Hip tightness or pain is a frequent complaint of many. Sometimes this arises from lifestyle patterns, and other times from a previous injury that needs a little TLC. There are indeed many causes of hip pain. If you suffer from any pain that causes you to abstain from activities you previously engaged in, a trip to the doctor is warranted. For many people yoga and physical therapy can help.
The hip joint is an amazing structure. It is made up of the femur (thigh) bone, and the pelvis. The top of the femur has a knobby protrusion on it that fits snugly into a concave area in the pelvis. Muscles, ligaments and tendons all give stability to this joint. The design of the hip joint allows for lots of motion. Additionally, it is able to handle the load of the upper body, even as we carry heavy objects, walk up stairs, or engage in sports. It’s designed to do all this with efficiency and grace as we propel forward through our days on our two legs.
However, as with any fine machine, we need to take good care of the hip joints for them to be at their best. Today’s lifestyle of relative immobility can cause tension and tightness in the hips. Since we sit with our hips bent for hours on end, the hip flexors at the front of the thigh get tight. These muscles shorten which can cause pain in the low back, hips and knees. If you have tension in any of these areas, or feel pain while walking, then you may be able to find relief from movement, stretching, and strengthening. Ideally, you should try to stretch and strengthen all the muscles that attach at the hip….those on the front, back and sides of the thigh.
Yoga can really help create more openness in tight muscles. If you want to try a yoga class to help all your body parts feel better, try one of my weekly offerings. I teach Healing through Yoga (Wednesdays at 5:30 MT) and Unwind the Spine (Fridays at 4:30 MT). To try some postures on your own, some good choices to keep your hips happy and healthy are:
Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)
Paraghasana (Gate Pose)
Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1)
Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)
Figure 4 Stretch
Vasisthasana (Side Plank)
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) (Also one-legged bridge for strengthening)
Denver got a big dump of snow this past weekend……2 feet at my house! As a life-long Coloradoan I know that if I want to eventually get out of my driveway, I have to shovel several times before the snowfall ends. NOW I’m even careful and conscientious about HOW I shovel. Shoveling snow always reminds me of my last semester of PTA school. PT and PTA students hear over and over about body mechanics and how NOT to hurt yourself while working with patients. We’re even graded on it! On winter break before my last semester of PTA school I managed to strain a muscle in my back. Mostly I did this by transferring my Dad (who was sick and deconditioned from a long hospital stay) by myself. Then a week later I shoveled the snow in my driveway at breakneck speed ( and bad body mechanics). This sealed the deal….the back pain was excruciating! The PTA Department Head clucked at me when I told her why I had to postpone updating my CPR certification, because after all……I should have known better. P.S. Physical Therapy folks ALWAYS want to know how you injured yourself. It’s so tempting to make up a zany story to tell them.
This experience has brought me a few pearls of wisdom. First, don’t beat yourself up for doing something that you could have done better or differently. In the moment, you did the best you could. Second, shovel snow with mindfulness. Some things to remember are: Don’t rush through it. Be conscious of your movements. Don’t twist your spine as you toss snow to the side. Bend at the knees (don’t hunch the back). As you bend the knees and get snow on the shovel, brace the shovel against your leg and use it as a lever to lift. Take breaks. A great snow shoveling break is to look up at the tree branches covered in snow. After all, why not enjoy the beauty of the snow? Ask for help if it’s available. Rest after you shovel, then do a few stretches. I teach two weekly classes that are well suited to back pain; Healing through Yoga (Wednesdays at 5:30) and Unwind the Spine (Fridays at 4:30). If you want a quick practice to do on your own, a great yoga sequence for your back is:
Supta Padangusthasana (Supine Hamstring Stretch)
Figure 4 (Piriformis) Stretch
Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose)
Apanasana (Knees to Chest Pose)
Balasana (Child Pose)
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pidgeon)
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog)
Malasana (Squat) or Ananda Balasana (Happy Baby)
Try to hold each of these postures (except Cat/Cow) for at least 6 breaths. This gives the muscles time to release. If you’d like a personalized sequence or an individual session focused on your health goals, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also sign up for a class or private session by clicking here.
“Degenerative Disc Disease”…..those words uttered from your doctor’s mouth can make you feel downright ancient. The simple truth is that as we get older, some wear and tear is going to happen. But seriously….do they have to tell us we’re “degenerating?” Are we degenerating? What does this term “Degenerative Disc Disease” (DDD, for short) mean?
First, let’s take a look at the spine. It’s made up of a bunch of vertebrae stacked on top of each other. Between each vertebrae are the intervertebral discs. The discs are squishy structures that are made up mainly of water and collagen. Their job is to help stabilize. cushion, absorb pressure, increase flexibility, and protect the nerves. That’s a lot of work these little squishy wonders do! Unfortunately, over time, the discs show signs of wear and tear. They lose moisture and squishiness and are less effective. Often an individual can have this degeneration without any pain or other symptoms. DDD happens when this normal process of degeneration causes pain or disfunction. For some, the pain can be constant and unrelenting. For others, it is intermittent. DDD most often occurs in the low back or in the neck. In this post, we’ll focus on the low back.
One of the best ways to help alleviate low back pain from DDD (and other conditions) is to strengthen the deep abdominal muscles. Many yoga and fitness classes focus on strengthening these core muscles. Doing so increases support for the low back. Other great activities to practice are walking, swimming, and stretching. Stretching and movement increase blood flow to the disc, and thus facilitates the healing process. Physical therapy, regular yoga practice, and Functional Yoga Coaching can help as well. A sampling of yoga postures that work well to decrease the pain and discomfort associated with DDD are:
It does seem that the shoulders bear more than their share of burdens. And yet…..they persevere through lifting, carrying, sports, and all other manner of abuse we put them through. The shoulders are really a miracle of engineering. The shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in the body. This is great, because it allows us to move our hands freely, thus providing access to all sorts of tasks and activities. It’s also not so great, because this joint is often the victim of injury. To understand the reasons for this, and ways to keep your shoulders healthy and happy, we must first look at the anatomy of this versatile joint.
The shoulder joint is made up of the humerus (upper arm bone), clavical (collar bone), and scapula (shoulder blade). The humerus fits into a cavity called the glenoid fossa, which is on the outside edge of the scapula. Stability of the shoulder joint is mostly a function of four muscles called the rotator cuff muscles. These muscles originate on the scapula and insert on the top of the humerus. They provide movement and support to the shoulder. When these muscles become weak or inflamed, then pain, reduced range of motion, and instability can occur at the shoulder joint. This can lead to increased risk of injury. In addition to the rotator cuff muscles, there are also muscles knows as scapular stabilizers. These muscles reside in the upper back and attach to the scapula. They help with both movement and stability of the scapula. Scapular movement allows the the arm to achieve greater range of motion. It’s important to keep the scapular stabilizers and the rotator cuff muscles strong for optimum wellness of the shoulders and arms.
If you attend a gym, there are many machines that can help you strengthen these muscles. But if the gym isn’t your scene, you can still achieve good results on your own at home. I also offer private “Functional Yoga Coaching” to address individual wellness goals and a weekly yoga class called “Yoga for Healing” (sign up here).
Try the following exercises and yoga postures to help strengthen your shoulder muscles:
Alternating from Plank (Khumbhakasana) to Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Half Locust (Salabhasana) with I, Y, and T arm movements
Side Plank (Vasisthasana)
Bridge (Setu Bandhasana) with hands clasped underneath
Fish Pose (Matsyasana)
Seated Spinal Twist (Ardha Maysendrasana)
Arm Movements during standing postures, such as Warrior 1 & 2 (Virabhadrasana) can increase range of motion
I love this time of year! It’s filled with beauty and comfort. The trees display their many colors, and it’s great to snuggle up with a cup of hot tea, cocoa or red wine as the evenings grow cooler. This time of year the bounty of the harvest (whether it’s delicious apples and vibrant pumpkins grown at local farms, or homegrown tomatoes & zucchini) is celebrated and enjoyed. The plants (and their growers) have put forth hard work to bring us sustenance for the body and the spirit. This is a time that plants begin their dormancy in preparation for a rebirth and regeneration in the spring.
In yogic terms I liken Svavasana, pronounced Sha-VAH-suh-nuh, to the season of Autumn because it gives us an opportunity to regenerate our minds and bodies. It is typically done at the end of a yoga class, but it can certainly be done at the start of class or even on it’s own during the day. Svavasana, also known as Corpse Pose is traditionally done lying on one’s back with the feet a little wider than hip distance apart, and the arms resting at the sides of the body with palms facing up. The goal of Svavasana is to achieve deep relaxation for the body and the mind.
Quieting the mind and relaxing the muscles go hand in hand. Muscles are controlled by the neurons, nerves that send messages from the brain to all areas of the body. When the neurons send lots of signals to a muscle, the muscle contracts and tightens. This leads to body movement and muscle strengthening. When the neurons are quiet, muscles can begin to relax. Yoga practice is a wonderful place to increase and decrease this neuron activity. Initially the mind focuses on moving the body with conscious breathwork. Neuron activity increases and muscles contract. As class comes to a close, the body slows down then comes to rest in Svavasana. Now the neurons become quiet and the muscles begin to release into relaxation. This release is important for regeneration. Just like the plants of the harvest, we work our bodies in yoga class and now settle into our Autumn rest.
Many have found that they are more able to face tough daily challenges after yoga class. This is the regeneration (think springtime with flowers springing from the earth) that we receive after the Autumn of our Svavasana. For more tips on Svavasana and spinal health, subscribe to my newsletter, or join me for a class or private instruction.
Breath is a vital component to yoga classes. Yoga instructors (myself included) guide students in breath exercises (pranayama) and instruct when to inhale or exhale with movement. Why is the breath such an important part of yoga, and how does it help with overall health?
First let’s understand what happens when we breathe. Simply put, as we inhale we bring oxygenated air into the lungs. Oxygen then goes through the blood via red blood cells to all areas of the body. The oxygen then converts glucose to energy, thus supporting physical activity and keeping tissues healthy. Carbon dioxide, which is the waste product in de-oxygenated blood, then leaves the body through the exhale.
Increasing the oxygenation in the body helps increase energy to the muscles and decrease pain, it also decreases the chance of injury. Exercise and movement increase red blood cells (remember they carry the oxygen throughout the body). To increase oxygen going to the muscles, one needs to engage in aerobic activities, such as dancing, running, or cycling.
Yoga does not get the heart pumping like these activities, but it still can give you great benefit in this process because it strengthens the capacity of the lungs by toning core muscles and the muscles that help with respiration.
So get up and do the aerobic exercise that speaks to you…..run, dance, hike or whatever. But first, try toning the respiratory muscles in yoga class or with these practices:
Come to all fours in Table Pose with knees under hips and wrists under shoulders
Curve the spine up (like a Halloween cat)
Take a deep breath in to the torso, feeling the breath expand the ribcage and shoulder blades
Hole for a count or 5-10. Repeat 3-5 times.
Prone Diaphragmatic Toning
Lay on your belly and rest your head on folded hands
Go, go , go….this is our modern mantra. We rush here, do this, do that, then rush on to the next thing.
All the while our breath matches our movements….shallow and fast. Sometimes after running around and feeling stressed, I have trouble getting my breath back to a normal pace, even with meditation and pranayama (breathwork). There seems to be a disconnect between my brain and my body, in particular my heartbeat.
But is it really a disconnect? After so much movement (of both the brain and the body) the brain isn’t ready to settle down. Since the nervous system controls muscle action (which includes the muscle fibers of the heart, lungs and other internal organs) it’s not surprising that the heart continues to beat fast, and we may feel breathless. We must calm the mind to calm the heart.
The magical solution to this is slow, mindful yoga. When you slow movements down and match the breath to the movements, the nervous system (specifically the parasympathetic nervous system) signals the body to “rest and digest”. This results in reduced heart rate, decreased blood pressure, better digestion, and a reduction in inflammation. The benefits of yoga to calm down the nervous system has been likened to getting a massage or spending time in nature.
So next time you’re feeling stressed, take some time to practice slow, yogic movements matched with breath. Your body will thank you!