Friday, January 31, 2014

How soon after eating can I can do yoga?

As a teacher and a blogger, I hear this question a lot, so here is a quick post on the food & drink before (and after) yoga question!


You have probably heard that yoga is ideally practiced on an 'empty stomach.' Anyone who has accidentally tried to do a vigorous yoga class after a big lunch can relate to the truth in that!  But that is more or less where the advice begins to diverge.

When considering this question, remember above all that in the yogic worldview, everyone is different. While yoga teachers often try to give simple and straightforward answers, because we think that is what people are looking for, the truth is that every individual has a unique ayurvedic constitution, meaning that there are no 'hard and fast rules.' Rather, think of these as guidelines that you then need to explore to see which is the most appropriate for you.

There are so many variables here (ayurvedic type, climate, season, diet, lifestyle, what else is going on in your life…) that I think the 'ideal' answer requires a solution that is tailored to your unique needs. One way to think about it is to keep a journal detailing what you ate before practice, when you ate it, and how you felt. Over time that may help you to hit upon the right solution for YOU.

Remember also that your needs are going to change throughout your life, depending on what else is going on - so just when you think you've got it figured out, you may have to change it up again!

If you practice in the morning:

Many schools of thought teach that yoga should be done first thing in the morning, before you eat or drink anything (other than room temperature water). Some people find this pretty comfortable, but I know others who feel light-headed or even faint if they so much as attempt a sun salutation on a completely empty stomach.

If you wake up hungry (which in ayurvedic terms is a good thing!), if the length and intensity of your practice requires a bit of fuel, or if you struggle with low blood sugar in the mornings, try the following:

  • Have a glass of room-temperature or warm milk 15-30 minutes before practice. Milk temporarily buffers stomach acid, so it can be good to tide you through your practice. However, once the milk is digested your stomach will produce even more acid, so if you are in the habit of drinking milk, make sure you eat a nice alkaline breakfast after your yoga. 
  • Have a (small) cup of milky coffee or tea 15-30 minutes before practice. Yoga guru BKS Iyengar began all of his days like this, and, well, he's going on 96 so it must work for him! Coffee also helps to empty your bowels which is another (less often quoted in a public yoga class!) recommendation for before you start practicing asana or pranayama.
  • Have a small piece of fruit about 15 to 30 minutes before practice. It should be something light, like a peach or an orange, not a banana, and if possible, something fresh, not tinned.  I prefer solid fruit to fruit juice because with solid fruit you get fibre as well as just liquid and sugar, but then, that's just me!
  • You don't have to wait too long after practice, even an intense practice, to head straight to a nice big breakfast. Wait about 15 or 20 minutes (just time for a shower and to get dressed) and then tuck in!

If you practice in the middle of the day:

If your favourite class is in the middle of the day, it's going to be a bit of a balancing act to figure out the right times to eat before and after practice. In the middle of the day, your energy is high and your digestive fire is at its peak. You might find that this means you are able to eat a light snack before practice and burn right through it, or you might find that you do better eating a big meal after practice. Try some of the following and see what works best for you:

  • Have a light or normal breakfast followed by a high-energy mid-morning snack. The usual advice would be not to snack on anything within an hour of practicing.
  • Have a big breakfast and don't eat again until after your practice.
  • If you are hungry right before your class, try having a piece of light fruit about 15-30 minutes before class.
  • You may find that you need to leave a bit of time after practice in order to be able to digest a big meal. If you are hungry right after practice but when you eat, you feel like it doesn't digest well, try having a light snack (fruit or a granola bar) right after practice and waiting about an hour before having a meal.

If you practice in the evening:

Personally, I find evening practices the most difficult to schedule healthy eating around. Eating too late is bad for my digestion and sleep, but so is a vigorous practice late in the evening. If you have similar issues, try the following:

  • Try swapping your biggest meal of the day to lunchtime. Make sure it is a balanced meal that will give you enough 'fuel' to make it through the rest of your day and through your yoga practice. Then, have a light meal for dinner after practice (a soup or a salad for example). Remember that if you usually eat with your family you might have to warn them in advance on those days, too!
  • If your class is too late for you to have dinner afterwards, try mixing and matching your breakfast and lunch quantities and timings (e.g. big breakfast, medium lunch, or small breakfast, big early lunch) so that you can eat an early dinner of something small and light. Try to leave at least 2-3 hours between dinner and your class for ideal digestion.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Quick Tip: How to check your knee alignment in Warrior II and similar poses

Knees are delicate joints, which is why yoga teachers tend to go on (and on!) about correctly aligning the knee in yoga poses. Unlike hips, which can move in many directions, knees are designed only to move in one direction. So when we do yoga poses, it's important to respect the way that knees are designed to move, otherwise we risk injuring this relatively delicate joint. Knees are hinge joints, designed to move on a single axis, just like the hinge of a door. And just like a hinge, they are especially vulnerable if you twist them away from that axis.

In standing poses where the knee is bent, correctly aligning the knee is especially important because the knee joint is bearing weight. In poses where the hips are facing forward, the body finds a safe alignment fairly naturally, just as it does every day when we walk or run. However, in poses such as Warrior II and extended angle pose (and Warrior I to a lesser extent), we put the body in an un-natural stance, with the pelvis facing sideways and the front foot facing forwards. When we then bend the knee, our body often comes out of its safe alignment, for a number of different reasons (stiffness in the hips, short adductor muscles, distraction…).

You'll often hear teachers cue "bring your knee over your ankle" to try and correct for this. But we all know that bringing the knee directly over the ankle in these poses can take years of practice! Instead, don't worry about how far forward your knee is: check the alignment of your knee by thinking about lining up two straight lines. The first (in pink) is a line that goes through the middle of your foot: approximately from the base of the second toe to the middle of the heel. The second (in blue) goes from your hip socket in the middle of the upper thigh to the middle of the kneecap. When those two axes are in line, you are good to go!

The pictures below hopefully makes it pretty clear. In 1) and 2) I've shown two common mis-alignments that I often see in class, just to help illustrate the point. 3) shows what it should look like.

(PS: You usually can't see your foot from standing in Warrior II, so lean forward to check your alignment, and then straighten up again).

My cat has recently been taking a renewed interest in disdainfully watching me do yoga, so you also get a bonus of some cute little cat feet off to the side!!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: Lizard Pose

Happy new year! Yes, readers, I'm back at the blog. The final 3 months of last year for me were very intense work-wise, and blogging just didn't fit in. But now all that is behind me and I have lots of time for all things yoga - hurrah!

Now, we bloggers tend to start the new year with deep, reflective posts, but I'm going to skip that step and launch straight into a post requested by a reader a little while ago, on a lovely but challenging hip opener called Lizard Pose. Also, stay tuned for the sequel on how to use Lizard Pose as a starting point to work towards a challenging arm-balance: eka pada koundinyasana (sage pose) II.

A little while ago, a reader contacted me through Facebook and asked for advice on modifying Lizard Pose. She commented: "My thigh can't seem to stay straight - it wants to poke out to the side. Then I am having problems with my shoulders. Even getting to where my shoulder is by my knee is troublesome."

First of all, from my perspective, it's totally OK for your front thigh to be angled outwards. After all, your femur sits side-on and forward of your hip joint, as shown in the picture below. As you can also see, this is more exaggerated in women than with men.

The way that the femur and the hip are aligned means that in forward-facing hip-openers (like Warrior I, lunge and lizard), you should always set up for the pose with the feet at least hip width apart on your mat. For women, aim for shoulder distance. This means that the right foot is to the right side of the midline, and the left foot is to the left side. This alone might alleviate any discomfort you're feeling by creating more space for the hip joint to move through.

Next, you can create even more space for the hips with one simple movement: turn your forward toes outward, towards the front corner of your mat. This reflects the natural alignment of the femur, so when you come deeper into the pose, bringing your hands to the mat, you should feel more spaciousness in the hip joint. You can walk your foot further out to the side to get even more room.

When you can comfortably hold the pose for 5 breaths with your palms flat on the mat, you can play with coming a bit deeper into the pose by bending your elbows. Another way to explore this pose is with the back knee on the ground. This takes some of the weight off the hip joint and can be a great variation for those with especially tight hamstrings.

Eventually you might place your elbows on a bolster, block, or on the floor. However remember that this pose is not about how far down you go. It's totally fine if your shoulders never go lower than your knee - as long as you are feeling a good stretch in your hips, glutes and hamstrings. Be respectful of your body: since hips are joints, there is no joy to be had in straining to push your limits. Rather, let go of your ego, breathe deeply and work on holding the pose longer while staying relaxed through the breath, allowing your body to slowly change old patterns of movement.

Lizard Pose is a big hip opener, so before coming into this pose, do some warm ups like hip circles, supine pigeon, and lunges. Enjoy!!

Readers, what are some poses you'd like to see featured on Yoga Tip Tuesdays? And yes, I know it's not Tuesday today, but whatever! ;) The name is catchy.