4 Yoga Poses to Help Open Your Shoulders

 Open Shoulders can help with Proper Alignment in Forearm Stand 

Open Shoulders can help with Proper Alignment in Forearm Stand 

So many of us carry tension in our shoulders - whether it’s from sitting at a computer for hours a day, using our smartphones, or even from the way we sleep - the shoulders are one of the most common parts of our body to hold stress.  Having stiff shoulders can affect our yoga practice too.  Many of the poses we perform are compromised when there is a limited range of motion in the shoulders (such as Forearm Stand).

Shoulder-opening poses are a great way to relieve tension and to help prevent injury in postures that require the shoulders to be more open.  Below are 4 of my go-to shoulder-opening postures:

1. Garudasana (Eagle) Arms

 Garudasana Arms

Garudasana Arms

  • While in a comfortably seated position, reach your arms straight forward and parallel to the ground.
  • Spread your scapula wide as you cross your left arm over your right. 
  • Bend your elbows.  Your left elbow should be directly inside of the right one, and the backs of your hands should be facing one other.
  • Continue to twist the arms so that the palms of the hands are facing one another. Then press the palms together as much as you comfortably can.
  • Raise your elbows up, reaching the fingertips toward the sky.
  • Hold for 10 breaths, then release, and repeat on the opposite side for the same length of time.

2. Shoulder Stretch with Blocks

 Shoulder Stretch with Blocks

Shoulder Stretch with Blocks

  • Begin sitting on your shins.  Place two blocks, on their highest height, about 6-8 inches on either side of you and slightly in front of you. 
  • Bring your hands to prayer pose behind your head, so that your fingers are pointing down toward the ground.  Slowly lean forward until both elbows are resting on the blocks.  It's ok if your hips lift up slightly.
  • Gently lower your head down as you sink your hips back slightly. Make sure to only go as far as feels comfortable for your body.
  • Hold for 10-15 breaths, then come up to release.

3. Thread the Needle

 Thread the Needle

Thread the Needle

  • Begin on your hands and knees, with your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips.  Your knees should be hip-width apart.
  • Slide your left arm under your right arm, with the palm facing up. Allow your left shoulder to lower all the way down to the ground . Rest your left cheek on the mat.
  • Keep your hips raised.  You can extend your right hand toward the front of the mat, or straight up toward the sky.  You can gaze upward if that feels comfortable for you as well.
  • Make sure not press weight onto your head, instead, and keep your lower back relaxed. Allow all of the tension in your shoulders, arms, & neck to malt away.
  • Hold for 5-8 breaths.  Slowly slide your left out out to exit and release. then repeat on the opposite side for the same length of time.

4. Gomukhasana Arms

  • While n a comfortably seated position, reach your left arm out toward the left so that its parallel to the floor.  Rotate your arm inwardly so that your thumb is pointing down.
  • Gently bend your left arm and place your hand behind your back.  Roll your left should down and back, and begin to inch your left hand upward so that its parallel to your spine. Try to get the back of your left hand between your shoulder blades.
  • Now extend your right arm reaching it up toward the sky.  Bend your right elbow and reach your right hand down for the left hand.
  • If you're unable to hook the right and left fingers, try using a strap so that you can reach.
  • Try to keep the chest lifted, as you lean back slightly.
  • Hold for 10-12 breaths, then slowly release and repeat on the opposite side for the same length of time.
 Gomukhasana Arms

Gomukhasana Arms

 Gomukhasana Arms using a Strap

Gomukhasana Arms using a Strap

Wrist Support: 5 Poses to Help Stretch & Strengthen your Wrists

Whether you're new to yoga, or a seasoned practitioner, there's a good chance you've experienced wrist tenderness at some point in your practice.  Many of the postures we regularly perform - Crow Pose, Wheel Pose, Chaturnaga, and even Downward Facing Dog - have us bearing weight in the delicate wrist joints.  Misalignment in these poses, or lack of necessary strength and flexibility, are some of the major reasons our wrists can feel sore during or after a practice. 

 Poses that bear weight in the wrists

Poses that bear weight in the wrists

Incorporating targeted stretching & strengthening exercises into your routine is an effective way to alleviate wrist soreness and help prevent injury.  Below is a sequence of 5 poses to strengthen and mobilize your wrists as well as reduce tension in the surrounding areas (such as the hands, fingers, and forearms).

1. Wrist Circles

 Wrist Circles

Wrist Circles

  • Curl your hand into a fist with your fingers wrapped over your thumbs.
  • Tightly clench your fists as you rotate your hands in a circular motion. Make the movements slow and deliberate, bringing your awareness to the muscles of your wrists.
  • Circle each wrist ten times before switching to the opposite direction.

2. Hand Under Foot Pose

  • From Mountain Pose begin to fold forward.  Bend your knees as much as necessary so that your belly connects with your thighs.
  • Place your hands on the ground with your palms facing upward.  Slide your hands under your feet until your toes are touching your wrists. 
  • Play around in the pose by shifting your weight forward and pressing the toes into the muscular part of the palms.  Your knees can remain bent, or you can straighten them for more of a challenge, if you feel comfortable doing so (make sure your hamstrings are properly warmed up first).
 Hand Under Foot Pose (with bent knees)

Hand Under Foot Pose (with bent knees)

 Hand Under Foot Pose

Hand Under Foot Pose

3. Upward Bound Finger Pose

  Upward Bound Finger Pose

Upward Bound Finger Pose

  • Begin seated with your fingers snugly interlaced. Place the back of your hands on top of your head with the palms facing upward.
  • Slowly begin to straighten your arms as you raise them up toward the ceiling. Make sure to keep the muscles in your back and neck relaxed.  If you feel any tightening in the shoulders, back, or neck, pause and soften them before continuing.  
  • Once the arms are fully extended, slowly lower them back down so that your hands return to the top of your head with the palms facing upward.
  • Repeat this 5 times.  You can also perform this exercise by extending your arms straight out in front of your chest, and then returning your arms back above your head.

4. Table Pose Wrist Stretch

 Table Pose Wrist Stretch

Table Pose Wrist Stretch

  • Begin in Table pose, with the hands on the floor directly under your shoulders and the fingers pointing forward.
  • Slowly begin to rotate the hands outward in a semi circle until your fingers are pointing back towards your body.
  • Hold for 6-10 breaths.  For a deeper stretch  you can gently ease the hips back and shift more of your weight into your heels.  You should feel a very deep opening in the wrists and forearms.  Take care to only go as far as feels right for you. 

5. Reverse Prayer Stretch (Phalen's Test)

 Reverse Prayer Stretch

Reverse Prayer Stretch

  • Place the backs of his hands together at chest level, with both wrists completely flexed.
  • Press the hands firmly together (from the knuckles to the fingertips)  for up to one minute.
  • NOTE: Pain or tingling along the inside of the wrist may be an indication of carpal tunnel syndrome (always consult a medical professional first if you're experiencing any unusual pain).

Montego Bay, a Perfect 3-Days in Paradise

 Sunrise Beach at Half Moon Resort in Jamaica

Sunrise Beach at Half Moon Resort in Jamaica

I'm not really sure what took me this long to book a trip to Jamaica.  It's got all the things I dream about on the dreariest of New York winter days - endless crystal blue beaches, reggae music, Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee, and the friendliest locals.  The best part?  Its all just a short 3.5 hour flight from NYC.

I'd been excited for my tropical getaway from the moment the tickets were booked, but upon landing in Montego Bay I quickly realized I was in for a real treat. I was greeted at the airport by one of the Club Mobay VIP hosts, a hospitality service that escorted me through immigration & customs, expediting the whole process down to mere minutes.  Before I knew it, I found myself sitting in a shuttle that was headed straight to my hotel, the beautiful Half Moon Resort

Just 15 minutes later I was already at the hotel, being warmly welcomed by the staff and given a brief tour of the grounds. It's easy to see why Half Moon is one of Jamaica’s most luxurious resorts.  Some of the countless amenities on its sprawling 400-acres include over 50 pools, 3 restaurants, a cafe, 5 bars (including a swim-up option), 2 miles of private beaches, a stunning Spa, 11 tennis courts, 4 squash courts, basketball & volleyball courts, an 18-hole golf course, an equestrian center for rescued racehorses, and a standalone children’s village. 

 Catching the sunset at Half Moon Resort

Catching the sunset at Half Moon Resort

 Views for days in Montego Bay

Views for days in Montego Bay

I spent my first two days in Jamaica taking full advantage of the hotel's many on-site activities and relaxation opportunities.  Long walks on the beach, Hobie Wave sailing, paddle-boarding, and practicing yoga in the outdoor cabana were just some of the ways I was able to stay active while enjoying the sights and sounds of the ocean.  Down-time meant reading on my balcony, chatting with other guests in the swim-up bar, or indulging in a 90-minute massage  at the tranquil Fern Tree Spa.

 Paddle Board Yoga

Paddle Board Yoga

 Hobie Wave Sailing at Half Moon Resort

Hobie Wave Sailing at Half Moon Resort

Every evening the hotel slips a piece of paper under each of the guests' doors listing a variety of both on and off site activities available the following day.   Some of the options included tennis lessons, scuba diving, a hike to a local waterfall, and zip-lining through the jungle.  I decided to treat myself to one of the off-site excursions on my last full day in Jamaica:  Rafting on the Martha Brae River.

 Rafting down the Martha Brae River

Rafting down the Martha Brae River

The hotel arranged for transportation to and from Rafter’s Village (about a 30-minute drive in each direction). Once there, I had a short wait until a raft was available, but the time passed quickly as I enjoyed a complimentary fruit punch while listening to some live music by the outdoor bar.  The raft ride itself was one of my favorite Jamaican experiences. Each bamboo raft is poled by a local guide as you peacefully drift down 5 kilometers of lush, jungle-lined river.  The friendly guides make the ride even more enjoyable, as many like to talk about their beautiful country, of its local flora & fauna, or the meaning behind the colors of its flag.  Other guides enjoy serenading their riders with a few reggae songs, and some, I found out firsthand, may even let you have a go at poling the raft down the river, should you decide its something you'd like to try (tip: you should, it was fun!)

My time in Jamaica included everything I had hoped for and more: sun-filled activities, plenty of time for relaxation, new experiences, and fun adventures.  The only thing I would change about it for the next time, would be to schedule a trip that is much longer than just 3 days.

* I was welcomed as a guest of Half Moon Resort. As always, all opinions are my own.

All photography by Renee Choi Photography

4 Counterposes to Help Balance Your Practice

A counterpose in yoga is a posture that helps neutralize the body after performing a particular pose.  Its purpose is to restore balance in the body, especially in the spine and pelvis.  Very often a counterpose will integrate the action of the preceding posture, but in a neutralizing (and sometimes opposing) manner.  For example, after performing Cobra Pose (a gentle backbend), one possible counterpose would be Table Top Pose (which returns the spine to neutral).  Another option would be Downward Facing Dog Pose (which encourages lengthening and neutralizing the spine.)   Counterposes help us avoid injury and imbalances in the body, and most of the time, they feel good too.

Below are a few of my go-to counterposes (along with the poses they are countering):

1. Backbend/Knees to Chest

After practicing any kind of heart-opening pose, such as Wheel, Camel, or Bow Pose, the tendency is to want to take the body into a complete forward fold.  But moving back and forth between the two extremes can cause strain in the body.  A preferred counterpose would be a posture such as Knees To Chest, which gently stretches and neutralizes the spine:

To Perform Knees to Chest:

  • Lie on your back, with your legs and arms extended.  Exhale and draw both knees into your chest.  Clasp your hands around your knees if possible. 
  • Keep your back flat on the ground.  Draw your tailbone and sacrum downward, lengthening your spine.  Gently tuck your chin and gaze toward your knees.
  • Hold for 20 breaths.  Slowly release your knees and lower your feet to the ground.
 Wheel Pose

Wheel Pose

 Knees to Chest Pose

Knees to Chest Pose

2. Forward Fold/Upward Plank Pose

Forward folds, such as Paschimottanasana, are wonderful for stretching the back side of the body, including the spine and hamstrings.  A perfect counterpose would be one that gently opens the front side of the body, such as Upward Plank Pose (Purvottanasana), which stretches the shoulders, chest, and ankles:

To Perform Upward Plank Pose:

  • Begin seated with your legs extended and your hands a few inches behind your hips. Your fingers should be pointing forward, and your hands shoulder-width apart.
  • Inhale and press your hands and feet down firmly down into the ground as you lift your hips upward. Raise your chest toward the sky, and keep your spine in a straight line.  Try to press the soles of your feet into the floor. Keep your leg muscles engaged, but don't squeeze your glutes.
  • Hold for 10 breaths.  Slowly lower your hips to the ground to release.
 Seated Forward Fold

Seated Forward Fold

 Upward Plank Pose

Upward Plank Pose

3. Headstand/Rabbit Pose

Headstand is commonly one of the first inversions that students learn.  Having the forearms and head on the floor provide a stable foundation for this inversion, but very often there's a lot of weight & pressure being placed on the head and neck (especially with beginners). Rabbit Pose is a wonderful way to counter that, however it's a also a pose needs to be performed carefully, to ensure that there is no strain in the neck:

To Perform Rabbit Pose

  • Begin in a kneeling position. Lean forward to place the crown of your head onto the ground (as close to your knees as you can.)
  • Reach back and grab hold of your heels (or ankles or calves) and begin to lift your hips as you lean forward slightly.  You'll start to feel a nice stretch along the back of your neck, but make sure to keep it gentle, and be careful not press your head down too hard.
  • Hold for 5 breaths.  Slowly lower your hips down to release.
 Headstand

Headstand

 Rabbit Pose

Rabbit Pose

4. Balasana: The Universal Counterpose

Child's Pose is a resting pose and therapeutic posture that can help relieve back and neck pain. Its is a calming counterpose that can be performed at any time during a practice because it helps to restore balance throughout the body.

 Child's Pose

Child's Pose

To Perform Child's Pose:

  • Begin on your hands and knees.  Widen your knees slightly while keeping the big toes touching. Lower your seat down onto your heels. (You can keep your knees together if your hips are tight.)
  • Exhale and lower your torso down between your thighs.  Rest your forehead on the ground, and extend your arms long, with the palms facing down.  Lengthen your body from your hips to your armpits, and soften your lower back.  Keep your eyes closed.
  • Hold for 30 breaths.  Inhale and sit up to release.

Costa Rica Calling... Pura Vida in Peninsula Papagayo

 Oropendola Waterfall.

Oropendola Waterfall.

Winters on the east coast can feel impossibly long, especially by the time March rolls around.  This year the season seemed almost endless.  In addition to the usual snowstorms and frigid temps, we also skipped our annual trip to Florida and instead made two arctic expeditions (one to Iceland and another to Norway).  Now I'm not complaining - I enjoyed every moment wandering through snow-capped Scandinavia.  But let's just say that when the opportunity arose to visit Costa Rica's sunshine-filled "Gold Coast", there wasn't a moment of hesitation in my Vitamin-D deprived mind.

This trip to Peninsula Papagayo was special for a couple of reasons.  I was travelling with my sister (a fellow yogi & beach lover who I don't get to see often enough), and we'd be visiting the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica.  I'd visited the southern coast a few years ago, and found it so extraordinary that I couldn't wait to explore the northern region.

 Yoga at Andaz Papagayo Beach House

Yoga at Andaz Papagayo Beach House

We flew into the Liberia Airport, which was an easy 20 minute drive from our hotel - the beautiful Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo.  The exceptional staff greeted us with fresh fruit drinks and gave us a tour of the grounds.  The luxury resort is large - there are two pools, three restaurants (all of which offer vegetarian options), two beaches, a fitness center, and a spa all on site.  There's also a third beach and a fourth restaurant at their Beach House property - a short 10 minute shuttle ride from the main hotel.

Between all of the relaxation opportunities and the local water activities (kayaking, paddle boarding, and snorkeling, just to name a few) there was almost no reason to venture off the hotel grounds.  But we couldn't pass up a trip to Rincon de La Vieja National Park.  The incredible hotel staff not only arranged a private car to drive us, but also packed a picnic basket filled with fruits, veggie wraps, water, and juice for our little adventure.

 Oropendola Waterfall

Oropendola Waterfall

Rincon de La Vieja was about an hour drive away. The beautiful 35,000 acre National Park is centered around two volcanoes (one dormant and one active), and is home to tropical dry forests, waterfalls, and local flora & fauna.  There's an array of trails and activities to choose from once inside the park (there's a small entrance fee).  Some of the more popular options include a scenic 10-km hike (great for spotting local wildlife like monkeys, armadillos, & tropical birds), relaxing in the Rio Negro natural hot springs & volcanic mud baths, and an exhilarating flight through the treetops on a series of zip lines. We decided on a shorter hike that would take us straight to the stunning Oropendola Waterfall.  The 20-minute trail led us through the woods, down a swinging narrow staircase, and to a platform that sits by the base of the 82-foot high waterfall. We were amply rewarded with a refreshing swim in the turquoise pool, surrounded by lush scenery in every direction.

One of our favorite experiences at Andaz was taking the Barista Class offered at the hotel.  The hour-long lesson is devoted entirely to coffee (one of Costa Rica's primary crops and natural treasures), and was given by Luis Herrera, the hotel's skilled barista and a passionate expert.  Luis explained everything from ideal bean growing elevation  to the preferred grind, and described the many different techniques used to brew coffee. He demonstrated how each manner affects the flavor & caffeine level of its cup.  It was really interesting to learn so much about a drink I enjoy every morning, and of course even more fun getting to sample some of the best coffee I've ever had.

I left Costa Rica feeling both rested and rejuvenated.  Perhaps it was the incredible massage at the Onda Spa, or maybe it was the swimming and daily yoga on the beach, but somehow this trip turned out to be the perfect mix of adventure, relaxation, and fun.  Until next time Costa Rica, Pura Vida.

 Hiking through Rincon de La Vieja

Hiking through Rincon de La Vieja

 Barista Class at Andaz

Barista Class at Andaz

 Spa Day at Andaz Papagayo

Spa Day at Andaz Papagayo

 Sunset yoga in Peninsula Papagayo

Sunset yoga in Peninsula Papagayo

* I was welcomed as a guest of Andaz Costa Rica Resort. As always, all opinions are my own.