A lot of questions can arise when starting or deepening a yoga practice—and that’s a good thing. Asking questions means you’re really tuning in to your body, and paying attention to its subtle changes as your practice develops. Here, Wanderlust co-founder and 2019 Wanderlust 21-Day Yoga Challenge teacher Schuyler Grant answers some common questions.
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WL Community Member: I have hypermobile elbows, and I struggle with some of the arm positions. What can I do?
Schuyler: This is quite common. I would suspect that you have hypermobile knees as well. You basically need to fire the muscles of your arms (and legs) to create the feeling of a subtle backbend to the elbow (and knee) joints. You will have to work harder than everyone else, because you do NOT want to ‘hang’ in the hypermobile joint. You might also think of your forearm slightly spiraling in, as your upper arm spirals OUT, keeping a micro-bend in the elbow.
WL: My knees hyperextend and I’m finding it to be difficult to do some of the straight leg poses without letting them go too far. The issue is my legs shake like an earthquake when I try to hold them straight. Any tips or advice on how to deal with this?
Schuyler: Hyperextension is a huge issue for a lot of people. It’s imperative that you don’t ‘hang’ in your joints. You will injure your knees sooner or later. (This is also hard on the lower back.) You want to always think of the very top of your shinbone moving forward in space as your thigh bones move back, as you engage your lower quad. The net effect will be a micro-bend in your knees, but though activation rather than slouching into bent knees. You will develop these muscles quickly if you do it—providing you don’t just go into your lax ligaments. I would say the pose that you have to be most vigilant is Trikonasana. There’s a great modification where you prop a block at an angle behind your calf to give your shinbone support, but that would be difficult without a pic!
WL: I particularly suffer with tension in my shoulders; are there any positions you’d recommend to ease shoulder/neck tension?
Schuyler: Oh man. All of us need neck release. I really like long slow head rolling. I also like to slowly stretch my arms out to the sides, flex that hand and then just as slowly release and roll my head toward the opposite shoulder. Make sense? Similarly, sitting in Vajrasana, you can pin one palm between your heel and your butt (on the same side as the arm), and then roll your head in the opposite direction.
WL: How do you best deal with imbalance? My one side is stronger and more flexible. Is it a matter of keep working both sides or do you work one side more to get them to match?
Schuyler: It can be great to incorporate spending double the amount of time on the side that needs more (whether strengthening or stretching). Make sense? OR do the side that needs more twice, and the side that needs less just once. Of course if you’re following an online class, this means you need to artfully pause!
WL: I’m confused about the alignment for Tadasana/Mountain Pose. Is it better to do feet together or feet hip distance apart?
Schuyler: Tadasana can be practiced with the feet together OR the feet at hip distance. They’re both great—just different. (Hip distance = easier, more stable and grounding. Feet together = lighter, brings you to your midline, encourages Mulabandha.) I often teach hip-distance specifically because I want to set up hip distance postures in a flow sequence. And yes, the block also teaches the action of hugging to the midline… which is beneficial for SO many reasons!
WL: I’m confused about Down Dog. What do I need to know?
Schuyler: I would say that the absolute basics for Down Dog are that you want to be vigilant about working good arm/shoulder alignment (tabletop and DD are the poses where beginners usually start bearing weight on the hands/arms. If they are done improperly, it will set up a cascade of bad alignment and potential injury to the wrists and shoulders.)
So first be sure that you are externally rotating your upper arm bones and hugging your arm bones into their sockets, and at the same time be sure that you are grounding your inner hands. (These two actions will counter one another—it’s challenging, but just keep at it!)
Then be sure to bend your knees and lift your heels at least a little, if your hamstrings/lower back are tight, so you can use your quads and core to draw your bodyweight up and back out of your hands. If you jam your legs straight, and you lower back rounds, you will often feel like all your bodyweight is pouring into your arms and wrists, and that sucks. Good luck!
WL: I can’t straighten my legs in Down Dog. Help!
Schuyler: Don’t WORRY about straightening your legs in Down Dog! If your knees are bent and your heels are lifted (which are great modifications if your hamstrings / lower back are tight) of course your legs won’t appear straight, because they aren’t. By bending the knees and lifting the heels a little you should find it easier to power your thighs back and up and to lengthen your lower back, taking some of the work of the pose out of your upper body!
WL: I have been noticing some lower back pain. I notice it more during the day (sitting for a long time or bending over to pick things up) and not so much during a specific point or movement in my practice. Do you have any recommendations? Any poses that would help?
Schuyler: Create extension in your spine whenever possible. Develop more core strength and stretch your hips and hamstrings. Get a standing desk! Use your core and your legs when you bend over. Wow. There’s a lot to say on this subject…
In regards to poses, extension of the spine is great for lumbar pain. This you can work in virtually any pose – but you have to work for it. I love long holds in Gomukhasana (Cow Faced Pose) for lumbar, S/I pain. LONG holds and every day.
WL: I‘m having issues with moving from Downward Dog into a lunge with my left leg—fine on the right side though. When I try to lift up, tuck in and move my left leg to my left hand, I always get stuck half-way and have to pick it up and move it the rest of the way. I’m guessing this is some sort of a hip opening issue on my left side? What preliminary work or poses should I be doing, so that my left leg and left hip will start to cooperate?
Schuyler: I would suspect that your left hip flexor muscles are tight. Maybe there’s even some scar tissue in there? I would say that over time, as you open up all those muscles in the deep and more superficial front hip, it will get easier. When you get bodywork… Specifically ask them to work on your psoas on the left side. Doing really good core work should help too. If you can REALLY round your upper back as you step forward you will make more space for that thigh to come underneath your chest. Blocks of course are a good remedy in the short run, but I understand how frustrating it is when it’s on one side only especially.
WL: I had difficulties to keep my balance in the Anjenayasana Pose (this one with one leg in front and the other back). Why and what can I do?
Schuyler: Balancing in Anjenayasana can be especially wobbly if your feet are on a ‘tightrope.’ Make sure that your front foot and the back knee are in hip distance alignment. (Like you’re on two railroad tracks rather than one.) You will see that I give very specific foot placement cues. I will say ‘step forward to the thumb tip,’ for example, because I want you to be on those two railroad tracks, not the midline of the mat (unless I want you at the midline of the mat for a specific reason!) I’m kind of a taskmistress that way. If this doesn’t help, just keep your hands on blocks—or one hand on a block—to help stabilize you. As your legs and core get stronger, ALL balancing poses will get easier!
WL: Is it possible to go a little slower when we are “flowing?” I feel I need a few more seconds to make sure I’m doing the pose correctly while maintaining my breathing. Or is it crucial to keep “flowing” in order for it to be beneficial? I often feel this way in classes too!
Schuyler: If you need to take more time, take more time! The nice thing about being at home instead of in a group class is that you can modify the practice in any way that you need to! You can pause my program (or anyone else’s). Flowing does not make the class more beneficial… It’s a different kind of benefit to move continuously with the breath (Vinyasa) rather than to move from one static posture to the next, usually holding each pose for 1–5 minutes (Hatha or Iyengar style yoga). It’s honestly a question of personal preference. What is it that gets you to connect to your inner self using your physical body?
I love both flow and more static forms of practice. Different things work on different days for me. But overall my heart is aligned with Vinyasa style yoga, I love the dance of body, breath and mind – for me it’s the easiest way to get into a meditative state. But this has only come with years of practice. All I can say is… be curious and experiment!!!
WL: Really struggling with my transition from Plank to Cobra—just can’t manage to just go from hips to chest on the floor! What should I do?
Schuyler: Try dropping your knees and then really engage your core as you pull FORWARD in space and lower your hips and ribs slowly down. (In other words—don’t pike your hips up as in Astangasana.) Try to land so you feel like you are ready for cobra pose in your chest, and then just pull your chest forward and through in Cobra.
WL: I’m very new to yoga and need to lose some weight. Do you suggest a meal plan or book to read that can accompany this?
Schuyler: This is a really big question. And there is so much good info out there in the world about healthful eating choices that I can’t even really scratch the surface on this one. But if I were to condense my food philosophy into one soundbite it would be: EAT FOOD. If there’s anything on a label you don’t recognize (or can’t pronounce), try not to eat it (or eat sparingly). When you go to the grocery store, stick to the periphery of the store where most of the real food is stocked. Avoid sugar and processed foods whenever possible—but also don’t make yourself crazy about it! Eat yummy food or you’ll never stick with it. Eat fermented foods. Drink mostly water. But enjoy your wine when you drink it (or whatever your small sins might be.) Just eat FOOD!
Sign up for the 2019 21-Day Challenge, and join the Virtual Yoga Studio to have Schuyler answer YOUR questions. See you on the mat.