About Ricardo das Neves

Ricardo das Neves is the author of Unenlightened: Confessions of an Irreverent Yoga Teacher , is occasionally known to tweet (@spirithumor) and is committed to keeping a minimum 35% wit content on his website. When he’s not trying to be funny, he acts very serious teaching yoga classes in and around Seattle. Want to receive humorously-described, illustrated yoga poses in your inbox? Click here. Connect with him on Google+

Visual Yoga Blog: Cushioned Lumbar Release in 6 Steps

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Sitting. We All Do It. We All Do It Way Too Long.

I don’t know if there’s a way to sit right. I’ve personally tried regular chairs, lumbar-support chairs, kneeling chairs, recliners, armchairs, sitting on the floor, sitting on the floor in full lotus position, in half-lotus position, kneeling, kneeling on a cushion or block, and just plain not sitting: just standing all day while working to bring you, ahem, these tips.

So whether your low back gets tight or tired may not be a factor of how you sit but how long you sit. A friend of mine, who describes herself as “having the world’s smallest bladder” may have found the best way to remind herself to get up on a regular basis for short breaks.

On the other hand, if your bladder is of legendary proportions (or you just plain forget to rise and walk around a bit every hour), my guess is you could use this novel way of releasing the tension that your low back accumulates through hours of sitting.

You need a yoga mat and a yoga block. And enough floor space that the guy in the cubicle next to yours doesn’t ask, “Hey, why are you sticking your foot over the divider?”

Okay, here we go, lumbar release in 6 steps:

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1. Roll your yoga mat tightly, sit directly on it, on its lower end, and set up a yoga block (or equivalent) above the mat, as pictured.

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2. Lie back atop the mat. Scoot yourself higher or lower till your hip bone and your shoulders are both comfortably supported by the mat. Rest your head on the block. Take a couple of deep breaths.

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3. Turn your palms to face down, because later we’ll need them like this for balance. Take two more slow breaths. Notice whether your lumbar spine starts to flatten onto the cushion that is the mat.

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4. Cross your left ankle over your right thigh. Take two slow breaths. Cross your right ankle over your left ankle, and spend another two slow breaths here. Don’t skip this step; if the last step didn’t flatten your low back onto the mat, this step will.

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5. Extend your legs toward the ceiling. Your low back should now be flat. Use your palms on the floor for balance. Take three slow breaths and then let the legs lean in toward your chest.

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6. Separate your legs out to the side, wherever comfortable to you. Keep leaning them in slightly to keep this comfortable and to further flatten your low back. Stay for three long, slow breaths. Follow this up by lying flat on the floor for five-ten slow breaths.

Benefits: Effective enough to decompress the lumbar spine, effortless enough that you might actually do it on a regular basis.

Avoid if: If you experience any pain in your hip or lower back during this sequence, try scaling it back to whatever previous step didn’t cause you pain. If just lying down atop the rolled mat is enough to create discomfort, stay there for ten slow breaths and go no further; consult a chiropractor or physical therapist to ascertain that the source of the pain isn’t deeper than just low-back tightness.

Final thoughts: No, you can’t use a cushion for the Cushioned Lumbar Release. Next question?

Two-Minute Energize With the Balance-Twist Sequence

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Solve the energy crisis — do yoga!

For years I’ve been saying that fatigue isn’t an absence of energy; it’s a blockage of energy.

Untold times I’ve felt tired and sluggish when starting to practice yoga, and invariably 15 minutes in, I discover a reservoir of energy that I didn’t know I had.

Because of the frequency and length of our sitting habits, the hip joints and the hamstrings are, quite simply, where energy tends to get “stuck.” Free up the hips and hamstrings and you have an immediately improved energy availability — both physical and mental.

Now, this won’t make up for chronic energy issues, but it will give you a little boost. And improve your balance and range of motion to boot.

In six steps:

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1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Take one deep, slow, full breath.

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2. Shift the weight of your body onto your left foot and let your right leg rise and balance. Take another two deep, slow breaths.

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3. Slowly swing your right leg behind you till it’s parallel to the floor. Here are a front and a side view of the same position. Bring your palms together underneath your heart. Take three deep, slow breaths.

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4. After the breaths, swing your right leg through as you stand and extend your arms up in the air. Take two slow breaths.

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5. Now, cross your right leg over your left leg and ground your right foot on the outside of your left foot. Fold forward and either set your hands (or fingertips) on the floor, or use a yoga block or something equivalent to ground your hands. Here is a front and a side view of the same position. Take three slow breaths here.

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6. Leaving your left hand on the floor (or yoga block), lift your right arm, turn your head and look toward the ceiling. Since this is the final position, take three or up to six breaths while here. If your neck starts to become tired, stop.

That’s it. Now repeat the same thing on the other side.

Benefits: Releases hip joint tension, focuses your mind, releases hamstring tightness and back tightness and enhances your ability to extend and twist. And, oh, yeah: it gives you a little mental and physical energy boost.

Avoid if: This sequence requires balance, coordination, strength, hip joint wellness and the ability to lengthen into a twist… so a lot of things may not work for your body. If your balance is off, do this sequence next to a table or a chair and touch your hand down on it as needed to keep you safe in the balance. If your hips or hamstrings hurt (not in a stretch-deep kind of way) then this sequence is probably not useful for your body right now: try other poses to prepare your body gently for this pose. If in the last step you can’t get a good, stable position of your hand on the floor or yoga block that you can press off of and twist with, then add however many other yoga blocks you need underneath the hand. Remember: never force; breathe fully with all positions.

Final thoughts: If you’re complaining that this seems like a lot of poses to do all at once, you may be right. But chairs have been around since before the pharaohs and though we may stand at work or use a “kneeling” type chair, sitting down is probably not going out of style anytime soon. So this is the antidote.

Hand and Wrist Health

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The pantheon of yoga poses is heavy on hand and wrist use, but curiously light on hand and wrist poses.

You may have seen the position where you step on your palms as a means of stretching your wrists. It looks like this:

While better than nothing (think of the amount of time spent in downward dogs and other wrist-intensive poses in the course of a single yoga session), it’s not as promoting of hand happiness as is this approach.

If you’re practicing yoga, you should already have all the equipment you need to release residual tension in the hands: a yoga mat.

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1. Roll up your yoga mat tightly (the smaller the hole in the center, the better the yoga mat rolls on your hands in this practice), kneel, and spread your left hand on the floor.

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2. Place your rolled-up mat atop the left palm.

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3. Now bend your left elbow a little and put your entire upper body weight on your right hand. You want to flatten your left palm onto the floor with the weight you’re applying on the mat.

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4. Roll the mat back and forth with all your upper body weight on it. In other words, don’t massage the left hand here with the weight of the mat (it’s too light to have any effect); massage it by rolling the mat with the weight of your upper body. Again, remember to keep your left elbow bent so the left hand doesn’t hold up your upper body: all the upper body weight should go to your right hand.

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5. Do this for about 20 seconds, breathing fully, and then repeat on your right hand.

Benefits: Stimulates the connective tissue in the hands: once you stop the massage, the connective tissue “bounces” back and absorbs more fluid. Releases hand tension in a gentle and effortless way. Easy enough to do anywhere and without any preparation. Good for before and after doing hand- or wrist-intensive yoga poses.

Avoid if: If this practice is enough to create pain in your hands or wrists, I highly recommend that you seek out a physical therapist with experience in working with the hands and wrists, whether it’s because of arthritis, inflammation, or any other issue. You don’t want to let this go untreated or at the very least fail to diagnose what’s causing the pain, whether it’s repetitive motion injury, toxins accumulated in the joints, an incorrect position of your hands when typing or playing the piano for hours. In my Visual Yoga Blog I have other wrist-stretch poses, but this is the more effective one… and if it hurts, it’s time to have someone help you with it.

Final Thoughts: The improvement on the health of your hands isn’t so you get a better grip on your bottle of beer after yoga. But if it is, at least bring your rolled-up yoga mat to the pub to show everybody. It’ll make you seem like you have something fascinating to talk about.

Drinking in Yoga and Improved Shavasana

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This is not about how having a little cognac before yoga will make you relax a lot better in shavasana.

It’s about the growing presence of water bottles in yoga classes… and its direct relationship to the very thing you’re trying to accomplish with yoga.

I should confess I was never in the water-in-yoga-class camp. I felt that if you’re in a flow yoga class (or even in a static-poses class), you don’t want to break your concentration by stopping to unscrew your water bottle and drinking (and conveniently skipping that pose you don’t like).

But with the popularization of yoga, I started to see water bottles everywhere. And just as the sages of yore were silent on, ahem, your phone dinging with an incoming text, so were they silent on chugging down some fluids in the middle of a yoga session.

I didn’t discourage this, but I did internally frown on it. Now I’ve changed my tune. By all means drink in class.

It turns out that yoga and water support each other. After all, the joints, muscles and connective tissue that are aching or sore, are most likely that way from dehydration–not just today’s on this week’s, but sometimes years of dehydration.

Reversing the site-specific dehydration in your body doesn’t just involve drinking more water, since it can just pass through you unabsorbed, especially if you gulp rather than sip.

To remove the state of dehydration-induced pain or discomfort, you first need to stimulate the joints, muscles and connective tissue (how about with a little yoga?) and then they’ll be eager to soak up the water you give them. The neck or shoulder or hip discomfort (that brought you to yoga to begin with) will vanish much faster this way.

Now, this is a Visual Yoga Blog, so let me direct your attention to something that’s very simple to do and yet provides that stimulation to the muscles, joints and connective tissue to a large part of the body: the spine.

I call this Shavasana 2.0, or the Improved Shavasana, or the Precursor to Shavasana.

Shavasana, of course, is the relaxation/corpse pose that we typically do at the end of each class. How can anyone possibly improve on the corpse pose? With a yoga mat. A rolled-up yoga mat.

In two (very relaxing) steps:

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1. Sit down. Take your tightly-rolled yoga mat and put it against your spine, as shown.

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2. Lie down on the mat. Your head should find support on the mat itself. If you are very tall and your shoulders or head hang off the mat, take a yoga block (or, hey, a yoga book) and support your head with it. Relax your jaw, but breathe (slowly) through the nose.

That’s it. Stay here for two minutes. Or more. Don’t rush it. The lengthening effect of this pose on your vertebrae will increase with longer times: go for up to ten minutes if you wish. And then drink water.

Then follow this with the true Shavasana: remove the mat from under you and just lie on your back anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes.

Because of the time lag between drinking and the fluid being available where it’s needed most, it might be a good idea to sip water before and after this practice. And before, during and after yoga in general.

Benefits: Decompresses the entire spine, relaxes the diaphragm, helps to open up a tight chest (pectoral muscles), improves your posture, and generally feels good.

Avoid if: If your spine doesn’t feel comfortable at all in this position, try moving the mat higher or lower on your back. If this still doesn’t feel comfortable, try simply lying on your back without the rolled mat underneath you, or try some other gentle poses.

Final thoughts: It might still be a good idea to drink before class, and after class. Just not the libations from the neighborhood pub. That is, unless you want a reason to practice The Drunken Paschimottanasana.

Visual Yoga Blog: The Gate, Rebooted

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When I first got into yoga, Iyengar’s book Light on Yoga introduced me to a lot of poses, many of which I couldn’t do.

For the record, I still can’t do many of them today, and it’s not because they require an extreme range of flexibility. Some are still uncomfortable, like parighasana, the gate pose.

So, here’s the Gate, Rebooted: the side stretch is nowhere as intense, but it adds a nice twist through the spine that’s ever so helpful in releasing back, shoulder and lumbar spine tension.

In 4 easy steps.

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1. Kneel and extend out your left leg.

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2. Reach underneath your right arm to grab onto your left shin. It may have to be your left thigh, if you can’t quite reach the shin: no problem, as you can always adjust in the next level of the pose.

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3. Drop your right shoulder (and the right side of the head) to your mat. At this point the pose should feel restful and fairly comfortable. If you’re able to slide your right hand down a little further without forcing, then go for it. Stay for 4 very slow breaths, letting your spine absorb the stretch.

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4. Raise your left arm up in the air as illustrated, to deepen the twist and stretch. Stay for another 4 very slow breaths, and then come down and repeat on the second side.

Benefits: Fantastic back twist, inner thigh stretch, chest opener, and slight inversion, all packaged into a pose that can feel restful.

Avoid if: Your knee or your ankle hurts. The tripod-like support on the floor (knee, foot and shoulder) should divide the weight so as to make it easy on the shoulder, but if your shoulder doesn’t like the pose, or the back feels too challenged by it, you could cushion your shoulder with a pillow (rather than a block), or double up on your mat.

Final thoughts: The original pose never looked like much of a gate to me, and neither does this one. In fact, I’d like to officially rename this The Meteorologist Pose, because you look like you’re putting out your hand to feel the wind, and which way it’s going. The only problem is, poses are traditionally named after things (as in, the gate, or triangle), after flora (as in, tree, or lotus) or after animals (as in, frog or camel). If I start naming poses after professions, this might get weird. But, now that I’ve crossed that bridge with the Meteorologist, coming up next will be the proctologist’s pose. No, just kidding.

Visual Yoga Blog: The Grounded Butterfly Pose

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Psoas muscle paradise (or hell) can be found here today

I’m always a little surprised at how challenged some folks in my classes appear to be with a position like the one I’m about to foist on you today. Despite their general flexibility, it’s almost as though it has skipped over their inner-thigh, psoas muscles. But fear not! Grounded Butterfly Pose to the rescue!

In 3 easy steps:

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1. Squat at the back of your mat with your knees pointed out to the side and both the heels and the balls of your feet touching. Touch your fingertips down on your mat (or on yoga blocks, if you need more height). Take 2 deep, slow breaths.
 
 
 
 

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2. Keeping the knees on the outside of your mat, lean forward onto your hands. Note that the feet should stay together. Note also that the hip bone and inner thighs should press toward the floor. Take 2 slow breaths here.
 
 
 
 
 

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3. Continue leaning forward and down until your abdomen and chest are flat on the mat as pictured. Set your chin down; set the hands somewhere under your shoulders. Take 5 slow breaths in this position.
 
 

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Just to clarify, as sometimes people wind up in this pose: this is not what we’re looking for in this position. Your hips don’t stay up high as you sit on your heels; rather, you slide forward and down so your body is as flat as possible, as illustrated in the third picture above. Otherwise, you don’t have the “Grounded Butterfly” Pose, you have the “I Wish I Hadn’t Eaten That” Pose.

Benefits: Fantastic stretch to the psoas muscles on the inner thighs and fantastic hip joint opener whose intensity you can dial by how close or how far your feet are away from your hips. Good pectoral and front-of-the-neck stretch too.

Avoid if: If your psoas muscles (it’s pronounce so-azz; silent initial “p”) are tight and you can’t quite flatten your legs onto the floor, try it with your knees as wide as you can but with your feet slightly elevated. You can work your way eventually into inner thighs flat on the ground. (And by “eventually,” I don’t mean “today.”) If your knees or hip joints hurt in this position, so much so that your body looks more like the X’d out pose above, then you might want to stick with that position instead. You won’t get much of a psoas stretch, but it’ll still open up your chest and lengthen your spine.

Final thoughts: After discussing psoas pstretches, I can get rather psilly with psilent initial P’s.

Visual Yoga Blog: The Rock Climber’s Pose

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Today’s Visual Yoga Blog derives its name from its similarity to a rock climber hugging the face of a mountain.

 

… and the similarity between the two may end there, because whereas the rock climber is using all her might to hang on for dear life, you, dear yogi, are just relaxing against your mat.

Aren’t you lucky.

Still, it’s a great pose for some good, thorough release of back tension, which, whether you climb rocks or sit too long in an office, you might need.

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1. Lie face down on the left side of your mat, bend your right knee to a 90-degree angle to your body, and flatten your hip bone and inner thigh against your mat. Your left arm extends up on the mat; your right palm and your chin rest on it. Take 3 slow breaths here.
 
 
 

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2. Press on your hands, turn your head to the right and lift your upper body a little and your right shoulder higher than your left shoulder. Look back over your right shoulder, without forcing. Take 2 slow breaths here and come back to the first position.
 
 
 
 

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3. For the second pass, do the same thing as in step 2, except press your right knee firmer on the floor, extend your right arm and, turning to the right, look over it. Keep your hip flat against your mat. Take 3 slow breaths and then go back to the first position.
 
 

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4. For the third pass and the full pose, do what you did in step 2, except take in further: roll over your left shoulder and arm, and drop your right arm however close to the floor it can reach without forcing, letting gravity do the work. Your right hip rises further, your right knee comes in a little to be able to press against the floor and support the twist better. Stay for 3 (or more) long breaths and then repeat the entire 4-step sequence on the other side.
 
 

Benefits: Easy yet effective stretch to the low, middle and upper back, to the shoulders and to the neck.

Avoid if: If your range of turning in steps 2, 3 or 4 is such that you feel pain rather than a comfortable twist, skip the pose completely. Otherwise, this should be a fairly gentle and doable pose under most circumstances, even if your range of motion is limited.

Final thoughts: The primary advantage of the rock climber’s pose is that you don’t have to get in your car and drive for 2 hours before you get to a rock worth climbing. The other advantage is that if you fall in rock climber’s pose… well, you hit your chin on your mat and that’s it. Now that’s a risk level I can live with.