Yoga Practice for Hikers: Variations on the Dragon Pose…

I recently went hiking/trail running with a buddy of mine who had been hitting the trail pretty hard over the course of a couple of weeks.  He’s never been big on stretching and was starting to feel it.  Prior to our hike, he mentioned needing to find some stretches he could do to open up his hips a little bit.  I suggested a couple of things and quickly walked him through a simple sequence to help relieve some of the muscle tension he’d built up in his legs and bring some flexibility back into the hip joints.  That morning I introduced him to variations of Anjaneyasana (The Low Lunge) known as the Dragon Pose.

Basic Dragon Pose...

Putting it to practice…

Now I’ll walk you through the sequence.  This is a great short sequence for stretching leg muscles and opening the hips before or after a long hike.  As always, you should start in a relaxed position (either seated or standing) and practice proper Yoga breathing until your mind is calm, focused and present.  You can actually use the beginning of the Sun Salutation sequence to get into position and I often do two or three sequences of Sun Salutation before attempting the Dragon Pose:

  1. When ready, bring your palms together at your chest, thumbs resting against your sternum (Mountain Pose). Exhale.
  2. Inhale and raise your arms stretched above your head, shoulders back and pelvis forward (slight backward bend in your spine) (Forward Salute Pose).
  3. Exhale and bend your knees slightly, bending at the waist and keeping your back straight, lower your hands to touch the mat on either side of your feet (Forward Fold Position).
  4. Inhale and move your right foot back, knee touching the floor (Lunge). – (THIS IS OUR STARTING POSITION).
  5. Make sure your left knee is aligned with the big toe of your left foot and your knee is directly above the ankle.  Point your right foot so that your right knee and the top of your right foot are resting on the ground (you may need additional padding under your knee).
  6. Exhale and slide your foot back as far as you can comfortably go while allowing your pelvis to drop toward the floor.  You should feel the stretch in your hips and groin.  Make sure to keep your hips squared to the front of your mat, don’t let your torso twist as you reach back with your right foot.
  7. Continue breathing in this position and with each exhale, try to drop your pelvis more toward the floor and deepen the stretch in your hips.  You really don’t want to hold this pose for much more than 2 or 3 minutes, but for now we want to shoot for about 10 to 15 breaths.   To advance the pose:
  8. Inhale and lift your torso bringing the back straight and chest out, shoulders back.  You can either rest your hands at your side, or rest your hands on your left thigh using them to help support the position and take some of the strain off your left knee and quad.  To deepen the position even more, you can raise your hands above your head (similar to Warrior I Pose), fingers toward the sky, while keeping your back straight, chest out and shoulders back.  Once finding your position, hold for 10-15 breaths.
  9. Exhale and lower your torso to your left thigh and bring your hands to the ground supporting your body.
  10. Inhale and slide your right knee forward slightly then curl your toes under your foot.
  11. Exhale and straighten both legs, raising your tailbone, rolling your weight to your toes and the ball of your foot then push your right heel to the ground.
  12. This position offers a great stretch of the left hamstring.  Keep your hips squared to your mat, flex the right quad and push your weight toward the right heel.  Maintain your left foot on the ground and push into your big toe.  Straightening the left leg can be difficult in this position if your hamstrings are tight, stretch as much as is comfortable and breathe.
  13. When ready, Exhale and bring your left foot back to join your right foot in Down-ward Dog, pushing your tailbone to the sky and feeling the stretch.
  14. Inhale and swing your right leg into lunge position and repeat the sequence with the other leg.

There are more variations to the Dragon that I will discuss in a future post.  For now, enjoy the freedom gained from this liberating stretch and don’t forget to Breathe!

 BONUS:

Here are further variations on the Dragon I found at YinYoga.com.  I especially like Winged Dragon and Fire-Breathing Dragon for a good hip stretch.

Alternative Dragons:

  1. The first alternative pose is a simple low lunge called Baby Dragon, as shown in the picture at the top of the page. If you like, you can rest your hands on blocks.
  2. The next option is to rest the arms or hands on the front thigh and lift the chest, increasing the weight over the hips. This is called Dragon Flying High.
  3. A deeper option, Dragon Flying Low, is to place both hands inside the front foot and walk hands forward, lowering the hips. For more depth, come down on the elbows or rest them on a bolster or block.
  4. In Twisted Dragon, one hand pushes the front knee to the side, while the chest rotates to the sky.
  5. In Winged Dragon, with hands on the floor, wing out the knee a few times, rolling onto the outside edge of that foot and then stay there with the knee low. You could come down on the elbows or rest them on a block or bolster.
  6. Overstepping Dragon exercises the ankle. From Baby Dragon, allow the front knee to come far forward and/or slide the heel backward, until the heel is just about to lift off the ground.
  7. Dragon Splits offers the deepest stretch for hip flexors. Straighten both legs into the splits. Support the front hip with a bolster under the buttock for balance and to release weight; this relaxes the muscles. Sit up tall or fold forward for different sensations.
  8. For Fire-Breathing Dragon, in any of the above variations, tuck the back toe under and lift the knee up, lengthening the leg. This puts more weight into the hips, increasing the stretch.

Yoga Practice for Hikers: The Downward Dog vs. The Cobra Pose…

We all love our outdoor pursuits, but hiking and backpacking can put unique strain on your body.  The forward bending posture and, often, prolonged uphill climbing creates stress in the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.  Carrying a pack, even of light weight, puts strain on the upper back, shoulders and neck.  Then there’s the usual fatigue in the calves, ankles and arches of the feet that will happen to anyone who is on their feet for long periods of time.  There are two basic Yoga Asanas (Poses) that will specifically help stretch and strengthen all of these muscle groups to help reduce the risk of injury.

Both asanas are found in the Sun Salutation sequence.  If you followed my previous Yoga Practice for Hikers article you are already familiar with the Downward-Facing Dog and the Cobra Pose as they are both an integral part of that sequence.

The Downward-Facing Dog

Downward-Facing Dog Pose...

Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) puts focus on strengthening the upper back while also stretching the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches and hands.  Holding this pose and moving through this pose also work to strengthen the arms and legs.  It is also said to be beneficial for digestion and relieves headaches, back ache, insomnia and fatigue.  For our purposes, we will be focused on the muscle contraction in the upper back at the apex of the pose, and getting as much of a stretch as is comfortable in the hamstrings, calves and arches while maintaining a tight core.

The Cobra Pose

Cobra Pose...

Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) is used to strengthen the spine and stretch out the chest, lungs, shoulders and abdomen.  At the deepest stretch in this pose it will also firm the glutes and stretch your quads.  Proper deep breathing in this pose will help to stretch and open the chest.  Cobra is supposed to stimulate the digestive organs, help relieve stress and fatigue, sooth the sciatic nerve and be therapeutic for Asthma.  We will be focused on keeping shoulders back and chest out, pushing the hips to the floor to strengthen the glutes and get a good stretch in the quads.

Alternate: The Upward-Facing Dog

Upward-Facing Dog Pose...

If you want to add focus to strengthening the arms and wrists, we can replace the Cobra Pose with Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana).  The benefits and muscles affected are similar but the Upward-Facing Dog requires pushing up and forward, with the hands firmly planted, using the arms, shoulders and upper back to hold the position.  There is a tendency to “hang” on the shoulders in this pose, which compresses the neck and lowers the chest.  Be mindful of your posture here, shoulders should be drawn back toward the tailbone lengthening the neck.  Head should be straight, looking forward, or slightly bent back.

Putting it to practice…

Now I’ll walk you through the sequence.  For those of you who have done Hindu Push-ups, this will be very similar.  As always, you should start in a relaxed position (either seated or standing) and practice proper Yoga breathing until your mind is calm, focused and present.  You can actually use the beginning of the Sun Salutation sequence to get into position:

  1. When ready, bring your palms together at your chest, thumbs resting against your sternum (Mountain Pose). Exhale.
  2. Inhale and raise your arms stretched above your head, shoulders back and pelvis forward (slight backward bend in your spine) (Forward Salute Pose).
  3. Exhale and bend your knees slightly, bending at the waist and keeping your back straight, lower your hands to touch the mat on either side of your feet (Forward Fold Position).
  4. Inhale and move your right foot back, knee touching the floor (Lunge).
  5. In pause between breaths, move your left foot back, both knees on the floor (or into Plank Position – THIS IS OUR STARTING POSITION).
  6. Exhale and raise your tailbone, straightening your arms and legs, pushing your chest toward your feet and your heals toward the ground (Downward Dog Position).  Focus on knitting your shoulder blades together, upper back tight, chest out, shoulders back and arms straight.  Keep your neck in line with your torso (spine straight).  Feel the full stretch in your glutes, hamstrings, calves and arches.  Do NOT force the stretch beyond what is comfortable.  The pose should not hurt.  You may hold this pose for several breaths if you like, but continue proper, controlled breathing with your core strong.
  7. Exhale and slowly lower your chest and nose to within an inch or two of the mat, your hands firmly planted and elbows in close to the body (Chaturanga or Four-Limbed Staff Pose).  Your knees may touch the mat if you prefer.  You can pause at this position briefly or you can glide through this pose and straight in to Cobra Pose.  If you will be moving into Upward-Facing Dog instead of Cobra, keep your legs straight here and do not let your knees touch the floor.
  8. Inhale and lower pelvis while pushing the chest up, arms supporting the posture and shoulders back (Cobra Position).  Focus on knitting the shoulder blades again with your chest out and shoulders back.  Don’t worry about forcing your back to arch uncomfortably, but focus more on keeping your shoulders back, head up, and pushing your hips to the ground.  The arch should be held using the back muscles, not by pushing with your arms (unless you are using Forward-Facing Dog here).  Feel the stretch in your quads.  If you are comfortable with it, roll off the balls of your feet and point your toes.  This will move you forward a little and deepen the stretch.  Breathe deeply in this position opening the chest and lungs.
  9. Exhale and raise your tailbone, straightening your arms and legs, pushing your chest toward your thighs again and your heals toward the floor returning to Downward Dog Position.  Repeat steps 6 through 8.

To come out of the exercise, reverse steps 1 through 5 until you are back in Mountain Pose.  This sequence is as much a strength training exercise as it is a stretch and I treat it as I would push-ups (Hindu Push-ups).  So, for pre-hike stretch I would maybe do 15 or 20 of these to warm up.  If your breathing becomes too forced and erratic, you are working too hard…reduce the reps or slow down.  Remember to maintain controlled movements, slower is better.  You should not be throwing your body into any of these postures, you should move into them naturally.  As you practice, the postures will feel more natural and comfortable as your strength and flexibility improve.

Introduction to Yoga Practice for Hikers…

Yoga for hikers

The outdoors is good for mind, body and soul…and so is Yoga…

Hiking  and backpacking is fantastic exercise.  For many, though, it’s also an opportunity for injury.  Hiking over the rugged, uneven terrain we love puts specific strain on the tendons and joints in our legs, causes muscle fatigue and forces a forward leaning posture that is very hard on the long muscles of the back.  The additional challenge of carrying weight in a backpack magnifies our potential for injury.  Creating an even bigger problem, many of us have day jobs that keep us bound to an office chair staring at a computer screen.  This combination of sedentary work mixed with active outdoor pursuits can lead to torn muscles, strained tendons, and pinched nerves.  With a little off-trail conditioning and post-hike stretching using basic Yoga movements, we can reduce our risk of an injury that can force us off the trail for good.

Yoga has, in one form or another, been around for over 5,000 years.  Believed to have been introduced to the West in the 1800’s, it’s gained popularity in recent decades as a way to improve overall health, sharpen mental focus and reduce stress.  Of the 8 steps attributed to Classical Yoga typically physical exercise (asana), breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation (pratyahara) are the general focus of Modern Western Yoga.  Yoga has been proven to increase physical strength, build stamina and improve cardio-vascular health.  The combination of slow, focused movements and controlled breathing allows us to exercise systems in the body that don’t otherwise see much action.  For all active people, but hikers and backpackers specifically, Yoga offers a great way to maintain the strength we need for the climb, while also improving balance, flexibility and recovery time.

Starting in January, I will make Yoga Practice for Hiking a regular part of my Blog.  I will be introducing new forms and movements with step by step instructions, explanations and some tips and tricks.  I’d also like to include some pictures and video for reference but that part may have to wait.  For those of you who are new to Yoga, I will go over some of the basics here to get us started.

Where to Practice…

Anyplace where it is quiet and without distraction.  I like to have my morning stretch in the backyard on the patio.  I get up early and start my morning coffee, while it’s brewing I take a few minutes to go outside and stretch.  Warming up my muscles, soaking up the morning sun, breathing in the crisp morning air while I wait for my coffee is the perfect way to wake up.  For post-hike stretching, a quiet trailhead or parking lot or even an open picnic area is all you need.

When to Practice…

As I mentioned, I like to stretch in the morning when I get up.  I also try to stretch a few times throughout the say because I spend my days working behind a desk.  So, for me, whenever I start to feel my muscles stiffen up or my back or neck start to ache, it’s a good time to stretch.  It’s also recommended a good stretch after any extensive exercise.

What do I need…

You really don’t need anything special.  I have a very basic Yoga Mat, I make sure I have loose comfortable clothes that won’t restrict movement and a towel.  Other than that, all you really need is a distraction free location, time to complete the routine and a plan.

Why are we doing this…

Very simply put, Yoga will improve performance and reduce the potential for injury.  Athletes at all levels of competition have experienced increased performance with the addition of Yoga to their training regiment.

How do I know if I’m doing it right…

I’m really going to try to make sure I explain the process clearly.  The rest is practice.  The important thing is being aware of your body and paying attention to how you feel.  If something hurts, or doesn’t feel right…stop.  Focus on breathing through the movements and transition slowly from one position to another.  Practicing slow, deliberate movements while keeping your core tight and your breathing controlled will allow us to get the most out of every exercise.

If you follow along with me, we are learning together.  I have some experience with Yoga and have taken several classes, followed a few video workouts and have done a fair amount of research on the subject.  I am, by no means, an expert.  I plan to pursue this subject as a learning process and will be consulting with experienced Yogi’s, Yoga instructors and instructional books to determine which movements and combinations will have the greatest advantage to hikers and backpackers.  I want to try to provide suggestions for basic everyday routines, post-hike routines as well as therapeutic exercises for when injuries do happen.

If you have any specific problem areas or post-hike discomfort, let me know so we can look for a way to work through it.