Have you ever arrived early for yoga and seen your fellow students running through some stretches on their mats in preparation for class? Though most classes will include a warm-up sequence, it's a good idea to know a few basic poses that get you ready to move without the risk of injury. In addition to starting to warm the major muscle groups, doing a few moves on your mat can help you get into your yoga mindset, providing a separation from the rest of your day. You can also use these stretches for your home practice, before doing a yoga video, or just to relieve tension at the end of the day.
1. Pelvic Tilts
Begin by lying down on your back with the knees bent for a few pelvic tilts. To do these, you press and release the low back gently against the floor. It may not sound like much; in fact, it is a very subtle movement, but these have a wonderful effect on the spine, warming it and getting it moving freely. If you have a stiff back, doing about 20 rounds of these will generally loosen things up.
Come up to sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position. Place one to three folded blankets under your seat so that your knees are lower than your hips. Do a few neck rolls here. First, let your chin drop toward your chest. Then roll your chin over to the left shoulder, circle the head back, then bring the chin to the left shoulder. Continue circling slowly, moving through any areas of tightness, for about five rotations. Then do an equal number of rotations in the opposite direction. If you have trouble with your neck, skip the part where you let the head drop back. Just move the chin from ear to ear instead.
4. Eagle Arms
While staying seated in easy pose, take the arm position for eagle pose. This gives you a really nice stretch across the shoulder blades and center of the back, an area that is otherwise hard to get in to. If you do the position with the right arm on top first, make sure to spend equal time with the left arm on top.
You can also take a gentle spinal twist without coming into full ardha matsyendrasana. Keep your legs in easy pose and twist to the right, bringing your left hand to your right knee and the right hand behind your back. Then twist to the left, bringing the right hand to your left knee and the left hand behind your back. Remember that this is just a warm up, so this shouldn't be your deepest twist.
If you still have some time, do a few rounds of cat-cow stretches. These will further loosen the spine. Since you are doing this on your own, take care to synchronize your body to your breath, letting the breath initiate the movement. Begin each motion in your tailbone, letting it ripple up the spine until your head is the last thing to move.
Many people like to await the start of class in goddess pose to further open the hips. (Indeed, many people would skip the preceding eight poses in favor of a long stint in goddess. If this is your preference, by all means do it.) You can place blocks or blankets under your knees for support if this feels like a bit too much, or come into the seated version of the pose (cobbler's pose) or just return to easy pose for a few minutes until your class begins.