High Lunge Twist and Bend

I recently attended a yoga class in which the instructor had us flow through this twisted backbend variation on high lunge, and I just loved it! Start in high lunge with the left leg forward and right leg back, making sure the left knee is right above the ankle pointed toward the second toe of the foot. Keep the back leg long without locking the knee, and press back through the back heal. Breathe.

High Lunge

High Lunge

If this next bit feels a little awkward, you’re probably doing it right. Keep your base strong and on an exhale, lower the arms to shoulder height, extending the right arm forward and left arm back, thumbs up toward the ceiling. Twist the chest toward the left, and turn the gaze toward the back hand, if that’s available to you. Keep contracting the obliques (the side abdominal muscles) and resist the urge to lean forward. Breathe.

Upright Revolved High Lunge

Upright Revolved High Lunge

Contract the abdominals, and on an exhale, lower the left hand down to the back thigh and turn the right palm skyward. Inhale, extend the hand upwards so that the palm of the hand faces the back of the room. As you exhale, begin to back bend to your degree. Keep breathing.

Reversed Twisted High Lunge

Reversed Twisted High Lunge

To get to the same sequence on the other side from here, inhale out of the backbend, exhale to windmill the hands all the way down to the floor, and cycle through a two- or one-legged vinyasa. From downward facing dog, step the right foot forward and inhale the arms up into high lunge.

Tree Side Bend

I’ve been putting off posting lately because I haven’t had a chance to get photos of the poses and sequences I’ve been picking up. However, I recently got a tablet, so no more excuses! If I can’t arrange time for a photoshoot with my photographer (aka my husband), then hopefully my drawings will get the message across.

Today’s pose is pretty simple to explain, but it’s a really interesting variation to be in. It’s kind of like tree pose, but in the spirit of summer, it’s reminiscent of the windblown trees often seen by the beach. Begin in tree pose with the left leg as your root and the right leg pressing into the inner ankle, inner calf, or inner thigh (avoid the knee). As you inhale, send the arms straight up above the head, palms facing toward one another. As you exhale, lower the left hand down to the top of the left thigh, palm up. Take an inhale here, and then as you exhale come into a side bend toward your left, bending into the left elbow if it’s available to you.

Tree Side Bend

Exhale the back of the hand down to the thigh. Take an inhale, and then as you exhale, side bend.

To exit, inhale back to a neutral tree and gently release on an exhale. Make sure to balance it out on the other side.

Half Twist Switches

Switching from half twist (ardha matsyendrasana) on one side to half twist on the other side can be kind of cumbersome, so here are two graceful transitions for switching sides.

The first option is to do a pivot-turn to get to the other side. It’s easier than it looks! Once you’ve completed the twist on the first side, look in the other direction to guide your turn. Keep the feet exactly where they are, and turn the body. Allow the feet to pivot until you come all the way around to the front again. Sit your buttocks down between your heals for half twist on the other side.


Keep the feet exactly where they are, and pivot around to the other side. (click for larger image)

The first time I saw this next transition, I thought it was totally ridiculous, but it’s actually kind of fun. After you complete the twist on the first side, bring the hands in front of you on the mat, and come into a tripod headstand with the legs crossed. In tripod headstand switch the cross of the legs. When you come back down, you’ll be ready for half twist on the other side.

Tripod Headstand Transition

Come into tripod headstand with the legs crossed, and switch the cross of the legs. (click for larger image)

Okay, so maybe that one wont be immediately graceful, but it’s certainly an interesting variation.

Some Love for the Lower Legs

I used to come out of Bikram yoga classes with such tight calves. Balancing requires the lower leg muscles to work together to stabilize the ankle, and the standing series would completely exhaust my already tight muscles. I asked the teacher why there were no poses in Bikram yoga to stretched the calves, and he said there actually were. He gave head to knee pose as an example, which is a seated pose in which you fold forward over a lengthened leg. The calf stretch comes from using the hands on the ball of the foot to lift the heel off the floor and pull the toes back toward the face. I think calling head to knee pose a calf stretch is a misnomer, considering only the the most flexible students could ever reach the point where the pose actually stretches the calves. Similarly, many yoga teachers use downward facing dog as a calf stretch when many students’ other muscles are so tight that they can’t get enough downward force through the heal to feel anything in the calves. Tight lower leg muscles can cause shin splints, knee problems, and foot problems, so it is important that achievable lower leg stretches are incorporated into yoga classes.

Gastrocneumius stretches. The gastroc is the big meaty muscle in the calf, and it is stretched when the leg is lengthened and the foot is flexed. A gastroc stretch that doesn’t require too much flexibility in other muscles can be done starting from hands and knees. From there, extend one leg out behind, tuck the toes under on the floor, and extend actively out through the heel. You will feel the stretch in the calf.

Hands-and-knees gastroc stretch

Press actively back through the heel.

If you’re more flexible, you can go into a downward dog variation. From the previous position, press into the hands to lift the front knee off the mat. Lift the sit bones up without losing engagement in the core, and push down through the back heel. You can keep your front foot where it is for support or tuck it behind the ankle of the leg your stretching, increasing the stretch even more.

Down dog gastroc stretch

Press chest and hips back, and the heel downwards.

Soleus stretch. The soleus is another muscle in the back of your lower leg that runs underneath the gastroc. When you stretch it, you often feel it in the Achilles tendon area between the meaty part of your calf and your heel. It is stretched when the knee is bent and the foot is flexed. From the hand-and-knees position above bend into the back knee as you continue to press back through the heel, and you’ll feel the stretch move into you soleus.

Hands-and-knees soleus stretch

Keep pressing back through the heel as you bend into the knee.

Similarly, from the downward facing dog-like position, bend into the knee of the leg your stretching to move the stretch into the soleus.

Down dog soleus stretch.

Keep pressing the hips back and the heel downwards as you bend into the knee.

Toe-Flexors Stretch. Many of the muscles that control your toes are in your lower legs. The stretches above will stretch the toe-flexing muscles, but we can target them even more by bending the toes back. A friend of mine coaches swimming, and her swimmers always dread when she tells them it’s “social time” during their stretching session, because although that means they’re allowed to chat, it also means they have to sit in the following position for a couple minutes:

"Social Time"

"Social Time"

To get into this position, sit on the heels and tuck all ten toes under. If this bothers your knees, place a blanket or block in between your buttocks and heels so your knees don’t have to bend so deeply. This position feels like nothing at first, but give it a minute or two and the intensity will set in. You may feel the intensity in the soles of your feet as well as in your calves.

Tibialis Anterior and Toe Extensor Stretches. The often neglected tibialis anterior is located in the front of the lower leg, along with your toe-extending muscles. To stretch them, you have to point the foot and curl the toes. From a downward facing dog position, turn one foot over so that the top of the foot is pressing down into the floor instead of the sole. The legs can be slightly bent if that is more comfortable. Press into the hands to lift the hips up and back, increasing the stretch in the front of the lower leg. You can keep only one foot flipped, or you can turn both feet over to stretch both legs as the same time.

Tibialis anterior stretch.

Turn the feet over so that the tops of the feet are on the floor.

Hold each position for at least 20 to 30 seconds to allow to muscles to relax into the stretches.

Eight Angle Pose

Despite how complicated and pretzel-y eight angle pose (astavakrasana) looks, it’s actually not that bad granted you have the flexibility to get your knee up high on your arm. Here’s how you get into it.

Start sitting in staff pose (dandasana) with the spine straight up and down, and the legs outstretched in front. From here, bend one knee into your chest.

Bend one knee in to your chest.

Bend one knee in to your chest.

Here’s where the flexibility comes in. Thread the same-side arm under the bent knee, and try to get the knee as high up on the arm as you can. If you have the flexibility, you may get the shoulder underneath the knee. The higher you get the knee, the easier it will be to hold the full posture. This position can be a great hamstring and low back stretch, so if it’s enough for you, stay right here!

Get the knee up as high as you can on the arm.

Thread the arm under the knee, and get the knee up as high as you can on the arm.

Here’s where it gets pretzel-y. Plant the hands firmly on the ground by your sides, and try to cross the ankle of your leg that’s currently straight over the ankle of your bent leg. Keep breathing.

Cross one ankle of the other

Cross the ankle of your straight leg over the ankle of your bent leg.

And now for the arm balance. Plant the hands on the ground underneath the shoulders. Squeeze the inner thighs toward each other and squeeze the ankles together. Contract the abdominals and as you inhale, begin to tip the weight forward to lift the hips off the floor. Make sure you don’t tip so far forward that the feet come down. Breathe. Stay strong in the arms so the elbows don’t bow out to the sides. This is a prep posture for the whole pose, so you may have to work on this for a while before you’re ready to move on to the full pose.

Lift the hips off the floor

Inhale, straighten the arms and lift the hips off the floor.

If you would like to go a little further, contract the abdominals, squeeze the legs toward each other, and extend the legs away from you on an inhale. Your breath is your guide: if you stop breathing you’ve gone to far.

Extend the legs away from you.

Inhale, extend the legs away from you.

Try to hold this for a few long slow breaths, and then balance it out on the other side.