“I want to become more flexible”

This is a common response to the question “What attracts you to doing a yoga class?”  I don’t think anyone has ever told me they want to come to yoga to get stronger.  However, you might be in for a surprise!  Sadly, our muscular strength declines as we age and personally I don’t think our modern lifestyle helps a great deal.  So many more of us have sedentary jobs these days and exercise becomes another thing to be fitted into the week, rather than happening as a matter of course.

It’s been suggested that building strength should actually take priority over becoming more flexible.  Improving muscle tone helps us to maintain our body weight as muscles consume more calories than fat, even when resting (Yay!).  Muscle strength helps us to improve our posture.  We have greater endurance and are less prone to falls because we have better balance.  Ideally we should focus initially on building core strength and then look to develop the major muscles in the body i.e. arm and leg muscles.  This stops us from relying on smaller weaker muscles that are not up to the job.

A physical yoga practice helps us to build muscle strength in all the key muscle groups.  Our arms and shoulders are worked with weight-bearing postures such as bowing cat or downward-facing dog.  The standing postures build leg strength and balancing postures help develop the core.   By making slow movements we can exercise all the fibres in the muscle, whilst by maintaining a posture we use isometric contraction of the muscles to stay in position.  Another benefit of weight bearing postures (i.e. any posture that uses the body’s weight) is that is strengthens the muscles around the joints, helping to protect them from arthritis in later life.

What’s not to like?!


Bring balance to your posture

Hatha yoga is all about bringing balance to the pairs of opposites within us; the name itself brings together the opposites of sun (ha) and moon (tha), the warmth, energy and fire of the sun balanced by the cool calm of the moon.  We aim to balance strength with flexibility and bring the mind to a calmer, quieter place.  Many of the postures in our physical practice of hatha yoga are asymmetrical, and need to be ‘done’ on either side.  These postures can serve to highlight the asymmetry inherent in our physical body and offer a way to improve balance between the two sides.

We all have a dominant eye, one ear higher than the other (though a surgeon may be required to change that one!), we are left- or right-handed, we tend to lead with one leg in favour of the other when moving down awkwardly spaced steps.  Our posture can be affected by these tendencies; using a particular hand to write with will affect our seated posture as we write, perhaps we will lean to one side, holding the other shoulder a little higher. Slinging a bag over the same shoulder each time can cause a similar change in the way you stand, how you hold your shoulders, neck and head.

When you sit, on a chair or on the floor, you may have a preferred way to cross your legs, leading to differences in the movement required in each hip.  The chances are you tend to cross your arms a particular way, link your fingers a particular way.  We do these things without thinking, guided by our subconscious mind which gets things done while we are busy thinking about other things.  And after a while these patterns in the body become literally set in, as the body adapts to these positions and ways of carry weight.

Our asymmetrical yoga postures offer a chance to recognise where these patterns of movement and preference exist, and working each side of the body separately allows us to explore each side in turn, to feel the differences, to allow each side to have its full range of movement in the posture.  We become more aware of our posture, how the body feels and moves.  Perhaps this awareness may then extend outside the class, as we start to make simple changes that can re-balance our posture.

These days, if I carry a shoulder bag I move it from one side to the other regularly.  Carrying shopping I always opt for two bags even when one would do, so the weight is even on each side.  Sitting cross-legged I make sure each leg takes its turn to be in front and even linking fingers I alternate which thumb goes on top.  In these little ways we can become more mindful of our physical self in a positive way, perhaps realising the root causes of discomfort or imbalance and taking steps that will help to reduce it in the future.


Take a deep breath in…

A while ago I read an article in a magazine, on the topic of portrait photography. The author had a ‘top tip’ for making your model look slimmer; tell them to breathe in, he said. This set me wondering how many of us have developed postural and body habits based on messages we have been hearing from an early age, ‘Stand up straight!’ ‘Don’t slouch!’, ‘Take a deep breath in!’, ones that have now become second nature and part of who we are physically and emotionally.

Often the body knows best and works perfectly well when left to its own devices.  When we superimpose our own ideas on these patterns we can create imbalance or cause the body to move in a less efficient way.  In the case of the portrait photographer, its not uncommon to hear this suggestion to breathe in as a way of making yourself look slimmer.  Our response to this suggestion might be a conscious drawing in of the abdomen combined with lifting the ribcage via the auxillary breathing muscles.  This will almost certainly make you look slimmer, but you may well have taken a much shallower breath as this reaction is contrary to how the body actually breathes, restricting the lung capacity and bringing tension to the upper back and shoulders.

If the body is taking a full, relaxed breath the belly will actually expand as the diaphragm moves down, making you look larger rather than slimmer, quite the opposite, I imagine, to the effect intended by the photographer in our example above!  Our yoga practice can give us a chance to consider our breathing habits and allow us to unlearn any detrimental ones we have acquired over the years, giving the body the freedom to breathe in its own way.


The height of fashion

I had my hair cut yesterday.  My hairdresser was padding around in canvas pumps with a bandaged foot, having ‘fallen off’ her towering heels at the weekend.  While she, like myself, is not a veteran stiletto addict, I am sure there are plenty of people out there for whom high heels are a regular part of their daily attire.  Apart from the risk of injury from falling off them, the inability to run and the crippled toes, there is also the longer term effect on our posture and internal structures from realigning the feet to stand on tiptoes for hours at a time.

Why do we do this to ourselves?  Actually, scrub that, as the answer could form the subject of a Ph.D thesis!  My interest is more in how yoga can help to ameliorate the after-effects of tottering around.  Here are some suggestions:

  • The toe and ankle movements from the joint-freeing series are great for loosening up your feet at the end of the day. Flex and bend the toes, circle the ankles and point and flex the feet.
  • Any of the standing postures with an assymetric foot position will stretch out the calf of the back leg. Try warrior I or the side angle.
  • Moving between cat and child’s pose will help to release tension in the lumbar spine, typically caused by overarching the lower back to compensate for the heels tipping your pelvis forwards.

Your guide to sitting comfortably

Patanjali doesn’t say much about asana in his Yoga Sutras.  But the little that he does say is in the context of finding a seated position for meditation and breathing practises.  He suggests that the position should have 2 qualities.  The first of these is sthira, which we generally understand to mean ‘steadfast’ or ‘stable’.  It implies an alertness and strength.  The second quality is sukha, which translates literally as ‘happy’.  In the context of sitting we mean see this as ‘ease’ or ‘comfort’.

Sometimes it may seem that it is easier said than done to achieve these qualities in your sitting position.  However, by paying attention to a few basic aspects of the pose you can enhance both the stability and the comfort of the posture so that your breathing or meditation become more effective.

Some sources will tell you that the body must be in a certain position.  Well, that’s fine and dandy, but if it hurts like hell it won’t be much use.  Instead, I suggest you focus on these few specific areas and adapt the rest to make them possible.

  1. Pelvis.  Our pelvis naturally has a slight anterior (forwards) tilt and this is important in order to maintain the natural curves of the spine as you sit.  This frees the spine and allows it to move naturally as you breathe.  For many of us, used to western style sitting in chairs, it is helpful to raise the seat bones a couple of inches by sitting on a block, firm blanket, or a rolled up yoga mat.  Check yourself in a mirror or get someone to look for you.  Sideways on you should see the S-shaped curves of the spine clearly.  If it looks more like a ‘C’ you need to make some adjustments.
  2. Knees.  If you sit cross-legged with your knees higher than your hips there will be a lot of strain in your leg muscles to maintain the position.  Again, check the mirror or ask your helpful friend.  You have a few options here.  It may be that raising your seat bones allows your knees to relax down.  Result!  If not, try different leg positions.  For those who are comfortable kneeling, sitting on two blocks placed between your knees can be the answer.  Alternatively, try having your legs out in front, either together or wider.  Check your pelvis and spine in each option to see what is best.  If none of them give you a good result the best way for you to be comfortable is likely to be sitting on a chair.
  3. Head.  If we balance the weight of the head on the neck we can harness gravity to minimise strain in the neck and shoulders.  This in turn will relax the chest and make it easier to breathe fully.  To do this, imagine the back of the neck lengthening towards the sky.  The chin comes in slightly towards the throat, so your gaze will rest on the floor about the length of a yoga mat ahead of you (if you are sitting on the floor.  Your ears and shoulders should be level.  Resting your hands into the support of your knees or lap will help your shoulders relax.  Ask someone to check for you; it’s hard to use the mirror for this!

Remember, the most important qualities of your sitting posture are stability and ease.  Being uncomfortable will make it hard for you to focus on the breathing or meditation practice, which is the main reason for being in this position.