I fell in love with yoga in my mid-twenties. Having retained my flexibility from many childhood years as a gymnast, yoga fit like a glove. I practiced with determination and, I'll admit, a bit of ego, silently gloating about how easily I could "go deep" into the asanas.
Little did I know my flexibility would eventually be my downfall.
My lack of understanding of the true nature of yoga led me down an inevitable path toward injury. Instead of paying attention to the inside form of each posture, I would set up the pose, then physically and mentally "check out." Without the muscular energy needed to support my body through gravity, I hung on my joints until my ligaments were too overstretched to perform their job.
By the time I was 30, I was the begrudging owner of a stiff, aching lower back and chronically sore hamstrings.
What was missing in my practice was balance. My flexibility greatly outweighed my strength, and core conditioning was essential. It was then that I began practicing Pilates, which taught me about my body's mechanics, its habits, and its incredible capacity to change. I began to heal my injuries by shifting my focus away from mobility and toward stability.
My chronic injuries have disappeared and I am now much stronger, more aware and more humble in my yoga practice. Although I was afraid Pilates would reduce my flexibility, I found that it allowed the tighter areas of my muscular system to open, making my body more balanced overall.
I invite all yogis — especially the super flexible — to perform the five exercises below to protect your joints from injury. These movements will galvanize your core strength so you'll be able to practice yoga safely for many years to come.
Rocking Boat Pose
Inspired by Boat Pose (Navasana) this exercise strengthens the deep abdominal muscles and hip flexors, obliques and psoas, while massaging the lower back.
From a seated position, engage your core to lift your legs and bend your knees, reaching your arms long by either side. From here, slowly roll down to your lower back as your legs extend forward and long, and your arms extend out to the sides.
Exhale and slowly roll back up to Boat Pose. Repeat 10 times, then rest and repeat.
TIP: Be sure that you are curling your back down bone by bone, to avoid overusing the superficial hip flexors and lower back. You should really feel this in your stomach muscles.
Abdominal Criss Cross
This abdominal work targets the diagonal slings of the obliques, promoting torso stability and improved spinal flexibility.
Lie down on your back, placing your hands behind your head, curling your chest off the floor. Bring your knees to a tabletop position. Exhale, extending the left leg forward and simultaneously twisting your torso to the right, toward the bent knee.
Inhale and transition through center, then exhale and twist to the other side. Repeat this back and forth motion 10 times (5x on each side), then rest and repeat.
TIP: Keep elbows wide, the pelvis glued to the ground and visualize you are moving through molasses. Control is key.
This move strengthens the back body (trapezius, spinal extensors, glutes and upper hamstrings) to improve posterior torso stability from head to hips.
Lie on your stomach, with your legs long and slightly wider than your hips, and arms above your head, slightly wider than your shoulders. Keeping the abdominals drawn in and the neck long, lift the arms, legs and chest off the floor.
From here, exhale and slowly lift the arms and legs a few inches higher, then inhale and lower them down a few inches. Repeat 15 times, then rest and repeat.
TIP: Keep the knees and elbows straight, and focus on reaching out as you lift. Keep the eyes on the floor during the exercise; if you feel discomfort in the neck, drop the chin, widen the arms and draw your shoulders away from your ears.
Cat Pose Hover
This variation of Cat Pose (Marjaryasana) targets the shoulder girdle, abdominals and quadriceps, promoting stability in the upper back and knees while stretching the lower back.
From hands and knees, curl the spine into a cat-back position, drop the head, pull down the shoulders and squeeze the glutes. From here, lift the knees off the floor no more than two inches and hover there for 5-8 deep breaths, pulling the abdominals in deeper with each exhale. Rest, then repeat for two more rounds.
TIP: Sensitive wrists? Make fists and balance on the knuckles. Sensitive knees? Keep the knees on the ground and focus on the abdominals. Keep the spine curled while you hover (the spine will want to straighten to reduce the intensity, but don't let it!), and visualize you are pulling up your quads like stockings.
Forearm Plank With Single Leg Lifts
This exercise strengthens the shoulders, back, abdominals and hips. The primary muscle targeted is the serratus anterior, critical for stability in all your planks and arm balances.
Come into a forearm plank position, with your legs together and stomach lifted. Inhale and drop the chest toward the floor, feeling the shoulder blades disconnecting from your back.
Exhale and press your chest up toward the ceiling, widening the upper back like the spread wings of a hawk, and simultaneously lift one leg off the floor.
Inhale and lower both legs and your chest, then exhale and repeat, this time lifting the opposite leg. Continue this motion 10 times (5x alternating legs), then rest and repeat.
TIP: This takes coordination, so if you're feeling confounded by all the moving parts, keep both feet on the floor and focus on the shoulder girdle movement. Keep the abdominals in and up throughout exercise so you don't collapse in the lower back.
Gallery courtesy of Katrina Wittkamp Photography