Corner Office Anatomy – Are You Ready To Give Up On Your Hamstrings?

OfficeCompasDon’t give up yet!

Because there is reason to be optimistic about those pesky tight backs-of-your-legs.  And in this segment of my Corner Office Anatomy series I tell you why.

As I’ve said before, I started this series because I realized–from my own experience and from observing so many of my students–that so much of the body is a mystery. And I wanted to shed a bit of light on various parts of the body that are particularly strained by our desk-working and chair-sitting culture.

Because the more we understand our bodies, the more we are able to adjust our habits to both avoid long-term, repetitive stress injuries and bring more balance and flexibility into our daily experience.

One of the biggest casualties of the ongoing habit of sitting in a chair all day long: tight hamstrings.

Almost everyone – including me – who sits for a large part of their work life complains about tight hamstrings.

It’s usually the part of the body people are referring to when they say to me something like “I can’t practice yoga because I’m so inflexible…” Because it just seems wrong to us – I think – that when we bend over we can’t reach our toes.

Part of tightness in hamstrings is physiological and structural: the way your hamstring muscles interact with your pelvis, knees, and other muscle groups (like your hips and calves) will determine what your maximum range of stretch is.

But a big part of tightness comes down to the fact that your hamstring muscles just get cozy in their shortened form, and then resist (loudly at times) when you try to push them out of their comfort zone.

And why are the hamstrings so often in a shortened form? Because in our modern urban professional lives we sit in chairs with knees bent to 90 degrees (usually), and that leaves the hamstrings to hang out in a shortened form for way too many hours. 

We sit at the desk for many hours, of course. But think about it: we also sit down for a commute, and then again to eat meals, and watch TV (or surf the net, or whatever you do to wind down) at night.

Well, that is the annoying news that I know you already know.

But here’s the good news: with frequent and sustained lengthening, the hamstrings (and all your other muscles too) will gradually and continually increase their ability to lengthen. That means less resistance, and more of that deep stretching feeling (and who doesn’t love that?).

Keep in mind that frequent is the name of the game. To get more length (i.e., flexibility) it requires more than just a weekly yoga class, and more like multiple times a day.

I know what you are asking: how am I supposed to stretch my hamstrings frequently when I sit in my chair nearly all day long?

With the portable standing forward bend, of course. 

The standing forward bend can be done in your work clothes, and wherever you happen to find yourself: by your desk, in front of the TV, next to your bed, in your garden, or even while you are waiting for the train. That means it is highly portable.

And that means you can practice it numerous times a day. Anytime you think of it, really.

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There are multiple variations of the standing forward bend (see picture above), and you can choose the variation that allows you to gradually lengthen your hamstring muscles at your own pace:

1. Hands/fingers on the floor. If you reach the floor set your hands or fingers lightly in front of your feet. If you’re almost there (or you feel pain in your lower back), bend your knees.

2. Hands on a book. In yoga class we usually use a block for our hands, but we’re not bound by that formality! Out in the world just use a book (you see me using Black’s Law Dictionary in the picture above) or anything else that can serve a prop to bring the floor up to you. Again, if you’re almost there with your hands on the book (or you feel pain in your lower back), bend your knees.

3. Holding elbows. If you are far from the floor or the book, then hold your elbows lightly with your hands as you fold forward. And again, if you feel pain in your lower back when you do this, bend your knees.

Try to be honest about which variation to work in, and don’t strain to reach the floor or book. Find the place where you can still take deep breaths (breathing deeply is the key to successful lengthening of the muscles).

In yoga we often say that you should find your “edge” and breathe there. From the “edge” you will take deep inhales and then work a little more length with each deep exhale (if your knees are bent, straighten them a little bit more with each exhale; if your knees are straight, try to lift your sit bones up with each exhale). 

Go ahead and try the portable standing forward bend this week. And tell me when you do, I want to know how it feels for you and if you experience your hamstrings releasing more and more.

And remember: when dealing with the body, progress is made through baby steps taken many, many times.

Of course, there are many, many more techniques that you can practice both in the office and at home to work on those hamstrings—and I am happy to share them with you if you would like (contact me here to set up a class).

As always, if you are interested in learning more about how yogic breathing techniques (pranayama), mindful movement (asana), meditation, and work-life balance can bring more balance and flexibility to your life both at home and in the office then inquire more here.

And if you know someone who will benefit from these teachings then don’t be shy and share this post with them! I greatly appreciate all your forwards, likes and comments.

Want more great tips on how to be healthy and balanced in both work and life? Get the next Urban Practice post direct to your Inbox by clicking “Follow Urban Practice” or join me for daily tips and pics on Facebook, Twitter (@MyUrbanPractice) and Instagram (@zarayoga) — lots of choices, lots of buttons. Click all the ones you like.

namaste

The Incredible Importance of Play (and some pictures from my recent Central American adventure)

This is my favorite time of year! Winter has finally gone, Spring flowers are starting to bloom, and I am feeling recharged, rejuvenated, and renewed.

My great mood at this time of year is not just because the season is changing (even though I am FILLED with Spring Fever at the moment). It’s primarily because, as I’ve had the blessed fortune to do over the last several years, I just returned from a rollicking month-long adventure abroad.

As you know, last year I was in India learning up on yoga, meditation, and all things spiritual. This year I went to Central America and while it wasn’t as earth movingly intense as India, it was so much fun.

I literally felt like a child at times, having an unbridled play session doing yoga on the beach, surfing the waves, hiking forests filled with cute monkeys. 

One afternoon, after I had spent nearly the whole day frolicking in the waves, I remembered a news story from last year that talked about lots of research showing adults (in America at least) need to play far more frequently in order to stay physically and mentally healthy. 

Well, I definitely got my yearly recommended dose of play while I was in Central America.

And this is essentially the reason why I structure my work and my life to make sure I have enough time each year to get out and play. The research I’ve read just confirms what I have known from my own experience: keeping play a priority in my life makes the rest of my life so much better. 

Seriously. I sleep better, work better, and generally feel better when I make the time to have rip-roaring fun-filled play.

I’ve talked before about the importance of making time for vacation in your life (no matter how supercharged your work-life is), and the importance of play is one of the reasons why I push it so much.

Because vacation is a time to let loose and play. Like a child: curious, carefree, cheerful. I certainly did. I hope you will too. 

For some inspiration, here are some photos of my trip. (I’m a closet travel advisor so if you have any questions about these places, I’m happy to tell you more–ask me in the comment section below).

Now I want to hear from you…when is the last time you had rip-roaring playful fun? Share it in the comment section, and post your pictures if you have some. And if you haven’t had any play in a while, then tell me what you are hoping to do soon.

With all my playful, post-vacation energy, I’ve got some great posts planned for you in the coming months–so stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you have any questions about any of these places, or about yoga, meditation, and mindfulness in general, then comment below or send an inquiry here.

Plus, more posts relating to yoga and your urban professional life are coming soon and you can get the next Urban Practice post direct to your Inbox – just click the “Follow Urban Practice” button below.

Or join me for daily yoga/meditation/mindfulness tips and musings on Facebook or on Twitter by following @MyUrbanPractice.

14 Thoughts to End the Year

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I started this year with an optimistic post about how good life will get if you stick to a practice of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.

But as this year comes to a close, I’m feeling a bit more sober. Not that I am pessimistic – my optimistic nature is just too strong and I know more than ever how good yoga, meditation and mindfulness makes one’s life. Maybe I’m just a bit overwhelmed by all that is going on in the world. And, on a personal level, I’m experiencing some uncertainty in my life, my practices and the directions I am going.

I’ve tried, but I’m feeling uninspired by the usual let’s-make-the-next-year-the-best-one-yet mantras that are ricochet-ing across the internet and social media right now. That attitude feels a bit forced at the moment, and my mind is swirling with more than just what-I-will-do-in-2015.

So to end 2014, I’m going to make a different kind of list: 14 thoughts that are on my mind as the year comes to a close. The list is part reflection of the past year, part musing about the coming year, and part just making a list to put my thoughts in some kind of order (as is my habit, being a lawyer and a hyper-organized Virgo).

1. Learning about the human body is endless. After 12 years of yoga practice, I’m still having insights every other week. This year I learned a ton about anatomy (and I’ve started sharing what I’ve learned with you too!)

2. One year is not enough time to master an advanced yoga posture. At least for me. Although I’m close, I didn’t quite make it to full Natarajasana…(I’ll be working on this one again in 2015).

3. Everybody’s talking about mindfulness. But it’s starting to sound like an over-hyped diet fad. The mind’s version of paleo (which I’m mostly unimpressed by). I still advocate joining the mindfulness bandwagon, but I also advise being mindful (ha!) of what you’re trying. And don’t try to do it alone, find a teacher.

4. Even with great discipline and teachers, mind/body practice is bound to be boring at times. Boredom is a huge distraction. Because it makes me want to skip my practice.

5. Despite the distraction, I keep coming back to try again. That is the practice.  

6. Learning about the world is endless. Like the Rastas say, “traveling is the ultimate education.” This year I learned from India again.

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7. Integrating what I learn from yoga, meditation and mindfulness practice into the rest of my life is no easy task. A practice unto itself.

8. Especially when I ponder life’s unavoidable injustices. Like our society’s latent racism. Or planes falling out of the sky (or simply disappearing altogether). Is suffering really all that optional?

9. On the flip emotional side, I am deeply moved by the union we experience with each other, alternately, through our anger, our fear, our inspiration, our hope. We are all in this together. We all can’t breathe.

10. These times are what they are. But times were different once. I am wondering lately about truth, what it is, why it seems so dispensable in our modern times. Wasn’t there a time when it was unbecoming to tell a lie (you know, like the days of the gentleman’s or lady’s honor)? When personal integrity was more valuable than getting whatever you want when you want it? I will explore this thought more in 2015…

11. Maybe that’s why simple silliness was so popular this year. You know, the ice bucket challenge…what a marvelous phenomenon seeing my FB news feed flow from outrageous allegations by politicians to race riots and bombings to ordinary folks dumping freezing water on their heads.

12. I’m not judging anyone though. I also like silliness relief. That’s why I like yoga selfies. Sooo not what yoga is all about, but so much fun anyway.

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13. The deeper I go into the yoga, meditation, and mindfulness teachings, I’m encountering more and more uncertainty. But this is a good thing. A famous Tibetan Buddhist master, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, once put it like this: the bad news is you are falling through space and have nothing to grab onto; the good news is that there’s no ground. We’re all falling through space whether we like it or not. But we’re not going to crash, so we just practice letting go into the falling experience.

14. One thing I am certain of – always – is the great pleasure I get from watching my students learn and progress. And I watched a lot of that this past year! So hats off to all my students: I appreciate you enormously.

Tell me, what’s on your mind as the year closes? Share it with me, below, or send an email here.

Plus, stay tuned for more posts relating to yoga, meditation, mindfulness and how it relates to your urban professional life. You can get the next Urban Practice post direct to your Inbox – just click the “Follow Urban Practice” button below.

In the meantime, join me for daily yoga/meditation/mindfulness tips and musings on Facebook (“Like” my page here) or on Twitter by following @MyUrbanPractice.

 

Corner Office Anatomy – Keep Your Knees Healthy

munity8In this segment of my Corner Office Anatomy series I’m focusing on a part of the body that endures a lot from your desk sitting work lifestyle: the knees.

It’s not that your knees are being overworked by sitting in your chair all day (and we all know that putting too much work on the knees can lead to uncomfortable pain and – sometimes – ugly injuries), it’s just that, shall we say, your knees are being underworked.

To understand what I mean, let’s think a bit about your knees. Unlike your shoulders and  hips, which are known as “ball and socket” joints because of their wide-ranging-motion capacity, your knees are called “condylar” joints. I don’t know why there isn’t an easier to understand term for the knee joints, but the point is that the knees are joints that move only three ways: bending (a/k/a flexion), straightening (a/k/a extension) and slight rotation to either side (when the knee is partially bent).

To make its three motions, your knees are connected to large muscle groups, both above and below the joint, through numerous tendons and ligaments (Note: I’m simplifying A LOT because I’m guessing you have better things to do than to fully dissect the intricate anatomy of your knees).

Now, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with your knees, such as bending them in the wrong way, putting an inappropriate amount of pressure that strains or tears connective tissue, or, as happens over time as we age, degeneration of the muscles surrounding the joint. 

For purposes of this post, though, I’m more concerned about the fact that you likely sit in your chair for 8 hours or more a day.

Why does that matter?

The thing about sitting in your chair throughout a work day is that your knees remain in the exact same position – about halfway between fully bent and fully straightened – for hours at a time. Although I don’t hear so many people talk about this, I don’t see how it is any different from the uncomfortable consequences of sitting on a plane for 8-10 hours straight, and plenty of people agree that long plane rides are bad for your knees.

So I’m here to say that long days at the office are bad for your knees. (click here to Tweet that point). And after a full career of sitting at your desk chair, your knees are going to have a lot to complain about.

But, as always, the tools and teachings in yoga can help

Before I get to some simple poses that you can use to keep your knees healthy throughout your professional urban life, a word about yoga and knees. You may have heard that yoga can hurt your knees – and you heard right. I’m not going to get into the myriad ways you can ensure your knees are safe while you practice yoga (if you want to know more about that topic, comment below or send me an email), but here is one fundamental point that you should keep in mind when doing anything with your knees: no pain, no pain.

What I mean is, whether you are practicing in a yoga class or trying out the poses I suggest to you in my posts, do not tolerate any pain from your knees. If you feel pain, back off.

Great, now that we have that sorted, here are a few poses that you can use to make your knees healthier (and, in the long-term, happier). 

Warrior II

One of the most important ways to keep your knees healthy is by strengthening the muscles and connective tissue surrounding the joint. And one of the best ways to strengthen the muscles and connective tissue surrounding the knees is by practicing one of yoga’s quintessential poses: Warrior II.

If you are relatively new to this pose, I recommend using the chair a few times to practice getting your bent-knee leg into the right position.

Here’s how: start by sitting in the chair as you regularly would; then open the legs and bring your right leg to the outside of the right side of the chair; place your right foot down with your toes facing to the right (and parallel to the front edge of the chair); make sure your right knee is directly above your right ankle; then stretch your left leg all the way back, straightening that knee all the way to the left side of the chair until you can get the outside of the left foot on (or close to) the floor; take 5 deep breaths; then repeat on the other side.

When you have practiced this chair variation numerous times, then try the pose without the chair but don’t lose that focused alignment of your bent-knee directly over your ankle and your back leg stretched out with the outside of the foot touching the ground. Make sure you take 5 deep breaths (at least) on each side.

Kneeling (a/k/a Virasana)

This pose is a great way to stretch all of the muscles and connective tissues surrounding the knee. It’s also one of the only poses that fully flexes (a/k/a bends) the knee-joint. Because some of the degeneration that your knees will experience in your lifetime will be from lack of use (as opposed to wear and tear), making sure the deeper parts of the knee-joint get their fair share of movement is an important element in overall knee health. This is true because when you move your joints through their full range of motion it increases circulation and lubrication. Good stuff. 

Before you try this one, remember my word of warning: no pain, no pain. Most people don’t bend their knees this deeply ever, and different parts of your body (like the hips, ankles, shins) might object to you trying it for the first few times.

Be careful, go slowly, and don’t forget to breathe.

Test out this pose by using your chair seat as support for your hands as you lower your toosh to your heels. If you can’t lower all the way down, roll up a blanket or pillow and place it directly under your toosh with your feet on either side. You can also use a thick book, or any other prop you can come up with; the idea is to lift your hips and create more space between the upper and lower part of your legs (so that the stretch around the knees is not as intense). Also make sure that your knees are close together and that your toes are in line with your ankles – don’t let them splay out or in.

Stay in the this pose for short amounts of time at first – just 5 deep breaths. Then, as you feel more comfortable, you can sit for longer periods, building up eventually to 1 minute.

Knee Swirls

This pose is one of my favorite ways to strengthen the knees because it involves the lesser used movement of the knees – a slight rotation to either side. But because the knees cannot fully rotate to the sides, you have to be very careful to engage the upper leg muscles to keep them safe.

Start by bringing your feet parallel and bending your knees slightly. Then place your hands lightly on your thighs and gently “swirl” your knees in one direction 5-10 times.

DO NOT press your hands into your thighs; instead contract the muscles in the front and back of your thighs, and pull your lower abdomen muscles in and up. That way you will use the strength of your legs (and core) to make the motion safely.

Come back to the center and straighten the knees letting your hands fall by your sides (in the pose known as “tadasana” or “mountain”). Take a few breaths there to rest. Then repeat on the other side. 

Again – don’t forget to breathe. Yoga benefits us, not because of magic (well, it does feel like magic sometimes), but because we are learning to move our body in sync with our breath. In order to do that we have to first notice where we are tense and holding our breath, and then start to release the tension with deep exhales in order to complete the movements.

Supported kneeling (a/k/a child’s pose variation)

This one will relax your back and shoulders at the same time as deep bending your knees.

You’ve probably tried some variation of this pose, either with the forehead on the floor in a fetal-like posture or with the forehead on the chair but with the legs open like I showed you in a prior post.

Practice this variation anytime you need a bit of comforting repose – while you are relaxing you will also get the wonderful benefits of fully bending the knees.

Don’t forget to use a blanket or thick book like in the kneeling/virasana pose above. And start with short amounts of time and gradually build up as your knees get used to this pose.

There are, of course, many more yoga poses that will build strength and flexibility in your knees, and I can share those with you another time. If you are needing some immediate and more extensive attention to your knees, send me an inquiry here.

In the meantime, start practicing what I’ve shown you in this post and you will get a good start on creating a healthy lifestyle for your knees – even if you spend large parts of the day sitting at a desk chair.

If you are interested in learning more generally about how yogic breathing techniques (pranayama), mindful movement (asana), meditation and work-life balance can help you lead a healthier urban life then inquire here. And if you know someone who will benefit from these teachings then don’t be shy and share this post with them!  

Want more great tips on how to live a healthy and balanced urban life?  Get the next Urban Practice post direct to your Inbox by clicking “Follow Urban Practice” (button on the right). You can also join me for daily tips and musings on Facebook here or on Twitter @MyUrbanPractice.

The Union of Inspiration and Fear

My last couple of months have been busy settling down into the rhythm of fall. Lots of long over due projects and harvest holidays have kept me from sharing my thoughts with you. But there’s been a lot on my mind.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about unity, and how all us humans are united in some (and probably many) ways. Years of yoga practice have influenced a habit that I have to notice both obvious and non obvious connections all around me.

You may not know this yet, but “yoga” is a Sanskrit word that comes from the ancient root “yuj” which means “to join.” The “yuj” root is the same as the root in our word “yoke” that means to tie something together (usually an oxen to a cart or some old school scenario like that). So yoga is most often translated literally as “union.”

Union with what? Well, traditionally, yoga was practiced to bring about union with “God” (whatever that means). But the interpretations have varied over the years and the practice can seek to bring about union with others, union with the divine, union with nature, union with your inner wisdom, etc.

Either way, if you dive deep enough into the study and practice of yoga you will end up hearing about union. And for me, that has made me view the world totally differently than I did many years ago before I started learning all this stuff.

I now look around and, instead of focusing on so many differences, I can often see the ways we are all connected. Even when that’s not the most obvious view to have.

I’ve noticed this union in two drastically different yet similar situations over the last couple of months.

The first was the New York City Climate March (that took place on September 21, 2014). Official estimates are that nearly 400,000 people showed up to march through the streets of Manhattan voicing their concern for what appears to be painfully drastic climate change taking place all over our planet.

I was one of the 400,000 there that day. The numbers included people from all walks of life, all ages, all political leanings and all kinds of personal activist agendas. But we were all united in one thing: our love for our home, this planet.

Such unity is inspiring and so we were also united in our inspiration: to do better by the earth, to be better humans.

The second was (and is) the growing panic and fear around Ebola, which has been building since the first reports of the current outbreak started making headlines here in the U.S.

I have been saying since August that Ebola is the one world problem that I am truly worried about (the rest – political shenanigans and military aggressiveness – I have no doubt will all work out for the best in the end). Ebola doesn’t care if we are black or white, rich or poor, liberal or conservative; all those things fall away in the face of a virus that does its (malign) work inside the human body.

I think we know on a deep level that in front of Ebola we are all the same. That is why many of us – like me – are filled with fear (but not to be confused with panic, which is fear run amok). Interesting thing, though, is that the whole Ebola situation is showing us how we are inextricably united: we all have to work together in order to keep this one under control.

In other words, we are all in this together.

There’s a certain beauty in seeing “union” where ever you look, even in the places where you would rather look away. And yoga teaches you to see the world that way.

If you want to know more about how yoga, meditation and mindfulness shed light on our the unity of our human experiences send an inquiry here.

Plus, more posts relating to your urban professional life are coming soon and you can get the next Urban Practice post direct to your Inbox – just click the “Follow Urban Practice” button below.

In the meantime, join me for daily yoga/meditation/mindfulness tips and musings on Facebook (“Like” my page here) or on Twitter by following @MyUrbanPractice.