As the first posture in the Bikram yoga class, the job of Half Moon pose (ardha chandrasana) is to get your spine feeling out its range of motion in a bunch of directions, right off the bat.
By stretching up out of your waist, then slowly bending your upper body to the right while pushing your hips to the left beyond your perceived flexibility, you will create an incredible stretch down the side of your body. This side-bending action either stretches or tones every muscle in the torso, increases the lateral flexibility of the spine, opens up the hips and trims the waistline. Oh, what a feeling- and then you get to do it to the left!
TIP: Half moon is the very first posture in the class, so there's no need to push it super hard, especially in the first set! Your body is not quite warmed up yet, so "take it easy, honey." Remember that the first set of every pose is diagnostic- it helps you figure out where your body is in the present moment. Second set is therapeutic- based on what you discovered in the first set, you decide whether to push a bit further, or back off a little more. Your breathing is an excellent indicator of which way to adjust- if you really can't keep your breathing normal (like you're watching TV) then you've done too much! Back off.)
Once we have stretched to both sides, the third part of Half Moon is backward-bending. Your instructor will warn you, "Your back is going to hurt, don't be scared!"
PSA: That doesn't mean that if a part of your body screams in sharp pain, that we think you should push through it! Not at all. This statement is simply a "heads up" that it's normal for the backbend to be uncomfortable- or even "hurt," in the sense of "ouch, I don't usually use those muscles!"
Backbending can be a pretty uncomfortable position at first. It requires you to simultaneously use a lot of strength in your legs, hips and back while also relaxing the neck and stretching the arms and shoulders back as far as you can. The challenge (and any "hurt") is worth it though, because this first backbend is unbeatable at warming up the back muscles and de-stiffening (that's a technical term!) your spine for class, while opening the heart and chest. Be sure to keep your eyes open, so you don't get dizzy.
At this point you have moved your spine straight up, side to side, and backward. Next comes Hands to Feet pose (padha hastasana.) This forward-folding posture continues to stretch the spine while beginning to work on stretching the sciatic nerve, muscles, tendons and ligaments of the legs.
TIP: If you can't grab your heels from behind, bend your knees and try wrapping your elbows behind your calves. Then hold the backs of your ankles and start to straighten out the legs, keeping your grip by keeping pressure with the palms against the ankles. Eventually, you may be able to grab underneath your heels- for now just get as close as you can!
Besides the tremendous stretching, Padha hastasana also helps improve overall circulation to the legs, sends a nice rush of blood to the head, and strengthens biceps, lattisumus dorsi, quadriceps, hands and fingers. Always remember to keep your breath moving calmly, in and out of your nose- a smiling happy face can help. :)
I often think of this dude I knew who always waited until Pranayama was over before he would go in to class: he said it hurt his neck and shoulders. He'd find all kinds of ways to stall: go to the restroom, check his phone, fill his water (again) or change clothes verrrrry sloooooowly...
By skipping this breathing exercise, however, he was missing a bigtime opportunity to warm and prepare for the rest of class precisely (yup!) his neck and shoulders. His hurting was likely due to improper technique, but by avoiding Pranayama he was robbing himself of the chance to ever learn the right way.
Avoiding what challenges you is never the answer.
If Pranayama feels uncomfortable, achy or awkward, chances are you stand to benefit from it greatly! If you do it correctly.
Since none of us came out of the womb with our knuckles glued to our chins performing perfectly synchronized movements coordinated with 6-second inhales and 6-second exhales (ok, maybe Orlo did??) it takes practice and time to learn this technique. Offer yourself patience (which Pranayama will help with, too!) and never give up.
Benefits of Pranayama breathing include:
With 26 postures and one breathing exercise accomplished, the final breathing exercise begins to cool your body down so (after a 2-minute final savasana, of course!) you leave the hot room feeling like a brand new, yoga-lized you.
i"The principle of Ardha-Matsyendrasana and of other spine-twisting asanas is the use of the legs as fulcrums or levers so that the pull of the arms on the two upper corners of the rib box can bring the spinal twist to its maximum potential. The value of the twist is that it exercises, adjusts and rejuvenates the spine, and that it stimulates all the organs of the trunk to better health."
(from "Yoga Postures for Health", compiled from articles in the 1956-59 Self Realization Magazine)
Half Spine Twisting pose improves blood circulation around the spinal nerves, veins and tissues. It increases flexibility of the entire spine and range of motion at the hip joints, helps alleviate back pain caused by lumbago, kyphosis, scoliosis and arthritis. Twisting improves digestion, relieves flatulence and strengthens the abdominal and thigh muscles while providing a tremendous stretch for the illiotibilal (IT) band.
So how come we only do 1 set of this fabulous pose? Bikram might say he ran out of time- but we think it's just so great that only 1 set of it does the job. ;)
How to do:
Q: What if my forehead will never touch my toes?
A: Short answer: it doesn't matter. If you've been to my class (or if you've been reading this blog) you've probably heard me say/write something like "the goal is not the real goal." So while the "goal" of this posture as we say it in class is to touch your head to the feet- really the real goal is what happens along the way, the effect you create in your body simply by trying the right way. In this posture, the real goal is 360-degree-angle stretching, coccyx to toes, coccyx to head.
Q: Why do we grab the big toes only? I'd rather grab my feet!
A: Grabbing just the big toes ensures you create the 360-degree-angle stretching. Here's how it works: Because your only grip is on the toe, you are forced to use the fronts of your legs muscles (quadriceps and shins) to flex the feet and get the heels off the floor. Contracting the fronts of your legs means the backs of your legs can truly stretch from coccyx to the toes. When you pull the toes with your heels off the floor and stretch your body forward from the lower spine, you also stretch your spine from coccyx to the neck, creating 360-angle stretching. If you grabbed your feet from outside or the top (though it might seem more comfortable!) you wouldn't get that stretch to the lower back. As is so often the case (sigh) the uncomfortable way is the right way! So grab your big toes. ;)
The best way to learn any posture and experience for yourself the benefits it has to offer is to come to class on the regular (3-5 times a week is best) and make your body smile. Got other questions? Ask one of our certified instructors next time you are in for class- or drop us a line in the comments below!
This posture comes toward the very end of every Bikram yoga class, paired with Stretching Pose/ Paschimottanasana. Together the two postures provide a lovely final stretch for the hamstrings, shoulders and back while improving circulation to the internal abdominal organs.
How to do:
Among the many specific benefits of Head to Knee pose are:
Many students comment about the transition from Camel Pose to Rabbit Pose: it's very challenging, or it feels amazing- or both! Both poses deeply open the spine, helping ensure proper alignment as well as helping maintain the health of the intervertebral disks, whose spongy nature helps them absorb shock from daily movement.
Rabbit pose improves digestion, helps regulate metabolism and helps alleviate common cold and sinus symptoms as well as headaches. It benefits the central nervous system by creating maximum space between vertebrae along the back of the spine- which is not only great for stretching your back muscles, but also for the intervertebral disks and for the spinal cord which is protected by the bone joints of the spine.
The front-side compression helps strengthen and tone abdominal muscles. The "throat-choked" feeling of the chin tucked into the chest is where this pose nourishes the parathyroid and thyroid glands. Doing Rabbit pose also helps enhance mobility and flexibility of back muscles, spine, scapula and trapezius muscles. Come and try Rabbit in class today and make your body smile!
Camel is great for so many things! Among its benefits are:
This is a posture where it's very normal, especially as a beginner, to feel dizzy, nauseous or emotional. The best thing to do is? Breathe. Immediately after you exit the posture, lie down in savasana (try to skip the water, handtowel, or whatever else you automatically reach for in that moment.) No worries, those feelings will pass- or you may even learn to like them! Backward bending this way is most likely a new sensation, and opening your chest, hips and throat can feel vulnerable.
Here's a video Peter and I shot earlier this summer with our special guest teacher Audrey Holst from Bikram Yoga Natick. I asked Audrey if she had noticed any trends among our students in the way we are practicing, and together we agreed that Camel pose could use some attention to make sure you all are getting the goody mentioned above, without causing strain or pain. Enjoy, and please let us know if these tips are helpful for you!
Half Tortoise pose provides maximum relaxation effect by getting your head below your heart, sending freshly oxygenated high-speed blood rushing into and around your brain. It's said that 30 seconds in this posture is as relaxing as 8 full hours of sleep!
Among the numerous benefits of Half Tortoise pose:
How to do:
Sit down kneel-down position with your hips on your heels. Bring your arms over your head sideways, hands-palms together and cross your thumbs. Try to keep your hips on the heels throughout the posture. Exhale breathing and go down, arms and head together. Touch your forehead on the floor, the edge of your pinkie fingers on the floor, elbows locked. Stretch your arms forward so your shoulder blades come off the spine, still trying to keep your hips on your heels. Stay for about 30 seconds and stretch, breathing calmly in and out by the nose. Inhale breathing and slowly come up with your arms and head together. Relax on your back in savasana for 20 seconds.
Fixed Firm pose is the first in our series of kneeling postures. From the beginning you will feel a stretching or extension in your ankles, knees and quadriceps- and as you move deeper into the posture you will also stretch the spleen, lymph glands in your armpits. This posture employs the tourniquet effect right off the bat by compressing the knee joints, and as you move deeper you'll also compress the lower back and adrenal glands.
Physical benefits of Fixed Firm include: improved circulation to kidneys, liver, pancreas and bowels for improved digestion; increased flexibility of knees and ankles; boosted immune system through stimulation of the spleen and lymphatic system; improved adrenal funtion by compression in the lower back, stretching muscles of the thighs, abdomen and pelvis; flushing knees and ankles with fresh high speed blood to loosen scar tissue and relieve arthritic symptoms; improved menstrual symptoms; relief of sciatica, gout and varicose veins.
One major psychological or spiritual benefit of this one (especially when dealing with knee injury or tightness) is... Patience! Keep in mind it could take you weeks, months or even years to even sit your hips down between the heels. Remember that as long as you try the right way one step at a time you are getting 100% of the benefit.
Fixed Firm can be challenging for athletes with tight quads and anyone experiencing knee injuries, chronic tightness or knee pain. The key to success is: take it easy, honey. This is an anatomically correct pose! It helps rebuild a natural range of motion for the knee, which is mainly a hinge joint but also does have a bit of rotation. Only go so far in the posture as you feel discomfort- but never pain- in the knees.
For this one it will help you to always remember one of our favorite Bikram quotes: “Do not mess with the knees. You can mess with the gods, but you cannot mess with the knees.” – Bikram Choudhury
Bikram Yoga St. Johns' studio owner, yoga-doer and life-lover, Kay D.