Focus on Warrior III

Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III) is a challenging balance and also builds postural strength throughout the body working against gravity. Due to its challenge as a balance it is easy for other aspects of the pose to be lost as the focus can easily be just on remaining on one leg. For that reason I often teach the pose in stages so that elements of the pose can be concentrated on.

Here I demonstrate 3 variations:

1. Keeping hands on top of the pelvis and working with the aspects of balance and alignment without the added strength and flexibility requirements placed by having arms raised.

2. The ‘full pose’. This term is actually a misnomer as the full pose should always be whatever is your full pose on the day; i.e. the furthest you can go into the pose without losing the integrity of the alignment. I demonstrate with my hands together and arms extended but you can also practice with hands shoulder width apart. This may be more comfortable for shoulders. Explore what works for you.

3. A variation on the first. The difference is that this time I moved only part-way into the pose. This reduces the strength required, reduces the need for length of the hamstrings, and allows you to focus on alignment from head to toe without the weight of the arms to maintain position of.

In each variation, give yourself three main areas of focus to remind yourself of what needs to be working to create the pose.

First focus on foot stability. Think of the triangle of support of the foot from big toe joint to little toe joint to mid point of heel. Perhaps lift the toes and then replace to feel the arches of the feet working. Stability created in the foot will create more stability in the pose. Keep those three points in contact with the mat throughout.

Secondly, quadriceps need to be working in both legs to keep knees extended (but not hyperextended). If quadriceps are working this will also allow hamstrings to relax; allowing flexion at the supporting hip.

Finally, keep posterior postural muscles working to ensure you keep alignment of the upper body. Think of drawing shoulder blades towards each other, whilst also drawing them towards your waist, keeping the sternum lifted. Take some time whilst still upright to set the position and feel what needs to be working before increasing the demands on those muscles by changing your relationship with gravity.

There are of course numerous other parts of you which you can focus on in this pose but the three above will be a good starting point. Once in the pose, if you have attention to spare, check your breathing is steady and relaxed, consider the position of the raised foot, lengthen throughout the pose. Always refining.

You can of course enter this pose by stepping forwards from Warrior I. You can also work with a chair, exploring the feel of the pose with hands supported as you develop the strength needed.

Warriors are strong, steady, poised. Enjoy.

Samavritti Pranayama (Equalizing Breath)

Samavritti Pranayama could be just what you need to help you through difficult times.

It is an understatement to say that this is a stressful time for us all so I am sharing this recording of a breathing practice to help to reduce anxiety.

Samavritti Pranayama

When we are anxious our breathing tends to be rapid and shallow and often the out-breath is rushed. One of the purposes of this breathing practice is to gently encourage your breathing to be slow, to be full, and to be even. As well as allowing the body to be efficiently oxygenated, this is also a very relaxing practice.

To translate Samavritti Pranayama: sama means equal or even and vritti means movement or action. So put together the practice means equal movement, often described as Equalizing Breath. Pranayama is a yoga term usually translated as breath control.

Yoga For Runners – Why?

A look at the sports science to support adding yoga to your training

Many runners think of their fitness just in terms of how far or how fast they can run.  As a yoga teacher, when I work with athletes I do a fitness demands analysis to identify the components of fitness the individual currently has and which are dominant components for their sport, to determine what they need to work on.

Components of fitness are either health or skill-related.  Health-related components are necessary for good health and daily living. These are flexibility, muscular strength, muscular endurance, aerobic endurance, and body composition.  Good health should be the runner’s first priority in order to have good immune function and avoid injury.  Specific skill-related components are necessary for sport-related performance.  These are agility, speed, muscular power, reaction time, coordination, and balance.  Which components you need to particularly work on will depend on the type of running you do and the terrain you run on.

So how can yoga help?  Yoga practice can be used to build any of the components of fitness.  There are many ways of working with yoga, with differing intensities, and it is possible for anyone to choose yoga postures and sequences to meet their needs.

The term ‘functional training’ has become popularly used in sport and fitness in recent years.  The concept of functional training is linked to the training principle of specificity. This states that a specific type of training is needed to produce a specific type of adaptation in the body.  Adaptation is the term for the physiological changes that occur in the body in response to training which lead to improved fitness or performance.

For example, for runners, the most functional postures for building leg strength are the standing postures.  Many postures involve the whole body, using body weight and resistance against gravity.  Linking postures together into flowing sequences will challenge the body further.  Some muscles will be working concentrically to maintain the pose or to initiate movement into it, other muscles will work eccentrically to control the movement.  All of the standing postures involve balance to some degree.  As your balance or strength develops there will always be a more challenging posture for you to try.  Increased muscle is a runner’s friend as it will lead to better body composition and a reduction in body fat.

Strengthening core muscles will help with core stability as well as improving posture.  Core muscles stabilise the spine, resisting the force of gravity or the force generated by moving arms and legs.  Core stability involves the muscles of the torso but also includes the shoulders and hips.  Core stability can be very functionally worked on in postures using opposing sides of the body especially when taking arms or legs further from your centre of gravity.

Progression is the gradual increase in intensity over time needed to stimulate continuous adaptation.  This is easily achieved with yoga.  Similarly overload, the need to perform exercise of a greater intensity than the athlete is accustomed to in order to stimulate a desired adaptation response.  Postures can be maintained for longer, modifications added, or postures can be sequenced together in a more demanding way.  Asymmetric postures allow the weaker side of the body to be worked to a greater intensity to balance the body. 

I’ve come to mention flexibility almost last even though this is the aspect for which yoga has become most associated. With increasingly sedentary workplaces, I find it is usually strength which I have to concentrate on first with my yoga clients.  Flexibility is important but you just need a good range of movement rather than to be hyper-mobile as some yoga images suggest.  If you have “the tightest hamstrings in the whole world” (as many people have introduced themselves to me as having) that is not necessarily a problem for you as a runner. That very tightness of the muscles surrounding your joints is what gives you stability as a runner. Tight hamstrings only becomes a problem if they affect the position of your pelvis and subsequently postural alignment or contribute to tightness in calves, leading to lower leg injuries.

The good news is that it is not true that you have to be flexible in order to start yoga.  Yoga will help you to become more flexible, whatever that is for you, leading to benefits like better stride length. My experience is actually that those who are stronger actually gain most benefit from stretching. Those who are strong have the ability to stabilise one joint while moving another which allows the target muscles and tissue to lengthen. A strong agonist muscle can allow for a strong inhibiting effect in the opposing muscle which you are targeting. Conserversely, you may feel tight because one or more muscles is overworking in order to compensate one which is not strong enough for the demands of your running. In this case, strengthening is going to be the answer.

Stretching is a positive thing to do even if you do not feel especially tight muscularly. When we stretch we affect the whole fascia of the body. Tensegrity is a term used to describe space and compression in the body. Stretching is not just the static experience many think of. Stretching is lengthening but this can be achieved in movement, with muscular effort, or with no effort using gravity to achieve. There are dynamic ways of working with yoga to stretch which are suitable for pre-run which will improve performance. There are static stretches too but these are associated with a loss of power and reduction of strength in the short-term and are best reserved for after your run. All of the directions you move your body in with yoga will mean that you have the mobility you need when running but the stability to control what needs to be still.

“Strength without mobility is rigidity. Mobility without strength is instability.”

When I started yoga I could hardly fold forwards due to the tightness of my hamstrings and glutes. Gradually, as I learnt technique, learnt to listen to my body and ease myself into stretches, I began to lengthen.  In the process I also developed the neuromuscular control to be aware of the position of my body in space and to be able to control my movements. I am aware that my movements are now much more fluid than they were at the start.

In time, with regular practice you begin to feel like your skin fits, feel that your movements are free and strong and comfortable, and you can train in the way that your running goals demand whilst avoiding developing injuries.

Yoga practices can also help you to coordinate breathing and movement, develop awareness of your health as well as your body, and learn how to balance training aims with other aspects of life and wellbeing. Psychological awareness and wellbeing are important.  Sports psychologists suggest a fifth of injuries are caused by factors due to stress.  Stress causes changes in attention as well as muscle tightening, leading to increased chance of injury.  People who practise yoga regularly report feeling more aware of their stress levels and can adapt their behaviour to lower those levels.

There are literally hundreds of yoga postures and many variations on how to work with them. These are some of my favourites with relevance to running.

Half Moon Pose is a balance which will strengthen all of the postural muscles needed for running, especially the gluteal muscles which stabilise the pelvis.

Downface Dog pose is a strengthening pose for the whole body and also offers an opportunity to stretch the backs of legs. Try raising one leg to increase the strengthening work as you have to balance the use of supporting muscles across the body and can also benefit from the increased hamstring and calf stretch that you can access when working asymmetrically.

The Rotated Low Lunge variation offers a twist for the torso, opens across the chest, improves core rotation, and is a very effective hip stretch, particularly targeting hip flexors.

Pigeon pose is a great hip stretch working on the hip flexors on one side and the glutes on the other. There are many variations on the pose (some of which you can see in one of the videos on the Home Yoga Practice Sequences page).

Plough pose is a great post-run practice as it is relaxing as well as providing a stretch for the back of the body. Beginners can rest feet on a chair to start with. It is important in this pose that you do not injure your neck. Your neck should be in a neutral position throughout. This is achieved by ensuring that you do not bring your pelvis towards your head to achieve lowering feet. Keep your pelvis back and flex at the hips to lower feet towards the floor. They can be supported on something if they don’t reach the floor.

These are just some of the postures which can benefit you as a runner. For more ideas of how to work with yoga see more of my videos on my YouTube channel and see my Home Yoga Practice Sequences page.

I’m always happy to answer any questions so please do contact me if you would like any more information about anything you have read here.

Emotional And Mental Resilience

It’s a very difficult time for everyone right now and each of us is learning daily about how this pandemic is affecting all areas of our lives. In our normal lives we have many parts of our identity: our work, family roles, relationships, friendships, and our athletic endeavours. The financial, creative, achievement and other rewards these bring us are all important factors to our positive mental health. At this time many of us are facing all of these being under threat at once.

Yoga has been an important part of my life for 20+ years. I use it to build physical strength and maintain optimal movement but its greater contribution to my life has been to develop my emotional and mental resilience.

Ordinarily it’s really easy for us to be accustomed to being busy, juggling all of the activities we enjoy, squeezing in those we don’t, filling gaps with distractions. All of that stops us really being in touch with ourselves.

Now is a chance for some of us to spend time with ourselves. It’s great that we have the means to stay in touch with each other via social media. There are lots of indoor training sessions being shared. Spend some time alone with yourself each day too. It’s the one thing that normally you may not have time to do.

You don’t have to meditate, especially if you don’t know how. Just sit quietly for a while, observe your breathing, be aware of your emotions without letting your thoughts run away with what you notice. If sitting doesn’t work for you then move, stretch, walk around, following what your body is telling you it needs. As you do so, notice how you would like to react without actually doing so. Resilience comes from having the ability to choose your reactions to what happens around you and within you rather than just reacting automatically or in the same way that others do. Practice that before you really need it and it becomes a habit, a resource you can rely on when times are really tough.

Those of you who are part of the emergency services and essential workers we are relying on, thank you. You are working even harder than ever and walking towards risk so that others can avoid it. Even just a few minutes taken to look after yourself in this way will help you.

Stay safe everyone.

Surya Namaskara (Salute to the Sun)

Surya Namaskara is a sequence of postures which works to strengthen the whole body and encourage fluid and coordinated movement. Triathletes will particularly benefit from the spinal extensions and hamstring and hip flexor stretches, combined with the strength required to move smoothly through the sequence.