Raise your hand if you sat in a chair today.
Seems like a silly question doesn’t it?! But the truth is in the timeline of our evolution, it’s only in the immediate past that we have made a habit of sitting SOOOOOO much every day.
All of that sitting, now combined with pervasive computer and smartphone use, wreaks havoc on our bodies. As yoga teachers, we see it every day: sore low backs, tight hamstrings, neck tension for days!
Release your legs from the tyranny of sitting!
Bridge pose is here to help! One of my teachers, Zoe Kowalchuk, practices this pose every day because in that one shape, she gets a counter pose to all that sitting.
The major muscles that create hip flexion (the action of the hips when seated) are the iliopsoas and the rectus femoris. Because of all of that sitting (in hip flexion), our hip flexors grow accustomed to being in a contracted position, thereby getting tighter and tighter, while also not being asked to do anything, thus getting weaker and weaker.
When the hip flexor muscles are tight (i.e., they’re held in a short position by built up tension), they pull the pelvis toward the thighs in hip extension. In other words, the pelvis is held under in a tucked position (posterior pelvic tilt) and the lower back is rounded (lumbar flexion).
Both bridge pose (our focus this week) and viparita karani mudra (inverted action seal, our focus of the month) require length in the hip flexors!! It will help us get the legs off of the ground in viparita karani mudra (VKM) if the hip flexors are also strong!
The hamstrings are also a part of this story of making space in our bodies for viparita karani because they fall victim to the same sitting pitfall as the hip flexors. Because the hammys are knee flexors, they too are asked to live on a contracted length while not doing anything when we sit for long periods, thereby also becoming weak and tight. In our final shape, this manifests as an inability to straighten the legs over the hips once we lift the legs off the ground.
What can we do about tight hamstrings?
The good news about the trifecta of tight and weak muscles this week is that in preparing for our shape, you will also help your sweet body rid itself of some of that yucky sitting residue!
How do we do that?!
Enter the lunge. Be it low or high, knee down or lifted, this shape can be a one stop shop to get us ready for bridge and VKM. Add a little back bend to it and you’ve got the recipe for a mid afternoon yogi espresso right at your desk!
One shape, multiple uses
Low lunge for lengthening
- From down dog, step one foot forward and lower the back knee down. This shape in and of itself may elicit a strong feeling of stretch in the back leg hip.
- If you need a little more, you can walk your hand up the front thigh. You can let your hips shift as far back (stacking over the back knee) or forward as works for you.
- You do not need to look for the deepest possible place (in fact that can be too much for your joints), you can instead look for a balance of effort and release.
My teacher Mukunda resists the word stretch (because muscles don’t actually stretch) and asks that we look for the sensation of the release of tension.
Spend some time in low lunge and see if you can transform your experience from one of resisting a strong feeling to one of releasing residual tension from your hip and/or maybe your day, your week or your life! Thank you yoga!
You can add a lovely spinal extension to low lunge by extending the arms behind you and lifting the chest forward and up towards the sky.
Keep in mind the below engagement points for the above lunge as it should help to protect your spine.
- Avoid hyperextending the neck, which also means don’t drop your head back.
- Stay connected to your deep core muscles. This should help you to target the release and lengthening to your chest and back leg hip flexors, by using the strength in the spine and shoulder extensors on the back body.
Repeating both sides a few times may allow for a real shift in your perception of sensation.
Lunge for strengthening
After you’ve released as much residual tension as possible in the above variation, add on with a strengthening variation.
- From kneeling low lunge (as above), put the hands on the hips and shift the trunk back so that the hips are stacked squarely over the back knee.
- Tuck the back toes and lift the back knee up off of the earth.
- Again, stay connected to your deep core to keep this action out of the low back. Look to feel the sensation of effort in the front of the back thigh. The sensation may also be high up on the thigh because of the effort of the iliopsoas.
- Once you are lifted, play with lowering the back knee to hover off of the floor to a slow count of 3-6.
- Want even more fun? Play with lifting back up to a slow count of 3-6. Repeat 6 times. Oh so fun!
Open up the backs of your legs
Now for those hip extensors!
After all of that lunging, the hamstrings and glutes are ready for and need some lengthening. Lunge provides easy access to one of my favorite hip extensors stretches: ardha hanumanasana (half split) ala 216.
Our focus for this shape is not excessive range of motion, but a position that let’s us access a neutral spine while in hip flexion.
- Start in high lunge with a bent back knee (as in the strengthening lunge above).
- Return the back knee gently to the earth. Place blocks under your hands on the highest height. (Many yogis will need their hands supported at a higher height than blocks can provide; a chair or a pair of chairs can be great for this!)
- The blocks under the hands are there to support your balance at a height that lets you lengthen the spine in neutral. To find neutral, lift the chest, and then the whole front side of the torso, forward and up. Think of directing your sit bones back and up away from the chest.
- Once you have a neutral spine, slowly begin to lengthen the front leg, one inch at a time so that you can focus on maintaining the neutral spine. Please note that many people won’t be able to lengthen the leg very much!
The benefit of keeping the spine neutral by directing the sitting bone away from its knee is that you are lengthening the muscle from both sides sending the release of effort to the belly of the muscle, instead of letting the sitting bone side of the hamstrings be pulled along for the ride, which would result in an uneven pull (and release). Also, and perhaps more importantly, this approach helps you prevent any compressed low backs in the room from worsening that compression!
We hope you join us in trying out some lunge play this week! Share your desk side yoga moments and tag ‘em #216infrastructure!
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