Do you have a love/hate relationship with plank? Many students find they are totally OVER it when they are in the midst of plank but feel super strong once they are done. Sometimes it can be challenging to find that sweet spot in plank where you are comfortably uncomfortable. Let’s take a look on how you can get the most out of plank and make it accessible no matter your ability.
Kumnhakasana, or plank pose, strengthens all the core muscle groups in the body. It is especially helpful for building strength in the abdomen, chest, and low back, arms wrists and shoulders. When fully engaged, it also strengthens the legs and glutes. Did you know that plank technically an arm balance?
Holding plank for an extended number of breaths up to several minutes not only builds stamina, but also is great for toning the nervous system too.
Here’s how to do it:
- Start in tabletop, on all 4’s. Knees and hips stacked, as well as shoulders and wrists allowing the body to access the muscle groups fully. Check to make sure your elbow creases are facing the opposite corners of your mat.
- Now, push the area between your shoulder blades towards the ceiling, activate (code word for flex) your chest and pull your belly button toward your spine.
- Then step one foot back, staying on your toes, and push the other foot back to meet it, activate all of the muscles in the legs and energetically push back through your heels. Adjust your gaze a few inches in front of your hands
- You want your back in a flat straight table-top from the crown of your head to the tip of your tailbone, then your legs angling down to your feet.
- As you get stronger you may choose to create an angle from the tip of your crown to your feet, but for most of us, this ends up taking its toll on the lower back after a few breaths.
If the full expression of plank isn’t in your practice, or if it’s in your practice during the first sun salutation and then after the third or fourth round you start to notice you may need a break, here are some ways to make it easier:
- Wrist pain. The simplest way to assist the wrists in plank is to either put one or both knees down. This changes the angle and takes a load off. You can also avoid the wrists all together by placing your forearms in an “11” on the mat in front of you. Be sure those elbows are aligned directly under the shoulders. You can stick a block between your hands if your hands tend to drift towards the midline.
- Weak Core (abdomen or back). The solution here is to place one or both knees on the ground, everything else remains the same. If you don’t have an injury, don’t cheat yourself here and try to hold plank in the full expression and then if you are unable to hold the shape in proper alignment, then put one or both knees down.
- Shaking. This is normal, especially in holding plank for an extended amount of time. Strength builds in layers and shaking is your body’s way of letting your muscles acces more energy to stay there longer. You can always put your knees down if its too much. Over time, the length of time it takes you to get to shaking will increase as you build your strength.
- Getting down on the floor is hard. Getting on the floor isn’t accessible for everyone, you can still gain some benefits from plank sitting in a chair. Simply sit with your feet flat on the ground, and spine up straight. Place your hands on your knees and follow the same stems for activating the muscle groups for plank. You can also do this standing by placing your hands on the wall, back of a chair, counter, stool, or even blocks to achieve various distances from the floor.
The biggest mistake that seems to happen in plank, no matter what style of plank you are doing is not using your whole body. If your whole body is engaged, you will find that you can hold it for MUCH longer and get much more benefit out of it long term. Happy Planking!
Wheel pose looks pretty cool right? I have memories of childhood tumbling when I see and practice wheel. It’s one to work towards often to increase upper body strength and spine mobility. Even though it looks cool it is inaccessible to many people. Wheel pose requires a lot of power and flexibility in the entire body, upper and lower. It also requires substantial warm-up and loads of concentration.
Just because of the requirements list, many can stray from it, or not find it accessible enough even to try to work on it, this is where, as with most things in yoga, props are our friends!
Here’s how to do it:
Start by lying flat on your on your back, step your heels as close as possible to your sits bones, knees tented up. Ensure your feet are hip distance apart and parallel to each other. It is hard to see on yourself, but feel that your knees are aiming between your second and third toes.
Next, elongate the spine and ensure it is neutral, tip your pelvis towards the floor until your lower back begins to curve away from the mat.
Then place your flat hands (as if carrying pizzas) on either side of your ears, your fingertips should be pointing towards your shoulders, wrists are parallel to the back of your mat. Hug your upper arms toward each other until they are parallel, your elbows pointing straight back.
Avoid rounding your shoulders, press your shoulder blades into your back and encourage the chest to expand and lift.
When you are ready for lift off, press down through your hands and feet, and lift up onto the crown of your head. This is a midpoint—and a stage you may need to repeat for weeks or months, holding for several breaths each time, before you can lift all the way up while maintaining safe and strong alignment. In this shape, make sure that you continue to root your hands and feet into the earth. Maintain your knees forward between the second and third toe and continuing to push the elbows back. Keep your shoulder blades pushed into your back and continue to broaden your chest.
The next step is to lift your head. You are going to do more pressing down to accomplish this. Press more, rooting through your hands and feet even more, bring your arms and lets slightly closer to straight. Once your head is up, hold this for several breaths. Avoid scrunching the spine by energetically reaching both the tailbone and the crown of the head toward the floor and away from each other. I like to think of yoga poses as shapes, and here we are a parachute with air beneath it. Your spine is creating a smooth and gradual rather than sharp curve. Keep your thighs and arms parallel as you push through your hip and arm pits.
When you’re ready to be flat on the ground, try to avoid a crash landing and maintain the parallel alignment while descending. Start by tucking your chin to your chest and lower slowly and slightly towards the back of the mat. This will keep your alignment. A good way to check this is to see if your hands are back by your ears as they were when you started.
Here’s where I see people get a flat tire in wheel pose:
- Waiting until the end of your practice. The best place for wheel is right in the middle, allowing sufficient warmup time and ensuring you aren’t overtired from a rigorous practice.
- Feet too far from your rear end. This makes it harder to push up. Move your feet as close as possible to your sits bones.
- Thighs or arms or both aren’t parallel. Our joints are happiest when they are stacked because we can better access and support them with our muscles. If you aren’t able to hug your thighs or upper arms in to a parallel position, try using a strap around your legs or arms or both to enable this alignment and access this strength.
- Dumping or sickled wrists. If this hurts your wrists at any point, or they feel “collapsed” you can modify this by using blocks under you hands, either flat or angled on the wall to decrease the sharpness of the angle. Alternatively, you can also go to forearms if you have the shoulder flexibility.
The caveat to wheel is that many people don’t realize there are options to practice and make it accessible, so that you can get the benefit of wheel without full expression of the pose.
Option 1: (bolster)
Start with a bolster lengthwise in the center of your mat. Sit on the edge of the bolster, and lie back on to the bolster, with your head touching the floor. Tent your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. This may be plenty for you, especially if you have a sensitive back, or wrist or shoulder injuries. This shape will still provide a backbend and beautiful shoulder opening.
Option 2: (bolster)
From Option 1, place your hands on the floor next to your ears, with your fingertips pointing towards your shoulders. Remember to maintain parallel arms and thighs (even with the help of a strap). Press firmly into your hands and feet and lift your glutes off the bolster, pushing your pelvis into the air, like you’re in bridge pose. Stay active throughout your entire body as you stay here for a few breaths.
Option 3: (bolster, 2-3 blocks or yoga wheel)
For this option, you will build a platform with the blocks and bolster to support you in wheel. Elevating your body allows you to express the pose while requiring less strength.
Start by placing the blocks on the flat sides underneath the bolster. Be sure to evenly space them to support the length of the bolster. You can increase the height by adding additional blocks or utilizing a yoga wheel.
You will start by sitting on the edge of the bolster with your feet flat on the floor. This will be a little tricker with the height, so tuck your chin towards your chest and slowly roll onto the bolster, don’t be afraid to use your hands for stability getting down there.
Place your hands beside your ears, fingertips towards the shoulders. Remember to maintain parallel arms and thighs (even with the help of a strap). Press firmly into your hands and feet and lift your glutes off the bolster, pushing your pelvis into the air, like you’re in bridge pose. This time continue pushing through your arms and shoulders (and feet) and feel your upper back and maybe shoulders blades push up off the floor, maybe even until the crown of the head rests (gently – not bearing weight) on the floor
Lift up onto the crown of your head. This is a midpoint—and a stage you may need to repeat for weeks or months, holding for several breaths each time, before you can lift all the way up while maintaining safe and strong alignment. In this shape, make sure that you continue to root your hands and feet into the earth. Maintain your knees forward between the second and third toe and continuing to push the elbows back. Keep your shoulder blades pushed into your back and continue to broaden your chest.
Keep your thighs and arms parallel as you push through your hip and armpits and your head lifts off too. Once your head is up, hold this for several breaths. Continuing to straighten the arms and legs. Avoid scrunching the spine by reaching through both the tailbone and the crown of the head toward the floor and away from each other.
When you are ready to come down, tuck your chin to your chest and slowly lower from your elbows, lowering a vertebra at a time all the way down to your tailbone.
Remember that any point is a stopping point and you can remain active throughout your body and breath in that shape.
To get off the props in any of these options, roll to the side to roll off of them, or tuck your chin and use your core to sit up.
The key to wheel is to just keep practicing. When you find your maximum shape, whether that is the full expression of wheel, just finding the proper placement before lifting off, or somewhere in between–practice it a few times, with proper alignment, and stay there a few breaths. Strength builds in layers, and before you know it you will be there.
Child’s pose…either the most comfortable reprieve from your practice you’ve ever experienced or the most odd and uncomfortable, possibly even suffocating thing you’ve done. Today we are going to fix that.
Balasana, or child’s pose, packs lots of benefits whether you are working through the traditional expression of the pose or one of the modifications you will learn below. It quiets the mind, improves digestion, it elongates the lower back, opens the hips, and reminds us that resting isn’t a bad practice.
Here’s how to do it:
Start in tabletop, on all 4’s. Knees and hips stacked, as well as shoulders and wrists. Now bring your toes together, keeping your knees in line with your hips. This may be far enough apart for your knees for you to be comfortable or you may need to spread your knees wider, or bring them closer together, either is fine.
Next sink your rear towards your heels, and lower your forehead to the mat. Arms can be outstretched in front of you with palms down for a more active pose, palms up for a more restorative pose, or arms down at your sides.
So where does this turn into an uncomfortable suffocation station and what to do instead:
- Knee trouble/pain. If your knees are bothering you or you just don’t have enough room to lower your rear to your heels, try placing a blanket or bolster between your calves and the back of your thighs to provide extra support.
- Head doesn’t reach the ground. Instead of hanging your neck or sitting in unsafe alignment, consider stacking your fists under your forehead to provide support, blocks also work great for this.
- Booty in the air. It takes time for this to come down, sometimes it happens in the same practice and sometimes it takes weeks or months, help to ease the booty down to the heels and experience more low back release by placing a block under your forehead.
- Can’t breathe/suffocation station. Sometimes this happens because our balance isn’t quite right, and our faces are smashed on the mat, and sometimes it’s because we are proportionally larger on top and there just isn’t room. The block trick, placing a block under the forehead helps with both of these.
- Looking for more of an outer hip stretch. The further apart your knees are, the more inner hip opening you will experience, the closer together your knees are the more outer hip opening you will experience.
Take these tips to heart so that you can enjoy the benefits of child’s pose in your practice.
Malasana, sometimes also called Garland Pose or Yogi Squat looks very simple but is often difficult for us to achieve. It requires the perfect balance of mobility and stability in the ankles, knees, hips, pelvis, and spine, as it works the quadricep, hamstring, glute, and calf muscles of the legs, plus, it strengthens the lower back and core.
There are also many benefits that malasana has for your body, especially in our culture of sitting. It is a very effective way to release the lower back, to ground your energy, and even to tone the entire lower body. It works the quadricep, hamstring, glute, and calf muscles of the legs, plus, it strengthens the lower back and core.
Here’s how to do it:
Start by placing your feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart, and turning your toes out just a bit. Don’t worry if you don’t get it just right, you can always re-adjust your stance later. Next, drop your hips as if sitting down, as far as you can drop them. Depending on your body proportions and flexibility, your heels may lift anywhere from just a bit to a lot, and that’s okay. Try to keep them reaching for the floor, but don’t force the heels down.
Once your lower half is situated and stable, bring your elbows inside your knees, press your palms together, in prayer position. Use your elbows to further guide your knees apart, and push your chest through your knees. Focus on lengthening your spine. Depending on your torso length, you may find your elbows a little higher or lower on the inner thighs.
There can be some trouble shooting for malasana, here is what I see most often:
- Stressing over heels not touching the ground. Heels not reaching the ground can mean lots of things, from tighter hamstrings, to knee troubles, to simply unchanging body proportions. The simplest solution in class is to slide your blanket up under your heels to support your malasana base.
- Knees collapsed in. This is one you want to be cautious of, as we really want to protect our knee joints. Often times this can come from tight hip flexors or even an unstable core. Ensure the knees are tracking over the center of the ankle and the toes are pointed the same direction as the knees. Sometimes this may mean that you have to adjust the width of your feet to be slightly wider or narrower depending on your proportions.
- Aystemmetry. Often this is due to a previous lower body injury, and sometimes we are just tighter on the dominant side of our body. If your malsana is leaning or tilting unevenly—lift your hips, using a prop such as a block, blanket, or even a small chair under your hips until your hips are parallel with the floor and the compromised side is in balancedFalling backwards. Falls happen! If you find yourself falling in malasana, usually this happens when trying to get those heels to the ground, try tucking a block behind your sits bones. You want to still encourage your weight to be in your feet, but that little support can keep you from falling backwards and allow you to express the pose.
Bonus tip: Practice this at home by holding on to a countertop or door knob and sinking your hips back (to a block or not) so that you can work on the shape, alignment, and stabilizing those muscles with less risk of falling.
Practice these tips and soon you will be able to sit in malasana and use it as a go to position to counteract all of the sitting we do in our day-to-day lives.