Welcome to Week 2 of the Fall 2017 Yoga Challenge. If you’re thinking “Week TWO? This is the first I’m seeing this” – no worries. Please start with the Week 1 kick-off post and then come on back here.
When I thought about writing this post, something felt a little unusual. I realized what it was: you see a lot written about yoga nowadays, but you don’t often see “tips” about how to do it. You can find so many sources on how to do a push-up or a kettlebell swing, or how to run more efficiently. But you don’t often see “these techniques help you get more out of yoga.”
These six principles are ones you’ll use in many yoga poses within a typical practice. And as I’ll point out in a few places, some of these “yoga tips” are things you can use throughout your day to reduce stress and its impact on us.
SIX TIPS FOR THE BEGINNING YOGI (or “guy doing yoga” if that sounds less weird to you).
If you’re reading this before your first foray onto the yoga mat, these will seem a bit abstract but they should still make sense and give you things to take into that first yoga session. And if you’ve already started the challenge, then hopefully some of these will bring a little “a ha” or “connect the dots” about what you’ve heard instructors say.
1. Breath deep, slow and with sound
Yoga calls for breathing deeply and slowly throughout most of your yoga practice. Breath slowly on both inhale and exhale. This alone has substantial benefits, and is similar to meditation. For more on the amazing, instant benefits of controlled breathing, check out this.
But it’s not just the rhythm you should focus on. Also, experiment with and mainly do “ujjayi” breathing. This means constricting your throat to make the air pass more slowly back and forth (especially on the exhale). What the F does “constricting” mean, you might ask. Think of it as using your “whisper muscles,” or making the sound of deep slow ocean surf. Breathing like this helps keep your breath slow, and also creates internal heat to warm up muscles, make you more flexible and (if you’re like me) sweat like crazy.
You didn’t think yoga could make you drip with sweat the way other workouts do? If you’re doing it right, man, it sure will.
And once you have the hang of this ujjayi breathing, give this a try: at any point during your day if you feel tension – maybe shallow breathing, a little bit of a clenched jaw – do three or four of these long slow ujjayi breaths. It’s an instant stress reducer. And we all need stress reducers, man.
2. Your back leg – straight, strong and equal partner to the front one
Many poses have you standing with one leg in front and one behind. For example, most of the Warrior poses are this way, as are Crescent, Triangle and Mountain poses. (And c’mon – if you’re having doubts about this yoga thing, doesn’t the idea of a Warrior or Mountain pose reduce the threat to your masculinity?).
In these poses, there’s a tendency – especially for workout-oriented guys – to think like you’re in a lunge and put more weight on front leg, really working the front quad. But in yoga, you want the back leg to bear as close to equal weight as possible. So keep thinking about a straight, strong back leg and consciously keep some weight on that back foot. Flexing your back quad helps straighten out the leg in situations where it naturally wants to bend on you. (And don’t worry about taking a load off your front leg, man — you’ll get a ridiculous workout for that leg, too.)
Ever done a “wall sit” as an isometric quad, hamstring and butt exercise? A lot of yoga poses create that same physical benefit while they’re working your core and top half, too.
3. Arms go up, but shoulders stay down
This one is very different than your natural body instincts, and takes focus. Lots of yoga poses have you reaching overhead with straight arms (think of a ref giving the “touchdown” sign). When you do this, there’s a natural tendency to raise your shoulders up toward your ears (this lets your hands go as high as possible, after all).
But for yoga, you want shoulders staying low while your arms reach up. You’ll often hear yoga instructors cueing people to also keep the shoulders back. Put these two directions together and “shoulders down your back” is a thing yoga people say.
Even when you’re partly upside down with your hands on the floor and bearing weight with your arms – as you’ll be in Downward Dog – yoga calls for keeping those shoulders low and back.
In daily life, one sign of stress is having your trapezius muscles (the ones connecting your neck to your shoulders) tighten up. Your shoulders just kind of “climb” up toward your ears. Now being yoga-savvy, when you feel this, you can consciously relax those shoulders down and back (and do a little breathing per the above). This is like a one-minute, yoga-inspired anti-stress break. Try it.
4. Straight, strong back (and this means strong core)
During a yoga practice, a number of things bring about the tendency to hunch our backs. For example, during certain twist poses we might hunch the back and bring forward-twisting shoulder down a bit. This is like in “bicycle” sit-ups where you bring an elbow to the opposite knee.
But in yoga almost always, other than when we “rag doll” on purpose, we want a straight back from shoulders down to butt. During a twist, think about lengthening and straightening your back, then while you hold that, twisting.
Doing this is partly about your back, but it’s also about core muscles in front of and on the sides of the body. So keeping this “yoga back” is one of the reasons yoga is such a great core workout.
Once you’re attuned to this, you’ll often notice that while in a chair at work, home, a plane…you’re slumping a bit in your lower back area. You can remind yourself of the yoga body shape: firm up the core and straighten the back.
Yeah, we’re talking about posture now, man. Maintaining posture is one of the subtle-yet-critical pieces of not looking “old.” But this isn’t “just” about looking like a more fit and vital guy. Maintaining posture actually helps you avoid age-related musculoskeletal issues.
5. Balance – make use of your feet and your eyes
When we think of balancing, the arms often come to mind. Think of a tight-rope walker with arms outstretched.
But balance starts at the feet. You’ll hear yoga instructors talking about consciously standing on “all four corners” of your feet. What does that mean? Most people tend to shift weight a little onto their toes or heels when they’re just standing there. And to have weight a bit on the inside or outside edge of their feet. (I’m a heels/inside guy, I’ve discovered).
Standing on all four corners of your feet means consciously distributing weight so it’s equal front/back and inside/outside. Now you’re ready for a balance pose such as Tree pose (in the photo at the top of this article).
OK, now let’s travel to the other end of you, man. Balance is also about keeping a strong focus with your eyes, on one unmoving place (usually the floor or wall in front of you). This intense focal point for your gaze is called a “drishti,” and it helps you balance.
For a mini-challenge and to work on balance more often, try to put on or take off socks or shoes while just standing on one foot. Every little bit of balance improvement or maintenance you can do is a great thing as years roll by.
6. Finally, relax wherever you can
Now that you’re breathing well, have a straight strong back leg and back, are conscious of shoulder positioning and the things affecting balance…relax other parts not involved in all this. Yoga instructors will sometimes ask “how can you make the pose easier now?”
A lot of times, this is about relaxing tension in your neck and face – which uses some energy and contributes to a “this is hard” feeling mentally. I once had a yoga instructor tell me to relax my eyebrows, even. Funny though this sounds, relaxing this way makes it easier to maintain poses and meet your goals. By the way, this is useful advice for strength training, too. Use the muscles you need and don’t get into a grimace-fest with your face.
I hope these tips help as you put them to work during the yoga challenge. Like so many other things in the fitness world, we can make yoga better and more-useful for us if we focus. This ability to bring to bear all our mental energies is actually one advantage we have over our younger selves (a bit more on this theme is here).
Now, if you haven’t already – get out to a yoga studio or try an online class. More tips on getting going are here.
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