In this interview, Tiffany gives us a glimpse into her beginnings as a teacher many years ago, how she began her work as a yoga teacher and how she developed her brand, Yoga Medicine, into the powerhouse it is today, with over 7,000 teachers around the world trained in her methods and part of her teaching network.
Click here to listen to the podcast on Bare Bones Yoga’s website.
Gry Bech-Hanssen discusses the benefits that strong and functional hip flexors could have on your backside and range of motion.
Are you a pigeon lover like me? Would you love to skip the standing poses and go straight to pigeon pose?
Pigeon and other hip opening poses may feel great while you’re in them, but often the relief is only temporary. If this is the case for you, do you ever question why these deep muscles feel so tight all the time? They could be compensating for weak or inhibited hip flexors.
Even if you consider yourself an active person and do yoga #everydamnday, chances are you also spend a lot of time sitting. Excess sitting can cause hip flexors to shorten and reduce the ability of muscles and fascia to glide against each other during movement.
To better understand how these important hip flexors can influence your backside, let’s take a closer look at the anatomy.
The powerful iliopsoas muscle is often referred to as one, but is really two different muscles; the iliacus and the psoas. The iliopsoas travels north from the lesser trochanter on the upper inner thigh bone and crosses the rim of the pelvis. But from there iliacus inserts on the iliac crest and the psoas on the spine, which gives them slightly different functions. Stickiness between these two muscles can result in one of them (often iliacus) overworking and both (especially psoas) becoming less effective.
The psoas is a powerful flexor of the hip joint, but maybe even more importantly, it’s a dynamic stabilizer of the lumbar spine. Connecting your legs to the lower back, the psoas inserts on the bodies and transverse processes of all the vertebrae of the lumbar spine to support the curve of the lower back on both sides.
Iliacus covers the whole medial surface of your hip bones and also connects to the sacro-iliac joint. This deep layer of muscle needs to engage early in movement to stabilize both the hip joint and the SI-joint.
As you can see, the hip flexors not only move the legs, but also to stabilize the pelvis and lower back. They need to be both supple and strong.
Supporting the hip joint from behind are the external rotators, often referred to as ‘the deep six’ which are located in your seat. These are the muscles you target in pigeon pose. Underlying the powerful gluteus maximus, your most important hip extensor that forms the contour of your bum, these relatively small but important six muscles just posterior to the hip joint connect the sacrum and the lower end of the spine to the top of the thigh bones. These deep six are the pirifomis, the obturator internus and externus, the gemellus superior and inferior, and the quadratus femoris. The piriformis, the largest of the six, also connects to the SI- joint and stabilizes the pelvis on the legs in weight bearing-poses.
There is an important connection between the psoas and the piriformis since they support the lower part of the spine both vertically and horizontally. If the psoas is underactive and the iliacus overworked, the smaller stabilizers in the back will try to compensate for the resulting lack of stability in the area.
Translating The Anatomy To Your Practice
In our yoga practice, it can be tempting to focus on hip flexibility, and forget about the equally important strengthening and stabilizing work. So even if your hip flexors feel tight, that doesn’t necessarily mean they need to get longer. In fact, most yogis have more than enough range of motion in hip extension. In most cases, the hip flexor muscles need mobilizing and strengthening more than they need lengthening.
And just as stretching the hip flexors can be counterproductive, so can releasing those tight external rotators without attending to the underlying problem of inhibition or weakness. Making sure your ilipsoas is strong and functional could over time lessen the load on those cranky rotators in the back and even improve your range of motion.
Try This Program To:
If your hips feel tight or restricted, consider self-myofascial release as a way to release and encourage communication through the tissues. Myofascial release (MFR) is a term describing different techniques aiming to restore mobility between muscles and connective tissue by applying gentle pressure using balls, rollers, blocks and other props.
I like to think of this exercise as a wake-up call for the nervous system, reconnecting the muscles and the brain. Using two tennis balls or therapy balls to release and stimulate the iliacus and psoas muscles can help them move better independently of each other. The intensity level of this exercise should be moderate and tolerable. More is not necessarily better here. To make the sensation less intense, lighten the pressure on the balls, or make the surface you are rolling on bigger by using two balls at each pressure point instead of one.
Lying prone on the mat, place a block on its lowest level on the floor between your feet behind you. Place the two balls just medially to your front hip bones (ASIS) on each side. The balls will be in contact with the broad iliacus muscle covering the inside of your two hip bones. Rest your forehead on your hands and relax over the balls for a moment as you breathe into your belly. If you feel any sharp, burning or gassy sensation, try moving the balls slightly, or skip this exercise.
After letting the balls sink in for 5-10 breaths, you can explore lifting up onto your elbows into a sphinx. You are now starting to stretch the psoas muscles while pinning the Iliacus (see image below).
If, after a few breaths here, you want to move on, curl your toes under behind you and start to lift your knees and thighs off the floor as you extend the legs (see image below).
Lastly, if you feel comfortable, you have the option to place your feet on the block and again gently lift the front of the legs off the floor. Coming out, lower your legs and upper body to the mat, remove the balls and relax here a few moments (see image below).
To access the psoas muscle more directly, place the two balls an inch below the belly button and about two inches apart. Follow the same procedure; first just relaxing and breathing over the balls, then lifting up onto your elbows, then extend the legs with the balls of your feet on the floor or on the block.
Before moving on to the next exercise, do a few bridge rolls. Lift one vertebra at a time as you roll up from the tailbone to your shoulders. Picture your psoas muscle gliding over the underlying iliacus as you slowly roll the spine up and down from the mat.
Leg hovers on block – eccentric loading. Lay on your back with bent knees, lift your hips off the mat and place a block on its middle or lowest height under your sacrum. Spend a few moments here connecting to your core muscles by actively cinching around the waist and lengthening your lower back with each exhale. Try to maintain this activation through the entire exercise, integrating the core and hip flexors.
On an exhale, lift your feet off the floor, keeping your knees bent. Your hands can rest on your lower belly to monitor the core activation. Let your left knee rest towards your chest as you extend your right leg toward the ceiling.
Again on an exhale, start to lower the right leg forward toward the floor until you start to notice a subtle stretch across the front hip or until you can still glimpse your toes. Stay and inhale before lifting the leg 3 inches on an exhale. Lift and lower the leg 10-15 times here. I like to move the leg at slightly different vectors to target different fibers of the muscles. If you externally rotate the leg slightly, do notice if your external rotators start firing.
For the last time on each leg lower into a stretch. Experiment with keeping your core and the leg active or relaxed to find the best stretch for you. You can deepen the stretch by reaching the same side arm along the floor over your head. Stay for 5 breaths, or as long as you are comfortable. Engage your abdominals to lift your leg back up and bend both knees towards the chest.
Repeat on the other side.
With your hips still on the block, do a few small toe dips alternating legs to balance and integrate the left and right sides. To finish, place both feet back on the floor, lift your pelvis and remove the block. Roll down through your spine as you exhale, letting one vertebra at a time meet the floor.
Activate your crescent lunge. Instead of going into your deepest stretch, lift up and out of it slightly. Bend the back knee, and gently activate the hip flexors as if trying to pull the back leg forward through the floor. Try to equalize the sense of lengthening and activating the muscles.
To mobilize the psoas in relation to iliacus here: try doing cat/cow with the upper body while keeping the lower body in runner’s lunge.
Mindfully activating and eccentrically loading the hip flexors in lunging poses will build strength at end range, while safely and effectively lengthening the muscles. You get the added benefit of protecting the joint and preventing damage to the joint capsule and labrum, which are more vulnerable at the front of the joint.
Add all or a few of these elements to your regular practice as needed to restore and maintain the muscles’ ability to glide over each other, balance mobility, and strength on all sides of the hip joint and gain greater control at end range of motion.
Emmy Lymn discusses how yoga can provide benefits beyond just the physical, and how it can additionally leave a positive impact on the brain.
Among the most common misconceptions about yoga is that it’s just another form of exercise. Perhaps this is because people often see yogis stretching and doing pretzel-like poses. However, the reality is that the benefits of yoga are more encompassing than just the physical. And, thanks to modern technology and functional MRI scans, we’re now able to see how regular practice affects your brain.
Here are some of the mental benefits of yoga and how it produces those effects by changing the structure of your brain.
Yoga Increases Gray Matter Density
Our brains are primarily made up of two types of tissues: white and gray matter. A normal human brain consists of about 60% white matter and 40% gray matter. Both of which play important roles in healthy cognitive functioning, however, each brain tissue type has a different function:
Gray matter consists of your brain cells or neurons. While it’s called gray matter, in reality, it is pink in color. That’s because while you’re alive, blood continuously flows through it. After you die, it turns gray. Due to its concentration of neurons, gray matter is responsible for many of your brain’s functions, including learning skills and memory. It is also responsible for the functionality of interpreting your senses of sight, hearing, smell, and touch. Additionally, it affects your muscle control and self-awareness.
White matter, on the other hand, are the connections that extend from your brain cells. Its job is to connect different sections of your brain, much like how the internet interconnects the world, by allowing areas of your brain to send and receive signals to one another. As such, healthy white matter allows your brain to coordinate your thoughts as well as your movements.
In general, both gray and white matter complement one another to allow you to think, coordinate movement, and interpret the world surrounding you. Damage or reduction in one or the other area affects your cognitive abilities. How yoga is relevant to our brain matter is that recent research has shown that yoga increases gray matter volume in the hippocampus and frontal sections of your brain (1).
How does this help you?
Research involving a comprehensive study of structural brain scans found that a person’s general intelligence is associated with the volume of gray matter in that specific area of the brain. Essentially, the thicker the volume of the gray matter in a region of your brain, the more cells are present there and thus, the more likely to perform better.
A few examples include:
London black cab taxi drivers are well reputed for their knowledge of local streets and their ability to navigate around traffic. Correspondingly, these individuals have higher volume of gray matter in their hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and spatial navigation (2).
Professional musicians, when compared to amateurs and non-musicians, present more gray matter in the Broca’s area as well as in the motor, auditory, and visuospatial regions of the brain thanks to their years of music training (3).
Similarly, in yoga, your constant use and practice of control in your postures, breathing, and mental activity results in increased gray matter density and activation in your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Together, allowing you to have better:
Focus and concentration
Emotional and impulse control
Make you more in tune with your senses and be self-aware
Decision making as well as being better at evaluating rewards and consequences. And, be more willing to delay gratification (4).
It Increases the Folds in Your Brain
If you look up a photo of the human brain on the internet, you’ll probably notice that its surface is made up of bumps and wrinkles. While this doesn’t make it pretty to look at, it plays an essential role in your ability to think.
These wrinkles are basically called cortical folds, or gyrification if you prefer a more medical or scientific term. These folds contain your brain cells. And, they’re there to increase the surface area of your brain. That’s a good thing. After all, who doesn’t like more brain cells, right?
Why does your brain have folded tissue?
That’s because your brain has to fit in your head. And, because your skull is small, it has to find a way to ‘squeeze’ itself in there.
To visualize this, think of packing a small suitcase. It has only so much space. If you lay out all your clothes there, it will be hard to fit everything in. But, if you fold your clothes properly or roll them up, you’ll be able to fit more into the same small suitcase. The best part is, folding or rolling your clothes up doesn’t change how big your shirts or pants are when you wear them. They still contain the same amount of fabric.
This uses the same concept as gyrification, the twisting and coiling of your brain tissues show up as folds. In the process, they allow more surface area, which holds more neurons, to fit in your skull.
Where does yoga fit in?
Holistic yoga consists of three main components that cater to your physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. These come in the form of the poses (asanas), breathwork (pranayama), and meditation.
When it comes to your brain, the meditation aspect plays a large role as it is connected to increasing the number of folds in your brain (5). According to a study done by UCLA researchers, MRI brain scans showed that long-term meditators had more gyrification of their brain’s cortex. Researchers believe that this was a result of the brain’s neuroplasticity, indicating it adapted to the changes in its environment. In this particular case, it was the 20 or more years or regular meditation that produced the structural changes in the brain. Just as interestingly, the study also learned that the number of years of practice is correlated with the amount of gyrification.
Since your cerebral cortex is responsible for things like language, reasoning, perception, information processing, memory, and voluntary movement, the increase in gyrification allows for better functioning and faster information processing.
It Lets You Relax More by Reducing Stress and Anxiety
One of the primary benefits of yoga reported is a sense of post-practice relaxation. This associated body-mind connection is a positive change from the hectic pace of life but it doesn’t end there.
Yoga and Relaxation
During yoga, your brain releases all sorts of chemicals that not only help you relax but also lower your stress and anxiety levels including, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. Each of which functions in its own way to help you calm down and feel better.
GABA is a neurotransmitter or your brain’s chemical messenger. Its job is to suppress neural activity in order to prevent your brain from getting overly excited. In doing so, it controls how much fear, stress, anxiety or nervousness you’ll feel. Research shows that yoga increases your GABA levels by 27% (6). In fact, another study found that yoga is even better than walking if you want to relax and reduce anxiety (7).
Happiness Hormones. Collectively, your happiness hormones are dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. They’re called as such because each of them makes you feel better about yourself and your well-being. For example, dopamine makes you feel rewarded and lets you experience pleasure. Meanwhile, serotonin reduces tension to help relieve stress and anxiety.
Together, these chemicals help you relax and feel content. It is why many yogis will tell you that they feel happier after a class.
Yoga and Stress Reduction
One of the reasons you’re able to relax is that yoga also does a number on your stress response (8). During a yoga session, certain parts of your brain slow down to allow them to rest. This functionality helps you de-stress, which takes place in two major areas of the brain:
Frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the most advanced part of your brain because it is responsible for most of the thinking, planning, and reasoning. Additionally, it plays a role in self-awareness and emotional regulation. As you can imagine, this part of the brain is racing when you encounter a dilemma or when you feel self conscious about something. However, during yoga, your frontal lobe goes on vacation. Thus, allowing you to take a break for a while.
Parietal lobe. This section of the brain handles all the information coming from your senses. It takes in the sights, sounds, and everything else you observe around you. As such, when you’re always on the move, working, driving or observing things, you can imagine how much activity is going on here. Yoga likewise causes your parietal lobe to slow down.
But, it doesn’t stop there. Yoga also helps reduce stress by lowering your body’s cortisol and adrenaline levels, two critical stress hormones. That is, when you feel stressed or anticipate something stressful about to happen, your stress response is triggered. As a result, your body releases stress hormones to help you become more alert, make your heart beat faster, and spike your blood pressure. All of these are a result of your body getting flooded by stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline.
Stress is in itself is a good thing. It allows us to take on emergencies or focus better when we need to take a test or give a presentation. It, likewise, prepares you to protect yourself during life-threatening events.
But, if you have a hectic lifestyle and are constantly stressed, it can become harmful to your health. This is because your stress hormones trigger different events in your body to produce the effects mentioned earlier. Among them are release more sugar into your bloodstream, increase your blood pressure, and produce inflammation. When sustained for long periods of time, this can result in serious conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
In contrast, yoga helps to reverse these effects. One study notes how yoga reduces your body’s cortisol levels (9). Meanwhile, another study found that 12 minutes of daily yoga helps lower your body’s inflammation response, which is important as chronic inflammation is linked to serious long-term conditions like depression and heart disease (10).
Yoga and Anxiety
Anxiety is closely related to stress. But, they aren’t the same thing. Stress is the response your body produces due to a threat. Once that situation passes, the stress goes away. On the other hand, anxiety can be a result of stress as well as a myriad of other factors (to name a few: trauma, brain chemistry, environmental influences, genetics, use or withdrawal from substances, etc.)
Common symptoms of anxiety may include constant worry, feeling restless, startling easily, inability to focus, and often difficulties sleeping.
Here’s where yoga comes in.
Interestingly enough, while yoga increases the volume of gray matter is some areas of the brain, it also has an opposite effect on other regions of the brain. One such example is your brain’s amygdala (11). The amygdala is what you can call the message processing center of your brain. It receives incoming messages from your senses and internal organs then processes them. As such, it plays a critical role in your emotions and how you react to them, the most prominent of these emotions being fear. This is why you get nervous or afraid when you feel an impending threat or problem.
Thanks to yoga, the reduction of gray matter in your amygdala means that there is less activity in this part of your brain. As such, you’re better at handling fear and your emotions. Plus, you’re likewise better able to relax.
Yoga is commonly thought of as a series of poses that involve stretching and other complex movements. As such, its benefits are often believed to be physical. However, its effects are more far-reaching. The combination of poses, breathing, and meditation produces structural changes in your brain. This not only causes certain areas of your brain to increase or decrease in size but also affects your cognition as well as how you process your emotions, stress, and anxiety. All of which help you live a happier, healthier life.
Yoga Medicine’s cadaver dissection lab is a game changer as a person, as a yoga teacher and as a health professional. So much so that I came back for a second dissection!
My first time in the cadaver lab, I was full of mixed emotions – excitement, self-doubt, hesitation. I stood back hoping someone else would make the first cut. The second time, however, I was hungry to learn, eager to explore, driven to make the most out of this opportunity, appreciative of the experience, and fearless to the process. One similarity between both experiences is to walk into a room and dissect a human body is not an everyday or ‘normal’ activity, so there remains a feeling of complete vulnerability.
Seeing a cadaver for the first time was captivating and overwhelming. I was drawn to a cadaver by their appearance, by their uniqueness, questions running through my mind, and by my desire to know more about what I saw. The first year I chose a female because I selfishly wanted to learn more about my own gender’s musculoskeletal system. At first glance, she was healthy with perfectly manicured hands and feet. She resonated with me. In the second year, I worked with a strong-looking male because this is the demographic I work with in yoga and physical therapy. Regardless of having specific goals, I approached both with an open mind.
The intrigue of the cadaver and the intricacy of the dissection took my focus to body parts that I previously did not have much interest in and to dissect areas I never thought would be possible.
The first incisions into the skin are technically among the simplest cuts you will make, but emotionally, it’s the most grueling. While I expected the skin to be tough and the motion of cutting to be challenging, my first incision into the cadaver’s body was surprising. I felt like the cadaver was taking me on this journey and it felt intuitive where to move the scalpel. And after the initial self-doubt dissipated, my mind became captivated by the unique texture and I was taken over by the curiosity of what I was seeing and feeling with every stroke of the scalpel.
With each anatomical structure exposed, I grew more comfortable with the cadaver and my sense of awe for the complexity of the human body grew. The hours seem to fly by inside the lab despite the time and team work required to cut through the skin, remove the adipose tissue to expose fascia, carefully identify the muscles, and dissect small structures like blood vessels, lymph nodes, and nerves.
As you peel the layers of the body, you realize how interconnected the whole body is, how each organ and each system influence the others. There are always more body parts to find, adjacent cadavers to compare unique differences, or to see a more intricately dissected structure.
Universally, one of the best ways to learn is through real-life experience. As a new yoga teacher, we learn the most by getting out of the teacher training and teaching our first class with real students.
Being able to see, touch, and move the musculature of a human cadaver creates an interactive learning environment with hands-on experience that brings learning full circle. In contrast, textbooks can give the impression that each muscle, bone, and organ fits neatly into a distinct, separate space.
Handling human tissues and organs establishes vivid memories and draws your awareness to your own body, like x-ray vision. Surreal moments in the lab brings anatomical theory into practice by:
Holding organs in your own hands
Finding an illness (arthritis in a joint, gall stones, etc.)
Moving the cadaver through yoga poses and seeing muscles contract or stretch
Removing fascia or muscles to increase range of motion
Pulling a tendon and flexing a joint
Following the path of nerves from the spine down a limb
Seeing the lungs inflate and the diaphragm massage the vagus nerve and stimulate the organs and tissues
These experiences allow for a deeper exploration and challenges preconceived ideas about the human body.
Personally, dissecting a cadaver has been the most effective way to learn and embed my knowledge of anatomy and physiology. It is one thing to learn from a text book, plastic modules, a lecture, or online but seeing the complex and intricate architecture of the human body as it unravels in your own hands solidifies the learning. It changes you as a yoga teacher by reiterating the significance of understanding the human body and how important it is to design your approach with this knowledge.
These cadavers open their lives to allow us to discover their anatomical stories that we may be the only ones to ever know. They allow us to open their bodies, trusting that we enter with intention to explore and educate. It is humbling how the gift of their donation is entrusted to me, to Yoga Medicine, and to the good of society.
It is important for me to share that you emotionally become connected with the cadaver, and it’s hard not to have sympathy or wonder what pain they experienced and how their lifestyle was negatively impacted. The cadaver lab taught me to not judge a body, not to draw conclusions, or have expectations of how a body should respond. Although anatomy was what I went for, the cadaver dissection held more lessons that I never expected – understanding the powerful mystery of the human body and learning to balance empathy, judgment, and objectivity.
As a yoga teacher and health professional, this experience reiterated that we don’t need to have all the answers because each person is unique in their body and their experiences. There is no right or wrong, but more the desire for each person to observe the sensations. There doesn’t need to be reason why someone has a bi fabricated piriformis and another is missing psoas minor. The body is full of mysteries that we may never know so it is important to move past pre-conceived ideas.
As yoga teachers, we can facilitate students to adapt, feel, and explore what they can’t see. We can offer powerful tools through therapeutics, focusing on movement patterns to empower students and instill the importance of observation, modifications based on experience level or body types.
The two cadaver labs have reminded me of the importance as a yoga teacher, exercise physiologist, yogi, and most importantly, as a person, to continually push the knowledge boundaries on a physical, emotional, and intellectual level. This experience has given the idea of the human body as a perfectly imperfect or imperfectly perfect mystery and as a yoga teacher we have the power to empower our students to believe the same through education and empathy.
Arm balances and inversions occupy a special place in yoga practice. They defy us to flip our perspective, to challenge our courage and confidence. Because they also test muscles that are seldom asked to carry our full weight, our upper body deserves time for self-care after a practice peppered with these poses.
This self-myofascial release sequence will refresh and revitalize tired arm, chest, core, and shoulder muscles. You’ll need two same-size massage or myofascial release balls (shown below are the Recovery Rounds by RAD and Yoga Medicine®), a yoga block, and a blanket or towel. You may also want a sock or stocking to hold the balls together toward the end of practice.
As their names suggest, this group of muscles on the posterior forearm is responsible for bringing the wrists into extension—drawing the backs of the hands toward the forearms. Every arm balance and inversion (barring those on our forearms) entails weight-bearing on the hands with the wrists in extension, which shortens the extensors. Because daily activities like driving and typing keep our wrists in extension, the wrist extensors are prone to muscle tension even without adding the rigors of yoga practice, and they will doubly welcome the opportunity to release.
Take a seat on your mat with your block at its middle height in front of you. Place your right forearm along the top of your block—palm facing down and your hand off the block. You’ll find trigger points for this muscle group just below the elbow crease on the thumb and forefinger side of your forearm, so use your left hand to gently palpate the muscle mound there, looking for a couple of areas that feel tight or tender (but not so much so that they make you catch your breath or grit your teeth).
Once you find an initial trigger point, shorten your wrist extensors by drawing the back of your hand toward your upper arm, and then apply pressure to the tender spot with a massage ball held in your left hand. Maintain the downward pressure of the massage ball, pinning the extensors in place as you slowly stretch them by flexing your wrist and curling your knuckles down. Lighten the pressure of the ball and draw your knuckles back up toward your forearm. Repeat the “pin and stretch” technique two or three more times before moving on to another trigger point.
After a minute or so, lift your right arm off the block. Roll your wrist a couple of times, noticing any change in sensation in your wrist or forearm, and then move on to the left side.
Serratus Anterior and Latissimus Dorsi
The serratus anterior connects the underside of the scapula to the upper side ribs. It protracts the shoulder blades toward the outer ribs, as is necessary in poses such as crane (bakasana) and headstand (sirsasana). The latissimus dorsi originates on the lumbar spine and top rim of the posterior pelvis and sweeps up the back body before inserting on the upper arm bone. Among other roles, the lats are responsible for drawing the arms down from overhead toward the torso. This action is crucial for helping the hip flexors and abdominals pull the upper and lower body toward each other, as is necessary in arm balances like crane and firefly pose (tittibhasana).
Roll onto your right hip, using your right elbow and forearm to prop your torso up. Slide your yoga block on its middle height under the right side of your rib cage, positioning it so that one block edge is just below your armpit crease and the other edge is further down your side ribs. Once again, find an area that is tender, but where you can relax enough to stay a while. If the whole area feels too sensitive, pad the block with a towel or blanket and try again. Once you’ve found a trigger spot, allow your right hand to support your head. Take a few slow and steady breaths, and then roll slightly back until the edge of the block presses into the latissimus muscle on the back side of the armpit. Take a few deep breaths there, and then press the floor away with your left hand and come up to sit.
Move the block away. Bring your right elbow to the floor, and then slide it away from your right hip until you come to rest on your right side, ready to release your right triceps.
The triceps run down the back of the upper arm from shoulder to elbow, contracting to straighten the elbow and draw the upper arm behind the body into extension. These muscles work surprisingly hard during arm balances and inversions—either to straighten the arms, as they do in handstand (adho mukha vrksasana), or contracting eccentrically to hold a bent-elbow position against the weight of the body and gravity, as they do in forearm stand (pincha mayurasana) and eight angle pose (astavakrasana). Eccentric strength work is a common source of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This means that after an arm balance and inversion practice, your triceps deserve priority in a recovery practice.
Place one massage ball under your right upper arm, a couple of inches below your armpit, looking for a trigger point in that general area. Place your left hand on the floor in front of you for support and bend your right elbow so that you can support your head with your right hand. Lean in to the massage ball for a couple of deep breaths, and then roll it an inch or two toward your elbow, looking for another sensitive area. Take two or three slow breaths there, and then press back up to sitting.
Roll your shoulders a few times and notice whether the right side feels different from the left. Then move on to work on the left serratus anterior, latissimus dorsi, and triceps.
Running from the base of the sternum to the pubic bone, the rectus abdominis is responsible for two actions that make arm balances and inversions possible. Its contribution is obvious in the scooped belly and rounded spine of arm balances like crane and firefly. It also acts more subtly to knit the front ribs back in poses like handstand and headstand, where we would otherwise have a banana-like arch in the back. These actions, while incredibly helpful during practice, may be less helpful after it; releasing the rectus abdominis can return us to a more upright posture and freer breathing.
Lie on your belly. Place your massage balls side by side in the soft tissue immediately below the base of your sternum, making sure they press into your upper abdomen and not into bone. Relax the weight of your body as much as you can, turning your head to one side or resting it on stacked hands. If the sensation from the massage balls is too intense, pad them with a blanket or towel. Once you are comfortable enough to stay, take a few deep breaths. Focus on the rhythmic movement of your abdomen—feeling it expand to push the balls away as you inhale, and then soften to allow them to melt in toward your spine as you exhale.
When you’re ready to move on, place your hands alongside your rib cage and press up through all fours to come into child’s pose (balasana), stretching your hips back toward your heels.
Pause there for a breath or two. Allow your belly to relax on or between your thighs, paying attention to sensations in your abdomen. When you are ready to move on from child’s pose, lift your torso up to vertical and come into a sitting position.
Even without arm balances and inversions, the upper trapezius muscles are notoriously tense. They run down the sides of the neck to catch the tops of the shoulder blades. Their roles include elevating our shoulder blades against the downward pull of gravity and upwardly rotating our shoulder blades to allow our arms to lift overhead. This means they work when we lift our shoulders to drive or use a computer; in inversions they work even harder when we press overhead with our arms, as we do in handstand and headstand.
Lie down on your back with your hips elevated on your block, knees bent and feet on the floor. Place a massage ball on either side of your spine at the base of your neck, just under the tops of your shoulders. As usual, look for an area that feels tender or achy, but doesn’t generate a sharp sensation. Once you’ve found one, either rest still or see how it feels to take your arms overhead, bending your elbows as much as necessary to rest them comfortably on the floor. Let your head be heavy and your neck and shoulders soft. After a couple of breaths, look for another trigger point, either farther out to the side or farther down. Pause there for a couple of slow breaths before working on one final spot.
After a minute or so of working on your upper traps, remove the massage balls and block and find a comfortable position to rest in. Bring your awareness to what you feel in your shoulders, neck, and upper back before moving on.
These four small muscles (rectus capitis posterior major and minor, obliquus capitis superior and inferior) crisscross the back of the neck and the base of the skull to extend and rotate the head. Given that many arm balances and inversions require these head positions—including side crow (parsva bakasana), handstand, and forearm stand—you can see why this is a helpful place to finish your recovery practice.
Set your block on its lowest height at the top of your mat, and then place your massage balls side by side on top of it. Lie down with the base of your skull resting on top of the balls, and your neck draping free. If the balls slide out from under you, or move apart, place them in your sock or stocking, knotting it loosely to secure them next to each other.
Once you are in place, take a breath or two to relax your head and neck completely. Then either remain still or trace tiny circles or figure eights with your nose so that the balls gently massage the base of your skull. Breathe slowly and evenly, allowing your head to feel heavier with each exhalation.
After a few long breaths, slide your block and massage balls away from you and gently release your head onto the mat. Pause to notice what you feel in your neck and the base of your skull, and also around your temples (where these trigger points can refer).
Investing the final few minutes of practice in savasana, a potent recovery pose, allows both body and mind to rest while fresh blood and lymphatic fluid revitalize the tissues you’ve worked on.
Take time to get completely comfortable. That may mean stretching out your arms and legs or using your blanket or towel as either a cushion for the back of your head or a comforting weight over your hips. Once you’ve found a position you can rest in, close your eyes or soften your gaze. Let go of any effort to control your breathing, allowing your breath to find its own easy passage through you. Feel your arms and shoulders heavy, your chest soft, and heart open. Let any residual tension, tenderness, or tiredness melt away.
Stay in savasana as long as you like. When you are ready to move on with your day, take a couple of deeper breaths. On an inhalation, stretch your arms overhead, and then exhale out through an open mouth. Bend your knees and roll to one side, then press up to a seated position, feeling rested and refreshed.
Got a headache or a fever? Over-the-counter meds will usually do the trick. Nursing a running injury? Some combination of rest, ice, compression or elevation (and good old-fashioned patience) will likely have you back on track before too long. Indeed, most physical symptoms, although uncomfortable and inconvenient, are pretty straightforward to spot and treat.
The mental and emotional ones, like anxiety, are a little trickier.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety affects 40 million adults in the United States, making it the country’s most common mental disorder. Cheryl Carmin, Ph.D., professor of clinical psychology at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, describes anxiety as a “fight or flight” response to what a person perceives as a dangerous situation. “This response activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which causes an adrenaline reaction,” she explains.
Depending on the strength of that reaction, symptoms could include an increased heart and respiration rate, upset stomach, shaking, sweating, dizziness, headache or even a panic attack. Others may not have as dramatic of a response, and instead may worry excessively, notes Dr. Carmin. “While worry may not involve panic-like symptoms, its chronic nature can similarly take a physical toll on people, as they are in a state of high alert for long periods,” she says.
Common Triggers of Anxiety
There are many different types of anxiety with a myriad of triggers, from genetics to personal trauma to brain chemistry. Although there are effective treatments available, nearly 60 percent of people suffer through anxiety without seeking care.
“The causes or triggers for anxiety are very individualized,” Dr. Carmin notes. “Some people focus on physical symptoms as an indication that there is something medically or psychologically amiss. Other people fear what people may think of them, or believe that others will negatively evaluate them. Many people have specific phobias—such as fear of heights, freeway driving, enclosed spaces, certain animals or insects [or] blood—and being in the presence of anything they fear is a trigger.”
The Anxiety/Weight Loss Connection
For many people, the struggle or inability to lose weight can be a major source of anxiety. But on the other hand, if someone already has anxiety, that could contribute to behaviors leading to weight gain—sort of the old “chicken or the egg” conundrum. Which comes first?
It depends on the individual, Dr. Carmin says. For some people, feeling anxious may cause them to “stress eat,” which will increase calorie intake and could cause weight gain. But for others, anxiety may lead to a loss of appetite. Some studies have found a link between obesity and anxiety.
A person with anxiety may also be more bothered by a less-than-ideal weight than someone without the disorder. “Individuals who tend to be perfectionists may have a greater tendency to focus on appearance-related variables, such as weight,” explains Dr. Carmin.
And then there’s the hormonal aspect to consider, notes weight loss therapist Dr. Candice Seti, Psy.D., CPT, CNC. “Cortisol is our body’s stress hormone, also known as our ‘fight or flight’ hormone,” she explains. “In the short term, a little burst of cortisol can help get us moving and out of danger, so to speak. But long-term exposure to cortisol—through chronic stress or chronic anxiety—can cause all of our body systems to slow down, and ultimately hold onto weight and body fat. So, in that sense, chronic anxiety can lead to weight gain.”
On the flip side, Dr. Seti notes that a build-up of anxiety can cause an excess of nervous energy in the body, which increases movement (think fidgetiness) and decreases hunger. In that sense, anxiety could actually lead to weight loss.
Healthy Ways to Handle Anxiety
Just as every individual is different, no two cases of anxiety are the same. The best approach to handling it will depend on the severity of the problem, says Dr. Carmin—both from the standpoint of the anxiety and any weight-related struggles.
The first step, she says, is to determine whether the person has a diagnosable condition: Is the person suffering from an anxiety disorder, an eating disorder or both? “Having a frank discussion with your primary care physician or a mental health professional will help to put this in perspective,” she says. “There are effective, cognitive behavior therapy treatments and medications for anxiety and eating disorders.”
If the anxiety or eating issues are less severe and aren’t interfering with quality of daily life or causing undue distress, these other strategies could help alleviate symptoms.
Stay active. Anxiety and depression can sometimes make the sufferer feel like crawling in a hole and hibernating, but this usually exacerbates the problem. “Remember to find time for activities that are enjoyable or provide a sense of accomplishment,” Dr. Carmin recommends. In addition to burning more calories, the activity will also help to redirect your attention away from thoughts and worries that contribute to anxiety. Plus, exercise can serve as a natural mood lifter.
Keep a journal. The ADAA recommends writing in a journal when stress or anxiety hits. Over time, you’ll start to see patterns of potential triggers, such as work, relationships, weight or other factors.
Surround yourself with a positive circle. Positivity is a powerful thing. Seek out people who are energizing and encouraging, optimistic and upbeat, and who regard challenges as growth opportunities.
Be mindful of what you eat and drink. The ADAA suggests eating nutritious, well-balanced meals and healthy snacks, and limiting alcohol and caffeine, which can worsen anxiety. If you tend to be a stress eater, Dr. Carmin says to ask yourself if that treat is something you truly want, or if it is just a form of self-soothing that will interfere with a goal. “If it’s the latter, what really is the cause for wanting to snack? Can you deal with the underlying concern in a straightforward manner?” she asks.
Consider seeing a therapist. Dr. Seti believes that some of the most effective ways of dealing with anxiety are rooted in cognitive-behavioral therapy, which involves identifying the stimuli that cause the anxiety and then questioning that reaction anxiety. She recommends seeing a cognitive-behavioral therapist, who can help develop a strong anxiety management toolkit.
Try a relaxing activity. This can be anything that calms and centers you, whether that’s music, meditation, massage or another form of self-care. Diane Malaspina, PhD, a therapeutic specialist with Yoga Medicine®, recommends a yoga practice as a means of relieving anxiety. “Learning how to breathe and control the breath can help to calm the nervous system,” she explains. “Yoga postures also release tension in the muscles and endorphins in the brain, which help us to feel good. Mindfulness practices have also been found to reduce stress, lower cortisol levels and calm an active mind.”
If you’re one of the millions of people who experience chronic anxiety, you don’t have to let it limit your health or quality of life. If you’ve tried your own coping strategies but are still struggling, reach out to a doctor or mental health professional for help.
Prioritizing your health is no easy feat — especially when the internet and media flood us with conflicting advice on what works. For many of us, trying to get healthy means committing ourselves with gusto to bold plans with big promises. Whether it’s a Spartacus-inspired boot camp with daily 5 a.m. sessions, or an intense diet that cuts out all but two food groups to mysteriously induce some fat-burning chemical, or something in the murky in between, extreme transformation strategies are usually not the best path for most people.
That’s why we’ve spent years researching real ways to get it right and finding products that can actually help you achieve those health goals. Our team has been consulting doctors and nutritionists, vetting ingredients, taste-testing bars and powders, assembling treadmills, sweating it out on yoga mats, and keeping up on the latest training tech to give you the inside track on all things health and fitness.
To get a pulse on the health goals of our readers, we surveyed over 500 people on their goals for the new year. Over 40% of respondents said they stick to their health and fitness goals for just a few months. We also learned more about what kind of health goals people prioritize (spoiler: it’s exercising more), and discovered that 50% of people in our survey said their fitness and health goes are the same as last year. For those of us struggling to stick to goals, or finding ourselves setting the same goals time after time, we dug into how to set effective goals.
If one of your goals for the year is to be healthy, we can help you define that goal and map out a plan for success. But what does it actually mean to be healthy?
According to most of the experts we spoke to, exercise and nutrition are obvious cornerstones, but mental health is also a vital component. Anna Larsen, CPT & Fit Body Boot Camp Owner, told us mental wellbeing is intertwined with fitness and diet, “if you are under sustained stress, you may start to find relief in over-eating, over-drinking or even over-exercising.” Exercise and a good diet produce hormones that improve your mood and mental health, while a healthy mental state can better equip you to maintain positive eating and exercise habits.
We’ve done 40 hours of research, dug into countless studies, consulted over 50 experts, and rounded up our 23 favorite wellness products. This health guide will help you understand the importance of health and start setting achievable goals.
Fitting in Fitness
Exercising and losing weight are pretty familiar New Year’s resolutions so we weren’t surprised that over 70% of our goal-setters listed one of these as their most important health goal for 2019.
Why is exercise so important?
Exercise eases stress, builds muscle, burns fat, and supports many of your body’s systems. Regular exercise is essential for long-term preventative health as it reduces the risk of serious health issues. A strong body is also better at fighting off minor illnesses. Running, weight training, walking, dancing — anything that gets your body moving is great for your health.
Exercise helps with weight management and weight loss, too. In order to lose weight, your body must burn more calories than you consume. And because muscle cells need a lot of energy, the muscles you build during exercise will continue to burn more calories than fat cells would, even when you aren’t exercising.
Another major benefit of exercising is endorphins. Physical activity, anything that gets the heart rate up, will release hormones called endorphins. Endorphins reduce your perception of pain and trigger positive “morphine-like” feelings in the body. This leads to more energy, improved sleep, and a positive effect on your mental health.
“A lot of times people think of exercise as ‘punishment’ for eating or drinking certain things, but exercise is really just a way to get your body moving, strengthen your muscles and activate the mechanisms in your bones that repair and strengthen them.” – Anna Larsen CPT & Fit Body Boot Camp Owner
How much exercise do you need?
The Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) reports that only one in three adults are doing the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. While it might seem daunting to add two and a half hours of exercise to your week, it could be as simple as walking for 20 minutes each day, or doing an hour of strength training or a workout class a few times a week.
Don’t feel pressured to sign up for that marathon straight away. Start slow and build on your progress. Once you’re accustomed to that daily walk, step it up and add some hills, or try to walk your same route a little faster. As your muscles get used to a fitness routine, introducing a variety of challenges to push your endurance, speed, or strength will help you continue to make progress.
Goals to get you started
Though you may feel inspired to tackle an ambitious new fitness goal to kickstart your journey, it’s more important to set a goal that you’re confident you can maintain. Larsen advises that consistency is essential, even if your goal seems too easy at first, it’s important to develop a regular routine before you ramp up the intensity.
For example, rather than pushing for an hour of exercise every day, Larsen recommends, “start with three to five days a week of a 20- to 30-minute routine that you enjoy.” If you hate to run, don’t force yourself to suffer through a sweaty treadmill session. Opt for a different activity like pilates, yoga, or a sport you enjoy. Ask a friend to join you for a swim, take your dog for a long walk, or go on a hike. What matters most is that you’re moving and you’re feeling good about it.
There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about what it means to “eat healthy.” The International Food Information Council Foundation’s (IFIC) 2017 Food and Health Survey found that most people find conflicting advice about what to eat or avoid, causing many to doubt their food choices. Sometimes we’re told to completely cut out carbs, but we also hear carbs are a primary energy source. One authority claims that coffee is carcinogenic, while another suggests it prevents diseases like Parkinson’s. Though defining it may be complicated, 19% of respondents in our own survey ranked “eating healthier” as their most important health goal.
Why is eating healthy so important?
The entire purpose of eating is to fuel the complex systems that function in your body — so feeding it the best nutrients possible is essential. Those nutrients, like calcium and potassium, directly influence bodily tasks like hormone creation and heartbeat regulation. Though vitamins and supplements are sometimes helpful, a balanced and healthy diet is the best way to ensure you’re getting the minerals your body needs.
The perks to eating healthy are abundant — it lowers your risk for health issues, improves confidence, increases energy, aids in weight management, and sets a good example for family and friends. The World Health Organization reports that if people ate healthier, stopped using tobacco, and exercised more — 80% of all cases of heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes could be prevented. This staggering statistic is reflected in nearly every major health disease — cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, and even depression are all less likely for people with a healthy diet.
Which nutrition plan is best for you?
So let’s get back to what it means to “eat healthy.” A good place to start is USDA’s MyPlate. Basically, the ideal plate for each meal contains a balance of essential food groups. Half your plate should be fruit and vegetables, and the other half should be whole grains and protein. Add a small side of low-fat dairy and you’ve got a balanced meal.
Just like with exercise, drastic changes upfront are hard to maintain when it comes to eating healthy (that’s why diets don’t really work for most people in the long term).
While the goal is a balanced plate at every meal, you can start by making small changes to slowly modify your diet. Keeping track of what you’re eating and drinking to help you understand your eating habits. Be aware of portion sizes and don’t over-eat. Try to limit excessive sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. Choose grilled food over fried, opt for fat-free dairy products, and try cooking with herbs and spices instead of salt. Drinking lots of water in place of soda and juice is another simple switch that will benefit your health in many ways.
But know that you don’t need to be overly restrictive or perfect with your eating habits to see success. Making small measured changes over time and striving for balanced nutrition is key to reframing your eating habits. “Eat healthy for 80% of the week and allow for unhealthy choices for about 20% of the week,” Diane Malaspina, Ph.D, Yoga Medicine® Therapeutic Specialist advised. “This is called the 80/20 rule. This approach teaches the skill of moderation and doesn’t call for complete food restriction so that less healthy food can be enjoyed in moderation.”
“Remember that fad diets aren’t easily maintainable, so it’s best to just adopt a healthier lifestyle that you can carry throughout your whole life.” – Dr. David GreunerCo-founder of NYC Surgical Associates
UCLA research found that the majority of people on diets will regain more weight than they lose within five years. Diets, especially overly restrictive ones that eliminate entire food groups, can be hard on your body, make eating at social gatherings complicated, and if they involve exotic ingredients or subscribing to a food plan, can become pretty expensive. Both the USDA and our experts agreed that general moderation and a balance of food groups is the most effective way to achieve long term healthy nutrition.
Goals to get you started
To start eating healthier, just one or two intentional changes can go a long way.
Some great products and services for better nutrition
A healthy mental state helps us cope with the stresses of life, work productively, maintain loving relationships, develop self-confidence, improve physical health, and ultimately live a happy life. But good mental health is not simply the absence of mental illness, just as being in good physical shape is about much more than not being sick. It’s possible to invest in and optimize our mental health and doing so can yield positive effects in every aspect of our lives.
In our survey, 57% of respondents that chose “improve mental wellbeing” as their most important health goal were men. Culturally, when talking about the idea of self-care and mental wellbeing, men aren’t always included. But it’s clear that this aspect of health isn’t a gendered issue. Taking the time to focus on your mental wellbeing on a regular basis is important to everyone’s health.
Addressing your mental wellness doesn’t have to be complicated either. Simple steps like getting more sleep, journaling, disconnecting from electronics, and exercising can make a big difference.
Why is mental health so important?
A positive state of mind will increase motivation, renew your energy, and help you make good choices. It also improves your ability to handle the inevitable stresses of life and maintain positive relationships with those around you.
“[Mental health] affects our emotional, social and psychological well-being; how we deal with others, handle stress and make choices.” – Dr. David GreunerCo-founder of NYC Surgical Associates
Your emotional disposition and outlook will affect how your body feels, too. Fatigue, cravings, irregular appetites, and weakness can all result from a poor mental state. “The mind-body connection is clear,” explains Malaspina. “Our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our biological functioning.”
Goals to get you started
Most people will benefit from simply taking time to practice self care. What exactly self care means to you will be highly personalized. But simply put, give your mental wellness a boost by doing activities that help you feel relaxed and joyful. For some, that could mean spending time in nature (known as shinrin-yoku, or forest therapy). For others, it could be a lively family game night. Whatever helps you feel rejuvenated and balanced.
Setting goals is hard. So it’s no surprise that half of our survey respondents are setting the same health and fitness goals as last year. In our enthusiasm for self-improvement, it’s all too easy to design unattainable goals — e.g. “I want to run a marathon next weekend” or “I want to lose 60lbs by Valentine’s Day” — or keep things too general — e.g. “I want to eat better” or “I want to lose weight.”
While there are a large number of factors that can make reaching health goals difficult, we have some suggestions and a few tips from our experts for setting better goals.
According to the HSS, there are four stages to changing a health behavior:
It can be helpful to journal your progress through these stages as you instill new healthy habits. If you find yourself listing the same goals year after year, take some time to think about why you’ve struggled to reach this goal in the past, and then reflect on how you can change it to set yourself up for success.
Steps to setting better goals
*Make it a habit. Most people can form a habit in about three weeks. This is usually enough time to start experiencing the benefits of your new habit. So instead of setting huge goals for the whole year, try setting incremental goals for one month, three months, six months, etc. Successfully hitting these milestones also motivates us to keep up the habit to hit the next one. *Set SMART goals. SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Use this goal structure to craft an achievable and targeted goal. For example, refine general goals like “lose weight” or “exercise more” into “lose 20 lbs in six months” or “walk for 30 minutes five times a week.” *Track your progress. There are many ways to keep track of how well you’re sticking to a new goal: journal daily, check-off micro-goals, set specific mile-markers, or take photos. Larsen’s a big fan of this last idea, “take a photo of everything you eat during the day. You may think you’re only having a couple of treat meals a week, but photos may show that you’re actually having one or two a day —this way you can monitor that. Taking weekly full-body photos and comparing them each week or month can show you the progress you won’t see on the scale or in the mirror.” *Reward yourself. Whether it’s with a day of rest, a movie out, or a cheat meal. “Reward yourself by feeling proud of yourself,” Malaspina recommends. “The more you feel good and rewarded for your efforts, the more likely you are to repeat your behaviors.”
Here’s what to do to get over soreness after yoga, and what not to do according to experts.
It’s no surprise if you feel a little ache-y after yoga—especially if you’re just getting back into it after some time away or practiced postures you don’t normally do. The reason a good yoga practice can feel so wonderful, after all, is because it can deeply stretch certain muscles that you’re not accessing in your everyday life.
“You may think your muscles are active, but some yoga poses will still stretch them in unfamiliar ways,” says yoga teacher Loren Fishman, MD, medical director of Manhattan Physical Medicine, author of Healing Yoga, and the creator of the Yoga Injury Prevention program. “Muscles can also become sore because they’ve been overused.”
The soreness after yoga you may be experiencing is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which usually occurs 12-48 hours after exercising. The level of soreness you might feel depends what style you’re practicing, how intensely, and how frequently—as well as your individual body type, says Fishman. And even if you’re experienced in your practice, there’s a good chance you might feel sore from time to time. Though yoga is typically a low-impact exercise, it can still put a big strain on your muscles.
“Yoga is filled with eccentric contractions that cause microscopic injuries to the muscle and fascial tissues,” says Erica Yeary, MPH, RYT, an exercise physiologist and a Yoga Medicine registered therapeutic specialist based in Indianapolis, Indiana. “Our bodies produce an inflammatory response to these micro-tears and this causes muscle soreness.”
But, it turns out this muscle soreness is actually a good thing. “Once your muscles recover, you’ll experience muscle growth and improved performance,” says Yeary, ultimately making you stronger.
Of course, if your soreness after yoga is very painful, see a doctor. However, for run-of-the-mill soreness—which means pain is minimal—there are plenty of smart tricks you can try to ease your discomfort.
Here’s what to do—and what to avoid—to cope with muscle pain and soreness after yoga, according to medical and yoga experts.
Drinking water will help the muscles heal after yoga practice.
DO hydrate, then hydrate some more.
Drink water, not sports drinks, says Amy C. Sedgwick, an emergency medicine doctor and Yoga Medicine certified yoga instructor in Portland, Maine. “We want to help increase our blood volume so this fluid can be distributed more easily to the tissues to allow transfer of nutrition, healing cells and flushing out metabolic waste. Hydration is the way that happens.”
DO get plenty of sleep.
Without sleep and rest, your body can’t “gear down” to allow for the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest mode) to be in charge, says Sedgwick. “Without enough sleep, the neuroendocrine system will not prime the body and tissues for repair and relief.”
DON’T down caffeine and energy supplements.
Unless you’re an ultra-endurance athlete, you are not likely depleting your system so much that you need caffeine, energy drinks, or supplements, says Sedgwick. “This only adds unnecessary calories and other substances to a body that simply needs gentle movement, hydration, and rest,” she says.
Exercise is the best way to relieve soreness after yoga, says Sedgwick. In fact, research shows doing the same muscle movements and sequences you did prior to feeling sore—but in a less intense way—can help relax muscle spasms and allow muscles, connective tissue, and joints to find greater range of motion, she adds.
Foam rolling is a great way to reduce muscle tightness after yoga.
DO use a foam roller.
Foam rolling for 20 minutes immediately after working out can reduce tenderness— even if it causes some discomfort, says Yeary. Take it slow and be gentle; you don’t want foam rolling to cause so much pain that it actually makes your soreness worse.
DO eat a balanced meal.
Make sure your post-workout snack or meal includes protein, which repairs and builds muscle, and carbohydrates, which will also speed recovery, says Yeary.
DON’T take anti-inflammatory drugs.
It may seem like a smart idea to pop an aspirin to take the edge off your soreness after yoga, but it’s not the best way to help speed your recovery, says Yeary. “Inflammation is how the body responds to any type of injury,” she says. “In order to properly repair any damaged tissue, you must have inflammation. If you take away that inflammation with a drug you are hindering your body’s natural healing mechanisms.”
DO take a hot bath.
Not only does this feel great, but it actually helps to initiate the parasympathetic nervous system to reduce tension and allow the body to be in a state of healing, says Yeary.
Increase circulation in the body through stretching.
And when you do, be sure to stretch through all planes of motion. This will increase circulation and range of motion while also preventing chronic tension and pain, says Yeary.
DON’T do intense stretching.
Long, static stretches or over-stretching sore muscles can do more harm than good, says Yeary. “The tissues are already slightly damaged and working on healing.” If you over-stretch your muscles and “wring them out” of all their fluids, you reduce their ability to heal and may even damage them in the process, she adds.
DO continue to practice yoga, gently.
One of the absolute best ways to cope with soreness after yoga is to do more yoga, says Fishman. “Concentrate on the areas that hurt and try to gradually relieve tension and tightness,” he says. “Becoming inactive because activity gives you some soreness is a very poor response to your soreness, and is likely to leave you in even more pain the next time you practice.”
Jenni Tarma for Yoga Medicine® discusses what upper hamstring tendinopathy is, what causes it, and how to treat it with a few simple stretches.
A Short Guide For Yoga Teachers
Upper hamstring tendinopathy is among the most common injuries in the yoga community. Whether it’s a yogi who overshot hanumanasana in a public group class or an athletic private client who sprained their hamstring tendon during a sprints workout, it’s fairly safe to bet that as a yoga teacher, a student will approach you with this issue at some point. They’re often in pain and frustrated: the deep, achy sensation under the glute comes and goes with varying intensity. This type of injury is notoriously slow and difficult to heal. And, when severe enough, it can impact even daily activities like walking, standing, and sitting.
While it isn’t within our scope as yoga teacher to diagnose a proximal hamstring tendon sprain or tear, there’s a lot that we can do to help our students with this common issue in a safe manner. Understanding the basic physiology of the healing process will not only enable you to guide your student effectively but also educate your student about the process so that they can participate in it actively and intelligently.
The proximal tendon of the hamstrings. The attachment at the sitting bone, circled here in red, is a common site of injury and irritation.
Proximal Hamstring Tendon Injuries: The Basics
Tendons are made of connective tissue that is composed of two types of fibers: collagen and elastin. Collagen is very tough, while elastin is more elastic. We have many different types of tissue in our bodies, each with a composition designed to fit their particular function. Tendons are not designed to stretch very much, for example. They are therefore mostly composed of collagen with very little elastin.
If the tissue is forced beyond its rather limited capacity to stretch and into a range of motion that it can’t spring back from, it will tear or sprain. As was the case of our Hanuman yogi and sprinter athlete. Damaging the tissue in this manner can be very painful and also reduces the overall tensile strength of the tendon.
The collagen fibers in tendons (and in other tissues) are arranged in a direction that matches the directional load that the tendon is designed to absorb. In a healthy tissue, the fibers are aligned in an orderly manner. This allows them to easily glide past each other. When the tissue is damaged, the body initiates the inflammatory response and a healing process. This process begins to lay down new collagen fibers at the injury site.
Injuries & Scar Tissue
This is where things can start to get messy. From the body’s perspective, an injury is effectively an emergency scenario. The main focus is on crisis control and patching things up quickly. During this period, the orderliness of the fibers is not a priority. The result is collagen fibers that are a cross-linked, multi-directional, bungled mess. That’s what scar tissue is: disorganized, misaligned connective tissue.
The disorganization of the tissue can be problematic for a variety of reasons, but mainly because the cross-linking of the fibers causes scar tissue to adhere to itself and the surrounding tissues. This impedes the repaired tissue’s ability to interface smoothly with the tissues around it, or maybe even to lengthen and stretch in its own limited capacity.
All of this, in turn, limits range of motion, which ironically makes you more likely to reinjure the same area down the line. Without the appropriate intervention, it’s possible to get stuck in a self-fulfilling, chronic cycle of a limited range of motion, tension, injury, inflammation, and fibrosis. With this information in mind, it is clear why it’s crucial to treat a hamstring tendon injury correctly right out of the gate. If we can control and direct the course of the healing process, we can also minimize scar tissue. This will hopefully avoid a lot of hassle, physical pain, and wasted time dealing with reinjury down the line.
The Fine Line Between Healthy Stress and Reinjury
The main goal of any rehab process is to bring the injured tissues’ capacity to handle load back up to a functional level. We want to strengthen them to the point where they can once again withstand the demands of daily activities, yoga practice, and athletic training. We do this by applying stress to the tissue, thereby encouraging it to strengthen in response to that demand.
The word stress tends to have a negative connotation. However, as it pertains to the tissues in our bodies, stress is actually highly productive when applied mindfully and in healthy, manageable doses. The stress of lifting weights is what stimulates muscles to grow stronger to meet similar future demands. The stress of your feet hitting the ground as you run tells your bones and joints to strengthen in response. Our bodies absolutely need stress in order to stay healthy and functional; athletic training of any kind is by definition controlled, systematic application of stress stimulus. In a rehab scenario, we’re using stress in a very moderate, controlled manner to harness and control the strengthening effect it has on our tissues.
With that in mind, how exactly can we nudge the healing process in the right direction and encourage the new collagen fibers to be laid down in an organized, aligned formation? Aside from stimulating the healing process, we also need to stress the tissue in a way that gives it feedback on the direction of the force it needs to handle. This will help determine how the collagen fibers are laid down; ideally, in a neat, tidy orientation rather than the disorganized bungle of scar tissue.
Strengthening: Next Steps
Conventional wisdom states that the initial injury needs complete rest for at least 72 hours. It may need more depending on the severity). This is to ensure it’s no longer actively painful or inflamed. After that, it’s OK to begin some very cautious strengthening exercises. Slow and gentle is the name of the game. We want to apply the tiniest bit of stress to the tissue. This will encourage the fibers to align themselves in an orderly fashion. We want to avoid applying enough stress to reinjure the area.
That pulling sensation under the glute now becomes a helpful tool that lets you know when you’re pushing too hard. Keep in mind that an injured tissue’s ability to handle stress is very much reduced. So triggering the familiar ache is a sure sign that you should take it down a notch. Overshooting the mark actually just creates fresh irritation and keeps the tissue in a chronic state of low-level inflammation.
Beyond the importance of working at a conservative level of intensity that is productive for the student and their injury, also consider the specific loads that we eventually want the upper hamstring tendon to withstand. Since the hamstrings contract concentrically to bend the knee and extend the hip, and also work eccentrically to flex the hip as the knee straightens, it is important to train the muscles’ abilities to engage in these positions. In practice, this means applying stress to the tendon at an intensity that does not trigger fresh irritation or pain.
Start with very small movements in a narrow range of motion. Encourage your student to tune in to the sensations. This will help them avoid pushing into or past the familiar achy sensation. Isometric holds are incredibly useful in this situation. These holds can be fine-tuned to an appropriate level that will yield long-term results. They also have the lowest inflammatory response. In some cases, they can even have an analgesic effect that provides instant (albeit temporary) relief. Most experts recommend aiming for 5 sets of up to 45 seconds of muscle contraction1.
This could be too difficult (and therefore not constructive) of a starting point for many students, in which case, even contractions of 5 to 6 seconds can have a beneficial effect2. As always, your job as the teacher is to be an observer, problem-solver, and guide. Always encourage your student to pay attention to the sensations while you interpret their reaction to your cues. Make appropriate modifications to help them work productively in a manner fitting their context, needs, and limitations. Work in a variety of positions and scenarios, increasing the load and range of motion slowly. Progressing cautiously will not only encourage sustainable progress, but the resulting growth in body awareness will serve your students well to protect them from future injury, too.
To Find Out More
To find out more about the physiology of the healing process, specific poses and techniques to safely strengthen an injured tendon, and ways to maintain range of motion during rehab, consider downloading the Stronger With Yoga: Hamstring Injury Rehab e-book. An additional video bundle of short practices suitable for all phases of the rehab process, from post-injury to long-term maintenance and reinjury prevention, is also available via the Stronger With Yoga website.
Daya Alexander Grant, Ph.D., M.S. for Yoga Medicine® shares some information on concussions – the most common head injury. Learn how yoga can benefit concussion recovery and how to practice safely as you heal.
Yoga for the “Invisible” Injury
“Are there any injuries I should know about?”
Most yoga teachers begin class with some form of this question. The goal is to become aware of any current physical limitations that a student may be experiencing. This is so that the teacher can make the asana practice accessible by offering the appropriate modifications to protect the injury.
Unfortunately, head injuries are rarely acknowledged – either by the teacher or by the student. Most teachers are not very knowledgeable about concussions, and students recovering from one often remain silent since it can be difficult to articulate their symptoms.
With the heightened awareness of concussions in recent years and the benefits of yoga being touted to a larger audience, it is valuable for yoga teachers to learn about this particular injury.
What You Should Know About Concussions
A concussion is defined as a mild traumatic brain injury, but it hardly feels mild for the person experiencing it. Upwards of 3.8 million concussions occur in the U.S. annually1, with the most common causes being sports-related incidents, falls, motor vehicle accidents, and blast injuries (among veterans). A recent study showed that 1 in 5 teenagers reported having at least one concussion2. Every brain is unique and each concussion manifests differently, but common symptoms include headaches, dizziness, insomnia, mood changes (e.g. irritability, sadness, nervousness), sensitivity to light and sound, difficulty with balance, concentration, and memory, and generally feeling like you’re “in a fog”.
Cognitive dysfunction after concussions is due to transient cellular damage, but not destruction. 80-90% of concussion symptoms typically resolve within 7-10 days, although this tends to take longer with younger people and for those who have had multiple concussions. It is important to note that even after symptoms dissipate, the brain may still have microstructural damage which can cause a resurgence of symptoms in stressful or taxing situations. While most students who attend a yoga class will be outside of the acute injury phase, they still may be dealing with repercussions of the injury.
Benefits of Yoga for Concussion
Yoga means “to yoke” or “to unite” the body, mind, and spirit. That intention is precisely what people who have had concussions are seeking. Furthermore, a gentle yoga practice can offer cognitive, physical, and emotional improvements for someone healing from a concussion.
The general consensus in the neurotrauma community is that prolonged restrictions after brain injury (e.g. sitting in a dark room with no sounds) are actually detrimental to recovery. Instead, doctors now advise patients to avoid strenuous physical or mental activities for the initial 24-48 hours after a concussion. After that period, the patient will follow a gradual and personalized return-to-play protocol. The goal is prompt re-engagement in social and physical activities that do not worsen symptoms or put the brain at risk for another injury.
Yoga is an effective way to improve quality of life and reduce symptoms after a concussion. In a recent study that I co-authored, adults with traumatic brain injury (TBI), including concussions, participated in an 8-week pilot yoga program. At the end, participants reported improvements in quality of life and self-perception, as well as a reduction in negative emotions3. The empirical research on yoga for concussions is in its infancy, but several studies focusing on TBI as a whole have demonstrated the benefit of yoga and meditation on information processing and mental fatigue4, attention5, strength and endurance6, and memory7.
Tips for Working with Yogis who are Recovering from a Concussion
As yoga teachers, we can implement three simple practices to encourage a welcoming and healing environment for anyone dealing with a concussion.
Create a safe and peaceful environment where the student can be exactly who they are on that day. Some days, it’s hard to leave your house with a concussion. The world is overwhelming and the simplest tasks can be exhausting. Attending a yoga class may be the one activity they do that day. So it is important to make it a positive and supportive space as much as possible.
Emphasize the Breath
We’ve all experienced the benefits of a deep breath. But sometimes it’s easy to forget how powerful that tool is amidst the chaos of daily life. Anyone with a concussion will benefit from conscious breathing – specifically, slow, deep ujjayi breaths. Not only will the breath bring their mind in to the present moment and benefit them physiologically during practice, but it will also help them deal with the overstimulation and intense emotions they’re experiencing off the mat.
Keep it Simple
A concussed brain processes information slower, since the myelin (insulation around the neurons’ axons), which is responsible for fast signal transmission, is damaged. Therefore, it’s important to keep instruction to a minimum. Too many words are difficult for anyone to follow, especially someone who has had a brain injury. While alignment is always important, choose your cues mindfully so as not to distract from the goal of helping your students turn their attention inward.
Yoga is designed to meet people exactly where they are on any given day. Let’s keep that in mind as we work with students who have had concussions, since every day is different. As yoga teachers, we have the honor of giving everyone the tools to re-connect their body, mind, and spirit – which, after a concussion, can feel like a daunting task.
Citation #1 Daneshvar DH, Nowinski CJ, McKee A, & Cantu RC (2011). The epidemiology of sport-related concussion. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 30(1): 1–17. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1016/j.csm.2010.08.006
Citation #2 Veliz P, McCabe SE, Eckner JT, Schulenberg JE (2017). Prevalence of concussion among US adolescents and correlated factors. JAMA, 318(12):1180–1182. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2017.9087
Citation #3 Donnelly KZ, Linnea K, Grant DA & Lichtenstein J (2017). The feasibility and impact of a yoga pilot programme on the quality-of-life of adults with acquired brain injury, Brain Injury, 31(2): 208-214. DOI: 10.1080/02699052.2016.1225988
Citation #4 Johansson B, Bjuhr H & Rönnbäck L (2012). Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) improves long-term mental fatigue after stroke or traumatic brain injury, Brain Injury, 26(13-14): 1621-1628. DOI: 10.3109/02699052.2012.700082
Citation #5 Cole MA, Muir JJ, Gans JJ, Shin LM, D’Esposito M, Harel BT, Schembri A (2015). Simultaneous treatment of neurocognitive and psychiatric symptoms in veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and history of mild traumatic brain injury: A pilot study of mindfulness-based stress reduction, Military Medicine, 180(9): 956–963. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7205/MILMED-D-14-00581
Citation #6 Schmid AA, DeBaun-Sprague E, Gilles AM, Maguire JM, Mueller AL, Miller KK, Van Puymbroeck M, and Schalk N (2015). Yoga influences recovery during inpatient rehabilitation: A pilot study, International Journal of Yoga Therapy, 25(1): 141-152.
Citation #7 Azulay J, Smart CM, Mott T, Cicerone KD. A pilot study examining the effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction on symptoms of chronic mild traumatic brain injury/postconcussive syndrome. J Head Trauma Rehabil. 2013 Jul-Aug;28(4):323-31. DOI: 10.1097/HTR.0b013e318250ebda
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