Friday, July 4, 2014

6 great exercises to build core strength

It took me years of practicing yoga to realise just how important core strength is in maintaining a healthy, injury free practice.

In fact, core strength is important for maintaining a healthy, injury-free life. However, building true core strength in the transverse abdominis (the deep core muscles) can be tricky, and a lot of modern core work focuses on the superficial abs, the rectus abdominis, which look pretty but are too superficial to, say, be much help in preventing you from putting out your back.

Thankfully, it gets easier thanks to a simple anatomical reality: that when you breathe in your belly, the movement of your breath also moves the deep core muscles. So, you can use the simple act of breathing to help you begin to engage and strengthen these critical core muscles.

With this in mind, try the first exercise below. Lie on your back on the floor, with your legs bent. As you breathe in, notice how your lower back lifts gently off the floor. As you breathe out, gently flatten your lower back against the floor. As you do this, try to pull your belly button down towards your body, and at the same time engage your pelvic floor by trying to draw the skin above your pubic bone upwards (there's lots written about pelvic floor, so if you're not sure, go on and google it and then come back here!!). This is basically mulha bandha, the "root lock" your yoga teacher may have told you about.

It's a subtle feeling, so it might take you a few times to get the hang of it. Try it about 10 times, slowly. The more you practice, the more strongly you will be able to press your lower back into the floor.

Once you've got that, try the rest of the exercises below. If you are just getting started, it's really important to get the breathing right, so that you can take advantage of the natural way the breath and the deep abdominal muscles work together.

NB: All of these exercises are safe to do postpartum (after 8 weeks or with doctor's permission). If you are trying to build your core strength back after having a baby, I would recommend doing the exercises below as a 10-week programme, doing the exercises every day or every other day and adding one new exercise per week. If you had a c-section or experienced abdominal splitting, consult your doctor and/or physiotherapist before beginning any core work.

If you are recovering from a lower back injury, some of these exercises may not be appropriate for you. Please consult your doctor first!



When you are done, don't forget to counter pose! Try a gentle bridge pose or sphinx pose to stretch out the abs, and then hug your knees to your chest to stretch out the lower back.

Once you're feeling comfortable with the exercises above, you can start to challenge yourself a bit more! Here are 3 more exercises that will add a nice core focus to any yoga practice or workout.



Questions? Comments? Requests? Leave them below!!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: the 'other' shoulderstand

When you think of shoulderstand, you probably think of the popular images of someone upside down with their legs ramrod-straight in the air, their body folded nearly in half at the neck, their chin pressed to their chest. Yet let's face it - the modern, "gymnastic" version of shoulderstand that we are used to seeing is simply not practical - or safe - for everyone. It requires a high degree of backwards flexibility of the shoulders, for starters. It also requires nearly 90 degrees of forward flexion at the cervical spine and places a lot of the body's weight on the delicate vertebrae at the back of the neck. Not to mention that if you are a woman with anything over a C-cup, you may feel like you're at risk of smothering yourself!

Thankfully, there is an alternative variation of shoulderstand that gives you exactly the same benefits as the "gymnastic" shoulderstand. In sanskrit this pose is often referred to as "viparita karani asana." It's basically a slightly modified version of shoulderstand, where instead of trying to get your body straight up and down, you allow your body to settle in a 'pike' pose, with a comfortable angle between the torso and legs. This allows you to take more of the weight of the body in the hands, elbows and arms, which decreases the weight and pressure on the cervical spine. It also creates more 'breathing' space between the chin and the torso - ideal for bodybuilders with tight pecs and shoulders and for busty women. The pose has a beautiful, mudra-like feel to it and allows you to breathe deeply into the belly. Drishti is either straight up, or at the belly if you can do this while still keeping the chin lifted high.

I can not say enough how much I love and prefer this pose!! Personally, I now only practice this asana instead of shoulderstand and I always teach it in classes (I call the two versions "classical" shoulderstand and "gymnastic" shoulderstand) - yet it took me years to come across it simply because it isn't taught in our modern asana classes. So without further ado, here you have it: viparita karani asana.



(NB: The usual counter-indications for this pose apply: you shouldn't be practicing inversions if you have untreated high blood pressure, angina, glaucoma, or osteoporosis of the spine, wrists or shoulders.)

Readers, what poses would you like to see modifications for on the blog??

Thursday, June 12, 2014

7 stretches for neck and shoulders you can do at your desk

Dearest readers,

Well, I've been absent from the blog for much longer than I intended! Life has been busy these past few months, both personally and professionally. But in any case, I'm back and have some reader-requested posts lined up for you!

Thanks to all of you who have continued to visit and comment on the blog while I've been away - I especially appreciate those of you who have reached out by email or on Facebook to ask your questions! Keep them coming.

So without further-ado, a long-awaited reader request: 7 simple stretches for tight shoulders that you can do right at your desk! It's a simple sequence that takes about five minutes - enjoy!



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?

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!

Mmmmm….

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!!