Stretch Your Way Thin! – At-Home Yoga Made Easy!
I started practicing yoga years ago because I thought it would make me bendier and maybe a little leaner (if I was lucky!). I did power yoga classes, hot yoga classes, ashtanga yoga classes and any kind of strong vinyasa flow I could find. I did get bendier. I did not get much leaner. But what surprised me most was the reason I KEPT practicing: I got quieter. When I practiced regularly and started meditating, that quiet stayed with me during the day and through my week. Because of my crazy schedule, I can’t always make class times at local studios, so I found that I needed to implement a home practice to keep that sense of presence and quiet ongoing. I’m going to be honest here: A home-based yoga practice is the most challenging kind there is.
A personal yoga practice requires that you love yourself enough to set aside a little time each day for the sole purpose of self care. It requires discipline and a willingness to be alone with that which challenges you. Most importantly, a personal yoga practice gives you access to a gentle, quiet sense of presence anytime and anywhere without needing to travel to a studio or even leave your office.
The key to building and maintaining this space for yourself can be summed into one short sentence: Schedule consistent practice.
Schedule: Put it in the calendar; Block out the time just as you would for an important meeting. Mark the slot “busy” on the family calendar. This means choosing times that will actually work (best laid plans of 5 AM mat times go quickly astray for a snooze-button addict) and choosing times that you can stick with. And for the love of Buddha…turn your cell phone off when it’s time to practice!
Consistent: 10 minutes/day for seven days is far better than a 75 minute practice once a week as it brings you to that state of willing presence each day. It’s far easier for to ignore one class at a studio that is 20 minutes away than to make the choice daily not to practice when it is scheduled into your life. And when you fall off the wagon for a day/week/month? Just pick up and start again.
Practice: Practice isn’t the game or the final performance; It’s a process of fine tuning skills! A yoga practice works on the skills we use to relate to the outside world with both our physical body and our mind. My teacher often says,“It’s not a yoga perfect.” So if stress arises around what a posture or breath “should” feel like, go back to the word PRACTICE.
6 Parts to a Balanced Home Asana (Posture) Practice
In my experience, there are six basic pieces to what we as Westerners consider an asana yoga practice.
- Centering & Breath
- Warm the Body
- Stretch and/or Strengthen the Body
- Cool the Body
- Meditation & Breath
Below, I outline each piece, followed by a suggested posture or series. Feel welcome to play with this! As you learn your own body and its needs, you’ll notice that you’re craving a certain directionality or movement pattern — follow that! Yoga is about creating a pathway between the heart, mind, and body through which you can connect to yourself and others. Trial and error is the way to see how the path is most easily traveled.
1. Centering and Breathing
Sit in a comfortable seat. If crossing your legs is uncomfortable, elevate your hips on a block or roll the edge of your mat up, or sit in a chair. Close your eyes and begin to breathe. Just simply at first, letting the breath move in and out on its own. Then more deeply, lengthening inhale and exhale. Move your breath into your back and into your sides, then into your whole torso. Continue this breath for ten cycles and notice any shifts or changes in your mind or body.
2. Warming the Body
Cat/Cow Stretch: Move over onto hands and knees, padding the knees with a blanket if needed. As you inhale, lift your chest and your hips, dropping your belly button toward the ground. As you exhale, melt your chest and tailbone, arching your back like a cat. Continue this for five more breaths.
Child’s Pose with a Side Stretch: From all fours, bring your big toes to touch and take your knees wide. Walk your hands out in front until your arms are straight and your forehead begins to drop down. Now, begin to walk your hands over to the right side of your mat, creating a long stretch through your left side. Take five breaths and switch sides.
Rag Doll: Bring your feet to the top of your mat and, with your knees bent, allow your upper body to drape down. Make your chest, head and neck heavy. Arms can either hang in their sockets, or reach to grab opposite elbows. Hang here, or feel free to sway side to side. Engage your belly and roll up when done. Stand tall for three to five breaths.
3. Stretch/Strengthen the Body
Runners Lunge – to – Crescent Lunge: Step your right foot to the back of the mat, keeping your left knee at or behind your left ankle. Frame your foot with your hands or use blocks. You may drop your back knee to the ground or keep it lifted with the strength of your belly and thigh. Hug your leg muscles strongly to the bone and take five breaths. Keep your legs and belly strong as you reach your arms over head and take 5 breaths. Lift your waist off your hips, soften your shoulder space and spread your fingers wide. Change sides.
Wide Leg Standing Forward Fold: Step out wide on your mat (wider. really wide.) and stand with feet parallel or toes slightly turned in. Take a breath in and reach your arms to the side. As you exhale, fold from the hip (keep your back flat and bend your knees if needed) until your hands reach the floor or blocks. Take five deep breaths as you root your feet, lengthen your spine and lift your inner thighs back.
Warrior II: Keep your feet wide and turn your right toes to the front of the mat. Your front heel should line up approximately with your back arch. Bend your right knee (being sure it is over the middle toe, not knocking inward) and lift your arms to parallel with the floor. Engage your legs like you did in the lunge and lift your waist. Spread your fingers and take 5-10 breaths. Change sides.
4. Cool the Body
Bridge Pose: Lay on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Line your feet up parallel to each other directly under your knees, and reach your palms for the ground behind your heels. Begin to lift your hips and your heart toward the sky, pressing your hands down firmly into the ground. Keep a still neck and as deep a breath as possible for five to ten cycles of breath.
Thread the Needle: Keep your right knee bent and place your left ankle on your right thigh just below the knee to create a “figure four.” Reach under your shin to grab your right thigh and draw your leg in. Find a deep stretch in the right outer hip. Take five breaths and change sides.
Supine Twist: Lay flat on the floor. Draw your right knee into your chest, then take it across the body so that your upper back twists. The knee can come to the floor, a block or a blanket. Breathe deeply for five cycles and switch sides.
Lay on your back on the floor, supporting your neck or knees if needed. Take your arms down by your sides and let your hands face up, relaxing your palms. Close your eyes. Take a big breath in through your nose and let it out with an audible sigh. Repeat that two more times. Then, just rest. Let every muscle in your body relax, and let thoughts that arise simply drift past like clouds. Stay here as long as possible, ideally around ten minutes.
6. Meditation and Breath
Sit comfortably and breathe into your front, back, and sides. If you’d like, use the metta or loving-kindness meditation here. Or simply notice what arises as you sit and feel your arms, legs, hands and feet, torso, belly, and neck and shoulders. Breathe into each part of your body and notice each sensation. Stay in this meditation for five to ten minutes if possible, although even just a minute or two is valuable.
… To be Continued!