Being Injured, Being Humbled

Being Injured, Being Humbled

I’ve never understood why people respond to winning awards or recognition with “I am so humbled by this.” My instinct says the opposite of that should be true – now that everyone knows you’re the most eligible bachelor in Tampa under the age of 30, or whatever, you should feel like hot stuff. And feeling like hot stuff isn’t inherently bad; there’s no need to feel guilty for celebrating our accomplishments or the qualities we love about ourselves. (After all, loving ourselves is the root of loving others.) We are, however, always balancing those feelings with humbling experiences, too. Failures. Close calls. Setbacks.

I’ve had a couple of setbacks myself recently. Part of how I define myself is through what I’m able to do, and worked hard to achieve, physically. I am a rock climber. I am a yogi and yoga teacher. I get outside and play outside.

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Can’t do this right now ūüė¶ Working through the moves last July on “Butch Pocket and the Sundance Pump,” 5.12a, at Wild Iris, WY. Photo by Andrew Hudson.

Last September I woke up one morning after “camping” in my car in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, with an intense ache in my neck. While driving back home, the pain worsened. When I woke up the next day, I could barely look up or down, much less side to side. I immediately booked myself a massage, but walked out feeling about the same level of crappy as I’d felt before. After a referral and a physical therapy consultation, I learned I’d acquired an inflamed cervical disk.

This immediately had consequences for me. No more headstands. No more backbend-y yoga poses where I need to gaze up and back. And, as I learned on our next climbing trip, it also meant I couldn’t look down to find my next foothold, or up at the climber I was belaying.

tritripod headstand

Couldn’t do this either. Tripod headstand playtime in the park with Jessie (center) and Amy (right), summer 2014

After months of physical therapy, I’d finally reached a point of comfort (and I mean physically, not financially- yikes). My neck still hurts on occasion, but the muscles in my back no longer seize up to protect it, and I have almost the same range of motion as I had before that doomed morning in September.

Come late October the outdoor climbing season ended and, in late November, ski season began. Knowing I’d improved my skills significantly over the course of the last season, I was excited to get back on the snowy slopes.

2016-01 Steamboat

A beautiful snowy Sunday in Steamboat Springs, CO

After the new year, I went down to Steamboat Springs with friends Georgia and Tom, and Tom’s family. Saturday night it snowed over a foot, maybe around two feet, even. In the morning we laughed as we tossed armfuls of snow off our cars. The lifts carried us out of the sun and into the icy clouds surrounding the mountaintops, still dumping snow.

On what became our last run of the day, the front end of my right ski lodged itself in a mound of heavy, powdery snow, twisting my foot out to the right. The rest of my body didn’t get the message and kept sailing downhill until my right knee jerked inward, and popped. I dropped to my back, dug out my sunken ski, and held my right knee into my chest while I made some pathetic wails. Fortunately Tom and Georgia heard/saw me, and came over. After about five minutes of feeling sorry for myself, I swallowed the pain, got up, and we made our way to the bottom of the mountain- slowly.

2016-01-17 Skiing_Steamboat

Just before I hurt my knee! Steamboat Springs, CO. Photo by Tom Ashley.

My physical therapy appointment for my knee is later this week, but the preliminary diagnosis is a partially torn MCL. This means no more skiing, climbing, or running (honestly I won’t miss that one), and avoiding certain yoga poses- again.

I hate being injured, and not just because of the pain. I hate the limitations it brings. I find myself sitting at work, feeling blah, and thinking, “Oh I know- I’ll just go to the climbing gym tonight,” and as soon as I start to feel cheery again, I realize I can’t. Yoga class? Nope, not if there are any deep lunges or squats or psoas stretching. So I settle for gentle movement on my mat followed by some resistance band nonsense to make my knee feel more stable.

So much goes into those Instagram photos of flexible yogis in breathtaking poses, or YouTube videos of skinny guys break-dancing. So much has to go right. Just because that guy in the gym is only lifting 5 pounds or walking around the track instead of jogging doesn’t mean he’s lazy or unmotivated. He could very well be recovering from illness or injury. He could be on chemo and unable to do any high-impact exercise for fear that his fragile bones could fracture underneath him. Maybe that woman in my yoga class is in child’s pose instead of the pose I’m teaching because she just had a baby, or she has a herniated disk in her spine, or that pose is just too intense for her and that’s not what her body needs right now.

So. What do I do when I’m not climbing up mountains or skiing down them? I cook. I eat. I read. I tell our new puppy that I don’t appreciate his chewing a hole in the curtains, or constantly sniffing our butts, or jumping on our laps while we’re on the couch so he can gnaw on our fingers. I stress about being out-of-shape. I scroll through social media sites feeling envy at all the beautiful photos of my able-bodied friends. I paint my nails. I clean my closet. I cry. I drink wine. I play the piano. I try some yoga, and slowly back out of all the poses I can’t do, and try to be kind to myself.

Last night I met with my friend Amy (pictured above doing tripod headstand) to discuss our plans for the kids/adults yoga event we’re leading next weekend (learn more about it here!). Our theme for the classes is kindness, and Amy shared with me a kindness-centered visualization and meditation exercise she has used in the past as a kids’ yoga teacher. I invite you to try it.

Kindness Visualization:

Situate yourself in a comfortable seat, or lie down comfortably. Now, begin to visualize a person you love- not a person with whom you’re mad right now, or with whom you’ve had a recent argument- but for whom you just feel love. Maybe it’s a family member, or a partner, or a best friend. Picture this person’s face with as much detail as you can muster. Maybe you find your lips curling into a smile as you think of them. Now, with this person’s image in your head, say silently to them, “May you be healthy. May you be happy. May you be at peace.”

Begin to shift your focus inward. Notice your breath. Notice the feeling of your clothes on your skin. Notice the parts of your body touching the floor. Notice how you feel. Now say silently to yourself, “May I be healthy. May I be happy. May I be at peace.” It may be hard to repeat this words to yourself, but try to be receptive to them. “May I be healthy. May I be happy. May I be at peace.”

~

Love to all.

Poem: A Beat Behind

A Beat Behind

AspeninWY

Kant says we are removed from these moments
of our lives and we only know their effect
just as our vision of stars’ light, living on after
their technicolored deaths, is distant from the star
itself, heaving gas and heat, a flame ‚Äď no, a frame
of light just visible and always a beat behind.
Millennia ago they sang their swan songs.

I’m learning to let myself be in time, in this
very second. Between chimes of the ting-sha
Tolle says that past and future are both illusions;
all we have is now. Kant has said we don’t
even have that so I choose to believe in beauty
over truth, to see echoes of stars and be struck
dumb by their pinpricks through this dark
matter fabric lightyears away, years ago.

PoudreCanyonCOSunset

Looking to Try Aerial Yoga?

Aerial yoga has been in the news a lot lately. Are you wondering what the hype is all about? Or what aerial yoga even is?

Mya recently opened Laramie’s first aerial yoga-equipped studio, Infinite Balance, and I was lucky enough to take an aerial yoga teacher training with her last month. As a “floor” yogi, I had no idea what to expect at my first aerial yoga class. Should I bring a mat? Can I bring water? Will we be upside-down the whole time?

Keep reading for answers to these questions and more, and I hope that you will enjoy aerial yoga as much as I do!

Aerial yoga is built on the same basics as your typical yoga class (breath + movement), but with the added bonus of an aerial silk, or a hammock.

Inside Infinite Balance Studio in Laramie

Inside Infinite Balance Studio in Laramie

The hammock is one long piece of super strong and somewhat stretchy fabric that hangs from a rig or the ceiling via a locking carabiner clipped through both knotted ends of the fabric. At Infinite Balance, Mya hired an engineer to construct the wooden rig you see, which can hold tens of thousands of pounds.

This rig is strong and sturdy

This rig is strong and sturdy

Because of the added expense of acquiring and caring for the aerial rig and silks (and additional training the instructor must have), aerial yoga classes are more expensive than your standard floor class, typically ranging from $20 to $30 per class, depending on where you live. In addition, class size is limited by the number of available hammocks, so be sure to either sign up for your aerial class ahead of time online, or to show up early (10-20 minutes before class start time).

You can prepare for your first aerial yoga class similar to how you would for any other yoga class: don’t eat shortly before class, bring a yoga mat if you have one and a water bottle, wear tight-fitting athletic clothing. One additional concern for aerial yoga is to not wear any jewelry, but especially anything sharp or bulky that could snag on the silk fabric.

The aerial yoga silk is one long piece of fabric that hangs from one point above

The aerial yoga silk is one long piece of fabric that hangs from one point above

When you first arrive at the aerial yoga studio, look¬†around the room for a silk hammock that appears¬†as if it might fall at your hip crease, or the line that forms across your hips as you bend over. If one looks right, approach it and find the “U” shape of the hammock, as demonstrated above, then walk under where the hammock is hanging and see if the hammock fits into your hip crease.

This hammock falls right at my hip crease, so it will work!

This hammock falls right at my hip crease, so it will work!

The instructor will have you set up your yoga mat underneath the silk you have chosen. If none work (i.e. if you are extraordinarily tall or short) the teacher can make adjustments using a ladder, so just ask. He or she may also ask you to pick up any props that you might use during any yoga class, such as blocks or bolsters. You can stay seated on your mat, or do any pose that feels good, until class starts.

I'll just be in this pose until class starts, thanks!

I’ll just be in this pose until class starts, thanks!

If you have never been to an aerial yoga class, I highly recommend attending a beginners’ class, as it can be challenging to get the hang (no pun intended) of different wraps and body positioning the first time. Expertise in floor yoga can help in aerial, but it does not guarantee immediate¬†success, so move slowly and listen to your body.

Here are some of the basic poses, wraps, and hangs you will see in an introductory aerial class.

1. Wrist wrap

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The wrist wrap is great for stretching the chest and shoulders. You get into a wrist wrap by wrapping your hands from the outside (like you’re giving your hammock a hug) in. Once the karate-chop side of your hands are covered, slide them toward one another for the wrist wrap.

2. Hip hang

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You can get into hip hang by approaching the hammock the same way you did to measure if it fit you. Standing behind the hammock, snuggle it into your hip crease, and bend over. From here you can come into many different, fun poses!

For aerial downward-facing dog, press down through the hands until the feet lift up. Press your chest toward the back edge of your mat

For aerial downward-facing dog, press down through the hands until the feet lift up. Press your chest toward the back edge of your mat

3. Rib Hang

For rib hang, come to standing in front of your hammock, facing away so the hammock is along your back. Reach behind you, spreading the fabric wide with your hands under the shoulder blades.

Use "jazz hands" to widen the silk for a more comfortable hang

Use “jazz hands” to widen the silk for a more comfortable hang

Then, begin to walk backwards, away from the plum line (where the carabiner holding the silk is located), until the silk becomes taut.

Lean away from the plum line to feel the silk support you

Lean away from the plum line to feel the silk support you

Relax your shoulders and keep the hips low as you walk forward, back under the plum line.

Rib hang!

Rib hang!

And there you have it! Feel free to walk backwards and readjust the silk if it is uncomfortable. Rib hang is a great starting place for many poses that require backbending while maintaining a lifted chest.

4. Back straddle

This hang is commonly used to get into inversions (poses where you’re upside-down). Supported inversions are, in my opinion, one of the biggest benefits of aerial yoga since, without the silk hammock, inversions are inaccessible for most people.

How to set up your silk for back straddle

How to set up your silk for back straddle

To get into back straddle, use the same “jazz hands” technique you used for rib hang to spread the silk wide. This time, align the silk with the top of the pelvis, or where the waistband of your pants typically sits. ¬†Lean back into your silk to feel it support you.

Leaning into the silk

Leaning into the silk

From here, many inversions or backbending postures are accessible because the hammock is holding you near your center of gravity.

Wide-legged back straddle, a great way to come into inversions

Wide-legged back straddle, a great way to come into inversions

When you come into an inversion from back straddle, you will hear your teacher tell you to keep your legs wide, like pictured above. Imagine with me, for a moment, that my legs were together in the above photo. What would happen? SPOILER ALERT: I would somersault out of the hammock and embarrassingly land on my butt/face/elbows. Moral of the story is LISTEN to your teacher, even if that means that you have to stop moving for a moment to pay attention.

5. Savasana, or final resting pose

If you’ve ever been to a regular yoga class before, you know this pose. It’s traditionally done at the end of every class for several minutes. Savasana (shah-vah-sah-nah) is Sanskrit for corpse pose, essentially meaning you just lie still on your back with your eyes closed for the duration of the pose.

In aerial yoga, this pose looks a little different.

Aerial savasana

Aerial savasana

Yes- that is me, enveloped in a silk hammock. Essentially, you spread your silk wide, then crawl into it, and lie down. The first time you try aerial savasana may be slightly uncomfortable because of the pressure of the hammock; feel free to do anything that feels good with your arms. I alternate between crossing them over my chest in a X-shape and letting them fall to my sides. The teacher will walk around the room to stop everyone’s swaying so that you can be truly still.

If the aerial version of savasana just¬†isn’t doing it for you, feel free to always come out of the hammock and sit/lie down/mutter to yourself on your mat instead.

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Great! Now you know the basic building blocks of aerial yoga, and what to expect for your first few classes. There are so many directions your instructor can take your class, so anticipate surprises!

Aerial ustrasana, or camel pose

Aerial ustrasana, or camel pose

If you live in Laramie and would like to try a class locally, please visit Infinite Balance’s website to check the schedule. As of the writing of this blog post, the aerial classes on the schedule are as follows:

  • Mondays, 12-1PM: Aerial 1¬†with Mya
  • Mondays, 5:30-6:30PM: Aerial for Flexibility with Mya
  • Tuesdays, 5:30-6:30PM: Aerial for Strength with Mya
  • Wednesdays, 12-1PM: Aerial 1¬†with Mya
  • Fridays, 10-11:15AM: Aerial 1 with Mya
  • Fridays, 6-7PM: Happy Hour Aerial with Jessie
  • Saturdays, 11AM-12PM: Aerial with Jessie
Aerial yoga instructor Jessie Quinn doing some weird & awesome stuff

Aerial yoga instructor Jessie Quinn doing some weird & awesome stuff

Please remember to show up early and/or sign up online, as class space is limited, no matter which aerial studio you attend.

Come fly with Jessie on Fridays & Saturdays at Infinite Balance!

Come fly with Jessie on Fridays & Saturdays at Infinite Balance!

If you have any questions, leave me a note in the comments. I hope you try out aerial yoga soon! Namaste.

Love to all!

Love to all!

For those curious, my top in this blog post is from Athleta, and my pants and my mat are from Prana.

Rainy Weekend at Shelf Road, Colorado

For Memorial Day weekend, Matt and I drove down to Shelf Road, Colorado, which is an area of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land outside of Ca√Īon City. We met up with some friends we knew from¬†UNC (that’s North Carolina, not Northern Colorado), John- who is doing a multi-week road trip out west from Asheville, NC with his friend Stephanie- and Kevin, an adventure videographer and photographer now living in Boulder, CO. We knew it would be a little crowded at the campgrounds since it was a long weekend, and we ended up sharing a campsite with a very kind and obliging group of parents and small children, which ended up being fine since we didn’t stay up very late anyway.

The drive to Shelf Road from Laramie takes us through Fort Collins, Denver, and Colorado Springs, so we hit a lot of traffic on the way, despite leaving Laramie before 5PM.

A view of Colorado Springs from the highway. Photo by yours truly

A view of Colorado Springs from the highway. Photo by yours truly

We didn’t get to Shelf Road until about 11, and it rained a little as we set up the tent and chatted. Poor Kevin tried to come in from Boulder down Shelf Road itself, which was closed because of flooding. Colorado normally gets a large amount of precipitation this time of year, and this spring has been no exception. Kevin drove his Subaru up to a bonafide stream running across Shelf Road, and decided to test the current. He picked up a rock which he described as weighing about 30 pounds, tossed it in, and watched with shock as it barely bounced off the road underwater before being swept downstream quickly enough to dissuade him from¬†fording it¬†Oregon Trail-style.

On Saturday, we woke up to sunshine, discovered Abe had made his way from the back of Matt’s car to the front passenger seat (fur everywhere!!), made breakfast, and decided to hit up the Sand Gulch area of Shelf Road since we could hike there directly from our campsite. Unfortunately, the recent rain¬†thwarted us.

John and I, with the

John and I, with the “trail” between us. Photo by Kevin

The guide book describes the trail to the climbing area from our campsite as going down a hill, then following a dry creekbed for a while before a sign points you up a trail toward the near end of the cliff line, or you can keep going down the creedbed for the second trail, which takes you to the cliff’s far end. Unfortunately, as you can see above, the creekbed had turned into a stream. The picture makes it look worse than it really was; the water was actually quite shallow and manageable, but still deep enough to thoroughly soak your shoes and socks, and to scare Abe.

Abe hates water- he doesn’t seem to have inherited a love for water from any labrador ancestors he may have. Matt had to carry him across a couple times, and we were able to coax him across a few more narrow sections.

Stephanie crossing the treacherous trail. Photo by Kevin

Stephanie crossing the treacherous trail. Photo by Kevin

The worst part of this amended trail wasn’t actually crossing the stream, but then bushwhacking our way alongside it as we searched for the trail where it exited the water and took us to the climbing. Never a dull moment!

We did a couple of warm-up routes before rain and thunder loomed in the distance. Up on a cliff is not exactly the best place to be during a thunderstorm, so we cleaned our routes (climber-speak for “retrieved all of our gear”) and retreated back down toward camp. Abe hates thunder, so Matt and I vacated the climbing area before John, Stephanie, and Kevin. Because we couldn’t follow the trail due to the stream it had become, Matt and I (and Abe) got separated from the rest of the group. The storm passed fairly quickly (but lasted long enough to make the trail muddy and the rock damp) so, after it ended, Matt and I headed back up to the climbing area- crossing the creek again on the way- to catch up with everyone else. We hiked part of the length of the cliff and didn’t see them, so we sat down and had lunch. Finally, convinced they must have either gone back to camp or to a different climbing area (there isn’t reliable cell phone service near the actual climbing), we packed up and headed back down toward the menacing creek, crossed it several times to navigate the “trail,” and made it back to our tent. Everyone was down there waiting for us- oops.

The view from our campground. My photo

The view from our campground. My photo

When you’re in a canyon like you are in Shelf Road, the steep hills and cliffs block oncoming bad weather and make it almost impossible to anticipate storms. This is why hikers and climbers in the mountains get caught in surprise thunder- and snowstorms so often. By the time you see and hear the weather, it’s sometimes too late to act upon it.

In the meantime, after we reunited at camp, the weather had calmed down again and the sun was shining like nothing had ever happened. Since the rock was still too wet to climb, we took a break. Some opted for naps; John and I opted for a private yoga lesson! John took a great video from Saturday, including sped-up compilations of morning and afternoon climbing as well as our yoga session. Check it out!

While Matt was relaxing¬†on the ground outside of the tent, and next to Abe, one of the little girls sharing the campsite wandered up and said to him, “Do you want to hear something embarrassing?”

Matt said, “Uh, okay.”

She responded, “I peed outside- over there,” and gestured to some bushes and cacti behind our tent.

Matt said, “Yeah, I think a lot of people do that.”

The little girl insisted, “No, I¬†peed¬†outside,” possibly referring to the pit toilet located inside a shelter about twenty yards away.¬†After this heartfelt confession, she walked away and rejoined her family.

We decided it had been long enough for the rock to dry out, and got ready to do some more climbing. Literally as soon as we began buckling our packs, it started raining again. “I thought this was supposed to be a desert!” Someone said. The cacti everywhere had tricked¬†us.

Cactus, the liar! My photo

Cactus, the liar! My photo

We went climbing anyway, this time hiking to a different area of Sand Gulch called the Freeform Wall, which involved precisely ZERO river crossings, to everyone’s relief.

Deciding what to climb. from left Stephanie, John, Matt, and me. Kevin is taking the picture

Deciding what to climb. from left Stephanie, John, Matt, and me. Kevin is taking the picture

We climbed another few routes and I got shut down by a height-dependent dynamic move to a small pocket on the start of a 5.11c. Afterwards, we hiked back to camp and cooked dinner under some intermittent rain showers.

The next morning, we drove up to a different campground to hike into a climbing area called, ironically, The Gym. We spent about 15 minutes in the car waiting for the rain to stop before beginning the approach,¬†which¬†involved a much smaller and more manageable stream crossing. Nonetheless, Abe didn’t appreciate it.

The rock at Shelf Road is limestone, which is essentially squished marine life from when this part of the country used to be underwater. Sometimes you can spot fossils in the limestone while climbing. Limestone is also heavily featured (meaning lots of great places to put your hands and feet), but has a tendency to be sharp, which is tough on one’s skin.

John on Head Cheese, a solid 5.12d, at The Gym. Photo by Kevin

John on Head Cheese, a solid 5.12d, at The Gym (also, helmets are cool!). Photo by Kevin

I top-roped (meaning¬†we already put the rope up, so I didn’t have to) a pumpy 5.11+ with a roof called Pulley Mammoth (roofs are kind of my nemesis) and led a fun 5.10b called The Crack of Dawn which followed a very¬†distinct flake up a sheer face. Matt got on a really challenging 5.12c called Gym Arete Direct, which joins up with Gym Arete, a 5.12a, but has a particularly tough start with very small holds.

Matt on the 5.12a part of Gym Arete. Photo by Kevin

Matt on the 5.12a part of Gym Arete. Photo by Kevin

Before the sun set, I wanted to get in a route we had passed on the hike up called The Raw and the Roasted. It was a beautiful 5.11c sheer face climb, and several people were climbing it as we’d hiked by. We climbed a fun 5.9 to the left of it called Ga-Stoned Again, so I’d heard¬†a couple climbers fall at the top of the route.

We don't have any photos of this route, so here is a photo from MountainProject.com of The Raw and The Roasted 5.11c

We didn’t take¬†any photos of this route, so here is a photo from MountainProject.com of The Raw and The Roasted 5.11c

The first three bolts of the climb are very easy, a 5.9 sort of warm-up, as you approach a ledge from which the clean limestone face emerges, and the real climbing begins.

Since we moved out to Wyoming, I’ve been working on my¬†leading technique and all the little things leading a route entails, almost more than I’ve worked on my actual climbing technique. On a sport climb, every 5-15 feet or so, depending on the route, are bolts that have been drilled into the rock. The first climber to put up the route ties the rope to her harness and brings up as many quickdraws (essentially two carabiners connected by very strong fabric- see this post for what it¬†looks like) as there are bolts. As she reaches a bolt, she clips one carabiner on her quickdraw to the bolt, and then clips her rope into the bottom carabiner of the quickdraw, which is now hanging from the bolt. This is purely a safety measure and essentially keeps sport climbers from hitting the ground or hitting any protruding rock feature (e.g. a ledge) below them should they fall. There are 13 bolts on The Raw and the Roasted, plus an anchor (made up of two bolts next to one another, marking the top of the climb), so it’s a pretty long route.

Face climbing, where the rock is almost exactly at a 90¬į angle, is probably my favorite type of climbing. It requires balance, body awareness, finger strength, and finesse. It’s beautiful to both do and see done.

In the picture above, you can see a small roof by the climber’s right knee. I kept climbing and clipping quickdraws methodically, pulling past a hard move around that little outcropping and continuing onto the face. I shut out any fear of but-what-if-I-fall-here-oh-wow-that-would-be-scary and kept going. The handholds were smaller and required more finger strength at the top, but I did it! I on-sighted (i.e. ascended a climbing route without falling, and with no prior practice or¬†advice¬†on how to successfully complete) a 5.11c on our first climbing trip of the summer season! I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the rest of the summer for us.

We plan on meeting up with John and Stephanie again as they continue their road trip, and we hope to climb with Kevin again soon, but he sure is a busy man. If you’ll be in the Colorado/Wyoming area this summer and want to spend some time outside, let me know!

To the summer! Love to all.

Office Yoga: Part II

This is a follow-up to my previous post, “Office Yoga: Part I,” in which I gave options for stretching while still at your desk or in your office. In this post, we’ll delve into options for after you’ve come home for the day.¬†These stretches will be focused on the same body parts mentioned in my last post, but will go deeper into the body¬†and would look pretty weird if you busted them out at your desk, if that’s something you’re worried about.

Sitting all day at a desk, in a car, or on an airplane can cause lots of tension in certain areas of our bodies. You’ll feel it as soon as you stand up to head home from a¬†day at¬†the office – the front of your thighs and the sides of your hips get tight, the neck and shoulders can feel crunchy and uncomfortable, and the wrists are overworked from hours of typing and clicking or gripping a steering wheel.

So what are you to do once you come home from a day spent sitting? I know it’s tempting to crawl to the couch, and then from there to bed, BUT! before you get there, see if you can’t set aside just 10-15 minutes to go through a few of these stretches. I promise you’ll feel better, and your body will thank you!

The Neck:¬†There are many yoga poses to which you can add just slight movements that encourage relaxation of muscle and joint tension. Here’s just one example.

Sphinx pose

 

To get into sphinx pose, clear some space on the floor into which it will be comfy for you to press your elbows, like on a carpet, rug, or towel. Lie down on your belly, and then stack your elbows under your shoulders. Pull your shoulders down and away from your ears to create space for the neck. Spread your fingers wide and inhale. On your exhale, begin to drop the chin down toward your chest. On your next inhale, roll the chin up toward the right shoulder. Exhale back to center, and inhale over to the left shoulder. Continue this pattern, and feel free to stop anywhere that feels particularly good. To come out of sphinx pose, widen your elbows away from one another and stack palms under the forehead to rest. Then push back up into a tabletop position.

The Wrist: Our wrists can over-develop in one direction when we spend lots of time at a computer keyboard or a steering wheel. Rock climbers also over-develop in this way, creating tight forearms. Below is one of my favorite stretches for the wrists and forearms.

Preparation for peacock pose

Preparation for peacock pose

Start kneeling with tucked toes (as pictured above), then lower your hips down onto your heels. If you have tender knees, you can always place extra cushion under them in the form of a rolled-up blanket or towel, or place that blanket or towel between behind the knee to create a little space between the calf and the thigh. Begin to lean forward over the knees as you place the fingertips on the ground in front of you, the forearms facing away from you. Continue to push the wrists down toward the ground. With increased flexibility, you will be able to lower the entire palm of each hand down. This is, as the caption notes, a preparation for a very challenging arm balance pose called peacock pose.

The Psoas: If you have no idea what the psoas (pronounced SOH-azz) is, feel free to refer to my last post, which includes an illustration of the muscle.

You can take many different variations of lunges to open up the psoas. As you grow¬†more flexible, you’ll be able to lower your hips closer to the ground, stretching the psoas more deeply.

A last lunge option

Deep lunge

This is the same final variation that was included in my last post. The front knee stacks over the front ankle and the top of the back foot presses down into the ground. For a very deep stretch, lift the arms up overhead, palms facing one another, and begin to lean back, away from the front leg. The sternum will lift up toward the ceiling for a gentle backbend as you drop the head back to open the front of the neck as well. Yummy!

The Hips:¬†Sitting in a cubicle,¬†car, or airplane usually requires us to take up as little space as possible, meaning we’re not given the opportunity to open and stretch our hips very often. The pose pictured below is more passive and restorative, meaning it requires little effort to “stay” in the pose and instead utilizes gravity and props to help stretch the body.

Supported reclined bound ankle pose

Supported reclined bound ankle pose

To get into this posture, begin in a seated butterfly or bound ankle pose, bringing the bottoms of the feet together in front of you (and, if your hair is up in any fashion, undo it so your neck can release down). In the picture above, I’m using yoga blocks to support my knees, which allows me to stay in this pose for a long time and provides a more gentle stretch. If you don’t have yoga blocks at home, you can always stack books under each knee as well, or anything sturdy and solid. Once you’ve arranged the blocks or block-substitutes, lower yourself down onto your back. From here, you can do anything with the hands that feels good and relaxing, whether that’s hands on the belly, as pictured, or palms face-up on either side of the hips. Stay here for 3-5 minutes to feel the full benefits of this amazing pose.

The Shoulders: As I described in my previous post, our shoulders hold loads of tension, just like our hips, and this is exacerbated by spending lots of time in public spaces, where we are regularly encouraged to take up as little space as possible. Our shoulders are designed to move in many different ways, and we only access a couple of them in our everyday lives. This is why opening and stretching the shoulders can feel so good!

Another variation on reclined bound ankle pose

Another variation on reclined bound ankle pose

I promise I’m not cheating, even though this pose looks exactly like the one pictured above it! Take a closer look- what’s the one difference? In this variation of reclined bound ankle, I have placed a bolster, another type of yoga prop, along the length of my spine to support my back and head. So in addition to opening the hips here, I am also opening the chest by pushing the sternum up with the bolster and allowing gravity to pull the shoulders down, away from the chest. If you don’t own a bolster, you can substitute it with a rolled-up blanket or towel- just make sure it’s long enough to support the full length of the spine as well as the head. If your substitute isn’t quite long enough, you can always place a pillow under the head too. Allow the hands to come to either side of the hips, palms face-up.

When you try this pose, don’t be surprised if you feel lots of tension along the upper arms. This can be a very deep stretch for many people, so be gentle going in and out of the pose. As in the first variation, stay here for a good 3-5 minutes to reap the full benefits of the stretch, and to feel relaxed too.

The Hamstrings: The hamstring is the large muscle that runs from the knee to the butt along the back of your thigh, and it grows tight from both activity (e.g. running, hiking, cycling, swimming) as well as inactivity (mainly, sitting). Below is also a more passive stretch that can help to stretch the backs of the legs.

Aaahhhhh

Aaahhhhh

This is a great, relaxing pose to practice after a long day on the road or at the office. It can help to relieve tension in the belly and low back as well. It’s actually harder to get into than it looks, so don’t get discouraged. Find an open wall space, and begin to scoot your butt up toward the wall. Start with knees bent and the bottoms of the feet pushing into the wall. Slowly inch yourself closer to the wall, working the legs toward straight. It’s fine if the legs don’t straighten completely. Lower yourself onto your back, maybe placing a pillow/rolled-up blanket/rolled-up yoga mat (as pictured above) under your head for a little extra support, and relax. You can flex the toes back toward your face, as pictured, if that feels good. Hands can go wherever you’d like. Stay here for several minutes, but not so long that your legs begin to fall asleep!

If you have any feedback or suggestions for other stretches, please let me know in the comments. Many thanks to fellow yoga teacher Jessie Carlson for taking all the above photos for me. My outfit and yoga mat are from Prana, and the pictures were taken inside the lovely Blossom Yoga studio in Laramie, Wyoming. Love to all.

Office Yoga: Part I

Habitually sitting can create a lot of tension in our bodies. If you find yourself often hunching over a book, computer, or steering wheel, your hips are likely closed, you may have a tight neck and tense shoulders, you likely feel tension in your wrists and legs, and maybe even pain in your neck and low back. Since we live in a world where many jobs involve a fair amount of time sitting in front of a computer, becoming aware of these misalignments in our bodies is more important than ever.

It’s less that our bodies weren’t designed to sit and more that they weren’t designed to sit for¬†so long. Because of this, I recently gave a presentation at a corporate event on techniques to counteract the problems sitting all day can generate in our bodies.¬†Below you will find stretches that can be performed at your desk and in your office to help counteract this pain and tension.

The Neck: So many people have neck pain, and tension in the neck is easily exacerbated by sitting for long periods of time. Low flexibility in the shoulders can contribute to the problem.

A good neck stretch for office employees

A good neck stretch for office employees

One method of stretching tight trapezius muscles and other, smaller muscles in the neck is pictured above. To do this stretch, sit comfortably in a chair on the floor. Bend both elbows and reach the right hand across the low back. Flip the palm of the left hand to face the ceiling, and reach the right hand for the crook of the left elbow. Once you have a comfortable grip, push both shoulders down and away from the ears and lean your head very gently toward the right shoulder until you feel a nice stretch. The stretch can be intensified by rotating the head until the gaze is down over the right hip. Hold this position for at least five breaths, and then release. Switch sides.

The Wrist: The wrists are¬†especially important if you do a lot of typing, coding, or internet surfing. We spend most of our time extending our wrists (bending the hand down toward the forearms) rather than flexing them (pushing the tops of the hands back¬†toward our faces). These two motions require the use of muscles and tendons in opposing directions, and it’s easy to over-develop on one end of the spectrum. There are several options to stretch the wrists toward flexion, but the below is one of my favorites.

Start with the thumb on each hand.

Start with the thumb on each hand

Continue through all the fingers

Continue through all the fingers

Start with the right hand. Flip the right hand palm face-up, and push the right elbow in toward your belly. Take the left hand under the right, and wrap all five fingers of the left hand around the right thumb. Activate all five fingers of the right hand as you gently tug the thumb back towards the left elbow. Take at least two breaths. Release and wrap all five fingers of the left hand around the right index (i.e. pointer) finger. Re-activate all five fingers of the right hand before tugging. Continue through all fingers on each hand. It is very important to activate (i.e. widen and extend) the fingers before stretching each time, as keeping the hands relaxed during this stretch can cause harm to your tendons.

The Psoas:¬†Most people outside the world of athletics and medicine know little about the psoas, but it’s one of the muscles most affected by our habitual sitting.

The two highlighted muscles pictured here are the psoas muscles. Photo from pilatesgarage.com

The two highlighted muscles pictured here are the psoas muscles. Photo from pilatesgarage.com

The psoas is shortened when we are seated, and lengthens as we stand up, lunge, or backbend, leaning our chests back and away from our hips. One of the simplest ways to stretch the psoas is by doing lunges. There are several different variations you can take, depending on your balance and flexibility.

Lunge supported by a chair

Variation 1: lunge supported by a chair

The above is a good option for beginners, or for those with less than stellar balance. Turn so that your right thigh is facing the front edge of a chair, and your left thigh is away. Step into a lunge over the chair, keeping the right knee stacked over the right ankle, to stretch your left psoas. If the sensation is too intense, bend the left knee deeply. Hands can stay on the chair to assist with balance, or can come up overhead for a deeper stretch.

Lunge option #2

Variation 2: low lunge on the floor

The above option is friendly to those with tight muscles but more stable balance. Starting in a tabletop position, Lift the right foot off the ground and bring it between your hands. Inhale to rise up into your lunge. The left toes can tuck under the foot, as pictured above, or you can press the top of the left foot into the ground instead, whatever is more comfortable for the left knee. If the left knee remains uncomfortable here, feel free to place a rolled-up towel or blanket under it for more cushion. In this variation, the left hip stacks over the left knee, and the right knee over the right ankle. The hands can stay on the hips, as pictured above, or can rise up overhead.

A last lunge option

Variation 3: an intense psoas stretch

This final variation requires a more flexible, open psoas muscle. You can get into this variation the same way I recommended getting into the last one, but this time the front foot comes out further away from the hips. The front knee still stacks over the front ankle but, as you can see, in this variation, my back knee is way further back than the hip. Also, the top of the back foot is pressing down into the ground, rather than tucking the toes. In this variation, the psoas of the back leg is experiencing a more intense stretch. Hands can stay on the hips to assist with balance, or can rise up overhead. For an even deeper stretch, risen arms can begin to lean back, away from the front leg, and the chest can lift up toward the ceiling for a gentle backbend.

The Hips: In yoga we often refer to certain poses as “closed-hip” and “open-hip.” Lunges, for example, are closed-hip poses because we haven’t begun to externally rotate the thighs. Sitting at a desk chair is also a closed-hip posture since our thighs remain parallel to one another. This generates tension and poor flexibility in the hips which can, in turn, along with a tight psoas, lead to low back pain.

You can discretely stretch your hips at your desk this way

You can discretely stretch your hips at your desk this way

The above is a seated variation on pigeon pose. To get into this posture, I recommend removing any high heeled shoes so your bottom foot can make full contact with the floor, and so the toes of the top foot can flex back. Next, pull your right leg up toward your chest. Set the outside of the right ankle on top of your left thigh and begin to flex the toes of the right foot back. As you flex the toes, begin to push the right knee down and away from your chest. If your top knee stays at a 90¬ļ angle, this will provide the most intense stretch.

The Shoulders: Similar to the neck, our shoulders often bear the brunt of our body’s stress. Take a moment to visualize what the standing body of a tense, threatened, or stressed person looks like. Their jaws and facial muscles are tight, maybe creating some wrinkles in the skin between the eyebrows- they may also be hunched forward slightly, and their shoulders are likely drawn up toward their ears. Even intuitively, we know our shoulders carry loads of tension.

Further, while we sit at our desks, we use very little of the full range of motion that our shoulders are designed to access. The shoulder joint is the only one in the body that is both a ball-and-socket (like the femur into the pelvis) as well as a sliding joint (the shoulder blade along the back). This enables our shoulders to move in many different, unusual ways.

Shoulder stretch, option 1

Shoulder stretch, option 1

You can try the stretch above both on the back of your chair as well as on the edge of a desk or table. Keeping your hips stacked over your ankles, place the bottoms of the elbows on a hard surface as you draw the palms of the hands together until the hands touch. Begin to work your head between your upper arms. Try to relax your neck as much as possible. This posture will cause a deep rotation in the shoulders, opening the triceps and other muscles through the armpits, chest, and upper back. After a long day at the office, I sometimes like to spend a few minutes in this pose.

Shoulder stretch, option 2

Shoulder stretch, option 2

Eventually, with more open shoulders, this is what your shoulder stretch will look like. As you can see, I’ve pressed my head all the way through my upper arms, and the bend in my elbows has decreased from 90¬ļ to a much more acute angle- however, my hips are still stacked over my ankles.

The Hamstrings: If you ever played an organized sport in middle or high school, you’re probably familiar with the hamstring. It is a large muscle that runs along the back side of each¬†thigh. You can flex the hamstring by bending the knee while keeping the thighs parallel to one another, or even lunging. Runners, swimmers, hikers, and anyone who plays cardio-centric sports like tennis, soccer, or basketball are likely to have tight hamstrings due to repeated use of the muscle. Alternatively, habitually sitting¬†also shortens the hamstring. Since this is such a large muscle, releasing tension here can feel¬†amazing, no joke.

A hamstring stretch for your desk

A hamstring stretch for your desk

The attendees of the event I mentioned earlier were impressed by how much of a stretch they felt in this posture. To begin, scoot yourself to the edge of your chair and grip the undersides of the chair with your hands. Keep the left knee bent and straighten the right leg out in front of you. Flex the toes of the right leg back toward the right knee (this lengthens the back of the leg, beginning the stretch), and fold the chest forward and down toward your thighs until you feel a good stretch in the back of the right thigh, or in your right hamstring.

Stay tuned for my next post, “Office Yoga: Part II,” in which I’ll give options for stretching after you’ve come home for the day. These stretches will be focused on the same body parts mentioned above, but will go deeper into the body¬†and, as some of the event attendees pointed out, would look pretty weird if you busted them out at your desk, if that’s something you’re worried about.

If you have any feedback or suggestions for other stretches, please let me know in the comments! Many thanks to fellow yoga teacher Jessie Carlson for taking all the above photos for me. Love to all.

Yoga Myths DEBUNKED

In discussing yoga, which I often do because I teach vinyasa flow classes, I sometimes hear people express their fears in regards to attending a yoga class for the first time. Below I’ve written up many of the common concerns I hear, and my responses to those. If you have any other questions or would like to see a response to other myths you hear about yoga, write me a comment!

  1. I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible. I hear this one all the time, and it drives me nuts! You know how all those yogis you see online and on television got so flexible? By doing yoga! Sure, some of us are more naturally flexible than others, just like some of us are taller or shorter than others, but a regular asana (Sanskrit for the practice of physical yoga postures) practice can cultivate flexibility in many places we find to be naturally tight in our bodies, like our shoulders, hips, necks, and hamstrings.
    Talia Sutra has practiced yoga for years, though I'm sure she's naturally flexible too (Image from taliasutrayoga.com)

    Talia Sutra has practiced yoga for years, though I’m sure she’s naturally flexible too (Image from taliasutrayoga.com)

    A good yoga teacher will give you many options during a yoga class, suitable for more and less flexible yogis, so don’t expect to hear a teacher give the instruction, “Touch your toes,” so much as, “Fold forward over the legs and bend the knees as much as is comfortable.” And maybe you’ll never be able to jump into a full split or walk around on your hands, but that doesn’t mean your body won’t thank you for getting it moving and stretching on the regular.

  2. Yoga classes are for old people. I once heard this from a co-worker and was shocked! Apparently he’d been to a couple of the classes his gym offered, and they were full of old ladies doing breathing exercises (nothing wrong with that, might I add).
    Oh yeah? Try this, you young farts! At 93, Tao Porchon-Lynch is the world's oldest yoga teacher (Image from http://photoblog.nbcnews.com)

    Oh yeah? Try this, you young farts! At 93, Tao Porchon-Lynch is the world’s oldest yoga teacher (Image from http://photoblog.nbcnews.com)

    There are so many different styles of yoga for as many different types of people! Corepower yoga teaches vinyasa flow-style classes in a heated room, some with weights for added difficulty. Ashtanga is another very physically challenging style of physical yoga practice. Even though I enjoy a good workout as much as the next guy, some days the only yoga I want to practice is five minutes of sitting with my eyes closed, breathing deeply. Other days I feel like doing a slow-moving, hour-long yin practice in a quiet, candlelit room. As you can see, yoga is about balance in more ways than one!

  3. I don’t have time to do yoga. Tsk, tsk! We’re all much too busy to try anything new these days, aren’t we? Yes, your typical class at a yoga studio will run for 45-90 minutes, and it’s absolutely rude to leave early. So what are your options? Some yoga teachers have posted brief videos online designed to be a full practice in an of themselves, like this 7-minute sun salutation video by the Brooklyn Yoga School, or this 16-minute beginner’s flow by teacher Rodney Yee. You can also find instructional DVDs or videos for purchase at your local Target or Walmart, or online at Amazon.com (scroll to #7 below to read about more online yoga video options). If you’re more comfortable practicing yoga without a video, you can also buy or borrow some great instructional books that will recommend certain poses or exercises for different motivations, like stress, low energy, back pain, or headaches, which you can practice for as long as you’d like. One of my favorites is Kathryn Budig’s The Women’s Health Big Book of Yoga.
  4. I’m not fit/healthy enough to do yoga. Your level of “fitness” is only relevant for certain types of yoga classes. If you’re new to yoga, it should go without saying that you probably shouldn’t show up to a class called “Advanced Yoga” or “Heated Vinyasa Flow Level II.” If you’re interested in attending a vinyasa flow, hot power, corepower, or any other physical-sounding yoga class, always check first with your doctor if you have any concerns (e.g. high blood pressure, diabetes, pregnancy, chronic pain, knee injury, recent surgery, etc.), as you would for beginning any other type of exercise regimen. That said, there are many options when it comes to a yoga practice for people who have disabilities and other health issues. There’s a whole genre of “chair yoga” for the elderly, disabled, and for those of us with less than stellar senses of balance. There are styles that require less physical stamina but are nonetheless challenging, like restorative or yin yoga, which are also great if you’re looking to balance out an already strenuous workout schedule.
    Tittibhasana or firefly pose, pictured here, comes from the intermediate ashtanga series

    Tittibhasana or firefly pose, pictured here, comes from the intermediate ashtanga series

    Then there are other aspects of yoga that just barely touch on what we deem to be ‘exercise’ at all – you can take meditation classes, classes on yoga philosophy or mindfulness, or even schedule a yogic or ayurvedic massage. Yes, a book club reading of Thich Nhat Hanh’s How to Love is just as much a yoga practice as is an hour of getting sweaty on your mat!

  5. I can’t do yoga because of my injury. Actually, physical therapists often prescribe variations on yoga when assisting healing patients. In fact, many professional athletes discover yoga while recovering from an injury. Olivia Hsu, whom I featured in my last post, stumbled upon ashtanga yoga while taking a break from rock climbing due to a finger injury; she’s now a yoga instructor as well as a professional climber. However, as I’ve said before in this post, if you have any medical concerns about practicing yoga, check first with your doctor before attending a yoga class. Importantly, if you’re suffering from any sort of injury, even if it’s an old one that’s flared up, avoid utilizing yoga videos, since the teacher can’t possibly know about your injury and make appropriate adjustments in that setting. Instead, I recommend attending a class in-person, taught by an experienced practitioner, and informing said teacher before class of your injury. That way the teacher can alter her class as needed, or can come by your mat during class and give you any additional instruction. In this instance, especially if you have multiple or severe injuries, hiring an experienced yoga teacher for a private lesson can also be very helpful. As always, keep in mind that though your yoga teacher in all likelihood has training, they are not medical professionals and absolutely cannot assist you in diagnosing or treating any medical conditions.
  6. Yoga is a religion. Yoga in itself is not a religion, but it can be seen and utilized as a spiritual teaching. Let me explain: one of the earliest ancient texts regarding yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, was actually completely secular. Some scholars argue it can function as a kind of philosophical bridge between Buddhism and Hinduism. The goal of the Yoga Sutras is to give the reader various paths to enlightenment. What is enlightenment? Buddha defined it, or the state of nirvana, as “the end of suffering.”
    Anjali Mudra, or hands at heart center, is a hand position practiced often in yoga to promote centering, calm, and peace, although it does look a lot like prayer hands!

    Anjali Mudra, or hands at heart center, is a hand position practiced often in yoga to promote centering, calm, and peace, although it does look a lot like prayer hands!

    Patanjali says that the state of enlightenment is one in which we exist purely as the Perceiver of our feelings, emotions, circumstances, and surroundings, from one moment to the next. In this understanding, you are not your disease or affliction. You are not your failed marriage. You are not your credit card debt. You are not your eating disorder, or your sexual desires, or your depression, or your dead-end job, or your addiction. This is not meant to remove your responsibility from any given situation, but to remind you of your divinity, the source of you, that part of you which is eternal and special and beautiful and wise. There are some religious practices that disagree with this thinking, those which preach that at our core is not goodness or light but brokenness and helplessness. The way yoga approaches enlightenment is to say that this ability, this Perceiver quality, already lies accessible within you. This does not make yoga incompatible with religion; instead, it allows us to, ideally, intentionally approach each experience of life in our bodies honestly and without judgment or distraction. Yogis who claim those religions which preach brokenness sometimes like to interpret the teachings of yoga to mean they must make contact with the divinity that is their God within them, and that God is the ‘inherent’ goodness that abides. The practice of asana or meditation or any of the eight limbs of yoga brings many people great healing and peace, both with themselves and the world around them.

  7. Yoga classes are too expensive for me. It’s true that a typical 60-90-minute yoga class at a local studio can cost you anywhere from $10 to $25 a pop, which may not be sustainable for many of us. However, those are usually the “drop-in” rates, whereas if you sign up for a series of classes, or buy a pass for a certain number of classes, the price per class decreases dramatically. In addition, many studios and gyms offer discounts to certain groups of people, such as students, teachers, veterans or active-duty service members, firefighters, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask for discount information at the front desk of a yoga studio. Another possibility, especially if you are new to an area or are just visiting, is free first-time classes or discounted new student passes. The majority of yoga studios allow first-time students to attend a class for free, and they often offer cheap introductory pricing, such as a one-month “new student” unlimited pass for the price of 4-5 normal classes at the drop-in rate. If those don’t work for you, there are even more options to investigate. Most studios host a class or two a week that is donation-based, meaning you pay as much as you can, or free altogether. Some gyms offer free yoga or other guided classes along with a membership or day pass fee. Lastly, websites like YogaGlo and GaiamTV offer access to a huge searchable database of recorded yoga instructional videos for less than $20/month, as well as a free initial trial.

I hope you have found this post enlightening (hehe!) or helpful, at the least. As always, feel free to leave me any comments with questions or suggestions or compliments (yes, please!) at the end of this post.

Love to all. #NAMASTE!