Tagyoga

Safety with Back Bends

Ask any pole dancer or aerialist about their goals and no doubt they include working on back flexibility. If they were a gymnast or ballerina as a child they may remember doing walk overs and wearing “foot-hats” and hope that their muscle memory allows them to return to being so supple and bendy. Yet, even for dancers who only took up the practice as adults, we all dream of beautiful lines and elegant shapes created by a strong and flexible back arch.

But what is the best way to practice bending backwards? Are all bodies able to do back bends?

Firstly, let’s look at what you are trying to achieve. Vertical Wise published a great article in 2016 showing how, depending on which part of your back is naturally more flexible, what your back bend may look like (in an ideal world where we can all sit on our heads!)

It has been said that although you can lengthen the muscles, tendons, and fascia, that support the spine, the actual space between the bones is set as of puberty (Source). This does not mean that we should all stop flexibility training all together, but it does help us set realistic goals and learn to approach the practice of back bending from a safe perspective.

When you attempt a back bend pose on the floor, you are enlisting the help of your hips, glutes, quads, shoulder, lats, and your neck. Therefore, one of the first points to consider when embarking on safe back bending is that you also need to stretch and learn to engage these other parts of your body. Injuries, especially in your lower back, may occur from continually putting pressure on the spine in an attempt to push deeper and deeper.

Lat stretches included in #SaturdayLaturday can be effective in helping to “open up” the upper back. Lunges and reclining poses that focus on the quads, hip flexors, and psoas, will also help to ensure the final poses are not putting too much strain on your lower back.

In each of these preparatory poses, try to think of opening the chest and staying long through the spine. Try not to throw your neck back more than necessary as this is also a common area for sprains and injuries. Yoga wheels and other props can help you form a safe shape as you learn to bend backwards, however learning how to hold a strong back bend should always be the goal, not just learning how to fall into one.

Different practitioners have opposing views about whether it’s a good idea to engage the glutes during back bends. It is possible that by engaging your glutes you can increase the stretch in your hip flexors, and reduce the load on your lumbar spine, but squeezing your butt may also externally rotate the legs and put you out of alignment. The glutes are made up of three muscles, two of which externally rotate the hip and one that internally rotates the hip. Learning to engage the lower gluteus minimus separately from the others may work in your favour to stabilise and increase the range of motion in your back bends. Practicing bridges from the floor with proper alignment will help you connect with this muscle. I also recommend reading this article by Roger Cole, Ph.D, for some simple and effective exercises to learn how to engage your glutes for safe back bends.

From a personal stand point, I have seen more improvement in my back flex and strength since joining a contortion class at the circus. I believe this is not only due to having professional instructors, but also due to the added diversity and consistency of my practice. In two, hour long classes a week we explore back bending from every angle – bridges and wheel pose, camel pose, bow pose, forearm stands, dancers pose, chest stands, as well as classic contortion positions for the more flexible students. Rather than just holding each shape as a static pose, we are encouraged to be actively entering and exiting the pose working to build strength in the posture as well as increasing our range of motion.

The many ways to enter/exit wheel pose include:

  • lying on your back, hands over head, push up
  • drop backs or walking your hands down a wall to the floor (and reverse back to standing)
  • from a handstand, flipping over to land your feet on the floor or mat (and reverse back to standing)
  • sitting, externally rotate one hand and push up, drawing an arc with your other hand until it reaches the floor underneath you (both sides)

Once you are in wheel pose there are also variations like lifting one leg, straightening both legs, or sinking your butt down to create a hollow back shape.

Some of these entries may feel better for your body than others. I still cannot drop back into a wheel pose, but I can get quite deep bends using the strength in my arms and legs to push up. I am still practicing my drop backs though, going back as far as I can from standing, holding and breathing, and then returning to standing with control and with focus on alignment.

“An honest way to train yourself into deeper backbends is to practice hands-free. When you remove your hands from backbends, you’re forced to work your core and spinal muscles. You can’t cheat how deep you get when your hands aren’t pushing you past what you can hold with integrity”

(Source)

Dancers who have a tendency to hyperextend their elbows, may also benefit from practicing hands free as they won’t be putting any pressure on the joint until their hands touch the floor in the final presentation of the pose.

You can also go hands free dropping back in camel pose.

Or lifting hands free from the floor.

These are great exercises to add to your practice as they will strengthen your back and core and help you learn to connect with the muscles that will support your back bends. Training this way will ensure you are also not falling into a bend that you don’t have the strength to maintain.

It can be scary to start practicing back bends on your own. Try joining a flexibility or contortion class or start small and train with a friend to help as a spotter. From a yoga perspective, back bends are considered to

“stimulate the proper functioning of the digestive system, help preserve the health of the vertebrae and spinal disks, and open the body to deep diaphragmatic breathing.” (ref)

You may also find that regularly practicing back bends improves your posture as well, countering bad habits of slouching at you desk and in front of your computer. A friend used to move her laptop to the floor and work in sphinx pose, challenging her upper back and shoulders for up to 20 minutes or more. If you have a flexible work space this is a great way to add some extra back bend practice to your day. Just be careful not to overdue it, remembering to pull your shoulders back and down and keep the neck long as you look forwards.

Finally, every back bending session should be matched with counter poses. Coming from a yoga background I would suggest, if your training involved lots of back bends, on the floor or the on the pole (e.g ballerinas, cocoons, crescent moons, allegras, and brass bridges), counter these poses with some forward bends off the pole – seated forward bends, plough pose, wall assisted forward bends, and some spinal twists. Don’t forget to breathe deeply into the upper, middle, and lower back in these poses and remember to lengthen and extend. Relaxing with shavasana and giving your body time to assimilate your practice will also support you adapting to your new bendy self!

_______

This post was requested by Su Ma Zaw, the winner of the October Shoutout Competition. If you would like to be involved in further competitions and be in the loop for all announcements, performance updates, and special gifts, sign up to my newsletter here!

 

 

Cross Training for Aerial – Part 8: Acroyoga

Yoga has always been a part of my bodywork practice. Even before dance, yoga showed me ways to start loving my body for what it could do. I still practice yoga almost everyday, but I am now learning about acroyoga and finding the benefits are tenfold in supporting my aerial dance practice!

For pole dance and aerial training, supplementing your program with acroyoga can support body awareness, core stability, balance, and be a great introduction to partner work on the pole or aerial apparatus.

For those new to the idea of acroyoga here is a definition from Maggie McCracken

“Acroyoga is a combination of acrobatics and yoga performed between two partners. One partner is the base while the other is the flyer. The base supports the flyer in a series of movements that combine balance, strength and acrobatics.”

At the circus we play around with group and partner shapes at the end of a handstands or flex class. It’s a great way to apply the skills that we are working and push through boundaries of fear and trust as we work with each other. I am constantly amazed with the breakthroughs I have been able to make. From not being able to hold a freestanding handstand, to being able to fly in the pose below was truly exhilarating!

Many pole and aerial studios offer classes for acroyoga, or use elements of the practice to add variety to a handstand class. Below are six benefits of acroyoga and how you can use the practice to support your aerial dancing.

– Increase in spatial and kinesthetic awareness
If you are a pole dancer or aerialist who forgets their left and right as soon as they are upside down, acroyoga could help! Kinesthetic awareness is about knowing where your body is in space. For example, you don’t need to see your foot to know how to grab it when you bend your knee up behind you. Many acroyoga poses require you to move your limbs while balancing and maintaining your focus out in front of you. Working as the base or the flyer in acro poses supports body awareness and challenges your body and brain to adapt to changes in position or balance quickly.

– Whole body workout
Many people who start acroyoga are initially surprised at how much of a workout it is, or under the impression that the base works harder than the flyer. This is simply untrue. If you are the flyer you will learn how to engage your core to create a stable centre of gravity of which to move around. Your arms are also pushing against the base in many poses, much like a handstand. Rather than being a “dead weight” the flyer supports their weight and compliments the forces applied by the base. The base offers support through a stable core and active legs as they hold the flyer in air. Acroyoga also requires stamina as you hold poses for a extended length of time. The encouragement you are able to provide to your partner, or group, is great motivation to work harder (within your body’s limits, of course). As you become more advanced you will discover muscles you didn’t even know you had in your core, back, hips, glutes, legs, and arms, that are activating and making small adjustments all the time, gaining strength as they keep you stable and respond to your partner.

– Learning how to fall
If you are a beginner I highly recommend working in teams of three, so someone can also act as a spotter. Learning to fall is all part of the fun, however a spotter is essential in maintaining the safety of both the base and flyer when entering poses and dismounting from them. With this in mind, it is also useful to play as both the base and the flyer, as each requires different skills and strengths and also allows you to understand the pose from two perspectives. For example, if you have tendency to push harder with your right hand than your left, you may be able to predict this behaviour and respond to it when your partner does the same. Knowing how to protect yourself and your partner is essential in preventing injury.

– Breath work
Matching your inhalations and exhalations with your partner can be an effective way to connect and enter or exit a pose. Learning how to breath through movement, exhaling into a stretch or inhaling through a strength based invert brings energy and oxygen into the body and helps you maintain focus. Making these techniques habit will allow them to transfer easily to your aerial training.

– Better communication

“In order to work closely with your partner or partners, you must consciously focus on maintaining presence without distraction. Your partner’s safety, as well as your own, depends on your ability and willingness to read each other’s physical, verbal, and visual cues without much discussion” (Source)

If you have aspirations for doubles pole or hoop, learning how to read the non-verbal cues of your partner is essential. Additionally, learning how to talk about positions and adjustments with your base or flyer, will support your kinesthetic awareness, and increase your communication skills as an aerial instructor and student.

If you need anymore convincing, take a look at this stunning acro inspired pole routine by trio Carolyn Chiu, Rosabelle Selavy, & Marcy Richardson.

Happy dancing!

Saturday Laturday!

At some point, pole dancers and aerialists will begin to see their upper back and shoulders becoming stronger and larger. Racer back tops and sleeveless dresses are now the norm as we cater to our growing lats, shoulders, biceps, and traps. Our bodies are stronger because of pole, yet many women question if their growing lats are something to be proud of or something to cover up.

So, in the spirit of embracing strong women, it is with great pleasure that I introduce #SaturdayLaturday! Show off your lats to the world and support women growing stronger – inside and out!

Just like #sundaybumday, and in the spirit of training safer and stronger, let’s look more closely at our lats, how they work to support us upside down, and how you can keep them injury free.

In the diagram you can see that the lats are the muscles that wrap around the middle and lower spine, extending up through the armpit. They insert on both shoulder blades and the upper arm at the humerus.  Their full name is “latissimus dorsi” which basically translates to “broad muscles of the back” – latissimus = broadest, and dorsum = back.

The lats connect and support movement through the spine, ribs, sacrum, and shoulder blades. Every time you lift you arms above your head and engage your shoulders, sit tall with good posture, or twist and bend your torso, your lats are put to work. Having strong lats will stabilise your scapula and upper back and also aid in shoulder stability. The lats pull your arms down towards your body and help with rotation. Try this: hold our your arm out straight and make a “thumbs down” action rotating from your shoulder. You should be able to feel your lats working in this movement. If you are familiar with a twisted grip mount in pole dancing you will also see the similarities and how your lats work to rotate your arm and shoulder for you to turn your arm and grip the pole.

Bodybuilders use exercises such as chin ups, pull ups, and pull downs  to strengthen and train their lats. Your inverts, shoulder mounts, and any work on silks and lyra, are going to engage your lats as well. Hence, the surprise when someone snaps a pic of you at the beach and you realise how much your back has changed because of pole!

Aerialists and pole dancers spend lots of time pulling with their arms overhead. Having strong lats will help with these movements and will give you better posture. But if the lats are too tight, you may be at risk of rotator cuff injuries as your shoulder overcompensates. Tight lats also make it virtually impossible raise the arms full over head in a backbend, and may even reduce your ability to create a stable base for a headstand (ref).

If alarm bells are going off in your head as you realise tight lats may be stopping you from reaching your flexibility and aerial goals, then read on!

One way to counter tightness and care for your lats is to foam roll them. Lay on your side with your bottom arm outstretched and the roller perpendicular to your torso. From here you should be able to roll forwards and backwards as well as side to side, being careful to not roll over your ribs. Regular foam rolling will help soothe and soften the lats.

When stretching the lats, ensure that your pelvis and ribs remain stable. If you raise your arms over head from a standing position and you find your ribs popping and lower back arching, your lats will not be stretched effectively. “Stabilise the origins” of the muscle by keeping your pelvis and tailbone tucked under and your core engaged. When you raise your arms, you should feel a stretch at the back of the armpit.

You can see how tight your lats are, and have a great lat stretch by trying this exercise on the floor:

Lie on your back on the floor with your arms by your sides. Feel where the back of your rib cage touches the floor, taking special note of the point of contact that lies closest to your waist. Turn your palms up, then lift your arms up and overhead to the floor, or as close to the floor as they will go without you bending your elbows or separating your arms wider than your shoulders.

For most people, this movement will make the lower ribs lift off the floor in back and jut out in front. Now return your arms to your sides and repeat the same actions, but this time, as you reach overhead, press the lower rib cage—the point closest to your waist—firmly into the floor to prevent it from lifting up at all. This will probably create a sensation of stretch on the outer sides of your armpits and make it harder to reach the floor. The stronger the stretch and the greater the restriction of movement, the tighter your lats are. (ref)

Here are some simple stretches to include after your pole dance or aerial session to balance out your training and give your lats some love –

1- Assisted Squat – Use stall bars or a high bench to offer resistance as you hold on with your hands. Start with a neutral pelvis (pictured) and then sink your hips down towards the floor. Tuck the pelvis and feel free to let the back round and relax, gently swaying from side to side to increase the stretch.

2- Elbows on chair – Use a rolled up towel or something to hold on to, to keep your arms from rotating back in. Sit on your knees in front of the chair and rest your elbows on the chair edge (roll up a blanket or yoga mat to make this more comfortable. Sink your hips down and lower your chin to your chest to feel the stretch.

3 – Eagle Pose – Doing this pose seated on a chair will ensure that you keep your pelvis and ribs in alignment, focusing the stretch on your lats without arching the lower back. Wrap your right elbow inside your left and curl your wrists around so your palms are facing each other (or as far as you can go). Lift your elbows towards the sky until you feel the stretch behind your armpits. Take a few breaths and then change sides.


With all the technical talk out of the way, it’s time to show off your lats! Join the #SaturdayLaturday movement, show off how strong and proud you are of your body and give your lats some love for all they do in your dance practice!

Use the hashtag #SaturdayLaturday on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and lets share the love for our lats!

The Importance of Breathing

I recently came across a new article by Monika from The Dance Training Project titled “7 Rules for a Highly Effective Movement Practice”.

I’ve followed Monika for a long time, enjoying her thoughts about safe dance training and body awareness. She currently works in Toronto, helping dancers to improve their technique by retraining movement patterns for better alignment and injury prevention. It’s a valuable practice and her insight is relevant to all kinds of dancers and athletes.

In her most recent article Monika makes a point about breathing. My yoga practice has encouraged me to think about the relationship between breath and movement. Vinyasa is defined as “a method of yoga in which movements form a flowing sequence in coordination with the breath.” Breathing properly not only brings oxygen into the blood and to the muscles, it also ensures you are moving from a place of calm and not from a fight-or-flight mode that can lead to tension and injury.

When pole dancing the excitement of a new pole trick, gritting your teeth while you sustain a posture, and the if-I-can-just-ahhh-get-my-foot-to-reach-aahhh-just-there mentality, often results in dancers forgetting about their breath. Holding your breath in, or out, causes the mind and body to become tense and a tense body loses it’s ability to be flexible and strong.

Monika points out,

“If you cannot breathe during the movement, you do not own the movement.”

and she goes to explain,

“Your emotional state and physical health can be interpreted via the quality of your breath, as well as your ability to load and use core musculature to provide dynamic stability and decelerate spinal motion.

In motion, if you can demonstrate a diaphragmatic breathing pattern, you are in charge. Good work.”

Consider a trick that you feel most comfortable with. Beginner or advanced, it does not matter. Many people find a ballerina spin fairly comfortable. It’s a go to for making graceful lines and you can add on elements to show off flexibility or strength.

I’d bet you can breathe fully and completely while spinning in a ballerina. You’re so comfortable that you can even make arm gestures, expressing meaning to make the pose your own. It may even be a resting pose as part of your choreography, where you hold it for 8 counts or so and take a complete breath.

 

Now think about a trick that requires more effort for you. It may be a straddle/invert, jade split, or even an ayesha. What is your breath doing when you attempt these poses? Can you breathe, as Monika says, with a “diaphragmatic breathing pattern”? Or are you taking shallow breaths barely filling the upper part of your lungs? Are you holding your breath?

 

If you video your practice, you may even be able to see your face change as you grit your teeth and the tendons in your neck pop, all signs that you are not breathing properly and not “owning the movement”.

If you are still unconvinced that all of this matters, consider how the quality of your breath will also effect the quality of the movement. A dancer who has been holding their breath as they hold a pose, is going to have to breathe eventually, usually with a gasp that will interrupt their flow and progression into the next pose.

So how do you find space in your dance to breathe?

I recall an instructor once asking us spontaneous questions while training. He suggested a trick, an Ayesha for example, and then asked us to stay in the pose and call out five names. This experience forced our brains to change tack, most often allowing our breath to return to state of normal while we focused on a different task. The act of talking also changes the way you hold your face and neck, allowing a more natural breathing pattern to resume.

Try it for yourself and feel how your own breath changes the movement. Prepare for a straddle/invert and inhale as you go upside-down. Now try it again with an exhale. Some people suggest inverting with your mouth slightly open, reducing the chance that you will grit your teeth. Record yourself or do it with a friend and see if they can see the difference. Most likely, you will also find that the movement feels different to you too.

Once you have experimented with this, consider how you breathe when moving through other poses, or throughout an entire routine. I’ve been known to write in breaths into my choreography as conscious reminders of when to check in and make sure I’m breathing properly.

I’d love to hear and see how it goes! Tag me in your post on Facebook or Instagram.  Head over to The Dance Project too and let Monika know how her wisdom is also helping pole dancers!

Pole In Style

I recently partnered with Pole In Style, where you may have seen my guest blog post – The Devil in the Details. As I get to write more content, you as a reader receive a gift of 10% your purchase from their collection. Just use the code MELNUTTER at the checkout and the 10% will be taken off the price straight away!

I am so pleased with the quality and design of the Pole In Style collection. Too often pole brands offer pieces that are too bulky, too skimpy or just plain uncomfortable! I have both the Floral Set (in blue and purple) and the Dancing Warrior Set (white), and I can recommend both to upgrade your pole wear collection.

pis-3

Bottoms
We’ve all stood in the change room when trying on new pole shorts and checked for coverage. Bending over, squatting down, turning ourselves into a pretzel to double triple check that there are no bits hanging out!

The Dancing Warrior bottom are cut like briefs, but with elastic all the way around the crotch and leg holes, nothing is going to move while dancing. They sit low on the hips to flatter any figure, and there is no centre seam for that awful camel toe! I wear an extra small in these bottoms which fit like an Australian size 8. Ordering online can be tricky, but these are true to size.

img_20161117_115817

The Floral Set bottoms I have in both blue and purple. They are more like a boyleg short than a brief, so offer more coverage and give a more sporty look. The contrast waist trim really helps to make these look flattering, and the side trim details sit perfectly on your hips. Same as above, I wear an extra small in these shorts. The entire Pole In Style range is made with four way stretch fabric offering the best in comfort and fit. My dance practice sessions often go for two hours or more, and not only did the shorts not move, they also did not dig in at the seams.

Tops
All of the Pole In Style tops come with removable cup inserts. I am an Australian bust size 10D and some crops tend to flatten my shape so I tend to leave them in. The lining inside the tops create a stable pocket for the cup inserts so they don’t move around. The lining is also made with four way stretch fabric, so even without the cup inserts you fell supported and comfortable.

img_20161118_105831

The Dancing Warrior top is a halter design, with a high neck at the front and cut out detailing in the back. I wear a small and was pleased that the base of the top did not ride up and create underboob when dancing and stretching. Everything stayed in place. I love the look of the back detailing. It’s a striking addition to what looks quite modest at the front. You could easily get away with using this set as a costume for a performance.

2016-11-20-10-57-34
The Floral Set top offers great support. Once again there was no chance of it riding up and creating underboob. For bustier women who feel more comfortable with a bra under their crop, this top is cute and strappy, with enough coverage to make it possible.

Leggings

2016-11-20-11-28-53
Pole In Style also have a range of leggings and tees in addition to their pole wear. I snapped up a pair of their gray leggings to trial and they didn’t disappoint! I wear an extra small and many other brands are often too short in the leg. These are made for tall women in mind! The leggings are full length with a waist that sits just below my belly button. I love the sneaky bit of colour on the waist band, and once again the four way stretch fabric keeps everything in place, all day. They even have two pockets, perfect for holding your phone or keys if you don’t want to bring your bag to the gym! I wore these leggings on a hiking trip. They were super comfortable, and breathable, and I didn’t have to keep hitching them up like other leggings I have tried.

Customer Service
Mai from Pole In Style is available to answer any questions you may have about your order. She is a pole dancer and yoga enthusiast herself, so she knows what active women are looking for in design and fit. Pole In Style are also on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter where the pictures speak for themselves!

All of the Pole In Style range can also be used for swimming! How versatile is that?!  You’ll definitely see me at the pool or beach rocking my new Floral Set soon!

code-logoHead over to Pole In Style and check out their latest collection as well as their pieces on sale. You can use the 10% off code for any purchase!

 

If you are a studio owner, Mai is also able to set you up as a wholesale partner, enabling you to stock Pole In Style in your studio so your students and customers can by directly from you! Contact me or Pole In Style directly to talk about this option.

Sunday Bumday!

sb2We are seeing more and more butt selfies taking over social media. Sunday rolls around and every pole dancers across the globe is snapping pics as they squat it out, strut towards the pole, or just lie in bed in sexy lingerie.

But, what do you really know about your butt?

It wasn’t until I was forced to see a physio for my hamstring injuries, that I began to learn about the importance of working my glutes – for stability, strength, and mobility.

My rehabilitation involved lots of glute strengthening to ensure that my now scarred hamstrings would remain stable and safe even after they healed.

So let’s break down our derrieres.

There are three muscles that are called glutes:
The gluteus maximus, gluteous medius, and gluteous minimus. There is also a muscle called the tensor fasciae latae (not to be ordered along with your cronut!)

They all have different roles to play in helping your leg move in the hip socket, including rotation, lifting, and abducting. The condition of your glutes also influences your posture, and the chance of you developing back, hip, and pelvic pain.

THE GLUTEOUS MAXIMUS
The gluteous maximus helps us extend and externally rotate the leg.
You engage this muscle when
– creating a turn out
– swinging your leg back behind your torso
– lifting you leg while holding a plank
– doing donkey kicks
Squats and hip thrusts, can also exercise the gluteus maximus.

THE GLUTEOUS MEDIUS
The gluteous medius assists in external rotation, and also works to help internally rotate the leg. It’s third job is to abduct – the action of lifting your leg out to the side, like lateral leg raises or a clamshell exercise.

THE GLUTEOUS MINIMUS
The gluteous minimus teams up with the TFL to internally rotate the leg, as well as support abduction.

 has great Gluteal Exercises to see and feel all of this in action. Using your hands to feel the muscles working, especially in the butt, can be enormously helpful in understanding what is activating and when. Imagine it as a hands on way to talk to your body and tell it what to do, physically creating a pathway from the brain to the butt while the neural pathways are being formed.

If you are having trouble with certain poses on the pole, you may need to think about strengthening your glutes.

 

Case in point – Cupid

cupidYour top leg is hooked on the pole, gripping and pulling with the pole behind your knee. Your bottom leg is straight, pushing against the pole through the foot.

Hip mobility will play a role in how this shape looks on your body. Your crotch might be close to the pole, or your top leg might be more a right angle. Either way, to be stable in the pose, and eventually be able to take your hands off, you will need to be activating your glutes. Instructions such as “push your hips forward” and “squeeze your bum” may help you connect to the muscles that need to be engaged, but learning how to engage the three different glute muscles when off the pole will help with your muscle memory when you return to the pose.

Even beginner spins, require a certain amount of glute engagement to create nice lines. Play with a stag leg back spin and see the difference when you actively pull your back leg up with your glutes.

Yoga and Barre involve many exercises that will help train your glutes, and don’t be afraid to take it slow while you consciously think about engagement and activation. Make it a regular part of your pole dance training and join the #SundayBumday movement with tush that you’re proud to show off!

Can’t get enough? Now there is #SaturdayLaturday too!