knee. Lastly, press the back thigh back towards the wall as well, drawing the femur bone to the back of the hip socket. Breathe here for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the other side. The next time you do Warrior 2 in the middle of the room work the pose as if you are still at the wall and feel your new alignment and strength!

Categories: Alignment, Anatomy, Asana | Leave a comment

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