Friday 24th March -flexibility and body awareness

trikonasana for websiteOne of the benefits of practicing yoga is an improved awareness of your body, or proprioception to give it its technical name. By using your body to practice the poses (asana) of yoga you gradually become more aware of how to move and control your body. This can result in a better sense of balance and a lower likelihood of falling. It can also help to improve self-confidence as over time your posture can improve and you simply feel like your everyday movement becomes easier.

Yoga improves your proprioception by getting you to work at or near the limits of your ability. Over time and with regular practice your limitations reduce and your ability improves. Poses like trikonasana look easy, but to begin with the balance and control needed to do them well may not come easily. But this does change.

With this is mind one of the things we focused on in the morning class was body awareness – you can read more below.

Morning class

After starting off as we normally do with some quiet time to ground ourselves, and some light activity to warm up we first of all sat in Virasana. It’s a pose I keep coming back to to help improve my own body awareness. Are my hips level? Is the pressure equal on both sides of my bum? Is the weight equal at the front and back of my sitting bones, or have I tilted my pelvis? Is there any twist in my spine with one side of my rib-cage further forward than the other? We sat for a couple of minutes with eyes closed and just using our internal awareness to feel the position of the body. We stayed in Virasana to do some shoulder and arm stretches.

Next, Tadasana, where we repeated the body awareness process. After establishing a good pose we stood with our eyes closed and, again, used our inner awareness to feel how the weight of the body was spread on the feet. Is there too much weight at the front or at the back? Or on the edges of the feet? And then we focused on the work taking place in the feet and all the way up the legs to help keep us upright. It’s surprising just how much is happening! Then, with eyes open, we focussed on minimising the work taking place to stay upright.

With a good sense of balance and awareness established we used one of the tables to practice Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (!). That’s quite a mouthful, but the modified version we did simply involves standing on one leg with the other leg raised straight out in front, so the legs are at roughly 90 degrees, with the raised foot on a solid surface, in this case a table. It’s a good way to start stretching the hamstrings and gluteal muscles, and once again to practice using the awareness of the work taking place in the standing leg to maintain balance. We did both legs twice.

To balance the hamstring stretch, and to further the practice of balance, we did a standing quadriceps stretch.

And then it was onto some flexibility work in the hamstrings with Ardha Adho Mukha Svanasana and supported Uttanasana. This time using chairs – the room gets set up for bingo afterwards so I thought I’d help by getting all the furniture out! As we’d been using the legs a lot I thought we’d hold the hamstring stretches for a while to allow them to do their work. Starting with Ardha Adho Mukha Svanasana we focused on getting length in the spine by taking the hips away from the hands, which rested on the back of the chair. I really enjoy this pose. I used it a lot to help recover from a quad bike accident. I’m sure it helped my spine to recover and helped the broken ribs heal in alignment by giving the intercostal muscles a stretch. Agonising at the time, especially when the morphine ran out, but worth it.

From there we moved onto supported Uttanasana, using the chair again, but this time with hands on the seat. By using the chair for support we could start at a comfortable stretch and then move deeper with the breath. Use the inhalation to keep the chest open and the back in, use the exhalation to ease the tension in the hamstrings and move into a deeper stretch. By taking it slowly the muscles have time to stretch and the stretch reflex doesn’t restrict progress quite so much.

We then relaxed in Malasana – essentially a squat. But to make life a bit more comfortable we supported our heels on a block. It means the muscles of the calf get a good stretch – it can help to ease a strain in the achilles – but the body can rest.

And then onto sitting on the floor in Dandasana – a sitting pose which also helps to develop body and postural awareness, as well as giving the deep core muscles a bit of a workout. It is also where we need to be to move into Maricyasana and Paschimottanasana – our final bit of flexibility work.

At this point we would normally move into Savasana, but I wanted to give people some time in supported Setu Bhanda. First we came into Setu Bhanda, then we placed 2-3 blocks under the base of the spine and lowered ourselves onto the blocks, and then we straightened the legs. Remember to roll the shoulders, to bring the shoulder blades closer together which helps maintain the lift and openness in the chest. This pose helps to flex the spine but requires minimal physical effort so it can be quite relaxing. It also helps to passively stretch the shoulders and creates a very effective Jalandhara Bhanda. The breath can be used to really expand the ribcage and stretch the intercostal muscles. We stayed for around 1 minute before lifting off the blocks, removing 1 block and coming back down onto the blocks again. This cycle was repeated until the back was back on the mat, and from there we relaxed into Savasana.

Vinyasa class

The hour long evening class is a vinyasa class. Surya Namaskar – Sun Salutation – is the basis of the class. The Sun Salutation is a great way to warm up before practice, but it’s also a useful practice in itself. It can take a while before you can remember the sequence, so practice is important. But once the sequence has been learnt you can start to tweak it to take you practice in different directions. You can add standing poses such as Trikonasana, or flexibility-developing poses like Parsvottanasana, or strength-work poses like Side Plank.

This is what we’re working towards in the evening class. This week we started with a few rounds of Sun Salutation. After that we practiced a standing pose sequence:

Starting in Trikonasana with a nice wide stance, hold for a couple of breaths then tilt the body back to upright as you bend in the leg that is turned out and come to Virabhadrasana 2. Stay here for a couple of breaths then fold at the hips, take the front hand down to the floor on the outside edge of the front foot for Parsvakonasana, you make things a bit easier by just taking the elbow to the knee. Then come back to upright and repeat on the other side. We added a bit of flexibility work my moving from one side to the other through prasarita padottanasana.

Then it was onto to some strength work. Starting in Downward Facing Dog, bring the hips forward into plank – pause – then come into side plank on the right arm – pause. Bring the left hand down and move into side plank on the other side – pause. Come back to plank and then push back to downward facing dog. Repeat. It’s quite intense, but a really good way of developing strength and stamina in the arms and all the core muscles. In time we’ll be introducing this sequence into the Sun Salutation.

Finally Virasana to cool down, align the hips and spine and stretch the shoulders.