Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Want to practice or study with Amy Ippoliti in person? Join Amy at Yoga Journal LIVE New York, April 19-22, 2018—YJ’s big event of the year. We’ve lowered prices, developed intensives for yoga teachers, and curated popular educational tracks: Alignment, Alignment, & Sequencing; Health & Wellness; and Philosophy & Mindfulness. See what else is new and sign up now.
A strong proponent of practicing sustainably, Amy Ippoliti’s “Yoga For The Long Haul” workshop at Yoga Journal LIVE San Diego was full of tips for turning yoga into a lifelong endeavor. Her key to avoiding asana burnout? “Instead of chasing the big, fancy pose, focus on moving in a way that feels functional.” The trick, she says, is learning to engage the deep stabilizers while finding ways to give the major movement muscles a break.
We’ve all heard the pervasive cues to “use our core” and “integrate the joints.” While it’s easy to agree that these are constructive instructions, the nebulous language can make it difficult to know exactly what those actions entail in practice. Unlike the larger, more superficial muscles that we use to move our bodies in space, the deeper stabilizing muscles perform the rather important task of holding the skeleton in place, ideally in a shape close to good, functional alignment. The interplay between the stabilizers (which we can’t see, or potentially even feel) and the major movers (which can have a tendency to dominate and thus become overloaded) is a complex one, to say the least. Ideally, muscles work together in a carefully choreographed team effort that involves an appropriate distribution of the required labor, as well as a specific, sequential firing of the relevant muscles in the correct order. If this sounds complicated, it is! And given that the modern lifestyle is often deficient in well-rounded movement, one can imagine how easily the delicate balance can be thrown off. In fact, many of the postural imbalances that are now so common, whether from a sedentary lifestyle or a highly active one, are rooted in a lopsided relationship between the deep stabilizers and superficial movers. As Amy puts it: “We get so fascinated by our big movers that we also try to use them for the smaller, more subtle jobs.” Here’s how to strengthen some of the most important stabilizers, and release the commonly tense movement muscles.
Strengthen: Transverse Abdominus
To quote your yoga teacher, the transverse abdominus (or TVA) handles the action of “cinching in the waist” and is often nicknamed the “corset muscle.” The TVA tenses the abdominal wall and provides significant stabilization for both the pelvic and thoracic regions. If you think that sounds like a big deal, check this out: Without the spinal stability generated by the TVA, the nervous system cannot properly recruit muscles in the limbs, therefore rendering functional movement literally impossible.
This fantastic exercise, which Ippoliti calls “the TVA squeeze,” targets the deep abdominal muscle effectively. Lay on your back, knees bent to 90 degrees and feet on the floor. Find the front hip points, then move the fingertips 1 inch toward the navel and another inch down toward the groin. Cough and feel the abdominal wall contract: This is the action of the TVA. Maintain the engagement to a manageable degree (as in, no gripping or clenching elsewhere), and take turns carefully picking up each foot. When this feels easy, take it up a notch: Stack the knees above the hips, shins parallel to the floor. Cough to find and maintain a light squeeze on the TVA, and take turns tapping each foot to the ground, knees still bent to 90 degrees.
See also Yoga Breathing for Pro Athletes
Strengthen: Gluteus Minimus
The smallest and deepest of the three gluteal muscles, the gluteus minimus plays an important role in negotiating the position of the thighbone in the hip socket. Aside from its function as an adductor and medial rotator of the hip, the gluteus minimus also provides stability, ensuring that the joint is integrated and ready to handle loading when we move. When the gluteus minimus is weak or inactive (or dominated by the larger movement muscles), it has the potential to destabilize the joint, which may cause wear and tear.
Smaller movements are often useful for accessing the deep stabilizers. This tiny leg raise may start out easy, but when done with control you’ll be feeling the burn soon. Lie on your right side, lining up heels, hips and shoulders with the long edge of your mat. Draw your belly in gently to engage your core. Flex your left foot, positioning the pinky edge of the foot parallel to the floor, and lift the foot to hip height. Making your movements as smooth as possible, lift the leg just 3–4 inches up, then lower back to the starting height. Tapping the foot onto a block can be a helpful gauge, but try to keep the engagement continuous rather than letting the foot flop or fall down. Do as many reps as you can with control. You’ll soon feel heat building deep in the musculature of the hip, close to the socket. Repeat on the other side.
Strengthen: Lower Gluteus Maximus + Hamstrings
The lower gluteus maximus (LGM) is the part of the glutes that covers the sitting bone area, as opposed to the rounded, fleshy part of your rear. The LGM is plays an important role in stabilizing and extending the hip, and its effectiveness in both actions can be undermined by long periods of time seated in passive hip flexion. Similarly, we often fixate on stretching the hamstrings, while many of us could use a little hamstring strengthening instead! The hamstrings provide a counteraction to the powerful quadriceps, and an imbalance between the two can cause cause lower back pain, among other things.
This is Ippoliti’s fired-up version of Chair Pose, which she appropriately calls “Uber Utkatasana” thanks to its strengthening actions on the LGM, hamstrings, and low back muscles. With the feet mat-width apart, inhale to lift the arms overhead, then exhale to bend the knees and slide the hips back to come into Utkatasana. Lengthen forward and up through the chest and fingertips, powerfully arching the spine at the same time (Ippoliti’s visual of the Lorax in flight, tush lifted, was a helpful cue for this action). Press the shins back as though trying to straighten the knees, simultaneously resisting the action to engage the hamstrings and LGM. To intensify these actions, make the pose dynamic: hinge at the hip, keeping the spine long, as you raise and lower your upper body.
For an even more challenging LGM exercise, try this: step into Crescent Lunge, and lean your upper body forward on the diagonal. Recreate the Uber Utkatasana actions in the back leg and spine, then lift and lower the back heel, keeping the ball of the big toe firmly grounded, and taking care not to let the hip of the front leg spill out sideways. Repeat until you start to feel fatigue in the sitting bone area of the front leg, then switch to the other side.
Release: Latissimus Dorsi
The lats are large, powerful muscles, spanning the entire lumbar region, the bottom half of the ribcage, all the way up to the shoulder where the muscle attaches to the upper armbone (humerus). The actions of the lats include internal rotation, adduction and extension of the shoulder. Tightness in the lats is problematic on many levels: They can prohibit proper shoulder flexion (as in Down Dog) and cause the chest to cave in as they pull the shoulders into excessive internal rotation. Because they cover the back of the ribcage, tight lats can even restrict breathing patterns, and in some cases hinder the upward rotation of the scapulae needed to safely lift the arms overhead or bear weight on them (goodbye, handstand).
Stretching the lats is relatively simple: Shoulder flexion in itself puts the muscle in an elongated position, and adding a side stretch creates even more length. Starting on all fours, straighten the right leg out to the side. Walk the hands roughly 45 degrees to the right, and reach the left arm out at a diagonal (the right arm can stay bent and act as a kind of kickstand). Soften the neck, root down through the heel of the left hand, and draw the left hip back and away from the fingertips. You should feel a strong stretch in the left side ribs and maybe even the underarm or back of the left waist. Stay and breathe before repeating on the other side.
Release: Pectoralis Major
Due to its role as both an internal rotator and adductor of the arm, the Pectoralis Major often teams up with the Latissimus Dorsi to create the sunken chest/rounded upper back posture that plagues so many desk-bound people. Since the pecs also flex the shoulder, activities that require prolonged lifting of the arms (like driving and typing) can also increase tightness across the chest.
Ippoliti’s targeted pec stretch feels incredible, and using the wall as leverage allows you to fine-tune the intensity of the pose. Stand facing the wall and place the right forearm on the wall as though karate-chopping into it with the pinky edge of the hand (as opposed to the palm being flat). The elbow will be an inch or two above shoulder level. Hike the armpits up slightly and squeeze the shoulder blades together. Maintain this, and take a quarter turn to the left, or until you feel a stretch in the right pectorals. Stay and breathe as long as you like before repeating on the other side.
As a group, these thigh muscles are the large and powerful. In keeping with their role as major movers and metabolic powerhouses, they also often overwhelm their antagonist muscles, the hamstrings. Quad dominance affects both active and sedentary populations: Repetitive hip flexion in runners, cyclists and weightlifters strengthens the quads disproportionately, while seated passive hip flexion sets them in a shortened but weak position. Both scenarios can result in a misaligned pelvis, injury-prone hamstrings, or a crunchy and compressed lower back. Ouch.
Dubbed the “Ninja Death Pose” by Ippoliti due its, shall we say, intense nature, this quad stretch will benefit almost anyone, although I wouldn’t recommend attempting this cold. Instead, try this toward the tail end of a vigorous practice or after a run or brisk walk. With your back to a wall, come into a low lunge, right foot in front. Bend the left knee and scoot back toward the wall, sliding the top of the left foot higher up the wall as you go. Keep the chest forward and fingertips on the floor, only going as close to the wall as the left quads allow (the deeper the knee flexion, the bigger the quad stretch). If this is enough, stay here. Otherwise, take your time bringing the torso upright and placing the hands on top of the right thigh. For the maximum stretch, inch the hips back toward the wall until the left heel touches the glute. Don’t force it if the stretch feels too intense, or the lower back starts to arch excessively. Stay for 5–6 breaths before carefully releasing and switching sides.
About Jenni Tarma
Jenni Tarma is a Los Angeles-based yoga teacher, runner and CrossFitter. She is certified in teaching Yoga For Athletes (via Sage Rountree), is a RRCA Distance Running Coach, and is currently studying with Tiffany Cruikshank for her 500-hour Yoga Medicine certification. She loves to move, and believes yoga is the athlete’s key to form, function and focus! Find her on Instagram: @jennitarma and at www.jennitarma.com.