Those of you who have been attending class for some time will have heard me say on numerous occasions that the low back is very vulnerable during every day activities where we are reaching down and forward with a slight twist in the spine. This movement is further endangered if we add a load on to the movement. An example would be when you return to your car boot to put the shopping in it. The shopping is heavy and there are things in the centre of your boot. So you hike it in, aiming it one side of the boot which forces you down and sideways at the same time. That’s the moment when you suddenly feel a pull in your low back and know for sure you have damaged it a little (or a lot)!
In performing forward bends with added rotation in controlled circumstance in Yoga class, we can understand a lot more about our physical body’s history. For instance, you might already know that it will be tight hamstrings that will limit your forward movement or tight hips that will prevent a “hinge forward from the hips’. You might also discover during our practice this week that you have an element of stiffness in the upper back, perhaps caused by sitting at your desk or gardening in one position for too long. This will affect your ability to bring the rotation to the part of the spine you are becoming present too in the movements we break down.
In the poses and Somatic Flows we will practice this week we are asking for two things to happen simultaneously- we want the body to soften, to open and to experience surrender in a pose but we also need strength, good alignment and determination in the same pose. Isn’t that just like life? We need to be open, to soften and to be kind to the needs of ourselves and others but we also need discipline and effort in order to achieve our goals and answer our calling in life and truly be the best we can be and leave this world having made a difference. The early Yogi’s knew this and the practice of Yoga was born from the wish to grow sensitive the mental and physical path of surrendering and strengthening both on and off the mat.
Both our physical limitations and our desire for more flexibility can inform how we practice from day to day. Our difficulties can help us approach the poses and flows in a different way and our ability to let go will inform our methodology in that given moment. It is important to approach the mat with “beginners mind’ as though we have no idea how our body and mind will react to a pose we have maybe done many times before. This is because things are constantly shifting and changing and where we may release in one area, we will tighten in another and this changes each time we get on our mats.
Although we were designed from babies to flex forward – think of the foetal position in the womb with the ankles, knees, hips, spine arms and even the head flexed forward – as we begin to embrace activities like running, dancing and cycling our hamstrings and hips begin to tighten. The issue with forward bends, particularly from sitting and standing starting points, is that all the mind is focused on is the end point – grabbing hold of or touching those toes! However, although it seems quite straight forward to simply bend in half, there are several joints that have the potential to block our goal. For instance approximately two thirds of the movement is at the hip joint in a full forward bend (flat backed, chest to top of thighs) and one third in the spine. The pelvis must be able to move around the head of the femur (thigh bone) and any or all of the hip extender muscles can resist this movement. The muscles involved in what seams like an easy action involve all those along the back side of our body from our feet, though calves, backs of thighs, hips, low back and all the way up the spine and neck to the head. Tension anywhere along this line in the connective tissue can restrict other areas.
One of the things we want to relax in forward bend is the abdominal muscles. If you contract them they can can help to deepen the flexion of the spine but too much squeeze and they will bulge out potentially and get in the way of you softening into the pose. It’s a balancing act of trial and error that only the owner of your body can comment upon!
You will notice if you perform a seated forward bend with the legs entirely straight and the feet flexed (toes toward your knees) that you will feel this in your hips and hamstrings too. If you slightly ease off the foot flexion and allow the knees to bend a little, the amount of pressure in your hamstrings changes and it allows you to come further forward with ease. If your hips are tight, the spine has to round more to help bring the head and the chest closer to the legs.
However, in standing forward bends, you feet are forced into flexion. This means that almost everyone will experience tension in the hamstrings in this position. Both Soleus and Gastrocnemuius (calf) muscles must be able to release as well as the four hamstrings and your glutes. This is made more complicated by the fact that the leg muscles have to engage in standing to keep us upright so although hamstrings and calves are stretched in this position they also have to be shortened enough to stop us falling over! In fact, if you are only able to come forward by about 90 degrees, if you keep trying to come forward, you WILL fall over! You will notice if you come too far forward your toes grab on for dear life to keep you up and you may feel the front of the thighs join in the fight too. To compensate, you may pull the hips back behind the legs and feet but of course this takes the length away from the hamstrings as they are less engaged. Ideally, you need to be in a balanced position. This gives us the opportunity to create length in the whole of the back body, including our spine which becomes happier in this inverted posture as new life and energy springs back into the vertebrae.
We don’t only fold forward with feet together of course. Once the legs are widened, you can notice the difference as we shift the position of the femur and the pelvis. If you have relatively open or long hamstrings but tight adductors (inner thigh muscles) you will find that it is much harder to do this than a closed legged forward bend. The reverse is also true, for those with lengthened inner thighs but tight hamstrings, a greater ease in forward bend is found with the legs apart. We can also come forward from lunge positions over the front leg, either toward it or away from it and this tells us more about the condition of our pelvis, hip rotation, adductors, glutes and hamstrings. We can also put our weight on the shoulders and swing the legs over our head, as in plough position. This is also technically a forward bend, with the focus away from the leg muscles and on to the lengthening process in the spine itself.
CLASS PLAN – WARM UP
1. We begin lying and gently warming up the shoulders in slow rotations forward and back as far as they will go. Notice any juddering and stiffness in the the joint and work to create release by being mindful and slow in the movement. A feeling of quiet release
2. It can be very interesting to explore the way the joints interlink in forward bends. If you anchor your opposite pelvis down and lift only one leg, the pelvis is essentially being pulled in opposite directions. Keep your attention on the firmly planting the long leg. If you can, you can grasp the other big toe with your first two fingers and thumb but a strap will survice if this isn’t working for you today. We turn this into a Somatic Flow by using the resistance of hands or strap to push against, then creating a self pandiculation by slowly releasing and therefore lengthening the hamstrings.
3. We also need to open up the side body in order to be prepared for the movement that our final pose requires – the twisted version of head to knee pose or Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana. We join and leg and arm movements together to lengthen and a flexed foot will begin the necessary warm up for the calves. Try the opposite arm to leg and notice how a slight twisting movements makes a difference
4. Releasing the hips. When we forward bend over the straight leg with the pelvis at an angle (as we will do in our final pose) we are more likely to experience restrictions in the lower back. We therefore warm up by releasing the hips by practicing reclined bound angle. We may as well ad a side lengthening process to this so we are taking the palms together overhead. We will add a pandiculation to this by pressing the knees down with our hands and pressing the knees up into our hands, then eventually letting the hands win as we experience release in the hips and the knees lower toward the ground. You may even like to lift the legs higher over your chest and even release into happy baby. A wonderful feeling of wellbeing is possible as you feel your hips, often said to hold grief and tension, release and open up.
5. Supine Deer: A windscreen wiper movement with the legs will give you a nice feeling of internal rotation afterwards to counterbalance the big external rotation you have just performed. And we are going to take this movement a little further if you can. Take your feet wide at the start of this movement and see if you can take hold your right ankle. Use a strap if it isn’t available to you. Then tip the knee in toward the midline as your left leg falls out to the left. Then check in after doing it several times to the same side to see if there is a difference in your leg length.
6. Elbow Twist. Whilst reclining, we also need to warm the body up for the twisting movement we are expecting of it in our seated and standing work. Place your right hand under your head with the elbow bent, feet flat on the floor hip width apart. Gently press on your elbow and allow your knees to fall the opposite way. Notice the stretch on the right armpit and the chest opening out as well as your back enjoying the twist. You may want to place your hands on your knees and circle them to ease out your back after the twist.
1. Sunburst! We have seen all weathers this week but the crocuses, snowdrops and daffys are pushing the bright willing heads up to show us that spring is on its way. I think we get so out of touch with the seasons in our modern lives with central heating and all sorts of foods available in the shops out of season. So it’s refreshing in Yoga to set our mind on being grateful for the coming warmer season. It will also warm us up for our finale pose.
- Rock a little forward and back – become grounded
- A few hip circles
- Hands on the hips and rock from side to side, then forward and back to find the middle way
- Take a balance challenge and tap your leg in front and behind you, include a knee lift if you dare!
- Take the hands on to the opposite elbow and lift overhead. Draw the shoulder blades down without hyperextending your lower back. Then side bend, tiny bit by tiny bit.. Straighten up and try the other side.
- Giant inhale, lift hands up and slightly behind you, exhale and back bend. Imagine the sun on your front body. Repeat a few times, welcoming in the Spring
- Release forward gently
2. Somatic Forward Bend: Check in to see how far you can reach before you perform this Somatic Flow. Really relax the belly to allow the spine to come closer to the chest. Then from the forward position, fold your arms. Gently lift your head about 8 inches or so, then slowly line your arms back up with your nose. Lift the nose again, then the arms until your back is in extension, then fold forward and check in with yourself to see if can reach further toward the ground. Notice in particular how your hammy’s feel before and afterwards.
3. Sunburst into Wide Legged Forward fold. Repeat the backbend that you did before but this time have your feet at least shoulder width apart. Feet face forwards. Check that the foot arch is lifted though as there is a tendency to drop it inward when you stand wide legged. Lift the whole rib cage as the the arms come up and push slightly forward with the hips. Notice the external rotation on the shoulders as you open into the sunburst. Now draw the hands around the back of your waist and keeping your shoulder blades drawn towards each other, gradually lower yourself into a forward bend. We now have the adductors, or inner thigh muscles involved in forward bending. It can be useful to bend one knee at a time and bring your top half over that knee to ease out any tension in the inner thigh before resting into the middle. Notice if wide legged forward folds are easier for you and this will tell you whether your adductors are tight or not. It can be difficult to keep the feet pointed straight forward in this pose, especially with the arches lifted. This reveals any limitation we may have in the muscles that allow external rotation of our hip joints which we will be needing in our final pose. You may want to try this a few times with ever widening leg positions and try turning the feet out to see what changes in the inner thigh engagement. Land on a block and change it’s positions each time you come down to challenge yourself if you can’t get your head on the floor straight away (or at all!)
4. Adding a twist: Start in a R foot forward, left foot back stance but not too wide – only a foot’s length away. Place the left hand on your right shoulder and your right arm behind your back. Twist toward the front leg, pulling the rib cage around. As usual with twists, inhale to lengthen and exhale to inch around further. The left elbow is now roughly level with the front leg. Delicately begin to take the elbow to the front knee. Inhale and as you exhale, ground through the feet and come back up , MAINTAINING THE TWISE all the way (that’s the hardest part). Then release the twist and the arms. It’s much harder to balance with narrow legs. Try again with wider legs. This time rest the back arm down by your side, rather than placing it up your back. Left arm to right shoulder, twise, elbow to knee, forward fold. Take an easy forward fold at the end of all that twisting!
5. Revolved Triangle: Normally you would put the forward bend in first for this movement but today we are adding the twist element first. It’s very similar to the above movement but at the end you reach down, either in front of or behind the front knee (and a block might be useful here) to reach toward the floor. Lift up with the other hand toward the ceiling. During the movements, see if it is available to you to keep your pelvis stable and then you will get a true picture of the range of movement you have in your spine. Over time this will increase the ROM in your spine (rather than decrease it as it might feel when you first begin this practice) as the hips are not taking over where we want the spine to be leading the movement. The difficulty will be in keeping the twist in place as you stand up (your feet need to be very grounded). Notice if there is general tension around the hip. How near are your hips to being horizontal? How square on are they to the mat (ie have they twisted as you twisted or as you came forward)? Do you feel there is length in both sides of your waist or have you collapsed on the side you are going toward.
6. Twisted Aeroplane: You won’t make the twisting action in this pose if you start with too deep a forward fold. So use a Yoga Brick on it’s highest setting to begin with. This is basically a wide legged forward fold but with a twist added. Try it a few times to see if you can increase the depth of your forward bend and still twist as much.
Depending on time and how things are going generally, you may want to fit in a couple more preparatory movements before moving on to the FINALE pose! A Somatic Cobblers (Boung Angle) flow would be useful here, as would a moving Somatic Twist and some preparatory forward bends with legs both closed and open. It certainly might be helpful to use the Somatic Hurdle for increasing the range of movement you will get in your hamstrings. Once you are ready, we move toward the twisted head to knee pose
REVOLVED HEAD TO KNEE
In this week’s practice we are putting the rotation in before the forward bend to see if we can achieve a greater range of movement in the pose. The purpose of a twist is to maintain the suppleness of the spine and for the general health of the nervous system. You body benefits hugely from doing rotational actions but we rarely perform them in every day life. The shape of the facet joint in the thoracic spine allows for the greatest amount of spinal rotation and yet, because of our every day slumping posture, it is often stiff and immobile.
The pelvis is stabilised in this seated twist, which it might not be in the standing work we did (Revolved Triangle). Breathing is one of the most difficult things to do while in a twist because the abdomen is sqeezed – add a forward fold and there truly isn’t much room in there for your diaphragm to move… Think about how your ribs are connected to the spine and how the tissues in between the ribs are related to movement of the breath. We have put ourselves in a position that is difficult to breath in – that means your posture is good!!!! Now we just have to find a way of using our breath to enable us to to soften. Think about breathing into the side that you are opening out and try to not collapse on the side you are leaning toward so that there is some capacity for your lungs to expand on that side too.