Monday, October 3, 2011

No Sweat Yoga, Part I

No need to break a sweat doing yoga!

When I first started yoga, I was attracted to much more physical styles.  Some of the first serious yoga classes I took were from a particularly vigorous style of yoga that that involves some great and challenging postures, invigorating breathing, and a whole lot of sweat.    At the time I was also doing a lot of running (about 60km a week) a lot of cycling (about 100 km a week) and a lot of rock climbing (about 4 nights a week), and it appealed to me to be doing a style of yoga that suited my otherwise athletic lifestyle.  I was very much in the mind-set that I needed to sweat to be doing something good for myself.  
However, within a few months I had stopped these classes, realizing that what I really needed from my yoga was something that slowed me down to balance the other activities that were going on in my life.  It was a pivotal shift in my own thinking—that I could do something good for myself by slowing down both mentally and physically. 
I wonder if there are a lot of people similar to me, who came to yoga with the idea that you have to be bathed in your own sweat puddle by the time you lie down for a few minutes of savasana at the end of your yoga class? 
Nowadays, I prefer my sweating to take place while out on a run rather than on my yoga mat, although that is not to say I still don’t enjoy getting my heart rate up in some challenging yoga sequences as those of you who come to Monday and Thursday classes will no doubt experience! 
But, more and more, my own practice is becoming quieter and quieter.  And so I wanted to share a series of blogs dedicated to lying down yoga.  I have found I can practice yoga quite happily for an hour or more without standing or even sitting up. 
The first pose I want to share is supta padangusthasana.  For those of you who are interested, whenever you see ‘supta’ in the name of any yoga pose, you can get the idea that you are going to be trying to do something relaxing.  All of the ‘supta’ poses are lying down. 
This pose is great to stretch your hamstrings.  I would recommend it for anyone who wants to cultivate hamstring flexibility and, in particular, for anyone with lower back issues.  This is probably the safest forward bend ever.  It’s a big claim, I know, but the reason it is so safe is that your spine is naturally elongated along the floor.  There is no movement or bending of your spine at all and the movement comes from your legs only. 
I would recommend that you practice this daily if you are trying to improve your sitting forward bends.  Importantly, unless you can get your legs past 90 degrees in this pose then you are probably not ready to do straight leg sitting forward bends like paschimottanasana (where you sit on the floor with both legs straight and try to fold forward over your thighs).  This is because if your hamstrings won’t allow your legs to move beyond 90 degrees in the lying down version, the only way you will come forward in a sitting forward bend is to round your spine.  In fact, if you find that you cannot get your legs beyond 90 degrees in the lying (supta) version, then you should either be sitting on a block in the sitting version, or bending your knees.  If nothing else, supta padangusthasanawill force you to be honest about your true hamstring flexibility.
The most relaxing version is to come to a doorframe or pillar, as I have done in the photo below.  I have placed my bottom at the pillar edge and lengthened one leg through along the floor, keeping it straight (if you do this at a door frame your leg will go through the doorway).  The other leg goes up the pillar (or up the doorframe).  To straighten your leg up the pillar/doorframe, you need to have 90 degrees of flexibility.  If you cannot straighten your leg (or if the leg going along the floor starts to bend) then you know you are not ready to sit on the floor in a forward bend without props or adjustments.  If you cannot straighten the leg then you can move your bottom slightly away from the wall so that you can straighten it. 
If you can take your leg up the wall then, if you want to lengthen your hamstrings more, you can take a belt or towel or scarf around the foot and start to draw the leg towards your face.  Keep your shoulders on the ground and your neck relaxed.  One of the most common things I see as a teacher is the displacement of tension into muscles completely unrelated to the ones you are trying to target and in this posture it is not uncommon for people to struggle to reach their foot by lifting their shoulders off the ground or straining their neck. 

Only when you can bring your leg back far enough that you can reach your foot without moving your shoulder away from the ground should you attempt to take your toe with your hand.

A few things to remember in this posture:
·         Don’t displace tension into the neck or shoulders;
·         Take deep, relaxing breaths;
·         Your hamstrings might attempt to escape the stretch by one of two main methods.  Watch out for these.  First, your knee might bend—keep it straight.  Second, your hip/bottom might jut out to the side.  You will feel this as a shortening of the side waist of the raised leg side.  Make sure to keep both side waists equally long and keeping your pelvis level;
·         Lengthen the raised leg heel up into the sky, creating as much distance between the back of your knee and your heel as possible.  This will increase the sensation down the back of your leg dramatically and you may feel a stretch from the heel to the sitting bones;
·         Hold for as long as you like on both sides.  Why not try a couple of minutes?
Enjoy your practice.  I will be back with more sweatless yoga poses soon!
with mettha,


  1. Hi Samantha,
    I've discovered this blog at a time when I wanted to re-start Yoga and would really like to come along for your lessons.

    Should I just turn up (on a Friday)? or do I need to get in touch with you before hand?

    Look forward to hearing from you :)

  2. Hi!
    You can just turn up whenever you like! Looking forward to seeing you! Check out the yoga weekend in November, which might be just the thing to really get you back into yoga!