Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine, August/September 2004. Copyright 2004. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
I have selected the following yoga postures specifically for male bodywork practitioners to incorporate into their self-care practices. While these poses can be especially beneficial for men, women may find them helpful, too. Of course, individuals with any specific physical concerns or complaints should check with their primary healthcare provider before starting any bodywork activity or exercise program.
Uttanasana: Standing Forward Bend with Arms Raised Overhead and Behind
Figure 1 --Standing Forward Bend with Raised Arms
Bodywork is a nurturing profession. It can be especially important for male bodyworkers to nurture themselves, reclaim their center, and practice from their hearts. Bodywork practitioners have a tendency to spend a great deal of time bending forward with their arms stretched in front of them as they work. This tendency can lead to a rounding forward in the chest area. Men who work out a lot trying to develop strong pectoral muscles may actually contribute even further to this rounding tendency. Because male bodyworkers can benefit from an opening of the chest and heart areas, an especially good stretching posture to incorporate into your wellness routine is the uttanasana. Follow the directions below and try it out for yourself.
Assume an erect standing position, your feet parallel and hip-width apart. Keeping your arms straight, move them back behind you. Bring your palms together and interlace your fingers behind your back. Inhale as you arch your chest, and with the front of your pelvic basin forward, let your neck roll gently backward so that your nose tilts toward the ceiling. (If you experience any neck problems, be careful not to arch your neck backwards too far.) Keep your arms as straight as possible, and, if you can, your palms pressed against one another throughout the remainder of the exercise. If this is too difficult, then simply interlock your fingers together without palms touching. Exhale as you bend forward from the hips, allowing your upper body and head to lower toward the floor. As you lower your upper body, press your arms and hands out in back from you and away from your body, keeping your arms as straight as possible. Rotating your arms from the shoulders, press your hands as far in back of you as you can, then up toward the ceiling, and, if possible, out over your back so they are pointing in front and away from your body.
The model pictured in Figure 1 is experienced and accomplished in this pose. Work within your own limit of comfort when performing this yoga stretch. With practice, your execution of the pose may become even fuller. Bear in mind when beginning your routine that yoga is about progress and not necessarily absolute perfection.
Breathe several full, deep rhythmic breaths when in your fullest position of uttanasana. Feel your heart center opening and expanding as your chest, shoulders, and even armpits expand and widen. To come out of this pose, inhale as you slowly raise your upper body back to a full standing position while releasing your arms down along the sides of your body. Come back to a comfortable, erect standing position. Take several deep breaths as you take the time to be aware of how you feel. In particular, bring your awareness to your heart and chest area. In Sanskrit, this posture means "intense stretch." How do you feel after this intense, heart-opening stretch? Do you feel more open and expanded? Does your breathing feel different? Do you feel different? Do you perhaps feel more open to life's possibilities?
This pose is simple, yet powerful, and can be incorporated into your daily work life. It's a great exercise to do in between clients. Take a few minutes every now and then during the day to open your heart and stretch out your chest with this powerful yogic forward bend.
Baddha Konasana: Cobbler Pose
Figure 2 -- Cobbler Pose
Many men are tight in the hip area. To have the greatest mobility of movement when performing bodywork -- whether standing as you work at a massage table or kneeling and crawling on the floor, as in bodywork practices such as shiatsu or Thai yoga massage -- it is helpful to be as flexible as possible in the hip area. Yoga poses that help open the hip, pelvis, and groin area can also be beneficial for a host of other male health issues -- helping to promote optimal functioning of a man's prostate gland, urinary tract, and sexual organs.
One of the best yoga poses a man can do to open up the pelvis and groin area is baddha konasana. Try this pose out for yourself for an internal as well as an external workout. (See Figure 2)
Baddha konasana literally means "bound angle pose" in Sanskrit, but is more commonly referred to as cobbler pose because it resembles the position in which cobblers in India traditionally sit when they work. In addition to promoting better bladder and prostate function, it can help the functioning of the kidneys and abdominal organs while stretching the thighs and muscles of the hips and buttocks. It can also help bring improved tone and circulation to the sexual organs.
Begin by sitting erect on the floor, legs straight out and together on the ground in front of you. Sitting on a carpeted or padded surface will provide greater comfort. Place your arms straight down along your sides, with your palms pressed into the floor. Press down on your palms to help make your spine even more erect. Slowly flex your legs as you bend them at the knee joint, and bring the heels and soles of your feet together in front of you. Bring your heels to within about a foot, or as close as your flexibility permits, to the genital area. Take a moment to be aware of how your legs feel. Do your thighs and knees comfortably touch the ground? If you're like most men, they probably don't. If your knees are raised high off the ground and the posture feels uncomfortable, try placing pillows, cushions, blankets, or rolled-up towels under your thighs to support them.
Clasp the top, outside surfaces of the feet with the hands and press firmly inward so that the soles of the feet stay firmly pressed together. Exhale as you bring your upper body forward (see Figure 2). As a variation of cobbler pose, you can try opening the soles of the feet -- the outer edges of the feet and heels stay together as the balls of the feet open up like a book, with the soles opening toward the ceiling. In either variation, relax the groin in the direction of the knees, encouraging the hips and thighs to open. Hold cobbler pose for up to 30 seconds if you are a beginner. As you progress in this posture, hold the position for one to five minutes.
Navasana: Boat Pose
Figure 3 -- Modified Boat Pose
At some point in their lives, many men will experience back pain, especially low back pain. Back pain can be a special problem for bodyworkers who stand erect during much of their work with their backs bent and sometimes twisted. Frequently, back pain is caused or aggravated by weak abdominal muscles. Yoga poses that help strengthen the abdominal muscles can be a boon for any male bodyworker. In addition to helping relieve or prevent back pain, abdominal strengthening poses can also help build healthy, attractive stomach muscles. Navasana, or boat pose, is an excellent yoga pose to develop strong abdominal muscles. In addition, boat pose can help you develop balance and poise, helpful attributes to have in virtually any situation.
To perform boat pose (navasana means "boat"), begin by sitting on the floor on a comfortable padded surface with your legs bent and the soles of your feet planted on the floor in front of you. Exhale and lift your legs off the ground. Extend them out straight in front of you and lift them as high as you can, pointing the toes. Extend your lower legs as you straighten them from the knees, and point your toes toward the ceiling. Extend your arms and hands straight out in front of you so that they are parallel to the floor. Balance as fully and securely as possible on your sit-bones and see if you can form a V, with your sit-bones forming the bottom fulcrum point of the V. (See Figure 3) Breathe naturally and rhythmically for several rounds. When you are ready to release from the pose, lower your legs and back to the ground.
If the full navasana is challenging for you, then try doing a modified navasana with your knees bent and lower legs parallel to the floor.
Try incorporating these poses into your ongoing wellness routine. If you're new to yoga, bear in mind that yoga can be fun. It's not about competition. Work within your own edge of comfort. Yoga can be challenging, but it is not meant to be stressful. These postures are adapted from Thomas Claire's most recent book
Yoga for Men: Postures for Healthy, Stress-Free Living (Career Press/New Page Books, 2004).Models: Noll Daniel, Mark Donato
Photographer: Thomas Amador