Yoga poses are the way they are because is a holistic discipline and balance is therefore central to it. During a yoga workout, equal time is allocated to breathing, asanas, relaxation and meditation so that mind, body and brain are given equal importance.
All of the asanas complement one another with muscles working in groups rather than individually. An exercise that stretches one muscle group will always be followed by another that works on a complementary group.
Yoga teaches us to achieve a balance between work and relaxation and a yoga session includes regular pauses for rest in order to dissipate any negative influences.
Yoga asanas may sometimes be difficult but they invigorate us rather than tiring either mind or body.
Correct breathing helps to maintain the balance between mind and body and is particularly important when practicing Hatha yoga.
By learning to apply the principle of balance during our yoga sessions, we can transfer the same skills to everyday life. Yoga teaches us to find contentment within ourselves rather than looking to outside stimuli.
It encourages us to live for the moment and to draw strength from happy events so that every moment is enjoy to its fullest. This also helps to sustain us through more difficult times.
An important difference between other forms of exercise and yoga is that many sports demand that we use the same set of muscles over and over. Yoga ensures balance by working complementary groups of muscles and by balancing a movement with one that exercises an opposing muscle group.
Yoga is therefore an excellent choice for athletes as it enables them to exercise muscles they are under using. The resultant increased mobility and flexibility enhances all sports performance.
To prepare for yoga practice you need to ensure that your body is flexible and that your mind is free. Before a yoga session you need to rid yourself of any tension in either mind or body. There is no one way to do this but here are some suggestions.
It will help if you approach these with an open attitude and a willingness to remain receptive.
Establishing and encouraging relaxed breathing is an excellent way to approach a yoga session. Here are a couple of exercises which will help you to achieve this:
#1: Mountain or Tadasana
❀ Stand tall with your feet a few inches apart and your arms by your sides, shoulders rolled back and down, backside tucked under. Rotate your hands so that your palms are facing forward. This is Mountain posture or Tadasana.
❀ Take a long in-breath and, as you do so, bring your arms slowly upward until you can rest your hands on the crown of your head, palms touching. Maintain this position as you breathe out slowly.
❀ Take another long in-breath and, as you do so, slowly stretch up your arms, keeping the palms together. Stretch up as high as you can, holding your breath. Maintain this position for a few seconds and then bring your hands back to the crown of your head, still keeping the palms together.
❀ Repeat this 5 to 10 times keeping your breath and movements controlled and coordinated. On your final out-breath bring your arms down to chest level, palms still touching. This is prayer position, or Namaste.
❀ Close your eyes, breathe quietly and repeat the word ‘peace’ to yourself several times. On another out-breath, separate your palms and bring your arms slowly back down to your sides.
❀ Stretch up once more with palms facing forward while visualizing the peak of a mountain. Do this several times and then relax.
#2: Flexibility Exercise
❀ Stand tall with your arms by your sides and exhale slowly and deeply. On a long, slow in-breath lift your arms out from your sides, palms facing forward, stretching upwards until your arms are at shoulder level.
❀ Breathe out once more and stretch your arms and torso forward, leaning from the hips and making sure that you are not bending your back.
❀ Breathe in and, as you do so, swing your arms upwards, bending backwards and allowing your knees to also bend to maintain your balance.
❀ Come back to center and straighten up, breathing out. Still standing straight, take another slow in-breath and, on your next out-breath, perform a sideways bend to your right keeping your hips and shoulders in line.
❀ Breathe in, come back to center, and repeat to the left.
❀ Once back in center, breathe out and slowly allow your head, neck, chest and arms to drop forward from the hips, bending your knees if necessary. Gently swing from side to side several times before slowly coming back up to standing, making sure that your head is the last to come up.
❀ Stand tall with your eyes closed for a few moments, breathing quietly. You will feel calm, focused and refreshed.
Total Body Stretches
Stretching stimulates blood flow to the muscles, releasing tension and improving tone. When coupled with effective breathing, stretching stimulates the flow of energy throughout the entire body which also increases alertness.
The aim when stretching before performing yoga asanas is not to work out but to gently prepare the body for stronger exercise. Stretching can be carried out in any position including sitting or even lying on the floor, as well as standing.
#1: Sitting Stretches
❀ Sit tall on a firm, supportive chair and breathe slowly out through your nose. Breathe in and, as you do so, swing your arms upwards so that they are reaching above your head, palms facing forward. Do not hunch your shoulders or strain.
❀ Breathe out sharply through your nose and, as you do so, swing yourself forward so that you are curving your body over your thighs, with your arms flopping either side of your legs, hands resting on the floor. Your chin should be resting somewhere just below your knees.
❀ Swing your head gently from side to side to release any tension in the neck and maintain this position for a few seconds.
❀ Come back up to sitting.
❀ Repeat up to 12 times and, when you have finished, sit quietly for a few moments with your eyes closed and your hands resting in your lap.
#2: Standing Stretches
❀ Stand tall with your feet about 12 inches apart. Breathe out and, on a long, slow in-breath, swing your arms up above your head thrusting your pelvis forward. Maintain this position for a few seconds.
❀ From here flop forwards, swinging your arms down, letting your head drop and your hands rest on the floor. As you do this, breathe out through your mouth making a long ‘ha’ sound. Bend forward only as far as is comfortable, bending your knees if necessary. Breathe gently in and out through your nose. Maintain this position for about a minute.
❀ On an in-breath, roll back up to standing and push your arms back, palms facing back, allowing yourself to bend back as far as possible without straining. Your lower back will be slightly arched. Maintain this position for about a minute, breathing in and out gently through the nose.
❀ Come back to center, drop your arms to your sides and repeat two or three times.
#3: Head, Neck & Shoulder Stretch
So many of us carry tension in our head, neck and shoulders, especially as we tend to sit hunched up all day at a desk or in front of a computer. This may at first simply make us feel stiff but, over time, the neck bones can be affected, resulting in chronic pain.
Some people will try to stretch now and again at their desk that this can, in fact, cause even more damage as the body will not be in the right position for this type of movement. Follow the exercises below to stretch the head, neck and shoulders effectively.
#4: Shoulder Shrugging
This exercise is very effective for freeing shoulder muscles and relieving tension. It can be carried out while sitting or standing and, when performed regularly, will relieve chronic stiffness in one or both shoulders.
❀ Sit or stand with your back straight but not stiff, your head centered and balanced, eyes looking forwards and arms by your sides.
❀ Breathe in and, as you do so, shrug both shoulders up towards your ears. Breathe out and let them fall back to their natural position. Repeat three or four times.
❀ Now alternate shoulders, lifting first the left shoulder to the left ear and then the right shoulder to the right ear, breathing in as you lift and out as you drop. Repeat three or four times.
#5: Neck Easer
Perform these exercises whenever your neck feels stiff.
❀ Sit in a firm, supportive chair with your lower back pressing against the chair back, your head centered and balanced, eyes looking forward.
❀ Allow your arms to dangle loosely at your sides. Relax your shoulders.
❀ Breathe in and, on an out-breath, turn your head slowly to the right, finishing the movement as you reach the end of your exhalation.
❀ Maintain this position for a few seconds, breathing in and then, on another out-breath, try to gently turn your head even further to the right. Take a long, slow in-breath.
❀ On your next out-breath, turn your head slowly to the left, finishing the movement as you reach the end of your exhalation.
❀ You should be facing front when you need to breathe in. Take a few long, slow in-breaths and try to relax even further.
❀ Repeat step 2, this time turning your head to the left. Maintain this position for a few seconds, breathing in and then, on another out-breath, try to gently turn your head even further to the left.
❀ Take a long, slow in-breath.
❀ Repeat step 3 until you are facing forward again. Take several long, slow, deep breaths.
❀ On an out-breath, allow your chin to fall gently forwards until it rests on your chest. Breathe in and out slowly and rhythmically, easing your head forward a little more on each out-breath.
❀ On an in-breath, slowly raise your head until you are facing forward. As you begin to breathe out, continue raising it until it is falling gently backwards.
#6: Stretching the Arms, Torso and Legs
There are yoga poses or asanas to exercise practically every muscle in your body but often a short session of yoga will focus on just one area. It is therefore a good idea to spend some of your warm-up time exercising the arms, torso and legs so that you achieve the balance which is essential to yoga practice.
These exercises are particularly good for anyone who spends a lot of time sitting at a desk or in some other kind of static position. Arm stretches are essential for people who spend a lot of time working at the keyboard as they help to prevent and ease RSI (repetitive strain injury).
Following the exercises here will also help you stretch and tone the muscles in your chest, abdomen, limbs, hands and feet.
If you suffer from lower back pain it is a good idea to do these exercises, and indeed any exercise in this book, very gently. You should stop immediately if you experience any pain.
By practicing these exercises regularly, you will stretch and realign your lumbar vertebrae which will help to ease and manage lower back pain as well as preventing other serious conditions, such as a slipped disk, from occurring.
#7: Arm and Hand Stretches
You can perform this either sitting or standing but, in both cases, you need to ensure that you are tall and straight.
❀ Without straining your neck or shoulders, stretch your arms out in front of you at shoulder height, palms facing upwards.
❀ Now bend your arms at the elbow and place your fingertips on your shoulders, right fingertips on right shoulder and left fingertips on left shoulder.
❀ Breathe in and, on your out-breath, snap your arms and hands out in front of you at shoulder height.
❀ Keeping your arms where they are, curl your fingers in to make fists, squeeze tight and then snap your fingers out.
❀ Repeat 10 times and finish by letting your hands and arms go floppy before shaking them gently for a few minutes.
#8: Hip Hula
If you suffer from lower back pain or a slipped disk do not perform this exercise.
❀ Stand tall with your feet shoulder width apart and place your hands on your hips, flexing slightly at your knees.
❀ Keeping your shoulders reasonably still, push your right hip slowly out to the right, then back to center, then left, then forward several times until you are gyrating rhythmically. Repeat once more, this time starting with your left hip.
❀ You can vary this by speeding up, slowing down or by doing this exercise to music. There is no need to focus on your breathing but simply to allow it to follow your movements.
#9: Feet Flexes
❀ Sit tall on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you, feet a few inches apart. You can place your hands on the floor either side of your hips or slightly behind them if you feel you need support.
❀ Start by trying to wriggle each toe in turn, flexing them forwards and backwards as well as from side to side if possible. Do not manipulate them with your fingers and try to move them independently of each other.
❀ Now bend your right leg and rest the ankle on your left thigh so that your foot is free. Grasp your right foot with your left hand supporting the ball of your foot and rotate it several times in both directions.
❀ Repeat with your left foot resting on your right thigh.
During any yoga session there will always be pauses for relaxation. These are to allow both body and mind to rest between the asanas. At the end of the session there should be a longer period of relaxation. True relaxation is not achieved by simply allowing the body to flop.
In order to really relax, the body needs to be in a natural position so that the breathing is unrestricted. The following pose will help you to relax properly and is a great way to end any yoga session.
❀ Sit comfortably on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on the floor, bend your elbows and allow your upper body to drop gently back, supporting yourself with your hands, forearms and elbows.
❀ Sliding your hands forwards, roll gently through your spine down onto the floor so that you are lying flat with your knees still bent.
❀ Slide your feet forward and press the backs of your knees and legs into the floor.
❀ Separate your arms and legs a few inches and turn them outwards. Do not let them flop.
❀ Shut your eyes and slow your breathing until it reaches a regular, deep rhythm.
❀ Starting with your toes, begin to relax each part of your body in turn, working from your toes to your feet to your ankles and so on. If some part seems particularly tense then gently contract it before allowing the muscles to relax.
❀ Try to let any distracting thoughts simply drift through your head, letting them go with each out-breath.
❀ Once your body is totally relaxed, enjoy the sensation for a few minutes or as long as you need before gently coming to sitting and then to standing.
❀ Try to keep that feeling of relaxation with you as you carry on with your session or day.