Yoga Medicine teacher Rachel Land shares the story behind the Yoga Journal flexibility challenge, why it isn’t all about stretching, and why she doesn’t “stretch” anymore.
“Why I’ve Stopped Stretching”
Senior Yoga Medicine teacher Rachel Land created our Yoga for Flexibility Challenge but explains why it’s not all about “stretching.”
Like many yoga teachers, I’ve been reasonably flexible my whole life. Not flexible in the “tuck both feet behind the head” sense, but I’ve always had to work harder on creating strength and stability than on increasing my range of motion. In fact, I find that deep static stretches at my end range can actually create joint stiffness, even pain, the next day.
For that reason, I don’t really “stretch” anymore. Which doesn’t mean that I purely work strength. Instead, the gentler side of my practice focuses, not on flexibility for its own sake, but on these three aims…
With the warmer weather and longer days, summer is a popular time to put your running shoes back on. The sweet smell in the air and warm sun on your skin draws you outdoors, and with the endorphin kick you get from running, it’s easy to push your body further than what it’s ready for. However, by adding in a few yoga poses, you can support your body and prevent injuries to help you go that extra mile. Yoga helps to prevent injuries by addressing the muscular imbalances created by running and increasing both strength and flexibility.
While in the poses, stay focused on your breath and observe your body’s sensations. This helps to build your awareness, which is also key to preventing injuries. The more you can tune into your body, the better you’ll be able to know what your body needs before, during, and after a run to stay healthy and safe.
Incorporate the yoga poses below to keep you running throughout the summer.
Downward Facing Dog
Benefits: Stretches hamstrings, calves, and back muscles.
Start on hands and knees. Hug your arms into the shoulders and push the floor away with your hands. Lean back, tuck your toes and lift your hips to make an upside-down V shape. Bend your knees to bring your belly close to your thighs. Be still or pedal out your feet. Take 5-7 breaths.
Benefits: Increases balance, stretches hip flexors and quads
From downward dog, step your right foot between your hands and drop your left knee down. Lift your torso to place your hands on your right knee. Take 5 breaths. Then put your right hand on the ground. Draw your left foot towards your butt and hold your foot with your left hand or use a strap if you can’t reach. Take 5 breaths. Then step back to downward dog to switch sides.
Benefits: Strengthens the back side of the body and lengthens the front side
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-width distance apart. Lift your hips and spine off the ground. Try not to overly engage your upper glutes. Take 5-7 breaths.
Supine Figure 4
Benefits: Stretches the hips, releases tension in the low back
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-width distance apart. Place your right ankle on your left knee and flex your right foot. Draw your right knee to your chest, and hold onto the back of your thigh or shin. Relax your neck (place a pillow under your head if it’s off the ground). Take 5-7 breaths and switch sides.]
Benefits: Releases tension along the spine, stretches the outer hip, relaxes the body and calms the mind
Lie on your back. Bend your knees toward your chest and lower them to the floor on your left. Extend your right arm on the floor and look to the right. Rest your head on the ground and relax your neck and back. Take 10 deep breaths and switch sides.
Jenni Tarma shares how, despite misconceptions, shoulder mobility can be improved by working on joint stability. She demonstrates several excercises to help the region with both mobility and stability.
Shoulder Mobility through Scapular Stability
We tend to think of mobility and stability as opposing ends of the spectrum: increased strength comes at the cost of flexibility, and vice versa. Similarly, we typically associate strong muscles with tightness, as per the stereotypical, muscle-bound athlete who can’t touch her toes. While there can be a correlation between strength and tightness (and athletes do need tension in their muscles in order to perform well), simply equating strength with tightness leads to a limiting and over-simplified understanding of a relationship that is inevitably more nuanced in real life.
Rather than forcing the relationship between stability and mobility into binary parameters, it’s more useful to think of them as two sides of the same coin. Much like the forces of yin and yang, they do oppose each other, but they are also interdependent and more significantly, feed into each other. To put it simply, we need stability to create the conditions necessary for mobility. Let’s explore this relationship in the context of some real-life movement, and see how creating stability and strength in the scapulae can actually pave the way for freer, easier movement in the chest and shoulders.
Stability creates mobility
Stability as the foundation of mobility is a well-established concept in the field of physical therapy, and can easily be applied to yoga asana. In order to understand how this works, let’s backtrack to consider what “good mobility” actually means. Having pliable tissues that allow for a wide range of motion is an obvious prerequisite so our movements aren’t hindered by the mechanical limitations of a muscle that cannot lengthen.
However, it’s not actually our muscles that govern how and how far we move; rather they are operating at the command of the nervous system. The nervous system’s primary concern is safety, and as the regulator of mobility, it grants a range of motion based on whether a particular movement is perceived as being safe. Safety, in this instance, requires an active integration of the joint (stability!) as well as limiting the movement to a range that we can control. Most of us know that simply flinging our bodies passively into deep stretches contributes little in the way of functional, usable range of motion.
In fact, extreme passive stretching can even have a counterproductive effect as muscles (at the command of the nervous system, of course) grip in response to the perceived threat of an overly intense stretch in a range of motion that it can’t control.
The notion of control is pivotal, since it determines whether the nervous system accepts or rejects movement, depending on muscles’ ability to engage in, and therefore control, that particular range of motion (ROM). With this in mind, we can further highlight the interdependent, interconnected nature of stability and mobility. In effect, stability and mobility are two words that we use to describe different aspects of the same thing. Stability is ROM with control and is therefore perceived as safe by the nervous system. Conversely, mobility is ROM without control, and is perceived as unsafe. It stands to reason that by engaging mindfully within a ROM where muscles can operate with strength, we stand to gain mobility by satisfying the nervous system’s need for safety and controllable ROM.
Investigating ROM through active engagement in asana
Let’s explore this relationship through real-life asana scenarios, more specifically in the shoulders, upper back and chest. Some prerequisites for successfully opening the chest include engaging the upper back muscles and integrating the shoulder joint. These actions are also interrelated: squeezing the shoulder blades together broadens the chest, but also creates the foundation of stability needed for the glenohumeral joint to stabilize; think of the humerus moving downwards as the shoulder joint “packs itself” into its socket. Let’s follow a gradual path through these actions, in increasingly more challenging poses.
1. Basic scapular stability
In tabletop position, scoop your low belly in to find a flat back. Soften the elbows with a small bend so they’re not locked, but commit to keeping your arms straight and your spine long. Actively squeeze your shoulder blades in towards each other and feel your chest lower towards the floor. The Rhomboids, located between the scapulae, will turn on as you do so (see Tabletop 1).
Then do the opposite: move the shoulder blades apart; notice the area around the side ribs (Serratus Anterior) engage to create the action, and emphasize it further by pressing the floor away with your hands (see Tabletop 2).
Go through several more rounds of the movement, inhaling to squeeze the shoulder blades and exhaling to widen them. Periodically checking in to make sure you haven’t strayed into a cat-cow movement as the arms should still be straight and the movement limited to the scapulae, rather than the spine.
To make this more challenging, you can repeat the scapular stability movements in a modified plank pose with the knees down (more challenging) and full plank (even more challenging).
2. Shoulder joint integration
Next, let’s add the “packing in” action of the shoulder joint. Start in Side Angle Pose, right leg forward, right forearm resting on the thigh. Move your left arm up to the ceiling, and then slightly behind you, if it’s available. Notice that while your arm is able to go further back in space, doing so causes the humerus to slide forward in its socket and destabilize the shoulder joint as you enter into passive ROM. This is what NOT to do.
Instead, start by building the foundation of shoulder stability in the left scapula. Reach your left arm horizontally out to the left and allow the shoulder blade to go with it as it moves away from the spine and towards the side ribs (see – Side Angle 1).
Keep your arm reaching forward and then draw the shoulder blade back to the spine. Repeat this motion a several times to familiarize yourself with the movement and the engagement of the Rhomboids and the Serratus; think about ‘gliding” the scapula on the back of the rib cage (see below – Side Angle 2).
Now, add the shoulder: firmly retract the scapula towards the spine, stack the left arm on top, but without losing the engagement around the shoulder blade and letting your arm passively flop behind you (see below – Side Angle 3).
Finally, hollow out the armpit by hugging the humerus down and back into its socket with a slight external rotation of the joint- the resulting sensation should be one of firm integration and support. Repeat on the second side.
3. Accessing chest-opening
Let’s further refine these action by adding the rotational element of the torso. Begin in Triangle pose with the right leg forward. Wrap your left arm across your chest and to the right side ribs, allowing the chest to roll down and the upper back to slightly round as part of the movement (see Triangle 1). Then, roll the chest open, using the left hand to guide the right side ribs down (see Triangle 2).
Repeat the action, adding in the movement of the scapula. The chest rolls down as the scapula protracts and arm reaches forward and then rolls up as the scapula retracts (see Triangle 3-4). End with retracting the scapula, hollowing out the armpit, and stacking the arm on top (see Triangle 5).
The important thing is that the left shoulder blade moves ahead of the humerus, and therefore always precedes the stacking of the arm. Even if the arm should eventually move further back behind you, that movement is still prefaced by the retraction of the shoulder blade, so as not to lose the necessary foundation of stability. Once the mechanics are familiar, focus on the overall feel of the action.
The movement of the shoulder blade in particular should have a fluid, sliding quality, rather than wrenching or muscling your way through the action. Remember, we’re trying to combine stability and mobility in appropriate ratios to create a movement that is both supported and controlled. This is, effectively, an exercise in balancing sthira and sukha: having enough effort to create support and safety while still maintaining a sense of ease.
If you’d like to challenge yourself by adding a balancing element, repeat all of this in Half Moon (see below).
4. Putting it all together
Next, we’ll combine these actions in Chapasana. This presents the opportunity to use scapular retraction to access deeper (but still supported) opening of the chest, whilst keeping the humeral integration. Start in Half Moon pose with the right leg as the standing leg. A block under the under the right hand can be helpful here so you don’t have to use too much brain power on balancing. Find the familiar actions in the left shoulder: scapula retracted, armpit hollowed out, humerus down in its socket. Reach your left arm towards your left foot and rotate the thumb down; bend the left knee and grab hold of the foot (see Chapasana 1). Finally, draw both shoulder blades strongly in towards each other as you move your sternum forward and your left shin back (see Chapasana 2). Stay and hold before repeating on the second side.
It’s worth noting that these movements, executed mindfully and with control, are beneficial in and of themselves. Trying the actions in more difficult poses adds variety and challenge. But, that isn’t necessary in order for them to be effective. For purely therapeutic purposes, you could choose to stay with the simpler poses and focus on observing which portions of the movement feel easy vs difficult. Or, if there are significant differences between left and right. Many people have some degree of weakness in their scapular stabilizers, and can gain much in terms of shoulder strength, posture, rotator cuff stability, and general functionality from doing even the simplest of the exercises outlined here. “Achieving” the more difficult versions shouldn’t necessarily be seen as an end goal.
Yoga Medicine teacher Rachel Land writes an article on strength and flexibility for the 5th week of the Yoga for Flexibility Challenge over at Yoga Journal. Check out what she has to say, including why a strong muscle doesn’t have to be a tight one.
Yoga for Flexibility Challenge Week 5: Strength Work
What Is Flexibility?
The dictionary definition of flexibility is “the quality of bending easily without breaking,” implying resilience or pliability rather than sheer depth of range. So while some yoga students aim for contortionist feats, most of us would simply like to move through our lives easily and without pain: rolling smoothly out of bed, bending over to pick something up off the floor, and twisting to reach the backseat of the car. Each body has a different potential range of motion, due to its unique bone and joint structure and proportions, so let’s define flexibility here as: The ability to move freely, without pain or restriction, through the body’s natural range of motion.
What Gets in the Way of Flexibility?
For most of us, our physical condition is, in many ways, an expression of our habits, lifestyle, and posture. Our bodies tend to “shrink-wrap” around any shape we hold for a long period of time in order to reduce the muscular effort required to stay there. We’ve all felt this resistance getting out of the car after a road trip or standing up after a day stuck behind a desk. Muscles that are asked to contract repeatedly also retain more tension at rest, which explains, for example, why runners tend to have tight hamstrings. In these ways, and more, the body adapts to the demands you place on it. So in simple terms the more you move, the more you are able to move; the less you move, the less you are able to move.
Please visit Yoga Journal to read the rest of Rachel’s article.
Kristen Fischer for Success Magazine shares 5 tips to use mindfulness to its fullest potential, how to incorporate it into your life and the benefits of using it in your everyday routines. Tiffany Cruikshank, Yoga Medicine’s Founder, weighs in as an expert.
5 Ways to Put Mindfulness to Work in Your Life
We hear the word mindfulness just about everywhere these days. But what does it really mean to be mindful? And how can you practice mindfulness to boost your personal and professional life?
Being more mindful has many perks. A recent study found that practicing mindfulness is just as useful as one-on-one cognitive behavioral therapy. This is especially true for stress-related conditions such as anxiety. Mindfulness can relieve our perception of aches and pains, keep us more focused at work, and help us become more resilient. It’s also an ideal way to get a grip on emotions, which can affect our attention, memory, and motivation.
“You almost need a black belt in emotion management in today’s volatile, uncertain and ever-changing organizational landscape,” says Kate Kerr, a mindfulness specialist from Canada. “Mindfulness gives us a space between our emotions and our fight-flight-freeze reactions. It increases our ability to respond more skillfully. This can lead to a reduction in conflicts and the ability to utilize empathy to drive stronger relationships.”
Being able to observe how your mind is spinning instead of quickly reacting in an upset way can certainly help us evolve, adds Dr. Shoshana Bennett, a California-based psychologist.
Mindfulness works wonders, but how exactly does one do it? Click here for a few tips to help you tune into your inner Zen.
Tiffany Cruikshank is a renowned yoga, meditation, and wellness expert, and the founder of Yoga Medicine, an international resource of teachers trained in the fusion of yoga with anatomy and physiology. Tiffany currently lives in Seattle, Washington.
What is your morning routine?
My sleep is precious, so when I’m not on the road working, I usually let myself sleep in, which means waking up around 7:00am or so. First thing is to spend a little quality time with my partner and then meditate together before we start the day. Then it’s smoothie time. I’m not usually very hungry in the morning, but having a morning green smoothie with veggies, protein powder, and other goodies makes me feel and function better throughout my day.
Then I like to practice yoga and spend time creating. I spend the first part of my day doing the things in my business that only I can do (e.g., writing or creating new training manuals, reading, experimenting, planning). I try to stay out of email and social media for the first part of the day so that I can be more productive early on.
How long have you stuck with this routine so far?
It’s always evolving, but the mediation and smoothies have been part of my morning routine for a couple decades now. I used to wake up bright and early to do yoga first. As I’ve gotten older, though, I appreciate practicing a little later in the morning or afternoon, especially since I can make my own schedule when I’m home.
When I’m on the road, I just do it when I can. However, I always travel with my morning powder – it’s the only item I really need when I’m on the road. It carries me through my long, physically and mentally challenging days, and I like to add all sorts of vitamins, herbs, and probiotics to fine-tune it for whatever I need.
How has your morning routine changed over recent years?
I’ve recently been experimenting with staying off email and the internet for the first part of my day to allow me to create and complete projects that don’t get done when I spend all my time on email and tedious tasks. I’ve gotten really good at hiring great people and delegating tasks to them to allow me to continue to create excellent content for our community and stay healthy and inspired in the process.What time do you go to sleep?Usually around 10:00pm, give or take an hour.
Do you do anything before going to bed to make your morning easier?
I like to look at my day ahead. That could be picking out clothes for a speedy morning or mentally preparing for classes or meetings. I like to be prepared so that I can start my day ready to go. But I never look at my schedule or emails after dinner – this is my wind-down and family time.
I’m a non-stop worker all day, every day. I love what I do. My partner inspired me to create some untouchable time to just be home, and it has been so helpful. When I’m on the road or my family is away, I work through the night and on the weekends; but when they’re home, that time is off limits. It’s helped me learn how to turn off and to enjoy my life.
Do you use an alarm to wake you up in the morning, and if so do you ever hit the snooze button?
I definitely use an alarm clock when I’m teaching on the road, but when I’m home I let myself sleep in so that I can be more productive during my day.
How soon after waking up do you have breakfast, and what do you typically have?
I usually have my smoothie or protein/greens powder within an hour or so of waking up.
Do you have a morning workout routine?
I usually do my yoga practice sometime in the morning. It helps me feel better during my day and be more mentally efficient. I used to exercise to stay in shape, but now I move to feel good. That could mean working on sore areas, balancing a life of sitting at a computer or on a plane, or dealing with stress and tension.
Do you have a morning meditation routine?
I like to keep it simple. I usually do a simple mindfulness meditation.
Do you answer email first thing in the morning or leave it until later in the day?
I like to wait until at least 10:00am to start on email; otherwise, it’s a never-ending process.
Do you use any apps or products to enhance your sleep or morning routine?
I use Enzo for meditation. You can set it to ring at specific intervals to keep you present, and you can set a different ring at the end so you know when you’re done.
How soon do you check your phone in the morning?
I like to check my daily appointments right away but nothing else (email, social media, etc.) until at least 10:00am.
What are your most important tasks in the morning?
The morning hours are my most productive, so I like to schedule bigger projects at the beginning of my day, along with projects that need creativity, since my mind is freshest in the morning.
What and when is your first drink in the morning?
I drink a large glass of room-temperature water first thing in the morning to get my digestion going. I’ve done this for probably twenty years or more.
How does your partner fit into your morning routine?
It’s important to us to make time for each other every morning (when we’re both home, since we travel a lot for work), even if it’s just a few minutes of skin time where we do nothing else but appreciate our time together.
We really enjoy meditating together in the morning; even though there aren’t any specific interactions, it builds a deeper layer of intimacy between us. My partner is a tech entrepreneur, so he gets my life and my hectic schedule. We’ve learned to make it all work and to make time for each other in the process. It’s a juggling act, but all couples have to find a balance that works for them.
Do you also follow this routine on weekends, or do you change some steps?
I never used to take weekends off, but I have since learned the value of the weekend. I like to leave weekends that I’m home open for anything. No alarm clocks on the weekend, but when we wake up we usually meditate and then have a smoothie – similar to a weekday.
I think sleep is an underrated, critical component of good health and cognitive function, so I always make it a priority – especially on the weekends. It’s hard to stop working when you love what you do, but after so many years of doing it I’ve learned that balance is key to longevity. I’m no good to my business if I don’t also give myself some time off. I do love to get an early start on the work week, so when I’m able, I work a little on Sunday night – even if it’s just for thirty minutes – to prepare for the week ahead.
On days you’re not settled in your home, are you able to adapt your routine to fit in with a different environment?
I’m on the road the majority of the year, so absolutely! I have my road routines as well. They aren’t too different from the home routines, but they usually involve an alarm clock, since my days are more structured.
What do you do if you fail to follow your morning routine, and how does this influence the rest of your day?
I don’t feel as good nor am I as productive, especially without my smoothie or meditation – those are crucial to my daily productivity and my physical and mental health. Everything else is flexible.
Samantha Lefave for Fitness Magazine shares flexibility tests for key muscle groups. Learn how your range of motion measures up, and how to improve it.
How Flexible Are You?
Whether you’re a regular yogi or someone who struggles to remember to stretch, flexibility is a key component of a well-rounded fitness routine. So it’s important to squeeze it in. That said, everyone’s range differs. “Different people have different bone structures, so nobody is going to feel the same stretch the exact same way, and not everyone is going to naturally have the same range of motion and that’s okay,” says Tiffany Cruikshank, founder of Yoga Medicine and author of Meditate Your Weight. “The most important part is that you are taking the time to stretch, and that you maintain that sense of elasticity and pliability in the muscles.” To see where you’re at—and where you may need to focus your practice—go through these five tests that test flexibility from head to toe.
Most people think it’s best to test your hamstring flexibility while standing, but Cruikshank says doing so while lying on your back isolates the hamstrings so they don’t get assistance from the hip flexors or spine. Start lying on your back with legs straight out. Lift one leg up into the air, then see how far you can reach up your leg while keeping your back and head on the floor. Cruikshank says it’s best if you’re at least able to touch your shins, and then work toward being able to touch your toes.
If you can’t, grab a yoga strap to wrap around the base of your foot, and use the straps to help slowly guide you deeper into the stretch. Hold the stretch for 1 to 2 minutes on each side, practicing daily to help you become more comfortable in the position.
This is a big one for those who sit at a desk all day (so, a lot of us), as the external rotators of the hips become very tight—even more so if you add a regular running routine on top of it. Cruikshank says to start lying on your back, with your left foot on the ground and right ankle resting gently on top of the left knee. Lift your left leg up off the ground and try to reach for your hamstring or shin, bringing it in closer to your chest; you’ll start to feel tension on the outside of your right hip.
If you’re unable to reach your hamstring, Cruikshank says that’s a big indicator that your hips are really tight. To work on it, she suggests placing your left foot against a wall for support, finding a comfortable distance that allows you to feel tension without pain (which means the stretch is working).
Outer Hips & Spine
While Cruikshank says it’s difficult to test your spinal flexibility on its own, you can give it a go if you double up with a hip test, too. (And who’s going to say no to multitasking?) Lie on your back and bring both knees into the chest. Then, keeping your upper body flat on the ground—it may help to stretch your arms out to each side—slowly rotate both knees to one side, getting as close to the ground as possible. The goal is to be able to reach the same distance from the ground on both sides, otherwise it could indicate an imbalance.
As you lower down, if you feel more tension in the hips, that’s your cue that the area is tight. You should focus on releasing tension in the area, says Cruikshank. Same goes if you feel it more in the spine (just remember to keep your back flat on the ground while you rotate your knees from side to side). As for how low you can go? “If you’re nowhere near the ground, then that’s something you need to work on for sure,” says Cruikshank. “Find some pillows or blankets to support your legs while you settle into that position for a few minutes each day, gradually removing the support as you progress closer to the ground.”
“This is an area where people get really tight, whether you’re running, cycling, spinning, or even lifting weights,” says Cruikshank. “It’s a significant limitation to be tight in the shoulders though, so it could be something you want to focus more attention on.” To find out, start standing with feet together and arms down by your side. Bring your hands behind your back and aim to grab the opposite forearm. Cruikshank says you should be able to at least reach mid-forearm, though touching your elbows is even more ideal. Think about broadening your chest as you perform the stretch, or pushing your chest forward while keeping your abs tight and posture tall. “That way you’re stretching the chest, arms, and shoulders, rather than just the arms alone,” she says.
If you’re unable to reach your forearms or clasp hands, Cruikshank suggests using a yoga strap or dish towel to assist you until you get closer to your goal. Practice it a few times each day, holding the stretch for 1 to 2 minutes each time.
Spine & Neck
“The neck and spine tend to get really tight nowadays, especially if you’re a desk warrior and an athlete—posture isn’t always kept at the forefront,” says Cruikshank. From a seated cross-legged position, slowly rotate to one side and look behind you. How far around can you see? Cruikshank says you should be able to look 180 degrees, though it’s not uncommon to find your limit is less than that due to tension in the neck.
To help release that, practice this same stretch a few times throughout the day, even when you’re in that desk chair (you can grab the sides or back of the chair for assistance). Just remember to keep your hips and pelvis facing forward, she says. “Your lower body shouldn’t move; this is all about relaxing into the seated stretch with a neck twist to release where a lot of tension is held when we get stressed out.”
Click here to watch the instructional video by Fitness Magazine.
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