The forgotten quads

In my previous post on yin poses, I somehow completely left off ones that target the quadricep muscles at the front of the thigh. It is possible to stretch the quads in some of the postures I listed (like dragon and swan from the hip openers group and sleeping swan and thread the needle from the outer-thigh and butt stretches), but there are a few yin yoga poses that really access the top of the thighs.

So with my apologies to the fronts of my thighs, here are a few more poses that should have been part of Strike a (yin) pose.

Quadricep stretches

Known as rock pose or seiza, sitting on your heels is an uncomplicated way to stretch into the quads. Some yin teachers start their classes with a short meditation in rock pose; others use it as a recovery pose after forward or backward bends; I like it in both contexts and as a quad stretch on it’s own.

Taking rock pose and lowering the back down to the mat turns it into saddle pose. Keeping one leg straight along the mat turns it into half saddle pose and often introduces a bit of a twist into the low back.

Coming out of half saddle is often a bit of a challenge; I like rolling onto my side and hugging my knees to my chest in fetal pose for a few seconds before flattening out on my back for a rest.

 

No list of yin yoga poses would be complete without targeting all the large muscle groups of the lower body! Hopefully my quads will forgive my original omission of quad stretching postures 😉

Strike a (yin) pose

I tend to think of the yin yoga poses I teach and practice in loose groupings based on their purpose within a practice and which areas of the body they primarily affect. These groupings are not absolute and students all feel postures in different ways. A pose that one person feels very intensely in one area, someone else might not feel there at all.

There are many ways to modify these postures to increase or lessen their intensity and, of course, many other possible postures to use in a yin yoga practice; these are just a sampling.

Most yin yoga poses have equivalents in other forms of yoga, but the yin versions are intended to be static, allow the muscles to relax, and exercise the joints to their full range of motion.

The neat stick figure drawings come from Yoga with Amey.

Backward bends

These are helpful to counteract all of the forward bending most people do throughout the day – hunching over a desk or a steering wheel. The target areas are generally the spine (anywhere from the sacrum up to the neck) and chest.

Typical backward bending poses are sphinx (shown at right) and seal.

Back bends can also be wonderful chest openers. I like using a supported fish or bridge (shown at left) to stretch the chest muscles, open the shoulders, and bring some compression into the back. I’ve previously posted detailed information on supported fish if you’d like to know more about that pose.

Forward bends

These are great for stretching the spine and releasing tension along the spinal column and through the shoulders. Standing forward fold (or dangling as I usually call it), pictured at right, is one of my favourite ways to release tension across the upper back and shoulders and stretch the hamstring muscles at the back of the thighs.

Caterpillar, pictured at left, is a seated forward fold that targets similar areas as dangling, although it can also be good for stretching the muscles of the buttocks (or glutes) depending on the tilt of the pelvis.

If you want to get a gentle stretch through the back of your legs, but are worried about the impact of dangling or caterpillar on your back, legs up the wall, pictured at right, is a great option. This is one of my go-to poses (as I detailed in a previous post) and is fabulous for people with lower back issues. 

Other forward folds like butterfly and half butterfly (shown at left) are good for stretching into the hamstrings as well and can also target the glutes (muscles in the buttocks), inner thighs, and spine.

Groin stretches

The inner thigh or groin area can be difficult to stretch; thankfully, there are a couple of yin yoga poses that are good for targeting this area. Dragonfly, pictured at right, and frog are the two postures I use most often. Both poses are easy to modify depending on the tilt of the pelvis and width of the legs and it’s also easy to use props to make them comfortable.

Holding a squatting pose (shown at left) for a minute or more and gently pressing the knees apart can also be an effective groin stretch, although some people feel the stretch more through their thighs or buttock muscles.

Hamstring stretches

In addition to accessing the backs of the thighs by holding forward bending postures, happy baby (shown at right) is another good way to stretch the hamstring muscles. I sometimes jokingly call the pose ‘angry baby’ as the compression in my hips brings out all kinds of rage and frustration!

Hip openers

Most people I know complain of having tight hips. Generally they mean that their hip flexors (the group of muscles used to pull the knee upwards) feel stiff, stuck, or inflexible.

The single greatest yoga pose I know to target the hip flexors is a modified lunge (pictured at right) known as dragon. Dropping the back knee to the ground in dragon, as opposed to holding it up in a lunge, means that students can stay in the pose for a few minutes. Dragons can also target other areas and make people angry as I outlined in a previous post.

Swan, shown below in the section on outer-thigh stretches, can be another wonderful opener for the hip flexors.

Resting

In between more intense yin yoga holds, there are many wonderful postures to come into for a rest. Simply standing in mountain, shown at right, or lying flat on the mat, allows students to feel the impact of the previous hold.

Child’s pose, pictured at left, or fetal pose are great to counter backward bends and can help move through feelings of frailty that may arise after intense long-held postures.

In order to get blood and energy moving through the body again after poses that compress the knees or ankles, I frequently have students move their knees in windshield wipers or drum their feet and legs against the ground.

And then there’s savasana or corpse pose, the ultimate posture of relaxation!

Outer-thigh and butt stretches

Runners in particular often struggle with tightness in their outer-thighs, specifically the IT tract, which is the band of fascia that extends from the hip to the knee. Tightness in the outer-thighs generally goes hand-in-hand with unhappily tight butt muscles (also known as the glutes), which are some of the most powerful muscles in the body.

Square, shoelace, and sleeping swan (a yin version of the pigeon pose pictured at right) are all effective at targeting the muscles and fascia in the IT tract and buttocks. Lowering the chest towards the mat in these postures elongates the glutes and outer-thighs.

Threading the needle is another posture that can have profound impact on the IT tract and butt muscles. It’s one of my favourite poses and is particularly great to do against a wall.

Twists

Gentle spinal twists like cat stretch, shown at right, and two knee twist really illustrate the idea of a yin practice. Reclining twists are quite simple and it’s easy to think they’re not doing anything, but the deep stretch can be incredibly profound after a long hold.

Twisted roots, pictured at left, involves crossing one leg over the other in a reclined twist and targets the glutes and IT band as well as gently compressing the spine.

All twists can also help open the chest and stretch throughout the hips and legs.

 

There are lots of other possible yin yoga poses and many more postures I regularly draw on in my classes. These are a few of the basics that give a sense of what kind of poses to expect in a yin yoga class. I’ve also done a post on what to expect more generally in a yin yoga class and what my idea of yin yoga is.

Open your heart

A non-modified fish poseIn honour of Valentine’s Day, I’m teaching a heart-opening sequence in my 8:15pm Yin Yoga class at Bound Lotus ♥. The flow I’ve put together starts off with supported fish pose. The traditional version of fish (known as Matsyasana in Sanskrit) is an amazing chest opener and the modified version of the posture is more decadent and restorative, but still impactful.

Fish is all about reaching your chest up, while relaxing your lower body. Detailed instructions for getting into supported fish (and getting out!) follow.

If legs up the wall is the one pose I think everyone should do after a lower body workout (running, cycling, hiking, walking in heels), then fish is certainly the one pose I’d suggest for releasing any emotional issues (my friend and fellow teacher Nadine likely agrees 🙂 ). Holding fish pose (and supported fish) can dispel all kinds of long-held chest-tension, which sometimes leads to a huge emotional release (read: it’s totally okay to cry while/after doing fish).

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Supported fish pose

Why it’s good

  • Increases lung capacity, which makes it great for asthmatics and athletes, and flushes mucus from the lungs
  • Corrects the tendency to round shoulders, which collapses the energy centre at the heart (anahata chakra), and breaks up tension in the mid- and upper-back
  • Strengthens and gently tones the muscles along your spine
  • Stretches abdominal muscles and creates internal space for internal organs
  • Lots of emotional and energetic benefits
    • Activates the throat energy centre (vishudda chakra), which is related to the way you express yourself
    • Releases grief and helps dispel old emotions by opening the heart energy centre (anahata chakra)

How to do it

  • Sit on your mat with knees bent, feet on the floor; snug the short end of a bolster against your lower back/buttocks – you can also use a firm pillow or rolled blanket if you don’t have a bolster
    • Using a bolster eases pressure and demand on your back muscles; the closer you place the bolster to your buttocks, the greater the stretch
  • Use your arms and hands to slowly lower your back, neck, and head onto the bolster
    • If your head doesn’t rest rest on the bolster, pillow, or rolled blanket, bring in another prop to support it
    • If the stretch is too intense in your lower back, place a foam chip block, pillow, or folded blanket under your buttocks
  • Straighten your legs along the mat; bring your heels together and let your big toes relax to the sides, forming the shape of a fishtail with your feet
  • Rest your arms on the floor, at least 45° away from your body, and turn your palms up
  • Tuck your chin into your chest slightly; relax your jaw, throat, and shoulders; disengage the muscles in your abdomen, hips, and legs
  • Settle into the pose; inhaling deeply into your chest and relaxing your shoulders, hips, and legs with each exhale
  • Remain still for up to 10 minutes, breathing smoothly and feeling your chest expand and contract with each breath

To come out of supported fish:

  • Bend your knees and rest your feet flat on the floor
  • Roll to side off the bolster into fetal pose; take a deep breath in fetal pose before removing the bolster and any other props used
  • Release any tension in your back by holding your knees into your chest and rolling on your back
  • It’s nice to link fish to a forward fold (like butterfly or caterpillar) or a reclining twist to counter the backward bend

 

Breathing fire

January 23 marked the start of the lunar new year (aka Chinese New Year) and 2012 is the Year of the Dragon. I welcomed the new year with a series of dragon poses at my 1pm yin yoga class on Monday. It was a hip-intensive class that really breathed some fire into the new year!

Dragon pose is a long-held lunge that’s great at opening hips. It can be quite intense and sometimes stirs up some anger or irritation, but the immediate loosening through the hip flexors, quads, and glutes makes it worthwhile. I feel like I have wonderfully mobile “salsa hips” after a good dragon series, which makes the rage I feel settling into the pose worthwhile and keeps me doing dragons.

I’ve included detailed step-by-step instructions for high-flying dragon below; take a look at the Yin Yoga page on dragons for alternative variations.

High-flying dragon pose

Why it’s good

  • Provides a deep hip and groin opener
    • Gets into the connective tissue in the hips and helps work deeply into hip socket
  • Stretches hip flexors and quadriceps
    • Some variants also stretch the glutes, calves, Achilles, and feet
  • Builds strength through the legs and core
  • Improves balance
  • Releases tension (and anger!) from the hips

How to do it

  • Warm up your hips first with some gentler hip openers (like butterfly or half sleeping baby), then move into all fours or down dog
  • Step your right foot between your palms and rest your left knee on the mat
    • Add a foam chip block or folded blankets under your left knee to cushion the joint
  • Relax your pelvis towards the mat until you feel a stretch at the front of your left thigh and groin
    • Keep your right foot in-line with your right knee and hip and your left foot in-line with your left knee and hip
    • Square your hips toward the front of your mat
  • Lift your torso upright and rest your hands on your right knee for balance
    • If you’re feeling well-balanced, bring your hands behind your back and interlock your fingers in yoga mudra
      • If your hands are in yoga mudra, focus on letting them come towards the floor, relaxing your shoulders, and opening your chest
  • Feel your spine lengthen as you inhale and relax your pelvis down as you exhale
    • Let your breath out forcefully (as if you were breathing fire) to release anger and really embody a dragon – also just because it’s fun 😉
  • Settle into the pose and remain still for one to five minutes
    • Keep your breathing even and unforced
    • Relax your shoulders
    • Find a drishti (or focal point) to still your gaze and help settle your mind
    • Don’t fidget, but adjust your position if your body invites you to deepen the posture or if the pose feels painful or too intense
  • Follow the guidance for coming out of dragon below and then repeat – stepping your left food between your palms

To come out of dragon:

  • Roll back onto your left heel, stretching your right leg straight in front of you
  • Pull your right toes back and hold them with your right hand if possible
    • Feel the stretch through your right calf and the back of your thigh
  • Release your right toes and come to all fours
  • Push back into each hip, drawing a horseshoe shape with your hips
    • Hopefully the loosening in your left hip (and possibly your right, too!) provides serious motivation for coming into dragon on the other side!

After holding dragon on each side for a few minutes, coming into a recuperative position like child’s pose can be particularly nice. Child’s pose is also good because it also gets into the hips and can help you feel the impact of your dragons.

If you do only one yoga pose…

Legs up the doorIf you only ever do one yoga pose, make it legs up the wall. It’s one of the easiest postures and is the foundation for many restorative yoga practices. It’s fabulous after a hike, run, long-walk, cycle, or anything that works your legs.

All it takes is nestling your bum next to a wall and swinging your legs up; once your legs are up the wall, relax and let your back body sink into the floor. That’s it!

It was immeasurably helpful for me after an accidental 8-hour hike in China this fall – luckily the hostel bed was tucked right against the wall so my back was well-cushioned!

I’ve included step-by-step instructions below.

Legs up the wall pose

Why it’s good

  • Encourages healing throughout the body by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system
  • Slows the stress-induced sympathetic nervous system – our fight or flight reflex
  • Activates the body’s relaxation response; lowering the resting heart rate, slowing breathing, and decreasing the production of stress hormones
  • Brings fresh blood and lymph fluid into the abdomen and internal organs
  • Relieves tension in the lower back and sacrum
  • Reduces swelling, tension, and stress in feet and legs
  • Raises the feet above the heart; reversing effects of gravity, improving heart function, and allowing the heart to rest

How to do it

  • Sit on the floor with the side of your hip against a wall or a closed door
  • Swing your legs up the wall, pressing your bum into the corner where the floor and the wall meet
  • Lower your back to the floor and lean your heels against the wall
    • If keeping your legs straight is too much for your hamstrings, slide your bum away from the wall and bend your knees slightly
    • Your spine should be perpendicular to the wall with your back on the floor
  • Rest your arms alongside your body, lengthen them out in a “T” shape, or extend them over your head for more of a chest and back stretch
  • Let go of the tension in your legs and pelvis
    • Make it even easier by  strapping your ankles together (try a bathrobe belt or an elastic exercise band if you don’t have a yoga strap) so you don’t have to work to keep your legs close together
    • Add a folded blanket under your hips or head if you need more padding to be comfortable
  • Breathe into your belly and relax everything
  • Hang out in this posture for 5-20 minutes – try to relax for at least five minutes

To come out of legs up the wall:

  • Bend your knees and slide the soles of your feet along the wall towards your bum
  • Remove anything you’re using to hold your legs together and press your lower back into the floor for a couple breaths
  • Squeeze your knees into your chest and roll from side to side on your back to release any tension in your lower back
  • Roll to one side and slowly come up to a seated position
  • Breathe deeply for at least three breaths to allow the blood to settle back into your body and prevent getting a head rush when you stand up