I just had my first pranayama class in my yoga teacher training the other day. Pranayama is the discipline of the vital life force, or energy, and so many of the things I learned were similar to things that I have heard my mom talk about in her cranio-sacral work.
As homework for one of our other classes, we had to come up with a less-than-five minute sequence to present. I practiced on my parents because I wanted to make sure that I was being clear in my instructions. My instructions were clear, but I very nearly broke them, which made me eep around in my head to the tune of “Oh no! Yoga shouldn’t hurt!” The good news was that it helped me think of several modifications and in addition to the modifications, it got me wondering about how to help people with hip and knee problems.
Enter Samantha, our pranayama instructor. After some discussion of pranayama, we took it to the mat in the form of yoga therapeutics. She showed us some stretches that would help strengthen the feet (and even develop arches in the flat-footed if need be) and create more space in the hips and sacrum. She explained to us that there should be a curve in the lower back, but that a lot of people had very flat lower backs and rigid sacra in our culture from sitting in chairs all day (apparently sitting on the floor is better for you – or, if you think you’d feel awkward sitting on the floor during lecture or at work, you can sit in your chair like you’re sitting on the floor – i.e. don’t let your feet dangle). She went on to explain that the beauty of the body is that it can be molded and shaped and gave us some stretches to help us do it:
For the Feet:
Roll up a mat or towel into a cylinder. Step onto the roll so that the balls of your feet are on the roll and your heels are on the floor. Make sure that your feet are “in line” – i.e. that your second toe is in line with the mound on your ankle (for some people this might actually turn your feet what you would consider to be slightly pigeon-toed). Anchor the four contact points of your feet – the balls of the foot under your big and little toes and the inner and outer heel. Then lift your toes off the roll (without breaking contact with those four points!) as best you can. You should feel a stretch in your calves. Then, if you want, take a forward fold with a flat back. This will take the stretch all the way through the backs of the legs. If it becomes difficult to keep the toes lifted, you can pulse them up and down. After a few breaths come up and notice the new sensation in your legs and feet!
For the Hips:
The way to get into the hips and loosen them up is to stretch out the backs of the legs, the the outside of the legs and then the front of the legs. You can take whatever stretches you’re familiar with to do this. All of these stretches should be done with the feet “flointed,” that is, with the four points of contact on the floor and the toes up. If the foot is not on the floor, then try to keep it in that flointed (flex + point = floint) shape as if it were.
*Stretches for the backs of the legs include any hamstring/calf stretches.
*Stretches for the outsides of the legs include any glute stretches.
*Stretches for the fronts of the leg are any of the quad stretches.
Once you do these stretches, you might notice one of two things: If your legs are really bendy and flexible, you will probably feel more weight and strength and groundedness in your legs. If your legs are strong and muscular and tight, you will probably feel that your legs are lighter, looser and maybe longer. All of these stretches help push the thigh bones back, which helps create that natural curve in the low back, which means less low back pain, less tightness in the hips, less pain in the knees.