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Perfect Poses to Prep for Headstand

Perfect Poses to Prep for Headstand

Headstand is one of my favourite poses. A headstand demands much. It requires strength AND flexibility but that is not all. Turning upside-down and balancing on your head takes courage. And self-belief. A headstand is a mental and physical challenge which, once mastered, continues to be a highlight of time spent on the mat.

Though many of us effortlessly stood on our heads as children, it seems that it is a skill lost to us as adults. So often life robs us of the physical attributes and self-belief that a head stand demands. For me a headstand requires 4 things – 4 things that can be relearned and woven together to become the joy that your first adult headstand will be. And it is truly a joy.

So What is a Headstand?

A yoga head stand is usually salamba sirsāsana or sirsāsana 1- ‘the king of all poses’ and one of the 12 original poses of hatha yoga.  Here the weight of the body is supported on the forearms and head with the legs in line with the body. Having said that, there are a whole host of variations to headstand – sirsāsana 2 (tripod headstand); mukta hasta sirsāsana (no hands) and any number of leg positions from padmāsana (lotus) to garudāsana (eagle) legs. The world is your oyster.

Preparation Pathway

The journey to a headstand is a long one path paved with many smaller goals. It is a wonderful journey – full of achievement and self-awareness. For me it took 2 years. 24 months of patient, mindful practice then one day it just came together and there I was upside down. Have I persuaded you to step on to this path? I hope so. And this is how you can get there.

1. LONG HAMSTRINGS

To be able to get into a headstand you need a whole lot of length down the back of the body. Particularly in the hamstrings. Short hamstrings draw the pelvis forwards from their ideal position directly over the shoulders and head before you lift the legs. This forward pelvic position makes balancing incredibly hard when you lift the second leg.

The solution? Working on hamstring length within a practice before attempting the pose can work if your hamstrings are nearly long enough.

forward fold yoga headstand prep
Image Credit: Jen Armstrong via Zenarmstrong.

But for most of us it will be a case of working on hamstring length over weeks or maybe months before you can achieve that ideal of hips over head. My favourite poses for this are parsvottanāsana (intense side stretch), janu sirsāsana (head to knee pose) and every version of uttanāsana (forward fold).

2. SUPER SHOULDERS

While balancing in headstand, the forearms are actively pushing down into the mat to allow the body to grow upwards from a firm base. All of the muscles round the shoulder blade are engaged to stabilise the actual shoulder joint. It takes time and effort to build enough strength in the right places achieve this action. This is where arm balancing poses will help – adho mukha śvānāsana (down dog) and any plank variations are a great place to start. As your shoulders strengthen up move on to ardha pincha mayurāsana (dolphin) and maybe bakāsana (crow) as they will really reap further benefits upper body strength.

3. CORE CONTROL

Headstands need core strength in spades. Your core is what provides the stable foundations from which you can lift your legs. It is what gives the inversion stability and balance. Core strength can even compensate for lack of hamstring length or upper body strength.

plank core prep headstand yoga
Image Credit: Li Sun via Pexels.

My favourite core strengtheners are side planks and planks in any variations you like. They are great for static strength. But what about the dynamic strength needed in the core as the legs leave the ground and float overhead? For that you need a dynamic workout. I use forearm plank into dolphin and back. Repeated 5, 10, 20, 30 times – starting with just a few reps and gradually building up by adding 1 or 2 reps each week. As a strength and conditioning workout his exercise is best done on alternate days – not every day. It is fabulous at getting a strong and toned core – what is not to love?

4. COURAGE

For me this is the keystone of any inversion. You can have all of the physical elements of a headstand in the bag but if you head won’t let you turn upside-down it will never work. It takes nerve to balance on your head. It is natural to fear toppling over and hurting yourself. So how can we work to build the courage to try our first headstand?

Spend time in dolphin – stay there for a few breaths at a time. Try lifting one leg at a time to get the body used to the action needed to get into headstand in the future. Try using the headstand arm and head position in a variation of dolphin and walk the feet towards the head to work on getting the hips over the shoulders. This also helps you to get used to being upside down. One day you will feel a delicious lightness in the body as you reach the point of balance. Here is where leg lifting is possible. If you find this point – practice lifting one leg at a time in line with the body into one legged head stand. And when you can do this you are almost ready for the full expression of the pose.

prep headstand yoga inversion
Image Credit: Dane Wetton via Unsplash.

But most importantly – imagine your self floating into the perfect headstand. Picture yourself poised on your head as you breathe deeply. Explore how it will feel and what you will see in your minds eye. Did you know that imagining an activity actually lights up the same parts of the brain that we need use to physically do an activity? This sets up the neural pathways needed to succeed. It makes that activity familiar and altogether less scary when you try it for real. Isn’t that amazing?

Bringing it All Together

The path to a perfect headstand is not always smooth. You may find some of the elements come easily but others elude you for months. Be patient. Do not rush. Headstands are worth waiting for.

And of course, not every yogi will be able to achieve a full headstand. Injuries may make it impossible. Headstands are traditionally contraindicated for folk with high blood pressure or hiatus hernia amongst other things. I would also add that anyone with neck problems should think carefully before attempting the full expression of the pose. This is where a headstool still might be worth considering if you want to invert but not put pressure on your neck.

I really hope you enjoy your journey to headstand as much as I have enjoyed mine. It has been one of the most satisfying yoga poses I have, as yet, accomplished. I wish you happy headstand-ing!

Sally Schofield

Yogi’s Guide: Flexibility and What Limits it.

Yogi's Guide: Flexibility and What Limits it.

We are not all bendy. Even if you are born bendy, that flexibility tends to reduce with age – unless you do something about it. Every yogi knows that yoga is a GREAT way to maintain flexibility as you grow older. And even if you have the flexibility of an ironing board, yoga will help to regain mobility that you have lost over the years. But why do some joints open up more easily than others? And how do you know when to keep working on opening or when to accept the range of movement that you have? It’s easy when you know how – let me explain.

It’s About How You Are Built

No two people are built the same. Yes, we tend to have the same number of bones in roughly the same places but nature makes us all subtly different. Many people have the same length legs but if you look at the lengths of their femurs (thigh bones) and tibias (shin bones) some will have long femurs and short tibias and others will have short thighs and long shins. Similarly some folks will have long bodies and short legs but be the same height as people with long legs and short bodies.

If we look more closely at individual joints there are also differences in how they are built that influence their range of movement. The hip is a

hip joint opening yoga flexibility
Image Credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash.

great example of this. Our hip is a ball and socket joint. If one persons hip socket (acetabulum) points a bit more sideways they will find it SO much easier to take a wide legged stance in prasaritta padotanāsana (wide legged forward fold) than someone who has downward facing hip sockets. Both down and sideways facing hip sockets are perfectly normal and natural but the one you have will be part of what determines how wide your legs can go. And no matter how hard we try we cannot change how we are built.

Super Important Soft Tissues

Bones are not the only thing that limits range of movement in a joint. Every joint has soft tissues holding it together – capsules and ligaments go from bone to bone like guy ropes. They are designed to prevent too much movement in a joint. A healthy joint that has no injuries or disease will have a certain range of movement before the ligaments go tight and stop further movement. This prevents the joint from damage and is a good thing. You would not want to stretch these tissues so much that they no longer protect the joint from damage.

However, ligaments or capsules that have been damaged and shortened they can limit range of movement. For example the shoulder can get very stiff and painful if the capsule becomes inflamed and tight after an injury. In this instance, as a physiotherapist, I would teach someone to stretch those structures back to regain the range of movement and reduce the pain.

Marvellous Muscles and Fabulous Fascia

muscles facia body yoga
Image Credit: Jasper Graetsch via Unsplash.

The human body is SO much more than bones and joints. Arguably the most important structure in the body is now though to be the myofascial system. Traditionally we have thought about muscle tightness being the major factor that limits range of movements. How often do we hear the hamstrings (back of thigh muscles) being blamed for someone not being able to touch their toes? But this is all rather unfair because the muscles are only part of the story.

Muscles are made up of muscle fibres. These fibres are held together in bundles by thin sheets of connective tissue called fascia – imagine cling film and you are pretty close to what fascia looks like. These sheets of fascia all link up to each other to wrap around the whole muscle AND they join up with other soft tissues above and below. For example the fascia in the hamstring muscles links with soft tissues in the buttocks and behind the knee into the calf.

If we look even wider, the fascia links a whole series of soft tissue structures through the body from finger tip to finger tip across the chest; from head to foot; and spiralling round the body. These care called myofascial planes or anatomy trains and a search on YouTube brings up some lovely, gruesome videos of anatomical disections of them if you are interested.

Motion is Lotion

So, myofascial planes are made up of muscles and fascia, cover large areas of the body and sort of hold us all together. So far, so good. But how do they affect movement?

Myofascial tissues love movement. If you don’t move your myofascial system regularly it loses it’s ability to move. If myofascia stops moving, the joints also stop moving as much. And this is how we lose flexibility as we age – the old saying of ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it’ is SO true.

The good news is that myofascial mobility is REAL easy to get back. All you need to do is move. And keep moving. Fascia will gain length and regain its ability to move pretty quickly. That is how we become more flexible in the short space of a yoga class. And, we all know that if you practice every day for a few days your flexibility will improve day on day. But, if you then skip a few days the next time you get on the mat you will have stiffened up again. That is the because not moving means the myofascia loses the ability to slide and glide – it actually dries out and the layers stick together until movement ‘oils’ the system again and it gets moving again.

But What Is Stopping ME Moving?

Each of the structures we have talked about have a distinctive feeling when they limit movement. By listening to the body and responding to what you feel you can work out what is stopping you. By practicing mindfully we can work with the body to open joints in directions that are safe and beneficial. And, more importantly, we will know when to stop pushing into a direction that is never going to change.

All you need to do is ask yourself 3 simple questions as you practice. And have the humility to take the right action …

1. WHAT AM I FEELING?

childs pose muscle yoga
Image Credit: Form via Unsplash.

Most people will describe either a stretching feeling or a squashing feeling. Stretches tend to be on the side of the body that is lengthening, for example the back of the legs in uttanāsana (forward fold). Squashing feelings tend to be on the opposite side to stretches – think front of hips in uttanāsana. Squashing feelings are caused by something pressing on something else. It may be your belly on your thighs in uttanāsana or thighs on calves in balāsana (child pose). Though this squashing of soft tissues can be uncomfortable it will not usually cause damage to the tissues that are compressed. You may still want to modify the pose to ease the discomfort though.

BUT, if the squashing feeling is a pinching sensation and over a joint then it is likely that the joint has gone as far as it will ever go. You are pressing bone against bone. This will not damage your joint if you do it occasionally but it could do if you keep on doing it again and again and again over weeks, months and years.  So what should you do? Ease off, come away from that extreme range of motion until the pinching goes away. And, more importantly accept that your joint will never go further than that.

2. WHERE AM I FEELING IT?

Generally feelings in tissues that are lengthening are good and have the potential to increase range of movement. Feelings in tissues being squashed are at best uncomfortable; at worst damaging and in all cases not going to result in increased range of movement so are best avoided.

3. WHAT HAPPENS AS I HOLD THE POSE?

You have decided this is a good sensation so it is most probably a stretch feeling. That stretch feeling may stay the same (good); decrease (really good) or increase (bad). So what does that mean? And what should a good yogi do?

  • Stretch stays the same – this is not a damaging stretch and will increase length in the tissue. Hold the stretch as long as it is comfortable.
  • Stretch gets less – this is great and means that the myofascial tissues are starting to lengthen in response to the stretch. Go with it – feel free to ease into the range of movement until the stretch feeling comes back.
  • Stretch is painful and / or increases – this is bad. It is your body telling you to ease off. Basically you have triggered the damage sensors in the tissues. They have raised the alarm and muscles are starting to contract protect the body. This will never result in lengthened tissues. It actually gives short, tight tissues and reduces flexibility. You need to ease away from the extreme pose until the stretch is mild and comfortable. Then hold it there.

The Last Word

So, joints limited by bony architecture will not move further and pushing them risks damage. Accept it and move on!

Joints limited by soft tissues have a HUGE potential to move further but be kind to them. Ease into greater ranges of movement slowly, keep the stretch sensations comfortable. Enjoy the feeling of release and the openness that greater flexibility brings. It may take months or years to achieve your full potential in terms of range of movement – so enjoy the journey!

Sally Schofield

6 Basic Principles for Beginners and Beyond

6 Basic Principles for Beginners and Beyond

Ever wondered how your yoga teacher knows when to breathe in or out as you move through a sequence of poses? Do you know how hard to push that stretch – I mean, how much stretch is a good stretch after all? And what is that ‘microbend’ in knees and elbows all about? I know it all confused me to begin with – knowing when to do what was a bit of a ‘black art’ I thought. But no – there are a few basic rules that can be learnt and applied to any pose or practice.

And getting to grips with a few basic principles opens up a whole new world of yoga opportunities. Home practice becomes SO much less daunting. You might become confident enough to try a mysore class (where students work through poses at their own pace without instructions from the teacher). Or you might just enjoy your current classes more because you have one less thing to worry about. Wherever you are on your yoga journey, these simple rules really do have the potential to deepen your practice. So, read on to discover some of the best foundations for your yoga practice.

1. INHALE TO BACKBEND

Anytime you are doing backbends or opening the front of the body you are extending the spine and hips. Think bhujańgāsana (cobra) or utthita hastāsana (arms overhead) and notice the stretch at the front of the body. When this is happening the chest is able to expand beautifully too, so taking a deep breath in as you back bend makes sense. Working with the body like this adds value to the extension and expansion combination of the movement – we are simply working with what nature designed us to do. And it feels good!

2. EXHALE TO FOLD

yoga fold janu sirsasana
Image Credit: Jonathan Borba via Pexels.

Folding forwards stretches the back of the body and ‘squashes’ the front. Think about uttasāsana (standing forward fold) or janu sirsāsana (head to knee pose). Notice that there is less room in the chest for air as the diaphragm is pressed up under the lungs – basically the abdominal contents are squashed upwards. This makes us naturally breathe out when we bend forward so this basic principle is real easy to get the hang of. Breathing out on forward folds is simply more comfortable than the alternative.

3. EXHALE TO TWIST, INHALE TO RETURN TO CENTRE

This one is partly about space available for air too. As we twist the abdominal contents are squashed and press up under the diaphragm just like on forward folds. So air is naturally pushed out of the lungs as we move into a twist and we are, once again, working with nature here. When we untwist and come back to the centre, our abdominal organs all settle back down taking the pressure away from under the diaphragm and that the lungs can fill again. Hence, breathing out to twist and in to return to centre makes good biological sense.

4. SUKHA VS DUHKHA

sukhasana yoga pose beginners
Image Credit: Patrick Malleret via Unsplash.

Translated form sanskrit this means ‘comfort vs suffering’. Think of a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 = really comfortable (sukha) and 10 = horrible (duhkha). Then imagine you are awarding a number between 0 and 10 to how comfortable a particular yoga pose is for you as you are doing it. If you are awarding high numbers (maybe 6/10 or over) then you are probably pushing too hard to achieve something that your body is not yet ready to do. On the basis that yoga should never be painful then low numbers are generally better than high numbers so my advise would be to ease off until you are more comfortable. Poses like savasana (corpse pose) or sukasana (easy pose) need to be really comfortable, ideally scoring 0 or 1, so modify the pose and use props until you can score 0 or 1.

5. HOW MUCH STRETCH IS A GOOD STRETCH?

One of the great joys of yoga is the way it increases flexibility. In fact, many people will start yoga simply to get more mobile. But can you stretch too much? Yes, yes, and yes again – you can definitely stretch too much. Over stretching risks damaging soft tissues and causing injuries. So how do you know when to stop stretching – when to stop pushing?

The answer is simple – listen to your body. Ask yourself a few simple questions. Is the stretch feeling comfortable? If so, good – if not, ease off. Is the stretch increasing or decreasing as I hold the pose? A stretch feeling that is decreasing or staying the same is a good, safe stretch. A stretch feeling that is increasing is a bad and dangerous stretch – ease off! Mild, comfortable stretches that stay the same or decrease when held are the ones that safely and easily increase range of motion in soft tissues. Trust me – they are the ones that you want.

6. MICROBENDS IN KNEES AND ELBOWS

yoga knees bend beginners
Image Credit: Roman Davayposmotrim via Pexels.

This is also about protecting the soft tissues around the joints. Allowing the knees or elbows to flop into a passive stretch risks injury to the back of the joints. Keeping a microbend activates muscles around the joints and allows the stretching forces to fall on the tissues that can safely lengthen while protecting those that need protecting. The same principle applies to the spine too. Keep the abs activated to prevent the lower back just folding into a hinge in back bends and keep the chin gently pulled towards the chest any time you are looking up activates the right neck muscles – both will protect your spine.

So, next time you are on your mat – think about applying these few simple rules and see just how your body likes them. Be mindful and work with what nature designed for us – it really does work a treat!

Sally Schofield

Yogi’s guide: Starting a Home Practice

Yogi's guide: Starting a Home Practice

The New Year will soon be upon us. That time where resolutions and good intentions abound. Are you wanting to start something to improve your fitness? Maybe help you deal with stress or sleep better? Are you looking for something to look after your physical and mental health that only takes up a few minutes a day? Well, a home yoga practice could be just the thing for you. (more…)

Sally Schofield
Start with a CPD

Christmas Yoga for the Whole Family

Christmas Yoga for the Whole Family

The holiday season means different things to each of us. For many people, it offers the chance to spend some quality time with family and friends. This may mean travel, staying away from home or maybe welcoming others into your home. Parties, family meals and presents are all wonderful for those lucky enough to get to enjoy them but they do bring First World problems too. The reality is that the holiday season is often stressful, challenging and can be a struggle in so many ways. And just when we need our ‘me time’ to get on our mat and yoga it all away there never seems to be the space/time/Christmas Yoga for the Whole Familyenergy (delete as appropriate).

So what is a good yogi to do at Christmas? Simple – get the family to join in with your yoga practice. It will reduce your stress and maybe theirs too. It will work off some of the excess calories that seem to be an inevitable part of the festivities. And it is fun! Ready to give it a go? Read on … (more…)

Sally Schofield