When we think of modifications it is often from a specific point of view.... “I have something going on that makes my usual practice/workout painful or inaccessible, so how do I work around it”. When a trainer or instructor first learns how to teach or train they generally will learn about common conditions and how they effect the body, and specific ways to 'modify' to those conditions. This is all very helpful.
I would, however, like to suggest that these are only the big ticket items. Every workout, every practice, is always being modified in a multiplicity of ways. It is great to learn about how to modify to improve your golf swing, or how to modify after hip replacement, or for osteoarthritis. But it is also good to have a sense of the inherently malleable nature of the human condition, and how we can meet our practice or exercise session with that in mind.
Goals have a lot to do with how we choose to modify. Someone who wants to become more healthy in their daily life will modify after the same type of injury quite differently from someone who is a professional dancer whose career is tied to being able to perform in a certain way. For the first person a leg stretch is a tool to create flexibility and stability and balance.... to the second it is a goal.
Whatever the goal may be, knowing where you are right now will make it easier to choose the path toword it. This is one of the advantages to doing mind/body exercise, or mindfulness training. I might have two people with the same condition, but one may have been injured recently, or have other conditions, or not have the same underlying physical strength. How they modify is likely to be rather different, and how I instruct them in that modification is also going to be different.
Part of that knowing where you are is understanding that you may HAVE diabetes, for example, but it is not all you are. And just as the whole is more than the sum of the parts, how you modify for something is affected by what else is going on in your body (and mind). This is kind of like what one sees with medication. When a doctor prescribes a new medicine they have to consider not just your body weight and your age and other demographic factors, but what other medicines, suppliments, and vitamins you are taking. Each one may have interactions with others which will shift how each one acts.
Exercise or yoga practice, like fitness goals are always part of a network of interwoven, not always mutually helpful priorities and needs.
Here are a few general thoughts on modification:
Be clear with what your goals are before you begin.
When you first begin having a knowledgeable guide is really helpful.
Learn to practice mindfulness techniques …. learn to listen to signals from the body before you go to the edge.
If you have an injury or new medical condition seek medical help and information from a medical professional. When you are cleared it is a good time to return to other fitness activities.
Remember that your practice is likely to provide safer and more effective outcomes if you learn to shift and modify toword a wide variety of conditions, both external and internal.
I am not going to give detailed information on how to modify, but if any of these areas seem to relate to you I would suggest you seek out that information. In some cases a trainer, or instructor can help, in others you might want a physical therapist or other medical practitioner, or even a nutritionist or therapist. There are a wide range of knowledgeable professionals. Seek someone who has good professional credentials, recommendations (preferably from someone you know and trust), and someone who won't expect a ton of money upfront, but will give you time to see if they are the right person to work with you).
Some areas of interest for modification:
Climate: Heat and humidity and cold all have effects on the body, as does elevation. Sudden changes are harder to deal with. And when one is older or less fit the effects can also be more problematic.
Time of year: Not just in terms of how cold it is. The amount of daylight can affect many people, and seasonal holidays can bring stress, or shifts in patterns of eating and travel, and so on.
Time of day: There are definitely shifts in energy levels thorugh the day. A lot of them are common, though I have seen variability person to person. With yoga there is a big difference between my own practice on a December morning, and a June evening, for example
Terrain: For example if one is used to running on an indoor machine, and shifts to running outside, especially through the woods there are issues about foot wear and preperation that are helpful.
Community: Most people can relate to the fact that they are going to feel a different energy sitting with six friends listening to a chamber group play Beethovan than they are with several thousands at a Taylor Swift concert. An example of what I mean here would be how if you are going to lift weights with a group of friends who are regular and heavy lifters it is good to be mindful of where you are before you begin, and not to let the energy lead to injury.
Age: There are modifications that come into play at both ends of the age spectrum. Some of the modifications as we age are really about specific conditions, that are secondary to age, but are common enough that most people who work with this group will set the baseline of the work for them, rather than modifying to meet them.
Body type: By this I mean not just size (for example, with someone who is very heavy, they may do better starting with a chair for extra support in yoga, as the joints are starting from a more stressed place. As muscle builds, the chair will be less necessary) but also things like height and limb length. I find people with longer legs often are rather tight in that area. And look at someone like Michael Phelps.... I have heard it said that part of what really worked for him as a swimmer is that a lot of his height was in his torso.
Posture: Where someone is before they move is relevant to how they are when they start to move. And certainly if, for instance, I see someone who is stooped (and I have ruled out other things that would make such work dangerous or unproductive) I am likely to be interested in chest openers and shoulder strength.
Medications: Some can have an effect on heart rate, so need to be taken into account before starting an activity that uses a heart rate monitor, for instance. But that is only one thing. If one is on A medicine it is good to talk to one's doctor and to read the product inserts. If one is on several it is really really good to talk to one's doctor about interactions and effects.
Habits and Schedule: If one's work, or daily schedule, or family engagements shift one's exercise tends to shift as well. It is good to be flexible, and to have options already ready if one knows that one's life and obligations tend to be fluid.
Personality: Understanding who you are is very helpful as you choose your workout or practice. A Bikram or true Ashtanga Vinyasa practice will be highly structured, an Iyanger practice will be structured in a very different way, a Bhakti practice will be highly emotive and exstatic. Are you curious? Do you tend to be anxious? (sometimes a trainer is really good to start with, as it will alleviate the stress that you might be doing something wrong).
Injuries: Old injuries can leave scars, or tight spots, or places that work quite differently now. I have a finger I broke falling up the basement stairs (long story) and even post hand therapy it just doesn't open as far as it used to. Newer injuries need specific medical attention and should not find their way into a general class until one's medical advisor has cleared one. Getting feedback during therapy about anything to be aware of long term is very helpful.
Conditions: These are the things we usually think of when we think of modifying.... hip replacements, diabetes, heart disease, macular degeneration..... and others that are common enough that I have seen them in more than one person, but which are less often talked about.... stress incontinence, spondilolysthesis, …. oh there are lots of them. One think I would say here is that we tend to think of ways to adapt to teaching someone with a specific physical need, but conditions that have to do with mood, or mind are as important, and often as needing of modifications. So, for example, someone may be told by their doctor that they have an anxiety disorder and that they would benefit from yoga. That person, if they have never done it before, may wish to start working one on one, if they are anxious about hurting themselves, or they may wish to speak to the teacher privately about their concerns. They may also want to start lifting lighter than someone else, as a small injury may feel more to them. This is one example.... any modification here has to meet the needs of the individual.
Sports and exercises: Someone who used to do a sport seriously will definitely have differences in how they move and how they think about that movement. This is even more so with someone who currently is invovled in some sport or fitness regimin and takes on another.
The bottom line is that a teacher or trainer needs to meet each student as unique, and provide them with what they need based on an understanding of who and where they are. Modifications are less about shifting the 'right' way of doing things off of the 'correct' path, than about acknowledging that there are a lot of paths forward, and we learn more by looking and considering where and how we walk.
When I used to have my own space and ran my own program I used to tell people who approached me about classes to buy a single class first, before they bought the 6 class pass. I knew I was competent: that was not the question. But not every teacher is the right teacher for every student. For me teaching yoga was never about how many bodies I could pack in the room, or how much money I could make, or how much press I could generate. It is kind of like the packaged food in the market.... I would rather be the orange that you take if you like oranges, and want the vitamin c and bioflavanoids and so on, than the packaged product covered with colorful words and images shouting “Here I am!!!, I am all you need to fix anything wrong with you!!!, Nothing else is as good as I am!!!”
So I would like to share what I look for in a yoga teacher. The caveat here is that some of these things may matter to you, and some may not. Like the 'bucket list' what matters is thinking about what will go on that list. And not giving up if you try one style, or teacher, or class and it doesn't work. Because, believe me there are huge differences between lineages, schools, teachers, and styles.
Compassion and Cooperation over Competition
Thomas Hobbes once described nature as a “bellum omnium contra omnes”, or a war of everone against everyone else. I reject that as complete truth. But I also cannot see that it is completely a community of seekers of truth and justice either. It is a shifting interplay of dark and light.... and our choices (to paraphrase Dumbledore) more than our talents have a lot to do with our role in this play. Yoga is all about being present, and being mindful. When we are most mindful we can start to understand how important our choices are, and how much stronger we are when we connect with and work together with our fellow beings.
So I tend to avoid teachers who trash talk other teachers, or who insist that their vision, or their practice is always better than someone elses, or say I should go to their studio because THEY will allow something or not have something that others do or don't.
For me as a teacher there are times I slip with this. There are styles that I find inherently problematic for one reason or another, but generally I try to practice both the art of supporting my fellow teachers, and not insisting on the primacy of my own style.
A Good Listener over A Good Speaker
This is not that I do not look for someone who is simply physical. I am very much a jnana yogini, and I crave the intellectual, cognitive input, as well as the kinesthetic. This is more that I want someone who is able to be a great teacher without being in love with being a great teacher.
In this I include presence along a wide range of noticing, not just listening, but seeing, and so on. Back when I was teaching a lot of aerobics in the late 80s and early 90s I used to call this teaching to the mirror. Sometimes someone would be watching themselves in the mirror rather than noticing the students. One thing I like my students to do after a class is to share a bow and a 'namaste' not just with me and to me, but with eachother.... of course I matter, but so do they all.
Substance over Form
My last blog was about some of the things one sees in a yoga studio. Well, yoga teachers generally have a certain look, as well as the studios. There is a very funny College Humor video about Gandhi taking a yoga class that really nails this. I love a beautiful yoga studio.... I love the art, and the candles, and the quiet.... but I do not equate a good studio with how it looks, but with the quality of the teaching. And I do not equate the quality of the teaching with how many expensie leggings someone owns or how many 'om' tank tops, or scarves and silver and crystal dangly earrings they wear. I am not suggesting a teacher should wear sackcloth, and I am not against fashion. I actually like that particular look, and I can think of a few teachers who have it and are really great teachers. I just find it neither sufficient nor necessary. It is again, like the wrapping on the box in the market. I always pick up the box and read the back before I buy anything.
Caring Enough About Their Craft to Keep Learning
Even teachers who have taught for decades still have things to learn from other teachers. Even teachers who focus on a specific style or form of yoga have something to learn from studying other forms. Teachers who teach an asana based practice can learn from studying chanting, teachers who teach meditation can learn from studying anatomy. None of us is immune from economic realities. We all have pressures within our life and the need to balance our resources and attention between different areas. If I were independently wealthy I would be at trainings weekly. If I did not have children at home and had the money for it I would be at Kripalu once a month. But I do try to read, and to attend classes, and to get to at least one big training of some sort every year. And when choosing my teachers I really value someone who shares this love of learning. In particular I love to see someone taking more than the same sort of trainings over and over. I think it is important to understand your subject deeply, but also to understand the complex interactions it has across other subjects and practices.
Yoga studios tend to have a certain look. Part of this has to do with the practical needs of doing yoga. For example, a carpeted floor tends to hold more dust, and is less desireable for a practice where your face is regularly close to the floor. Part has to do with the rather long and highly fluid history of the practice of yoga. There are objects with philosophical meaning, sometimes simply vestigial, sometimes repurposed (older meanings left over to which new ones are added, like layers in an archeological dig), sometimes multiple philosophical/cultural/historical/spiritual meanings are mashed together, sometimes retaining their original meaning to some and simply being like a sign that says 'yoga studio' to others. Even a yoga room in an exercise studio tends to retain some of this look. So here are a few of the things you might see in a yoga studio, and a little bit about why they were there and my take on how they are useful as more than historical artifiact.
It is widely known that yoga arose as a spiritual and philosophical practice in India thousands of years ago. Therefore it arose in the context of Hinduism. While many, if not most, practitioners of yoga today would not consider themselves followers of this religion, there are some who do, and some who do partly. There is a famous quote in yoga.... “Truth is one, paths are many”. Remember that Ghandi said he was both Hindu and Christian. Yoga tends to have symbols drawn from the heritage of the culture in which it arose, but in yoga those symbols also stand for an idea of a basic human spiritual quest.
Here are some common figures you might find in a yoga studio:
The first is Ganesh. One Ganesh story is that he was a boy who had his head knocked off (kind of by mistake, but it is a long story) and Shiva sent his followers to get a new one, and the first one they found was an elephant head so he put that on in place of the original and made Ganesh the head of his followers. Ganesh is considered a very auspicious figure, and a figure of devotion. I think for us today it can also be a reminder that we cannot avoid every painful experience, but we can always strive to move past them, to look for possibility rather than resentment and anger.
The second is the dancing Shiva (Nataraja). Shiva is one of the great 3 triad: Brahma the creater, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. There is a long story behind why Shiva is dancing in a ring of fire, and for each object he holds, and so on. These sort of bronze statues of dancing Shiva have been around over a thousand years. I think as a symbol for someone who comes from a different tradition, this can still be a powerful symbol of yoga as a practice seeking balance. First the idea of Shiva as destroyer is first that we all have unhealthy habits, old stuck ways of thinking of things.... in any wellness practice we are seeking to destroy and burn away that which does not serve us, as only then do we have room to bring in the new. Kind of like a fire in the woods and the new life that arises after. And second, this idea of death and rebirth, of the balance of what we preserve, what we destroy and what is created in its place is inherent in the cycle of nature. And this image underlines the balance in the practice of yoga between the active, powerful and energizing physical part of the practice, and the meditative, inward, resting part of the practice. (The story has him defeating deamons through his dance, while retaining his calm throughout).
The third is the Buddah. 'But' you say to me, 'I thought yoga came out of Hinduism?'. Well, so did Buddhism. And the stories of the Buddah sitting under the tree would have been quite a bit before Patanjali wrote the 'Yoga Sutras' which are widely taken to be the most important text of yoga. I kind of like what Sarah Powers said “There is a wider range of the psychological realm in the Buddhist tradition” ( http://www.lionsroar.com/buddhism-and-yoga-where-the-paths-cross/#). That statues of the Buddah have found their way into the yoga studio is a sign of, and a reminder to continue to find, the importance of the meditative practices. As with most of this statuary the positions of the hands, the mudrahs, (I have blogged about mudrahs before) always have meaning. This statue has a hand down to touch the earth because it refers to a story in which the deamon brings a bunch of friends to witness that he is the enlightened one, and the one who is to be the Buddah touches the earth to show that the whole earth is his witness. I like the image of touching the earth but reaching out or up with the other hand, as it reminds us to stay connected to our physicality as we reach up to connect to our spiritual or intellectual or emotional self.
Candles are common object sused in spiritual settings: from Diwali, the festival of lights, to lighting the Sabbath candles, to candles in a Catholic church.... they are ubiquitous symbols of the light of truth, the light of compassion, the light of hope in dark times. When we say 'Namaste' in yoga one of the common translations is 'the light in me greets the light in you'. It is small wonder one would have candles in a yoga studio.
Fire is also a symbol of rebirth …. think of the Phoenix. In Hinduism cremation is practiced because it is believed that fire releases the soul from its old form for rebirth. I think anyone who has ever begun an exercise program or a yoga practice can connect to the idea of walking through the fire into personal transformaion.
Pragmatically speaking, and I talk to my students about this all the time, a yoga studio tends not to be lit with bright artificial lights because part of the practice is about creating focus. The more sensory distractions that can be done away with the easier it will be to learn to create focus and calm. So the studio tends to be quieter, less garishly painted and decorated, and less bright. I have blogged before about meditation and how in yoga there are a ton of techniqes to do single point meditation (as a way to remove all but one sensory center of focus, and then to move to uncentered focus). Candles are one tool that can be used in this way. (tratak)
Gongs/Brass Bowls/Crystal Bowls
If the candle is used as a way to focus visually on one image, there are other auditory techniques to focus on one sound. A mantra can be used to help drop one into a meditative state, as can the sound of a gong or bowl. Actually sound can be used in very complex ways to affect emotional states, as anyone who plays or sings or enjoys music or runs with their ipod knows. A lot of yoga studios offer 'gong baths' or 'kirtans' or other events in which one can explore this side of the multidimensional self.
The brass bowls (what I have) are, as I understand it, are Tibetan in origen. But there are also bowls made of quartz crystals. They are tuned to align with the chakras. I have blogged about the chakras before and will just suggest you look that up if it interests you. I am not an expert on chakra theory or practice. There are people who teach yoga specifically in reference to these energy centers, and certainly the use of the tuned bowls would come up in some of that type of practice.
We know that physiologically music and sound generally has an extremely strong effect on human mood. There is research that the tempo of music can affect one's exercise intensity. ( Waterhouse J, Hudson P, Edwards B. "Effects of music tempo upon submaximal cycling performance.", Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010 Aug;20(4):662-9.doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2009.00948.x PMID 19793214)
I personally very much enjoy the music of Steven Halpern, who has created a number of albums, some of which use crystal bowls, and some of which try to use the frequency of the music to elicit shifts in brain flow.
I am SO not an expert on this topic. However, many people who teach yoga are interested in crystals and crystal healing. It has an association with the chakras (which also have an association with sound, and therefore with the use of sound devices which I just talked about), as each chakra is taken to be associated with a sound as well as a color, as well as certain stones, and other things. As I see it it all comes down to wavelengths and the way energy flows and the way that things and energy transmute into each other (remember e=mc2). You will certainly see representations of the chakras, and various crystals in a many studios. One example would be the throat chakra which represents learning to self express in a way that is true to that self. Turquoise would be a stone that is associated with that chakra.
I think even for those who do not find themselves drawn to this branch of philosophical study might find it useful to use a small stone as a reminder that a certain idea or habit or concept is important to them. So, if one knows that one is very self judgemental in word and thought having a small stone of turquoise on one's desk might serve as a reminder to be mindful that that is interpretation and not truth. Yoga is meant to be a way of being in the world that goes beyond what we do in the hour or hour and a half we spend on the mat at a time, after all.
I was gong to talk about OM, which is not an object, but is something you will see in pretty much every yoga studio you enter, but it is such a big and important topic I think I will leave that to another blog.
I spent a half hour trying to get the visuals to transfer with the text. I am not sure that I succeeded as I am a very non technological yogini. If you cannot see the images please message me and I will send you the document as it was meant to look. I cannot get too upset, as I am grateful to IDEA for giving me a site from which to blog, I suppose it is part of the travails of not having a budget to hire someone who is technically savvy to do it for me :-)
When you come into a yoga class it is very typical to spend some time sitting quietly. I will often explain to my students that this time is not some sort of 'before', but is a part of the class. In any 'mind/body' modality it is important to foster the conditions where the connections of the stream of thought and the stream of movement can become seamless. Transitioning away from the world of spilled coffee and flashing screens and traffic and endless tasks can be challenging, and learning to do so is part of the practice we do on the mat.
You will also often hear teachers talk about 'setting an intention'. One of the ways I speak about this is that I ask my students to take a few minutes to be present to their physical state: small aches and pains, residual injuries, aches which always live with them. Based on this I ask them to think about what they need, and how they want to practice their yoga to meet those needs. Then, I ask them to do the same with their emotional state. This is not to let those pains define us, or to judge ourselves, but to become the self that observes the self without judgement (a phrase I adapted from something I read long ago) and to move in a way that helps us get what we need.
Being intentional works on more than one level. The question 'Why did you choose to come to yoga, or to run, or to lift' today or generally can have many answers. How we answer should direct how we practice, or run, or lift more than should what the teacher decided before they even saw you, or more than the person on the other side of a Youtube video decided to film. Subtle changes in body movements and in how we fous on and create that movement and focus can shift the outcome of our practice and allow us to make our results match our intentions. Focusing on how we connect what we want and need with how we practice can also help avoid unwanted outcomes: a little too far and a disc is herneated, or a muscle pulled. But the question also echos the age old question: 'Why am I here', or as Mary Oliver said “...what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Some people are attracted to the practice of yoga because they admire the long lean fluid physique of many yoga models used in media to sell various 'yoga' products and services. Certainly many who run or lift weights want endpoints that are aesthetic (about how one looks). But just as many look for general or specific health benefits or pain reduction, or stress reduction, or injury prevention, or athletic prowess. I would have to say most of the students who find their way into my classes seem to be seeking stress relief and focus and the release of tight muscles. Some goals are for today, some are longer term. But let me step back for a moment.
Benefits of Exercise
Every thing we experience, every choice we make, has an effect on us. Some of those effects are fairly short lived and minor, some catastrophic and major, and some take time to build up. There is a ton of research being done on the effects of exercise generally and on various specific types of exercise, including yoga. Those effects can be measured in terms that have to do with how one feels, or in terms that are measureable physiological endpoints. For instance, if you were doing a study on yoga and depression you might use the Beck Depression Inventory (where the subject signifies how they are feeling), or you might measure morning Cortisol levels (a stress hormone in the blood). Both types of measurements have value, and in fact interrelate.
Some benefits happen more quickly, and some take longer to develop. If you are someone who at one point started lifting weights you can remember that the first adaptations were neuromuscular.... learning form and movement, and that it was a few weeks into a first time program before you started to see a lot of 'sculpting'. That is one reason why it can be hard to stick with a new program. Ads may try to promise quick results but many of the results we want take time.
Yoga has been linked in various studies to a wide variety of healthy endpoints: promoting the health of cartilage and joints, improving chronic back pain, promoting lymphatic drainage, reducing blood pressure, lowering cortisol levels, lowering blood sugar, stimlating the production of oxytocin, easing the symptoms of mild to moderate asthma, and so on. A lot of studies are small in sample size, and many are not as rigidly well designed as one would wish, but taken as a whole the body of research suggests real benefits of mind and of body.
A lot of these benefits do not take a ton of time to see. I have certainly seen a reduction of tension and the symptoms of stress following a single class. And remember, it is in the nature of clinical trials that they are more often going to study results over a shorter period of time: weeks or perhaps months, more than years. Clearly the benefits that have gotten studied the most are those that are quickest to produce.
Your garden has its zinnias, which can sprout in a few days (the feeling of calm and destressing), and its sunflowers, quick to grow, and eye catching in its bloom (the lean strong physique). But the longer you practice the more benefits begin to sprout and grow. Which brings me, somewhat circuitously, to something I have noticed about my own functioning, which as I think about it, I suspect has grown out of a very long yoga practice.
A Personal Note
Those of you who follow my blog may have noticed that I have not been writing for a few weeks. My father is 95. He lives with and is helped by one of my brothers. A few months ago my brother developed a very serious medical condition, and at the same time my dad suffered some health issues. One of my other brothers has been doing most of the hard work of helping both of them, but my sister and I (neither of whom live near the rest of the family) have been doing a lot of travelling, connecting, and trying to navigate the rather circuitous world of insurance and elder care. I have been thinking a lot about my last trip. At the time I was mostly present to what I was doing, and not thinking about myself doing it, but since then I have thought about how I might have been present to the experience in past years.
I had flown into town and rented a hotel suite with wheel chair access and took my dad for two and a half days so my brothers could have a break. There are a lot of things that can be said about that experience. First, there is my amazement at how much work it is to care for someone who needs near continual attention. Then there is my respect for my brother and how he has stepped up to do that care. There is my sense of sadness that our culture has such a high level of care and resources available to the elderly.... but not if they do not have the money to afford it. And there is sadness for illness and discomfort in those whom I care about. Because of his arthritis my dad can not move much. Because of his macular degeneration he can not see much. Because of his hearing loss one must speak loudly and clearly to be heard. But I followed him into a place without sight or hearing or movement and found that ahimsa does not require a mat.
I am left with an enormous respect for those who care not just for 2 days but long term. Even after 2 days I could feel my energy level and arthritis both rebelling against the lack of movement.
However, we both really had a wonderful time just sitting and talking together. He told me stories I had not heard before, and a few I had. I made him snacks and got him to roll around the hallway a bit. But afterwards I was thinking about how sometimes when I was younger I would listen to him (or to others) with half of my attention. I think many of us do that sometimes, answering while the mind is wandering in other places. I was struck by how present I had felt. And I started thinking about how the yoga I do now is different than it was decades ago. I think my ability to focus deeply and for longer periods has been growing for some time, but it took sitting with my dad really to feel it deeply, I suppose because it had been a while since I had done that for such a long period, just the two of us. I find myself wondering about the role of yoga in the ability to pay attention, really pay attention, not just for moments, and not just with part of oneself.
I started looking at some research on yoga and attention. What I found is a review of studies on yoga for a variety of psychiatric disorders, including ADHD (Yoga on Our Minds: A Systematic Review of Yoga for Neuropsychiatric Disorders, Front Psychiatry. 2012; 3: 117) There is quite a lot of work on yoga with kids with ADHD, and some good evidence for benefit. What I had a harder time finding is yoga for ADD. It kind of makes sense that a discipline that is about mind body connections would show effect for something that includes issues of both the inability to sit still and the inability to focus the mind. But I am really interested in how the really long term practice of yoga affects the ability to be focused and attentive.
You know that metaphoric garden with its sunflowers and zinnias? Well, to me presence is the agave americana in the garden. It takes 10 years to bloom, but is both beautiful and useful in its own way.
I am left with 3 thoughts:
First, if you know anyone who is caring for someone who requires full time care, please offer to sit so they can take a walk or go to their yoga practice. They are doing the work of compassion and love in our world.
Second, please look beyond the simply physical effects of your exercise and of your yoga, and develop in yourslef all the multidimensions of your being.
And last, please consider that the greatest gift you can give to someone is your presence, in all its fullness and beauty. This is how we create beloved community. Love cannot grow out of inattention. Love cannot be simply directed inward. Love is a muscle that must be worked and stretched as well, or it will atrophy.
We have had a rather snowy and cold winter in New England, but we can see the beginnings of spring. I actually felt happy the other day as the snow melted and I could see the mud underneath. This also means that the cold and snowy walks my dog and I have been taking will slowly be morphing into longer, less bundled, strolls in the woods. I would like to share today my recipe for granola. This is not a low calorie, low fat snack. This is something lightweight, needing no refrigeration, and packed with protein and fiber. I also think it is very tasty, and a small bag in the pocket, with a bottle of water in the other and you are set for the afternoon.
Preheat oven to about 250 degrees. Spray olive oil on 2 large cookie sheets. Put the following ingredients in a very large bowl: 6 cups whole oats, ½ cup Hubs salted virginia peanuts, ½ cup Wonderful whole salted roasted almonds, ½ cup organic pepitas (pumpkin seeds), ½ cup blanched slivered almonds, ½ cup organic agave nectar, ½ cup oil, ½ cuporganic brown sugar, a ½ tsp or so of Penzy's cinnamon. Mix. Spread on pan. Cook for an hour or so, moving the mixture around every 20 minutes or so. It should start to look a bit golder, but not dark. Remove from oven. Place on cooling rack. Add ½ cup Manukka raisens. When the mix is not hot, but still slightly warm add ½ cup of semi sweet chocolate or dark chocolate chips. The warmth will slightly melt the chocolate. Give it a quick stir and pour into tupperware.
A few notes: If you are avoiding salt just buy the unsalted versions of the nuts. If you want to use a different brand go for it. I just really like these. Regarding the oil: I think peanut and canola oil work well, and I think olive can give it too strong of a flavor, but I know people have definite opinions on oils, so I say use what works for you. You can add more sugar, or less to taste. You can certainly add more and/or different varieties of dried fruit. The raisens I use are unusually large, and my family likes them. I personally also like dried tart cherries.
You can also make 2 varieties out of 1 batch by adding everything you want in both before separating them onto the 2 sheets and adding other stuff into each batch. You can see I did that here: only 1 batch had the whole almonds, and the other had the raisens. Just remember that the dried fruit and chocolate must be added after cooking.
I do not have software to carefully compute nutritional information. If someone wants to do the math and add more precise values in the comments I welcome it. I am not a nutritionist.
I do know what you do not get in this is a lot of excess packaging that is bad for the planet, or a lot of preservatives and additives that are bad for our bodies. One could eat a small snickers bar and get 1 gram of protein and 250 kcals, and partially hydrogenated oil, and artificial flavor. One could buy a little bag of some organic natural snack... but a lot of such things have a lot of packaging for a small amount of content, which is bad for the planet, and expensive in the long run. This will last you for quite a while. And if you add it to a bag with some fruit and maybe a yoghurt you have a pretty filling healthy vegetarian lunch.
Enjoy the rebirth of spring my friends.
Setting up a home gym, whether a spot on the floor for a mat and a couple of weights, or a dedicated room with a selection of equipment, is like setting up a business: it is generally better to have a plan in place than to approach it piecemeal. One wastes a lot less time, money, and energy. This doesn't mean one should buy or do everything at once. It is a way of spending wisely based on needs and resources.
'Fitness' is a very broad concept. It includes various components: cardiorespiratory, strength, flexibility, mind/body or relaxation, balance, speed, and so on. The first 4 of these are really basic for all around health and fitness. You may or may not include equipment for each need, but you do need to have an idea of how each need will be met within your home gym, or outside of it. The last 2 are examples of components that relate to more specific medical conditions or sport conditioning. For example, one of the primary health risks for someone who is older is falling, and balance gets harder as one gets older, so balance work is very helpful for someone in this group. Someone who plays soccer might want to include things to help with agility and speed.
Once you have an idea of the components you want to work category by category to see how best to incorporate those elements. There is always a balance between what research shows are the most effective methods, what suits your own needs temperament (and therefore you will do), what your finances will allow, and what will fit in your house. If you set a budget first it will help you allocate to the items you most want. For instance, if you spend a ton on putting in mirrors and climate control and expensive and large home gym weight equipment you might get to the cardio equipment and not be able to put in what you really want.
One important caveat: if you are a beginner you will be better served by with professional guidance at first (not in setting up the gym, but in learning to exercise). There are good training videos out there, but personal assistence is really really helpful to learn form and safety. You could join a gym, hire a trainer, or take classes. The money spent even for a few months at a gym or with a trainer will pay off with good form, a good sense of how to progress, and less chance of injuring yourself.
The first question is about available space. What equipment can you fit into the space? That will help you make choices before you start buying. You want to clear the floor. You do not want to trip over piles of books or step on legos. Pay attention to lighting and ventilation. A damp basement may not be very inviting. If you have weights think about what you are over and above. If you are in an apartment that is a particular issue. I teach in a yoga room that is below the weight room in one place, and we can definitely hear a barbell when it is dropped.
Strength is probably one of the simplest components to bring into a home gym. For the average person a set of dumbells of various weights, with a rack to hold them is a great option. When my mom's physician wanted her to begin some strength work I purchased her some 1 lb weights. My son is using 10, 15, and 20 now. You can get really nice equipment with weight stacks if you have the room and money, and are really sure you will use them, and have the sort of work where your time is so short it works better to have them at home than to go to the gym, but that is a personal decision. When I was at the IdeaWorld convention last August my colleague Karin showed me a wonderful product that
I believe are called sandbells. They are a weight with sand inside. If I still had my business and were training I would buy a set, just for people with balance or other issues: drop it on your foot and no problem. I also really like a barbell and a bench in addition to free weights, if one has space. And I use the Pilates ring a lot. For about 35 dollars you get a small light device that works for the core, as well as other strength activities. However, for me I do not want bells and whistles, I am not training for a specific sport, and I don't currently have a ton of space and money. I want the simplest thing that will best meet my needs. Your needs will certainly be different than mine, or you neighbor's.
Setting up for yoga or meditation or simple stretching, or pilates is also pretty simple and inexpensive and does not require a ton of space. I did a whole blog on picking a yoga mat, so you can look at that if you like. Just like with strength training I do recommend beginning with classes with an actual person if at all possible. Alignment and form are central to yoga, as is the connection between teacher and student and the way one begins to learn the central principles. If you are a yoga only sort of person you could do classes at a yoga studio, but if you belong to a gym you will find many offer yoga as part of their package. Aside from the mat it can be helpful to have a block and strap. These are also inexpensive, and have many uses, even outside of yoga. The strap is quite helpful in creating a bind to more effectively stretch the hamstrings when they are tight, for instance. It is also nice to have a cushion for meditation and to lift the hips to take stress off the low back in certain seated stretches. I also like a place where the light can be controlled. Laying on the floor with the face looks up into a bright ceiling light (I have taught in professional spaces where the designers clearly had not done yoga) is not highly conducive to relaxation. Some people enjoy SMR techniques, and myofascial equipment is lightweight, small, and not very expensive. I really love a softer roller, and gel balls. But there are a lot of options, and no one thing works for all people
Cardio equipment is probably the thorniest issue for the home gym. I remember years ago Consumer Reports looking at the percentage of people buying cardio equipment and not using it as they had planned. Those numbers are pretty staggering. It tends to be big and it tends to be expensive. I think this is the the part of the equation that needs the most thought. Do you have safe access to outside cardio options? Walking trails, public pools, local parks, bike paths are all options. But if you cannot access them, or they will not be safe for you for any reason, or you just hate that kind of exercise then you have to think of options. Do you have the option to do cardio in a class or gym? For example, I used to teach for a company that sent people to various sites (I even taught for people who worked at a zoo) to do classes. If your work has a program you might want to priortize cardio there and save buying weight equipment for home. Before you buy, definitely join a gym, at least short term to try out various types of equipment. And try them more than once to see whether when the first sheen of newness is worn off you still enjoy it. And once you decide to buy measure your space. When I bought my son's heavy bag (which he uses and loves) I mismeasured the space and had to reorder the frame.
The last thing I want to suggest has to do with what advice to take as you work through listing your needs, your budget, and your options. I think it can be helpful to ask friends and neighbors. Just keep in mind that what works for one does not work for everyone.... don't just ask what they like, but why they like it. I think Amazon reviews are also really helpful. I regularly check scam sites and bbb data. Looking at equipment at the store is helpful, but they are interested in selling product, and I find that just as the person at the makeup counter is not generally an esthetician but a sales person, the person in the sports store is not generally a trainer, but a sales person. I ALWAYS want to know whether someone has a financial stake in any product they are recommending. They may be selling it precisely because they believe in it, but I still deserve to know their financial stake in convincing me to buy it. And I also want to know if they recommend the same thing to every person. Because no one piece of equipment or device or class or trainer is the best thing for every person. It just isn't. I've had people come to me to pay me to take my classes or do training with me and I have sent them elsewhere because I was not going to be able to give them what they needed. I did not try to go outside my scope of practice or convince them that what I was offering was the best thing for them. We as consumers must take the time to understand and buy in a way that reflects our needs, our budget, our values, and not through the manipulation of our emotions and impulses.
What a person typically looks for from a personal trainer when they seek one out is typically different from what they look for from a yoga teacher. Just so the usual image of that a trainer looks and acts like tends to be different. Less so today, when there is so much overlap, with trainers starting to teach yoga, and yoga teachers offering individualized services that are more westernized than they used to be. If I talk about my personal trainer to my friend they may visualize someone with low body fat, lots of visable muscles, and a generally forceful and no nonsense personality. It used to be I would add 'male' to that list, but I think that is a truth and a stereotype that is becoming less and less common. If I talk about my yoga teacher I suspect they will visualize someone (usually a female) with leggings, and flowing scarves, and dangly earrings, with a crystal or a silver 'om' (always silver of course) who is very calm or very effusive, but MUCH more emotive than the trainer.
Of course, the reality is that there are a lot of differet types of people in both fields. It is also true that how good one is at what one does is not in direct relationship to looking like what someone else sees as 'typical' for that job. And it is true some people go out of their way to adopt a stereotypical look in order to do better in their career. Not all good trainers have huge biceps; not all good yoga teachers wear their 'om's on their sleeves.
The other thing I find interesting is what is similar in how a good trainer and a good yoga instructor engage with a new student. If a new student/client enters the door the first thing the teacher/trainer wants is understanding and connection. The trainer generally will have the advantage of a first meeting that will specifically elicit specific information. The teacher, unless they are also an owner of a single business who has the opportunity to interview each new student, will tend to get it more slowly. But what we both need to know is basically the same:
We want to get to know the person before us within their multidimensional truth.
We want to help them set goals both long and short term for where they want to go.
Where have they been?
What are their previous exercise habits? (that is often apparent when I watch someone in class) What injuries have they had? (sometimes you can tell that as well, if it is not too long ago) How much experience with exercise or yoga have they had? As a yoga teacher I am interested in riding the lines of stretch and movement, and I believe understanding what has brought you to where you are can help you move past it. Not that I have any interest in doing therapy with my students. That is outside of my scope of practice. But as they learn to be present they do it with themselves.... “I was injured here and even though it is healed I hold it tight as I fear the possibility of pain”, or “I do not easily breath through my entire breath because I have been hurt by being called 'fat' and learned to hold in that energy without even thinking about it'. It is not that we want to relive old experiences, it is that we want to find the places we have closed and create a path that is safe to open them. The trainer wants to find a way to allow the client to shift habits to allow change and growth. Again, it is not by walking through the past, but by understanding it.
Who are they now?
What are their current health habits (smoking, diet, but also social engagement within a healthful or unhealthful community, .... a big predictor of ease of establishing new habits). Both the trainer and the instructor will be interested in the student/client's current level of ability, as well as their liabilities. This tells us how we can best communicate (I will explain something in two different ways in the same class if I know I have a PT there working beside someone relatively new). And it also tells us where on the path we should start.
The trainer has the ability to begin with a series of tests to understand the baseline. This can be very helpful, particularly if the trainer starts with tests for form and alignment before they do tests for strength and flexibility and cardiorespiratory endurance. When I first worked in gyms we often went straight to testing number of pushups, or sit ups. Today I think many trainers understand the value of assessing form and mobility before the push up thing. The yoga teacher is not typically set up to do such testing, but rest assured we are watching as you move to try to understand, and to try to help you see where you are not as a sign of weakness, but as an understanding of where you are beginning. This new beginning happens every time we step on the mat.
Where do they want to go?
In yoga we pretty much start every class by stopping to be present to that question. Every class, like every day is a new opportunity. Like the trainer goals are important, though we may not be as organized in setting long and short term ones. However, if I know someone wants to work toward ski season, or wants to release the stress of too much snow shovelling my practice with them will shift toward these goals. The work the trainer does in helping the client set such goals is absolutely as important as teaching him or her to lift a dumbell.
The principles we use in working with a new student are quite similar:
Understand the client/student
Set goals and tailor the practice toword those goals
Begin where the student/client is (generally and specifically)
Start simple and work from there (get the form first before making the weight greater, the number of joints increased, or the pose more complex, warm up before working more intensely or deeper)
Balance the work: front and back of body, opposing actions or muscle groups, work not to the point of collapse or muscle damage, but work enough for progress and growth, rest enough for the body (or mind or spirit) to heal and regain homeostasis and be ready to come to the mat (or the gym) again.
Most people who have enough resources to eat out from time to time have gone to a restaurant where the complexity and display of the food is more pronounced than its ability to nourish (or sometimes its flavor). This is a cultural dichotomy: simple comfort food, and food as art. My favorite meal is a cup of assam, an orange, some almonds, and a piece of bread. But I also enjoy paella and cassoulet. I just know I've been served food where breading and gravy and garnish is hiding a base that is dry and tasteless. I think this duality plays out in a lot of different places. Think about going to the spa to have a beauty treatment....
The thing is, complexity is not the opposite of good: complexity is the oppostie of simplicity. But if complexity is achieved without each part being well done, and without the parts being arranged well in relationship to eachother. One dancer kicking out of step is quite noticable in a line of 20. And at the spa you may get 20 different preperations and treatments, each of which have different benefits. However, if you have not done the simple daily care of staying hydrated, moisturizing, and cleaning off the daily grime the effects of these extras will be lessened.
I think people tend to try for complexity for a variety of reasons. For one thing if you are selling a product or service you need to stand out. And if you are advertising and using a visual the more eye popping the image the more attention you will command. Also, there is what the Buddhists call 'monkey mind'. People tend to get bored. It is true the other side of that dichotomy is that we crave the familiar …. I can remember after being in Rome for almost a week my husband going in search of a familiar American style dinner. But again, if one is trying to get people to try something you are offering it is easier to get them in the door with something really different.
This plays out in the world of fitness and yoga as well. Gyms will try to get people in the door with the newest, hottest thing. And the more that thing plays to the edges the more it can stand out. It was true decades ago in aerobic dance. I blogged about this a while ago. I found a cache of old tapes and looked at the beats per minute. It was particularly true with step. There was a speed at which it was done, but over time those beats started to edge up.... because people wanted to be continued to be stimulated, and because teachers also wanted to be stimulated, as well as to stand out. The choreography as well got so complex that a lot of people couldn't follow it.
There are a few themes at play here: The pull between simple and complex, the pull between what is known and comfortable and what is new and exciting, and the need to have a strong base before you build complexity.
Part of what has me thinking about this is a brief conversation I had with a woman in line to buy lunch when I recently attended the annual convention of fitness professionals in Anaheim. (That was, by the way, an experience I would recommend to any fitness professional who can afford to go. I certainly cannot do so regularly, and generally prefer to spend my training funds on yoga, but it is worth doing. Almost all of the presenters I had represented the absolute best the industry has to offer.) We were chatting and she told me she did yoga, so I asked about it, as I am always interested in what other people are doing. She told me about a 'new' form she was planning to 'launch' and start to offer training to other teachers. In her description she used the word 'cute'.
Here is the thing. There are lots of ways to understand and practice yoga. Its adaptability and fluidity is one of the things that keeps it fresh and interesting. But (and this is a big but) are you building your creative interpretation on a depth of understanding of the basic bedrock of the practice? And are you building your interpretation in order to be able to get notice and sell it? Does your interpretation offer something that will enhance health benefits, or self understanding? As with that plate of dinner placed in front of you at the restaurant.... if the ingredients are not top notch, and if the chef is not a master at putting them together you can end up with something flashy but not much else. Remember that simple is not necessarily inelegant, and lack of quality can be hidden under the gilding. (Or as my mom used to say when I first learned to bake a cake.... frosting can hide a lot of sins).
I am not against complexity in any of the physical disciplines I practice. We are back to Aristotle here (all my students groan). It is not that simplicity is your savior and complexity the enemy. They complement eachother.
How does this play out in our daily yoga practice?
The first principle is to start by knowing what we want and need. If the postures are (as I've said before) tools to open and explore the multidimensional self, we need to figure out what sort of tools are likely to be helpful. Sometimes there are specific things: I am tight in my hamstrings because I run, I had a shoulder injury and my PT wanted me to do yoga to help with range of motion. Sometimes they are more general: I am very anxious and want to learn some self calming techniques, I exercise a lot and want general flexibility. Specific areas of interest will lead you to add specific postures and sequences into the mix. And specific injuries or conditions will lead you to put aside some tools. A fancy expensive treadmill is sometimes very helpful, but not for everyone in every case. (And when you are figuring out what tools you need always look for advice first from those who will not profit from upselling you).
The second principle is to start simple and work to complex. When I create or adapt or explore a vinyasa I begin with a base and add layers. I am always hopeful that each student will get the base before exploring the adaptations, and that each student will add only those adaptations that are safe and helpful to them, and move into the layers only so far and only when it is safe and helpful to them.
The third principle is that just because a posture can get into more and more complex variations it doesn't mean that you need to do them all. Complexity for the sake of complexity is about ego and not about progress. The photo of the slim and well muscled model oiled and half naked balancing on their hands with their toes on their forehead may get your attention but the truth of yoga is in its principles and the daily practice and not in pretty pictures of difficult postures. The day may come when you find yourself lifing into parsva bakasana.... or not. Self understanding, self compassion, and love, understanding and compassion that flow outward, improved health, range of motion, strength, fluidity, balance, mental focus and clarity are not equivalent to fancy postures. The line of practice of yoga can lead to those places but it is not those places. If your practice leads there that is fine. Or not.
The final principle is one I have blogged about a lot, because it is really central. The physical dimension is only one aspect of the self. If the benefits of yoga are to extend toward our whole self its practice must open into more than the physical postures. If you are going to engage in complex and difficult vinyasas and postures that practice should not be undertaken at the expense of, or before exploring the mental, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, creative, social/communal self.
The exact number of asanas recognized in yoga is not universally recognized. This is partly because there are lots of variations on certain basic postures, and a there is always the question of where you draw the line of recognizing small shifts as individual postures. Those small shifts can make enormous differences in how moving through and holding the posture effects the body, but it is possible to draw the line so fine that it becomes impossible to speak about the postures efficiently. And I always feel (as I've blogged about before) that the spaces between the postures, and the way we ride those spaces are as important as the places we choose to name.
Different styles and different schools of yoga give pride of place to different asanas and different sequences of asanas and different ways of moving between those asanas. As well asanas shift in their popularity over time. Lotus (padmanasana) was at one time one of the most recognized yoga postures; one people would think of if they thought of yoga. It is not widely practiced these days. Downward facing dog (adho mukta svanasana) is one of the most recognized yoga poses today. It is central to the practice of vinyasa yoga as we receive it through the lineage of Sri. K Patthabi Jois. Part of what makes it so common is its simplicity. The simplest postures tend to be those that ride the lines of stretch/energy most directly. They form the bases from which variations can spring: Mountain pose (Tadasana), Corpse pose (Shavasana), Tree (Vriksasana), Easy Seated posture (Supasana), Cobra (Bhujangasana) and a few others. We could argue about which to include here, but these are some.
There is a cooking magazine called Cooks Illustrated. It differs from a cook book, or recipe site, because it although it does give recipes and amounts, it also talks about how they thought out the issue of how to use the ingredients and the processes to create certain effects. I would like to share some of my thoughts on down dog, but I hope you will use it more like those Cooks Illustrated articles. Remember (as I say ad nauseum) that the postures are tools. Think about what you want to do and why, and then find the best tool for that use, and adapt how you use it to get closer to what you want.
Downward Facing Dog
Typically when one breaks down a posture there are certain things one talks about.
Contraindications: i.e. Why someone should not do it.
There are usually a few absolute contraindications, as for instance late stage pregnancy is not a good time for a posture like this. Some wrist and arm injuries can make it problematic, as can rotator cuff injury. Any condition where you do not want the head lower than the chest. My general rule is to use the golden triangle: speak to your doctor or medical provider, listen to your own body without ego and judgement, but with compassion and self understanding, and ask your yoga instructor for feedback. These 3 parts each offer a different perspective and together they help us to find our path. The medical provider understands the specifics of your health conditions, the yoga instructor understands the intricacies of the postures and the ways their effects, and you live in your own body and can feel from within.
Benefits: i.e. Why someone should do it.
One sees a lot of lists of benefits from postures. I think it is really helpful to have a mix of an open mind and a bit of scepticism. I always like to see the research.... does some site say there is a benefit because they saw it on a bunch of other sites? Are they referencing medical guidelines (like the ACOG guidelines for exercise and pregnancy) that are based on a large quantity of generally well designed research? Not everything is going to have research, and research gives general answers that may not be the same for everyone.... so I think we look for the middle ground. If it isn't contraindicated and it doesn't hurt try it out and see how it feels. Enter slowly enough to avoid getting into a place that is harmful.
Generally speaking down dog has the capacity to stretch the back of the legs and the chest and shoulders. It can also be strengthening to the body as a whole. It works very well with other poses in a vinyasa to create fluidity of movement. It gives a deeper stretch to the lower legs than a lot of other postures. And it can, with a few adaptations, form a base for a lot of other stretching and strengthening movements.
Preperation: i.e. How to get into it
I am not going to give you a step by step guide for entering the pose, or a long list of postures to do before you tackle dog. If you have done much yoga you have already done so, and if you haven't you will do better to start with an actual class with a teacher, or if this is absolutely not available to you (and if you are physically cleared to try yoga) to see if you can find a safe and appropriate DVD. In any case there are a lot of postural explanations on the internet to be googled, with nice photos or drawings better than what I can explain with words.
Alignment:i.e. How to Be in it
These are some of the general things I focus on when I have people in my class tackle dog.
In down dog there is an acute angle between the foot and the shin. The tighter the hamstrings or calf muscles the harder this is to achieve. So people will often enter compensations: heels hanging in the air, hands moving toward the feet so that the angle becomes closer to a right angle, back rounding, knees bending. I think the heels need to be rooted. If they are left hanging in the air the legs will maintain a high level of tension as they protect themselves from being over stretched. This will get in the way of the muscle relaxation that will help the area to stretch, and will make it harder to get the mind and body to the place by the end of class where true relaxation and meditation can occur. My preference is to put something under the heels so that they can stretch and the body can release into the pose AND where the pressure can be taken off the upper body and back so they can release their tension. I prefer a rolled mat to a block. The problem with the block is the edge can push into the plantar fascia, which I think is not desirable. Also the rolled mat gives a bit, so it allows for transfer of force between the floor and the leg. I do sometimes use the wall. In other words I position the mat with the short end touching the wall, and walk the heel back to touch the wall as far up the wall from the floor as each person needs to keep the upper body in aligned position. This is also a great position to do tail on the dog, and to walk up the wall into standing split (or as close to it as is comfortable).
I would rather see someone put the pad under the heel than let the heel dangle. I would also rather them do that then bend the knees. The knees are the second place we need to focus. To see what I mean here we need to think about the musculoskeletal anatomy of the back of the leg. The achilles tendon attaches to the heel. Out of the achilles tendon run two muscles. The gastrocnemicus attaches above the knee, and the soleus attaches below. So when the foot is planted and the lower leg moves forward the achilles tendon stretches. If the knee is straight the muscle above the knee stretches, and if it is bent the other stretches. So when I hold dog I will often release one knee at a time for a few breaths to work into both of these areas. And then I will bend both knees very slightly, and press down a bit on the heels to move into that lower muscle by releasing the other. However, if the knees are always bent the hamstrings, which are attached below the knee will not be as fully engaged.
Does that mean one should always be pushing to straighten the legs? No. If there is pain in the low back, or the knees, or anywhere, or if there is an injury or a recent surgery, or a knee replacement... well, there are a lot of reasons why someone would not fully extend. How does each person judge? Go back to strong triangle.
The hip is the fulcrum of the posture. The tilt of the hip helps to keep the spine long, and the legs aligned. But I tend to cue the pelvic tilt from the low back and belly. They work together. I have blogged elsewhere about the bandhas, and mulha bandha in particular, so I will suggest you read that if you are not sure of how to engage that. I think it is essential to avoiding strain on the low back, as well as to keep form. One of my favorite cues here is to imagine one is wearing Max's wolf suit from Where the Wild Things Are, and then to imagine lifting the tail high. I also like to suggest imagining bringing the navel to the thigh. The more rounded the upper and mid back are the less acute the angle between the legs and the core. Lifting the seat and allowing natural lumbar curve will allow opening in the legs, as well as a stable base to stretch the back and shoulders.
I would also suggest the value of a side lift or twist here. If this posture is taken as only involving the frontal plane (a 2 dimensional movement) it will effect less well those muscles that act on a rotational or side moving plane. Here is an example of what I mean. Come into down dog. Lift one leg into tail on the dog. This is movement in one plane. Draw the right knee toward the chest and then lengthen the leg up into tail on the dog. This is still all movement in one plane, but by pushing in your pushing out is often deeper, and the range of motion around that hip joint is fuller. Now with the leg lifted externally rotate the femur of the leg in the air. As you do that the whole body tips sideways. Inner thigh muscles stretch, (and if you bend the knee the gracilis gets an even deeper stretch), the psoas stretch deepens, and above the hips the obliques become more involved. Now, as you hold this slightly lift the elbow and look under the arm. This really helps to engage the rmid back and open the chest. I find that tail on the dog and then coming back to dog makes dog deeper.
This same opening of the chest by external rotation of the humerus can be done in down dog by a slight movement of the hands. I will cue to imagine the shape between the hands as a rectangle or square, and to imagine you want to make a triangle, or heart. It really is only a few degrees of internal rotation of the hand and a lift of the elbow, that then opens into the arm pit, and into that space we lift the rib cage.
Clearly not everyone will be comfortable creating a straight line from hand to tailbone. In fact I think I've blogged a few times about how much more shoulder tightness and upper back rounding I've seen in the last 10 or 15 years. I actually for some years have included daily opening work for my own shoulders: we all spend too much time in front of key boards and I think some work to balance this is essential (see my blogs on desk and travel yoga). If the shoulders are so tight that the angle at the wrist is not wide enough it may be preferable to do dolphin, or do dog on the wall, or to stay away from dog and do shoulder openers that do not involve putting the weight on the hands. At the very least it will be important to shorten the time holding the posture. This is another one of those golden triangle moments.... each person making some decisions about what works best for them. We definitely want to work toward at least a right angle at the wrist, and preferably past a right angle in the opposite direction to the ankles. I've tried various pads for tight wrists and have not been fully satisfied with any. The best I like is a 2 inch gel ball under the palm. The problem is that if the wrist is not open enough I think it is usually because the shoulders are tight, and it may be better to stay off the wrist and use other shoulder openers until that problem is addressed.
I especially like strengthening postures taken out of dog, such as dolphin, or dolphin with one leg extended. And I like to do a yoga push up from dolphin, bringing the breast bone toward the knuckles and back. I really like those sorts of movements that explore range of motion around a joint, while building strength further along the chain. In this strength and flexibility work together.
Every posture can be pulled apart in this way. It is kind of like disection in that it gives us a better idea of how things hang together. But the best way to explore dog, or any posture is to approach it as a living organism.... find how it opens into the breath, and how the breath opens into it.... do it in conjunction with other postures, and explore those sequences.