No More Banana Back!

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In today’s blog post I’d like to give you a visual and verbal understanding of a very common condition amongst yoga practitioners in various postures that involve extending the hip joint.

Banana back is a funny way of describing what can happen for yoga practitioners who are super flexible, but not necessarily strong, or just don’t have a keen awareness of this area. 

As always, we want to do our best to balance the two qualities of strength and flexibility. Any time we do a movement that requires engaging the muscles that extend the hip, depending on our level of flexibility in the low back or lumbar spine area, there is a possibility that we may be creating the extension from our back and not our actual hip muscles. 

This matters for a couple of reasons:

  • Our hip extending muscles tend to be weak due to our modern lifestyles. Muscles on the front of the body tend to be short and tight from hours of sitting; muscles on the back of the body tend to be overstretched and weak for similar reasons.

  • This muscle group tends to be weaker in men than women for physiological reasons.

  • Lumbar spinal issues tend to be the most common, due to many of the reasons above. There is a transition point in the spine in this area (there are several similar ones throughout the spine) that tends to be more vulnerable to misuse.

So what’s the solution? Using the muscles that were meant to do the thing to do the thing! And attention to detail of course.

I’m sure there’s a name for this pose but I’ll be darned if I can find it! If you know it, let me know!

I’m sure there’s a name for this pose but I’ll be darned if I can find it! If you know it, let me know!

In the picture above you’ll see a well supported version of this balancing pose that asks us to resist the pull of gravity when we lift the leg in particular. Some specific things to note:

  • I’m not lifting the leg higher than my hip. This isn’t about range of motion. It’s about a well supported lumbar spine and a strengthening action of contraction in the glutes and hamstrings.

  • My low back is in a natural curve, rather than an over accentuated one. The amount of curvature will vary across the bodies of different practitioners but for me, this is pretty good.

  • This may be harder to see in a picture, but everything that touches the earth is pressing DOWN fairly strongly. Engagement with the earth helps awaken core support.

Contrast this with the picture below. 

Ouch!

Ouch!

I hope you can see the difference. For me I could definitely FEEL the difference! Having brought some attention to this detail of my own practice for some time now, doing this movement without the core engagement, lifting my leg way too high and letting my ribs flare toward the ground instead of up towards the sky made this pose feel AWFUL on my low back and my other joints that were bearing weight. 

When I work in this posture in this way, there’s a sense of connection that isn’t there otherwise. My body feels like one cohesive whole, rather than a bunch of parts doing something but not necessarily working together.

I hope you found this explanation helpful! Let me know in the comments. :-)

Essential Differences in 3 Common Backbends

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You've probably heard Up Dog, Cobra and Sphinx pose called out in many a yoga class. But do you know the essential differences between the three poses? Here's a quick introduction or review of what makes each of these poses unique, whether you've taken 1 class or hundreds!

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I see it frequently in the course of my public classes, especially with beginners but also with more experienced practitioners. The difference between these three popular backbends can be a bit confusing. So let’s go through them one by one so you can have a visual example of their differences and be more comfortable knowing which to choose in your next class.

Cobra

Low Cobra

Low Cobra

This might be your “lowest” backbend in that you can keep it pretty close to the floor. You might be lifting just your head up.

High Cobra

High Cobra

Or you may go higher as shown in the picture above. Your pelvis can stay on the floor here but as you start to come up higher the top of your pelvis may lift until just your pubic bone is still touching the floor. How much the pelvis comes up depends greatly on your specific anatomy and flexibility.

A primary difference between cobra and up dog: Cobra maintains slightly bent elbows, even at it’s fullest height. Thighs and parts of the pelvis remain on the ground.

A primary difference between cobra and sphinx: Only the hands are on the ground in Cobra, not the forearms.

Up Dog

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I’m skipping to Up Dog for a moment as it has the most in common with Cobra, but has some key differences. Here the arms are straightening while maintaining a micro bend in the elbows and relaxed shoulders. The tops of the feet are pressing strongly, just like in Cobra, but here they are the only part of the legs touching the floor. The thighs are lifted as well as the shins. So basically the only points of contact with the earth are through the hands and the tops of the feet.

A primary difference between Cobra and Up Dog: Only the feet and the hands are touching the ground for most bodies.

A primary difference between Up Dog and Sphinx: There is much LESS connection to the earth in Up Dog than Sphinx.

Sphinx

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Sphinx pose in many ways is the odd pose out in these three poses. While the legs in this pose are similar to Cobra in that there is full connection and the engagement comes from the press of the tops of the feet, the upper body is quite different. Here you’ll find the palms of the hands all the way through to the elbows are on the earth. The elbows are ideally aligned underneath the shoulders from front to back AND from side to side. I often offer that if you find that alignment too deep for your back because you are still developing you ability to support the pose, you can walk the elbows farther forward of the shoulders to reduce the depth of the backbend. As the shoulders relax away from the ears and the spine lifts off the earth the forearms help with the “lift” of the pose by pressing down. There can also be a slight draw back on the forearms towards the hips (without actually moving them) that helps engage the shoulder blades and opens the front of the chest.

When might you choose one of these poses over another?

In a vinyasa yoga class, you’ll typically find Cobra or Up Dog offered in the actual vinyasa sequence (that combination of poses that shows up regularly of Down Dog, Plank, Cobra or Up Dog and back to Down Dog). Often you might do several repetitions of this sequence with Cobra first to help prepare for the greater spinal demand of Up Dog (you might also use Locust as part of this preparation for deeper backbending as I often do in my classes, but that’s beyond the scope of this article). Once the body is warm and ready, you might then choose to move into Up Dog in this sequence.

Typically, you won’t find Sphinx offered during the vinyasa sequence, as it can be a bit clunky to move into from Plank or even Chaturanga (but all rules are meant to be broken!) and may disrupt the flow of the sequence and the breath. It may show up at other times during the practice. However, if you are experiencing challenges in the wrists, hands or even the elbows, Sphinx can be a great substitution to still get in a juicy backbend while giving these joints a little more ease. Some people may also find it a little easier on the back as well.

Remember that this is just a basic guide. There are many nuances that you may develop over the course of your practice, but I hope this guide helps you figure out the differences between these three often called for poses.

Is there something that still isn’t clear for you? Leave me a comment and I’ll try to clarify!

The Benefits of Legs up the Wall (& how to make it feel better if it isn't your favorite pose)...

If you've ever been to a Restorative Yoga Class or really any gentle (or sometimes even not so gentle) yoga class you may have been asked to come into Legs Up The Wall or Viparita Karani. Many people cheer when the teacher calls this pose because it feels so good and restful! But what are the real benefits of this posture? And what do you do if it isn't your favorite? Read on!

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Inversions are one of the hallmarks of the physical practice of yoga because they are so unique to the discipline. What other movement form asks you to hold yourself upside down for an extended period of time? There are some key benefits to Legs Up the Wall. Here are just a few:

  • Reduction of fluid, swelling and pain in the legs - If you've been flying, have a job that requires a good deal of standing during your day or other health challenges you may find you have pain and swelling from time to time in the legs. The reversal of the effects of gravity on the body in Legs Up the Wall encourages better return circulation and drainage of excess fluids that may have collected in the lower extremities.

  • Relaxation - As compared with more active inversions such as headstand, Legs Up the Wall greatly encourages the relaxation response in the body. We're more able to breathe fully, deeply and slowly in this well supported position encouraging a sense of well being, taking the nervous system out of "fight or flight" mode and lowering the heart rate. Some study is now being done into how this position may also influence the vagus nerve which is being found to be a key pathway in the body for regulation of all major systems and mind/body connection.

  • Stretches the back body line - If you have tight hamstrings or a generally tight back body line, you aren't alone. This position can help lengthen this area which may generate some relief in low back pain or other spinal issues. The softening of pelvic muscles and the difference in the effect of gravity on the body may also help ease spinal tension experienced during our usual relationship with gravity throughout the day (i.e. being upright).

  • Safe and relatively easy way to experience the benefits of inversions - Headstand isn't for everyone. Legs Up the Wall is a simple way to gain the benefits of an inversion practice without the safety concerns of other more active inversions.

Obviously, these are some great benefits! But what if you're like me (yep, like me) and this isn't your favorite pose? Here are some modifications that might help:

  • Don't have your butt right up at the wall - If you come into this pose and that tight back body line we just talked about is screaming for mercy, try backing away from the wall to relieve the tension. If that isn't enough you may want to place a bolster between you and the wall or even try putting your legs up on a chair instead.

  • Put a blanket or cushion under your low back - If you have low back pain you may find that the weight of the legs moving down into the hip sockets does not feel good on your back or sacrum area. Try padding things up a bit more than you normally would with a blanket or some other cushion to relieve the pressure.

  • Ask your teacher to tie a strap around your lower legs - If you find this pose less than relaxing it may be because your muscles are trying too hard to hold your legs in position. If you have your teacher tie a strap around the lower legs while you're in the pose you may find that the muscles can relax and if the feet start to fall apart from each other the strap will do the work of helping you stay put. A much more relaxing experience!

  • Know when to say when - Not every pose is for every body. As you will often hear us say in class, "Your body, your practice". If you've given it the ole college try and it just isn't working for you, don't be afraid to come out of the pose, especially if there's pain. Your teacher can always give you some other options to work with.

Do you love Legs Up the Wall? Or could you live without it in your practice? Let me know in the comments! 

Ardha Uttanasana or What’s the deal with half way lift?

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It’s a posture we seem to do a lot in vinyasa yoga classes but breeze right by without a second thought. So what’s the deal with Ardha Uttanasana?

First, let’s break down the Sanskrit. You may be very familiar with Uttanasana 

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Often teachers don’t use the Sanskrit name of this pose. Ardha means half and uttansana is forward fold. So we get half forward fold.

Which is probably why you’ve heard this cued as “lift halfway” or “halfway lift” from forward fold. That’s all well and good if you’re, as my husband calls me, bendy. But what if you aren’t so bendy? What if your Uttanasana looks like this:

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Well, first of all, you’re just fine where you are! Don’t try to force yourself into a deeper forward fold. We always want to honor our bodies as they are and know that change is always possible. There are things we can do to make your forward fold better, but that isn’t what this post is about. So, getting back to our focus pose, if someone tells you to “lift halfway” and you’re already about half way between the possibility of folding and standing, what’s a yogi to do?

Consider what Ardha Uttansana is asking us to do. As far as shape goes, we’re basically making an upside down L with our bodies. That means that we want to lengthen our spine and strengthen our legs and our core support. So go back to that first picture of the posture.

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Some things to notice.

As always, we want to build the posture from the ground up, so feet are sit bones distance apart and pressing into the earth with arches engaged. Moving up from there, and this is the first important point, knees are not locked. Often when we lift the spine up into this pose we tend to throw the knee joints back and inadvertently lock them out. That doesn’t help us build core strength because it stops that flow of energy from the earth we’ve cultivated by lifting the arches. Instead of the muscles doing their work, we throw all the effort of pose into the joints. Total bummer and not what joints were meant to do. So if we keep the knees slightly bent we have more opportunity to strengthen.

Next consider, where does that lift of the spine actually come from? Certainly, the muscles that run along the back part of the body are going to have to work here. That just makes sense. But wouldn’t it be nice if they didn’t have to do everything to fight gravity and achieve “lift off” on their own? Especially if you already have tight hamstrings or tend to experience low back pain? Of course! So that’s why we want to engage the core, as well as the belly/abs. I often think of this movement like a rising wave. When I’m lifting my spine up into the pose I actually think of lifting my belly first and then let that energy travel up the whole length of my spine. It’s like the spine unfurls in a wave that rolls out through the crown of my head. With that inner body support, my low back is fine and my spine can grow long.

Here’s where we have to show control though. Consider the difference between the picture above and this one:

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Does this look like my neck is happy? Notsomuch. So we contain that wave of energy we’ve brought up from the earth through the legs and into the spine just enough that it draws the head into line with the rest of the spine. With all of that inner body activation the back body (which is a group of much smaller muscles) doesn’t have to work as hard. But let’s go back to that back body for one more moment to check in on one very important spot. The shoulders.

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We’ve been working with engaging and strengthening the shoulders a lot in my classes lately. Here is no exception. Instead of slumping

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The shoulders draw up and on to the back. That stabilization helps those small back body muscles get the memo that they do have to do some work too. It also allows the heart to open a bit more which helps with one most excellent thing: getting a deeper breath! If you think about it you are most likely asked to inhale when coming into this posture. The shoulders engaged allow us the space to get that nice deep breath we need for whatever might be coming up next. Yay!

So going back a bit, if you’re that person that can’t really touch your toes, what can you do in this pose and how can it benefit you?

First, you can think about that spinal length we’re looking to achieve here. With that lengthening of the spine you are finding the space for a fuller, deeper breath. With that deeper breath IN is the possibility for a fuller breath OUT which may encourage your back body to release a little more into that full forward fold on the next repetition.

Second, When you’re in this posture you can think more about pressing into the feet and getting the legs and therefore the hamstrings to strengthen which can (eventually) lead to more length (if I muscle feels like it can protect itself it is more likely to stretch. Strange but true).

Third, most of us can always use work on our core strengthening. By supporting the spine in the way it needs to be supported you are more likely to start to relieve some of the low back pain so many of us complain about in daily life. And often, if you have tight hamstrings, they can pull on the low back and create some of that pain. By supporting the spine well, that may take the pressure off and start the process of finding a little more length in the hamstrings (remember that point about muscles needing to feel protected above).

Finally, we can all benefit from getting a little more mindful in our practice. When we bring focus to one posture it can often open up new curiosity and then more mindfulness and possibilities in other postures.

I hope that helps you feel more engaged in your practice of Ardha Uttanasana! If you have questions or comments, feel free to leave them in the comments below or ask before or after your next class.

Namasté!