From beginners to advanced classes, hearing, “make sure your ankle is over your knee,” is on of the most common explanations in yoga. And although we know it’s important, we never really think about why and in an hour or 90 minute class, it’s a lot for an instructor to explain all that goes along with, “ankle-under-knee.”
Lunges (high and low), the variations of Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose), Crescent Pose, the different variations of Parsvakonasana (side angle pose), Utkatasana (Chair/strong Pose), Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)… all these poses follow that direction of alignment, ankle under knee.
For basics purposes, we will look at the alignment of the lower leg using the basic low lunge, which is a great build up and strengthener to all the poses mentioned above. The proper placement of the knee over the ankle brings into light the fact that the body is like a line of dominoes and when you move into a pose, the bodies correct movement into any asana is like knocking down that line of dominoes; each one goes in a certain place for the next domino to fall and so on, and so on. However, if one domino is out of place, or not properly aligned, the cascade of dominoes will stop. So will the asana, just short of reaching its full benefits.
The placement of the knee over the ankle in a lunge, brings not only proper alignment of the lower leg, hips and spine, but also balance in the pose and proper muscle stretch and strengthen, as well as proper muscle relaxation.
Allowing the knee to go over the recommended 90 degree angle, when the knees hides our toes in a lunge, although we feel we are stretching, this in fact, brings the stretch to the wrong areas of the body. Allowing the knee to go beyond the toes, not only can cause people with tight calf muscles to raise their heel causing a lack of balance, it also puts unnecessary strain in the ligaments in both the ankles and knees rather than our muscles.
Ligaments are fibrous tissues that holds one bone to another in joints, like our knees. They are what prevent our knees from bending backward, and although they are slightly stretchy, they only allow for joint movement and are not meant to be stretched like muscles are. They were made to stabilize our joints and bones. Over stretching your ligaments leads to weak joints, injury, pain and if torn may need surgery to repair. But properly aligning our knee in a lunge will also do more than save our ligaments from strain, it also allows for proper stretching of muscles.
Allowing the knee to align over the ankle can also bring a deeper stretch into your muscles in the hip and quads of the extended leg behind you and strengthen the quadriceps of the front leg, as it is engaged to stabilize the body in the pose. However, when we think about it, for one muscle to stretch and or strengthen, another, its opposite must relax for the stretching muscle to reach it’s full potential, this is also very important in yoga. With the knee in its proper place, it allows the hamstrings and gluteal muscles of the front, bent leg to relax. However, this stretch goes beyond the hips, although it may not feel that way in the middle of the pose.
As we progress in our yoga practice, we develop balance and strength to deepen our stretches. If we instead move our knee past our toes causing us to lift the heel and this leaves you with a smaller area to balance when you are ready to lift your upper body in a lunge. When we align our bent leg properly, we can bring our center of gravity in alignment as well; bringing our weight to the balls of the feet, the center of the heel and slightly into our big toe for correct balance. Once your upper body is lifted, this also allows you to engage your core muscles in your belly, our abdominal muscles, which in turn allows our lower back to relax, and eventually, our chest to open forward and our arms to reach higher toward the sky.
We all start somewhere in yoga. We may not get very deep in a stretch at first or we may not look like the more experienced people in the room do, but it all starts with alignment, because that is what helps build everything else.
Randomly two years ago, I said to my husband out of no where, after two years
of practice, “Hmm, I think someday I would like to teach yoga.” Never really knowing how, when or pursuing any path directly toward that, I carried on with life. It was more, at the time, one of those things you just say, as in, “Oh this would be nice to do,” but you don’t really know if you ever will, like “We should go on that second honeymoon someday.” As time passed, I eventually started practicing with two great teachers, Deborah and Shirley, enjoying every moment of my practice, slowly adapting niyamas and yamas as a natural part of life.
But, like all things meant to be, becoming a yoga teacher found a way. Last winter, I was asked if I had every been interested in teaching and next thing I know, I am standing in line at Houston Bush International Airport waiting to check into my flight to Huatulco, Mexico for a six week intensive training.
Eighteen people had also signed up and pledged almost two months of their life to take the same journey I did, all for different reasons. Other than a woman fromKentucky, Rebekah, I had exchanged a few emails with about possibly rooming, I knew no one. Although I ended up someone else’s roommate, I met Rebekah in Houston for our flight. What was suppose to be just a two hour 20 minute flight, turned into two back and forth trips to an overnight stay inVeracruz, Mexico, we finally made it to our final destination, Zipolite,Mexico.
Life is slow and simple but in the best way possible. One of the first lessons you learn there is not so much patience, but assimilation to the pace and ease of the area. Life moves at a natural pace and rhythm, one you would imagine it should move.
The yoga room, which consisted of a large room with wood floors, two brick walls and two open sides, complete with the palm roofing most buildings had the area, provided us with the most beautiful meditation. We woke before dawn each morning for a 6 a.m. meditation, the open shala left us with nothing but our breath and the sounds of the waves and the jungle; birds carrying on conversations, geckos, bats, roosters, turkeys and a very loud donkey. After an hour of sometimes hard to settle practice or connecting with myself in ways I never had before, we started two hours of asana (posture). The first two Mondays, I thought I would never make it past the end of the week. We retrained muscles, relaxed, strengthened, stretched and aligned. It was the first week I met what is famously called the “banquito” also known as the headstander. Brigette made no hesitation with getting us ready to introduce this contraption. We spent almost each day increasing our time on the banquito, bringing space in our spine, twisting and finally coming to love our time in an upside down world. It took getting over initial fear to truly relish in the benefits.
One thing I did not expect of asana was how much opening we did, not only physically, but emotionally. Backbends especially, brought memories, repressed anger, depression and hurt bubbling up to the surface for many. I must admit one day after laying and opening my chest on the arch, I broke down in the class crying in savasana while Poa, Brigette’s assistant, and a lovely person massaged what was that week a frozen shoulder that had no pain but also had no strength when I lifted my arm to and above shoulder level.
However, after six weeks of these intense morning practices, work and advice from Brigette, Poa and some great guest teachers; David McAmmond, Anne O’Brien and Marianna Ekimo, everything from my Urdhva Dhanurasana to my Tadasana improved. I am now even able to easily take myself up into Sirsasana.
After two hours of asana, each morning we enjoyed yogurt, made by Rens, a local resident, granola, fresh fruit and tea. On Fridays we were able to enjoy coffee.
Our second classes varied from week to week, we had two weeks of anatomy with Izaskun, one of the most amazing women and teachers I have ever met. Then one week of a second practice with each of our three guest teachers learning restorative practice, prenatal and children’s yoga and advanced postures.
Ending between noon and one, we would break for lunch until our afternoon class of restorative alignment with Brigette or yoga philosophy or history through 5:30 or 6 p.m. Leaving us ready to just eat and then retire to our rooms for some conversation and sleep.
For six weeks we kept at this pretty physical and grueling schedule. Some deviations came as the weeks passed when my roommate Claudia, a woman after my own heart, suggested we move our alarm for the morning back five minutes. We both agreed each week to let us sleep just a bit longer, only waking up again at that original 5:15 a.m. time if one of us was too tired to shower the night before.
Claudia, a German woman who was living inHolland, and my roommate for the six weeks I was there, must have been sent by a higher power. I can honestly say I truly to miss her. We had some of the best conversations and she had such a warm personality. And if you are ever in her area of the world, I highly recommend seeking her out for a class.
She was one of the many great people that I meet and trained with. As manyknow, I left my wonderful and supportive husband, Matt, my sun, and my two children for the duration of the training. What made this whole time bearable were those special people. Never have I experienced such a large group just mesh and “create one energy,” in the words of, in all truthfulness, one of the most beautiful people I have ever met, Elise, a fellow trainee, now a yoga teacher. They came fromCanada,Austria,Mexicoand theU.S.but while we were there, we were all from the same place, we all have the same connection and we always will. I like to think when we do see each other again it will be like no time has past.
Outside of yoga, there are so many memories I will keep with me forever. Everyone is very special and I will never forget them but there are a few that will stand out of my mind, requiring no thought to recall. The snorkeling trip I took with Stefanie where I got sea sick, the late night conversations with Claudia, my roommate, as well as the fun taxi ride to Puerto Angel, the trip to Mazunte with Claudia, Stefanie and Christine, as well as a trip to Mazunte and Punta Cometa with Rebekah and that late night walk back under the stars, the drinks we shared and great conversations.
Coming back wasn’t hard, it was leaving that was. I am so glad to be back with my family and friends, but miss the friends and teachers. I know that this time prepared me for a great ride ahead.
There is a saying, when you thank a yoga teacher for a practice, one response is “Don’t thank me thank my guru.” I will forever bring my hands to my chest and bow my head to Deborah and Shirley for this wonderful opportunity and giving me a chance to grow and learn.
Tadasana is one of the most common poses in yoga. In vinyasa yoga, it frequently starts a sequence and is the beginning and end to our Sun Salutes (Surya Namaskar). Although it may look simple, Tadasana is a VERY active pose. In this pose, we may have a tendency to over compensate from our slouching throughout the day and try to straighten our body by pushing the shoulders too far back and sticking our chest out. Rather, try to find a neutral position and symmetry by first finding your ground in this pose.
1. Bring your feet together with the outer edges of your feet parallel with the sides of your mat. Lift your toes, spread them and place them back down. Ground the toes, balls, heels and outer edges of the foot as you lift through the arches of the feet.
2. Firm your thigh muscles and lift the knee caps, lift the inner thighs to the groins. Imagining a line of energy moving from the inner thighs and groins to the torso. Turn the thighs slightly inward, lengthen the tailbone through the floor.
3. Press your shoulder blades back for a moment and then widen them, finally releasing them back down.
4. Without pushing your lower ribs forward, lift your chest upward, widening the collar bones. Spread your fingers and reach your fingertips toward the floor. Chine is level with the floor, crown of the head toward the ceiling.
5. Move the energy in your spine from your feet, to the thighs, through the chest, and through the crown of the head.
6. Hold and breath.
7. When you feel ready, release the pose and shake your body out.
Rio Grande Valley summer temperatures are here, but rather than head to the pool to cool down from the heat, come to the mat.
Yes, there are many cooling yoga poses and breathing exercises that will actually help your mind and body chill out, turning on your internal A/C. Many yogis even have entire sequences dedicated to helping students cool down through restful moves, longer breaths and decompression.
Using pranayama is also a great way to cool the body. Practicing Sitali, the cooling breath, is a good way to start or end a practice. To do sitali, come to a comfortable cross-legged position, take two or three deep cleansing breaths. Roll the tongue, curing the sides in toward the center to form a tube and stick the end of the tongue between pursed lips, or purse the lips as if using a straw making a small “O” shape with the mouth. Inhale through the “tube” or lips. To exhale, close the mouth curling the bottom of the tongue to the roof of your mouth exhaling through the nostrils. Repeat five to 10 times.
Some of the most cooling poses are forward bends in general, especially seated forward bends. This sequence by Jason Crandell, for Yoga Journal, is a great forward bend practice we have used in some of our open-level classes.
Here are some poses to keep in mind for summer practice, (please note pose difficulty increases with the number. Poses further down the list are recommended for more advanced students only):
1. Savasana (corpse Pose): Lying on the floor, being your legs about hip-width distance apart, let your feet fall to the sides. Extend your arms about six inches away from the body palms facing the ceiling, allowing the fingers to curl naturally. Relax every muscle, close the eyes and breath normally.
2. Virparita Karani (legs up on the wall): Lying down near a wall, extend your legs up the wall. Move your hips in as close as you can to the wall so the legs do not have to work to stay up. Close your eyes and rest in the pose. MODIFICATION: If the hamstrings are tight, move the hips far enough away so not to strain them. Also, a bolster under the hips will provide additional support and relaxation.
3. Balasana (childs Pose): Kneel on the floor, knees spread open further than the hips and big toes touching. Take your hips back toward your heels and bring your torso and head to the floor. Either extend your arms resting on the floor above your head, or bring them alongside your legs. MODIFICATION: Bring a block or cushion between your feet to rest the sitting bones on, or fold a blanket under your knees for extra padding.
4. Supta Baddha Konasana (reclined bound angle pose): Lying on the back, bend the knees to where they face the ceiling and bring the feet to the floor. Start to bring the soles of the feet together pushing into one another and slowly let the knees fall outward toward the outer edges of the mat. Bring your hands either to your belly or inner thighs. Rest here. To come out of the pose, push again through the soles of the feet to bring the feet back to floor and knees bent toward the ceiling. MODIFICATION: Use blocks, cushions or blankets to support your knees and legs as you rest in this pose.
5. Ado Mukha Svanasana (downward-facing dog): Come to the floor on your hands and knees in table position. Spread your fingers so your index fingers are parallel and curl your toes under. Lift your knees away from the floor as you start to raise your hips upward and back simultaneously, still keeping a bend in the knees and pushing through the palms to fully extend your upper body. Begin to bring the heels toward the floor, pushing your thigh bones back and straightening the knees. Keep the neck relaxed. ADVANCED MODIFICATION: Extending through the arms back toward the hips, bring your forehead toward the floor resting on a block.
6. Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend): Sit on the floor with both legs straight and flat on the floor. Pushing through the sitting bones back, while moving through the chest forward, slowly fold from the hips to bring the torso toward the legs. Take a few slow breaths here. MODIFICATION: Bend the knees in this pose to properly stretch the hamstrings and alleviate pain and stress in the lower back. A bolster can also be used to resting on top of the legs to support the torso.
7. Janu Sirsasana (head-to-knee forward bend): Sit on the floor with both legs straight in front of you. Bend the left knee and bring the sole of the left foot to the inner-right thigh. Square your torso over the extended leg and begin to fold forward from the hips pushing through the sitting bones back, while moving through the chest forward. Hold the pose for a few breathes and Repeat on the other side. MODIFICATION: You can sit on a blanket if the hips are too tight or bend the extended leg.
8. Halasana (plow pose): Great pose for advanced students to practice: Lying on the floor, inhale and extend your legs toward the ceiling straight above your waist supporting your back with your hands. Exhale slowly and bend your legs bringing your knees to above your face and beyond your head. Slowly extend the legs and start to lower them to the floor over your head. Breath here with your chin resting against your chest. To come out of the pose, slowly bend the knees and lower them to the floor. DO NOT TURN YOUR HEAD IN THIS POSE. MODIFICATION: While still lying on the floor, place a zafu, or meditation cushion, under your hips. Extend your legs toward the ceiling and breathe here.
*Photos courtesy of www.yogajournal.com
Cat lift and cat round have become one of the most essential sequences in yoga class. This shoulder and hip stretch is done in almost every class. But besides a stretch, why are the cat poses so important?
We came across a great explanation in Erich Shiffmann’s book, “Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness.” Hopefully, this will help you deepen your practice in the cat poses.
“Cat Pose teaches you to initiate movement from your center and to coordinate your movements and breath. These are two of the most important themes in asana practice.
The alignment of your center depends on the positioning of your pelvis. Therefore, think of your hip positioning as the center of each pose. This is important because your spine is the most significant line of energy in every pose and because the way your spine elongates from your center depends solely oil which way your pelvis is turning. If your sacrum is tilted forward (dog tilt), your spine will project forward before beginning its upward ascent, increasing the curve of your lower back. If your sacrum is tilted backward (cat tilt), your spine will project backward, rounding your lower back.
“Every yoga pose involves positioning your pelvis in either “cat tilt,” “dog tilt,” or “neutral”–or in moving toward one of these or the other. In most poses only one of these choices is appropriate.”
paschimottana = intense stretch of the west
pashima = west
uttana = intense stretch
1. Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Flex your feet to keep the legs active. If needed, pull the flesh from under you sitting bones.
2. Inhale, and keeping the front torso long, lean forward from the hip joints, not the waist. Lengthen the tailbone away from the back of your pelvis. If possible take the sides of the feet with your hands, thumbs on the soles, or reach for your ankles or shins, elbows fully extended. Bend your knees if needed to take the stretch in the hamstrings rather than your back.
3.With each inhalation, lift and lengthen the front torso just slightly; with each exhalation release a little more fully into the forward bend. In this way the torso oscillates and lengthens almost imperceptibly with the breath. Eventually you may be able to stretch the arms out beyond the feet on the floor or straighten the legs.
5.Stay in the pose anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes. To come up, first lift the torso away from the thighs and straighten the elbows again if they are bent. Then inhale and lift the torso up by pulling the tailbone down and into the pelvis.
Paschimottanasana is one of the most basic poses in Hatha Yoga and can be one of the most relaxing if done properly. When first coming into the pose it is always best to start this pose with your knees bent no matter what level you are at in your practice. Beginners should sit up on a folded blanket in this pose, and most beginners need to hold a strap around the feet. Extremely stiff students can place a rolled up blanket under their knees.
The steated foward bend stretches the entire backside of the body from the heels to the neck. Other benefits include:
- Calms the brain and helps relieve stress and mild depression
- Stretches the spine, shoulders, hamstrings
- Stimulates the liver, kidneys, ovaries, and uterus
- Improves digestion
- Helps relieve the symptoms of menopause and menstrual discomfort
- Soothes headache and anxiety and reduces fatigue
- Therapeutic for high blood pressure, infertility, insomnia, and sinusitis
- Traditional texts say that Paschimottanasana increases appetite, reduces obesity, and cures diseases.
Recently, Fox Business column “The Boomer” featured a Q&A with internationally recognized yogi Susan Winter Ward about how yoga can benefit baby boomers.
As baby boomers near retirement age, yoga is a great way to stay active and even regain flexibility. Ward said “Yoga will help boomers maintain and develop strength and flexibility which keeps us safe as we get older; if we fall we will not get hurt as badly or even at all. Yoga also helps to prevent osteoporosis by keeping bones strong because muscle working against the bone encourages the bone to develop more strength.”
Find out what else she had to say in her article.