This afternoon, my student came to me saying that she had had terrible leg cramps the previous night and wanted something to help with stiff, sore legs. The pain had woken her several times in the night so she was also fatigued. "Can we do a relaxing class today?" "Of course," I replied.
She is physically fit and we usually have a strong core-focused practice that is a combination of hatha yoga and Pilates mat work. I was more than happy to change it up and adapt the practice to her needs.
We started in pigeon pose (yin-style), followed by King Arthur's stretch for the glutes and quadriceps respectively. While these would seem to give her the stretch she asked for, I could tell that her body was tired, energy low, and that a quieter restorative sequence would work better.
What did I do?
I brought my trusty Iyengar yoga chair, and demonstrated the supported CHAIR BACKBEND which I had in mind. This pose (image 1) may look easy but it requires a heightened level of body awareness. Why?
Different bodies are differently proportioned -- this affects the placement of where the back body touches the edge of the chair seat. Why does this matter? In this backbend, we want to stabilise the lower back (lumbar spine) while extending the middle back (thoracic spine).
This means, the intensity of the stretch should be felt maximally in the middle back.
Meanwhile, the lower back should feel comfortable, relaxed and tension-free.
Thus, depending on torso length, the student may have to sit on 1-2 yoga blocks (or any suitable prop) to elevate them, before they can recline at an angle where their back is supported and stretched in the correct way.
Poses like these are an example of where a teacher's eye and guidance can be instrumental in keeping the student safe, adjusting the props for them, and explaining what is going on in different sections of the spine, so that they can learn and be able to set the pose up for themselves.
Images 1 and 2 show different options for arm placement.
To open up the chest / shoulders / arms, you can hold on to the chair backrest from underneath, or any way which works for you. If the shoulders are too stiff or frozen to reach the bar, simply interlace the fingers and rest the hands on the abdomen.
From the chair backbend, I took her back to the mat for a SUPINE BACKBEND. I set up 2 blocks, one under the middle back, one under her head. Once she was fully comfortable on the blocks (maximum back-bending again at the middle back) I placed a chair for her to hold on to with each hand. This is a great stretch for the arms and shoulders (image 3).
After holding this for awhile, she began to feel tingling in her arms. I told her to rest them on the ground (about 45 degrees out to either side of her torso) before her arms went numb. *Never stay in a pose if you begin to feel numbness in your fingers / arms / legs.
From the mat, we went to the wall for LEGS UP THE WALL pose. This is a common pose that many are familiar with, but depending on one's alignment, the effect is totally different.
For the purpose of relieving lower back pain and fatigue in the lower body, have your bum resting a short distance from the wall. The exact length is up to your personal comfort. Remember that the purpose here is to relax--not stretch--the legs. That is a different pose**. In this pose: Do not stretch your legs open to the max. Ideally they are up the wall a little wider than hip-width--the exact distance is up to you. The knees can be straight or bent, whichever feels best for your back. Be in the pose for about 3-5 minutes, or as long as you like.
My favourite transition from this inversion is to a SUPINE TWIST.
Stretch both arms out, bend the knees to the chest and float both legs to rest on the ground. If this hurts your lower back, place a block or bolster between the legs.
Rest your feet soles on the wall as shown. This supports the lower body and immediately relaxes the lower back and belly so you can breathe easier (images 5 & 6).
We ended class in a star-shaped savasana. My instruction to her was:
"Lie down on your back. Stretch your arms and legs like a big star on the ground."
My student loved her practice.
It made my heart happy to be able to guide her in a sequence that soothed her tired body and mind.
If you are stiff, sore or tired and you don't know where to start, just choose one of these. You don't have to do an entire sequence to experience the benefits of yoga. You can do one pose.
*What's going on?
Numbness may result from poor circulation, nerve pressure, or overstretching. If it is persistent, it may be the sign of something more serious. Like tingling, a lasting lack of sensation might be an early sign of vascular insufficiency (decrease in blood supply) or diabetic neuropathy, among other things.
What to do about it?
Do not persist in the pose. Always get out of, or alter, any position—in yoga class or in daily life—that is causing numbness anywhere. Holding a pose through numbness is at best unproductive and at worst dangerous. “If the numbness is due to overstretching, it can cause more lasting symptoms like muscle weakness.
As quoted by physiotherapist Bill Reif in 'What Happens If I Feel Tingling, Numbness, or Shaking During Yoga Class?'.
**If you want a great HIP & LEG STRETCH, have your bum up against the wall (or as close as you can), and stretch your legs as wide as they will go. Have your legs straight, flex your feet (heels out, toes to your face).
The most common mistake students make is to treat this as a resting pose and have their legs flopped out to the sides, often one leg higher than the other. Just because you are lying down doesn't mean you can just do whatever, close your eyes and go to sleep.
Pay attention to alignment and sensation.
If you have inner knee pain, rotate your legs inward (from the hip joints) so that the backs of the legs are in contact with the wall. Your knees should be facing directly toward the centre of the room--not flopping out to either side.
For those who are hypermobile in the hips, you may want to place a block under each leg so that you feel safe and supported in the pose vs pushing your joints to the maximum.