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:
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!
It's gearing up to be ridiculous here in Portland. The city is setting up "cooling stations," and we are pretty tickled that the temperature outside will actually be hotter than inside our hot room!
Practicing Bikram yoga under especially steamy conditions takes a bit of extra attention and planning, so check out these tips for summer self-care- then come on in and cool down a bit (for a change!)
5 Tips for Bikram Yoga in the Summer
I have been practicing Bikram Yoga since 2006. A back injury I sustained in 1999 limited the activities I could do without pain and a co-worker's encouragement got me into my first class. As a stubborn perfectionist in my 20's, my initial yoga practice was intense, disciplined, and with the singular focus to deepen my postures.
After becoming a teacher, practicing consistently over time, dealing with life, and growing as a person, my practice today looks, and feels, WAY different than it did back then! I have always been a rebellious and creative person so it is surprising that I picked Bikram Yoga as my yoga of choice. Here are some tips I use to keep my yoga consistent, nourishing, and healing no matter what is going on.
1) "Just breathe, everything else is optional." - Diane Ducharme-Gardner
The most important thing your teachers constantly remind you to do in class is "breathing always normal." If you never did a single yoga posture, but kept your breathing normal, you would still be practicing yoga! If your yoga postures are very pretty on the outside, but you breathe by your mouth, you hold on tightly to your breath, or your breath creates a panicked response in your central nervous system, you are not doing yoga, you are just making body shapes. By breathing normally in and out by your nose you stay present, keep your system calm, and get the intended healing benefits of the postures. Next time you practice, put a little more attention on how you are breathing, especially during the postures you dislike - you may find you dislike them because you are not breathing.
2) Pay attention
The dialogue helps to create a moving meditation. When you have been practicing for some time it's easy to tune the teacher out and go at the pace you want to go at. Don't fall into that habit! If you stay with the postures word-by-word, you will deepen the connection between your mind and your body. You will hear different things in the dialogue and you will begin to understand them differently. "Nice and tight contraction" and "completely relax" will each take on new meaning from practice to practice. You will understand your muscles and injuries and sensations in your body. You will start to be able to make better decisions in your practice. Pay attention with your ears, the feelings in your body, and the energy you have on any given day.
3) Adjust your intensity
This may be one of the most important lessons I've learned over time. The postures should always be done with the correct alignment and precision of technique. However, the intensity you apply to them should change on a regular basis. If you are feeling great, have gotten lots of sleep, are well hydrated and fed, and have laser beam focus you can practice much differently than if you have been working overnight shifts, have been drinking nothing but coffee, and haven't slept in 3 days. You need to consider yourself in the present moment when you practice because if you don't, you will start to hate your yoga. You should always leave the studio feeling better than you did when you entered it. If you are constantly tired, are in pain, or dread coming back, something needs to change. Give yourself permission to push less, rest more, and perhaps be kinder with yourself during your 90 minutes. Life is crazy and yoga should always make you feel like you can handle it better. If yoga is not helping you, talk to your teachers, they have been there, too, and can help!
4) We're all in this together
I recently had a student tell me she was feeling frustrated and discouraged because she felt like everyone else in the room was "getting it" and had great postures and she was the only one that was struggling. Here's a tip from someone that stands on the podium and also stands on a mat - none of us get it and we're all struggling! What I mean by that is you can't tell what is going on with someone internally by looking at them from the outside. I've known people with beautiful looking yoga postures that struggled with chronic pain. I've known people with some wonky looking postures that were so joyous and felt so good in their bodies that you always wanted to be around them. I discover new things about the dialogue and about myself every time I step onto the mat. People share with me every day both their struggles and their successes and how their yoga is so important. Remember that most of us are doing yoga for a reason - because we need it.
5) Simply show up
I can't tell you how many times people come up to the front desk terrified of stepping into the room after a long hiatus. They build up the class so intensely in their heads and put huge expectations on themselves for what they need to accomplish. Please go back to the first tip above - just breathe. Most importantly - just show up. The hardest yoga posture you will ever do is Showing-Up-To-Classasana. Bikram Yoga is a beginner's series designed to heal, strengthen, and create resilience in the mind, body, and spirit. Keep this in mind when you step into the room. Take the pressure of performance off yourself an embrace the heat and the healing and the community support of your fellow practitioners.
What do you think about these yoga tips? Which one are you most interested in practicing? I can't wait to meet you all and talk everything yoga with you next week!
Audrey Holst is a Certified Bikram Yoga Instructor, Studio Owner of Bikram Yoga Natick in Massachussetts and professional Stress Reduction Consultant. She will be in residence at BYSJ this May for a whole week- teaching, mentoring our instructors and giving private lessons to you! View Audrey's teaching schedule here.
Bikram Yoga St. Johns' studio owner, yoga-doer and life-lover, Kay D.