Oh, hey there! I see you like yoga. That’s great. And you like a little cardio with that too, huh? In the form of running, tennis, bicycling, elliptical machines, soccer practice, Zumba, what have you. That’s great too.
See, I get you. Running is a huge part of my life. I try to log at least 20+ miles per week. Sometimes on a treadmill, sometimes with the Orchard St. Runners. I’m also suddenly, magically, on an all-girls, Nike-sponsored basketball team and we get to do cool things like run drills and scrimmage in top secret gyms and try out new gear and go watch the Knicks at MSG while eating an amazing assortment of cheese from the Nike suite. True story.
So I get that as an athlete, you’re faced with all kinds of bodily ailments. Like, for example, really tight hips. Really tight shoulders. Really tight hamstrings. Really tight _______. That’s why you need yoga.
You’re probably even tight in places that you weren’t even aware of (like, your lower back, your glutes, your IT band). All that pounding the pavement and repetitive movement creates stress in the joints and tension in the muscles surrounding them. Aside from just feeling really really good (most of the time, at least), yoga stretches and relaxes the body, easing tension and re-lengthening places that need to be re-lengthened.
What’s that? You think you don’t need to stretch it out? You’ve heard that there’s all this research that disproves the necessity of stretching? Those stretching skeptics may be onto something, I’ll admit. But there’s a far larger body of research out there that supports flexibility and elasticity as a cornerstone of overall health. And you simply don’t increase flexibility without stretching, bottom line.
Rather than listen to the drone of the researchers at large, listen to your own body. No one can argue with your own experience.
Here are 6 poses that have served me well, both on the mat (in yoga class) and off the mat (in sports). Practice in good health!
SUPTA GOMUKASANA (Reclining Cow’s Face Pose)
Stretches the outer hips and iliotibial (IT) bands
Start on your back and hug both knees into your chest. Try to press your entire spine flat onto the floor. Cross your right knee over your left knee, hiding the left entirely from your view. Keep your knees bent, extend your feet away from each other, and reach up to hold your ankles. Keep the back of your head and your shoulder blades connected to the floor. Need more stretch? Start to draw your feet down and in towards your hips. Hold pose and breathe for 10 breaths. Repeat on left side.
ADHO MUKHA SVANASANA (Downward Facing Dog)
Stretches hamstrings, calves, shoulders, chest, back, ankles and hands; strengthens arms; calms the brain
From hands and knees, walk your hands forward and press into palms, spreading out through the fingers. Tuck toes underneath you and lift the hips up as you straighten your legs. Press your chest back towards the top of your thighs and keep lifting through the sit bones, even as you try to draw your heels down to the floor (your heels might not touch the mat, especially you runners, and that’s ok. Work on drawing your heels down and you’ll get that nice stretch through your calves and Achilles tendons). Breathe here for as long as you want, aim for at least 10 breaths if you’re very tight in the legs and shoulders.
URDHVA MUKHA SVANASANA (Upward Facing Dog)
Stretches the shoulders, chest, and thighs; strengthens the spine, wrists and arms
Lie facedown on your mat and bring your hands underneath your shoulders, drawing elbows in at your sides. As you inhale, lift your head and chest off the mat, continuing to draw the tops of the shoulders down the back and away from the ears. Stay here for a few breaths in Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose); lower to the mat on your exhale. Slide your hands back along your mid-ribs, until your wrists are right under your elbows. On your inhale, press into hands and lift the head, chest, and the tops of the thighs and shins off the mat, straightening your arms completely. Firm the shoulder blades together on your back. Think about trying to drag your whole torso between your arms toward the front of the mat, dropping hips, lifting chest. Keep thigh muscles engaged and lifted. Stay here for 3-5 breaths, then tap the knees down to mat, tuck the toes, and press back to Downward Facing Dog. Repeat 3-4 more times. (A NOTE ABOUT UPWARD DOG: if you experience wrist pain, check to make sure the shoulders are stacked directly over the wrists and not pitching forward. If this still doesn’t help, stick with Cobra for a while, and still enjoy the benefits of opening the front of the body).
ANJANEYASANA (Crescent Moon Pose)
Stretches the top of the hip flexors and quadriceps, the psoas, and opens the chest, armpits, abdomen and shoulders
From Downward Facing Dog, step your right foot forward between your hands, right knee deeply bent, and drop the left knee to the mat. You’ll already start to get a stretch in the top of the left hip flexor and thigh. To go deeper, place your hands on top of the right thigh and gently press down as you lift your chest up. Keep the abs engaged so you don’t sink into your lower back. Need to go even deeper? Hook your thumbs together and lift those arms way up overhead and slightly back, spreading the chest wide and stretching the armpits and shoulders. Take 5-10 breaths here. Release hands back down to floor, press back to Downward Dog. Repeat left side.
EKA PADA RAJAKAPOTASANA (Pigeon Pose)
Stretches outer and inner hips, psoas, thighs, knees
From Downward Facing Dog, step your right foot forward behind your left wrist. Allow your right knee to slowly lower to the ground, just behind the right wrist, then start to lower your extended left leg straight behind you. You can stay seated upright, opening the front of the body including the chest and abdomen, or you can fold forward over your front shin, going deeper into your hip. Ideally, you’re trying to keep your front shin parallel to the top edge of your mat, which is difficult for most of us. Stay here for as many breaths as you can, at least 20 if possible (My teacher says we should stay here for 40 minutes before really getting into the deep stuff, but who’s got the time these days?). Press into your hands and lift back to Downward Dog, repeat on left side. (A NOTE ABOUT PIGEON: Pigeon is an entirely personal experience and no two people will have the exact same-looking Pigeon. There are a number of variations and modifications to you if you struggle with knee or lower back pain. Comment below with your questions/concerns if you want! I’m here to help your Pigeon.)
PASCHIMOTTANASANA (Seated Forward Fold)
Stretches and lengthens the entire back body: calves, hamstrings, spine, calms your brain and body after intense workouts
Take a seat and extend your legs out in front of you, flexing your feet. Press palms down into mat alongside your hips to sit as tall as possible, gently drawing the abs back. On an exhale, start to walk your hands forward toward your feet, coming down as far as you can without force. Allow your head to drop slightly to relax, and direct the breath into your middle- and upper-spine, feeling the back body expand. Stay for 10-15 breaths. Walk hands back to hips, slowly rolling spine up to sit tall once again.