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Blog

 

 

Hanumanasana (for people not flexible enough to do the splits)

Olivia Marley

We've been looking at hanumanasana or the splits a bit in class recently. This is one of the few postures where I think using the English name of the pose can sometimes put people at a disadvantage: everyone has seen gymnasts or dancers on the TV doing the splits, so think that's what this posture should look like. And since most people aren't ex-gymnasts, that means for a lot of people:

  • the splits immediately feels unobtainable and they tell themselves they already know they can't do it
  • they focus on the mental picture they have of what the splits should look like, and feel defeated/ disappointed/ annoyed when their body doesn't match it 
  • because of the above, they never actually work on this posture so miss out on all the benefits it brings (loads of hip and lower body opening, plus a feeling of empowerment once you reach your arms up for the full posture)
  • their mental image of the splits is so dominant they don't listen to their body and force it into shapes it's not ready for, even if that's something they'd never dream of doing in other postures.

Basically, this posture can definitely bring up some stuff for people! So instead of working on 'the splits' we've been working on optimal alignment in 'hanumanasana' (aka posture dedicated to Hanuman). And more specifically, 'hanumanasana for people that aren't flexible enough to do the splits'. 

If you had to pick just two postures to warm up for hanumanasana it's got to be the first two of these photos: anjaneyasana or low lunge, and ardha hanumanasana or half splits. They warm up the back leg and front leg respectively. 

In low lunge (picture 1): as you inhale think upper body tall. As you exhale lift lower belly muscles strongly in and up (that will help you get a more effective stretch in the front of your back leg hip). Notice how your pelvis twists a little towards your back leg. And resist that by bringing your back hip (which in the photo is my left) a little forwards. After a few breaths see if you can lunge deeper on an exhale. 

In ardha hanumanasana (picture 2): rather than rounding through your upper back to get your chest towards your leg, instead push your front heel straight down into the floor. Then isometrically (ie without actually moving it) drag your front heel towards you. Pull your front (here, my right) hip back and move your back hip a little forwards, and stick your tailbone out behind you. 

Then try sliding your front heel forwards until it can't go any further (picture 3). This is often where people stop when working with hanumanasana. Notice if all of the sensation is in your front leg hamstrings, with very little feeling in your back leg. If so, know that this posture is about your front and back leg equally. 

To shift some of the demand into your back leg, try bending your front knee and letting your hips drop a little lower towards the floor (picture 4). Then maybe you will also feel a stretch in the front of your back leg hip. Take a breath or two there then see if that has created space for you to slide your front heel a little further forwards. Keep on cueing yourself to draw your front hip a little bit back and your back hip forwards - don't let your pelvis twist towards your back leg. As with every other yoga posture, don't sacrifice the integrity of the pose (ie keeping your hips square) for range of motion (aka taking your legs further apart). 

Once you've reached your limit, grab some support and place it under the top of your front thigh (so not under your bum, under the top of your hamstrings). I've used a block (in the picture at the top of this blog post) but you can use whatever you have to hand to give you as much height as you need. So maybe a bolster, or a pyramid of 3 bolsters stacked on top of each other; a stack of books, one or many firm pillows. Whatever works! Whatever it is, make sure it's stable. Then walk your arms back in towards you and reach them up to the sky. Take a few breaths here: feel your front leg, feel your back leg, and feel upper body reaching up through centre. Then bring your hands to the floor, wriggle out of the posture, and repeat on the second side. 

And ask if you have any questions! 🙏🏼✌🏼

Simple sequence for a stiff lower back

Olivia Marley

I had a question this week from someone that said they often felt stiff and tight in the muscles on either side of their back. I'll preface this with saying: if you have back pain, go see a doctor/ osteopath/ chiropractor etc. But if you just want to move your spine a bit more and stretch out some of the muscles in the back of your torso this is a great little sequence. It may help improve flexibility in the backs of your legs too, which can also be good for back discomfort. Remember: be gentle. Don't force anything! 😎

1. Sit on the floor with your legs out straight in front of you. Take your hand to your lower back: if you can feel your vertebrae sticking out (instead of your lower back having its natural inward curve) sit up on a block/ couple of books/ folded up towel/ something like that. If you still can't sit up straight bend your knees until you can. 

Leave your right leg where it is. Bend your left knee and step your left foot to the outside of your right thigh. Put your left fingertips on the floor behind you. As you inhale push down into your left hand and sit up tall. As you exhale turn towards your top knee and either cradle it with your right arm or put your right elbow on the outside of that knee. For your next five (slow!) breaths: each time you inhale sit taller. Each time you exhale turn a bit more towards your top knee. 

TIP: notice how it's easy to sit tall through the left side of your torso by pushing down into your back hand. See if you can also create the same amount of lift through the other side of your torso. 

2. As you inhale release the twist and face forward again. Bring your left foot back to its own side of your bottom leg. Keep your left knee bent but this time let your knee fall out to the side. If it doesn't reach the ground support it with a pillow or rolled up towel. Turn your chest to face towards your left knee and place the back of your right hand on top of your right leg. Keep facing towards your bent leg and as you inhale sweep your left arm up alongside your ear; as you exhale bend sideways towards your extended leg. Take five slow breaths here. 

TIP: notice how your top shoulder wants to drop forwards so your chest turns down towards the floor. Try to resist the temptation to do that; instead back out of the posture a little and turn your chest more up to the ceiling. Lean your top shoulder a little bit back. You might not be able to reach your top arm so far but the stretch will be more in the side of your body (which is what we're trying to target here!). 

3. As you inhale, lead with your top arm to come all the way back up. Keep your legs where they are but this time turn your chest to face towards your extended (right) leg. Again, remember that slightly bending that leg may help you sit up taller. Place your finger tips either side of that extended leg. As you inhale sit tall; as you exhale turn more towards that leg and fold (= yoga jargon for lean your chest down towards your leg!). Hold for five slow breaths. As you next inhale sit all the way up again, and repeat the whole sequence on the other side. 

As always, let me know if any comments or questions! 🙏🏼♥️

What 'taking yoga off the mat' actually means (to me!)

Olivia Marley

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*This post first appeared on Elephant Journal

Everyone that practices yoga probably has a different idea of what taking their practice off their mat and into the rest of their lives means. So this is simply my personal experience of just one of the ways time spent on my yoga mat has affected the rest of my life (which is why the title ends with (to me!)).

Most of the classes I teach—and probably lots of the classes you attend—start off pretty slowly with some gentle floor-based movements to start opening up the body and to bring people’s attention to both how their body is feeling and to the rhythm of their breathing. The physical movements then gradually build in demand and intensity until they reach a certain most challenging point, before we begin to wind down again toward relaxation at the end of class.

I’ll cue my students to inhale and exhale in time with certain movements, and also to notice what’s happening with their breath at certain points in the class.

I ask my students to establish a steady, calm rhythm of breath at the beginning of class when they are lying still. Then, I’ll begin to challenge them by bringing in some simple movements. And then challenge them to keep the rhythm of their breath with some more demanding movements. And then challenge them further with even more demanding movements.

This, for me, is key to one of the wider benefits of modern asana classes.

Yoga classes are often structured this way for a number of reasons, such as gradually warming up the body so it’s ready for more demanding postures and teaching students what they need to do in more accessible poses before asking them to try harder movements. But in using that structure, I’m also trying to teach them the skill of keeping their breathing calm, steady, and focused in progressively more challenging situations.

If we can keep taking deep calming breaths even when asked to do something unfamiliar, daunting, or stressful on our yoga mats, imagine how that might help us next time we go for a job interview. Or can’t get our baby to stop crying and go to sleep. Or have to make a big presentation at work.

I used this technique when I went for a job interview recently. Admittedly, since I’ve been teaching yoga, interviews are a world away from the ones I used to go to with law firms. But they can be nerve-wracking nonetheless - you’re still going to be asked questions by someone you’d like to impress, and you still want to sound like you know what you’re talking about!

I made sure to get there a little early to have time to run to the bathroom before it started. In doing so, I gave myself a little space to let go of my journey there and take a few slightly deeper breaths. I took a couple of minutes to find a slow, steady rhythm of breathing and made sure I could maintain that before I went back outside.

Once the interview had begun, I consciously went back to that same unhurried breath whenever it wasn’t my turn to speak. Calmer breathing allowed me to stay focused, which helped me think on my feet better and give more concise and informative answers (I got the job!).

Calm, focused breathing in challenging situations. That’s got to be a skill worth taking off your yoga mat, right?