It’s so easy to want to get more and more flexible, either because we think we should, or because we’re fixated on achieving a certain pose. But being flexible does not equal healthy! In fact, we often hold our particular tensions in order to protect our joints. We need strength to provide stability for our joints, which is of primary importance over flexibility. Of course, most of us do need to increase our flexibility but in balance with strength and stability.
And for those who are naturally bendy, enjoy it and maintain it, whilst protecting your joints. Finding balance also means accepting the body you have and appreciating what it can and can’t do! Practise with consistency and dedication in a balanced way and we see improvements physically and mentally, but let’s try to practise yoga without fixation or attachment to a certain outcome – especially if it’s more what we think we need, as opposed to what we actually need to be healthy.
Before a morning run, you won’t want to do a full yoga practice, and static stretches are definitely not recommend – but just doing these dynamic Sun Salutes will warm up the body in the right places, getting you ready to run!
Musculoskeletal disorders, in particular back pain, are one of the leading causes of sickness absence. With an estimated to cost the UK economy of £15 billion a year, it’s no wonder that more companies have brought in yoga teachers to offer corporate yoga sessions. But if yoga practitioners have been found to have the healthiest spines, believed to be because we move the spine in it’s full range of movements every day, surely everyone can maintain a healthy spine with a regular yoga practice.
A well rounded yoga practice will encompass all spinal movements, so it’s important to go to a weekly class and build up your daily home practice. Here are my top 5 poses though, that can be incorporated into a full practice, or done as a sequence on their own. They are intended for those with a healthy spine, if you have back pain, see a medical professional before practising yoga.
In addition, try to do some targeted core strengthening exercises each day for 5-10 minutes – more on this here – as the most common culprit for back pain is core weakness.
It’s also a great idea to lie over a couple of blocks for a few minutes each day, to release the front of the shoulders and chest – an area that can get really tight and impact your posture. See more on this area here.
1. Cat/ Cow
Such a simple and well known movement, you’ve probably done it many times in a class, but this simple action is a great way to combine easy flexion and extension of the spine. The flexing, when rounding the back, has a subtle core strengthening element to it, so really try to draw the abdominal muscles in towards the spine, helping to strengthen this area, whilst stretching out the back muscles. When extending the spine, by lifting the chest and the tail bone, keep broadening the shoulders drawing them away from the ears. This movement provides a great massage to the spine, giving you an awareness of your range of movement and opportunity to get the spine moving.
2. Sphinx and/ or Cobra
Following on from warming the spine up in Cat/ Cow, you may be ready to take a gentle back bend posture. Sphinx requires less upper body strength than Cobra and Up Dog, so is a great back bending pose to do whilst acquiring more arm strength, and to spend a little longer in. Keep a gentle activation of the belly drawing in and the tail bone lengthening.
Cobra can be practised on its own, or when doing Sun Salutations. From the floor, roll back the shoulders, roll up the chest as the shoulders draw back, finally lifting the head. Keep the sides of the neck feeling long, as you keep the shoulders down and away from the ears. Press the pubic bone down to activate the abdominal muscles and lengthen the tail bone, supporting the lumbar spine and creating space in the upper spine. Not only is this one of the best poses to build upper body strength, it also starts to strengthen the back. What we want is to build the strength of our spinal pillars, to support the spine from all sides.
3. Salabasana/ Locust
This pose is THE BEST for a healthy spine! It builds upon the back strength required in the previous poses. There are so many arm variations but this is my favourite because of the additional benefits to the shoulders. Start lying face down, with arms in cactus. Lengthen the legs back, press the pubic bone down to lengthen the tail bone. Lift from the back of the shoulders, drawing the shoulder blades towards each other, lifting from the heart. Float the legs up, keeping them straight and close together. Take 5 breaths and repeat once or twice more.
4. Ardha Matseyendrasana/ Half spinal twist
After Salabasana, slide back to Childs Pose (Balasana). Roll up to take this lovely twist. I like this really gentle version. Depending on how you feel at the time can dictate how far you go into any pose but especially consider this when twisting. Sit tall by drawing the lower belly in the reaching through the crown of the head.
Cross one leg over the other, with the low leg staying straight, or drawing the foot to the opposite heel, with both sitting bones level. Sitting up on a blanket roll feels great and will facilitate this. Move slow, use the finger tips to support you as you gradually twist to the same side as the top leg, keeping the height through the spine and the support of the belly. The head will be the last thing to turn if you are going towards the full expression of the pose, or you can choose to look straight ahead, feeling the pose work here on the lower and mid spine.
5. Supine Twist
Etched Floral leggings and Crop top are from KiraGrace
This can feel a fantastic release for the lower back and is particularly good to do after back bends like those above. Also great post running. On your back, draw one knee in towards you, then across your body. Adjust your hips, so that you can comfortably relax the knee towards the floor – resting this leg on a cushion or bolster is a great option if the hips are tight.
Upcoming Backbend Yoga Workshop!
Backbends: Health and Grace – A workshop on Saturday 26th May, 10am – 1pm, at Gwills Yoga, Newquay – £25
In this workshop, we’ll explore a range of different backbend postures, that effectively strengthening the back and lengthen the spine – potentially relieving back ache and improving posture.
We’ll also work towards some more advanced asana in deeper backbends and how to come into them safely, respecting our individual bodies and looking at how they can benefit us physically and emotionally, as well as look great.
This 3 hour workshop will involve strengthening work, Vinyasa flow and workshopping poses. Some yoga experience required. Not suitable for those with back injury/ complaint, as a one to one session is more appropriate.
With my Yoga for Runners workshops starting this Saturday, I’ve been excitedly planning – bringing together my learning and experience of both yoga and running – to offer the runners of all levels coming, the most useful and beneficial poses, sequences and techniques. Although there’s been an awesome rise in athletes taking on yoga as a supplement to their training, there still exists an unawareness or resistance from many trying it out. I got to thinking about how I can clearly and succinctly explain how yoga helps to prevent sports related injuries and what makes it such a vital part of an athletes training plan. See what you think!
Yoga builds strength – where you need it most. When we train hard without enough of the right cross training, our muscles get so used to being used in a particular way, that we can start to over-rely on some, and under-use others. This type of muscular imbalance is what most frequently leads to injury, as over-compensation leads to tension, tension leads to strain, and strain leads to pain. In addition, muscular weakness means there’s insufficient support of the joints, that leads to undue pressure and eventually injury. This week, I used Gluteus Medius in runners as a great example of this – watch my glut med video here – as glut med is so often weak, yet is our primary hip stabiliser. When there isn’t enough strength to stabilise the pelvis, our alignment gets thrown out, excess pressure is put on the low back, hip and knees, and the Tensor Fascia Lata (TFL) works harder than it should – straining the Iliotibial band (ITB).
Yoga develops flexibility – where excessive tension resides. So, our misalignments and imbalances that exacerbate our weaknesses over time, are also creating deep set tension. Using the example of weakness in Gluteus Medius creating an excess of tension in the TFL, it is that accumulated tension that usually causes ITB syndrome – when the IT Band becomes irritated with friction, often culminating with pain in the outside of the knee. See my ITB video here. Another example of a frequently tense/ tight muscle is the Piriformis: a small but deep external hip rotating muscle, that also stabilises the pelvis, can also work too hard if glut med is slacking, and builds extra tension through sitting and crossing legs! As with TFL, it holds on to the tension that it accumulates, if it isn’t frequently released through stretching.
Yoga enhances neuro-muscular awareness. Strength and weakness, clearly have so, so much to do with the way our bodies cope with the stresses and strains of our athletic pursuits but sometimes it’s habit and lack of awareness that overrides. What do I mean? Well, we can become so used to moving in certain ways, using certain muscles, that this becomes habitual and we loose the neuro-muscular connection and the awareness that we actually have better muscles to engage! Yoga is the best practice to create greater mind-body awareness, that not only enables you to use your physicality to its full functionality, but this awareness keeps you safer – you know when you can safely push your self harder and when you’ve reached your limit.
So, how was that for an overview of how yoga can prevent sporting injuries?! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Why strengthening your core is essential to posture, healthy back and confidence
Do you want to:
stand tall and strong?
strengthen and protect your spine, to prevent back ache and injury?
feel confident and self-assured?
Of course you do! A strong ‘core’ can lead to all of the above, but day to day life can, sometimes, prevent our centres being as strong as they should be 😉
The core and modern life
Generally, we sit too much… Either in super-comfy sofas, or in uncomfortable office chairs, that cause us to slouch and our belly to get lazy. And, from such a young age, we’re asking kids to sit in chairs too – starting the weak core epidemic early! (Why?!)
The core and physical activity
To combat all this sitting time we might exercise. Your chosen activity might be running, a gym routine and a weekly yoga class. As well as to de-stress, the focus might be to build muscle, lose a few pounds or to maintain an already good fitness level. Core strength is vitally important to support the impact of your chosen exercise, to stabilise and protect your spine and to maintain postural alignment.
So, your optimal core strength is threatened by the chair and time spent sitting! If care isn’t taken to combat our comfortable lifestyles, the spine is at risk from injury during activity, due to a lack of support from its muscular stabilisers. Lack of core strength and awareness can also lead to poor technique in running, biking, surfing and other sports.
If you’ve recently given birth, you might be returning to physical activity from a long break. For a number of reasons, your body might be lacking the the essential stabilisation from the band of muscles, that collectively make up the ‘core’.
This is why, in my opinion (and the teachers I’ve learned from), we should include targeted core and hip strengthening within our yoga practice. While yoga asana (poses) will strengthen your core, you need an awareness of those muscles to begin with. Only through this awareness will you discover how to properly activate the deeper belly, hip, side and lower back muscles, which in turn helps you strength them. This avoids bad yoga habits, will help you hold your yoga poses with proper alignment and therefore, increase the physical benefit from your yoga practice for your entire body!
By spending just a few minutes a day, you can effectively isolate the individual core muscles – strengthening the mind-body neural pathways, as to exactly how it feels to activate and utilise, a potentiallyunderused muscle group.
Top 5 core strengthening techniques
So here are my top 5 exercises, that you could start to include as part of your yoga practice. If these are new to you, start with the first one and add another each week (practising several times a week). Please note, that these may not be suitable for you. If you are suffering with a significant weakness, back issue or other complaint, you should seek a teacher’s advice (this could be with myself, in person, or online).
This is just a small number of exercises I use, that are very simple, yet very effective, if practised consistently over time. If you come to my classes then they will be familiar – now there is no excuse for not doing them at home!
To learn more, plus how we can consider our core strength throughout a dynamic yoga practice and how it aids and facilities all active poses, join me for the workshop on the 28th in St Agnes, when we will also wind-down with a few deeply relaxing, digestion aiding postures. If you’re further afield, see my regular video posts and attend a retreat. Upcoming retreats are Revive (and Run) 30th April – 6th May in Portugal and Rejuvenating Weekend 6 – 9 July in Cornwall.
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