Thursday, March 24, 2016

Crappy Yoga

This post has a couple of different reasons : 1. To show a friend an imperfect practice (which I will describe at length) 2. To talk about the potential dangers in yoga and how to start from scratch (assuming no dance, gymnastics, or previous yoga practice). And now, a disclaimer:

I am not a doctor, physical therapist, or yoga instructor. I have knowledge of the body from personal research and my own years training in ballet. I am not licensed in any way to give any sort of advice. Consider this like friends talking, and that's it.

Also... You should know that I have a permanent overuse injury in my left knee that I obtained while training in modern dance in college. I probably obtained this injury because I, like many women, hyperextend my joints. I was not counseled on my joints until way later in life when I traded private yoga instruction for engagement photos. I am trying to recover from a strained butt and thigh muscle (right leg) that I suffered from running in December. I am fat, as you can see. But I am fairly naturally flexible (though my poses probably don't show it). I have limited flexibility in some of my joints and tight calves and achilles tendons. But I am aware of my own limitations and also know how far to push and when to back off.

So first, my video of a not very good yoga practice :

I wanted to show a friend an "imperfect" practice as a way to encourage her to continue her own. There are many benefits of yoga from centuries of spiritual benefits regarding meditation and decades of benefits from a stretching program. But there is also a lot of room for injury, which I will go into later.

In this video, you can see I start with a variation of a Sun Salutation. The Sun Salutation starts by exhaling and doing a forward bend. Because I have tight calves and achilles, this is always sort of difficult for me but is made even more difficult from my strained muscle in my right butt/thigh area. If you were to look at me from that side, you would see that I have even more of a bend in that pose. When I was younger and dancing regularly and a cheerleader, I could do a forward bend no problem...standing or sitting. I could lie down and twist my entire bottom half over while my back remained on the floor. I could stand with my back to a wall and kick the wall behind me. As you can see, I can't do that anymore. Because of these injuries and because of my tight calves and achilles, I ALWAYS keep my belly on my thighs and bend my knees. This also protects my back.

Here are two great articles on how forward folds are done wrong. You can see that the way I did a "swan dive" into mine is actually not good. It's better to bend knees, then bend forward...or avoid this pose altogether. If you ever feel back pain from yoga, stop whatever you're doing. Pain is not to be confused with a good stretch. Trust your body.

Next, I go into plank, which I didn't hold very long. But you can see that my shoulders are rounded forward, which is no good. I have bad posture there and am working on it. It is very easy to forget the things that matter when you're working on yoga, which is why I always suggest to pick a few poses and work on them. Trust me, your body can benefit a LOT from a few poses. A good plank can strengthen every muscle in your body.

From there, I lie down on my belly and then go into cobra. Cobra is a pose that can hurt the lower back. Ideally, you roll your shoulders down, so they are not hunched at the neck. Your back should be flat across and your back should be bent at a comfortable stretch. This will open up your chest, so you can take full breaths. Do not drop your head back. Your spine does not need to bend that much. (Clearly, I need to remember this, because I dropped my head back too much.) Keep it safe and keep your eyes forward. However, if this pose causes pain in the lower back, shoulder area, neck, or even in the wrists, then just don't do it. There are other things to do. (Some people flow from plank into cobra, and that can feel good. But resting can feel good to and guarantees you take the time to move slowly and feel your body as you go.)

Now we come to downward facing dog a pose that has a lot of controversy attached. Downward dog is very easy to do badly and very common in beginning practices. I like it. In this video, I rushed through it. Downward dog is an inversion. A lot of social media accounts will go on into head stands, shoulder stands, wheel, camel, or plow. None of these is necessary for a beginning practice, if ever. All of those poses are difficult and can be dangerous. You should not attempt them on your own. Find a certified yoga teacher if you're interested in them. Downward dog has all the same benefits of an inversion with less danger...but only less danger. You see, you can injure your shoulder, calves, or achilles tendons when trying to do too much in downward dog. Remember : your heels do not need to touch the ground. At this point, I'm not sure mine ever will. You shoulders should be rolled down and away from your neck. You should be able to comfortably turn your head from side to side. You should not drop your head so that your chin falls toward your chest, but you should keep your neck in a straight line. If your neck, calves achilles tendons, or wrists experience pain, do not do this pose. It's a great pose and I love it, but you can get a lot of benefits from other poses. Downward facing dog can injure achilles tendons and calves, so go slowly and gently.

From downward dog, we bring our feet closer together so there is room to raise one leg. You'll notice that when I do this, my hip immediately turns out. This is incorrect. If you watch me doing yoga videos, you're going to see me struggle to keep my hips square when necessary. This is because I have flexible hips and am classically trained in ballet. I have a wide, natural turnout and I danced for more than half my life using such a turnout. If you haven't trained in ballet, you're less likely to have the same problem. But if you photograph or video yourself and you see your hip start to open up, so that your thigh is facing out, just try to remember to keep your thigh parallel to the ground, even if it means you don't raise your leg as high.

From the raised leg, swing it through into a deep lunge. I LOVE THIS MOTION. However, I don't think it's good for a beginner. I don't like that Runners Love Yoga has decided to teach the warrior flow this way. Sometimes, I come at warrior this way because I like to start my practice with a Sun Salutation. However, for the purposes of running, I choose to step back into warrior. (I showed you this on Monday.) I think stepping back is much, much safer for a beginner. But if you go from downward dog to warrior, you should get a pretty good swing of your leg so that you land in a deep lunge. Movement through yoga can feel good and increase joint movement, but it can be difficult and lead to injury. You should follow your own body. If you try something and it feels good and you experience no soreness, then flow with your body. If you're unsure, then get a private lesson. (A private lesson can cost $40-$120, depending on where you are and the experience of your teacher. It is always worth the cost.)

As I raise into Warrior I, you'll notice I have some difficulty. Warrior I can be tricky and is difficult for me because of my hip turn out. If you have a hard time keeping your hips facing forward, then just lunge a bit less. Everything in yoga has a beginning. You can start very simply, work on form, and move slowly and gently. It is not a race to the prettiest, most extreme pose. For the purposes of running, yoga strengthens the body parts you use to enable you to run more with less injury. For everything else, well there's so much. It's a massive spiritual or physical journey that is up to the individual. You will notice that I turned my hip out in the beginning and tried to correct it...again, I have hips that turn out a great deal naturally, and I have to keep this in mind as I work. Ideally, your back thigh is facing forward.

From here, I go into Warrior II, a pose I could hold all day. In Warrior II, the back hip is turned out and the foot turns out more (making a line from the heel of your first foot to the inside of your second foot). I love this because my hips turn out naturally and I'm very flexible there. I could go into a very deep lunge. However, when deepening a lunge, there is always the danger of damaging your bent knee. When it doubt, bend your knee less. Your knee should never extend OVER your foot. Always move your thigh and hips back to ensure that your shin is perpendicular to the floor. Working in front of a mirror or taking a picture will help you see your knee placement.

From here, we turn over our front arm and bend back into Reverse Warrior. This is a newer pose for me that I'm coming to love. Your raised arm should stay in line with the side of your body, which should stay in line with your bent leg. Always keep a good bend in your front leg. Do not lean backward or forward. If at home, practicing against a wall can help a lot. It is possible to lose your balance in this, so don't fret if that happens. If you do struggle with your balance, move slowly into the bend. Take a breath and then allow your back hand to slide farther down your leg. It is awesome to start a pose slowly and work on deepening it with your breath.

From here, we can go back into Warrior II, but we're going to have to straighten both of our legs and bend forward into extended triangle pose. This pose can be difficult for beginners. It stretches the inner thighs on both legs and the outer hip. It can feel uncomfortable and can cause pain if you try to go too deeply too quickly. I've shown you here how you can go slowly into it without help. But you can also get a prop and use a block (or books or a rubbermaid container or the side of a chair) to give you something to rest your body on while you try this. I really enjoy this pose, but again, I'm very flexible in this pose. It's frustrating when a new pose is difficult and you feel like you're not getting it at all. PATIENCE! Yoga takes time and very few people were born with the ability to bend into a pretzel.

Now, we move into today's low lunge. I want to start by saying, I hate this pose. If you look at the photo that runnersloveyoga posted on Instagram, you'll notice her foot is flexed and the tips of her toes are touching the ground. THIS IS EXTREMELY WRONG. When you have the tips of your toes touching the ground, your shin elevated and angling downward, to your knee touching the ground, you're putting all your weight on your knee cap. You should keep your foot pointed like I have it, so that the top of your foot follows along your ankle and your shin to your knee in a nice line of support along the floor/your mat. Nevertheless, if you watch me do this the first time, I'm still in an awkward position. There is not a lot of information online about the best way to modify this, though putting your hands on blocks next to your hips for stability is a common suggestion. I think a high lunge is a better option. It's said to be more difficult, because it forces you to use more muscles. But it's not more strenuous on your knee joint because you're not putting any weight on your knee joint. Quite frankly, I think this should be avoided altogether. There are a lot of ways to gain strength in these muscles, like chair pose while avoiding any knee injury. You can see I struggle with it every time. Also, I hate the twist. I don't think it's necessary and I find it very difficult. The extended triangle includes a spinal twist that I find comfortable and refreshing. I would ditch this section, and you'll never see me do it again!

From here, I move into extended triangle pose (because why not), warrior II, and then Warrior III. This is a difficult balancing pose that I love. But it can cause strain on the butt/back of thigh muscles and I had to cut it out for my right side for a while. You will see my hip turns out. This is something I struggle with. Some days, I keep my hips parallel with my thigh facing down. Some days, I struggle. This is normal. This is the point of my video today. Today was not a good day in yoga for me. If this pose feels really hard, simply start at the beginning : extend your arms up and your back leg out while keeping the tips of your toes on the ground. Once your body is in a line, begin to tilt forward. Bring your foot up an inch, then two inches, then more. Continue until your body is making a "T" shape. Hold for a breath or two or five. Starting slowly and moving gently is never bad or wrong.

From here, I go back into downward dog after swinging my leg back up. I don't like doing this. It's uncomfortable and sloppy. My downward dog never feels right when I come back into it this way.

So, this is my basic runner's yoga : Warrior I, Warrior II, Reverse Warrior, Extended Triangle, Warrior III...with Warrior II in between everything. It's a good centering spot and helps me get back on balance and think about what my body needs to do next. I usually follow this up with chair pose (after having done both sides, obvs.) This is a really great way to stretch the muscles that tend to tighten during running (forward bend and chair pose really help calves) while maintaining a safe and gentle practice with room to deepen in each pose. This is what I suggest you use as a beginner flow, because you can do it right there at the end of a run, shoes on and everything.

I hope this video helped, and I hope I showed how imperfect a yoga practice can be and still be helpful and have given anyone ideas for what to cut out and what to modify. I don't know your body, and I'm sure it's different from mine, but I hope my LENGTHY explanation helps you better understand your body and what you need to do!

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