In yoga, there is a common tendency to think in terms of flexibility, and how that affects our yoga practice. However, the inability to engage a muscle effectively plays an equally important role in our practice, and there needs to be a good balance between the two. Consider the hamstrings, a muscle group often associated with being overly tight—the source of the tightness may not be a lack of stretching, but rather related to the relationship of activation in the gluteal muscles.
The hamstrings and the glutes both work to extend the hip. The glutes are really powerful muscles that are supposed to be used every time we walk when we extend our leg behind us, but if our glutes aren’t working properly, then our hamstrings will be working too much. So you can stretch your hamstrings every day as much as you want, but if every time you walk, you’re overusing the hamstrings, they won’t stretch out, they’re going to get tight.
When thinking about how to most optimally stretch your hamstrings, it’s important to consider this overuse factor. Strengthening the glutes and learning how to use the glutes in asana and yoga practice helps you learn how to use the glutes in your everyday life. That will lessen the overstimulation of the hamstrings, and then you can actually stretch them more effectively.
Try this self-check activity for engaging the glutes: Place your hand on your right gluteal muscle, and take a step forward with the right leg. As you land your weight on that leg and transfer your weight overtop the right foot, purposely engage the gluteal muscle and see if you can feel the contraction of the muscle. Continue through the step, still engaging the glute and see if you can sense the contraction through the push off phase of the step (when the right leg is back). Then do this activity on the left side. If you notice a deficiency of activation, practice this activity until it become automatic.
Also practice engaging the glutes during yoga poses such as Bridge Pose, Warrior I (on the back leg), Locust Pose. These poses are helpful in building the strength in this muscle.
Whether in yoga or simply standing and waiting, many of us have a habit of locking our knees. This is also referred to as hyperextending the knee joints, which is essentially pushing the knees back so far it reaches the end limit of the joint’s range of motion. Pushing the knee joint to this limit can place strain on the ligaments, tendons, and can also wear down the edges of the cartilage. Yet, when we lock our knees, there isn’t any pain, and in fact it feels effortless. This is because the damage to cause pain happens slowly overtime, and locking a joint actually requires less energy since there is less activation in the muscles than neutral posture – essentially we are riding on the structures of the joint to hold the position.
Locking the knees extends to a bigger picture of negatively affecting the whole body’s posture. When one area of the body is forced to an extreme, somewhere else in the body shifts to compensate to bring the balance back. When a person locks their knees in standing, this often forces the pelvis and spine to shift in posture. The image below shows two postural types that occur with locked knees: sway back posture and hyper-lordosis. Both can cause pain in the back (and neck) and eventually cause stress to the structures of the spine.
Unfortunately, locking the knees and the subsequent postural accommodations don’t just show themselves in standing still, they transfer to all our movements and activities, such as our yoga postures. Some commonly affected yoga postures are Triangle pose (Trikonasana) and the standing balance poses such as Tree (Vrksasana), and Dancer (Natarajasana) – see images below. By locking the knees in these postures, our alignment and safety is affected through the spine.
A Yoga Practice to Bring Awareness to Unlocking the Knees
Yoga provides us with a discipline from which we can learn to correct this habit and improve our posture. To bring more awareness to how we posture our knees start by practicing how you stand in Mountain Pose (Tadasana). In Mountain Pose, create a solid foundation in your feet: posture your feet straight ahead and ground evenly on all four corners of the foot. From your feet bring awareness to the posture of our knees, and if you feel them locked, practice generating a little give, or softness, to the joint (not bending, the legs still remain fairly straight). Then from the neutral knee posture notice how this affects your posture all the way up as you lift and lengthen.
Then choose a standing balance posture from which you can practice holding the knees in good posture, e.g. Tree or Warrior III (image above). As you challenge yourself on one leg you may realize that it’s not enough to feel softness at the knee joint, but also necessary to generate a sense of engagement of the posterior knee muscles to prevent the joint from pressing back.
Then practice Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasa) with the focus on the front leg and the posture of the knee. As you enter the pose, find your base by grounding evenly and firmly through all sides of the front foot and gentle press the big toe mound into the ground. From there, feel the line of activation that travels up the back of the leg to behind the knee. You are aiming to have the front knee straight without locking, and see if you can sense the engagement in the posterior knee muscles at the same time. This pose is especially good because the posterior leg muscles are stretching, but we practice activating them in this lengthened position.
The other day, some participants in class were wondering how they could relieve the soreness and tension that they seem to always have in the area running from their neck to their shoulders, sometimes referred to as the area the “upper traps.” This area is a common area of discomfort; it is known for its tendency to be sore after long durations of working at our computers or during times of stress as we might unconsciously clench or shrug our shoulders. When this area gets over-stressed or tightened up, it can cause neck and upper back pain, headaches, jaw pain, and dysfunctional shoulder motion and impingement. To relieve these symptoms, certain yoga postures can be a great help, but first we have to consider the two main reasons this area is so often problematic: poor posture and over clenching in this area.
The area of the upper traps is just the top portion of the large, diamond shaped muscle known as the trapezius (image below). Each section (upper, middle, and lower) serve different actions/functions. The upper fibers of the muscle help in the shrugging (elevation) action of the shoulders and serves a role in keeping the head and neck in position during our daily activities. The upper traps are often overworked when we stay in a forward flexed/forward head-jutting posture for long periods, such as when we are working at the computer or looking down at our devices for extended periods of time. Consider the basic physics of the matter… your head is like a 10 pound weight at the end of your neck. When it leans forward, those stabilizing muscles in the posterior neck are working much, much harder than when your head rests vertically in relationship to gravity. Common sense tells us to try to sit straighter and limit forward jutting of the head to minimize the discomfort on our upper trap area.
However, posture correction is not as simple as don’t poke your head forward (*). To correct it, we need to consider what’s happening below the neck and check our alignment of the whole spine. I like to think of it as working from base up, and the base is our pelvis. If your pelvis is tilted out of neutral posture, the entire length of the spine accommodates for this alignment. In sitting, it is common to tilt the pelvis posteriorly (see image below) and this takes the lumbar spine (low back region) out of its natural curvature of being slightly arched inwards into a flattened posture. When the low back arch is flattened out, our neck posture has no chance of proper correction. This is especially significant in yoga since we sit on the ground. Sitting low often causes a posterior tilting in the pelvis because many individuals have tight hip and leg muscles (or hip and knee joint issues) which limit their ability to move their hips in deep flexion and external rotation. With these motions being limited, sitting cross-legged becomes straining, and other areas compensate to manage the posture – namely the pelvis tilts in response to the pull of these forces. This is why yoga teachers encourage placing a lift under your seat to ease the tension through the tight hip/leg muscles pulling at the pelvis. It may not be perfect but adjusting your seat surface a little higher to encourage a more neutral pelvis and low back posturing can be a huge piece in correcting your neck pain.
The thoracic (middle back) segment of the spine can be just as much of a hindrance in supporting our neck posture. Individuals tend to collapse through their mid backs in sitting, often viewed as a rounded or hunched back posture. This posture is so common because it requires very little energy to sit this way – the postural, support muscles get to take a break and the spine slumps in response to gravity. Then the neck posture compensates in response, and the upper traps get overworked to hold the head in place this way. In yoga we regularly cue to lengthen the spine in our poses. Not only is this a really important way to create space between the vertebrae of the spine (which is good to prevent collapsing and compression of the spine in poses), but it is the key to adjusting posture through the mid back. I encourage my students to feel the lift upwards coming from the top of their breast bone (the manubrium), which creates a lengthening in the thoracic spine. This simple action creates a more vertical head/neck alignment. So yes, it takes a bit of effort to sit up straight – but it’s worth it!
Outside of spinal posture, the other main reason for pain and tension in the upper traps is if you have a habit of being an over-shrugger. The upper trapezius is one the main muscles which elevates the shoulders upwards (the other being the levator scapulae). Tensing or shrugging the shoulders is one of those conditioned responses to stress for many people. A certain thought, an uncomfortable situation can result in the shrug and people don’t even realize they are constantly, habitually clenching this area, and eventually this causes stiffness and pain.
To undo the effects of over-shrugging and train yourself out of this unconscious habit, It’s not enough to stretch these muscles. Instead consider doing the opposite motion to release the tension from the shrug. The opposite motion is lowering the shoulders down, known as depression, and this is done by activating the lower fibers of the trapezius muscle, which moves the shoulder blades down the back and lowers the shoulders. Also, activating the lower portion of the trapezius sends a reciprocal signal to the upper traps to release and stretch. (To get a better sense of the muscles involved in elevating and depressing the shoulders, click here for a short video animation).
Returning to posture, in order for this technique of shoulder depression to be effective, it’s really important that our spinal posture is in check. For example if you are sitting slouched and move your shoulders downwards, the shoulders might pull forward by the chest muscles and the lower traps won’t get activated, which is required for the upper traps to release.
The way I describe the correct technique in class is to first sit or stand tall, lift through the top of the breast bone, draw shoulders slightly back, and then lower the shoulders downwards –feeling shoulder blades move slightly together and down the back towards the hips. This will create an open spacious feeling from tops of shoulders to ears. (Note, you don’t have to do this motion with all your might, just a little bit of activation in this direction is sufficient). Then this technique can be applied to more complex motions and postures, such as your yoga poses. Cobra and Warrior II are a couple of my favourites to practice this. With practice your mid back muscles will strengthen, and the new, lowered shoulder posture will become more automatic.
Anytime we are trying to create change in our bodies, it requires awareness of our habits and plenty of practice before the new way sets in. To minimize upper trap pain, take advantage of your yoga classes to learn how to adjust your posture for more lift and neutrality in the spine, and then apply the practice of activating the lower trapezius muscle to release the shoulders down during the poses. In time you will feel your shoulder rest easier and the upper trap pains disappear.
*It is important to remember that your computer and chair set up can be the source of your postural problems. For instance if your monitor is too low, your body will compensate in posture to get an adequate eye line and vision to the screen and in this case no amount of knowledge of the spine will help. It’s equally as important to adjust your workstation.
Traditional Pigeon Pose (below) is known for how it stretches into the posterior and lateral muscles of the hip (the buttock muscles). Many people source Pigeon Pose as a remedy for sciatic pain since it can specifically stretch the Piriformis muscle, which when tight, can compress on the sciatic nerve. As effective as pigeon pose is for this, ask any yoga teacher and you will learn that many people can’t do pigeon pose comfortably or safely for reasons such as knee or ankle compression. As a popular alternative, many teachers advise trying Supine (back lying) Pigeon, sometimes known as Eye of the Needle Pose in yoga, (which also goes by Figure 4 Stretch outside of the yoga world). This pose is a popular favourite among individuals who want to feel a therapeutic stretch into the buttocks without the compression that comes with full Pigeon Pose.
As with traditional Pigeon Pose, the supine version of Pigeon has options and modifications to choose from. Depending on where you hope to focus the stretch, and other factors such as your own personal anatomy, flexibility, or comfort can can influence the version you choose. I always like to remind my students that it’s not a matter of “right or wrong”, but, rather of asking yourself, “Is this pose meeting my intention?” Once you are knowledgeable in how to modify pigeon pose, you can choose the version best suited for you.
The most common way to teach Supine Pigeon Pose is it is with the hands threading the space between the legs, as shown in these next images. You can either hold onto the back of the thigh or over top of the knee depending on your flexibility and preference.
Holding the thigh with the hands serves a purpose of anchoring the pose in place with less effort in the hips, and you can easily deepen the sensation by drawing the leg in with the hands. However, there are some limitations with this threading version because it forces the top knee to be pressed more out to the side (external rotation of the hip⸻discussed more below), and for some of us, our arm length to hip mobility ratio may restrict our ability to comfortably reach the leg. When a person is unable to bring the legs in very far and/or their arm length is insufficient to comfortably reach through the legs without strain, then I suggest these next variations.
The above images show how Supine Pigeon can be done with the foot on the wall. Here, the closer your seat is to the wall, the shorter the angle and the deeper the stretch, so I recommend starting with a 90 degree angle in the supporting leg and moving your seat closer or further from the wall depending on comfort. In the wall version, it is also really easy to highlight how the angle of the hip creates a different effect on where you feel the stretch. When we push the knee more out to the side (top left) it focuses the stretch into the lateral hip muscles and groin more which are internal/medial rotators of the hip, e.g. tensor fasciae latae and the abductors. However, if you are aiming to get deeper into the Piriformis muscle, angling the knee in towards you more (top right) will give you a better stretch on the Piriformis muscle which is one of the external/lateral rotators of the hip.It’s important to remember there is no right or wrong here…Be playful with the angle, being careful with joint pain of the hip or knee⸻ a small shift in angle will simply highlight the stretch in different muscles of the buttocks and hips.
In this next image I demonstrate a rotation slightly off to the side with the foot of the supporting leg on the wall rolled to the outer edge. This will angle the knee even more across the body, and for me, this stretch really deepens the sensation into the posterior gluteals (Piriformis).
Sometimes when you don’t have a wall and the threading version with your hands isn’t working, you could try this next version instead.
Here I am demonstrating you can hold the knee and foot of the side you are stretching. What I like about this is the opposite leg is assisting the hold lightly while the hands deepen the experience and can direct the angle based on your needs and preferences, and there is less reach required by the arms. I personally find this one very effective.
Hopefully this article on Supine Pigeon Pose gives you a better understanding of the range of options outside of traditional Pigeon Pose. I encourage you to step outside the thinking of doing a pose based on how it “should” look, and instead find a version and creative technique that works just right in your body while still supplying the stretch you need to the muscles you intend.
One of the things I love most about yoga is how it can meet our needs moment to moment. Sometimes we need energy and strength, while other times we need stretch or restoration. The fun thing is some postures can do all the above depending on how you approach them. I can think of no better pose to explore this than bridge pose. In bridge pose you can have a range of experiences depending on the variation you choose.
Generally speaking, bridge pose, in its active variation, is a strengthening and energizing posture. Just after my first baby was born, I chose bridge pose as my first strengthening pose to do. I recall how wobbly my legs felt as I attempted to lift my hips off the ground; I remember thinking to myself, “Oh man, have I ever lost a lot of strength!” From this first attempt, I continued to practice bridge daily. By the second week I was back to my regular hip lifting height and I no longer felt weakness in my legs and hips as I held the pose longer and longer. As I began to engage the pose in more of a chest opening posture, I felt my posture improve and my breath deepen, bringing more energy into my body. This experience made me truly appreciate how this pose has great strength building potential and is fantastic for beginners as it allows for you to decide how high and how long you lift for.
Below is an info-graphic showing the technique and benefits of the active variation of bridge pose. It is important to note you can start with a lower lift of the hips off of the ground than shown. Also, you can completely leave out clasping the hands under the body (resting arms on the ground). The practice of tucking the shoulders underneath the body and squeezing the shoulder blades together facilitates a lift of the chest with the pose and engages many more back muscles, making the experience deeper and more complex. When first learning it helps to start with the hip lifting aspect of the pose, and later build on this piece.
People often ask me if they should activate their abdominal muscles in bridge, and I tell them “It depends…” You can do it both ways depending on your goal of the pose and any back conditions you may have. Generally speaking, when you tighten or activate the abdominal muscles it makes the pose feel more stable in the lumbar (low back) region. If you are one of those people who has tight hip flexors muscles you may be prone to over-extending the low back, and in this case it will likely help to engage the abdominals when lifting into bridge which can essentially help ‘lock’ the low back into position and will most likely feel better if you have this condition. However, for some people, it is possible that going into more extension in the back will feel helpful, especially if they tend to be in postures which flatten out the low back a lot. So by relaxing the abdomen and really emphasizing the contraction of the gluteal and back extensor muscles they can increase the back arch and this can feel therapeutic. Often I recommend trying both ways to sense what feels better in your body to know which way to go.
These next images (below) demonstrate variations of bridge pose which provide support with props, and with this support, comes a whole different experience to the posture. Supporting bridge pose makes it passive rather than active, and therefore it is no longer a strengthening posture; instead it becomes restorative. When placing the props underneath the sacrum (the lowest portion of the spine just above the tail bone), the props create a gentle stretch into the front of the hips and a light traction of the low back. From here you can work on relaxing the support muscles of the pose and in this way we can experience the shape and stretch of the pose without the effort, allowing our bodies to rest and release tension. In addition, when using the foam block you can also experience a light acupressure sensation against the sacrum region and that can sometimes help reduce back pain.
I have had some yoga clients in class tell me they felt so relaxed in this posture, but didn’t know why. The reason is likely because supported bridge pose is also a gentle inversion and inversions have a calming effect on the body. When the lower body is elevated from the upper body, gravity’s pull of blood towards our hearts and heads toggles our nervous systems to turn off the sympathetic “flight or fight” stress response while turning on the parasympathetic “rest and digest” response. This happens in a complicated feedback loop that starts when blood pressure accumulates in the aortic arch above the heart and the carotid arteries in the neck. The final result is reduced heart rate, reduced blood pressure, a breakdown of the stress hormones in the body (cortisol and adrenaline), and a quieting of the “chatterbox” centers within the brain itself which is hugely beneficial when we are feeling stressed and anxious.
The next image below shows a fully inverted version of supported bridge pose which helps to heighten the inversion effects. It is also different in that it focuses on opening the front body more at the chest level, extending mid/upper back. For some this feels like a really big opening experience so using a height that is lower than the bolster shown in the image (e.g. a rolled blanked) might be a way to try in the beginning.
Bridge pose is full of experiences and what I have highlighted here just scratches the surface of the myriad of ways it can be altered for varying effects. Hopefully this provides you with enough information to get exploring how bridge pose can benefit you.
For a free printable of the info-graphic shown above link here: bridge pose.pdf
I recently had abdominal surgery and with that the nurses give you a host of recommendations for post op recovery and health. One of those recommendations tweaked my yoga brain. They advised me to regularly take deep breaths and cough after surgery. I found out this advice is given to help prevent individuals from getting pneumonia, a common side effect after general anesthesia and abdominal surgery. (The concern being that the pain from the surgical area prevents people from taking deep breaths and this reduces air flow into the lower lungs, sometimes causing collapsed lung tissue, which is then susceptible to the buildup of bacteria, leading to pneumonia).
I always appreciate preventative health measures, and I think it’s great that this advice is given to the patients (and for the record, I did follow all the nurse’s recommendations). However, the instructions from the nurse to do some deep breathing came without instructions, and as a yoga teacher who studies and teaches breathing, it got me thinking how people could use some extra education on the “how to” part since taking a deep breath is not as straight forward as it sounds.
Over the years of working with people in my classes and private yoga lessons, I’ve realized how many individuals really struggle with taking in a deep breath, at least the way I interpret “deep.” Often, what I notice, is an increase air intake that lands in the upper portion of the chest/lungs, creating a vertical uplift in their posture, with very little to no expansion around the lower ribs and belly. This is how many people breathe—in the upper portion of the lungs only.
More than this, it appears some people have actually lost their ability to take in a breath into the lowest, most voluminous part of the lungs. I say “lost their ability,” because babies and animals naturally take these full, lower lung breaths. That’s how we were born to breathe. But somewhere along the way, often between the ages of 5 and 10, their breathing changes from a lower body breath to an upper body breath.
It can happen because of several things, here are couple… You go to school and you start sitting more, and sitting affects your posture, and posture affects where your breath can travel in the body. Then, somewhere along the way, perhaps you start to “suck in our gut”, maybe because we become self conscious of our stomachs or just because we feel it’s something we should do to look better. Tightening your stomachs is also associated with a bracing stance, preparing for action or for safety during times of vulnerability and stress, and you do this as a response to perceived physical and/or emotional threat. Over time, this action of perpetually tightening your stomach can become unconscious and habitual. If this is the case, and for many of you it is, being advised take a “deep breath” won’t be enough. If you want to access the largest part of your lungs, it may actually require training in how to break this habit.
Breathing down into the lower portion of the lungs is best exercised through a technique called diaphragmatic breathing. (Sometimes known as abdominal or belly breathing). One of the things that helped me truly access this type of breathing was to come back to my anatomy knowledge and create a visual in my mind of the body’s main breathing muscle—the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen. When you breathe in the diaphragm contracts (flattens out), pressing down towards the abdominal organs, and when you breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes back up into its dome shape inside the rib (thoracic) cavity. To visualize this a little further have a look at this quick video demonstrating the action of the diaphragm in breathing. Diaphragm movement video
Coming back to our “sucking in our guts” phenomenon, it makes sense that if you have a tight belly, then the diaphragm has a more difficult time moving downward because it is being resisted by the contracted abdominal muscles. When you relax your belly and allow it to expand as you inhale, your viscera (guts) drop slightly down and out and the diaphragm can more easily contract downward. Then, when exhalation takes place, the diaphragm begins its upward movement of relaxation aided by the natural movement of the belly as it returns toward the spine. So a relaxed abdomen is essential in taking a natural diaphragmatic or abdominal breath. (Below you will find a free handout with step by step instructions on learning to breathe this way).
There is more to this diaphragmatic breathing than just better lung volume. When we breathe with good diaphragmatic movement, the up and down action of the diaphragm stimulates blood vessels and nerves that pass through the diaphragm. One in particular is the vagus nerve, which is the main nerve of the relaxation portion of the nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). When the PNS is stimulated, the body produces chemical messengers and signals blood pressure receptors to promote resting, digestion, and relaxation. Studies are showing there is a feedback loop in the body that with long diaphragmatic breaths, the greater the movement of the diaphragm, which in turn increases stimulation of the PNS. In this way, simple diaphragmatic breathing is an effective tool in helping to calm and ease stress, improve digestion, and immune functioning.
The opposite is also true. When a person is stuck in the habit of shallow, upper chest breathing, with minimal diaphragmatic movement, the body perceives this as being in a state of emergency or threat and activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). This results in a cascade of events such as elevated heart rate, sleeplessness, impaired digestion and impaired immune functioning. A simple change in your breathing is a gateway to better physiological and emotional health.
So if you are ever given the advice to “take a deep breath,” know that it is not just trying to get more air into your lungs. Adding diaphragmatic movement to your breathing can have all sorts of health benefits. It just takes a little practice.