How Do I Find My Elusive Toes In My Yoga Practice?

Author: Charley Hickey is a practicing yoga therapist and senior yoga teacher who runs group and private yoga classes in Applecross & Fremantle, Perth.  She also runs specialised yoga workshops for yoga students & yoga teachers.

A common question I get asked by students when they have been coming to class for a little while is “When will I be able to touch my toes?”.  I often hear it too from students enquiring about classes.  They are worried about coming to yoga because they can’t  touch their toes.  It concerns me that somewhere along the line; this has become a perceived standalone measure of fitness, flexibility and/or health when it really isn’t.

I think it’s something that has been propagated by toe touching as a common assessment tool.  As yoga therapists (and many other modalities too), when we are assessing, we are rarely measuring against a pre-determined bench mark .  So touching the toes doesn’t mean we’ve completed the assessment well or reached the highest standard.  The measurement is used simply to assess a person now compared to later after we’ve done some practice.  That change can then help us to see if what we are doing is working along with other measures.

I will often ask a client to bend forwards as if to touch their toes for several reasons.  Those reasons are rarely to see if they can actually touch them!  One reason is I like to see how you move when you do a forward bend.  Another is to work out whether it appears that your restriction is in a particular area.  Or to find out if you have any pain or discomfort and where that pain might be.   It’s actually more about how it feels then how it looks.   Soo please, take the pressure off yourself to touch your toes!  If it doesn’t happen EVER then that is fine!  If it does happen for you and you’ve made a change in your body somewhere along the line and that’s what you wanted then that is great too!

What you could do instead is ask yourself some much more constructive questions like:

  •  “Why do I want to touch my toes?” (This one could lead to quite a depth of self inquiry!)
  • “Can I already feel a stretch?”
  • “Where is it pulling exactly?”
  • “If I bend my knees a little, is that easier?”
  • “That feels tighter today than last week, I wonder why that is?”

This curious attitude of self enquiry is what yoga is all about, much more so than touching your toes. Most of us can’t touch our toes right away before warming up .   The picture on the right is a much truer representation of how most of us look trying to forward fold.  Focus instead on how it feels, you really can’t go wrong then!

If you’re in the “not able to touch my toes” category, you are most welcome in our classes!  You can learn more about our classes in Applecross, Fremantle and Bateman here and make a booking here.  If you don’t live nearby, we know lots of  yoga teachers to refer you onto, just email us here and we’ll try to help you!

Yoga For Chronic Back Pain? You Tell Us!

Yoga For Chronic Back Pain

I am not being lazy this week, honestly!  I could go on with my own story and there is lots of research I could point you towards but I really feel this  is best told by someone who has been there.  One of my lovely clients was kind enough to put pen to paper and share her story in the hope that others with chronic back pain may be inspired to try some yoga therapy – Thanks so much to Jeanette :)

“I was 58 years old and feeling generally unwell; being overweight and sub-thyroid (which included mild depression and an inability to lose weight). I also suffer greatly chronic lower back pain as a result of an injury. Both my GP and physiotherapist were strongly encouraging me to do regular yoga and generally improve my health regime. I admit to being very de-motivated and felt that any support I could get would encourage me to start a life-long commitment to improving my health.

I  researched a number of yoga providers and mainly I was looking for an environment where I would feel comfortable as a beginner and as a mature person. I found that Yoga Therapy was a new approach to not only yoga practice but also receiving support in moving towards greater well being. Yoga Therapy appealed to me for a number of reasons including one on one instruction to gain confidence to attend classes, having a practice to do at home in addition to class, using mindfulness in my day to day life & learning techniques to deal with stress, depression & de-motivation

I have to admit to being somewhat sceptical about yoga therapy. My scepticism came not only from my own multiple efforts and trying different (and often expensive) health plans/programs etc in the past which I failed to follow through on but also the financial cost of the sessions. However, in hindsight, I believe yoga therapy one of the best decisions I have taken in a long time and it has been the catalyst in my changing my life style….and with a result like that the cost was a mere drop in a bucket!

In the past, I was not dealing with a chronic back problem, so it was easy for me not to follow though and go back to my bad old ways and be very de-motivated to do anything to help myself. Over the years, I had been to dieticians, psychologists, gyms, naturopaths and nutritionists together with introductory courses in yoga and Pilates. I think I got to the point where I really wanted to explore mindfulness to assist me in my life together with understanding the benefits that yoga could bring to me.

For me, it is not an understatement to say that I found the experience “life changing”. I found that I was “listened to” and although Charley and I were in very different places, she really understood and came up with simple strategies. Over my appointments, I was able to implement the strategies which I have not only stuck with but continuing to grow and enhance. In a nutshell I have:

  • My own simple yoga practice (which I still do regularly) with a focus on breathing and focused technique,
  • Become more mindful….for example, I used to binge on food and not even think about what I was eating. Now, I am not perfect but I do not binge and am “mindful” about my eating and appetite,
  • Learnt to relax and meditate….again I am not perfect…I have improved! I even listen to Tibetan music now……
  • Acceptance/Self Awareness, for example, it would be better to not be overweight but it is OK and with practicing a healthier lifestyle perhaps the weight will come down,
  • Doing additional exercise through other programs.  I now attend sessions twice a week…..and I don’t like to miss them (which is an astounding result!)

Without a doubt, doing regular yoga both on my own and in class has helped what I was beginning to think was a hopeless situation with my lower back pain. I was regularly taking strong painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs (which are not good for anyone). Yes, I still have to take the drugs just not regularly…recently I went seven weeks without taking any of these drugs.

I also am much more mindful and relax much more easily than I used to. I did do Charley’s insomnia workshop and all these strategies have contributed to improving sleep quality. I would go as far as to say there has probably been a 30% improvement in my sleep quality.”

Follow these links more information on our yoga for chronic back pain Perth or private yoga therapy our regularly held spine release workshops or to read more on spinal tension, back pain & The breath

Spinal Tension, Back Pain & The Breath

The relationship between the spine and the breath can be used really effectively to help release tension in the spine.  It’s especially helpful for those that have ongoing pain or back problems and may be a little tentative about moving in large increments.   It’s a great way of subtly and safely moving the entire spinal column and can easily be done lying down if sitting is not an option. The added bonus is the ability of the breath to take you into a state of relaxation, the perfect environment for spinal tension to relax and ease.

Inefficient breathing is both a cause and a result of tension in the spine and surrounding muscles. So, pranayama (breathing practice) can be helpful in both releasing and preventing spinal tension.

Yoga for Back

Back and side view of spine

The spine is comprised of 33 vertebrae in 5 sections asfollows – 7 cervical vertebrae (neck), 12 thoracic vertebrae (where ribs attach), 5 lumbar vertebrae in the lower back, 5 fused sacral vertebrae (the sacrum) and 4 coccygeal vertebrae (sometimes 5) also fused in adults.

The basics of spine function, is that we should be able to do the following with every joint of spine:

  • Flexion & extension/ bends – forward & back
  • Lateral flexion/ bends – side to side
  • Rotate – both ways – ie twisting!

The Spine and BreathWhen we breath, the ribs move through 3 dimensions, out and in, forward and back and up and down by rotating in their joints at the thoracic spine. You can see by the  diagrams how the ribs move on inhalation and exhalation. Many people have rigid ribs due to misalignment, injuries or stress which interferes with breathing.

Ribcage Sternum explanationAwareness of the sternum can play a part in breathing practice, the sternum has 3 parts like an upside down broad sword. The manubrium (handle) at the top, the body in the middle and xyphoid at the bottom tip. It can be helpful to visualise expanding the chest at the manubrium rather than from the xyphoid to avoid over arching the lower back and sinking through the upper ribcage.

Pelvis and sacrum pictureThe sacrum, although firmly ligatured to the back of the pelvis, has some play called nodding or nutation. On the inhale, the sacrum moves backwards slightly and on the exhale it moves forwards. This nodding pumps the cerebrospinal fluid around the spinal canal and brain (central nervous system).

If you come to class this week, we are working on the breath and spinal tension.  If you haven’t been to class before and are interested in yoga for back pain, you can book in a trial class on the bookings page here or contact us for a chat about some private yoga classes.

Charley Hickey


References : The Yoga of Breath, Richard Rosen