Enhance your home practice with a closer look at these postures.
Tree Pose (vrksasana) gives you an opportunity to play with grounding your energy before reaching for the heavens and observing what causes you to become unbalanced and perhaps lose your footing.
Begin standing evenly on both feet. Your chest is lifted while your shoulders relax away from your ears. Find a place to rest your gaze 4 or 5 feet in front of you and keep it there as you shift your weight onto your left leg. Don’t let that left hip poke out, resembling a teenager with attitude. Instead, root or press the foot into the floor to make the trunk of your tree strong and stable. Imagine roots growing out of the left foot and sinking deep into the earth where they grab hold. Now unweight the right foot, turn the knee out to the side and rest the heel on the left ankle. When you feel stable here you can bring the sole of the right foot to the side of the left calf, below the knee. Stay here, or for more challenge, bend your left knee slightly so you can take hold of the right ankle and bring the sole of the foot to the inside of the left thigh (above the knee, never across the knee.)
Now press the foot into the thigh and the thigh into the foot and feel how that stabilizes you. Soften your gaze and relax your jaw. Inhale as you raise your arms overhead and bring the palms of the hands together. Exhale and feel the many little adjustments your body makes to keep you upright. Your tree is alive and constantly shifting. Reach your branches towards the heavens each time you inhale and feel the grounding through the standing foot on the exhale. Should your tree sway or fall, simply laugh and notice what uprooted you. Then try again on the other side.
It is the practice of staying firmly rooted in the present moment, exactly as it is, that allows us to extend ourselves and reach for our dreams with freedom and grace.
Rare is the yoga class that doesn't include at least one Downward Facing Dog pose (Adho Mukha Savasana). That may be because the benefits of the pose could fill this entire page. Downward Dog strengthens the arms and legs while stretching the hamstrings and calves, the arches of the feet and the hands. It calms the brain while relieving stress and mild depression. It can also help prevent osteoporosis and reduce symptoms of menopause while it leaves your body feeling energized.
Start on your hands and knees. Align your hips right above your knees and place your hands slightly forward of your shoulders. Spread your fingers wide, with the longest finger straight forward. Turn your toes under and draw your low belly towards your spine. Lift the knees a few inches off of the mat and keep them bent as you exhale and reach your hips back behind you.
Keep your spine long as you press your thighs back and your heels towards the floor. If you find your back has rounded or you’ve shifted forward onto your hands, then keep the knees bent. Attempt to stretch the mat longer in front of you with your hands by pressing through the mounds of the index fingers and mounds of the thumbs. Relax the head and neck so the ears are between your arms and you are looking back towards your feet. Feel your shoulder blades broad and wide on the back. Use the pit of the abdomen to continue drawing the hips behind you and bring as much weight into your feet as you have in your hands. Stay for several breaths, gradually working up to 1-3 minutes. Come out of it by releasing the knees back down to the floor and resting there.
If you have carpal tunnel syndrome or trouble opening through the shoulders you may want to place your hands on the seat of a firm chair rather than the floor.
If downward dog felt challenging; reassure yourself that this is a pose you will continue to fine tune for as long as you practice yoga. Ultimately, the physical benefits are secondary to the ability of this pose to increase your own self awareness. You discover where in the body you feel light and where you feel dense; where you move easily and where you feel stuck. When you practice with a gentle compassion for your self, and not try to attain some outward goal of the perfect pose, you can play at the limits of your strength and flexibility with a sense of curiosity and joy. When you do that in Downward Dog, regardless of how it looks from the outside, you have achieved the ideal pose.
Warrior II (virabhadrasana II) is a pose that evokes confidence, power and standing your ground. It offers us a glimpse into our own tendencies when strength is asked of us. Do we become tense and waste our energy in places that don’t serve us? Then we may notice our jaw is rigid, our shoulders are hiked up around our ears and our eyes are hard. With some practice and awareness we can learn to use our energy wisely.
Begin with your legs wide apart, feet parallel. Turn your right leg out 90 degrees and your back foot in slightly. Inhale and lift your arms to shoulder height, palms down. Look over your front fingers. On your next exhalation bend your front knee, keeping it in line with your second toe. You want the knee right above your ankle or slightly behind it, but not in front of it. Lift your gaze to the horizon again. Notice if you’re leaning forward; you want your shoulders right up over your hips.
Trust that what you are reaching for will come to you when you stay centered over your place of strength. Take 5 – 10 breaths here. Feel your legs growing stronger, the big muscles of the back becoming firmer. Watch your mind quiet as you remind yourself to relax your jaw, let your tongue fall to the bottom of your mouth, and your shoulders relax. Notice how your energy can now be used to give you a strong foundation.
Inhale to come out and straighten the front leg. Repeat on the other side.
Carry this gentle confidence and increased awareness of your body and mind as you move through your day.
This is the ideal remedy for that stiff back we sometimes get from sitting too long or holding ourselves too rigidly. Begin on your hands and knees with your hands in line with your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. You may want to place one or more blankets under your knees to make them comfortable. Look up as you lift your head and reach your tailbone to the sky. Your spine will curve towards the floor like a sway-backed cow.
Slowly tuck your chin towards your chest and point your tailbone towards the earth as your spine curves towards the sky. Lift your belly towards your spine and visualize an arching cat. Continue moving back and forth between the two, gently increasing your range of motion as you go. Notice when it feels natural to inhale and exhale.
See if you can connect the movement with your breath and get to the end of your inhalation as you reach your maximum cow. Arrive at the very end of your exhalation when you spine is at its highest arching cat.
This takes focus and concentration. As you inhale feel your lungs fill with air and your chest open, as you exhale feel the breath move up and out of your body and your shoulder blades move away from each other. Can you become aware of each individual vertebra as your spine, back muscles, and hips begin to feel limber and warm?
Notice how the slow, conscious breathing has calmed your mind and soothed your nervous system. Return to this practice any time you feel tense or need to relax. Cat/cow is known to strengthen abdominal and back muscles, improve breathing and digestion, increase flexibility in the spine and help prevent incontinence. But you may find yourself doing it simply because it feels so good.
The next time you feel frazzled, overwhelmed or just worn out, close the door and give yourself five minutes of restorative yoga. This pose will refresh and rejuvenate your body while it calms and quiets your busy mind.
Start by sitting on the floor with one shoulder right next to the wall and your thighs parallel to the wall. Lay your back onto the floor and swing your legs up so your heels rest on the wall. If your low back is rounded or feeling strain, scoot away from the wall a few inches. Your legs should be straight and relaxed. If your low back is uncomfortable, bend your knees and let your feet rest on the wall.
Put a blanket under your head and close your eyes. Bring your arms out to the side with the palms up and enjoy a light, open quality in your chest. Each time you breathe in feel your belly and chest expanding. As you breathe out allow your back and arms to feel heavy and melt into the floor. Keep bringing your attention back to the breath again and again as you rest for a good five minutes.
When you’re ready to come out of it, you’ll bend your knees and bring them towards your chest as you roll to one side. Rest there, in the fetal position, for two full breaths and then gently help yourself to sit up. Notice how smooth your forehead is now and how rested you feel. You’re ready to move through the rest of your day with ease and grace.
There is a common misconception that you should be able to tie yourself into a pretzel before you show up for a yoga class. As my friend Chris
declared, “I can’t do yoga, I’m not flexible!” I hear this everywhere I go.
“Or at least be able to touch your toes”, Chris insisted. An avid bicyclist and runner, she knew she would benefit from stretching out her tight hips and hamstrings, but felt completely intimidated by the thought of yoga. She loves to compete and takes this same drive into all of her physical activities. In truth, Chris would get more benefit from a few simple poses than the Gumby-like ones she imagines are necessary to become more flexible. And most classes are filled with people just like her. The difference? They have learned that the poses can be modified so that even the stiffest of limbs can receive the benefits of the pose safely. We started with Paschimottanasana, a seated forward bend, using a belt or a strap as a prop.
To do the pose yourself, sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Put your hand on your low back and notice if it is curving outward. If it is, put a folded blanket or two under your buttocks and sit up tall until you feel a slight indent in the curve of your low back. This is a neutral, healthy spine position. If your pelvis is still rolling back, bend your knees until you can bring your spine fully upright into this neutral position. Now take your belt or strap and loop it over the balls of your feet while holding one side of the strap in each hand. Press the feet gently into the strap and have your weight evenly distributed in both buttock bones.
If you are really tight, this may be all the stretch that you need for your hamstrings. Let the breath be long and smooth. As you inhale, think of lengthening the spine upward by pressing the buttock bones downward. On the exhale you may be surprised to find there is room for the body to bend forward. Let this movement come from your pelvis tipping forward and not from your back rounding - you want to keep that neutral spine position.
Feel the stretch from your heels all the way along the underside of your legs. The goal is not to see how close you can bring your face to your knees, but rather to become aware of every sensation as you play at the limits of your range of motion. You can learn a lot about your own ego in this pose, noticing when you begin to mentally strive and physically strain to go deeper than your body is ready to go. Your breath will let you know when this has happened because it will no longer be smooth and even. Chris found that she was holding it altogether. With some encouragement, she backed off until her breath became relaxed and even again.
“Wow, that felt great,” sighed Chris when she came out of the pose. I told her that people in class often become so attuned to the subtle sensations in their bodies that they practice the poses with their eyes closed. “Then how do they know who wins?” she asked.
Chris and I still have a ways to go.
When forward bends are done with respect for our limits and careful attention to our spine we can experience not only a healthy stretch for the hamstrings, but a calming and quieting of the mind.
Those moments when you find yourself waiting in line could be opportunities to practice Tadasana – a deceptively simple yoga pose that reaps many benefits. First, just notice how you are standing. You may be surprised to find you’re slouching or poking out one hip and pouring all of your weight down one leg. Now, stand with your feet slightly apart and see if they are parallel to one another. This will tell you a lot about your body’s unconscious habits.
Now find parallel and attempt to push the floor away from you with your feet. Feel the muscles in your legs engage and your spine naturally lengthen upward. The top of your head floats towards the ceiling and the top of your sternum gently follows. Your shoulders are relaxed away from your ears and your shoulder blades are released down your back. Your arms are at your side, along the seam of your pants. They’re not stiff, like a toy soldier, but they aren’t limp and asleep either. They feel alive.
Lift your gaze to the horizon. Let your eyes be soft, relax your jaw and let your tongue fall to the bottom of your mouth. Rock forward onto the balls of your feet and back on to your heels and watch how this feels in your body. Go back and forth a few times and then find the place that feels like the center. You may notice that the low belly has drawn slightly in toward your spine and your breathing is slower and deeper. Lift the corners of your mouth slightly and stay here for several breaths. Experience all the tiny adjustments your body naturally makes to keep returning you to center.
As often as you can today, take note of how you are standing. Then see how your energy can subtly shift as you bring yourself into Tadasana. Like seeing Mt. Rainier after weeks of gray clouds, it can evoke a quality of quiet strength and beauty you may have forgotten was there.
The next time you are stressed out and tense, notice how you are breathing. Most likely you’ll find the breath shallow, quick and high up in the chest. Sometimes we are so used to breathing this way our body forgets how to do it any other way.
In Yoga we practice breathing in a way that induces a calmer, quieter mind and dramatically reduces the tension and stress in our bodies.
Begin by lying comfortably on your back with a blanket under your head so the chin is slightly lower than the forehead. This will help to draw your attention downward and into the body.
Close your eyes and notice where in the body you feel your breath. What moves as you inhale and exhale? See if you can watch the breath without changing it in any way.
In the beginning, you might find that as soon as you turn our attention fully onto the breath it is no longer natural and you control it automatically. Don’t judge yourself for this, just be aware of it.
Now place the palm of your left hand on your solar plexus; just above the belly button. As you inhale, keep your attention on this place. With each inhalation, invite the breath to come into your hand. Be patient and don’t force anything. With practice, you may feel a gentle expansion of the belly into the palm of your hand. On the exhalation, the belly draws slightly toward the floor. Continue breathing and watching for the rise and fall of the belly. It isn’t about taking in more breath, it is about improving the quality of the breath by using the diaphragm more fully and bringing the breath more deeply into your lungs.
Notice how you feel after several rounds of this practice. You may find that your forehead is just a little smoother, your jaw is not clenched so tightly, and your shoulders have relaxed towards the floor. Studies have shown that this kind of breathing lowers blood pressure, and relaxes tense muscles. It has also been proven to reduce stress, anxiety, insomnia, hot flashes and fatigue while promoting clearer thinking. It’s nice to practice lying down, but you can return to this practice when you are sitting in traffic, standing in a long line, having a difficult conversation or just enjoying the feel of the sun on your face as you walk to your car. The breath is always with you to soothe you in times of stress as well as deepen your experience of the rich, joyful moments of your life.