If you are a yogi, then downward-facing dog is probably a staple posture in your practice (you may have never heard of puppy dog).
But as a yoga teacher for over a decade, I have discovered that not all down dogs are created equal. Many people, in all actuality, are simply too restricted in the upper body (shoulder girdle) to safely and properly practice this mighty pose. For those of us who are not so stiff, we are so loosey-goosey that we lack true stability to hold ourselves properly.
Several years ago, I wasin a training with Gary Kraftsow (creator of Viniyoga Therapy). He stated quite bluntly,
If you never do another down dog again in your yoga practice, you will survive just fine.”
He unknowingly stemmed my interest in this mysterious pose, and I soon began my quest to understand more.
Here’s the Quick Scoop.
Most of our daily postures, habits, and routines ask us to round our bodies forward in a kyphotic manner. This leaves many of us locked in a very hunched position. We allow minimal mobility in our scapulae, which essentially allow our actual shoulders to move. Add tight hamstrings and a lack of good core awareness, and you’ve got yourself the hunchback of downward-facing dog.
It is unfortunate that many repeatedly force themselves into this posture. They find any pinhole of flexibility they can grasp and milk it for all its worth. Because that is what they think they should be doing.
So what is a teacher to do?
The answer: Introduce her students to their new best friend — puppy dog. Puppy dog allows students to face the true restriction in their scapulae and surrounding muscles. In puppy dog, students are not able to sag into the underarm or bow outward in the elbows. The deltoids and adjoining muscles are too tight to move otherwise.
As for the hamstrings and rounded lower back… It’s now time to calm the ego and learn that bending your knees is actually a better option for both the hamstrings and lower back muscles. Plus, it will take the stress out of the shoulders (in down dog too).
Here’s How to do it:
- Grab a yoga block and turn it to look like a rectangle on the floor in front of you.
- Position yourself on all fours (hands and knees) in front of the block.
- Frame the block with the palm of your hand on each side of the block, palms facing inward.
- Step back into forearm plank and find pelvic neutral, drawing actively on your pelvic-core (bathroom muscles + deep core muscles). Be mindful not to sag in the belly or push the booty to the sky.
- With a broad upper back and a long neck, press evenly through the forearms from your elbow to the pinky finger.
- Exhale deeply and float the hips up and back as you take a small step in hinging the body into a triangle like position.
- Continue to press evenly through the forearms and inward on the block. Imagine you are ready to kick up into a forearm balance (basically push away from the floor, not to collapse into the upper body).
- If you notice the back very rounded, bend the knees to help gain length in the spine again. Even if the knees are bent, you can still press the heels and get a nice calf stretch.
- Finally, where the body is hinged (the hip fold), deeply contract the belly and pelvic floor muscles. Imagine they are drawing you back toward the wall. Your shoulders should not have to do all the work; utilize your core for that.
- Work five to ten breaths and then release to sit on the heels.
Incorporating puppy dog may take some getting used to, but the long term benefit for your practice, shoulder health, and progression to other poses will be priceless.
Have any questions, or want to learn how to use puppy dog in your practice? Join the Mindful Movement PREMIUM Online Studio for unlimited access to all my yoga classes, PLUS live classes, online community, and my entire Asana Video Library, breaking down poses (Just like this one!)
This post was originally published in Nature’s Pathway Magazine.
Using a foam roller is an excellent way to help decrease pain, stiffness, and tightness while actually improving the function of muscles, tendons, and fascia
When incorporating something like mayo fascia release
(foam rolling), it’s important to educate yourself on the many types of foam rollers out there. I always suggest to my students to always use a soft foam roller.
You don’t want something that will be too abrasive with your tissues.
Second, more does not always equal better. Rolling for hours a day will not necessarily be more beneficial than rolling out for 10 or 15 minutes every day or just a few days a week.
Roll Your Back
80% of Americans have or have had back problems. Rolling your back top to bottom is an amazing way to decrease pain, aches, and discomfort. Try this:
Place the foam roller behind you on the floor and lean back onto the center of the roller. Lift your bottom off the floor and support your head in your hands. Using your legs, roll yourself along the foam roller in long strokes or sections along your back, being sure to work your entire back body.
Experiment with rounding or arching your back in places, or leaning only to one side and rolling. Also, try raising one arm straight out above your head at a time. If your balance is good, try extending both arms while you roll your upper back.
Spend a few minutes here and notice the improvement in your back’s comfort and your back stretching. You can also try this standing against the wall with the foam roller behind you.
Roll Your Legs and Hips
Many people complain of hip, sacrum and leg pain. Rolling is a very safe and effective way to decrease knee, hip, and even back pain. Try this:
Starting on your right outer leg and hip, place your left foot on the floor. Using your leg and arms, push and pull your right leg along the soft foam roller, being sure to work the entire area from upper hip to the outside of the knee.
After several times over, move to your quadriceps. Using your forearms, push-pull yourself across the foam roller from pelvis to knees. Play with internal and external rotation to hit all areas. Move onto the left hip and repeat the same process.
Finally, sitting onto the foam roller, with the help of your arms and hands, push-pull your hamstrings along the foam roller.
Oh, that pain in my butt! Many of us have been there, and sometimes stretching can actually cause more discomfort. Working with a foam roller can soothe sore muscles and give you the relief you are looking for. Try this:
Sit onto the foam roller and lean onto your left glute. Cross your left ankle over your right knee and begin to roll on your glute tissue (your booty). Be playful with different angles and in rolling high or low on your glute.
If you find a sensitive area, feel free to just hold there for a few deep exhalations and then move on. After a few minutes, switch to the other side, repeating the process.
No More Neck Pain
A stiff neck, a tight jaw, and even shoulder pain can all be soothed with a few strikes of the foam roller. Try this:
Lying on the floor, place the foam roller behind your neck and rest your head on the foam roller. Kindly turn your head side to side, feeling the relieving pressure at the base of the skull and neck against the foam roller.
Second, moving only a few inches, rock your head and neck back and forth to work any other tightness out. Be sweet, as the neck for many is a sensitive area. But, this may be the relief you are looking for.
Foam Rolling does not replace stretching or other maintenance care, but it can assist in a more effective stretching routine or yoga experience, not to mention improved athletic performance. Mayo fascia release can also improve your massage therapy sessions, as the therapist does not have to work so hard at the surface of your tissue. It also can help your adjustments hold longer.
I may be a yoga teacher, but it is my goal to teach my students how to take better care of their bodies — because you only get one, and replacement parts are never as good as the originals.
Want more from your foam roller?
Join me and “Roll This!” Click here to access the most detailed workbook you will ever own with step-by-step details to every move you’ll want to know when it comes to the foam roller and Dr. Cohen’s acuBall.
This post was originally published in the July 2014 Edition of Nature’s Pathways.
As a fitness professional for over a decade, I have pretty much seen it all. Especially when it comes to core-based exercise. When you consider trying to bring some more attention to your midsection (and your obliques), a few things are important to consider:
Core work flat on your back is out!
Think about it, how do you spend your day? Upright! So doesn’t it make more sense to work with gravity in that manner?
Focus on feeling rather than doing.
Find guides that really help you tune into not only what you should be doing, but what you should and shouldn’t be feeling. If you need somewhere to start, consider my Mindful Movement Online Studio (just $9.99/month)
Work from the inside out.
No matter what you do, everything is core work. That being said, it all starts with a conscious pelvic-core (pelvic floor muscles plus deep core muscles) contraction.
We have a deep oblique — called the internal oblique — and an external oblique. These muscles overlap each other.
We need our obliques for many things: They offer support and stability for the back and hips. When developed properly, they improve spinal support, movement and function, as well as the relationship between the rib cage and pelvis. Strength to twist, bend sideways and rotate comes a great deal from our amazing obliques.
Here is one of my favorite tributes to our famous obliques:
- Start in a kneeling position (be sure to pad your knees if necessary), and grab your weight (if using one).
- Find neutral pelvis (your pubis bone and hip bones should run parallel with the wall you are facing).
- Contract your pelvic-core muscles (think bathroom muscles and torso muscles, much like when you cough).
- Steadily extend your right leg out to the side, turning your right foot parallel to your knee. Be sure to anchor your foot into the floor.
- Holding your weight in front of your chest, draw your elbows wide and relax your shoulders.
- Inhale, tip to the left as far as you can control, without folding in your left hip.
- Exhale, feel your waist (obliques) carry you back up with control. You should not feel any downward pressure into your pelvic floor when you lift (remember to keep those muscles strong).
- Repeat this process 10 times on each side. After you have repeated this on both sides, go back to your weaker side and complete the process again for a 2-to-1 ratio (weaker to stronger). If the weight creates too much tension work, do this exercise without added weight in front and instead hold opposite elbows with your forearms at chest height.
Here are some more resources on firing up your obliques!
Fire Up The Obliques With The Ring Of Fire
Get your Arms and Obliques Beach Body Ready — Oblique Lift & Lower
Better Obliques with Stretch and Strengthen
Oblique Jump Start, a Journey into the Real Core!
Arms & Obliques Oh’ My with Side Plank Lift & Lower
Have fun and keep at it!
This post was originally published on Nature’s Pathways, and updated on 10/4/19.
Most people come to fitness training and movement, such as yoga, in order to benefit their bodies and their lives. Yet, many are unknowingly practicing movements that are inefficient or even detrimental to their goals and health. There are certain tips that can help you achieve the functional body that will serve you in your everyday life.
Here are 10 Key Tips to Stop Treating Pain and to Start Treating Dysfunction for a Functional Body:
1. Get off the Floor.
Unless you are a mechanic, training yourself, especially your core, solely on the floor will not get you the results you are hoping to achieve. Think about what you are trying to do on the floor. Lying flat on your back to do core work only triggers about 10% of your transversus abdominus, your core-most muscle (which is also a back muscle). So how about standing “Pilates” or what about the standing “Saw”? Look at what the movement is trying to achieve, not necessarily what it looks like, so you can morph it into a more body-friendly version.
If you are serious about strengthening your core, check out the Core Functional Fitness program to take your core to another level.
2. Shed the Shoes.
Shoes can isolate a person’s feet and keep them from noticing signs of misalignment, such as pronation, supination or bunions. Treadwear on the soles of the shoes can reveal dysfunction, as well. Overly supportive shoes compensate for and cover up dysfunction, but do not heal it. Training in such shoes might work around the issues, instead of bringing them to light. If you suffer from foot pain, know that pain relief is not far.
3. Learn Neutral.
It’s important to understand that a neutral position is not natural for many people. Proper body placement often must be re-learned with the guidance of someone trained in alignment. Proper neutral alignment involves attention to the relationship between the feet, pelvis, rib cage, shoulders and head.
4. Do Exercises and Asanas that Expose Imbalances.
Finding what is imbalanced is necessary for enabling proper alignment and movement. Identify where movement becomes stuck and focus on un-sticking that area.
5. Use a 2:1 Ratio.
By working both sides equally, the weaker side will never catch up. Instead, double up on the weaker side, so it receives the extra strengthening it needs.
Movement in every direction is the only way to address the different needs of the body. Practice poses that move along the sagittal plane (left and right), the frontal plane (front and back) and the transverse plane (above and below).
7. Look at What a Movement is Trying to Accomplish.
Ask, “What is the purpose of this asana or exercise, and is it right for my body?” If not, determine how the concept could be adjusted for your individual body type. If you need help analyzing the movements, I have an Asana Video Library that will walk you through every specific element of each pose.
8. Identify the Source of the Pain.
Pain may not originate where it is felt. Sciatica, knee, neck or other pain may be referred — that is, their source is located somewhere other than where it hurts. Notice what is limited and what might be overused.
9. Learn Motor Control.
Between postures, be patient and aware. Is there a smooth, graceful transition from one posture to the next? Control begins by shifting awareness to the present and noticing the fine details that happen during the transition.
10. Think About the Reason for Practicing.
This is not to create doubt, but to check in and see if body, mind, spirit, and life are benefiting. Whatever you do should help you to increase wholeness and wellness.
Keep these tips in mind as you practice yoga, or any exercise to keep a functional body. If you are looking for a starting point, my Mindful Movement Online Studio costs only $9.99/month for unlimited access to my entire video library.
This post was originally published in the 2012 Edition of Natural Awakenings Milwaukee.
Repetitive wrist strain is one of the most common injuries the average American suffers. There is an astounding amount of people leading sedentary jobs. On top of that, we are living a life full of texting, Facebook and computers. There is little time of wrist relief for those poor little wrists of ours.
Fitness does not have to be formal. To be called yoga, it doesn’t even have to be practiced on a yoga mat. Three simple yet effective moves can help with writer’s cramp, carpal tunnel (which is simply inflammation in the carpal tunnel) and forearm strain. Let’s work to take a minibreak whenever we can to best help an area in which many have discomfort yet few do something about.
1. Wrist Extension
In a comfortable seated or standing position, extend your left arm directly out in front of the shoulder. Flex the hand to turn the fingers to the sky, palm facing out. Using the other hand, draw back on the extended arm’s fingers, thumb and top of the palm. Give a gentle pull as you reach out through the heel of the hand. You should feel this in your forearm. Imagine a rod extending out from the heel of the hand as you flex the palm back. Be mindful to keep the arm straight (no hyperextension in the elbow) and the shoulder relaxed.
Hold this simple yet intense stretch for five to ten slow mindful breaths, noticing the stretch in the palm as well as the forearm.
2. Wrist Flexion
Next, turn the fingers to face downward from the same extended position. Now using the opposite hand, draw back on the top of the palm (not just the fingers) and extend out through the top of the wrist. Check to keep the length through the arm. Allow the fold of the elbow to rotate upward as you relax the shoulder.
Hold this stretch for five to ten breaths, noticing the stretch in the top of the wrist into the forearm.
3. Wrist Twist
Finally, take the same hand and place the palm to the center of the chest, fingers toward the sky. Using the opposite hand, clasp hold of the thumb side of the hand. Wrap your fingers into the center of the planted palm. Breathing calmly, start to guide the hand into a twisted position at the wrist line. As you twist the wrist, try to resist the twist, working to draw back against the twist feeling. You should feel a deep opening along the wrist and forearm. Be mindful to keep the wrist and hand upright to keep the twist balanced and deep.
Remain holding the twist for five to ten breaths. As you release, allow the hand to rest, then work it into an opening and closing movement until you feel balance once again.
These stretches are incredibly helpful for those of us who use computers on a regular basis. Many of our communities are now seeing repetitive wrist strain much earlier in life than ever before. Try to incorporate these three simple stretches into your day at any moment. Not only will they give wrist relief to the tech geek, they will also aid in some much-needed wrist rehab for those of you who suffer from Plank Pose complaints or tender wrists in any pose that puts pressure on the palms.
As you step back into your everyday lives, remember one important thing: Nothing works unless you actually do it. I hope you get some wrist relief – Good luck!
This article was featured in the April 2013 edition of Nature’s Pathway’s Magazine Southeast Wisconsin Edition.
Almost every yoga class features at least one plank, yet very few can honestly say that they know completely what’s going on in Plankasana. Most view it as a great core asana, yet few actually access their true core. Many are cheating themselves or hurting their backs by allowing their arms to do all the work. You may not even realize you are doing plank WRONG!
To help you take full advantage of Plankasana, here’s an overview of this widely used, but often misunderstood asana. These lessons are adapted from a blog post I wrote for MindBodyGreen. For a limited time, I am offering my Master Plank course (6 weeks full of core-engaging content) for FREE! Sign Up today to get access to the course and get your plank in shape.
1. Pick your variation.
Will you be practicing on your hands or on your forearms? If you’re going to be practicing on your palms, set up your hands shoulder-distance apart and align the wrists under the shoulders. With your middle fingers pointing forward, press your entire hand into the floor, keeping a bit more weight in the knuckles.
From the shoulder, rotate the folds of the elbows forward, without hyperextending the joint (they look like they’re bending in the wrong direction). This is important so that you’re able to shift the load down into the core and prevent the shoulders from doing all the work. Without hunching, slide the shoulder blades down your back.
If you prefer planking on your forearms, get out of the habit of clasping the hands together in a triangle shape. This puts an emphasis on the pectorals, rather than the core. By opening up the arms to shoulder width, you shift the load to where it belongs. Turn the palms inward or upward when practicing, rather than down into the floor. Shift the weight evenly throughout the entire forearm and you’ll notice a significant increase in core power. Use a block between the palms for more core strength!
2. Get your legs in gear.
Your inner thighs are your pelvic floor’s favorite neighbor (way more than your butt). Bring your feet together so that they touch and engage your thighs inward toward each other. Then, press the quadriceps upward without hiking your buttocks. If you pay close enough attention, you should notice some activation in your pelvic floor area. By placing a foam yoga block or mini ball between the lower part of the thigh, you can generate more action in this area.
3. Resist gravity with the core.
Align your pelvis in neutral position (ASIS and pubis bone make a triangle shape that runs parallel to the floor), and resist gravity. By resisting gravity, you’re turning on your transversus abdominis, the hoop-like muscle at the deepest layer of the core. This is where the stability of plank begins.
Think of plank in thirds: 1/3 arms, 1/3 legs, 1/3 core. When you break down plank this way, you can focus on each section of the body and create better stability. Once you’ve successfully positioned yourself, check to make sure your head isn’t sagging (it puts more pressure on your wrists). Create length from your heels pressing back (not touching the floor) and your crown stretching forward.
Grab a partner and ask your partner to take her first two fingers and open them up like an upside-down V. Take that V and place a finger on each side of the lower spine. As she presses down on your lower back, resist her without pushing your buttocks upward or sagging down towards the floor. What you should feel is a quiver. This is the transversus abdominis earthquake.
4. Hold Your Plank.
Remain in Plankasana for up to 10 breaths, limiting belly breathing and maximizing side body breathing.
In Plank there should be zero back pain and no hip flexor pain. This can take time to perfect, especially if you’ve used everything but your core to do the core’s job throughout your entire life.
If your shoulder blades look like wings on an airplane, press into your palms and work to lift the rib cage up away from the floor. You’ll benefit greatly from the scapula push-up.
If you’re the opposite and you overly round your upper back (still avoiding your core), you’re probably overexerting your arm and chest muscles. Try sinking your chest a bit. As a teacher, I often rub my hand on the upper back to help smooth out this area.
The next time you practice plank, take a few extra moments to explain it thoroughly to your students or run through the tweaks yourself. Your core will thank you later. If you want more help with MASTERING your plank, join me in my six-week Master Plank course, FREE for a limited time.
If you are looking to strengthen your TRUE core for core stability, mobility, and functionality, consider the Three-Week Core Functional Fitness Course. My Core Functional Fitness Training approaches your core from all planes of motion – the way our bodies REALLY move – to reduce pain and injury, improve function, and deliver REAL power to your core – 408% more power!