Earlier this summer, we put out a post offering to have our resident superstar yoga instructor, Leanne Kitteridge, answer any questions you had about all things yoga. Here are some of the early responses. And, by all means, keep your questions coming!
Lisa: No matter what type of mat I try, I find myself slipping around. Can you recommend a good non-slip mat?
Hi Lisa! Yes-a slippery mat certainly is frustrating during practice! There are a few mats out there that seem to be better than others for the slippery yogi:
- The Black Mat Pro by Manduka: I love this mat. The mat can be slippery when new, but after a few months of use it’ll start to break in. The secret to speed this process up is to give it a good scrub with salt and a floor scrub brush to take the surface oils off the mat. I have had my mat for over 10 years and use it almost every day, so it’s well worth the higher investment.
- The Harmony Mat by Jade Yoga: A beautiful natural fiber mat that is tacky and sticky right off the bat. It is one of my favorites for students who have therapeutic issues and need a good molded tacky surface to work on. The drawback is the mat breaks down quickly given that it’s all-natural and is sensitive to heat and sunlight. Not a mat you would want to store in your car or use strong products on.
- The Mat for Hot Yoga by lululemon: I have hopped on this mat in various practices and noticed that it really absorbs sweat and you don’t slide around. It is well priced compared to other high-end yoga mats and seems to be well liked by many of my students.
- Skidless Towel by Yogitoes: More of a towel than a yoga mat per se. It goes over your mat and the little sticky dots adhere to your mat or to a carpet. Makes it great as a travel mat. The nice feature of the towel is that you can wash and dry it after every sweaty practice. If your hands aren’t slippery right away but get sweatier as practice progresses, you just throw it on your mat once you start to slip. My husband uses one of these and often puts a little water around the hand area to make it grip more. Similar versions are available from Manduka and lululemon as well.
Worst case scenario you can invest in some lifting chalk or gymnastic chalk and dust your hands or feet as you practice. When I practiced Ashtanga yoga years ago, we all used this method before mats became more high tech. It’s a little messy but it works!
Happy shopping Lisa!
Michelle: Is it possible to lengthen tight hamstrings over time? I’ve been practicing yoga for two years and still have to bend my knees in forward fold and can’t get my heels all the way to the floor in downward dog. Will I ever be able to do a split, or am I dreaming?
Hi Michelle! This is one of the most common questions I get asked by my students. The first answer is Yes!, you can lengthen hamstrings over time. When I first started practicing yoga I could not touch the floor in forward fold, but after about two years, they started to open and lengthen. There are many factors that affect hamstring length. The questions to ask are: Do I do other activities that tighten hamstrings like run or play soccer? Do I have a job that is mostly seated? What are my proportions? Do I have long legs relative to my torso?
There may be limits to how much length you will get but you can probably get more than you are now by trying these key steps:
- DO bend your knees! Starting with bent knees will cause less strain in your low back and will allow your hamstrings, which are actually three muscles, to open more evenly.
- In forward folds, support your hands by using a block so you do not hang in the pose.
- After your first few forward folds and larger muscle warm up, such as sun salutations, work on targeting your hamstrings by actively extending from your glutes DOWN your hamstrings towards the back of your knees. Imagine that someone is actually pulling the muscle in that direction.
- Once you can get that DOWN activation, then start to pull UP from the front of your knees and up your thigh to your hip crease. As you start to create this looping action, start to go from bent knees towards straighter legs. Think of this thigh loop DOWN the back and UP the front as a big gear that will slowly work your legs straight.
Activating your legs this way will stretch the hamstrings evenly and rather than just passively stretching them, you are actively stretching them which means that the length will stay and grow. You can try this thigh loop in any other pose that has a straight leg like triangle pose or even work on a half forward split this way.
Good luck Michelle! The floor is waiting for you!
Kerry Anne: Can yoga benefit those dealing with arthritis, and osteoarthritis?
Hi Kerry Anne!
There are two types of arthritis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory condition and a regular yoga class may not be suitable. Restorative yoga which calms the nervous system and supports the body is most appropriate or a gentle Hatha class when the condition is manageable.
Osteoarthritis, though often painful, is well suited to yoga. A slower class with more controlled movement that puts the joints through range of motion is best.
The main rule is KEEP MOVING. If you keep the joint going through range of motion you will keep the mobility. Slower classes that allow for modification of poses will give you options for knees and wrists. There have been many studies done on yoga and arthritis and they all confirm that yoga is one of the best things we can do for this condition.
That said, not all yoga teachers are trained to work with therapeutic conditions such as arthritis, so talk to instructors and studios to find a class that is suited to your needs.
Jane: I am looking for some ideas on yoga that might help with my frozen shoulder. I especially have problems with lifting/moving my arm overhead. I’d appreciate any ideas you might have to help with my range of motion and eventually strengthening my shoulder.
Hi Jane! Frozen shoulder is when the connective tissue around the joint gets thick and stiff. If you cannot current raise your arm overhead the best way to work with your shoulder is lying supine on the floor. In a supine position, you will be working with gravity rather than against it.
Laying on the floor, bend your knees with feet hip distance apart. Take a yoga strap or small towel (something with no give) and place it in your hands making your hands roughly shoulder distance apart and knuckles facing up to the ceiling. Give a soft pull on the strap to keep your hands wide. Start the exercise by keeping your arms completely STRAIGHT and plugging your arm bones downwards toward the floor so you are taking your humerus (your upper arm bone) more deeply into the socket of your shoulder.
You can work one arm at a time like this, plugging in and out to “grease” the shoulder joint. Make sure you take the arm bone straight down and keep your chest and collarbones broad. The tendency is to squeeze the arm bone in towards the breast bone, which will not open up the joint.
After a few of these plug-ins and plug-outs, rest and turn your palms up to the ceiling, rotating your arm bone open to the ceiling as well. If, after two sets, you feel the joint is moving a little better, the next step is to put the joint through range of motion. Do your plug-in with both arms and STAY plugged in, shoulder blades connected to the floor and with STRAIGHT arms (they will want to bend). Start to take your arms up and overhead towards the floor. Keep pulling on the strap softly to keep broadness in your chest and upper back. When you get stuck and can’t go back further without arching your back or if there is pain, stop, breathe and lengthen your upper rib cage towards your shoulders, stretching longer. Keep your shoulders plugged in and return to your beginning position and rest again for at least a minute.
Try this cycle 2-3 x and see if you are getting your hands closer to the floor, keeping the biomechanics. After a few weeks you can do the same exercise with your back against a wall in standing and work AGAINST gravity to build strength.
Emma: Do you have any tips for arm balances, such as crow? I still have trouble with them after three years.
Hi Emma! I LOVE arm balances. They are so challenging that, when you finally get it, even for a few seconds, it feels amazing! There are some general things that are common to most arm balances:
- Chaturanga (bent arm position plank) is the best way to build strength for arm balances because many of them have this same arm position.
- The focal point or fulcrum of arm balances is the center of the chest or “heart.” By drawing powerfully into the heart from your feet and hands, you will lift easier. Once you are up, you must extend from the center of the chest FORWARD energetically and look UP and FORWARD not down. When you look down you end up going down!
- Arm balancing is not as much about upper body strength as it is about learning to power up your legs and pulling energy up them to the heart like powerful straws!
For Bakasana, or crow pose, there can be some fear, so I like to start beginning students with a bolster in front of them so they have a “crash cushion.” That way, if you go forward your face hits the bolster and not the floor. Start with the edges of your feet together and come into a squat with your knees wide. Bow deeply between your legs and wiggle your upper arm bones under your shins. Your arm bone (triceps area) and shin bone can press tightly together. Your hands should be shoulder-distance apart—the same distance as your down dog hands.
Come up on your tip toes and keep your arms bent (Chaturanga). Keeping your gaze FORWARD, start to pull powerfully from one foot up the muscles of your leg all the way into the center of your chest. See if you can lift one foot off the floor. If you can, then, keeping the first foot up, start to pull from the opposite foot up the core lines of your leg into the heart as well. If both feet lift, stay stretching your heart center FORWARD.
As you get more control you can try to squeeze and pull from both feet at the same time to go up. For beginners the arms are more static and stationary, but as you progress you want to learn how to push into your hands to control the pose better and be able to move towards straighter arm versions of the poses.
Joanne: My husband hurt his lower back moving heavy boxes. Can you recommend some targeted moves that can stretch his lower back?
Hi Joanne! That’s tough! It happens to a lot of us when we use more of our back muscles than our leg muscles to lift.
This is a modified yoga pose I use at the clinic for low back pain relief that has good results. The full version of the pose is called “supta padangusthasana,” which is a hamstring stretch on your back, but this version is modified to become a low back release.
Grab a towel and come to your back with both legs straight and strong, knees and toes facing up to the ceiling. Keeping your left leg straight and the left inner thigh tacking down toward the floor, take your right knee into your chest. Breathe here for 30 seconds to open up the hip. Take your towel and place it behind your right thigh at the midway point between your knee and your pelvis, slowly straighten your right leg as far it will go comfortably. Pause and use your exhale breath to consciously release your femur, your thigh bone, into the cup of your hip. You want the ball of the femur to nestle into the cup of the hip as much as possible.
Slowly press your right thigh bone firmly into the towel as you press the towel into your thigh keeping the femur centered. The idea is to move the thigh bone, the femur, more into the back plane of the body. Hold for at least one minute pressing out strongly and resisting with the towel. Release your right leg to the floor and rest for one minute noticing any change side to side. You know you have effectively released the back because the right leg may feel longer, heavier or lower to the floor.
Repeat the exercise on the other leg doing at least two sets on each side and resting and checking in with your back between sides. Moving the thigh bones into the back plane of the body in this way creates more space in the low back releasing tension and compression.