Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mega Yoga Stretch

There are a few yoga poses that provide a stretch that is just, well, mega.  These mega stretches may push your intensity threshold, but they are usually worth it.

Thursday classes at the moment offer one of these mega stretches.  On Thursdays we are going from the two ends of the torso to open parts of our body that will help us fly up into backbends.  They are not the only keys to the flying backbend but they really help.  In last week's blog we thought about how our orangutan arms--how our arms connect to our waist.  This week, we get a chance to go to the other end of our torso and consider how our legs also connect to our waist. 

Anatomically, this is true.  There is a muscle called the iliopsoas that goes from our thigh to just below our lower ribs. 

This is a pretty important muscle and, among other things, influences the curvature of our lower back.  If this muscle is too tight, your lower back can get habitually pulled into a curve that is exaggerated (too curved or hyperextended).  Without going into too much anatomy, if your lower back is constantly being pulled into a tighter curve this can lead to all sorts of back problems as the vertebrae get pulled closer and closer together and the discs get compressed.

Backbends require our lower back to be long and free, not tight and compressed.  If your iliopsoas is tight you are going to have trouble feeling this freedom and it is likely that you will get a 'crunching' or squashed feeling in your lower back as you try to come into backbending postures. 

Bearing this in mind, on Thursdays we are doing a mega yoga stretch to help free the iliopasas so that we can have free lower backs in backbends.  We do a wall variation of virasana (hero pose) that seems much more difficult than virasana itself.  This is probably because your thigh is fixed against the wall and cannot move, thereby preserving your alignment, whereas in the real virasana your thigh can move around (even if you try not to let it) and subtly change the alignment of the pose.  As most of you have no doubt found out by now, the smallest change in your alignment can make a huge difference to a posture.  When our body is stretching it will often find little 'escape routes', by which I mean it tries to take us away from the intensity. 

In the the mega stretch on the video clip there is little escape from the intensity.  You need to go with the flow and breathe.  Of course, as always, be mindful of any strain that might be leading to injury.  In this pose the most likely strain would be in the knee joint or possibly the lower back if you are not mindful.  Below I have outlined a few points about the integrity of the joints for this pose:

  • fold up your mat like I do in the video clip.  This is actually just to act as a cushion for your knee.  The thing about this pose is that it looks like the pressure is on your knee, but your weight is actually not on your knee cap but on the bottom of the thigh bone.  I usually do this pose against a wall without my mat, but, having said that, having a little cushion does bring a bit of comfort.
  • watch the front knee does not come too far in front of the ankle and definitely not over the toes.
  • in the video clip I fix my shin straight up the wall and then slip my pelvis inside the heel of my foot to take it all the way back to the wall.  You do not need to do this and you should not force yourself to do this.  Remember, yoga is never about forcing.  Your body will 'do' when it is ready. Your pelvis can stay in front of your foot, it does not have to go back to the wall, and that is completely ok!  You can use this pose as a lunge variation rather than as the virasana variation as I move into.  Work within your limits. 
  • this posture requires us to maintain the normal curve of our lower back.  We don't want to try and flatten it or exaggerate it.  Most people will probably find the curve exaggerating--especially if your iliopsoas is tight.  So be sure to keep your lower ribs from jutting out, which will increase the curve at the lower back. 
  • if you are going to try and take your arms overhead, make sure the natural curve of your lower back is maintained.  Tight latissimus dorsi muscles (which connect your arms to your waist--see last week's post on orangutan arms) will make it difficult to take your arms overhead and the escape mechanism for them will be to try and increase the curve in your lower back to allow you to do so.  So watch what happens to the curve in your lower back as you try to take your arms overhead.  If it starts to get exaggerated then don't take them up any further. 
  • ankles that are tight might make it a bit difficult to get into this posture.  If the front of your ankles are tight and you cannot get them flat against the wall then roll up a little hand towel and place it between your ankle and the wall.
See if you can hold the two poses I demonstrate in the video clip for about a minute each.  Focus on steadying your breath as you do so.  In between legs, get up and move around.  You will really feel the new 'freedom' in the leg that you have just stretched.

This mega yoga stretch really targets the front of your thighs and pelvis and, combined with your orangutan arms (see last week's blog), will help you fly up into backbends!  Have fun and practice safely.

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