Happy Hamstrings

Yoga Moves to Stretch the Hamstrings

Happy Hamstrings

I have a friend with "angry" hamstrings (you know who you are). In fact, I have a lot of clients, friends and colleagues with angry hamstrings. Whether it’s from too many years of biking or running, too many years of sitting at a desk, or too many years of not enough stretching, there are a lot of people walking around out there with chronically tight, inflexible and just plain angry hamstrings.

And what happens when hamstrings get angry? Tightness in one area of the body naturally leads to tightness or weakness or strain in other areas. With tight hamstrings, the lower back becomes more prone to testiness, and this mood can spread its way up the back to create sensitivity in the neck and shoulders and, well, you get the picture.

So, in honour of all of you out there with angry hamstrings, here are three simple yoga moves to soothe the hamstrings, release a little of their anger, and bring a little more calm to your body.

Extended leg stretch (Supine)

Lie on your back, draw your right knee into your chest and loop the band or strap around the arch of the right foot. Slowly extend your right leg creating enough tension on the band/strap that you feel a stretch right up the back of the leg. Your left leg can either be bent (with the foot flat on the floor) or extended along the floor.

Hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Switch legs.

 Extended Leg circles (Supine)

Slowly circle your leg (without letting the hips shift or the buttocks come off the floor) as wide as your range of motion will allow. Circle 8x in one direction, and then circle the leg 8x in the other direction. Switch legs.

 Standing Forward bend into Squat

Come into a hanging standing forward bend with the feet hip-distance apart. (Most people with tight hamstrings will need to bend the knees slightly to avoid any strain on the lower back). Inhale and bend the knees into a squat position and bring fingertips to the floor. Exhale and keep the fingers on the floor but come back into a forward bend by straightening the legs as much as you can. Repeat 8x

 Downward Dog (see image at top of post)

From all fours, tuck the toes under and lift the buttocks up and back, straightening the legs as much as your hamstrings will allow. The heels do not need to touch the floor but imagine them lengthening down towards the floor. Alternate pressing one heel towards the floor and bending the opposite knee (as if you’re walking on the spot).

Try these yoga poses every day for the next couple of weeks and hopefully they’ll help make your hamstrings happier! And a gentle reminder: whenever you're moving through yoga poses, please ensure you're practising safely and within your comfort level. For more yoga safety tips, click here.


Nine Ways to Practice Yoga Safely

How to do yoga without wrecking your body

Nine Ways to Practice Yoga Safely

This is an important discussion. As with any other physical activity, yoga has varying degrees of difficulty and not every body is suited for all challenges. Sometimes our bodies (or our minds) are simply not ready for a posture.

I have been practicing yoga for 19 years and teaching for 13 years. There are many poses I have not attempted (and likely will not attempt), and I certainly won't teach them to my students. I know my body, I am aware of its limitations. I know my students, and I know their bodies. I dedicate the first part of each of my classes to a discussion of my students' current physicality, which lets me know how the class should progress that day.

Overall, yoga is an enriching activity with a myriad of health benefits. If you're concerned about pushing your body to your limits or possible injury, talk to your yoga teacher and your doctor. Be comfortable on your mat, be able to achieve the poses, be present in the moment within your body's limits. Most importantly, establish sound practices to ensure that yoga nurtures your body.

Here are nine principles that will help you avoid "wrecking" your body:

 Ahimsa. One of the tenets of yoga is ahimsa, meaning “non-violence.” A true yoga practice involves non-violence in thought, word and deed. This means practicing positive thinking, kindness in communication with others, and a loving approach to our physical selves. From both the teacher and student perspective, ahimsa is a key element to a safe yoga practice.

 Awareness. By being truly aware of our bodies—and honest about limitations, our physical histories, and the tendencies of our egos—we will know what style(s) of yoga and practice are appropriate to our physical situations.

 The Breath. Breathing goes hand-in-hand with awareness. If we are "in tune" with our breathing, we can recognize when the breath is being disrupted or challenged. This is a signal to ask yourself whether you need to ease off or come out of a pose.

 Find the right teacher and class. There are many styles of yoga and even more teaching styles. Finding a qualified teacher (or teachers) who you trust, who you feel comfortable asking questions of, and who you can ask for modifications, is imperative to developing your yoga practice.

 Know the Foundations. Regardless of which style of yoga we practice, taking the time to really learn the foundations of the practice and the correct alignment or framework for each pose is vital.

 Let go of the ego. Just as there are always people who can run faster than us, there will be people who can do postures with ease that we can only dream of doing. Yoga is not a competition (with others or even within our own practice). There should be no place for “pushing” or “rushing” in a yoga class.

 Be present. Acknowledge that our bodies are constantly changing. Knowing and accepting our bodies for how they feel today goes a long way towards a safe yoga practice.

 Slow down. If a sequence of poses is going too fast, and either our alignment is compromised or we feel uncomfortable moving through the postures, we always have the option to slow it down. We don’t have to practice every posture in a class, and when we slow down our practice we enhance our awareness.

 Union. Yoga means "union"—of the mind, body and spirit. Yoga is not merely a physical practice, and if we remain conscious of this concept—the idea of wholeness and unity in the body—we are less likely to “wreck” our bodies.

Yoga is not for everyone. Some people are interested in and physically suited for kickboxing or swimming or ballet. Others are not. Same with yoga. In fact, there are some people who have pre-existing physical issues that rule out many yoga poses entirely. If you choose to practice yoga, and if you institute sound practices that suit your body, yoga will do you more good than harm. Both teachers and students must step up and take responsibility for creating safe and healthy yoga practices.


Looking Ahead

My mantra for 2012

Looking Ahead

Looking ahead in 2012 feels far different than it did looking ahead in 2011. Last year, I dove into the year with energy, enthusiasm and a whole bunch of specific goals I intended to accomplish. My word for the year last year was “clarity.” I was clear on my life “plan,” both professionally and personally, and the momentum of 2011 was breathtaking. So many events occurred last year that were life-changing – the highs were extremely high and the lows were extremely low. But throughout it all, I still felt clarity.

Starting 2012, I feel far foggier. Sure, I have goals and aspirations, but nothing is as clear as itseemed at the beginning of and through 2011. As I reflect upon last year, I recognize that my priorities have shifted. An unexpected death of someone close to my family triggered an internal change in me. All of a sudden so many things that I have been “clear” about, things that until now have seemed so important, matter far less.

The push to get things done, to accomplish more, to pursue the next challenge in my career has been an undercurrent of my professional life for years, but right now I feel the need to pause. To simplify. To pay attention to exactly what matters in my immediate life. Right now.

I know life works like this(at least mine seems to). The pendulum swings from times of activity and productivity to times of stillness and reflection. I am reminded of a phrase from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (which has been a key book in my life since my 20s): “re-filling the well.” It’s the idea that we have periods of output and expending energy, but just as essential are the periods of time when we can collect our thoughts, and allow our creative vessels to refuel.

So this year, I’m starting out the year slowly, tentatively. I hope to fine-tune the expressions of my energy, and to refill the well. Instead of having a word for the year as I did in 2011, I’m going to focus on a phrase: “Where attention goes, energy flows.”

Where are you putting your energy this year?