In “10 Ways to Elevate Your Yoga Practice (Part One)” you learned the first three ways to improve and enhance your yoga practice. Although mastering the lengthening of the inhale, rooting down and contracting during the exhale, and opening up through the chest and shoulders already make measurable changes to the quality of your yoga practice, there are many other ways to get the most of each yoga posture. The remaining seven tips to maximize each yoga posture is outlined below.
4. Engage the Lower Abdominals
You may have heard the term “Mula Bandha” during your yoga class and didn’t know exactly what it means. In Sanskrit (the language of yoga and ayurveda), mula means “root” and bandha means to “lock, hold, or tighten”. So, Mula Bandha means “root lock”. It is a deep contraction of the pelvic floor muscles (i.e., area between the anus and testes for a man and the bottom of the pelvic floor for women), which are essentially used to stop you from going to the bathroom (number one or number two). To contract these muscles while sitting, standing, or in any posture, women need to contract the muscles at the bottom of the pelvic floor (behind the cervix). If you are familiar with Kegel exercises, this will be easy for you. Men need to contract the muscles between the anus and the testes.
The purpose of Mula Bandha is to raise your center of gravity and to lighten (or float) your body on the mat. This “lightness” prevents you from getting tired too quickly in class and also stimulates the genital, endocrine, and excretory systems. The goal is to hold Mula Bandha throughout the entire class.
5. Slight Tuck of the Tailbone Under
To protect the lower lumbar spine and maintain good front to back alignment during standing postures (especially those where the torso is angled forward or when the arms are raised) slightly tuck the tailbone under to create a neutral spine. This movement engages the lower abdominals (below the naval) and elevates the center of gravity to minimize fatigue in the muscles in the hip.
6. Maintain Alignment
Alignment refers to the relative positioning of objects to one another. When it comes to the human body, for safety purposes, joints should be “stacked” properly and evenly. For example, in warrior two the knees should be aligned with the ankles (not in front or inside the line). Hip alignment is critical for standing postures where one leg is in front of the other or balancing postures. This refers to the right and left hip being horizontally in line with one another.
7. Slight Bend at the Knee
For many of the standing postures that fully extend the leg, the tendency is to lock at the knee to create the look of a straight line (i.e., triangle, tree, etc.). Although this may “look” right, the knees are at risk of hyperextension and muscles are not fully activated to protect the knee. To protect this critical joint, engage the quadriceps and “lift” the knee cap to maintain a straight leg while protecting the joint. This also helps to engage energy in the midline for better balance and core engagement.
8. Rotate from the Rib Cage
Rotating postures are “tricky”. They are beneficial for activating the internal organs and challenging balance and control but rotation puts your spine (from the tailbone to the base of the skull) in its most vulnerable position. To protect the vertebrae from misalignment, be sure to rotate from the base of the spine and rib cage. We naturally rotate from the head and shoulders because they are the most mobile, instead of the base (or root) of the spine. This engages more muscles throughout the torso for all movements and ensures proper alignment of the head and shoulders through all angles of rotation.
9. Draw Straight Lines with the Body
Like dance, yoga is designed to create shapes with the body that are symmetrical and balanced. The precision required to get the most out of each posture can be measured by the “straightness” in the lines “drawn” by the limbs and torso. For example, in warrior two:
- The arms should be straight and parallel to the floor (front to back, side to side, and up and down)
- The thigh should be parallel to the floor
- The knee should be stacked directly in line and above the ankle
- The head and shoulders should be stacked directly above the hips
In another example, extended triangle pose requires that:
- The body draw a straight line from the back foot to the tips of the fingers (of the top arm)
- The thigh of the front leg is parallel to the floor
- The arm is placed directly in line with the lower leg (hand directly below the shoulder)
10. Direct Energy Into the Floor
At any given time, some part of your body is in contact with the yoga mat. Your feet are on the mat in standing postures, your hands are on the mat in floor postures and handstands, and your torso is on the mat in lying postures. Regardless of what posture you are doing or what part of your body is in contact with the floor, you should engage the muscles to put energy into the floor. When your feet are on the floor, lift the arches and spread your weight across all five toes. When your hands are on the floor, spread the fingers and thumbs wide and spread the weight from the base of the thumb to the pinkie fingers and outside of the palm. When you are lying face down on the floor, press the front of the toes and the hip bones down into the floor. When you are lying face up on the floor, feel the weight distributed on the back of the head, the back of the shoulder blades, the tailbone and heels. The engagement of these muscles not only ensure the body is in proper alignment, they also engage more muscles throughout the workout.
Mind-Body Connection = One SERIOUS Workout
Yoga has now become an important part of my weekly fitness regime. Not only do I see incredible changes in my body due to my yoga practice, it is (by far) the hardest thing that I do. In addition, it is a constant challenge because you will NEVER have the perfect yoga practice. There are constantly ways to improve the each posture because it is an activity that is dependent on our mental focus and intention (and we all have some degree of A.D.D. in this very fast-paced world). Granted, yoga alone will never help me build gigantic muscles, but what by mind, body, and soul get from my yoga practice is more than any gym workout will ever serve up.
The lesson of this story … don’t judge a book by its cover and give yoga a chance. It will surprise you and could be one of the hardest activities you do. The caveat? You need to devote your complete mental and muscular focus each and every second you are on the mat. I can say with utmost certainty that yoga is NOT for wimps. If you aren’t willing to work hard (to the point where your muscles totally exhaust and fail and you question your ability to finish), don’t even show up for class. You’d just be wasting your time, and that of your devoted instructor.