Tips for Choosing a Yoga Mat.

big stack of mats
There are a lot of options out there

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People often ask me which yoga mat is the best, and while I can answer that question with absolute certainty for me, I think you have to consider all the variables.

My mat of choice is the Jade Fusion, it was an absolute game changer. Given that I have some of the boniest knees on the planet, I tried numerous mat and supplemental padding permutations. When I found the Fusion mat, my life changed. No more folding mats or setting up towels, I could just kneel and focus on the stretch, rather than counting the seconds until I could get back up. I have several of them that I let clients use just so they can see the difference.

This is not to say I think this is the right mat for everyone, it has some downside. First, it cost a small fortune by comparison to other mats. Second, it weighs as much as my cat, so lugging it around can be a burden. And, because of the extra density, it makes balance poses a bit more challenging. But to me, those are prices I am more than willing to pay.

cat in mat
Oh, that’s why its so heavy…

My standard advice when buying a mat is look for density. There are some nice mats out there that won’t break the bank. If you have been practicing for a while and are ready to treat yourself to a premium mat, check out Jade and Manduka. I have a Manduka mat that I use at my office and it is really nice, not quite as dense as the Fusion, but a really good mat at about half the price.

There are good options at places like TJ Maxx and Target. Gaiam is probably best known, they have a premium line which I am seeing a lot of and people seem pleased with them. When looking at mats, try to find a minimum density of 5mm, you can generally tell by the size of the roll how dense the mat is, if it looks like a taquito, it is probably 3mm so move on.

Also, consider length. Standard length is 68” which is fine if you are 5’8 or shorter. If you are taller, there are longer mats available, you just may have to order them. For taller clients, I recommend they spend the extra few bucks for the 74” mat, it is a rarely regretted decision. Extra wide mats also exist, so don’t just buy the first thing you see, get what you need.

While there are plenty of mats which will serve you well out there, I have definite opinions about those big puffy “fitness mats.” Stay away from them. They are not designed for yoga, they have no grip, the ends roll up, and they condense to a tissue thin sheet when you press on them. I cannot tell you how many people have bought them thinking the puffiness will make them more comfortable, only to be disappointed and frustrated when they don’t work.

This guy, yeah stay away from him
This guy, yeah stay away from him

Bottom line when buying a mat, consider how often you practice, if it’s more than once a week, spend a little more for a premium mat. If you practice once a week or less, get yourself a nice quality 5mm from one of the mass retailers. A final word of warning, if you float the idea of getting a mat as a present, be specific about the mat you want, otherwise the decision will be made on color and price and that does not always end well.

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All-Level Hatha Yoga Class

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We are starting a new on-going yoga class which will be open to the public, here’s the 411…

WHAT’S THIS?
Hatha yoga is the name for the type of yoga generally practiced in the US. The word hatha translates to Sun and Moon, denoting the union and balance of opposing forces, heavy right? Basically, it means yoga with movement, postures and a focus on breathing for increased flexibility, joint mobility and stress relief.

This class is beginner friendly and appropriate for all experience levels.  It’s designed to undo the damage we all do to the body either from athletic activity or just the stress of everyday living. Each class will have a nice balance of work for increasing flexibility, joint stability, balance and overall mobility. Sound like something you need, then read on…

WHEN?
Wednesday evenings from 6:00-7:00. A starting date will be announced when a minimum number of participants have confirmed.

WHERE?
CPW Health Center
3130 Central Park West Dr. Suite A
Toledo, OH (419) 841-9622

HOW MUCH?
6 class pre-paid pass is $60.00.

Drop-in price is $12.00 per class, subject to space availability.

Cash, Check or Credit Cards accepted.

I’M INTRIGUED, TELL ME MORE….

**Don’t own a mat? No problem. Mats and props will be available for use at no additional charge.

**Space is limited, therefore, participants holding pre-paid passes have first chance at class space (another good reason to buy the pass).

**Drop in participation is welcome, so long as there is space available. If you want to drop into a class you must check with Tara at kestnert@bex.net before class to ensure space is available.

HOW DO I JOIN?

You can email Tara at kestnert@bex.net and indicate if you want a pass or want to drop in.

You can call CPW Health Center (419) 841-9622 and tell them to sign you up.

WANT MORE INFORMATION?
Like our facebook page for updates http://www.facebook.com/nextlevelyogaltd
or, email Tara at kestnert@bex.net

YOGA 101: All About the Basics

group

6 Week Beginner’s Series

Have you ever wanted to give yoga a try but were too intimidated to walk into an open level class? Or, have you been practicing yoga for a while and have no idea why you are doing these poses or even if you doing them correctly?  If so, this series is for you.

This 6 week series is designed to introduce the fundamentals of yoga, breath and alignment.  We will cover some basic anatomy and discuss ways to increase mobility and overall flexibility to avoid injury and enhance well-being. After completion you will feel confident walking into any yoga class.

Starting January 24, 2015, on Saturday mornings we will meet from 9:30-10:30 am at CPW Health Center, 3131 Central Park West Drive, Suite A, Toledo, Ohio and build a strong foundation for your yoga practice.  No experience or equipment is necessary.

The price is $60.00 for the 6 week session.

Class size is limited, so contact Tara today at kestnert@bex.net to reserve your spot.

Common Complaints: The Hip Flexors

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.

UPRIGHT FROG

Upright Frog, Garland Pose or Squat.
Upright Frog, Garland Pose or Squat.

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

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.

bow-pose-dhanurasana-picture
Bow Pose

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Half Bow Pose

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SUPPORTED BRIDGE

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.

Supported Bridge
Supported Bridge

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.

OTHER OPTIONS

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Meditation for Athletes.

Russell Wilson rocks. The Seattle Seahawks use meditation as part of their season long conditioning.
Super Bowl QB Russell Wilson. The Seattle Seahawks use meditation as part of their season long conditioning program. Interesting…

Meditation?  Seriously? I know what you’re thinking, but yes, seriously I am going to talk about meditation for athletes. I consider myself to be a very practical person so my approach to yoga has always been from a real world perspective.  Meditation has always seemed like a bunch of new age hokum.

OK, so I was wrong, it happens. The important thing is I have come around and now understand a regular meditation practice has very tangible physical and mental benefits. Specifically for athletes who are used to being cranked up for competition, it is necessary to stimulate the para-sympathetic nervous system to ground them or eventually they are going to find their tank is empty. Meditation also helps gain control over the breath which can be vitally important when hand-eye control is required like making a free throw, catching a pass or throwing a strike.

Finally, I can’t really explain why, but meditation helps athletes find  and maintain occupancy in “the zone.”  You know “the zone,”  that phenomena when the goal or basket seems to be a mile wide, or your opponents seem to be moving in slow motion.  All athletes seek time in the zone and meditation can help get them there.

At this point,  you are convinced I am right,  and can’t wait to get started.  Right…   I know that look,  I’ve cracked tougher nuts than you.  Just try this short “focus exercise” for five days in a row. If you hate it, give up, go ahead you big quitter. (Dropping some old school coaching on you there).  Really, just try it I sincerely believe you will find it beneficial.

First, sit in a comfortable, semi-quiet place.  A car is a great place to start.  Close your eyes and just settle in. Don’t try to control anything, just sit there letting your thoughts bounce around.  Feel free to think this is stupid if you want, I know I did when I first started.

After about a minute, start to take control of your breath. Inhale, counting 1-2-3  pause, then exhale 1-2-3. Try to visualize the actual numbers 1-2-3 in your mind’s eye as you breath. Do 10 rounds of this 3/3 breath pattern.

After the 3/3  breath pattern you are going to start lengthening you exhales.  Continue counting, this time inhaling 1-2-3-4 pause, then exhale 1-2-3-4-5-6 pause, and repeat this 4/6 pattern for 10 rounds.

After the 4/6 breath, come back to an even 5/5 breath.  Inhale 1-2-3-4-5 pause, exhale 1-2-3-4-5 pause.  Repeat this 5/5 pattern for 10 rounds. Don’t be surprised if you find this a little exhausting, it can be at first.

After you complete the 5/5 breath pattern, just let your breath go back to normal, sit there quietly, eyes closed for about a minute, longer if you want, and then softly open the eyes. See that wasn’t so hard, or weird.

Now, just like one set of sit-ups won’t give you ripped abs, one meditation, sorry focus exercise, won’t bring you enlightenment, but keep it up for 5 days in a row (maybe twice a day if you can hack it) and see what it does for your performance.  I bet you will notice something you can’t quite put you finger on, you’ll feel sharper, clearer, more in control.  In short, better.

Here is a cheat sheet for that focus exercise.

1 minute eyes closed, sitting still.

10 rounds 3/3 breath pattern.

10 rounds 4/6 breath pattern.

10 rounds 5/5 breath pattern.

1 minute eyes closed, sitting still.

 

The Fast & the Flexible: Yoga for Runners. Part 3- Hips, Glutes and Low Back.

In this last installment of The Fast & the Flexible series, we have reached the part of the body that brings the majority of people to yoga class, the hips and low back. We will address the glutes as well, but I rarely get a new client who openly complains that their butt hurts, at least not right away.

Low back pain,three words everyone can appreciate.  It is the common thread which binds all people from world-class athletes to 70-year-old grandmas, we can all relate.  This pain can have a variety of causes, sitting too long, picking up stuff, wearing high heels, and commonly, the repetitive pounding of running.

Depending on the actual problem causing the pain, medical intervention may be necessary and if you suffer unrelenting back pain, seek medical advice.  But, as with the hamstring, low back issues are easier to prevent than they are to heal so read on.

Much low back pain can be avoided or alleviated by keeping the hips loose.  The hip joint is the most stable in the body because it is surrounded by muscles on all sides, if any of them tighten up it can affect the function of the joint.  The joint itself is a deep-set ball and socket, and may take a little more work to open than a shallow joint like the shoulder.

If I could only use one yoga pose it would be Pigeon.  This pose is like medicine for all issues related to the low back and hip area.  I use it in every class, for every athlete regardless of their sport, it is truly the universal solvent. The following poses are all great for establishing and maintaining flexibility in the low back, glutes and hips.

FIRST POSE- Pigeon three ways.

Pigeon, prone version.
Pigeon, prone version.

The prone version of pigeon is the most effective, but I find a lot of athletes think it is an enhanced interrogation technique, therefore, I am going to offer three versions, choose the one that suits you.

For prone pigeon, start in downward facing dog, extend and lift your left leg behind you to level out the hips.  From this cleverly named, “three-legged dog” position, bend the knee towards the chest and place it down behind your left wrist.  Reach back with the right foot and drop the right knee cap onto the ground.  Untuck the right foot and press the top of the foot into the ground.

The closer your front knee is to a right angle, the more intense this will be, so bring the foot more under you the first time.  Lift onto your fingertips and look at the ceiling, envision a long, straight spine.  If you are tipped to either side, correct this before you proceed.  Lower down onto your forearms,  and maybe stack your fists or forearms and lower your forehead down so you can rest. You are going to be here a while so get comfortable (comfort being a relative term, of course).

Hold this pose for 1-5 minutes, then repeat on the other side.  Yes you read that right, 5 minutes.  Close the eyes, focus on your exhales and allow your self to sink in, it will get easier after about 30-45 seconds, so stay with it.  I cannot overstate the value of this pose for any athlete.  If this version seems impossible because your hips are welded shut, then try the reclined version of this pose.

Reclined Pigeon pose.
Reclined Pigeon pose.

Lie on your back with bent knees, feet on the ground.  Place one ankle on the top of the other knee, similar to how you sit in a chair with loosely crossed legs. Raise the foot on the floor, maintaining a right angle in the leg. Reach through the triangle that is created by the legs and grasp the back of the thigh and draw the leg towards the chest.  Hold this pose for 1 to 5 minutes on each side.

pigeon wall
Reclined Pigeon using a wall.

Another nice option is to plant the bottom foot on a wall as shown above.  Reclined pigeon fantastic pose to gently release the low back, hip, glutes and, to a lesser degree, the hip flexors and hamstrings.

SECOND POSE- Dead Bug.

Bug, Dead Bug.
Bug, Dead Bug.

Ahh Dead Bug, how I love you, your weird name is a guaranteed laugh every time. It is great pose to release the low back and stretch the hips.    Lie on your back and draw your knees toward the chest.  Reach the hands inside the knees and either grab the outside edge of the foot or the big toe with your peace fingers. Draw the knees down as you aim the soles of your feet at the sky.

To get maximum benefits from this pose remember to keep your low back firmly pressed on the ground. You can rock gently from side to side if that feels good.  Hold for 1 to 2 minutes.

If you are stiff and sore and only have 10 minutes to stretch, please do these poses, they will give you the most bang for your buck.  I know as a teacher you are not supposed to have favorites, but let’s just say I am very fond of these poses and leave it at that.  I hope you have found this series helpful, if you would like more information about how to use yoga to take your running to the next level please contact me at kestnert@bex.net.

Tara Kestner is a registered yoga teacher in Sylvania, Ohio and owner of Next Level Yoga, Ltd.  She specializes in designing programs which help athlete’s improve their performance, prevent injuries, and promote recovery.

 

 

 

 

The Fast & the Flexible: Yoga for Runners. Part 2- Quads, Hamstrings & IT Band.

Moving up the leg, this second installment of the Fast & Flexible series focuses on the quads, hamstrings and IT band. These are the muscles of the legs that provide strength and stability. The power plants of the leg, if you will.

As you may have gleaned, I’m a bit of an anatomy nerd, in 6th grade I had to memorize all the bones of the body. I was so fascinated by the skeletal system I totally rocked the test, even getting all the extra credit bones right. If only the rest of my middle school career was as impressive.

I think it is important to have a base understanding of how the leg is put together so you can recognize its interworkings. Like how you should know your car’s basic components, not so you can fix it, but so you have a better chance of maintaining it and realizing when something is wrong before it completely breaks down.

With that in mind, the quad consists of four muscles stationed at the front of the thigh. Their partners in crime are the hamstrings which are three muscles at the back of the upper leg. When the leg is bent, the hamstring contracts, conversely when the leg is straight the quad contracts.

Runners have highly developed quads and hamstrings, and are usually tight as piano wire. They also often have over-developed quads which wear out the hamstrings, causing exhaustion related issues like strains.  “Pulling a hammie” is every athlete’s worst nightmare and to be clear, hamstring injuries are far easier to prevent than they are to heal.

The IT band (which stands for iliotibial) is a thick tendon which connects the muscle at the outer side of the hip to the outer side of the shinbone, just below the knee. When the IT band is tight, it increases the tension on the  sides of the hip and knee, causing a weird pain on the outside of the knee.

The following three poses help establish and maintain flexibility in these important components of the leg.

FIRST POSE- Fixed Firm Pose

Fixed Firm or what I like to call "going boneless"
Fixed Firm or what I like to call “going boneless”

Anyone who has dealt with a child who does not want to be picked up (generally around naptime) is familiar with the phenomena of children going boneless.  One minute your child is standing like a normal little human, then next thing you know, they are a puddle on the floor.  This pose reminds me of that.

Fixed firm allows you to multi-task, it has all the elements of Hero’s pose for ankle extension, but adds a nice quad stretch, as well as a controlled bind for the knees and ankles. I explain the theory of binding to my clients like this.  Think of a water hose, when you crimp the hose you close down the flow of water.  When you release the crimp, the water rushes back flushing anything clogging up the hose.

Now think of your knee and ankle joints. If we close down the blood flow to the area for a brief period of time, when you release the bind, fresh blood will flow into the joints and hopefully, flush any congestion in the area, leaving you with freshly restored joints. That being said, this is not a pose you would use on surgically repaired knees.

To get into fixed firm, kneel down, sitting on your heels, on a block or other support.  If you can, separate your heels and let your backside settle in, on, or close to the floor.  Make sure your toes are aimed directly backward.

Start to lean back, you will feel the stretch intensify.  If you are pain-free, go ahead and come back on your hands, and then your elbows.  I don’t recommend going beyond the elbows because you hit a point of diminishing returns and it is really embarrassing to get stuck and to have to call for help.

Hold for about 30 seconds and then slowly reverse course coming out of the pose.  Then, come up on hands and knees and start to extend and bend the knees, roll out the ankles and feel the blood rush back into those areas.

SECOND POSE- Runner’s Lunge Set

Runner's lunge set, first position
Runner’s lunge set, first position

I know “Runner’s Lunge” is a little on the nose as a recommendation for runners, but this series of poses stretch the quads, hamstrings and IT band, so it really is aptly named. I never said I would be breaking news here.

For the first pose come into a forward fold, plant both hands on the ground and step back with your left foot.  Drop the back knee down and pad the knee with a folded up towel or shirt, trust me, you will thank me later.

Make sure the knee is above or slightly behind the ankle.  You can stay up on your hands, drop your forearms down on a block, or if you can, bring forearms to the floor.  Drop your chin towards the chest to get a stretch in the upper back, and close your eyes and breath.  Hold for 30-45 seconds before moving to the second pose.

Runner's lunge, second pose.
Runner’s lunge set, second position.

This second pose will get further into the IT band.  From Runner’s lunge first pose, plant your left hand firmly on the ground and rotate the torso towards the inside of the bent knee.  Rest your hand on top your knee and settle in.

If that feels OK, extend your right hand towards to sky.  If you want to move further into this pose, drop your hand behind your back with the back side of the hand pressed into the middle of the low back and look towards your back foot.  Don’t hold your breath, hold the pose for 30 seconds.

RL twist
Runner’s lunge set, third position.

Now lets bring the quads into the equation.  From the starting pose, plant the left hand firmly, rotate the torso into the knee and reach back to grasp the back foot and draw it towards the backside.  If this seems impossible, try using a strap (necktie, belt, leash, etc.) wrap it around the back ankle and bring it as close as you can.

At this point, feel free to thank me for insisting you pad your knee.  Hold until you feel yourself start to accept the pose without struggle, hopefully 30 seconds but possibly less. Release the foot, tuck the back toe and step up to forward fold and repeat the series on the other side.

THIRD POSE- Half Split set.

Half Split
Half Split.

This pose is all about the hamstring. As you straighten the leg, the hamstring is forced to extend.  Whenever I say “half split” in class, everybody panics, trust me, it’s not that bad.  The second variation of this pose, prompts the IT band to extend.

From a lunge position start to straighten the front leg, pulling the hips into line, as if you have a rollercoaster lap bar pushing them back.  Allow the toes to aim at the sky and settle in.  If you feel OK, start to hinge forward at the hips, reaching for the floor to steady yourself. Hold for about 30 seconds.

Return to an upright position, then allow the toes to fall to the outside, this will rotate the inner part of your knee upward and you should feel it in the outside of hip. That is your IT band talking to you.

Again, if you feel good, start to hinge forward to intensify the stretch. Keep a micro-bend in that front leg if you feel like you are hyper-extending those tendons at the back of the knee. Hold for about 30 seconds.

With these three sets of poses, you will establish and maintain flexibility in the quads, hamstrings and IT band.  Adding flexibility to the strength of this area will give you more power and help you take your running the next level.

Tara Kestner is a registered yoga teacher in Sylvania, Ohio and owner of Next Level Yoga, Ltd.  She specializes in designing programs which help athlete’s improve their performance, prevent injuries, and promote recovery.

 

 

 

 

 

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