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Watch out for creeping shoulders in these 7 yoga poses

Keep space under the ears in Paripurna Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist).

Keep space under the ears in Paripurna Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist).

If you’re an alignment junkie like me, you need to check out Katy Bowman’s blog “Alignment Matters!” In one particularly good post she reminded me why I need to be so careful in my yoga practice not to let my shoulders creep up my neck towards my ears. Yoga asanas provide an opportunity to correct some of the muscular imbalances I’ve created as I go through my activities of daily living, but only if I don’t bring those same movement patterns onto my mat. Stop reading this post for a moment and notice where your shoulders are. Have they crept up your neck? If you have creeping shoulders, here’s seven asanas where you’ll need to stay aware of them:

 

  1. Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I) Bring your arms over your head, shoulder width apart, palms facing each other. Could you get your arms up there without your shoulders climbing towards your ears? Drop the tops of your shoulders down so your shoulder blades move onto the back of your ribcage and feel the tension melt out of your neck and jaw.
  2. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II) I see shoulder creep in Vira II all the time in my classes, as well as in my own practice. Float your arms out to the sides until they are shoulder height and hold them there. Notice where you start to feel the “burn” of the isometric contraction that’s keeping your arms in place. Is it in the tops of your shoulders and the sides of your neck? That’s the result of shoulder creep. Drop those babies down and feel the muscles in the tops of the arms take over.
  3. Paripurna Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist) You’ve got one hand on your knee, the other on the floor behind your back and you’ve just twisted to the side. Before you even think about turning your head to look over your shoulder, check out where that shoulder is. Are you trying to keep your spine long by lifting up with your shoulders? Untwist, drop the shoulders down and, instead, lift the bottom of your ribcage away from your hips. Now make the twist with your shoulders relaxed and lots of length in your lumbar spine.
  4. Bhugangasana (Cobra) You want your heart to move forward through your arms in Cobra, but if you’ve got a bad case of shoulder creep you may find yourself dragging your heart up by your shoulders then squeezing your shoulder blades together to push the heart through. Not only is that building tension in your neck, but you’re limiting the ability of the thoracic spine to lengthen into a beautiful backbend. As you lift into your next Cobra, slide your heart forward as you lift, keep your elbows hugging your sides and let your shoulder blades slide down without moving them towards the spine. Lift your ears away from your shoulders and lift the top of your sternum towards your throat and feel your heart open.
  5. Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold) What? My shoulders just have to hang there. How can they be creeping up my neck? Watch somebody new to yoga, especially someone who is tight in the hamstrings or in the low back, try to get deeper into a forward fold. The knees lock, the low back rounds and the shoulders pull the upper back towards the legs, tightening around the neck with every breath. Yes, it happens. I’ve seen it. Worse, I’ve done it. (Hey, I was a yoga newbie once too.)
  6. Trikonasana (Triangle) Sitting right where you are, lift your shoulders up and in towards your ears. Now turn your head to one side. Feel that pinch where your neck meets the top of your shoulder? Bring your head back to center, drop your shoulders back into the relaxed position they were in before I told you to lift them and try the head turn again. Better? Next time you try to look up at your hand in Triangle, remember that.
  7. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge) If you can’t get your hips very high in Bridge, it might be that shoulder creep again, only this time it’s the neck crunching down into the shoulders that’s causing the problem. Before you lift your hips, relax your shoulders and drop your chin towards your throat so the bottom of the back of your skull is resting on the floor. You’ll feel the back of your neck lengthen out of your shoulders. Once you’ve lifted, keep your chin tucked and move your shoulders towards your hips as you draw them behind your back. Now the heart can lift too, allowing the hips to lift higher.

 

Katy’s post shows what shoulder creep does to Downward-facing Dog. Next time you’re on your mat, notice where else your shoulders start climbing your neck. In which poses do you need to correct shoulder creep?

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Yoga is good for your bones

Bones

Yoga is good for your bones. (Photo credit: Theen …)

My favorite yoga students are those who are “aging with gusto,” because most of them truly appreciate what their bodies can still do. Many have overcome serious illnesses or injuries and are happy to be going strong. They know how much of a difference yoga makes in their lives. It is a joy to watch their practices.

I have fond memories of one of my first yoga students. She was 68 years old at the time and had osteopenia, or low bone density, a precursor to osteoporosis.

Because I was teaching an all-level class, I would try to do some challenging asanas each week to keep the practice interesting for the younger people. I also liked to throw in some core work; a strong core helps all the asanas. My 68-year-old with her thin bones tried every asana, and said “yes” when I asked if they wanted one more round of core-strengthing exercises. She’d told me she knew how important it was to stay strong, and that’s why she gave it her all each week. If she didn’t, her bones would get weaker and she wouldn’t be able to run around with her grandchildren.

For most people, bone mineral density is highest when they turn 30. From then on, existing bone cells are reabsorbed by the body faster than new bone cells are made, and the bones lose mass. Exercise helps to build bone mass, so people who were active in their youths will have a higher bone density when they hit the 30 year mark, and will therefore have more to spare as they age. For those of us who weren’t high school jocks, we can still stimulate bone growth with exercise to prevent or slow osteopenia. Exercises which cause muscle to pull on bone, such as walking, running, cycling and yoga, help the bones to retain, or even rebuild, bone mass.

Many of yoga’s asanas are weight bearing and oppose one muscle group against another, which can help reinforce the bones. Yoga also offers some additional benefits as we age. Yoga promotes balance and coordination, which helps prevent the falls which can lead to broken bones. The deep, relaxed breathing reduces tension and toxicity, slowing the overall aging process. Since yoga is accessible to everyone, regardless of current fitness level, it’s never to late to start.

If you are suffering from osteopenia or osteoporosis, it is important to tell your yoga teacher. Brittle bones can break if forced into very deep twists or folds. Your teacher can help you adjust poses to avoid injury.

No matter how old you are, it’s important to stay active. So get out there and walk or run, ride your bike, and, of course, do some yoga. It’s for your bones.

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Yoga to Walk on the Earth

Yoga teaches me how to walk mindfully in the outdoors.

Yoga teaches me how to walk mindfully in the outdoors.

June got lost in a whirlwind of activity. Actually, I just lied to you. June got lost, but the whirlwind was in my mind so there was no visible activity to speak of. I spent four days at the beginning of June with Laura Cornell at her Overflowing Workshops retreat in northern New Jersey. It was fantastic and I enjoyed both the learning and the connections.

But it started the whirlwind.

At the retreat and at other times, I’ve been asked why someone would want to take yoga with me, and I never know the answer. People do take my classes, so there must be reasons, but I couldn’t say what those reasons are. What I can say for certain is people do not come to me to learn how to do the pretty poses of the uber-flexible. I want people to learn how to walk on the earth with awareness, to fully breathe the air, to experience the fire of transformation and to move like a river, flowing through life with ease and wellness.

Yoga to walk on the earth. If you hike, at some point you are going to meet a snake. We’re lucky here in the Adirondacks because we only have one kind of venomous snake, the shy eastern timber rattler. I’ve never encountered a rattlesnake, but I’ve come across a number of his benign cousins sunning themselves on the trail. Every time it goes like this: I don’t see them until I startle them into movement, and then the movement startles me and I jump out of my hiking boots. I used to blame the snakes for laying in wait for me, but I’ve realized that each time it happens I have failed to walk mindfully, failed to be fully present to the act of hiking. When I’m on my yoga mat I practice being aware of where my feet are, and where they are going, and I share that practice with my yoga students, so they can walk mindfully on the earth, whether on a hiking trail or a city sidewalk.

Yoga to breathe the air. After practicing yoga for eighteen years, I automatically check in with my breath many times a day. As soon as that last sentence formed in my mind I deepened my breath. Breathing fully into my lungs has become so natural that I often have to remind myself that this is not the case for everyone. Pranayama, the practice of breathing exercises, is as important as the asanas as far as I’m concerned. Deep breathing exercises the diaphragm, moderates the stress response and improves focus. Deep breathing also makes me aware of the air itself, and how important it is that we have clean air to breathe. Did you know planting trees was a yoga practice?

Yoga to experience the fire of transformation. Yoga has created profound change in my life. If you practice yoga, sooner or later you will experience a transformation. You may give up all your possessions and take up residence in an ashram, or, more likely, one day you will notice that you are standing a bit straighter or that the old ache in your hip is gone. I’d like each of my students to experience their own transformation, no matter how subtle, so I make sure each class fuels that fire.

Yoga to move like a river. For a society that seems to be all about getting somewhere, we don’t move much. When we go places we go sitting in cars or on airplanes. We send emails to the coworker in the next office and see a good deal of the world on a television screen. When my clients complain that it gets harder to move as they get older, I point out that they are moving much better than many of their peers, because they make a deliberate effort to keep moving. An aspect of the yoga practice I find fascinating is how, by relieving stiffness in the body, other parts of life that were stagnating start moving too.

In some of my yoga classes we work on challenging asanas. Most focus on minutely refining the basic poses until you are aware that your feet are firmly rooted to the floor, you can direct your breath, you notice a small change and, when it’s time to move on, whether to the next pose or back into your life, you can flow with ease.

If you really think about it, why do you practice yoga? Please, share in the comments.

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Put Me in Down Dog

Downward-facing Dog on the rocks at Split Rock in New Russia, NY

Downward-facing Dog on the rocks at Split Rock in New Russia, NY

A day without Adho Mukha Svanasana is like a day without sunshine. I’m a down dog addict. I could hang out in downward-facing dog all day, or for five minutes, whichever comes first.

While teaching yoga I’ve noticed some people would happily hang out in down dog with me, but others look like they’re counting the breaths until I tell them to move on. Some bodies look natural and relaxed, with their backs extended, shoulders neutral, heels dropping and necks loose. But some bodies don’t get it. Their backs round, their shoulder blades end up somewhere near their ears and their legs will never be straight. Some others never stop moving, unable to find a comfortable stillness even for one breath.

Adho Mukha Svanasana is a tricky pose to practice and to teach, requiring strength from the arms, legs and shoulders as well as flexibility throughout the back body. Ray Long wrote an excellent article on the mechanics of downward-facing dog for My Yoga Online, well worth a read if you hope to hang out in down dog all day or even if you’d just like a relaxed moment in the pose.

Every time I get on my mat (or anywhere I can practice), barring injury or a nasty sinus infection, I find myself in down dog. I often end up there even if I intended to keep my practice gentle. It feels good to be there. Besides, they say if you can hold downward-facing dog for five minutes, you can do a handstand. It hasn’t worked yet, so I have to keep trying.

What’s your “I could hang out here all day” asana?

Note: Ray Long’s The Key Muscles of Yoga is the anatomy book I chose for the True North Yoga teacher training program. I recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about anatomy and yoga.

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