Today I’m sharing the 3 yoga postures and stretches that have supported me in building the most strength and flexibility, and, subsequently, a sense of release, openness, and space. While these poses and stretches offer benefits for a wide array of practitioners, they may particularly resonate with runners and cyclists…keep reading!
If you were looking for advanced inversions, ultra-deep backbends, or complicated arm balances, then you’ve landed on the wrong blog post! As fun and rewarding as those families of poses can be, always pause to ask yourself Why? Remember there is infinite potential in simplicity.
One of my main motivations for daily asana practice stems from a spiritual desire, and downright physical need, to create space, not only in my mind, but in my tightly wound muscles. Running has always been one of my life’s main passions since childhood, and even at times when I don’t necessarily “love” it, it’s a key cornerstone of my overall wellness regimen. Running is a good activity for me, because it helps me to fulfill my cardio requirements. Many yogis can meet their cardio requirements on the mat, but the way I practice asana, I don’t necessarily. When I flow through my home asana practice, I’m not hitting as many chaturangas, jump-backs, and updogs as I might in a faster-paced studio class, since I’m trying to save my wrists and rotator cuffs for a lifetime of practice. My home practice is a much more grounding experience—it’s alignment focused, with long holds, pranayama, meditation, and journaling. My eyes are shut for a lot of it! It’s a drawing in of energy, rather than a “sweating it out” which I love to do from time to time while connecting with friends in the yoga community at a public class. This being my current reality, I need running in my life to meet my cardio needs.
Do you know what happens to some bodies (not all!, just speaking from my own experience here) after a lifetime of running? Let’s call it a “hyper-awareness” -teeheehee- of one’s hamstrings and hip flexors. Not to mention I cycle anywhere in SF whenever I know I’m heading somewhere where parking my car will prove virtually impossible. Thus, the cycling further compounds the stress in my hamstrings and hip flexors AND it adds in a nice case of rounding in the thoracic spine (on top of the beloved time I spend blogging on my computer and sharing yoga pics on the ‘gram)! All of these activities are inherently beneficial, fulfilling, and healthful on their own, but together they create quite the recipe for a need for opening, lengthening, and release on the yoga mat.
The beauty of my three most transformational yoga poses and fave stretches? They. Are. So. Simple. AND. You can modify all of them with variations or props. Here we go:
SIMPLE SHOULDER AND UPPER THORACIC OPENERS
For some it can be a real challenge to interlace the fingers at the lower back, so you can always grab a yoga strap, your dog’s leash, or a belt at home! If you’ve comfortably got the fingers interlaced, you can go for a deeper opening by beginning to press the palms towards each other.
There are many benefits to practicing the same clasp, but with the fingers interlaced overhead. It’s a great place to allow the upward rotation of the shoulder blades, while firming the outer upper arms in, and allowing the tops of shoulders to relax away from the ears. Breathe into the space between ears and biceps. You’re not alone if your ribs poke forward as soon as you send the arms overhead, in which case, soften your front ribs in. Lengthen your tailbone as you lift the frontal hip points. Lower belly engages as a result. Take deep breaths as you lengthen up through both sides of the waist. Simple movements, but infinitely beneficial!
There’s a little bit more going on here if you go with gomukhasana (cow face) arms. Here you’ll work the inward rotation of the arm that’s down while allowing the outer edge of the shoulder blade to rotate down as well. With the arm that’s up, you’ll work external rotation of the upper arm (create space between neck and left bicep) while allowing the outer edge of the shoulder blade to rotate upwards. This one can be done standing or in a seated posture like virasana or sukhasana. Whatever you choose, soften your front ribs! Keep the chin level to the earth, and don’t forget to breathe. Strap / belt is fair game for this one, too.
It took me years to touch the palms of my hands together behind my back. When it happened, I didn’t win the lottery, balloons didn’t come out of the ceiling, and Oprah didn’t come out from stage left to let me know I was getting a car. I touched my palms behind my back because I spent years doing the aforementioned stretches, and this is what happened next. Choose variations that support a steady breath in, and a steady breath out. If the breath gets ragged or strained, you’re probably doing something nonessential to what you need right now. If you are indeed working on reverse namaste, send the arms wide like wings, and then rotate the palms so they face the back of the room / behind you. Thumbs point down. Then bend elbows, fingertips touch, and begin shimmying the fingers and palms together. Again, soften the front ribs in. The steady breath is most important.
DANCER’S POSE, natarajasana
Dancer’s pose is like the runner-cyclist’s dream combo pack. You’re getting a lot of bang for your buck here. I do a lot of Virabhadrasana (Warrior) 3 before this pose to access the hamstrings of the standing leg. Meanwhile I’m also doing a lot of low lunges with the back knee down to begin lengthening the iliopsoas (in this photo, it would be with the intention of lengthening the psoas of my lifted leg). Next time you hear a bunch of runners carrying on about their psoas (you will), know that it’s two muscles—the iliacus and the psoas major and they work together in conjunction with other muscles to flex powerfully at the hip joint (ie, knee comes towards the chest). Now you’re all set with that tidbit for the next time you’re on Jeopardy.
So far, it’s obvious how natarajasana is benefitting the hamstrings of the standing leg and the iliopsoas of the lifted leg, but it doesn’t stop there. Notice the grip of the top hand on the foot? Thumb points in the same direction of the toes, so you’re actually gripping the inner arch of the lifted foot, and in no time you’ll be feeling the shoulder stretch.
And did I mention this pose is secretly a backbend? Maintain tone in the lower belly to protect the lower back. Coil the sternum towards the chin and take deep breaths across the front of the chest. This pose helps to cultivate luscious thoracic extension to counterbalance those long bike rides.
BOOM. Combo pack.
If the grip is awkward or uncomfortable, of course it’s totally fine to hold the outer edge of the lifted foot. Staying upright with the one arm extended overhead and the other hand holding the lifted foot is also hugely beneficial in teaching yourself to lengthen your tailbone down, lift the frontal hip points, and draw the front ribs in. You don’t have to hinge all the way into it to get opening out of this pose.
BOAT POSE VARIATION, navasana
Pictured here is one of my favorite variations on boat pose, and I send my apologies in realizing that I don’t have any of my own photos in “traditional” boat pose! I looked everywhere! (Check out Google for images of the more traditional variations of boat pose.) What you see in the actual pose is balancing on the sit bones, shins parallel to the earth, or begin to straighten both legs, and the body ends up balancing in a V-shape. After those two versions, I like to place the palms down on the mat, prop up onto my fingertips, and lift the sitting bones, which couples the hip flexor work in concert with your lower abs and tops of the thighs (though note that only one of your quads is a hip flexor, in case that ever comes up at your next trivia night).
I always thought boat pose would be a piece of cake for me. After all, I’ve got these tight hip flexors! Shouldn’t it be easy to… well… flex at my hip joint? Not necessarily—remember that a tight muscle doesn’t mean it’s a strong muscle. My hip flexors are only as strong to the point where I flex them in my running stride, and my thighs aren’t coming nearly as close to my torso when I’m running as they need to in navasana. Boat pose is a wonderful hip flexor strengthener, which is important in addition to stretching out this region, like in dancer pose, above.
Which of these practices do you think would benefit your well-being the most? Is there a particular region of your body or muscle group that is currently a challenge in your practice? Do you possess any lesser known anatomy trivia? Teach me! Let’s swap wisdom in the comments below! Happy practicing!