Sunday, May 24, 2015

Twist Away Toxins

We often think of twists as poses that keep our spine supple.  While this is true, twists not only stretch and open your spine, they are also amazing detoxifyers.  When practicing a twist pose, think of your body as a big sponge.  When you twist, you’re wringing out your sponge, squeezing your internal organs to stimulate blood flow.  That active energy oxygenates your organs and carries away the poisons that build up in daily life.

Here are four twists you can practice that will help clean your insides.  Important note:  Do not practice twist poses if you are pregnant. 

1.  Half Lord of the Fishes Pose
This is a classic twist that you will find incorporated into many yoga classes.  Sit on the floor with your feet in front of you. Next cross your right leg over your left and bend your knee so that your right foot is next to your left knee.  Fold your left leg to move your foot close to your right hip.  If this makes your seat (your right sit bone) rise off the floor, keep your left leg extended. Keep both sit bones on the floor.  Place your right hand on the floor behind you in the center of your spine.  Reach high in the sky with your left hand to lengthen your spine, then bend your elbow and press it against the outside of your right knee.   Look over your right shoulder and use your arms to make your belly twist like a sponge.  Breathe deeply for 3-8 long breaths.  Untwist and gently counter twist to the left.  Begin again on the opposite side.

2.  Thread the Needle
This relaxing twist is an effective way to get your digestive system moving in the morning.  Sit on your heels.  Fold your body forward and rest your belly on your legs.  Stretch your arms out in front of you (Child’s Pose).  Breathe.  Slide your right arm under the space beneath your left armpit.  Face your palm up and twist your body.  Breathe deeply for 3-8 breaths.  Now start at the beginning and twist to the left.  Note: this pose may also be practiced starting on your knees and sliding your arms forward with your tail in the air (Puppy Pose.)  This creates more space between the intercostal ribs in your chest and moves the twist a little higher up your spine.

 3.  Twisted Chair

This twist is a great way to improve overall body strength by engaging your thighs and your core abdominals.  Begin in Mountain Pose with your feet firmly planted.  Breathe in and raise your arms up.  Exhale and bend your knees as if you are sitting down on a chair.  Keep your back straight, but lean forward a little so you can see your toes sticking out from below your knees.  Bring your hands together in front of your heart, then turn your shoulders to the right as you place your left elbow on the outside of your right knee.  Inhale and press gently against your knee while you turn your head right to look up at the sky.  Exhale and relax into the pose.  Try to keep your knees aligned.   If you feel balanced, you can spread your arms perpendicular to the ground.  Hold this pose for 3-8 long breaths before you return to Mountain Pose.  Then begin again, this time twisting to the left.

4.  Dying Warrior
This is a complicated pose, but it’s the only one I know that effectively uses gravity to rotate your spine on its axis by nearly 180 degrees.  It’s intense, but beautiful at the same time.  Begin in Downward Dog.  Raise your right leg high in the sky behind you in a half split.  Inhale deeply, then exhale and bring your knee toward your nose and then move your leg across and under your body to place the outside of your foot on the ground to your left.  Your legs form an open scissors shape.  Untuck your back toe and slide back and down until the outside of your right thigh touches the ground.  Your right leg is now stretched out to the left under your body.  Breathe.

Once you feel comfortable in this position, lay your belly and chest on the ground. You can make a pillow with your hands and rest there for a few breaths.  Next try to keep your chest flat on the floor and extend your arms to either side with your palms on the floor. The last step in the twist is to turn your head to the right.   Breathe deeply as you luxuriate in this awesome full twist for 3 – 8 breaths.

Inhale, then exhale and unwind by turning your head back to the center.  Bend your elbows and slide your hands together to form a pillow under your forehead.  Rest for a moment before pressing up onto your forearms, shift and scissors your legs closed.  Press up into plank, baby cobra or upward dog, then back to downward dog.  Relax here for 5 breaths before repeating the exercise with your left leg crossing under your body to the right, and your head turned to the left. 

After ending this twist sequence in Downward Dog, put your knees on the ground and shift back into Child’s Pose.  Rest your forehead on the ground.  Breathe deeply.  When you inhale, feel your back expanding like the shell of a turtle.  When you exhale, pull your belly toward your spine to actively push out all the air.  How do you feel?   Twistalicious, perhaps?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

To Build A House…

If you want to build a house, where do you start?  Once you have your plan and are ready to build, you begin with the foundation and build up.   It doesn’t make sense to erect the walls or finish the roof before your foundation is laid.  In the same way, every yoga pose starts with a foundation.  Once you master the foundation of a pose, you can build your way up with confidence.  Why?  Because your cornerstones are set and your footing is solid. 

Here are four foundational yoga poses that are used in almost every class.  They may seem simple, but depending on your level of flexibility, strength and balance, these poses can be surprisingly challenging.  Practice these poses mindfully to finesse their nuances before moving on to seemingly more difficult poses.  

1.  Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

Mountain Pose is the quintessential standing yoga pose and the foundation of all standing poses ranging from Tree Pose to Chair Pose.  Think of it as active standing. Practice it any time, even while you’re waiting in line.  Stand with your feet rooted in the earth like a mountain.   Become aware of every contact point your feet make with the ground and try to evenly distribute your weight.  Spread your toes.  Tuck your tail a little and pull in your belly button to engage your abdominal muscles.  Flex your arms downward and spread your fingers.   Activate your leg muscles by flexing your thighs.  Take a deep breath and reach the top of your head toward the sky.  Relax your shoulders.  Make yourself tall and strong.

2.  Stick Pose (Dandasana)

Stick Pose is the starting point for seated positions like forward folds and twists.  Mastering it helps you connect your tailbone with the Earth while you create a line of energy to the top of your skull.  It also flexes and stretches your hip joints and when done correctly, strengthens your abdominal muscles.  To begin, sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you.  Place your palms flat on the ground by your sides.  Inhale and make yourself tall by lifting the top of your head toward the ceiling.  Pull your belly button in toward your spine.  Lengthen your spine and keep your back straight.  Try to look like a capital letter “L.”

3.  Table Pose (Bharmanasana)

Table Pose is the perfect foundation for all downward-facing poses, from child’s pose to headstand.  Begin on your hands and knees with the tops of your feet on the floor.  Make yourself into a solid table by placing your hands directly beneath your shoulders and your knees directly beneath your hips.  This is the measuring tool for your foundation: your shoulders and hips are visuals for the measured placement of your arms and legs.   Pull your belly button in and look about four inches in front of you so that you lengthen your neck.  Pull your shoulders away from your ears.  Breathe in.  Breathe out.

4.  Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
An integral part of many yoga flows, you’ll rarely find a yoga class that doesn’t incorporate Downward Facing Dog.   It is the most restful inversion, or upside-down-pose.  Inversions are important for the movement of blood and energy to your brain, and they’re playful and fun as well.  To achieve your best Downward Dog, begin in Table Pose so your hands and feet are correctly measured.  Tuck your toes under, then push your tail upward.  Keep your hands and feet in place as you move your heels toward the ground and actively press through your palms.  Open your heart up toward your legs so that your back is as flat as possible.  Let your head hang.  You should look like an upside down letter “V” in this pose.  Breathe deeply and luxuriate as the back of your body opens to release all the tension created by long hours in a chair or on your feet.

Practice these poses in earnest and you’ll be glad you did.  Your house will be solid and ready for the challenges you want to undertake in your practice.  Any time you want to try a difficult pose, remember to start with your foundation.  Although they seem basic, these poses are the key to building your poses from the ground up, giving you the stability, connecting points and measurements optimal performance.