Yoga for the Rest of Us

Is it possible that there is an underserved yoga population?  It seems impossible that with celebrity yoga teachers, a gazillion dollar retail business and increasing stable of teachers, there‘s a portion of the population missing out. There is.  This ignored group is between 40-something and 70-something years of age. It’s the largest part of the population and their yoga needs are not being met.

This left-out set  is more active and adventurous than ever.  However, that fact that the body is changing cannot be ignored.  Many people in this age range are finding yoga for the first time and some have been practicing for decades.  Although this group is more active, many are more sedentary. Just like the “weekend warriors” that sit all week then play touch football on the weekends, yoga is being used as a “work-out”.  I’m not saying this is bad, but for the 40+ population, this can lead to problems.  The entire “yoga injury” topic is big and I won’t go into it. With 80% of the yoga classes being “flow”– often hot and fast, with mirrors and music and flexible young students–folks are getting injured.  

 

Studios and teachers are often pressured in offering the fast-paced aerobic yoga, because that’s what is filling classes. Take a look at the students and most of them are young. If you are 40-something and older, you will be intimidated or discouraged or injured especially if that’s your first yoga class.  Where is the yoga for the largest (and growing) part of the populations?

I recently listened to a podcast, Spirit Matters, which interviewed Larry Payne, PhD, yoga therapist, author, and co-founder of the International Association of Yoga Therapist.  Dr. Payne feels that yoga has become a “gymnastic-thing” with most of the classes being for what he calls, “the young and restless”.  He wonders so where are the classes for this 40-something to 70-something group?  He says you shouldn’t have to go from “flow yoga” to “chair yoga”.  

Mr. Payne has developed and is offering a Prime of Life program which trains teachers to work with the over 40+ population and he says it doesn’t have to be wussie yoga. His website, http://www.samata.com/, has a listing of teachers who are certified by him to teach his program.  And, I’m happy to say that I’ll be one of them, as I’m attending his 50-hour training in San Francisco in January.  

As I become older and my friends and students age, this growing gap has become more obvious to me.  The older students I teach are strong, willing, plenty able and have excellent attitudes.  And, they show up.  It’s a joy to be able to offer yoga to them.  All they need is a slower pace, more attention to safely moving in and out of poses, and plenty of modifications.  Yoga is not a one-size fits all discipline.  Students’ ability, experience, health and bodies vary wildly.  With the aging of the population, I’m encouraged to see problems like Larry Payne’s cropping up to address this capable group.   

Playing With Your Dog – Downward Facing Dog That Is

downward-dog2Along with tree pose, downward facing dog is probably the most widely recognized pose. It looks like an inverted V with your butt in the air.  Everyone’s dog does this pose and if you’ve ever been in a yoga class, you have too.  Although downward facing dog (DWD) makes an appearance in almost every yoga class from beginning to advanced, it’s actually quite a complicated pose, requiring flexibility and strength.  Additionally, it’s an inversion. Really an “intermediate” pose, it’s offered to most students, regardless of their experience or flexibility.

 

There can be 20 to 30+ cues and instructions for learning and refining downward dog. Here are 4 areas that I want to comment on and offer some cues and suggestions that may be helpful in finding some enjoyment and safety in your DWD.

 

Heels to the Ground:  Getting the heels to the ground will add stability to the pose and the ability the lengthen through the backs of the legs, but for many of us, it’s just not going to happen. Sometimes the heels ride high due to anatomy and sometimes because of tight calves and hamstrings. Taking time to stretch the calves before DWD will help alot. [Avoid overstretching the achilles tendon.]  Jamming your heels down if you hyper-extend your knees will only make the problem worse.  Try:  DWD can be practiced with a rolled blanket under the heels providing the opportunity to “root through the heels”.  While you’re there, play with lifting your toes.  If your heels are almost there, maybe shorten your stance or widen your legs..

 

Straight legs:  DWD is a back body stretch–the upper body gets a stretch from the hips to the hands and the back body from the hips to the heels.  If the hamstrings are tight the back will round.  Better to have the knees bent and the spine long. Over time, as the hamstrings become more flexible the legs will eventually move in the direction of straight.  Try:  Practice DWD with the hands on the wall, taking your hands high enough so the legs can straighten.  Placing hands on the seat of a chair works too.  If your legs are almost straight, widen your stance.

 

Long Spine:  Avoid the swoop or scoop in the back where the ribs and chest dip toward the ground. I see this all the time when flexible students hang in the shoulder joints like a hammock.  Lift the armpits and ribs to line up with the head and tail.  If the shoulders are tight this is going to be challenging  Try:  To demonstrate this, Instructor, Tony Briggs, uses a long, wooden pole as a prop.  He has one student take downward dog and the second student holds the pole at the back of the first student’s head and rests it on their tailbone. The back body should touch the pole.  Effective.

 

Head, Arms and Hands: Different schools of yoga vary in their instruction of the head position. Dropping the head can offer a nice stretch to the neck, but eventually line your ears up with the arms. The hands can be a bit wider than the shoulder, especially if your elbows hyper-extend.  Fingers spread, but it’s not necessary to overdo it. For most of us the weight falls to the baby fingers. Counter this by pressing into the thumb and index finger. Try: Play with the effect of changing the weight distribution of your fingers.  Body worker and Rolfer, Scott Quinn, feels the thumb and index fingers were made for fine motor movements, like turning a nob or picking up a pencil. The other three (middle, ring and baby) tie into the back body and contains the power. How does changing the weight distribution alter your experience?

 

Play with your dog. It’s challenging, for sure, but find a position that is safe and can be held for at least 5 breaths.  That’s it for our dogs….See you next week!

Getting it Right

AlignmentGetting it Right

 

In preparing for Triangle pose, what is the proper width instruction for the feet?

 

1.  4-4 ½ feet apart.
2.  Feet under the hands.
3.  Length of one leg
4.  3-feet apart

I’ve heard all of these instructions in yoga classes.  What in the hell is 4 feet?  Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t mark out 4 feet on the floor if you offered me a free Lululemon “top”.  And, what’s the length of my leg?  Unless I’m looking in a mirror, I have no idea when my feet are under your hands.  So, what’s a student to do?

Add to this the radical difference between bodies.  Three feet are going to be too narrow for someone 6 feet tall and 4 1/2 feet way too wide for a shortie.  Look around at the torso length of some people as compared to their legs, We are all different and could really use our own individual instruction.  Or, here’s a radical thought: What about if you gave yourself your own instruction and took a stance that felt beneficial to your body while still maintaining the structure of the pose?

I’m not just picking on Triangle pose and I’m not suggesting that proper instruction and good alignment is not important, because it is.  Injuries over time can happen when students put themselves into shapes without being mindful of how the bones are stacking and what muscles are being asked to work.  Add to that injuries, age and physical conditions, mindful alignment can be crucial.
We live in a society that is “end result” and “looking good” oriented and we are bringing that attitude into the yoga room and it is being perpetuated by some teachers and covers of magazines. The result is too much striving to get it “right”.  Are we too much in our heads and not in our bodies when are processing how to ground into the back baby toe, squeeze the right kidney, externally rotate the left shoulder and extend the neck all while while keeping a soft palate, relaxed jaw, and pleasant attitude?

One of my favorite teachers, Geoffrey Roniger, wrote elegantly about his opinion on alignment for a New Orleans magazine.  He points out that students feel that in order to get a pose “right” every body part has to be in a perfect shape. He goes on to say:

“It is incredibly important to highlight the fact that we don’t care one bit about people ‘getting it right’ or ‘looking right’ on the outside. What alignment truly means is that the various body parts are communicating in a harmonious way. Alignment is harmony. And that is an internal condition, not a fixed aesthetic position. When alignment happens, it is unmistakable because the practitioner feels light and the mind becomes spontaneously quiet.”
Here’s an experiment.  Try to do your practice without verbal input.  This will probably be at home alone, as yoga teachers (including me!) love to hear themselves talk. And, more importantly, try to stay out of your head, use your breath to initiate movement and take a shape.  Hold it.  Continue to breath. When you feel ready, spontaneously move to the next pose.  What was that like?
**This article was recycled from same time last year.  I particularly like it.