In this edition of Ask the Expert, Cristie Newhart, yoga advisor for Kripalu’s Healthy Living programs, deconstructs two foundational postures—Triangle and Standing Forward Fold—and explains why meditation doesn’t just have to happen on the cushion.
When I practice Standing Forward Fold, I tend to hyperextend my legs. Any recommendations for practicing this pose safely?
There are many reasons why people hyperextend the knees, and most of the reasons are due to the relationship of hamstrings to the quads. It’s important to practice in such a way that the muscles around the knee protect and stabilize the knee. In most cases, it’s helpful to lift the quadriceps muscles in the front of the leg. Also, remember to lengthen the front of the body as you fold. The top of the pelvis tilts forward as you bend at the hip crease—think of the way an old-fashioned Rolodex flips forward. Don’t be overly concerned with your torso coming to your thighs—instead think in terms of spinal length. Be aware of the support of abdominal muscles below the navel. This support allows for greater flexibility in the lumbar spine. If your arms don’t reach the floor, try resting them on blocks rather than letting them dangle. Pressing the hands into a stable surface can help you find more length in the spine. Please do not be afraid to practice this posture with bent knees until you have strengthened your hamstrings.
I don’t have time to meditate for more than 5 or 10 minutes early in the morning. Is that enough?
Yes! Anytime spent meditating is beneficial. Whatever you can do successfully is “enough.” By “successful,” I mean a practice you look forward to, one that can fit in your schedule without causing stress. Along with your seated practice, you can also think about bringing mindfulness to daily life. Your practice doesn’t just have to be on the cushion. Pause throughout the day and become aware of breath. Notice the sounds around you. Pay attention to how you feel. Be aware of your energy as you reach your hand out to pick up a cup or a newspaper. All of these things add a meditative quality to life that can be quite profound.
When practicing Triangle, where do I put my lower hand and my hips? Can you break down the pose and explain how to active the leg muscles?
Triangle is such an awesome, enlivening pose. Practiced with skill, it’s a joy. To begin, we should understand that everybody’s body is different, so not everyone will articulate the hips in the same way. If you’re new to Triangle, begin with your feet about a leg’s distance apart. As you learn the pose, you can explore a wider or shorter stance. Starting with the right side, turn the right foot out about 90 degrees, and turn the left foot in slightly. Keep the right leg straight, and bring the arms to shoulder height and gently lengthen them. Press the feet firmly into the earth, lift and spread the toes, and bring them back to the ground. Feel the ball mounds and heels root down.
Engage the quadriceps on the right leg, gently lift the right hip, and begin to fold at the hip crease, keeping the torso in the same plane as the legs rather than coming forward. The left arm reaches toward the ceiling, the right arm extends down toward the floor. If the hand doesn’t reach the floor, pressing the hand into a block will allow you to release deeper into the posture. Both sides of the torso are lengthening, and the tailbone is reaching behind you and toward your back heel. If you feel compression in the lower back, allow the top hip to move forward slightly, and create space by adjusting the block higher. The outer edge of the back leg reaches down while the inner thigh reaches up—that will get the legs working. (You can also practice with the heel positioned against a baseboard, so you can really feel the grounding and strengthening of the leg.) Position the back of the head in line with your sacrum. You can look up, or down, or straight ahead. Choose a direction that doesn’t strain the neck.
With Triangle or any posture, sometimes less is more. I’ve noticed in my own practice that I open more when I listen to my body rather push my body into doing. There are valuable lessons learned when I listen and breathe through my practice, versus deciding how my practice or postures should look. With the wisdom we gain from daily practice, we discern when it’s time to approach our edge and when it’s time to back off. If you think of your practice as a journey, every sensation along the way counts.
How do you find a balance between ease and effort? Does it come naturally to you to push to your edge—or is it more natural for you to take it easy?