Pose of the Month: Tortoise Pose
Exploring poses that stretch our range of motion and challenge our strength can be great fun—and can release deep-seated tension throughout the body.
We don’t have to do fancy poses to be “good” at yoga, of course. But exploring poses that stretch our range of motion and challenge our strength can be great fun! And really, who doesn’t need a little deeper stretch in those hamstrings, upper-back muscles, and shoulders? This month’s Pose of the Month, Tortoise Pose, fits the bill!
Main Elements of Tortoise:
Upper Back stretch
Most Challenging Elements:
Finding comfort in the depth of the stretch
Relaxing enough to allow the shoulders to stretch
Breathing deeply and evenly
Releasing the need to go deeper
Begin with the YogaFit standard Warm-Up (standing or supine) and a few rounds of Sun Salutations to warm the body.
Warming the Hips and Priming the Shoulders
Throughout Mountain II, focus on poses with ample opportunity to explore the actions of the hips and shoulders.
Warrior Poses (Warrior 1 & 2, Reverse Warrior, Side Angle Stretch, Triangle) can begin the work into the hips, especially when lengthening the stance as class progresses. To get a deep opening through the shoulders in Side Angle Stretch, suggest Bound Side Angle (front arm reaching under the front leg and back arm reaching behind the back where hands clasp together). Be sure to encourage students to elongate the spine and rotate the ribcage toward the sky.
To work into the inner thighs, begin in Low Lunge or Kneeling Lunge and move students into Lizard Pose by having them place both hands inside the front foot and allowing the front knee to relax out to the side while hips relax towards the floor. A bonus benefit: Lunges release tightness in the hip flexors, which makes folding forward a whole lot easier. Also cue Wide Legged Forward Fold, which allows inner thighs to stretch and open and serves a dual purpose with its wonderful hamstring release as well!
Don’t forget Standing Forward Fold! Be sure to emphasize elongating and relaxing the spine so that students can remember how to recreate that same sense of length and relaxation later. An excellent place to practice releasing the spine over the legs is in Pyramid Pose. Placing hands behind the back in reverse prayer position or clasping elbows, also introduces the shoulder and upper-back stretch that we’ll deepen in Tortoise Pose. After lengthening and creating a strong hamstring stretch, cue students to gently round over the front leg, release the hands, and focus on evening out the breath (a reminder here to avoid stretching any deeper into Pyramid once the spine is in flexion).
Seated Forward Folds are an additional bonus, which can prepare the shoulders, hips, and spine for Tortoise Pose. A favorite is Marichi’s Pose, which brings the shoulder and knee closer together, mimicking the action we’ll experience in Tortoise Pose.
Getting into Tortoise
Begin in Butterfly Pose, hinging forward at the hips. Allow students 5 to 10 breaths in Butterfly to explore the range of motion in the hips and practice relaxing with the breath. Then have students stretch their legs wide for Seated Straddle Splits. Cue lengthening the spine with each inhale and, gently hinging at the hips, moving a bit deeper toward the floor with each exhale. Bring awareness to the stretch in the inner thighs and hamstrings. Remain for 5 to 10 breaths in Seated Straddle Splits.
From Seated Straddle Splits, have students gently bend their knees, creating a space where the arms can reach through. Placing hands under the knees, spider-walk fingers out at an angle so the arms are stretching opposite directions under the legs. This is a great place to pause and assess. If this expression of Tortoise Pose provides plenty of stretch, stay with it for several breaths. For students whose spine can accommodate a little more length, on the next inhale, open the chest, and then exhale into a deeper fold allowing the legs to gently straighten as much as possible. With each inhale, softly expand and lift. With each exhale, deepen and relax. Encourage students to allow their heads to gently relax in the same line as their spine (neither forcefully lifting nor tucking the chin).
Encourage students to remain in this shape of the pose for a few more breaths, or try one more option. Wiggle feet towards each other in front of the head (feet may or may not touch in front). Then wrap arms under legs and around the lower back (hands may or may not clasp behind the back).
Encourage students to monitor breathing; each breath should be long and even. If, at any time, breathing feels jagged or frantic, remind students they are diving too deeply and invite them to release the stretch a little bit or come out of the pose entirely.
Tortoise can be a fantastic way to release stress and tension from the hips, back and shoulders and these tips will help you prep your students and give them lots of options so they feel successful and challenged.