May 10, 2014

essential stretches you can do at home

The real concept behind yoga is one of awareness, and this can be attended to throughout the day. In the West today, we tend to think of only the asanas (postures) as being yoga. Whether it be awareness or asanas, though, yoga is something that should be done throughout the day. Attending class every day is not really possible for any of my students, and for some, it is only possible to come once a week. When flexibility is your aim, though, once a week basically means you start from scratch every week and twice a week will just keep you where you are right now.

To that end, I have set aside some practices for my students (but obviously also for anyone reading this blog) that I feel will help enhance their flexibility, enabling them to move deeper during their classes, as well as re-checking their form. These postures are also ones that can be done safely at home, and doing a posture slightly incorrectly will not result in injury, although it might change the nature of the stretch which is why it is necessary to attend a class at least once a week to instill the correct form for these asanas. 

Ideally, these should be performed every day, with the minimum being 3 times a week, every other day being the next best thing to that. The practice can very easily be adapted to the amount of time you have available or how busy your mind is. If your mind is very busy, moving through the postures fairly quickly, helps settle the mind; If you  want a deeper stretch, choose fewer postures and take a couple of long deep breaths as you move deeper into the stretch; A-symmetrical postures can be held for up to 2 minutes and symmetrical postures for up to 4 minutes; You can choose to do all postures or just a few depending on the time you have. 

As with your normal yoga class, make sure that you are comfortable, that you won't be disturbed and that your phone is off. At home, though, comfortable might mean pyjamas as you might want to attend to the practice first thing in the morning or last thing at night, and you might feel ok doing the postures on the floor/carpet instead of rolling out your mat each time. 

REMEMBER that in yoga it is as important to take the time to go into and go out of a posture correctly and gently, as it is being in the posture. Often times it is the hurry to get into or out of a posture that may harm us, and not the posture itself. 

On to the postures! If anything is unclear, feel free to communicate with me as I could go on forever trying to explain the nuances of each posture.

Warm Up (This is essential, but doing any one posture for 10 reps, or 2 or 3 for half that, will warm up the body effectively as these postures were chosen for their overall warming effect):

Low Boat Pose: From lying down with legs together and hands at the side of the body, inhale and tighten every muscle as you lift into the low boat. Try to keep the body as low to the ground as possible. With each rep, tighten the muscles in a different way - scrunch the face, flex/point the toes, bend the wrists, etc.
Hold as you breathe, or hold for a breath or extended breath. When you release, release completely and flop back onto the floor.
This is a lovely posture to end with as well; It has this amazing way to energise you if you do it upon rising, or to relax you if you do it before going to bed.
Stargazer: With legs extended forward, bend on knee towards the body, bring the foot level with the opposite knee, drop the bent knee out; the same hand as the bent knee goes behind the body and then on an inhalation, rising onto the bent knee and bring opposite arm over the head. Keep on working the pelvis forward, tightening the buttocks and deepening the arch in the back.
Repeat on the other side.
Tabletop: Wrists under shoulders, knees under hips - this is just a transitional posture, but it needs to be correct in order to retain balance, etc. during your flow. 
Heart Asana: Keeping the thighs perpendicular to the mat, just slide the hands forward and aim the chest towards the mat. If the chest does not reach the mat, bring the forehead or chin towards the mat, working into the shoulder blades and breathing into the goal of bringing the chest towards the mat. This is the perfect shoulder opener if the arms are kept strong so that the shoulders open. 
Threading the Needle: From tabletop, bring the arm in between opposite arm and leg, bringing the whole side of the face and ear down to the mat. Stay here and open the top shoulder out, or lift the hand that is on the mat to the ceiling. Again you can stay here, or else you can bring the arm around the back towards the opposite thigh, working to take a hold of the thigh and thus opening the chest even more.
Repeat on the other side.
Downward Facing Dog: From tabletop, bring the hands about hand width more the front, and then lift the buttocks towards the ceiling. Aim to get the shoulders, arms and back in a straight line by pushing the chest towards the thighs as you look between the knees.
You can walk the dog by bending one knee then the other, before settling and pushing the chest towards the thighs.
3 Legged Dog: Lifting the leg against a wall is a great way to deepen this stretch. Keep on working that chest towards the thighs, and if you are up for it, walk the hands towards the feet, aiming for a forward fold split. Be gentle and don't over stretch, and take care not to roll out the hips.
Repeat on the other side.
From DD you can look between the hands, walk your feet forward and either hang out in ragdoll (taking hold of opposite elbows and hanging down), or move into the full forward fold (taking hold of the legs and drawing the head towards the knees, making sure you are hinging from the hips, not the waist). !! If you get dizzy, or you have high blood pressure, lift your head and look at the mat !! Once you are ready, slowly and gently roll up into standing by tucking the chin and coming up vertebra by vertebra. 

Palm Tree: Feet hip width apart, interlace the fingers, turn them inside out and place them on top of the head. Inhale and rise up onto the toes while extending the arms upwards. Keep the arms close to the ears in order to aid in balancing, and come down with control to make the posture work both upwards and down. 
Standing Postures:
Pyramid: Both feet facing the same way, hinge from the hips keeping the back, neck and head in line (straight back) as you lower yourself down towards your shin. Place the hands on the shin or on the mat, honouring the place that your body is in.
Repeat on the other side (or do Warrior 2, High Lunge, Extended Side Angle, Prep for Trikonasana and Side Lunge before moving on to the other side).
If the stretch is too strong, bring the back foot closer and vice versa. Bend the front knee if the knee is taking strain, but first, lessen the width of the stance to make sure it isn't the stretch that is too much. 
High Lunge: Stepping back further than Pyramid, tuck the toes under and bring the arms next to the ears. The arms are strong and the palms are facing each other. The back thigh is engaged and strong and both hips are facing forward. In the front make sure the knee is over the ankle and out to the side (you should see your front big toe).
Sink deep into the lunge without bringing the knee over the ankle.
Repeat on the other side (or do Warrior 2, High Lunge, Extended Side Angle, Prep for Trikonasana and Side Lunge before moving on to the other side).
Warrior 2: Turn the back heel diagonally to the front, the front heel should be in the middle of the back foot (this ensures balance). Front knee is bent as per instructions for High Lunge. Hips to the side, arms parallel to one another and relaxed - there should be no tension in the shoulders. Look over the front fingertips.
Repeat on the other side (or do Warrior 2, High Lunge, Extended Side Angle, Prep for Trikonasana and Side Lunge before moving on to the other side).
Extended Side Angle: Bring the front elbow to the front knee. Ensure that the bottom shoulder is over the thigh and then bring the top shoulder in line with the bottom one as you lift the hand to the ceiling. You may look up at the palm of your hand, or keep the head in a neutral position - don't just drop the head, keep the neck strong and in line with the spine.
Repeat on the other side (or do Warrior 2, High Lunge, Extended Side Angle, Prep for Trikonasana and Side Lunge before moving on to the other side).
Extended Side Angle MODIFIED, or prepping for Trikonasana (Triangle Pose): From above, straighten the bottom arm down the side of the calf, keeping the arms in a straight line.
Repeat on the other side (or do Warrior 2, High Lunge, Extended Side Angle, Prep for Trikonasana and Side Lunge before moving on to the other side).
Side Lunge: Hands in Anjali Mudra (Heart Center) or use them to help yourself down, simply lower yourself down over the bent knee into a passive stretch of the inner thigh on the straight leg.
Repeat on the other side (or do Warrior 2, High Lunge, Extended Side Angle, Prep for Trikonasana and Side Lunge before moving on to the other side).
Wide Legged Forward Fold: Bringing the legs as wide as you can, hands underneath the shoulders. From here you can either take hold of the ankles and draw your body towards your legs or if your stance is wide enough, you can bring your head down towards the floor. Keep your back straight and make sure you are hinging from the hips. 
The Garland Pose: Standing with feet quite wide (time will teach you how wide, but at least mat width is usually a good indicator), keep the heels flat and lower the buttocks down as you bring your elbows to the inside of the knees. The elbows should press firmly against the knees, opening up the groin and stretching the inner thigh. The back should be straight. Keep on lengthening the spine down towards the floor. 
Coming down to the mat:
Plank: From Garland Pose step your feet back into plank. You want a strong core and a straight body in plank, neither sagging or rounding, with the wrists under the shoulders. Try to bring your ribs towards your navel, as if you are giving your body a little hug, thereby engaging the core muscles. 
Sleeping Swan: Bend the knee and bring it towards the wrist. Lower it down towards the mat. The essence of this posture in YIN is to feel a stretch in the outer thigh and towards the hip and lower back. If you feel that, the position of the foot is arbitrary. In fact, if you feel that stretch, and you are comfortable in doing so, you may move the foot underneath the thigh. Bring yourself down towards the mat, all the way down if you can.
Change sides through plank. 
Pose of the Moon/Hare: From plank, bring the knees to the mat, buttocks to the heels and the forehead to the mat. Open the knees if they are taking strain. Nice strong arms to open up the shoulders. 
Thunderbolt Pose, or Hero: From Pose of the Moon, tuck the chin and roll up into Vajjrasana. In this pose, the big toes are together, heels apart and the buttocks are resting on the inside of the heels. The back is nice and straight (be wary of hollowing the back), the shoulders rolled back and the arms straight with the hands wherever they may reach on the thighs. 
Revolved Head to Knee: From Vajjrasana, just slide the hips down to the mat, bring the knees into the chest and from there, straighten the legs out wide. Bring the heel of the foot into the inner thigh of the opposite leg. Slide the same arm as the straight leg down the leg, Check that the bottom shoulder is over the thigh and the top shoulder in line with the bottom, keeping the chest open. For good measure, bring the same arm as the bent knee around the back to the opposite thigh, opening up the chest, and then release and bring the arm to the opposite toes.
Come up on an inhalation. Repeat on the other side. 
Wide Legged Stretch: Bringing both legs as wide apart as you can, make sure you are sitting on your sitting bones and then lower the body through the middle towards the ground. Hinge from the hips, not the waist. Keep the back strong and engaged (straight) and use the arms to draw yourself down, or else you can round the back, not using the arms and just let gravity draw you down, focusing on the stretch on the inner thigh. 
Head to Knee: With both legs extended forward, bend the one knee and bring the foot as high up into the groin as you feel comfortable doing, while also making sure the hips stay facing forward. Flop the knee out to the side. Inhale and lengthen and exhale lower down over the bent knee. Relax the back and use your hands to draw yourself down, all the while checking that the wrists and elbows remain in line in order to make sure you are not twisting into the forward fold. Roll up gently on the inhalation, and repeat to the other side. 
Cow Face (Variation): Bringing one foot next to the opposite buttock. Make sure the foot is next to the buttock and that you are not bringing it underneath. Bring the other leg over to the other buttock and then lower the body over the knees. The focus here is on the stretch in the outer buttock and thigh.
Gently release and repeat on the other side. 
Bound Angle: Bring the soles of the feet together. Taking hold of the feet, open them like a book and bring the elbows to the shins or the thighs. As you exhale, push with the elbows into the leg and lower the heart towards the feet, keeping the back straight and the chin out of the chest. 
The Goddess Pose: Keeping the soles of the feet together, lower yourself towards the back, using your hands to support yourself on the way down. Bring the hands a comfortable distance away from the body and turn the palms to face upwards as you surrender and allow the back to release.
Once you are ready, bring the knees together and straighten out the legs.
Reclining Head to Knee: Bend one knee and bring the foot to the mat. Inhale and lift the straight leg up. It is important that leg remains straight and the buttocks remain on the floor in order to keep the back straight. Take hold of the leg wherever you can and then breathe into the stretch at the back of the leg. The goal is eventually to be able to take hold of the big toe, but be careful and just breath into reaching that goal as soon as you are ready.
Gently lower down on an exhalation, straighten out and repeat on the other side. 
Corpse Pose, the final relaxation: Feet apart, relaxed and flopping out to the side, arms away from the body with the palms turned upwards and the spine straight. Maybe tuck the chin a little to bring the neck into alignment, but most of all, feel comfortable as you take a couple of minutes to relax after the work that you have done. There is a time to work and a time to relax; Make sure you give your body the balance of both, even if it is just for a couple of rounds of deep breathing, or one song, etc. 
I hope that you will use these asanas/sequence to expand your yoga goals and practice to your home. Remember to listen to the body and the breath throughout the practice and to do only what you are comfortable with at the time.

** Namaste **
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