Sunday, March 16, 2014

Trial & Error Fitness: 5 Yoga Poses that Will Change Your Life

I've already talked about how I downright meandered into yoga. In the beginning, there were few things as daunting as a full hour-long class at a yoga studio. Yesterday, I came back from a "Master Your Practice" class, which is a once-a-month, two-hour-long class that all yoga teacher training students need to take in order to graduate. It's hard to believe that just three or so years ago, I was sweating buckets over a 30-minute class. It's even harder to believe that, before that, I was in agony over completing a 10-minute yoga session from an app on my phone.

Yoga unfortunately can be incredibly intimidating at first. Which is why I made a list of five (relatively) simple poses that will change your life. These are the poses that I always have when constructing my own sequences -- and the poses I pray other teachers will have in their class as well:

1. Standing Half-Moon.

source: Bikram Yoga River North (click the link for another description of the pose)
When it comes to limbering up, lateral stretches tend to get ignored. It's why it almost feels like we're turning a set of rusty gears when we do it. There are a ton of modifications: you can clasp your hands, grab a wrist, or place a hand on your hip for extra support. The key here is to press your hips in the direction opposite of your bend and keep you back as sagittally straight as possible (that's just a fancy word for no hunching forward or bending backwards). Imagine that there are two plains of glass -- one in front of you and one in back of you -- and your goal is to keep yourself within those confines.

You can stay in this pose for a few moments, or follow your breath as you inhale your body back up into a standing position and exhale to one or the other side. This pose can be done at any time -- even as you sit at your desk (hey, you're just stretching; tell your co-workers to quit it with the side-eye).

2. Standing Forward Bend with Elbows Clasped.

I love this pose so much, I have it in every warm-up for my tai chi class. The elbow clasping is twofold: one, it removes the expectation that you can touch your feet, your toes, the floor, etc. Two, that extra bit of shifted weight works with gravity to help stretch out your hamstrings. Tight hamstrings is the bane of most of our existences, and a simple stretch like this every day can change that.
Plus, a simple (quasi) toe-touch is actually a great way to calm an overworked mind. Great thing to do with a hyperactive child as well!

3. Seated Twist

Source: Simple Nourished Living
Seated Twists can be done a million different ways: legs crossed, knees to chest, one leg bent with the foot over the straight leg, etc, etc, etc. You can even do the twist sitting in the chair. The biggest challenge, however, is twisting without force. We are not here to press our hands into the floor, our knees, or the chair, and hope we can get a pop. Instead, we are finding length in our spine before using our abs and back muscles to turn our torso. This pose was impossible for me in the beginning, purely because I want to push my hands into the floor and force the twist until I heard a pop.
But try it: sit on the floor (or a chair), inhale and imagine someone is lifting you up by the base of your neck, and, on an exhale, slowly twist to the left or right. Maybe even lift up your hands at first to avoid that temptation. Stay here for as long as it feels right before returning to center, inhaling for length again, and repeating the process on the other side.

4.Downward-Facing Dog.

Source: Active
I saved down dog for the near-end because, while it's one of the most common yoga poses, it can be the hardest to master. Much like our hamstrings, our calf muscles are usually pretty tight. When done correctly, downward dog can stretch your glutes, your hamstrings, as well as your calf muscles. The key is in engaging your core and rotating your hips towards the ceiling (or, "sticking your butt out" if you were standing). The other key is in not getting discourages when you find your hands slipping off the mat. That is super common and there are towels and gloves to counteract that. You can also try doing downward-facing dog on hardwood floors.
And, much like the standing forward bend, this is a great pose to calm your mind.

5. Child's Pose.

Source: Kim Fisch Yoga
Or, as Max Strom calls it, "Warrior Four Pose". Why? Because he considers it the most difficult of all asanas: it requires you to cast aside your ego and listen to your body. Sometimes you just need a pose to retreat to, be it after a grueling workout or because of a sudden influx of stress. It also stretches your arms and shoulders (and, depending on how you do child's pose, your hips as well), but the importance is on the resting qualities. This is your refresh button. Your moment to recognize that you need a moment to catch your breath (literally or figuratively) before going on again. You'll be amazed at what more you can accomplish if you give yourself that moment.

And, again, much like anything in yoga, don't do whatever doesn't feel right. It's okay to be challenged, but anything that brings pain is not worth it. There are so many different poses that, if these don't work for you, there are others that will (some runner's up for me included: cat/cow pose, triangle pose, supine twist, and so on, but your list will always be a little different). Never feel like there's anything you "have" to do in yoga. That's a good way to burn out and turn your back on such a great (but misunderstood) practice.

Remember: yoga is exactly what you make of it, and exactly what you need it to be.

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