Issues with low back pain? Tight hip flexors and hamstrings are often the culprits. Try this lower body focused class to loosen those areas and provide some relief to your back. It’s beginner friendly and the only equipment you need is a strap. If you don’t have a strap, a long belt, dog leash or towel will do the trick. Enjoy!
In part two of this Yoga for Firefighters, Shoulder Edition, we will cover a craze which appears to be sweeping the nation, labrum issues. It seems like everyone has a piece of this particular action, just ask Kevin Love. I cannot count the number of times someone has sidled up to me after a class and said “what have you got for a bad shoulder.” After a little bit of q & a, I usually find out the person has some sort of labrum damage.
In my previous post, cleverly titled Shoulder Edition, Part 1, I covered the shoulder structure. Building on that, we will delve into the details of the glenoid socket and labrum. By the way, the labrum is in the shoulder and hip, if you are thought it was a part exclusive to females, you are going to need some remedial anatomy work, and that’s a whole other post.
The glenoid socket is rimmed with a fibrous tissue called the labrum. Injury to the labrum can happen either through trauma or repetitive action. Common occurrences include falling on an outstretched arm, a sudden pull when trying lift a heavy object or a violent overhead reach. Know anyone who might do this as part of the their job? If a labrum tear is diagnosed, anti-inflammatory drugs are usually prescribed and surgery may be necessary.
Once a labrum tear is healed enough that the person is cleared for activity, yoga can be helpful to regain mobility in the shoulder joint. Certain poses can strengthen and condition the rotator cuff muscles which support the shoulder structure. Finally, by increasing the circulation to the area, the labrum and other connective tissue is conditioned and will hopefully develop more elasticity and tone.
Here are a couple of examples. First, assuming the inflammation has passed and the joint pain has subsided, we need to re-determine the right alignment of the shoulder, to do that try Extended Mountain pose (also called Upward Salute). This may seem like simply reaching your arms in the air, but there is more to it than that.
Stand with your hands by your side, turn your palms up rotating your thumbs back, then sweep the arms up overhead. Once up there, allow your shoulders to sink down away from your ears and slightly back, then notice how your shoulder feels in this proper alignment. You may be surprised how difficult this is to hold properly. Hold for 3-5 long breaths, then lower arms and repeat 2 more times.
Next for flexibility, try Reverse Tabletop (or Upward Plank). This pose will stretch and strengthen the pectoral attachments at the front of the shoulder. I prefer Reverse Tabletop, but many people like Upward Plank. They accomplish the same stretch, choose the one you like.
For Reverse Tabletop, sit on the ground with your hands several inches behind the hips, fingers pointed toward your feet. Place your feet on the floor, at least a foot from your butt. Lift your hips until your torso and thighs are parallel with the floor, adjust your feet as necessary. Press your shoulder blades against your back to lift your chest, allow your head to fall back as far as you can without compressing your neck.
Upward Plank is simply Reverse Tabletop with straight legs, flattening the soles of the feet, reaching toes for the floor. There is more leverage at play in Upward Plank, which can make it more intense. Hold for 3-5 breaths, sit back on the floor, rest, then repeat one more time.
Finally, let’s work on strengthening the back rotator cuff muscles, which are usually the weak sister of that group of muscles. We will do this in a reclined pose called Supine Spinal Twist.
Lie on your back with your knees lifted directly over your hips. Extend the arms out palms facing up, pressing the forearms firmly into the floor, activating the backs of the shoulders. If this is too painful, try the cactus arm version with a 90 degree bend in the arms, pressing elbows firmly on the floor.
Now, allow your knees to drop to one side. Adjust the knees so that BOTH shoulders stay fully anchored on the floor. That means you are going to have to adjust the height of the knees and probably the degree of bend as well. Gently press the upper back into the floor forcing the rear rotator cuff muscles to contract. Hold for about 1 minute on each side.
These are a few more of the many yoga poses that can help with shoulder issues. In the final installment of Yoga for Firefighters, Shoulder Edition, I will put together a short sequence you can do everyday to help relieve shoulder pain and condition the shoulder for better performance.
If you are interested in trying an all-level yoga class, I have an open class which meets on Wednesday evenings at CPW Health Center, contact me for more information. Also, if you would like a live Yoga For Firefighters class, contact Lt. Joe Clark, or the Toledo Firefighters Health Plan and let them know you are interested.
Tara Kestner, RYT 200
We are working on getting a Yoga for Firefighters (and their families) class approved by the Firefighter’s Health Plan. The tenacious and dapper Lt. Joe Clark is spearheading this effort, but until that is off the ground, I wanted to address some of the specific physical challenges that firefighting creates.
First up, the shoulder. In order to understand which yoga postures are helpful to prevent shoulder injuries, and in the event that fails, promote recovery of shoulder issues, you have to know a little about the shoulder structure.
In short, the shoulder is built for mobility, not stability or strength. The shoulder joint (the glenoid socket) is a wide and shallow joint which has a large range of motion. Because of this huge range, injuries happen fairly easily. The supporting cast of the back side of the shoulder are the four rotator cuff muscles, the trapezius, the levator scapulae and the rhomboids. The pectorals support from the front, and the deltoids form the end caps.
Common issues include, tendonitis, bursitis and impingement (often vaguely called “rotator cuff injuries”). Cumulative stress on the shoulder is caused by repetitive movements, compression (being forced to bear weight) and sustained, awkward positional use (like overhauling a building). Any of this sounding familiar?
So how can yoga help? Well first of all, thanks for asking, good to see you are still reading, yoga can help a couple of ways. Yoga increases flexibility and range of motion, allowing you to move more freely avoiding impingement issues. Yoga poses which strengthen and condition the rotator cuff muscles add support to the shoulder structure. Finally, you can expect increased circulation to the shoulder to help avoid inflammation issues, and speed recovery should an injury occur.
Three of my favorite shoulder poses include Thread the Needle, Prone Anterior Shoulder opener (it doesn’t have a cute yoga name) and Puppy pose. First, Thread the Needle, great for opening that space between the shoulder blades.
Come to hands and knees, extend your right arm out to the side lining up the wrist, elbow and shoulder. Then feed the right arm (palm facing up) behind the left arm and lower down on the right outer shoulder, adjust yourself until you find a place where your head and neck are comfortable.
Start to walk the fingers on the left hand up towards the top of the mat, until you can gently press into the palm causing a little more sensation and rotation in the upper back. Hold for 5-10 long breaths and then switch sides.
Second, Prone Anterior Shoulder opener, is a fantastic pose to open the front of the shoulder. This is an easy pose to overdo so show some restraint.
Lie on your belly, turn your head to the right (resting on your left cheek). Extend your right arm out and line up your index finger with your sight-line. Then turn your head to the left, so you are resting on your right cheek.
Start to roll onto your right side and bend your knees, bringing your left palm to the floor, close to your chest. If you are feeling a lot of sensation in the front of the shoulder stay here. If you need a little more, straighten your right leg and place your left foot on the floor behind you. Stay here for about 30-60 seconds, and then take it to the other side.
Finally, Puppy pose for an overall shoulders and the spinal stretch.
Come to hands and knees, keeping the hips over the knees walk the hands forward, lowering the chest towards the floor. Lower your forehead, (or possibly your chin) to the mat, draw your shoulder blades back and down into the spine and reach your hips for the ceiling. Hold for 5-10 slow breaths.
These three poses can help improve your shoulder health. In part 2 of shoulder edition, I will address the specific problem of labrum injuries, a craze that seems to be sweeping the nation.
One of the most common complaints I hear from athletes is that they have “tight hips.” On further review, I generally discover the culprit is the mystical hip flexor which is actually a group of muscles that allow the hip to flex and extend. Basically, the hip flexors allow the hip to draw the knee towards the chest. When the hip flexors are tight, doing a simple child’s pose will feel like wearing pants that are three sizes too small.
The hips are a complex piece of bodily equipment, the problematic hip flexors are primarily three muscles that make up the iliopsoas group; the psoas major, psoas minor, and the iliacus. Other important muscles of the leg make up the secondary hip flexors, but when I hear hip flexor complaints, the iliopsosas is usually the culprit.
These muscles attach the leg bone to the low spine, but because the area which is generally painful and tight is the iliopsoas tendon (the section that attaches to the bone), you will often hear it referred to as the “hip flexor tendon.” Tendons do not have the same elasticity as muscles, so when stretching, bear in mind you will not get a lot of length out of this area and you will need to hold the poses for a few minutes to relieve tightness.
Some yoga poses which I find helpful for hip flexor tightness include lunges, pigeon, upright frog, bow, and supported bridge. I make no secret of my love for pigeon pose and have covered it fairly extensively in other posts such as The Fast and the Flexible, Part 1. I have also covered lunges in The Fast and the Flexible, Part 3, and would recommend a long lunge set using all three versions with focus on sinking the back leg towards the floor. Also try giving the following poses a try.
Stand at the top of your mat with your toes angled out so that the balls of your feet on the floor while your heels remain on the mat. With me so far? Bend your knees slightly and bring the palms of your hands together. Place your elbows on the insides of the knees and flatten out your back. This may be where you stop, but for those ready to venture on, you will start to allow your hips to sink down.
The key here is to keep your heels firmly on the mat, if they start to lift, back out a bit, take a few breaths and test it again. It may take several tries before you obtain the flexibility in your ankles to get all the way down. Under no circumstances should you force your way into this pose, you will hurt yourself and frankly that is simply counter-productive.
And here you are, in the elegant and ever so dignified Upright Frog pose. Try to stay here for 45 -60 seconds, taking deep breaths to ease the discomfort.
Bow pose is great for opening the entire front side of the body, it works especially well for stretching the front of the hip. Lie on the floor on your belly, bring you feet towards your backside grasping the outside of the ankles and flexing the feet. As you inhale, gently lift the feet holding on with the hands causing the chest to peel up off the floor. Take several deep breaths rising slightly on the inhale, sinking on the exhale. Hold for 30-45 seconds, repeat a second time after a short break.
If a full bow pose is a bit daunting right out of the gate, try half bow. Lie on your belly, place your right arm so your forearm is parallel to the front of the mat. Reach back with the left hand and grasp the left ankle, flex the foot and start to lift the leg up off the mat. Press into the front forearm gently lifting the chest from the mat. Hold for 60 seconds and repeat on the other leg.
For as much as my love for pigeon pose knows no bounds, my dislike of bridge is also well known. Don’t get me wrong, bridge is a useful and beneficial pose, I just don’t happen to like it. But supported bridge, well that’s another story, this is a pose I can get behind. What is so great about supported bridge is that it is a passive stretch that requires absolutely no work on your part, sound good? Then lets do it.
You will need a yoga block, if you don’t have one, stack up some books and wrap them with a towel so they stay together. Lie on your back, knees up, feet hip distance apart. Lift the hips and slide the block under your sacrum (the base of the spine). You will have to play around with the placement of the block until you find a comfortable spot, then settle in for a few minutes and let the hip flexors passively release.
A good sequence of these poses would be lunge series on one side, upright frog in the middle, lunge series on the other side, bow pose two times, then end with a couple of minutes of supported bridge.
I have a couple of other non-yoga suggestions to help release this area. The first is the dreaded foam roller, yes that little torture device. Sure they look innocent, little short fat pool noodles in soothing pastel colors but don’t be fooled. They are ruthless, but very effective. For hip flexors, lay on your belly and place the roller at the middle of the front thigh. Slowly roll over the front of hip and back again several times. It won’t be pleasant, but it does work.
My second, and far more pleasant option involves you and your couch. That’s right, the couch. Lay down on the couch on your back, drop one leg off, bending the knee, dropping it toward the floor. Stretch the arms up over head and let the stretch slowly and comfortably develop in the front of the bent leg. Stay here for as long as you like, just be sure to switch sides occasionally.
Tara Kestner is a registered yoga teacher in Sylvania, Ohio and owner of Next Level Yoga, Ltd. She specializes in designing programs which help athletes improve their performance, prevent injuries, and promote recovery.