Some examples of my articles included in this section are: ‘Mountain-biking and Yoga - Where’s my Supta Virasana gone?’, ‘What are the Benefits of Pranayama?’ and ‘The Super Sun’.
Mountain-biking and Yoga – Where’s my Supta Virasana gone?
by Sharlene Poole B.A. (Hons) BWY Dip. SYT YAProffs.,
We live on the outskirts of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which attracts mountain-bikers, runners and walkers from the surrounding areas. Naturally my Yoga classes attract such students whom have an interest in cross-training Yoga alongside their chosen activity.
I am a keen mountain-biker myself. It is hard not to be when you see birds of prey swooping in front of the sun and their shadow on the ground next to you (and your mountain-bike of course!!!!).
So with such Yoga students it is inevitable that the same queries will pop up, such as ‘My hamstrings are too tight!’ and ‘My hips don’t move!’. We address such issues as those tight hip muscle culprits which can appear alongside mountain-biking in some of my classes.
Tight hip muscle culprits include the hip flexors, the hamstrings and the hip rotators.
Hip flexor muscles such as the iliacus, psoas (iliopsoas) and rectus femoris assist in hip flexion i.e. raising the legs from the floor whilst in a supine position, see photograph A. Both feet are placed on the floor. Take the right knee towards the chest on the out breath. Push the right heel up towards the ceiling on the in breath.
Photograph A (Please note article including photographs can be found on F/bk Yoga for Athletes Cannock).
Due to the position of the iliopsoas it can pull the top of the pelvis forwards when it tightens thus encouraging an anterior (forwards) pelvic tilt. Hence those niggles in the lower back. Pelvic tilts in marjariasana, see photograph B, is the perfect posture to combat this. On the in breath encourage an opening from the heart centre as you look towards the floor in front. On the out breath tuck the tailbone under, ease up the pelvic floor muscles and ease in the space an inch below the navel allowing the spine to curl up towards the ceiling as the chin finds its way down to the sternum.
We also need postures which encourage strong abdominals to combat tight iliopsoas muscles, for example alternate leg raises, see photograph C. The left leg is stretched straight out along the floor. The right knee is towards the chest. The heels are pushing away to the wall in front. Arms are down by the sides whilst breathing in. On the out breath lift up the pelvic floor muscles and ease in the space an inch below the navel then raise the left leg and the arms 8 inches off the floor whilst raising the head towards the sternum.
As with the iliopsoas muscle the rectus femoris muscle’s action is concerned with flexion of the hip. Due to its position this muscle will be very strong in mountain-bikers. So for postures like tiriangmukhaikapada paschimottanasana, virasana and supta virasana it can be problematic as strong rectus femoris muscles can limit hip flexion.
Supta virasana is a posture that flexes the knee, extends the hip and lengthens the rectus femoris muscle. If you have strong rectus femoris muscles the knees will not be happy for you to rush sitting down between the heels and lying back as the posture supta virasana suggests. It may be a challenge in itself to move from marjariasana variation on all fours taking hips back towards the heels with the knees/feet/hips in line for a kneeling version of virasana. However once satisfied with the kneeling version of virasana sit on a full block and a half block with lower legs either side. Then remove the half block to sit on a full block. Once your knees/hips are satisfied you could either replace the full block for a half block or sitting on a full block you could begin to lean backwards using the support of your arms, see photograph D. On the exhale lean back with the pelvic floor eased up and the space an inch below the navel eased in. On the inhale come back up to kneeling. This may take weeks to achieve but it will be much better to move towards rather than upset the knees via very strong rectus femoris muscles. Listen to the knees!!!
More tight hip muscle culprits for mountain-bikers include the hamstrings. This group of muscles along the back of the thighs can restrict the extension of the hips when they are tight. These are often the cause for rounding the backs in forward bends. This is due to the origins of some of these muscles as they attach themselves to the sitting bones. We can check if the hamstrings are too tight to approach a seated forward bend without modifications by lying down in a semi supine position. With the left knee bent and foot flat on the floor push the right heel up to the ceiling. Slide the left leg along the floor and observe if the right leg stays perpendicular to the floor, see photograph E. If the leg stays perpendicular to the floor the hamstrings maybe released enough to approach a seated forward bend without modifications. Otherwise we may need to use a block or a half block to sit on. And/or may need to bend the knees when approaching the forward bend to encourage the forward fold to come from the hips. However there are more preferable hamstring stretches available rather than seated forward bends if you have very tight hamstrings, see photograph A or perhaps a downward facing dog alternating the heels up and down variation for example.
Mountain-bikers will discover the hamstrings in pigeon pose, eka pada rajakapotanasana, especially if there is any shortness/tightness in the muscles on one side (perhaps from sinking into one hip with a straight leg as the other leg remains bent at the knee whilst rolling down hills or resting). This posture is considered the posture to address all of our problems in just one stretch as it opens the hips, stretches the outer hip, stretches the groin of the forward leg and the hip flexors of the rear leg. I recommend those attached to a cycle saddle for the majority of the time to approach this posture gently as certain muscles have become very strong and short due to the hips being held in a certain position for long periods of time.
To achieve pigeon pose version 1, photograph F, we are moving from the kneeling version of virasana. Place the hands on the floor shoulder width apart with bent elbows (creases of the elbows are facing forwards). Then slide the left leg back along the mat. Keep the right knee in line with the hip but bring the right foot in towards the midline of your body a small way. Apply the pelvic floor muscles and ease in the space an inch below the navel to keep the core engaged as this prevents the weight from dropping into the low back. Keeping the hips parallel with the floor lead with the heart centre into the backbend. Adapt the hand position to either further forwards or towards you maintaining a bend at the elbows. Once satisfied that you have achieved the most comfortable position finish the posture by lifting up the chin just enough to strengthen and lengthen the front of the neck as those already tipped back cycle heads won’t appreciate an unnecessary over extension of the neck.
Photograph F, version 1 pigeon pose
You may feel the hamstrings more so in version 2 of pigeon pose. Much the same as above however the knee position is moved slightly to the right of the right hip and the foot position is altered to a further forward position to increase and encourage a safe angle for the knee. In this position we shall find more tight hip culprits - the hip rotators.
The action of the hip rotators are the external rotation of the hip which assist in rolling the thigh bones outwards. Baddhakonasana (perhaps a rocking side to side variation) is a sound pose to release those hip rotators. Occasionally you will see mountain-bikers dropping a knee out to side with the foot on the peddle, perhaps a subconscious urge to release those tight hip rotators.
So summer is just around the corner and the balance between mountain-biking and Yoga practice will be tested. Perhaps an occasional walk in between a mountain-bike ride may remind us to free up those hips. After-all there is no rush!!! maybe you’ll have a chance meeting with a stag that stares straight at you and looks at you as though he knows you better than you know yourself.
So mountain-bikers need to benefit from asanas which will stretch and strengthen muscles that attach to the hips and pelvis. My students are commenting on how much freer their hips are. And perhaps one day I may even find my supta virasana again too!!!!!
Photographs copyright Doreen Barber www.dbarberphotography.co.uk (Please note article including photographs can be found on F/bk Yoga for Athletes Cannock).
‘Manual of Structural Kinesiology’ Thompson Floyd
‘The Key Poses of Hatha Yoga’ Ray Long
‘Principles of Forward Bends’ Paul Fox Spectrum Summer 2011
‘Yoga for Athletes’ Alison Bauman Yoga Journal August 2007
‘Flex Your Power’ Julie Gudmestad Yoga Journal June 2007
‘Get Hip About Flexors’ Julie Gudmestad Yoga Journal November 2001
What are the Benefits of Pranayama? by Sharlene Poole
There are two main pranayama’s that I have consistently practiced during the last 18 years of self-practice. They are the sama vritti (same breath) ratio of 1:1 breathing and abdominal breathing.
1:1 breath ratio sets the rhythm for an asana based yoga practice. Counting for an in breath of 3 seconds and an out breath of 3 seconds this sets the pace for a steady and energising asana practice.
1:1 ratio also acts as a ‘spring-board’ pranayama to add to. If you come across difficult times or a difficult posture you can slightly extend the out breath, edging towards 1:2 breath ratio. Thus assisting you to breath through life situations or flow through challenging postures.
You can also add to 1:1 breath ratio by observing the pause after the out breath for a while. Then observe both the pause after the out breath and the in breath. Repeated for many repetitions I would most likely use this breath for the beginning of meditation practice rather than an asana based practice. This would be because my energy levels will begin to be less energised with this type of awareness on my breath.
You could also create a more relaxed (less energised) state with 1:1 pranayama. This would be by breathing in and breathing out for a longer count, perhaps for a count of 8 seconds. Energetically I begin to feel I am perhaps in abdominal breathing territory about now.
Placing the thumbs and index fingers together, palms flat on the belly in a modified yoni mudra. Simply observe and feel into the rise and fall of the abdominals on the in and out breath. Traditionally we would perhaps be in a seated posture for this pranayama. However with the fast pace of life perhaps a little modification should be allowed. If you were to wake up in the middle of the night for example, either lying on your back or your belly observe the rise and fall of the abdominals as you breath.
Whilst discussing lying on your belly when abdominal breathing you could put a thinly folded blanket underneath your abdominal and thoracic area. As you breath in feel your belly push into the blanket, as you breath out feel the belly-button sink back to the spine. This practice would benefit those with lower back issues as you would not only begin to relax the belly, but around the waistline and below and eventually the lower back.
These are however my observations which I have come back to many times throughout self-practice. The benefits of which are: setting the pace to an asana based practice; controlling energy levels to compliment practice; settling the mind for meditation; comforting lower back issues. So observe for yourself and see what works for you.
(The intention was to keep the answer simple as it can be considered that an ‘asana based yoga practice’ is a moving meditation. And ‘the pause after the out breath and the in breath’ enters the realms of four-part breathing).
The Super Sun by Sharlene Poole
On a beach during the Summer I dutifully saluted to the sunrise most mornings. The moon was behind me whilst the sun rose above the mountains. ‘Why do we salute to the sun?’ I wondered.
We have experienced the super moon late last year but by default the sun is always super. At 93 million miles away from earth the sun is our closest star and without which life on earth would not exist. The temperature of the sun’s core can reach more than 15million degrees celsius. Whilst the earth’s core temperature is 5700 degrees celsius, which is as hot as the sun’s surface temperature. As hydrogen turns into helium energy is created which powers the sun.
Many ancient civilisations before us have worshipped the sun. Karnak Temple in Egypt (2055BC to 100AD) was dedicated to the Sun God Amun-Re. He was born from a lotus blossom and gave light to the cosmos which brought about creation.
Ancient yogi’s honoured the sun as a symbol of the Divine. The sun represented the gateway between the gods and humans. Originally sun salutes were a sequence of sacred words rather than the sequence of postures we see today. However whether we recite Vedic mantras or we practice a sequence of postures perhaps ‘one is offering salutation to the Divine, represented by the sun, as a source of light removing the darkness of a clouded mind’ (A.G.Mohan).
Greek philosophers, ancient yogi’s and many other civilisations considered the relationship between the external sun of the macrocosm and our own internal sun of the microcosm. So our individual world corresponds to the world of the universe.
The ‘Ha’ and ‘Tha’ of Hatha Yoga represent the microcosmic sun and the moon. Yoga can be expressed as the union between the two. When we are more in touch with our solar energy we are feeling dynamic and extrovert (our right nostril is dominant). When we are more in touch with our lunar energy we feel dreamy and introvert (our left nostril is dominant). We use asana and pranayama to balance our internal sun and moon. We may even consider our internal sun is housed at the heart centre.
There are many reasons as to why we may salute to the sun. Perhaps we should just because we want to as the sun energises us and simply makes us feel better. Or as a nod to the respect we have for the world around us - all that wouldn’t exist without the sun.
Resources - books/articles
Wonders of the Solar System - Professor Brian Cox & Andrew Cohen
Wonders of the Universe - Professor Brian Cox & Andrew Cohen
The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga - Georg Feuerstein
Prana Pranayama Prana Vidya - Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati
Shine on me by Kelly McGonigal, Yoga Journal 2010 March
The Origin of the Sun Salutation by Olav Aarts, Ekhart Yoga 2013 August
Here comes the Sun by Richard Rosen, Yoga Journal 2007 August