Yoga for Runners – Hips Don’t Lie

Originally this article in appeared on the PROBAR blog.  You can find it in its entirety here.

Runners’ bodies often need a special practice that’s tailored to complement their main sport. Yoga for runners needs to take into account not just the muscles that promote the movement but also the reciprocal muscle groups, in order to maintain a balance in the body.

Reciprocal inhibition is the process that our body uses for movement: one set of muscles contracts while the opposing set relaxes to create smooth movement. For example in when you are running as you lift your leg to propel yourself forward, your quadriceps must contract to lift the knee forward, and the hamstrings must relax. When the muscles are balanced they have the right combination of inhibition and facilitation during movement. When the inhibition and facilitation are not in the right combination, muscle imbalances may occur, leading to inefficiencies at best, and injuries at worst.

Many runners often step on their mat looking for relief for tight and achy iliotibial (IT) bands that are giving them trouble. I see people collapse into Pigeon Pose with blissful expressions on their faces. The stretch feels good. But more often than not there are no lasting results. You may even find that the stretched muscle group is tighter the next day.

In my experience with teaching yoga, running, and learning from my own injuries, the key to Yoga for Runners is reciprocal stretching and strengthening. It is critical to stretch both muscles groups in the reciprocal pair. So if you spend some quality time in Pigeon Pose to stretch the outer hip, your next stop should be Frog Pose, to show you adductors the same kind of love!


Nari PigeonPIGEON POSE:

  • Start on all fours and bring the right knee forward to touch your right wrist.
  • Inch the right leg forward until the right foot is just below the left hip.
  • Lengthen the left leg parallel to the long edges of the mat.
  • Softly lower the pelvis to the floor. If your left hip ends up higher than the right, tuck a block or a blanket under the right side to level the hips.
  • Walk your hands forward as you lengthen the torso on the inhale. Exhale as you fold forward over the right leg.
  • You can have either your forearms or hands on the mat, which will support more of your weight. If there is more space in the hip, you may want to lower your torso all the way to the mat.

Nari FrogFROG POSE:

  • Start on all fours and bring the knees farther apart, as wide as sustainable over a minute or two, as you hold the stretch.
  • Keep the hips directly over the knees. Bring the shins to form a 90 degree angle with thighs, and the feet to form a 90 degree angle with the shins. Flex the feet.
  • You can have either your forearms or hands on the mat, which will support more of your weight. If there is more space in your adductors, you may want to lower your torso all the way to a bolster or to the mat.
  • On an inhale lengthen the spine and engage the core just enough to prevent the low back from arching.
  • Pad the knees with a blanket if needed.

TIPS:

  • Use deep, unforced yogic breath to relax and soften into the stretch. This helps prevent pushing past your limit and resulting in microtears in the muscles being stretched.
  • If you feel a spasm in the opposite muscle group, this is due to the extra flexion work the reciprocal muscle has to go in order to stretch out a tight muscle group. If this occurs, gently back out of the stretch for a few seconds before returning to it.
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Self-Improvement vs. Growth

IMG_8005There is an incredible push in our society to “always keep improving.” “Be yourself, only better.” The messages, sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, are beaming at us from everywhere. How many perfectly airbrushed bodies do you have to walk by on your way to the register to pay for your pint of ice cream (and how much guilt will you feel on your way)? Isn’t this insistent call for betterment also a constant nagging voice in our ears reminding us that we are “less than”?

Shockingly, these messages aren’t coming from our friends and loved ones, who, incidentally happen to love our apparently “less than” selves. They are coming from companies, big and small, intent on selling us their goods, services, a lifestyle, a promise of a better future if only we finally just buy the product, sign up for the service, lose those last 5 pounds… The list goes on. And really, who benefits from our self-improvement?

What’s worse: we buy into it! If you Google “improve yourself” some of the suggestions that come up are “before dating” and “after breakup”. Because obviously the reason you are still single or single again is that you are not good enough and you need a tune-up.

So this is my wakeup call to you: LOVE yourselves. Do it now! Not after you get to the full expression in Natarajasana, not after you qualify for the Boston marathon, not after you lose the last few pounds, or finally get your kid to soccer practice on time. You are not a project. Love yourself NOW.

It is imperative that our love towards ourselves is unconditional. Only then can we truly love others in a way that does not begrudge and does not hold back.

Having said that: this isn’t a call for stagnation and apathy. I looked up the words in the dictionary to make sure I kept myself honest. And sure enough: one of the top 3 definitions of “improvement” is an addition or change that makes something better or more valuable than before. The way I read that is there is an implication that what we were before needed to be better. I like the word “growth” much better – the process of growing, full development, maturity.

So go, love yourselves and grow into even more magnificent beings you were always meant to be.

Namaste.

Building a House and Finding a Home

Angie Habitat Nicaragua 2015“You are enough.” As a yoga teacher I must have said those words a dozens if not hundreds of times. And yet I was clueless as to the meaning until my Habitat for Humanity trip to Nicaragua.

I came for what I thought was helping a family in need build a house. Yet, what I was building the whole week was my own heart: a new ability to let love in despite my fears, to take in gratitude when it is given, to accept hugs when my being aches for them.

This was a tiring week of carrying blocks, carting gravel, sifting sand, and mixing mortar and concrete. I was waking up with sore muscles that I didn’t previously know existed. But the physical exhaustion pulled me out of the trap of my own mind. I was too tired to plan, do busy work, and keep myself occupied: behaviors which I learned I use to mask my feelings of vulnerability.  And it was so vulnerable connecting with complete strangers in such an intense and personal way.

My week started with goals and targets: build goals, step goals, calorie goals. I was running first thing in the morning, and walking on the beach after the build, making sure I was meeting my step goals. By the end of the week I was walking on the beach to find calm and stillness, to make space for the emotions that were coming up, and to allow myself the opportunity to reflect. And I had fully embraced the wonders of fried plantains.

I started taking more breaks at the build site. Sometimes to hydrate. Sometimes just because the kids wanted to play. What I learned in this one week was to give my presence fully. I may not have understood what the kids were saying to me, and they may not have understood me, but when we spun and giggled and danced nothing else existed. My mind was not rushing off to the next task, but present, delighting, filled with the resonating laughter of the children.

This week I collapsed on my bed every day after the build, feeling physically and House Habitat Nicaragua 2015emotionally raw. And as I lay there, trying to parse through the emotions that were surfacing, I learned that the love that budded within me towards the people I was connecting with could only be cultivated if I loved and accepted myself. The love would grow only if I gave them my most vulnerable, authentic, and imperfect self, rather than the image of the “best I can be” that I typically try to achieve in my daily life.  I was nothing like “cool” or “perfect”: I was sweaty, dirty, and felt that I could have been doing so much more.  In the face of the apparent need and poverty it was easy to feel “less than”.

And yet, the family that I was building for, the children I was playing with, they didn’t care about my weight, the size of my waist or my paycheck, my pace per mile, or my alignment in some fanciful yoga pose. I was there, giving them my effort, my time, my presence, and my love, and they loved all of me for just that!

And this unconditional love on their end made me realize that I am worthy of love and acceptance just as I am.  I am enough.

I belonged.  There was a home for my heart in the house I had been building.

It’s OK not to be OK

Nari Bound Side AngleDuring the most recent weekend of my yoga mentorship we sat in a circle and my mentor asked us how we were feeling. I couldn’t remember the last time someone asked me that. I knew it wasn’t good but I hadn’t actually stopped to think. People took turns answering. I was last to go. I opened my mouth and my eyes welled up, voice cracked, and nothing came out at first. “Broken” I finally croaked. I hadn’t intended to say that but that felt true.

That was the moment of acceptance. All of a sudden pretense fell away, and just like that, with one word, there was a shift. Feeling broken was hard enough. But how often do we also feel guilty for our feelings? Think of all the stories we tell ourselves about letting ourselves and others down… So if feeling broken wasn’t enough, feeling guilty for it had made it damn near unbearable. Making peace with my own brokenness allowed me to sit with my feelings and be present. There was levity in admission. I was giving permission for the healing process to finally begin.

As I still sit in this place of heartache, I am able to connect with myself. I am learning to care, nourish, and love my perfectly imperfect self. I am learning to ask myself the important questions: how do you feel? And what do you need? I am learning to check in instead of checking out. And as I learn to be kinder to my own self, I am finding new capacity for unlimited kindness I never knew existed within me.

Every crack in an opening, which may make things available within us that weren’t before.

This emotional space is a struggle. Every morning I wake up and it takes me a moment to remember why things feel “off”. But as I honor my feelings I feel empowered to be exactly as I am. I allow myself not to be ok. And that’s ok.

Happy Hips for Running Happy

One of my biggest blessings and pleasures in life is teaching Yoga for Runners.  I have immense passion and love for the sport, and utmost respect for everyone who runs.  But I also know how much running can beat up someone’s body, and how much wear and tear runners suffer.  I myself have been through a series of injuries that were physically debilitating, completely deflated my spirit, and left me sidelined for months.  So my goal as a teacher is to help my runners find their ease of movement both on the mat and on the road.

Many runners complain of tight achy hips and want big stretches.  What often ends up happening is that their hips feel even tighter the day after.  In my experience, this tightness is often caused by imbalances in the hip girdle and/or weakness in the glutes.

My approach is to correct the imbalances on the mat by stretching opposite muscle groups equally: if you do Pigeon pose to stretch the tensor latae fasciae and the illiotibial band (outer hip) you should balance it with Frog pose to stretch the opposing adductor muscle group (inner thigh).

Strengthening the hip girdle sometimes can be as easy as a quick dynamic warm-up and activating the right muscle groups before you head out for your run.  I use a quick Myrtle routine before all my runs, which incorporates both strengthening and mobility we need for happy running.

Yoga for Runners – Camel Pose

Featured imageStretches: Pectoral and abdominal muscles, deltoids, biceps, hip flexors, quadriceps.

Strenghtens: Trapezius, serratus and rhomboids muscles, psoas, glutes.

Main Focus: Draw the shoulder blades away from the ears and down your back as you lift your heart.

Our daily lives pull us forward and cause us to hunch: sitting for hours at our desks, driving, texting, etc. From this physical and emotional space, backbends can be uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking. And yet it we gently encourage our bodies through the correct alignment and keep coming back, we discover long-forgotten space in our heart center for joy, love, and happiness.

Camel has become one of my favorite postures as of late. Having my hands on my feet gives me a sense of grounding and calm, even as I reach into tight spaces in my heart, which can feel vulnerable.

Correctly aligned back bends are critical for runners, as hunching over can create poor running biomechanics. Back bends create awareness of posture, and strengthen the postural muscles that help keep us running tall and strong. They also help stretch the front of the body, such as hip flexors, and quads.

Alignment:

  • Kneel on the mat with your knees and feet hip-width apart and the hips over the knees. Press the toenails, feet, and shins into the mat.
  • Tuck the pelvis under slightly (Michael Jackson hips!), pull the belly button to spine and lower ribs down to lengthen the lower back.
  • Shimmy the shoulder blades together and away from the ears. Then place your hands on the back of the pelvic, fingers pointing down. Inhale and lift your heart, while firming the shoulder blades against your back ribs.
  • Lean back while keeping the pelvis over the knees and the lower back long. Rest the hands on your heels or on blocks placed at the feet to make the posture more accessible.
  • Press your hands into your heels (or blocks) with the fingers pointing back towards the toes, and lift the heart. Soften the neck and drop your head back

Modifications:

  • Tucking the toes under or reaching for blocks placed next to the heels will make the pose a little more accessible.

Variations:

  • As you back bend, keep the pelvis over the knees. I find that practicing this posture with my thighs and my pelvis against the wall helps me create the body awareness I need for good alignment.

The Problem with Stereotypes

Nari Running NassauI typically don’t get overly emotional at advertisements, however well-made and well-targeted, but the “Run Like a Girl” ad had me tearing up during the Super Bowl. The ad resonated deeply: from a young age I was brought up to challenge the status quo and contest stereotypes. Growing up in a male-dominant culture, I was both the president of my class and aspired to have tattoos. I was bookish and rebellious all at the same time, out to prove that women could have it all.

What I realized only too late was that contesting stereotypes could be as restricting as conforming to them. In either case, you let someone else’s ideas of who you are guide your actions.

Apparently, I didn’t want to have it ALL. Some things were better left behind. It took until my late 20’s, but I shed the bad girl persona, quit smoking, drinking, and realized how much happier I was with a more reasonable bed time. Though I still love tattoos!

My daily mantra now is to tune inward and to listen to my true self. What lights my fire? What makes my eyes twinkle? What can I not wait to do again (eating breakfast doesn’t count)? Shedding expectations, both those of others and your own, is difficult. Especially if you have spent years giving them power over yourself.

Somewhere deep inside is a voice willing to give you all the answers if you can just walk away from the stereotypes instead of trying to prove them wrong.