Wednesday, February 12, 2014

3 simple, awesome hamstring stretches

I have been meaning to write this post for ages, and was reminded of that intention by a reader comment the other day requesting some stretches for the back of the knee. As you might know, that big old hamstring muscle attaches at the back of the knee, so here are a few stretches to help you get into that tight area.

There are lots of ways to do this, but I like these ones because they are simple, straightforward, and safe on the back, which many hamstring stretches are not. I don't think any additional descriptions are required, but if you have any questions, just ask in the comments! And don't forget to let me know if there are any things that YOU'd like to see covered on the blog. Enjoy!

[NB: Knee pain, especially from bent knees, can be a symptom of wear to the knees' precious, protective cartilage. If you experience joint pain in your knees - and especially if you are high risk for cartilage damage, e.g. you are a runner or have a history of being overweight - you should definitely see your doctor! These stretches will ease muscular tension only.]

(click to see a larger image)

(click to see a larger image)

[For the anatomy geeks: These stretches are based on the principle of isometric muscle activation. Essentially, in the body's everyday movement, muscles work in pairs: when the quadriceps (thigh muscles) contract, the hamstrings lengthen. So, by strongly contracting the thigh muscles in short bursts, we encourage the hamstrings to lengthen. It's a great, no-pressure way of stretching.]

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: Sage Balance II (Eka Pada Koundinyasana 2)

This week's yoga tip is a about a challenging arm-balancing posture, eka pada koundinyasana 2 (one-legged sage pose 2), EPK2 for short! This pose often follows Lizard Pose in more challenging vinyasa classes, and for those of you who are comfortable in Lizard and want to challenge yourselves a bit more, the preparatory steps towards EPK2 are a great way to explore your boundaries and push out of your comfort zone a little.

Before you start working on this pose, make sure that you have warmed up the hips, hamstrings and upper body. You'll need a nice strong chaturanga to take the full balance, but if you are still working on that, the preparatory postures are good at building strength, too!

Remember if you are just starting to work on this pose to take it easy! There's no rush. You may play with each step in the process for weeks or even months at a time. Take each challenge as it comes, be patient with yourself, and be consistent, and you will see results in time. As a guideline, you should aim to be able to hold each step comfortably for up to a minute before progressing to the next step.

Start by taking a long, deep Lizard Pose on each side to warm up. Then come back into Lizard pose on the first side.

  • If you can get your elbows to the floor in Lizard, begin by walking your elbows back as far as you can. If you can't get your elbows quite there, then walk your hands back. Either way, you should end up with your arms in chaturanga.
  • As you bring your arms into chaturanga, one arm will come into contact with the back of your leg (in the photos below, the left arm and left leg) and the weight of the leg will start to transfer to your upper arm. This contact point is really important so play around with it until it feels comfortable. As a general rule, you can't to get the contact point as high on your upper arm as you can. (2nd picture, below)
  • Once you feel comfortable, begin to walk your front toes forward and out on a diagonal. You'll feel more of the weight of the leg transferring onto your upper arm. At this point stop and make sure your body is properly supported: squeeze your upper arms towards the midline and press strongly through the pads of the fingers, lift from the core (like in plank pose), and strongly engaging the back leg and heel.
  • Now we're going to try and straighten the front leg. To support yourself in this half-balance, you'll need to drop into a strong chaturanga. At this point I find it helpful to turn my head and look towards my toes: this helps me focus my efforts on what I'm doing!
  • Next, extend strongly through the front thigh and begin to straightening the front leg. Really think about lengthening, not about lifting: by virtue of extending, your toes will eventually lift off the ground.
  • Once you can get the toes off, refine the posture: flex or "floint" the front toes, keep the back leg super-engaged, and see if you can come up onto tiptoes on the back foot. When you can get the back foot high, high on tiptoes, then you're ready to try the next stage.

  • Think of the body as a seesaw, with your elbows as the centre. The easiest way to get the back toes up, is for the weight of your front body to move forward and down. So this critical stage is mostly about pivoting your weight forward until your back toes can't help but lift off. Keeping the front leg strongly engaged and extending will help you bring your weight forward without collapsing onto the mat.
  • When you're just getting started with this pose, it can help to take tiny 'hops' to lift the toes off the ground. Keep in mind though that these hops should be really tiny and that the main "work" of this stage is shifting your weight forward enough so that the back leg becomes light. I also find that it really helps to turn your head to the side here. This eliminates any risk of nose-squash if something goes wrong and helps keep your focus on your front leg, which needs to stay really strongly extending through this step.
  • Once you have a bit of lift-off,  keep the forward leg strongly engaged, keep squeezing in through the upper arms, and keep lifting from the core. It's hard work!!
  • Over time, refine the pose by trying to find a more even distribution of weight, lifting the chest away from the floor, extending from the breastbone, and bringing your gaze forward.

  • PS: I've included a picture of the other side here, because when I was first starting out with this pose I couldn't figure out what to do with my other arm. In fact when I first played with this pose, I used to cheat by sneaking that free elbow underneath my hip. I don't discourage this little 'cheat' if you are just trying to get a feel for the pose, but in the full pose the elbow is free and hugging strongly into your side. Squeeze as if your life depended on it!! (Note how you can really see that this is my weaker shoulder from the photos!)

I hope this was helpful! Readers, are there any poses that you'd like to see on this blog?