In my classes, I get to watch my students and see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Do YOU see or notice what I see? This year’s Advent Calendar is all about improve your movement through awareness. This awareness can help you undo bad habits that are contributing to tightness and tension in your body. This in turn can help you develop strength and ease instead!
Become aware of how you stand and try to change it up. An ideal standing posture, which puts you in alignment and allows your muscles to work evenly is this: Feet point forward, pelvis over knees and ankles. Weight in heels. Check that pelvis is in neutral- not tipping forward. Making these adjustments can improve the loads to the lower back, hips, knees and pelvis. Try it next time you’re waiting in line at the grocery store!As well, when you’re walking, become aware of what the feet are doing. Are your feet pointing out? If so, just like a car’s wheels need aligning so there’s less wear and tear on the vehicle, so do feet pointing out add wear and tear your body – your joints and tissue.
Lying on your back can count as a 2 minute break in your day as well as chance to check out where you’re at.
Notice where there’s tension – can you allow body to soften toward floor? How do your shoulders land? Are they rounded up off the floor? Is there a difference between your Left and Right? How does your low back feel with legs extended? Do your feet point toward ceiling or do they point outward? Any difference between the legs?
Continue this exploration for the whole body. It will give you an idea of the state of your musculature. You can’t change that which you’re unaware!
BONUS: add an eye pillow to rest your eyes – the weight helps to soften the forehead and eye muscles. A nice break for “screen eyes”! [hint: I’m offering an eye pillow as a giveaway! Check past Facebook and Instagram posts to enter]
For more details on how to do a body scan, I offer an audio “walk through” here.
In my classes I sometimes see compensatory patterns of movement, which can arise due to lack of awareness or tightness of certain muscle groups.
I use yoga therapy balls (tennis ball can also work) to roll out tight tissue which not only brings temporary relief to that tightness but also brings awareness to certain muscles that your brain has “forgotten” how to control.
Number one on my list is feet! Your feet are a big part of your posture, your walking and your balance. Held hostage in shoes, walking on flat surfaces, and subjected to heels, your feet don’t get nearly the stimulation they need to “perform” for you.
Try rolling out your feet with tennis balls or yoga therapy balls, scrubbing along the length of the foot as well as side to side, across the arch.
You can also try it for the neck extensors: lie down rest your head on a block (or stack of books) and place two balls in a tote. Place balls under your head at back of skull where it meets the neck (occipital area). Then nod your head as if saying yes. You may need to hold onto the balls so they don’t slip. Then roll your head side to side as if saying no. You can also do a combination of the two and trace the infinity symbol with your head.
Try it on hips and shoulders as well (see pictures – against a wall)! If you’d like the chance to win a pair of the therapy balls, check out my giveaway in a previous post. You have until Monday December 7 to enter!
A lot of people round their back when they fold forward (or bend over). Instead, keep spine neutral as you tilt pelvis forward (like one of those classic drinking birds- see video in comments). Your tailbone is lifting, not tucked.
Once you’ve hinged forward, use hands to check your low back to make sure it hasn’t rounded. You can always been your knees to help with this.
Try this when picking stuff off floor or anytime you need to bend forward.
When the spine does the work of the hips (by rounding) it gets fatigued (and sore) and the hips don’t get the movement they need to stay healthy and mobile (that’s why hips get tight!). The adage “move it or lose it” applies here. Specifically – move your pelvis!
It’s easy to allow the pelvis to tilt forward in a lunge position. But if you want to improve hip mobility, keep the pelvis level and you’ll feel a stretch at the front of your hip (which is hip extension- the opposite of flexion, where our hips spend most of the time when we sit in a chair).
The hip is rarely given the opportunity to purely extend so it may feel tight at first but keep up with it and you may find improvement in your walking and less irritation in low back.
How to get into the position: start in a lunge with pelvis directly over back knee and front foot slightly ahead of knee. Check that pelvis is in neutral. Then bring your hips forward, only as far as you can keep the pelvis level. You won’t come as far but you will improve your hip mobility and function!
In yoga a Squat is called Malasana but we don’t have to limit squatting just to yoga. Squatting can be done when gardening or getting something from a low cupboard or drawer.
Please note: squatting is not a single exercise but rather something that includes hip and knee flexion. Our body is designed to be in a variety of squat positions (most of us squatted as kids) but when we sit in chairs too much, or modern conveniences don’t give us the opportunity to squat, we lose the ability to squat. So NOT squatting can actually negatively impact the gut, pelvis, hips and knees.
Try working toward a squat by first doing non-weight bearing ones: lie on your back (top right photo) and bringing knees toward chest. But…don’t round low back. Your pelvis moving is a compensation for hips that don’t.
Next, come onto your hands and knees and let hips come back (top left photo). Only bring hips as far back as pelvis doesn’t tuck (i.e. keep spine neutral).
As those progress, you can start moving toward full “upright” squat with help of rolled up blanket under heels (bottom left photo) or stacked blankets or a block under your hips to rest upon (bottom right photo).
Guess what? Spine is neutral! Why? Because we want to work the hips and not the spine. When the spine is rounded the pelvis tilts posteriorly which allows for less hip flexion (which we want to increase)!
A lot of people lack good mobility at the shoulder joint. This joint needs to move in cat-cow, downward dog, twists, and so on. Not to mention in life when we reach up, over and down, and even to play cello (for example) the bowing is a movement at the shoulder joint.To help unstick this joint, try this: Come onto hands and knees, with hips over knees and shoulders over wrists. Soften torso toward floor, which will bring shoulder blades together. Keep arms straight. Then, gently press into floor so torso comes back up toward ceiling, which bring shoulder blades apart.Keep spine neutral and don’t tuck the pelvis. The movement is at the shoulder blades. Repeat 10 times!
We’ll continue focusing on improving movement at shoulder joint as this is a dysfunctional area for many: See the attached video for more details. If you have soreness or tightness in your shoulders, doing these movements will help! Lying on back with knees bent, grab a strap or belt and hold it with both hands. Bring arms up toward sky, keeping them parallel to each other. Arms are straight.
Slowly bring arms overhead, only as far as your ribs don’t flare (which is an arching of spine, to accommodate arms overhead) and then return them to start. Keep arms straight! Repeat this a few times, breathing easily, without bracing to keep ribs down. Notice any difference between the movement on one side versus the other. Is it smooth? Is it clunky? Only move as far as you don’t have clicks or clunks! If you follow the video, there is another movement added to that will help you even further. Let me know how it goes!
The rotation of the arm at the shoulder joint is key not only to a lot of yoga poses but also to a lot of movements in life. A lack of mobility in this area can affect your whole torso, including the neck and spine area.Come to standing and bring one arm slightly away from your body. Begin internally and externally rotating your arm bone. Make sure this is at the shoulder joint and not at the elbow! You should see your biceps moving in and out, and feel your shoulder blade moving on your back. In fact your collarbone is also moving as these 3 bones work together (scapula, humerus and clavicle).
Then bring arm into a different position like moving arm behind you and rotating there, then bring it a bit forward and rotate. Try bringing arm parallel to the floor and try the movement there. Explore! Notice you’re targeting different fibres of the muscles that are working with each variation of the position.Rest that arm and notice the difference. Then try the other arm! Is one arm harder to do than the other? If so, practice with that arm more. After you’re done, try downward-facing dog and see if it feels different.
More shoulder stuff! We’ll break down the arms of cow face pose (gomukhasana) over 2 days. These movements don’t just apply to yoga, but to improve function for every day movement!Bring one arm overhead only as far as ribs don’t flare (ie. spine arches) then bend elbow, place hand behind head or top of shoulders.You can bring opposite hand onto elbow and press gently down. If arm doesn’t come up that high, then work from where you’re at and chip away. Spinal extension is a compensation to make up for limited movement at the shoulder joint. Don’t sacrifice function for form!If you’ve read this far, please let me know how this feels in your body! My left arm doesn’t come as high as my right. What about you?
Something I see when people move at the shoulder joint is lots of helping by other parts of the body. This happens due to limited mobility at the glenohumeral joint (where arm bone meets torso).Bring your arm away from body and rotate arm so thumb is pointing down. Then bring arm a bit behind you (extension). Keep that and bend elbow so hand comes on to back. Avoid arching your back to bring hand back (this is a compensation).Also notice that your shoulder blade doesn’t wing out, lifting off the ribs (another compensation!).You want to explore and work on improving the movement of the arm bone relative to these other parts. Those compensations (listed above) can lead to dysfunction, tension and pain.
The reason hips get tight is because they are not moved in their full range of motion on a regular basis. And that’s because we all tend to sit too much. However, sometimes you have to sit, so what can you do? First of all start to bring awareness to HOW you sit: do you sit at back or front of chair, do you slump, are your legs crossed (and is it always the same leg on top?), are your feet tucked under the chair?
Try varying up your sitting position: sit more at the front of your chair, with feet forward of the knees (page 1 left), or maybe widen knees (or not) and hinge forward, resting arms on legs for variety (page 1 right). Or try to bring ankle onto knee, or bring one foot up to rest on chair (page 2). Alternate legs of course! Or you can stand for a change, or even sit on the floor on a cushion (page 3) with legs crossed or legs extended. Don’t stay in any one position for too long. Variety is the spice of life! Which is your favourite?
Yesterday I talked about varying up your leg positions if you have to sit a lot. Today I want to add getting OUT of your chair and also coming down INTO your chair.While that may sound basic, here’s the challenge: try getting out of your chair without using arms/hands.Once standing, try sitting, without falling and without arms/hands. Notice that these two movements use different muscles! In the beginning, you can use arms out in front to help, but work towards minimizing the arms. You’re looking to build strength in the legs as well as to control your movements (against our friend gravity ).Try getting out and back into chair 3 times in a row. Hello legs! This is a great way to incorporate mindful movement into your day. This can be your desk chair, dining room chair, couch, and (ahem) toilet!
How do you get up from the floor? One way is to come into a lunge and lift back knee off floor to stand. If you tend to lean forward to get up (because that’s easier), that’s fine. But HAVING to lean forward to be able to do it is a different story. Try building your leg strength and use a doorway to keep the load of your body weight over that back leg.
Here’s how: Set up a lunge inside a doorway, with your torso resting inside the frame to assist you in managing an upright alignment. Keep your head and back against the frame as you move up and down. Feel the legs burn? Good! That means they’re working! After you get a feel for this, practice without the doorway. TIP: If you can’t get up without leaning your body forward, elevate your back knee on some stacked towels or yoga blocks.
Stand on both feet and shift weight to heels. Legs are straight so hip is over knee is over ankles (use mirror to check!). Shift weight to one foot without tilting pelvis. Then slowly lift opposite foot off floor and bring it as high as you like, maintaining level pelvis and weight in heels! You should be able to move toes freely- make sure toes aren’t gripping! Try other side. Is one side easier than the other?
Now we take balance a little farther and focus on using your butt muscles (and less your quads). Bring a chair in front of you and hinge forward at hip crease (see day 3). If back rounds then use back of chair. Bring weight back into the heels (so your arms are supporting you but not holding you up). Keep legs straight (don’t bend knee as this recruits quads). We want to target glutes! Then shift weight into right leg and lift left leg up behind you. Try shifting weight forward and then shift it back. Notice how glutes respond.
Try bending knee abs notice how quads take over. Then straighten and feel glutes. Also try noticing if pelvis lifts up. Keep it square. Feel the burn in your right hip! Then try the other side. We want to practice using hip muscles more so we maintain function of the hips. It the old use it or lose it principle! Try it out and let me know how it goes! (see video explaining this here).
We are building upon what you learned in the last two days, so moving from simple to complex. Use a chair again and start by hinging forward and resting arms on chair. Neutral spine, legs straight and weight in heels.
Then bring weight into right leg and bring left leg behind you. Bring your left hand on the hip and pressing down into the floor with the right heel, lift left hip up so it’s moving toward stacking over the right hip. Then bring left hip back to square. Now, drop left hip even lower than right hip (not a big movement) and feel the tug along right side of leg (hello IT band!). Continue moving back and forth, slowly opening and closing left hip. Keep leg straight and weight in heel!
Then, with left hip lifted, stay here. You have the option now of hinging further forward, as if your body – head to left heel – is tilting on a fulcrum (your right standing leg). You can always lower your right hand to a block or the floor if you want!
Tip: if you find it hard to balance with straight leg, then bend knee, which activates your quads, find your balance and then slowly press that leg straight.
Come out of it by dropping left hip back down and place left foot on floor. Come to standing and shake out right leg! Now do other side. Notice if one side is easier than the other. Often we’re stronger on one side so practice more on the weaker leg. Do you find this move challenging?
In chair pose, it’s important to keep the hips back, weight in the heels and be sure the knees don’t go past the toes.
When you add a twist of the upper torso, what can often happen is one knee slides ahead of the other (usually the knee opposite the side you’re turning toward). This is a compensation of the hips for a lack of mobility in the spine to rotate. So try rotating only as far as the knees stay in line with each other. It may not be far, but part of yoga is the ability to accept yourself where you’re at. Don’t get caught up in the “should’s” or comparing yourself to what others can (or can’t) do.
If you push yourself beyond your means (force), it’ll only lead to pain. When you move within your means, your body softens and actually yields more into the pose.
Ankle on knee is a nice hip opener but to be most effective as actually affecting the hips you need to keep out any compensations of the spine or pelvis.
First level: lie on your back with knees bent. Bring right able onto left knee. Notice if pelvis hiked or tilted one way to do this. If so, that is an action to make up for lack of mobility in the hip. This may be as far as you go right now, so stay here and breathe. If there’s more room, then lift left foot off floor and bring knees toward you only as far as back doesn’t round. Then do other side.
Second level: sit in a chair feet hip width apart and under the knees. Bring left ankle onto right knee. Make sure pelvis hasn’t shifted. Notice sitting bones and make sure they’re pressing equally into chair. You may need to lean back for this to be even. Otherwise you can tilt pelvis forward to deepen move.
Third level: either bring yourself out of chair from level 2 to stand on one leg, keeping weight in heel. Or… come to standing, bring weight into left foot and lift right foot off floor and bring onto left knee. Then hinge at hips and sit back. Watch pelvis and spine!
When lowering down to the floor from plank pose (knees down or up), there’s a tendency to flare elbows out to the side (bottom right pic). Keep elbows close to the body as you lower (top and lower left pic).
Check that the “eye” (or crease) of your elbow is facing forward before you lower. This way everything is aligned and moving in the same plane from shoulder to elbow to wrist. You can change the direction of this elbow eye by externally rotating your upper arm bone (humerus). This way of lowering has less strain on the joints, because the weight of your body is being supported by the foundation of the hands and elbows.
Another thing to watch for is avoiding “worming” your way down. This is where the hips land first and then the upper body follows (as opposed to spine staying neutral as you lower). This happens when there is limiting strength in the arms. Practice building this strength by having knees down, and by lowering just a couple inches and then pressing back up again. So it’s mini pulses in a small range.
Tip: Keep fingers spread wide so you have a wider base of support, and press down through fingertips so you distribute the load more evenly so your wrists don’t take the brunt of the load. If wrists get fatigued, then take a break and squeeze out the wrists with opposite hand, and do wrist circles.
Bridge pose is a great way to improve hip and shoulder extension – two movements the hips and shoulders don’t get enough of. The muscles of hip flexion (quads and iliacus) likely have shortened due to the overly amount of sitting in our culture. The muscles of shoulder flexion (pecs and deltoids) are more dominant due to arms being in front to carry, type, hold phone, etc). As a result, the mobility of hip and shoulder extension is limited.
Lie on the floor with your knees bent, arms by your side. Feet point straight forward and are hip width apart. Lift hips off floor, thinking about leveraging at the shoulder joint, so spine stays neutral. Watch that the knees don’t widen apart – that is a compensation for limited mobility in the hips. Also check that the spine doesn’t arch – another compensation! Think about lengthening your tailbone in the direction the thighs are pointed.
You can practice coming up and down slowly, with awareness, and then keep hips up and stay here for a couple breaths, allowing the belly to relax. Make sure abs aren’t contracting here! As you can see, there’s lots of opportunity for helpers! The lunge (Day 5) is another good one to improve hip extension.
The quadriceps can get overused (see Day 15, 16, 17 on balancing using hips instead of quads). This, and sitting too much can make them tight. To help stretch the quads, try the prone version first to get an idea of proper alignment to optimally target the actual quadriceps (picture on left).
Lie on your tummy and bend one knee and try to hold ankle (not foot) with hand. If this is hard, then use a strap. Keep thighs together and try not to arch the low back, as this shortens the quads. Instead think of pressing pubic bone into floor which posteriorly tilts pelvis. When you do this, you’ll feel the stretch more.
With this in mind, come to standing and lift one foot off floor and reach back to hold ankle. If you can’t reach it then use a strap (picture on right). Keep knees together and think about tilting pelvis posteriorly (or lengthening tailbone down), using your abdominals.
Tip: if this bothers your kneecap, then use a strap so knee isn’t bent as much.
This is a 3-for-1 stretch. Step 1 hamstring stretch: Lie on your back with knees bent. Grab a strap or belt and wrap around the bottom of your right foot, near the ball of your foot, and extend leg straight, toward ceiling. Then extend other leg and rest it on floor. Ease off on pulling right leg toward you so that left leg stays flat on floor (this means pelvis is neutral and not tucking). Pull your toes toward you (dorsiflexion). Note: leg isn’t necessarily pointing straight up- it may be at an angle to the floor depending on how tight your hamstrings are. Breathe here.
Step 2 – IT band and TFL stretch: from step one draw your right leg toward the midline (top picture). You can bring strap into left hand and bring right arm on floor to help counterbalance. Keep pelvis level, don’t let it tip to the left. That way it’s just a leg movement and you should feel a stretch on outside of right leg. Breathe here.
Step 3 – inner thigh stretch: from step 2 bring leg back to centre then switch strap to right hand and draw leg out to right… only as far as pelvis doesn’t tip! Breathe here.
Make sure you aren’t holding your breath for any of these! And try to avoid any bracing or clenching of jaw. Then bring leg back to centre and release feet. Take a minute to notice difference between legs and then do other side!
Okay this is a big one. Let’s look at the component parts of down dog. It actually involves a lot of the things covered in this advent calendar, so it’s like the grand finale! You need shoulder and hip flexion, as well as dorsiflexion of the ankle. Start with shoulder flexion. Review Day 8 to see how far your arms come overhead. You can also do some rhomboid push-ups (Day 7) and arms rotation (Day 9) to get more mobility of this joint.
Then come in to child’s pose with arms forward (see step 1). Think about lengthening arms and pressing hands and spread fingertips into mat. To take this further, come up onto hands and knees, and drop right elbow down to mat and bring right forearm parallel to short edge of mat. Extend left arm straight, working on “opening” just that shoulder (step 2). Then do other side. Come back to hands and knees and this time walk hands forward so you’re in down dog but on your knees (step 3). This is a great way to practice feeling the engagement of the arms, the lengthening of the spine and tilt forward of the pelvis, without as much load.
From this position, you can now you can tuck your toes under, and lift the knees up off the floor. Keep knees bent at first in order to keep spine straight (step 4). Think about hinging at hips so your pelvis is in line with spine. Go look back at Day 3 to review hinging at the hips – the tail bone should be lifting in down dog. You can pedal your feet here, alternating dropping one heel down while the opposite knee bends. Tip: If you find this tiring for your arms, go back to Day 20, lowering from plank, to build arm strength. Another way to practice this is to stand in front of a wall, hinge at the hips and place hands on wall, at a height that suits you. Happy down dogging!