Prepping for Padmasana

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Often when people hear the word “yoga” they get an image of a human pretzel. Limbs intertwined with no discernment for how the body actually got into the shape. Padmasana - Lotus Pose - is one of those postures. The pious Buddha sitting in the posture with a look of content. All yogis must strive for this state, right?

I don’t actually recall the first time I attempted Lotus, but I’m certain I cranked my legs into the shape to make it happen and didn’t think twice about my approach. There’s something to be said about just trying a posture, but luckily (most of us) get smarter with time and often find there’s a safer and more sustainable approach.

Interested in trying on Padmasana? First, and I don’t mean this to discourage anyone, Lotus isn’t a posture all bodies should be doing. It’s fairly demanding on the hips, ankles, and knees and not all bodies are ready for such a shape. Luckily there’s options and lots of ways to prep for the posture! Second, Padmasana doesn’t have to be a seated posture. Sure, it could be used as a seated meditation posture. But what I love about Padmasana is that there’s many postures that use a Half Lotus variation. The posture has lots of variations and adaptations. Below on the left you’ve got Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana and on the right Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana.

Prep Your Hips, Knees, and Ankles

Padmasana is a posture that asks your legs to work as a unit. The hips, knees, and ankles all have to be ready to go to support you in the shape. Below are some of my favorite preparatory postures to make the posture approachable and sustainable.

Inner Hips & Thighs

I have found that the inner thighs in Padmasana have to be open and ready to engage when setting up the shape.

There’s lots of ways to stretch your inner thighs, but my two favorites are Reclined Hand to Foot/Strap Pose B and what I like to call Totally Made Up Inner Thigh Stretch (it’s like a half version of Upavistha Konasana).

Don’t mind my overly sunlit face.

Don’t mind my overly sunlit face.

Along with being mobile, the inner thighs have to be ready to engage in Padmasana. The pretzel-like position of the legs has to stay active once you’re in the shape. I like to add in Boat Pose with a block between the thighs to active the inner thigh muscles. Squeeze that block! Not only does Boat with a block prep your inner thighs to engage, but it also engages your hip flexors. Those are also helpful, supportive players in Padmasana.

Knees & Ankles

For me, the trickiest part of Padmasana is the precarious position of the knees. Again, not all bodies are going to easily get into Lotus and that’s okay! Never force your body into a shape it just doesn’t want to get into. Listen to your knees and be honest with your experience.

The knees are in a tightly closed position in Padmasana so it can be helpful to work postures that put the knees in a similar shape. I like to take Virasana - Hero Pose - to get the knees prepared. Similar to Boat Pose with a block, squeeze your thighs toward the midline to engage your inner thighs.

The great thing about about this posture is that it also can prepare your ankles for the entrance into Padmasana. When in Virasana actively press the tops of your feet down to help lengthen the tops of your feet and ankles.

If you’re unable to enter Virasana with your seat all the way down on your mat, consider sitting on a block. Depending on the day, the support of a block is the only way I can enter the posture.

Outer Hips & Thighs

Padmasana is a posture full of opposition. The inner hips and thighs have to be mobile and active, and the outer hips and thighs have to be ready to do the same. There’s endless ways to open the outer hips, these are just two of my favorites that pair well with Padmasana.

First, Standing Ankle to Thigh Pose. Of course you can explore this shape from a seated or reclined position, but I like the standing version for the the option to press your opposite palm into the sole of your lifted foot. This action helps increase the stretch in the outer hips, plus it creates activation in the muscles around the hips.

Second, Gomukhasana - Cow Face Pose. I don’t actually enjoy this posture, however, it is has a similar set up to Padmasana which makes it a helpful preparatory posture. If this posture doesn’t come easily for you, consider elevating your pelvis on a block. Once you’re in the shape, just like in Boat Pose with a block, squeeze your inner thighs together.

So now you’ve prepped all parts of your legs for the posture, but how the heck do you get into the thing? The details really lie in how you enter the shape. Cranking your feet into your hip creases probably isn’t the best approach. It’s important that you take it step by step and be patient with the process. Remember to pay close attention to how your knees react and consider pausing when it’s best to do so.

How to Enter Padmasana

Ardha Padmasana

Ardha Padmasana

Above all else, just be mindful that Padmasana is simply a shape. It has no more or less value than any other posture. The half version, Ardha Padmasana, is an excellent alternative! Consider trying the half version on both sides for a while before committing the “full” version.

Better Understanding Binds

Raise your hand if you dislike bound yoga postures! Not sure about you, but my hand is most definitely raised.

I have never enjoyed bound postures. I’ve blamed it on my short arms and tight shoulders and just figured bound postures weren’t for me. Although I’m slowly gaining a better understanding of bound postures, I still don’t think I’ll ever fully enjoy working into binds. However, I now have a better appreciation for them.

First, turns out I have been doing and instructing bound postures in a slightly incorrect manner. For the longest time I would pull the elbow of my bound arm away from my body to open the shoulder. Turns out that action was pulling me out of the bind!

You know what you do when something isn’t working? Do the opposite!

Draw Your Forearm Against Your Body

In the last week or so while doing half bound postures I started to pull the forearm and elbow of the bound arm closer to my body. (This isn’t a technique I came up with on my own. It definitely came from my teacher.) Once I started to press my forearm into my body I was able to actually move my hand closer to my opposite hip and I had more freedom in my shoulder.

The images above show you the two different approaches. On the left I’m actively drawing my elbow away from my body. On the right I’m actively drawing my forearm and elbow into my body. The one on the right feels more comfortable in my shoulder plus I’m able to slide my hand over to my opposite hip with more ease.

Use Your Core to Rotate

You’ll notice that when you press your forearm into your body it’ll seem as though you’re unable to get a lot of rotation in your chest and spine. That’s true. However, you’ll just need to get more muscles to join in on the fun! Once you set up your half bound posture press your forearm into your body and then rotate your chest away from the floor by using your core muscles. This approach takes the strain out of your shoulder joint and asks your core to support the posture.

Above on the left I’m working a bound variation of Triangle Pose and drawing my elbow away from my body. I’m forcing the rotation to happen primarily from my shoulder joint. In the image on the right my forearm is pressing into my lower back, I’m able to slide my hand further toward my opposite hip, and I’m using my abdominal core muscles to rotate my chest away from the floor.

This approach has truly changed everything for me!

Want more explanation? I’ve got a short video below with more thoughts on bound postures!

Urdhva Dhanurasana - Wheel Pose

I’m not a strong backbender, but I really enjoy them. Wheel Pose is definitely up there as one of my favorite yoga postures. It’s one of my favorites because I love how it feels in body. I also appreciate how much my understanding of the shape has changed and morphed throughout the years. There’s something special about a posture that keeps you on your toes and forces you to learn and expand your understanding.

Want to prep your body for Wheel? Here’s some of my go-to preparatory postures and stretches:

Half Wind Removing Variation

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It’s important to stretch the front line of your body, specifically your hip flexors when you’re preparing for Wheel. I love this variation of Half Wind Removing Pose! Place a block at its lowest height under your sacrum and extend one leg long onto your mat while drawing the opposite knee toward your shoulder. Be sure to press the heel of your extended leg down and forward toward the front edge of you mat to lengthen the extended leg’s hip flexors.

This can also be done without a block under your sacrum if the prop causes any discomfort.


Puppy Pose Variation

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You’ll need two blocks at their lowest height about shoulder distance apart. From Table Top place the tips of your elbows on the blocks. Move your knees back a bit to create some space and lower your chest and forehead toward your mat. Your forehead may or may rest on your mat.

First, press your elbows down and send your tail back in opposition. After a few breaths like that, lift your chest up a few inches and hug your elbows in towards the midline while continuing to press your elbows down and reach your tail back. Not only does this help you stretch your shoulders for Wheel, but it helps you engage important muscles that are necessary for the backbend.


Warrior I Variation

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It’s definitely not my favorite standing posture, but I appreciate some aspects of Warrior I. When setting it up in preparation for Wheel consider reaching your arms overhead, facing your palms towards the ceiling, and pressing upward. The push upward is the same feeling you want to recreate when upside down in Wheel.

Also, while in Warrior I, think of pulling your frontal hip bones up toward your lower ribs. (Think suspenders for those of you who have taken my class.) That same action will happen in Wheel.


Bridge Pose

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The smaller sibling to Wheel Pose, Bridge, is an excellent prep posture before heading into Wheel.

When setting it up, considering placing a block between your inner thighs. Lightly squeeze the block to get your adductors, inner thighs, to activate. That same engagement will be duplicated when you set up Wheel Pose.


Want to learn more about Wheel Pose? Here’s some of my favorite details of the posture:

Engage Your Backside

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You’ve probably been told to disengage or soften your glutes while doing backbends once or twice in a class. I prefer to teach the opposite. I think it’s very important to use your backside muscles to help elevate your hips and press your body into Wheel Pose.

Without clenching your glutes and hamstrings, activate the posterior chain muscles by grounding your feet and actively, isometrically drawing your heels back.

Trust me, engaging your backside in a mindful, intentional manner in Wheel Pose will not injure you.


Activate Your inner Thighs

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Yes engaging your glutes and hamstrings in Wheel is good, however, I can’t disregard that sometimes engaging the backside of the legs causes the knees to wing outward. To combat the press of your knees toward your little toes, you also have to engage your inner thighs.

Imagine you had a yoga block between your thighs. As you engage your backside, at the same time squeeze the imaginary block between your legs. (Also, why imagine when you can actually place a block between your thighs?)


Use Your Hands and Arms to Push the Floor Away

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Wheel does require some upper body mobility and strength. When in Wheel use your arms and hands to push the floor away. I find that this movement can be tricky for a lot of students. You’re upside down, in, most likely, an unfamiliar orientation so the idea of pushing the floor away while your arms are overhead can be challenging for your mind to compute. Similar to Downward Facing Dog, push your mat away rather than just resting on your arms.


Externally Rotate the Upper Arms

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Once you figure out how to push the floor away, consider the position of your upper arm bones. This can be a tricky one. Since your arms are in an overhead position in Wheel Pose, you’re working to narrow your chest and widen your shoulder blades away from your spine. This takes time and some coordination to figure out.

Something I encourage students to do is turn the hands a little outward toward the long edges of your mat. The turn of your hands outward can help inform your arms to move in the direction of external rotation.

Dive into Dancer Pose

Oh, Dancer Pose. It’s kind of the quintessential yoga posture. It’s a balancing backbend that requires focus, flexibility, and strength. The great thing about Dancer, or Lord of the Dance Pose, is that there’s so many variations that can be explored. Below there’s Sri BKS Iyengar holding his foot with his hands. And then there’s me. It’s clear that I’ve lost some range of motion since I’ve started weight training, but I have no issues using a strap to help me out.

Standing Backbend

Although there’s different ways of exploring Dancer Pose, the posture is a standing backbend. The spine is in extension and, with his grand range of motion, Iyengar is able to hold his foot with his hands to create a continued circular energy. (Please note that the ability to hold your foot will not extend the length of your life, give you special powers, or make you a better person so we can all set aside our obsession with holding the foot.)

I might like to deemphasize the holding of the foot, however the image shows the backbending nature of the shape. In some bodies, the backbend is less defined. The posture is almost like a version of Warrior III with a foot grab. Often this occurs when there’s more effort on dropping the chest and less emphasis on the lift of the back leg. Think you’re in this boat? Then I’ve got the perfect variation for you!

Unsatisfying Dancer Pose

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I think the name says it all. This version of Dancer Pose is not exactly enjoyable, but it is effective. To set this one up enter the posture just as you would set up your traditional Dancer Pose. Reach your arm back and bend your knee back on the same side. Rather than holding onto to the foot as you typically would, simply touch the pads of your fingers to the inside of your heel. While maintaining that very light connection begin to enter the posture. The key is that you have to kick and use the glutes and hamstrings of your lifted leg. With this unsatisfying version you take your grip out of the equation and you’re forced to work really hard!

I’ve been teaching this version for a few years now and the responses vary from, “I really did not like that Dancer Pose thing you made us do” to “That was awesome! Can we do that again?” You truly cannot please everyone.

Although the approach is not loved by all, everyone can agree that it is effective and limits the initial reaction to drop the chest in order to enter the posture.

Deepen Your Dancer

Are you looking to explore other variations of your Dancer Pose? Perhaps you feel like you’ve hit a rut and not sure where to go next? Here’s a few postures and exercises that might help you explore other aspects of Dancer:

  • Do more backside strengthening - Unsatisfying Dancer Pose is a great example, but there’s plenty of ways for you activate the muscles around your spine, glutes, and hamstrings in postures like Locust and Bridge Variations.

  • Lengthen your midsection - Many of us, myself included, do so much to strengthen the abdominals and we often ignore that the abdominals need to be lengthened too. Don’t let Dancer Pose be the first time you lengthen your frontside in a practice. Warm up with postures like Supported Fish, Sphinx, and lunge variations.

  • Open your shoulders - If you are on the quest to hold your foot be patient with the process. Holding onto your foot and hoping for the best is not a sustainable approach. Often the limitation is in the shoulder joints when the arms are in an overhead position. Take the time to open your shoulders and lats with things like Archer Arms, variations on Puppy Pose, and Side Bends.

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As always, every yoga posture will be unique and individual based on the student. Don’t let the images on social media make you feel like your version of Dancer Pose is less than. Embrace what you bring to the practice and give yourself permission to explore further when you’re ready.

Ardha Chandrasana - Half Moon Pose

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Throughout my many years of practice I have fallen in and out of love with many yoga postures. Postures I once resisted have now become some of my favorites. Postures I once craved have now been eliminated from my practice. The practice, of course, evolves as we do.

Ardha Chandrasana - Half Moon Pose - is an exception within my practice. I have always loved this balancing posture. When I’m in it I feel big and expansive. I love the huge oppositional energies that are necessary when working the posture.

Let’s break this pose down a little deeper.

Find Your Footing

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As with any one-legged balancing posture it’s important to establish a solid foundation. There’s a lot of approaches on how to ground the feet. I sit in the three-point camp. Think of your foot as a tripod. The tripod of your foot is made up of the base of your big toe, the base of your little toe, and the center of your heel. From those three points evenly and actively press down. The even pressure through the tripod of your foot sets up the stability for everything above it and accentuates the natural arch of your foot.

Fire Your Glutes

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Your glutes are important muscles that move you through space and offer stability for your hips. Your butt should be utilized! Not just in yoga, but in everyday life. One-legged balancing postures will surely challenge your butt’s ability to activate. In Half Moon firm the backside of your standing leg and simultaneously draw your standing leg thigh bone up toward your standing leg hip.

The action of anchoring your standing foot and simultaneously drawing your thigh bone up toward your hip helps to elongate the standing leg and offer optimal stability.

In Half Moon you’re reaching your body in all sorts of directions. By reaching your body in oppositional directions you’ll create more length and stability throughout your entire body.

Opposition - Head to Heel

When balancing work to reach your head away from your lifted heel and reach your heel away from your head. The stretch toward the front and back edges of your mat will increase the length in your spine and ribs and give you a better sense of balance.

Opposition - Hand to Hand

Another oppositional reach that’s happening in Half Moon occurs between both of your arms and through your hands. I’m a fan of placing the bottom hand on something. If you’re unable to place your hand on the floor use a block. By placing your bottom hand on something you’re creating a more stable position in which you can then refine the posture and find your fullest length through your spine and ribs. Although the bottom hand to something is encouraged, it’s not meant to act as a crutch. Reach in opposition through your top hand to help widen your chest and rotate your top ribs away from the floor.

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What’s with the Hips?

I regularly get asked about the hips in Half Moon. Do I turn the top hip away from the floor? Do I turn the top hip down to the floor? Want my honest opinion? It depends! I don’t see a tremendous amount of value in working toward completely stacked hips. However, some bodies could benefit from angling the top hip slightly away from the floor. Similar to Triangle Pose, the hips are tricky and it often requires some experimentation to find the best position for your hips.

So there you have it. Half Moon. Next time it appears in your practice take some time to enjoy the subtleties of this big balancing posture.

Hip Tips in Warrior II

Often the most complicated postures are the ones we do the most. And the postures we do the most are often the ones that don't get the attention they deserve. 

Although it seems like a basic pose, Warrior II is less than basic!

I could deconstruct the whole posture, but I figured I'd just tackle the hips for now.

Square the Hips?

In my experience, there's no need to "square" your hips to the long edge of your yoga mat. In most bodies when the frontal hip bones are oriented toward the long edge of your mat the front knee is forced inward and unnecessary pressure is put on the lower spine. 

Play with letting your hips go where they naturally want to go. As long as your feet are in a solid foundation your hips will angle in a functional, safe manner. Most likely your frontal hip bones will slightly orientate toward the front corner of your yoga mat. 

Soup Bowl Pelvis

When I was a dancer a lot of analogies and images were thrown around. The most common image was the idea of your pelvis as a soup bowl. You don't want to spill your soup forward, backward, over the sides so the image encourages the pelvis to sit in a level, "neutral" position. 

Turns out the soup bowl image is also really helpful in yoga!

In Warrior II play with keeping your frontal hip bones level to each other. In other words, keep the right and left hip bones parallel to the floor. If one hip is too high the soup would spill out the side. As one hip sitting higher than the other won't add a tremendous amount of stress to the spine or pelvis I'm actually not too concerned with this aspect of the posture, but it's something worth considering in your practice. 

Still using the soup bowl image, there's a slight pull of your frontal hip bones up toward your lower ribs to prevent the soup from spilling forward over the front of the pelvis. The opposite, soup spilling out the backside of the pelvis, is a less common occurrence, however, something to still consider in your own posture. 

To give you a better idea and more clarity, I put together a short video for you! Check it out!

Tips on Floating from Downward Facing Dog

Looking to add some flight to your vinyasa practice? Floating or jumping forward from downward facing dog into a standing forward fold can be daunting. For me, it was one of those transitions I just tried because everyone around me was doing it, but I never actually understood the finer details and mechanics until someone took the time to break it down for me. 

I've had a lot of breakthroughs with my students while working on this transition over the last few weeks. Here's some of the key points on how to get light and stable while floating forward. Enjoy!

Shoulders in Downward Facing Dog

Over the years I've realized that "advancing" your practice isn't about doing the big, fancy, cover of Yoga Journal postures. It's more about refining your practice. As a student and teacher I'm excited by deepening my understanding of the "basic" postures. I like to get into the tiniest details of alignment and I thoroughly enjoy the process of helping students find their own unique alignment in common postures. 

This brings us to Downward Facing Dog. What a complex posture! For the first five or so years of my practice I didn't appreciate Down Dog. I felt like I was working too hard and wanted to quickly move out of it. Now I feel very differently. Down Dog feels free and supportive in my body. I am definitely still working physically, but my body seems to be working in such a balanced manner that nothing seems to be over-working. 

What helped me get to this point? Figuring out what my shoulders were doing in Downward Facing Dog! I truly think the shoulders are the missing link in this common posture. To help you find more joy and freedom in your Downward Facing Dog I put together a short video explaining the movements of your shoulder joints while you're upside-down with your arms in an overhead position. Check it out! 

Half Pigeon Pose

I never understood the excitement over Half Pigeon Pose. For the longest time it was a posture that just frustrated me. It never felt comfortable for my body and no matter how much the teacher asked me to surrender I just couldn't. It wasn't exactly pain I was experiencing, there just never was a sense of ease in the posture. That's until I took the time to actually understand the various aspects of Half Pigeon. 

As I've gotten older I've developed more patience with my practice. If I don't like a posture I take the time to investigate the reason behind my distaste. It took a lot of experimentation for Half Pigeon to feel decent in my body. Through my trial and error approach I've started to teach Half Pigeon in my classes in a way that feels right in my body. Luckily, my approach has been met with a lot of appreciation.

Just a couple weeks ago I had a student pull me aside after class. She told me she's never liked Half Pigeon because she never knew what to do in the posture. For the entire class the teacher was telling her exactly what to do, but when it came to Half Pigeon she got radio silence. Of course I understand the many reasons why a teacher would back off with the instructions in Half Pigeon, but I like to give some very specific directions in the posture to keep students engaged physically and mentally. She shared with me that my class was the first time she actually enjoyed Half Pigeon because she understood what was going on. 

Here's my approach:

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By pressing your front shin bone into your mat you're establishing some buoyancy in your body. Allowing gravity to just pull me down just never felt right. In my experiments I decided to do the opposite (a little trick I learned from my teacher--if something's not working, do the opposite). Viola! The posture already felt different in my body. When you press your shin down you'll get muscles around your hips to fire. Engaging and stretching your muscles aren't actions that have to happen independently. Because you engage a muscle doesn't mean you can't stretch it and the surrounding muscles at the same time. 

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There's the tendency in Half Pigeon to let the hips sway heavily to one side or the other. To help stabilize and level out your pelvis squeeze your inner thighs toward each other. If you're favoring one hip due to pain in your front knee then you'll want to reevaluate the posture. I have suggestions below on how to deal with knee discomfort.

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The adjustment that changed the whole posture for me? Reach the sitting bone of your front leg back. For most bodies the shift is tiny and not a lot will happen physically. However, the smallest shift of your sitting bone back will increase the stretch deep into the outer hip and glutes for most bodies. In my opinion this adjustment in the posture is what takes Half Pigeon from a blah hip opening posture to a useful, targeted hip opening posture. It's incredible how many times I've had students lift out of their posture, make eye contact with me, and nod their head when I've given this instruction like they're saying, "I get it now!" 

I definitely don't want to take away the softening, surrendering aspect of Half Pigeon from my students. Although the legs and hips are working in this specific approach, there's plenty of space to let the arms, neck, and abdomen relax. This might just be the case for me, but when I get hyper-focused with my physical body, my mind is able to do the same. 

Knee pain got you down?

Sometimes it's not misunderstanding that keeps yoga students away from Half Pigeon. Often the posture can cause knee discomfort. There's a few ways to alleviate that issue. 

Your body is structurally pretty incredible. It's made up of domes and angles to keep you supported and stable. In yoga, even when you manipulate your body into various shapes, it's best to work with those natural structural supports. When it comes to your joints, they are most stable and supported when they're at a 0, 90, or 180 degree angle. In Half Pigeon I encourage students to place their front shin at an angle that seems right for their knee, but often it's a challenge to find that just-right angle. If you are experiencing knee pain, try one of these options.

First, try to reduce the angle of the front knee a lot. Without actually sitting on your foot, pull your front foot closer to your groin and see if that increases, decreases, or doesn't change the discomfort. Narrowing the angle of the knee is also incredibly helpful if you plan to transition Half Pigeon into King Pigeon Pose. Although so many of us are striving to get that shin as far forward as possible, it's okay to back off a lot. Backing off might be exactly what your body needs. 

Although backing off on the front knee's angle is a very good choice, in most bodies it reduces the outer hip stretch. You could maintain the outer hip stretch while taking care of the front knee by increasing the angle in your front knee up to 90 degrees. As someone who has a history of knee pain I used to cringe whenever an instructor would tell me to get my shin parallel to the front edge of my mat. There's no way my body will do that! Of course at the time I didn't understand the power of props. Most bodies aren't going to move their shin that far forward without distorting their pelvis, so the posture needs to be propped up. Place one block at its lowest height under the sitting bone of your front leg. You might even want a second block under your front knee to keep that supported. Even better, if you have a bolster you can lay your whole front thigh bone across the bolster. Props, just like postures, require some experimentation. Play with the placement of your props so that it works for you. 

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The picture above is how I do Half Pigeon in practice. Any knee pain I once felt is now gone, I get a deep stretch in my outer hip, and if I go through the various actions and engagements of the posture I am able to settle in and focus. My hips will never touch my mat in this posture, but that's not the point!

We as students have painted ideal images of postures like Half Pigeon in our heads. Sometimes it's nice to have a goal and something to strive for, but at the end of the day none of the postures are one-size-fits-all. As Leslie Kaminoff so beautifully states, "Asanas don't have alignment". Your body, however, does have alignment. Your body has its own unique, individual alignment for each asana. Stop forcing your body into cookie-cutter shapes. Take the time to experiment and play. Your body will thank you for it. 

Skills & Drills: Handstand Swing & Hops

For a long time this was one my least favorite methods to get into Handstand. I never felt like I had enough control and I'd end up cartwheeling instantly out of the posture. Now it tends to be my go-to approach, but it does require a lot of focus and control. It's a method I occasionally offer in my own group classes as most students can at least get a tiny sense of lift even if it's only an inch or two from the floor. 

Handstand Swing & Hops

From a Standing Splits position:

  • Lift your standing heel as high as you can
  • Bend your standing knee enough so that your belly touches, or comes close to touching, your standing thigh
  • Be mindful to keep your pelvis as level to the floor as possible and turn your lifted hip down
  • It's not always necessary, but a slight gaze forward is helpful in most bodies
  • With your hands about shoulder distance apart, grip your mat with your fingertips and get ready to bear weight
  • Keep your arms straight and push your mat away from you
  • At the bottom of you exhalation (when your lungs are empty) use the power of your bent, standing leg to lift you up 

 

Skills & Drills: Handstand at the Wall

For the longest time I told myself I shouldn't work postures like Handstand and Forearm Balance at the wall. It was a crutch and my goal was to do the postures in the middle of the room. Once I figured out the mechanics of the postures at the wall it was time to take the training wheels off, right?

Turns out I was kind of wrong. 

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Even though Handstand is a pretty reliable posture in my practice I have found that timing myself at the wall helps me develop a deeper understanding of the posture and gain more strength. At the wall I'm not concerned about potentially kicking my neighbor or falling down in a spectacular display. At the wall I'm able to focus on where my weight is being distributed and ways to finesse the posture. What's engaged? What's starting to disengage? What small shifts can I make in my physical alignment so that I can breathe more deeply

Even better, I can time myself and work toward a goal. Balancing in the middle of the room in Handstand is one thing, but holding Handstand at the wall for two whole minutes is another thing. Start small. Perhaps you set a timer for 15 seconds. Eventually add an additional 15 seconds and see how it goes. It's a great exercise in focus and concentration. Try it out! 

Virabhadrasana II--Warrior II

Often it's the postures we do the most that we understand the least. When was the last time you held Warrior II for more than five breaths? (Iyengar students, you can put your hands down.) I'm guilty of it too, but if you have a regular yoga practice there's a good chance you drown out your teacher's instructions in familiar postures like Warrior II and just settle into what's most familiar. The main reason my own practice and teaching took a big leap last year is because I gave myself time to focus on the basics. I got subtle with my practice and it changed everything! 

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Let's get nitty gritty with Warrior II and check out some areas that often need further investigation:

Foundation

  • Align the heel of your front foot with the arch of your back foot. Doesn't feel right? Well luckily this isn't a one-fits-all kind of practice and you can experiment with the position of your feet. But this is a good starting point.
  • Angle your front foot straight forward to the front edge of your yoga mat.
  • Angle your back toes slightly forward toward the front edge of your mat. You can play with not angling your foot forward and instead line up your back pinky toe with the back edge of your mat. The latter isn't my preferred alignment, but, again, it might be worth trying. 
  • Press down through the center of your heel and the base of your big and little toes on the front foot evenly.
  • Press more through the back edge of your back foot while still firmly pressing the big toe side of your foot into your mat. 
  • Ideally the weight between each foot will feel evenly distributed. If it doesn't feel balanced, experiment! 

Legs & Pelvis

Misalignment: Front knee dropped in.  Tip: Be mindful of the front knee. Abduct it toward the pinky toe side of your front foot.

Misalignment: Front knee dropped in.

Tip: Be mindful of the front knee. Abduct it toward the pinky toe side of your front foot.

Misalignment: Front hip dropped lower than back hip.   Tip: Keep your frontal hip points level to each other. 

Misalignment: Front hip dropped lower than back hip. 

Tip: Keep your frontal hip points level to each other. 

  • Press through the back foot to straighten and engage the back leg.
  • Bend your front knee to a right angle at its deepest. Not all bodies are able to get this deep, so only go as far as your body allows without pressing the front knee beyond the front ankle. 
  • Guide the front knee slightly toward the pinky toe side of the front foot. Often the knee collapses down, but by engaging your outer hip and thigh muscles you'll be able to abduct your knee into a more sustainable alignment. 
  • Your hips definitely do not have to be square to any specific point. Forcing your hips square to the long side of your mat isn't attainable for most bodies without putting unnecessary pressure on the front knee. Let your back hip turn slightly forward if it naturally wants to go there.  
  • You DO want your frontal hip points level to each other. The tendency is for the front hip to sag. 
  • Keep your lower spine in its neutral curve. No need to over tuck the pelvis, but most bodies can benefit from a slight draw of the frontal hip bones up toward the ribs. 

Torso, Arms, & Head

Misalignment: Reaching too far forward with the front hand.   Tip: Stack your shoulders directly over your hips and reach in opposition with both hands. 

Misalignment: Reaching too far forward with the front hand. 

Tip: Stack your shoulders directly over your hips and reach in opposition with both hands. 

  • Stack your shoulders directly over your hips and square your chest to the long edge of your mat. (Notice that the shoulders are square to the long edge, but NOT the hips.)
  • Draw your ribs in and your navel back toward your spine to contain your abdominal core. 
  • Play with your gaze. Traditionally the gaze is forward over the front hand, however, in my own practice I prefer not turning my neck. 
  • Reach with strong opposition through both hands. It's common to reach too far forward with the front hand.

Final thoughts

That was a lot of information for one posture! There's a lot going on in Warrior II. You probably visit this posture in most vinyasa yoga classes so it's easy to fall into habits, but why not take on some of the more subtle details? Perhaps in one practice you focus primarily on your legs then, in another practice, focus primarily on your arms. Tackling everything at once can be maddening, but taking the time to get subtle and emphasize details can bring some life into even the most mundane postures. 

Skills & Drills: Inchworms

As my teacher often preaches yoga is a skill-based discipline. Yoga isn't just about stretching your legs or going upside down. Yoga takes time. Yoga takes practice. Yoga takes skill. 

My handstand practice has made it clear that skills are an essential part of the practice. Sure I could aimlessly kick up into handstand for days, but it'll probably result in the same flailing each and every time. Taking the time to work through drills and strengthen my hands, shoulders, and core benefit me more than setting the intention of simply sticking handstand. 

This Inchworm Drill is one of my go-to handstand preps. It's quite simple and really easy to integrate into your vinyasa yoga practice. 

Start in plank. Before moving drive through your hands and actively push your mat away from you. Then tiptoe your feet toward your wrists. Continue to push through your hands and engage your abdominal core. Walk your feet in as close as you can with straight legs and straight arms. If you have tighter hamstrings just walk your feet in as close as you can. Be patient with yourself and the process. You could even prop up each hand on a block to give you more clearance. Eventually you might be able to walk your feet all the way to your wrists while still feeling the push of your hands into your mat. 

One-Legged Chaturanga to Upward Facing Dog

When you actually breakdown the word Chaturanga Dandasana it means Four-Limbed Staff Pose. Chatur meaning the number four and Danda meaning staff as in a stick or rod. So next time you do Chaturanga, and any variation on it, consider the idea of a staff. Ideally when moving from high to low plank your spine stays in a neutral, long position. Not until you transition into Upward Facing Dog or Cobra does the body move into spinal extension, a backbend. 

This is even true when you add the flourish of lifting a leg in Chaturanga. When you elevate one leg in your high to low plank, your body has to work even harder to keep your ribs drawn in and your abdominals active. Your body naturally wants to compensate by moving into a slight backbend the moment one leg is lifted especially if your leg is lifted higher than hip height. 

Less than ideal One-Legged Chaturanga

Less than ideal One-Legged Chaturanga

The image above isn't as dramatic as it could be, but as you can see the spine and pelvis are quick to react once the leg is lifted. Eventually the leg elevation could affect the shoulder joints and cause the heads of the shoulders to drop and roll forward which makes the transition into Upward Facing Dog more strenuous than it needs to be. 

So how do you combat droopy ribs and spine in your Chaturanga Dandasana and its different variations? Draw your frontal hip points toward your ribs to active your abdominal core and glutes. Containing your abdominals and getting your glutes to fire will help balance the relationship between your pelvis and spine and keep you in that staff-like position. From there it's a smooth, efficient transition into your Upward Facing Dog. 

Remember Chaturanga is not a backbend. Upward Facing Dog IS a backbend. Let the two postures be their own thing. Once Chaturanga has had its moment to shine and settle, then transition into your backbend.

Happy practicing, yogis!

Pincha Mayurasana--Feathered Peacock/Forearm Balance

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My all-time favorite inversion is Forearm Balance. Early in my practice I dedicated a lot of time to figuring out the posture. It was the first posture that showed me that time, patience, and commitment are essential in a yoga practice. Now it's a posture I feel light and stable in. It's a beautiful feeling. 

Pinch Mayurasana is challenging for many reasons. If you have limited range of motion in your shoulders or if you're lacking strength in your shoulders this can be a frustrating posture. Again, it's a posture that requires time and patience. There's a lot I can share about Pincha Mayurasana, but there's one little tip I'd like to share with you in this post. 

Using a block is a really helpful tool to when working on Forearm Balance. For the longest time I used the block between my thumb and index fingers with my palms down on my mat. The squeeze into the block with my hands forced the muscles around my shoulders to kick on and the block gave me a clear boundary on where to keep my hands and elbows. Then everything changed when my teacher told me to turn my hands around and place the backs of my hands on my mat and squeeze into the block with my pinkies. Game changer!!

Lots of shoulder activation with this variation. Don't mind that I favor my right side and I'm a bit lopsided. 

Lots of shoulder activation with this variation. Don't mind that I favor my right side and I'm a bit lopsided. 

It's definitely a more challenging option, but it gave me more information about how to effectively use my shoulders. When your palms are down on your mat your hands will stay framed around the block, but it's very easy for your elbows to splay out which leaves room for lots of error. This approach limits the elbows from splaying apart giving you a more stable base. 

Full disclosure, when I first tried this approach I very loudly said, "This feels terrible!" It felt terrible because it just felt different. Why not give it a shot? Try it against the wall at first as it is much harder to balance without using your fingertips to grip your mat. Be sure to squeeze your pinkies into your block and press down through your forearms. 

Let me know how it works for you!

Skills & Drills: Pulling Locust

The next time you take a Vinyasa class you should count the number of Chaturangas you flow through. In a 60 minute class I teach probably a minimum of 12. Chaturanga and arm balancing postures like Crow are great postures to strengthen the front line of the body with their powerful pushing action, however, the opposing muscles of the body, the pulling muscles, are harder to target in a Vinyasa practice. Unfortunately this imbalance can lead to discomfort or potentially injury for some students.

Give yourself permission to Hulk out sometimes and use those strong pulling muscles!

Give yourself permission to Hulk out sometimes and use those strong pulling muscles!

For a while I was dealing with some shoulder pain while practicing. Of course I don't encourage anyone to self diagnose their own injuries, but I believe my pain was due to the muscles in my chest being a lot stronger than the muscles around my shoulder blades and back. Then I started to doing pull-ups and viola! The pain during my practice subsided. 

Now I'm not saying everyone should do pull-ups. They definitely are not the most enjoyable exercise. But I do think more Vinyasa students should spend time on strength work for the muscles around the shoulder blades to balance out all the pushing action that happens in practice. With that, I've got an exercises you can try that is very easy to incorporate into your practice:

Pulling Locust

Locust isn't the most satisfying backbend. The range of motion is low and the breath is often shallow due to it being a belly-down posture. It might not be satisfying, but Locust is a great posture for strengthening the backline of the body. You can also add a pulling action with the arms to up your strengthening game. 

To begin, lay on your belly with your arms stretched out overhead. I like to separate the feet hips-distance apart for extra stability. 

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On an exhalation press into your feet, lift your chest a few inches, and simultaneously pull your elbows down to a 90 degree angle. As you pull down draw your shoulder blades toward your hips. Be sure to keep your abdominals active and avoid from pushing your belly into your mat. 

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It seems so simple, and it is! But it's incredibly effective. Since I've started to focus more on strengthening the muscles around my shoulders, not only have I gotten past my shoulder pain in practice, but my arm balance and inversion practice feels a lot stronger and stable. This exercise is also very helpful for those who suffer from computer posture which is taking our culture by storm. 

A lot of yoga is about balance, right? Rather than just focusing on the balance of your mind and body or balancing on one foot, why not balance out the muscle groups you work in practice?

Forward Folds & Your Pelvis

There's a lot of forward folds in a Vinyasa practice. Take a typical Sun Salutation for example. It's simply a series of folding and unfolding the body. For some students forward folds feel great! The sensation of surrendering forward and the stretch of the hamstrings is why so many yogis carve out time for their practice. On the other hand, many practitioners feel discomfort when folding and feel inadequate when they're unable to touch their toes. No matter where you lie on the forward fold spectrum please remember that your ability or inability to touch your toes in a forward fold says nothing about who you are as a human being. It's simply a comment on the range of motion in your legs, hips, and low back. That's it!

When exploring forward folds it can be helpful to understand the movement of your pelvis over your femurs, thigh bones. When you move into a seated forward fold it is best to move your sitting bones back in space. Even if it's subtle, moving the sitting bones back initiates an anterior tilt of your pelvis and allows your pelvis to tip forward over your femur bones. When the pelvis tips forward the hamstrings lengthen and the quadriceps shorten. There you have a forward fold!

If you find that your lower spine is very rounded in your forward folds experiment with sticking your butt out way behind you. As you can see below, sticking the butt out helps the lower spine lengthen. When you do the opposite and you curl your butt under (posterior tilt) you cause the lower back to round. The position of the pelvis is everything as it informs the rest of the spine.

Top: Anterior tilt of pelvis. Good!  Bottom: Posterior tilt of the pelvis: Not so good

Top: Anterior tilt of pelvis. Good!

Bottom: Posterior tilt of the pelvis: Not so good

Forcing my pelvis to anteriorly tilt is quite easy. So what to do if your butt is stuck under you? You are not alone! For many it is hard to anteriorly tilt the pelvis and the lower spine is constantly in a state of roundness. Don't you worry! Sure you can experiment with bending your knees and then anteriorly tilting your pelvis. However, I've been encouraging a lot of my students with rounded spines to sit up on a block. When you sit forward on a block you are assisting your pelvis into an anterior tilt which could help you lengthen the rest of your spine. 

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Your forward fold will probably never be featured on the cover of Yoga Journal if you're sitting on a block, but who cares?! Again, you are not more or less of a good person if you prop up your posture. We need to question our drive to put our face on our shins in deep forward folds. Yoga shouldn't make you feel inferior. Yoga shouldn't make you feel inadequate. Your yoga practice is there for you to be in your body and better understand who you are physically and mentally. 

I have so much more to say about forward folds and their relationship to the pelvis, but I'll add one last thing on alignment. I'm fairly mobile in my hamstrings. Due to my mobility I can get very lazy in forward folds. Unfortunately too many disengaged forward folds has caused me a lot of pain and I have developed a little something called Yoga Butt. Yoga Butt is where the attachment points of the hamstrings into the pelvis are overworked and irritated. For so long yoga teachers, including myself, would encourage students to bend their knees in forward folds if they were dealing with Yoga Butt. I am not ashamed to say I now know better and would not advise a student with hamstring attachment issues to bend their knees in forward folds. I'm actually moving in the direction of encouraging all students to move away from bending their knees in forward folds. In my own practice I used to bend my knees all the time in forward folds and the issues I was facing never got better. My teacher then pointed out to me that bending the knees actually increases the stretch at the top of the hamstrings which just aggravates my injury even more. I am very grateful I learned this piece of information. I now no longer deal with my Yoga Butt symptoms and I'm always happy to share this tip with my students who have similar issues. 

I once took a workshop with Bryan Kest. He had so many inspiring things to share, but I took away one important nugget. He was discussing how yoga asana can be looked at as simple shapes. Sure the shapes are powerful and you can go as deep as you want with the practice, but the shapes alone can keep you healthier, longer. He took Pyramid Pose as an example. Rather than calling the big hamstring stretching posture by the name we all know it as, he called it Tying Your Shoe Pose. I liked that. You aren't just stretching your hamstrings in a forward fold. You're keeping your body mobile and agile. Age will slow us all down, but a consistent yoga practice will probably make things like tying our shoes easier to tackle. The ability to perform basic tasks unassisted will most likely help us stay happier and more fulfilled. 

Skills & Drills: Sphinx Roll-Ups

I actually enjoy working my abdominals. However, I don't enjoy crunches. The repetitive motion of my spine is uncomfortable, my neck usually ends up working my than my abdominals, and the exercise is useless. I'd much rather work my midsection in a functional way that supports my asana practice. Luckily we have Sphinx Roll-Ups!

I first experienced this drill when I took my teacher's inversion workshop back in 2012. I loved and hated it all at the same time and knew it was something I needed to integrate into my own practice and teaching. Over the years my students have also grown to love and hate Sphinx Roll-Ups. It's a very effective way to get your core to fire in preparation for inversions and arm balances and it's a powerful way to work your abdominals without putting pressure on your spine. 

Check it out!