Admit it: Half the time you spend on your yoga practice you find yourself negotiating ways to get your body to do what everyone else in the class is doing. But by forcing yourself into a yoga pose, you're really opening yourself up to injury, not to mention losing your focus—and missing out on a lot of the benefits of yoga. Fortunately, Shape has found easier approaches to three top problem yoga poses, so you can stop beating yourself up and start reaping the full benefits each of these has to offer.
1. Sitting Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
The Struggle: You Can't Reach Your Feet
Many people find this pose difficult because they can't fully reach their feet when they bend forward. But that is exactly where many yogis go wrong, as they do whatever it takes to grab their toes, hunching over and compromising their back alignment in the process.
Perfect the Pose: "It's important to never force oneself into a forward bend," says Nicoline Valkenberg, founder and director of Samara Yoga in Somerville, Massachusetts. "Let the goal of Paschimottanasana be to lengthen the legs and spine rather than grabbing the feet or folding more deeply." Start out by pulling the flesh out from under your sitz bones (aka, your butt) or sit atop a rolled up blanket to give yourself a little more height so that you are able to hinge from your hips better. "Try pushing your fingertips into the floor or looping a strap around the balls of your feet," suggests Nicoline. Then fold yourself over your legs, keeping your back straight to really reap the yoga benefits from this pose. "For a while, your pose may look more like you are sitting up than folding forward, but working Paschimottanasana this way will leave you feeling a lot longer, calmer, more restored and much less frustrated," Valkenberg adds.
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2. Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III)
The Struggle: This pose is challenging because of all the balance involved: Your torso is parallel to the ground, and all of your limbs (except your standing leg!) are outstretched and parallel to the ground.
Perfect the Pose: Having your arms extended in front of you helps balance you, but this is strenuous because your limbs are moving in opposite directions. "In any balancing position, we are challenged to work with the forces of gravity, rather than trying to dominate them," says Valkenberg. "The strength necessary to keep both the arms and lifted leg parallel to the floor can distract from the task of staying upright and flowing with gravity." If you feel yourself tipping backward or forward, ease up by extending your arms along the sides of your body. Or, says Valkenberg, sweep your arms out to your sides like wings to help with your balance. Keep all your limbs activated, but really focus on getting your torso and your limbs parallel to the floor. Once you have steadied yourself in either of these modifications, then try to send your arms back out in front of you, parallel to the floor, to get into the full pose.
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3. Standing Yogi Toe-Lock (Utthita Hasta Padangustasana)
The Struggle: You Want My Leg to Go Where?!
To achieve this pose, you have to stand upright on one foot with your other leg extended at a 90-degree angle from your hips, your index and middle fingers and thumb holding onto your big toe. But your brain tricks you into thinking that having to extend both an arm and a leg—not to mention having them make contact!—while standing upright is something only the most flexible can do.
Perfect the Pose: "If your hamstrings are in fact open enough to reach the big toes in the forward folding version—Padangustasana—then holding the big toe in your upright balance is within reach," says Nicoline. Stand with one foot firmly planted onto the ground for balance. Slowly start to lift your other leg, almost as if you were going to take Tree Pose. Grab onto that big toe, knee bent so the leg is still close to your body, and begin to extend your leg out at a 45-degree angle away from your hip. As you continue to straighten your leg, remind yourself that you just did this pose—only in a slightly different variation. "What makes reaching the toe in your standing balance more complicated is the added element of extension in the front of the standing leg and hip," says Nicoline. "I suggest placing your lifted foot against a wall to sustain the balance while you work on stretching the standing leg to straight. Soon you'll have the stability in both legs to balance in the center of the room."
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