Cowgirl Yoga: Poses for Riders II
It’s a bit amusing what some people imagine Cowgirl Yoga to be when they first hear of it: visions of handstands in the saddle, hanging upside down off the horse, or wild arm balances at the gallop all seem to dance through their heads. The reality is, riding and yoga are separate practices on the physical level, no matter how much they complement each other (more on the intersection of emotion and spirit here). That said, we do have some wonderful ways to use yoga to enhance your time in the saddle and make it more comfortable. No arm balances required.
The following Cowgirl Yoga practice is intended to be done prior to your ride, particularly if you are going to spend a longer period of time in the saddle. It addresses typical problem areas that can cause discomfort while riding: hips, shoulders, and low back (sorry, there isn’t much we can do about your butt). You can make the practice shorter if you need to by choosing 2-3 poses from each category, but the entire sequence is designed to take only 10-15 minutes.
Tips from the Cowgirl Yoginis:
- Yes, we know. Yoga in boots, jeans and chaps can be a challenge. The out-of-the-saddle poses will definitely be more restricted than when you are on your mat barefoot donning stretchy Athleta yoga clothing. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t effective; think of it as exploring them from a new vantage point.
- For the saddle yoga, we strongly recommend having a friend hold the reins for you, so that you can focus entirely on what you are doing. Otherwise, take a few minutes to get your horse settled so he is more likely to stand for you. A few of the poses, where indicated, can be done at the walk.
- We always wear a riding helmet. (Except in these pictures.)
Ground Work: Out of the Saddle Asana
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Hand-to-Knee Variation). Open your hips and engage your balance with this pose. Your inner thigh muscles (adductors), which help you “hug” and establish effective leg communication with your horse, need to be supple in the saddle.
- Stand tall in mountain pose. Notice how your shoulders and hips are on the same plane in this position.
- Take your left hand to your hip; don’t squeeze, just establish a solid connection between hand and hip.
- Shift your weight to your left leg, and lift the right knee up as you bring your right hand just below the knee. If you lifted your right hip up with this movement, re-establish a level position for the hips.
- Keep your hand just below the knee (important – don’t turn your hand or change your grip!) and slowly open your knee and hip to a right angle. Once again, check that your right hip isn’t hitched up and keep the hips on the same plane.
- Stay straight and strong in your standing leg and upper body, as you balance for 5 breaths.
- Bring your knee position back to center and release. Repeat on the other side.
Side Saddle Leg Lifts. Target your outer hip and thigh muscles (abductors) to contribute to open hips and sensitive, controlled leg contact. This pose really isolates these muscles and can feel intense; if you can’t lift your leg very high, then this is the pose for you! Keep at it to increase your strength and range of motion.
- Start with a great back stretch by holding on to the saddle and reaching your hips back behind you, feet hip width apart. Keep your head lined up with your spine, and focus on creating length by keeping your tailbone extending behind you. Think flat back, as pictured here.
- From this position, engage your core by drawing your navel in towards your spine. Your core connection is crucial for assisting with the lifting action of your leg.
- Lift your right leg straight out to the side, as high as possible. Keep your foot flexed so the toes point forward, the heel to the right. Standing leg stays straight.
- Hold for 5 breaths, slowly lower the right leg and repeat on the other side.
Trikonasana (Triangle Pose). This pose will continue to open the hips, and is grounding after the previous balance and lifting work. It’s a stable stretch (no pun intended!) for the leg muscles that should feel steady and comfortable.
- Stand tall in mountain pose. Step your right foot back about 4 feet, turning the back heel down. If you drew a line from your front heel, it would intersect the arch of your back foot.
- Take your arms out to the sides at shoulder height; reach the fingertips away from one another. Take a deep inhale, and on your exhale shift forward from your hips (important: do not bend your front leg!) and reach forward with your front hand, allowing it to drop to your shin. Eventually you’ll be able to take your ankle. Imagine yourself between two planes of glass here; if your bum sticks out, your may need to raise your bottom hand higher on your shin so that you can be more aligned with your tailbone underneath you and your shoulders stacked.
- Line your top thumb up over your nose, and take your gaze towards it. Hold for 5 deep breaths. Lift yourself up, step your feet together and repeat on the other side.
Malasana (Cowgirl Squat). The ultimate hip opener and seat deepener! Also a great release for the low back.
- Stand with your feet wide apart, toes turned out slightly, hands in prayer position at your heart center.
- Lower your hips down as far as they will go (as your hips open more, you will be able to lower them more). Keep your heels reaching for the ground.
- You may need to place your hands on the ground in front of you to help you balance, if your hips are still high and your heels up; if you can drop into your hips and heels, take your hands to prayer position and use your elbows to gently open your knees. Lift your chest into your thumbs to stretch your low back and lengthen your spine.
- Stay here for 10-15 breaths. Engage your quad and glute muscles to lift you back up to standing.
Baddha Konasana (Cobbler’s Pose). A supported stretch for the adductors, BK mirrors the external rotation of the hip that should be felt in the saddle in a relaxed seat. This allows you to move with your horse, vs. resisting with tight, clamped down muscles.
- Sit down on an even surface and reach back to take your butt cheeks out and back so you feel the sit bones at the bottom of your pelvis connect to the ground.
- Bring the soles of your feet together, about 6-8 inches from the hips (note that in boots and jeans, you’ll probably have the feet come together further away from the hips in more of a diamond position).
- Take hold of your ankles or the fronts of your shins. Keep a light and relaxed grip.
- Tune into your posture; draw your navel in toward your spine to activate your core and straighten your back. Relax your shoulders and lift your chin slightly. You can stay here, or begin to slowly and gently come forward with your upper body, keeping a straight back and directing your chin toward the ground in front of you. Think about lengthening your spine – stop coming forward when your back starts to round.
- Hold for 15-20 slow, deep breaths. Before getting up, straighten your legs out in front of you for a moment.
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Ready to Ride? In the Saddle Asana
Saddle Centering. As soon as you get on your horse, take a few minutes to separate this time together from the rest of your day, and honor the connection between horse and rider. Center yourself by closing your eyes, connecting to your breath, and allowing yourself to relax. Your horse will too.
- Place one hand on your belly and the other on your low back. Close your eyes.
- Feel your seat underneath you, and drop into it gently. Lengthen your spine by reaching the crown of your head towards the sky.
- As you breathe in through your nose, feel your belly expand; as you breathe out and draw your navel in towards your spine, feel your low back expand.
- With every exhale drop into your seat a little more, allowing the lower body to relax.
- Feel your horse under you, and notice if his breath mirrors yours. Take at least 10 deep breaths.
Reach and Round. Warm-up and release the back and shoulders as you connect movement to the deep breath you established in saddle centering.
- Interlace your fingers and turn the palms up as you reach overheard and inhale deeply. Lift your gaze, but don’t drop your head back; keep your ears between your upper arms. (Tip: Take your arms up very slowly on your first inhale, so as not to scare your horse with this reaching movement.)
- As you exhale, round your back and drop your chin towards your chest, as you lower the arms to shoulder height. Push forward with the palms and expand across the upper back.
- Inhale back up to the first position. Repeat 5-10 times with the breath.
Eagle Arms. Address upper body tension with any or all of these shoulder openers. Eagle Arms is a great release for the space between the shoulder blades.
- Take your right arm under your left, crossing above the elbows. Squeeze the upper arms together.
- Bring your hands together.
- Gently lift up through the elbows as you push forward through the forearms.
- Hold for 5 deep breaths and repeat on the other side.
Cow Face Arms. This pose counteracts the common habit of rounding forward.
- Take your right arm up by your ear, and wrap the left arm around and back between your shoulder blades.
- Bend the right elbow and reach down towards the left hand; don’t worry if your hands don’t touch, just keep them reaching for one another.
- Lift up through the chest and upper elbow. Keep your top arm by your ear.
- Hold for 5 deep breaths and repeat on the other side.
Reverse Namaste. A shoulder release that also opens the chest.
- Take your arms out to the sides and turn the palms to face behind you.
- “Swim” your arms back, rotate your wrists so that your palms come together and your fingers point up. (Tip: if you cannot get your hands into this position, you can bring the palms together with the fingers pointing down.)
- Draw your elbows back as your chest lifts. Hold for 5-10 breaths. Release and roll out your wrists in both directions.
Saddle Twist. Twisting on horseback immediately aligns the spine and opens the chest while providing a lateral stretch. You can try this movement at the walk, and play with extending the arms in the twist.
- Take your left hand behind you to the back of the saddle or directly on the horse’s croup (top of the hindquarters).
- Place your right hand on the right side of the saddle or the horse’s withers (where the neck and the back join); use this hand to gently push off the outside of the saddle/withers while lifting your chest up and drawing your right shoulder back.
- Think about turning your chest toward your horse’s rear. Let the crown of your head lift up toward the sky. Keep your seat grounded with the hips facing forward.
- Hold for 5 deep breaths, twisting a little deeper if possible on each exhale, and lengthening the spine more on each inhale.
- Return to center and repeat on the other side.
Saddle Pigeon. We’ve saved the best for last – this feels wonderful! It helps release hip and knee tension you might feel in the middle of a ride. If you are an experienced rider and feel comfortable, you can do this at the walk (it’s great on a trail ride). Otherwise, practice saddle pigeon at the halt.
- Sit up tall, and carefully bring your right leg up and in front of the saddle. Keep your foot gently flexed.
- Bring your right hand to your knee and your left hand to your ankle. You can remain here.
- If you would like to deepen the stretch, keep a straight spine as you slowly lean forward from the hips. Use gentle pressure from your hand to lightly press on the right knee.
- Hold for 5-10 breaths.
- Carefully lower your right leg back to the stirrup. Repeat on the other side.
Bonus: Bareback Backbend. This is a lovely way to end your ride, and bond with your horse while you release your back.
- Hold your horses: please do not do this without a partner to hold your horse! (And don’t try it with the saddle still on either.)
- After you are seated comfortably on your horse bareback, take your hands behind you to slowly guide yourself into a reclining position on his back.
- Feel your spine release into the natural curve of his spine, with his rump supporting your head.
- Allow your shoulders to release and your arms to hang; don’t hold on to the horse’s sides.
- Close your eyes. Match your breath to his. What a feeling!
Yeehaw & Namaste