Yoga for Rolling – Waking up the Spine

It doesn’t matter if you are trying to perfect an advanced kayak roll like the Rock Roll, or getting your very first Standard Greenland Roll, we all need to be able to finish our layback rolls low. The higher you lift your body, the more power the roll needs to have, and power usually corresponds to speed and muscle strength, which eventually leads to overuse and injury.

If you feel the need to geek out and understand why we should finish the roll low, then read on.  Otherwise, skip this paragraph. According to my research, over half of our body weight is above the deck in a kayak. Consider the picture of me rolling below, my center of mass is roughly 25 centimeters, or one foot, above the center of rotation of the kayak. Now, imagine if my head and back were 12cm or roughly 6 inches above the deck instead of lying flat on it. The laws of physics allow me to calculate that an additional 50% more energy would be needed to raise my body up out of the water to that increased height. The challenge is not necessarily that increase in energy, it is instead, Newton’s third law which lets us understand that there needs to be an equal and opposite reaction to that force, and this reaction must come from the buoyancy, and momentum, of the kayak, the paddler and their combined rotation.

Enough physics! Long story short: “low is good”.

You may well ask, what have power, height, and Newtonian physics to do with yoga? My experience working on the layback kayak rolls, both personally and as a mentor, has shown me that the ability to lay back towards the rear of the kayak, is crucial to the ability to remain low and thus decrease the effort needed to roll successfully. Not only is laying back important but being able to create a concave curve in one’s spine, over the edge of the cockpit, is the critical element many people are missing. The concave curve only comes with a flexible spine.

This post will focus on 5 yoga poses that if you perform regularly will increase your back flexibility, and may facilitate your head-to-deck connection that is the ideal outcome for rolling. I have deliberately chosen poses that seem familiar and to many people, basic. In my experience, these poses are rarely done particularly well. By focusing on good technique, the pose’s true potential can be realized in your muscles and joints.

Cat pose (Marjaryasana) 

Cat pose is started from another yoga pose, tabletop. To get into tabletop pose get down on your hands and knees. Make sure your knees are below your hips and your wrists, elbows, and shoulders are in line and vertical. Your spine should be neutral, not artificially straightened or bent. Don’t let your chest sink between your shoulders. Hold your head in a relaxed position so that your neck continues in the direction of your spine, with your eyes looking at the floor. It can be very helpful to have someone look at you and get you aligned just right. I for one can not tell if my joints are aligned without help. Breath in.

To transition to Cat pose, as you breathe out, push through your hands and knees and feet. Pull your stomach muscles towards your back. Part your shoulder blades and wrap them around the sides of your body. Let your head hang heavy. Relax your hips so that most of the curve is coming from your shoulders and chest and the rest of your back is coming along for the ride.

Breathe in and release the shoulders and abs and neutralize the spine again. Check in that you are aligned and not leaning back or forwards, then repeat. One breathe to one movement.

Cow Pose (Bitilasana)

Many people practice this pose with the prior one (Cat) in sequence. They make a great vinyasa flow, one movement to one breath, flowing between each pose. Learn each one separately first so that you don’t miss out on crucial details that make all the difference to receiving the full benefit of each. Start just like you did for Cat Pose.

As you breathe out, gently rotate your elbow inwards back towards your rib, this action externally rotates the shoulder joints and starts to align them for the backbend. Now feel like you are pulling the tops of your arms backward and feel your shoulder blades come together behind your heart while simultaneous separating the bottom of the shoulder blades towards your armpits. Push your chest or sternum forward in front of you. Allow your belly to sink by hinging at the top of your hips. You should feel a lengthening in your lower back rather than a crunching or dumping.

Breathe in and relax the chest, shoulder blades, hips and neutralize the spine again. Check in that you are aligned and not leaning back or forwards, then repeat. One breathe to one movement.

Sphinx Pose (Salamba Bhujangasana)

Start lying face down with your legs together and toes pointed. Push your tailbone back towards your heels and rotate your outer thighs towards the floor (inwardly rotating your thighs). This preparation helps get your back ready to bend and protects it. Reach back through your toes and firm your butt muscles (don’t clench them). Place you your elbows below your shoulders and your forearms on the floor facing forward.

Breathe in and lift your upper torso and head away from the floor into a small backbend. Gently draw your lower belly away from the floor to create a curve in it that rounds up toward your lower back. This action helps to support the curve of your backbend more evenly along the spine and brings your upper back into the bend.

Hold for five breaths, then as you breathe out slowly release your belly and lower your torso and head to the floor.

Upwards facing dog pose (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)

Start facedown on the floor, with legs stretched out behind you, and the tops of your feet on the floor (toes pointed). Place your hand’s palm down beside your waist, with your elbows up, your forearms should be vertical.

Breath in, and press down firmly with your inner hands, as if you were trying to push yourself along the floor. Straighten your arms and simultaneously lift your torso up and your legs just off the floor. Keep the thighs turned inward, the arms turned out so the elbow creases are facing forward.

Press the tailbone down and forward while at the same time trying to lift the pubis area towards your navel. Tighten, but don’t clench, the buttocks. And feel like you are dragging your hips forward towards your hands

Firm the shoulder blades against the back and away from the ears. Lift through the top of the sternum. Look straight ahead or slightly tip the head back, but take care not to overdo it and compress the back of the neck.

Try holding the pose for 3 to 5 breaths, breathing normally, and then release back to the floor

Wind relieving pose (Pawamuktasana)

An awesome way to start and end a yoga session is with this simple pose that does wonders for your body, digestion and, of course, back. As its name implies there have been known to be audible outputs from this pose…

Start lying on your back, breath out, and then while breathing in raise both legs until they are vertical (and straight). Bend both legs at the knees and bring your thighs against your torso, making sure to keep your knees and ankles together. Wrap your hands or arms around your knees. If you feel super strong and flexible, use your hands to clasp the opposite elbows. Now just breath, it will feel a little constricted due to the compression. Hold for five breaths and then release.

Yoga is a practice, meaning we keep working at it forever, there is no goal, the act of practicing is the goal. Everyone one is different and your practice will develop with experience. I like to practice a type of yoga called Vinyasa flow which involves moving from position to position with each breath. The poses described above don’t all naturally flow together but can be practiced in isolation. By the end of this series of articles, there will be enough poses to put together a simple flow and I will provide some guidance on that. For now though, if you don’t already have a yoga practice maybe you want to just try these five simple poses (asanas) and start working to wake up your spine for rolling.

Words of caution

Yoga is a physically demanding exercise, consult your physician to determine if it is right for you. Seek professional advice if you are unsure how to perform a pose correctly, I am no professional. Never do any pose that causes pain, it is your body and your practice and you are your best guide and teacher.

Words of thanks

Thank you, Jacquelyn, my gorgeous wife, who took the pictures of me practicing on the beach during a recent yoga retreat in Mexico. We were practicing yoga with our local yoga studio, who arranged the trip and excellent instruction.

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