I think there’s a common misconception that yoga is just handstand, arm balance, headstand, and/or trick after trick. I think this misconception is perpetuated by what you see on social media because “trick” photos get more likes. While you may walk into a class where one of these poses are taught, that doesn’t make it more of a yoga class than one where they’re not taught. It also doesn’t mean that you a) have to do the pose or b) should do that pose.
Have you thought about whether or not you’ve actually “earned the right” to do a particular movement pattern? If you’ve taken my classes in the past, especially the ones I taught at Equinox, you’ve probably heard me use this phrase: “earn the right.” It means, “do you have the necessary strength and/or mobility to perform the movement correctly and safely?” If not, you should be working on the skills necessary to do the movement BEFORE moving onto the movement itself.
Using handstand as an example, I encourage you to either stand in front of a mirror OR photograph yourself in the following position:
Stand with your big toes touching and heels slightly apart so that your legs are in neutral. Lift your arms overhead and extend your wrists so that the palms face the ceiling. Engage your belly by imagining you can suck your bellybutton to the back of your body. Pretend there is a yoga block between your forearms. Squeeze (adduct) your arms towards one another so that the block does not fall.
- Can your biceps line up next to your ears or are your arms slightly forward (or a lot forward)?
- If they’re in the right spot, is your back arched? If so, focus on engaging the belly & bringing the pelvis back into neutral. When you do this, do your arms shift out of alignment?
These are indicators that you are compensating & not ready to be weight-bearing in an upside down position. Instead of forcing your body into these types of postures, focus on the skills necessary to get yourself there. In the above scenario where the arms are unable to line up to your ears without compensating (i.e. the back has to arch in order for the arms to extend overhead or the legs have to widen to help make room to extend the arms overhead), you’ve probably got a few issues going on here.
- Restricted thoracic mobility (mid-upper back area)
- Restricted shoulder mobility
- Restriction in the pectoral muscles (chest)
- Weakness in the back
- Weakness in the core
In fact, the issues referenced above are common ones resulting from poor posture (resulting from our repetitive day to day activities that I covered in an earlier blog post) and impact whether or not you’re able to safely and correctly perform common exercises in the gym as well – deadlift, squat (particularly a barbell back-loaded squat), overhead press, pulldown or pullup. The reason for this is that you’re unable to get your body into the correct position in the first place in order to successfully perform the movements and therefore, unable to maximize the benefits of the movements. You’re actually setting yourself up for potential injury by performing these movements with a compromised alignment.
There is a difference between flexibility and mobility. While it helps to have flexibility, it’s mobility that helps you get into the required position in order to do these big movement patterns we’ve been discussing. In simple terms, flexibility is the ability of the soft tissues (muscles, ligaments, tendons) to passively stretch. Mobility, on the other hand, is the joint’s (i.e., the point where two bones meet) ability to actively move through its full range of motion. An example of this is the pistol squat. Many of my more flexible students can easily get to the bottom range of this movement, but are not strong enough to stand back up again. Of course, my more inflexible students can’t access this movement pattern at all.
With the example of a handstand, even if you’re flexible enough to get your arms overhead without compensation, you may have difficulty maintaining that position once load is added (your weight). When I say this, I am not referring to an individual who can kick up, but doesn’t have the skill to hold a challenging position like handstand yet. I am referring to the individual who attemps the kick up and their upper body cannot support their weight. Commonly, the elbows start to buckle or the chest starts to sink to the floor. This means you don’t “own” your range of motion. Therefore, when it comes to restrictions to range of motion, it’s important that we not only open tighter areas, but also strengthen the newly found range of motion so that the body can maintain it.
Increase the Range of Motion (ROM) Movements:
- Foam roll thoracic spine
- Triggerpoint pectorals with tennis ball or lacrosse ball
- Archer Stretch (or Open Book Stretch) with a foam roller
- Doorway Stretch or Heart Bench
- W at the wall
- Shoulder CARS
- Praying Mantis using yoga blocks or an elevated surface
- Half-Kneeling Side Bend
- Half-Kneeling Overhead Rotation with dowel
Intro Weight-Bearing Exercises
- Wall Downward Facing Dog
- Overhead Hang with toes supported
- Tabletop Birddog
- Alternating Simple Twist
Weight-Bearing Exercises & Strengthening ROM:
- Unsupported Overhead Hang
- Banded Pulldown
- Downward Facing Dog
- Inchworm into an Extended Plank (modification: Plank)
Weakness in the back tends to come from an overactive anterior chain (the front of your body – like your pectorals). If you’re super tight in the front body, these muscles pull your shoulders forward and tuck your pelvis under, lengthening the muscles in your back (posterior chain). So not only do we need to open the front of our body, we need to strengthen the back in order to help keep our bodies in a more neutral position.
- Locust with the feet down
- Banded or Cable Row
- Banded Rear-Fly
- Single-Arm Banded or Cable Row
- TRX Row (Variations)
- Banded or Cable Pulldown (*IF* the proper ROM is available)
I am not talking about how many crunches or situps you can do here. I am talking about your ability to stabilize your body, which encompasses more than just flexing your pretty six-pack abs.
- Straight Arm Plank (especially if you’re targeting handstand or any arm balance poses)
- Forearm Plank
- Banded or Cable Stir the Pot
- Banded or Cable Palof Press
- Banded or Cable Chop
If you’re someone who hasn’t “earned the right” to do some of these movements discussed, that doesn’t mean you’ll never get there. If you’re working on gaining the pre-requisite strength and mobility and see progress, there are movements or exercises you can begin to practice that will help you get to your destination.
- Straight Arm Plank
- Shortened Downward Facing Dog
- Standing Forward Fold (or Straddle Forward Fold) Weight Shift into Hands & Back
- Modified L-Stand – Increase the elevation of your feet as you become stronger
- Beast Hold
- Plank Weight Shift into Hands & Back
- Beast Weight Shift into Hands & Back
- Bodyweight Good Morning
- Rear & Low Loaded Good Morning
- Kettlebell or Single Dumbbell Deadlift
- Romanian Deadlift
- Elevated Deadlift
Rear-Load Barbell Squat
- TRX-Assisted Squat
- Bodyweight Squat
- Goblet Squat
- Front-Loaded Kettlebell or Dumbbell Squat
- Front-Loaded Barbell Squat
- Single Arm Neutral-Position Shoulder Press
- Alternating Neutral-Position Shoulder Press
- Neutral-Position Shoulder Press
- Single Arm Traditional-Position Overhead Press
- Alternating Traditional-Position Overhead Press