If you were playing a game of word association and heard the word "yoga," what would be the first thing that popped into your head? A lot of people would say "pretzel" or "hard," but yoga can actually be quite simple. If you got out of bed and stretched your arms up this morning, you already did a yoga pose. Yoga introduces a mindfulness to stretching, so that you pay attention to your alignment and how the positions really feels in your body. A lot of basic yoga postures can feel very familiar, even if it's been a few years since your last P.E. class. Here is a sequence of ten poses that look simple but will stretch and strengthen your major muscle groups.
Just because these poses are simple doesn't mean that they are going to be easy. Bringing new awareness to a position you think your know can actually be very challenging. Take mountain pose, which may look like just standing around. In a yoga context, however, there is a lot going on in this position. The heels root down, the muscles of the legs are engaged, the bones are stacked with the shoulders directly over the hips, the shoulder blades slide down the back, and the crown of the head rises. Don't forget to breath!
Inhale and bring your arms up and over your head. This is your basic morning stretch, but you are focusing on keeping the good alignment you established in mountain pose, particularly staying grounded in the heels and keeping your shoulders moving away from your ears at the same time that you reach up through your fingertips. Your gaze can come up to the hands, which can be shoulder's width apart or palms touching.
Exhale and fold over your legs into a forward bend. If the hamstrings feel a little tight at first, bend the knees so that you can release your spine. Let the head hang heavy. Slowly straighten the legs if you like but keep the head hanging. The feet can be touching or hip's distance apart, whichever feels better.
Move your feet out to the edges of your mat and bend your knees, coming into a squat. The toes may turn out if necessary. If your heels do not reach the floor, take a rolled up blanket under them. This is a position that is quite natural for children but we lose the knack for it as adults. It's great for the hips and to counteract the effects of too much sitting in chairs and riding in cars. It's also a very useful pose.
5. Lunge Pose
Straighten your legs and move your feet back under your hip before stepping your left leg to the back of your mat and bending your right knee for a deep lunge. Try to bring your bent knee directly over your ankle so your right thigh is parallel to the floor. Keep the left leg straight and strong with your heel reaching back. If this is too intense, you can drop your left knee to the mat instead. Stay five breaths before returning the left foot to the front of your mat next to the right one. Then repeat the lunge with the left foot forward and the right leg back.
6. Plank Pose
After your second lunge, step the left foot back so that it is next to the right foot at the back of your mat. This is the classic preparation for a push-up. Stay five breaths here while making sure that your hips do not drop too low or rise too high. If your elbows tend to hyperextend, microbend them. Bring your knees down if necessary. After five breaths, release your knees to the mat and come back to sit on your heels, resting for a moment.
7. Staff Pose
After catching your breath, swing your legs around so that they are outstretched in front of you. This is the seated equivalent of mountain pose, in that it seems very simple but has a lot going on. The legs stay strong with the feet flexed. The shoulders stack over the hips so that the spine is long and straight. The arms may be straight or slightly bent.
On an exhalation, bring your torso over your legs in a forward bend. Your hamstrings should be warmer now than when you did your standing forward bend earlier. Work with your breath, lengthening the spine on each inhale and deepening your forward fold on each exhale. Stay for five breaths, keeping the feet flexed.
Lie down on your back and hug your knees into your chest. Then separate your knees and bring each ankle directly over its knee so that the shins are perpendicular to the floor. Flex your feet and hold onto them from the outside as your draw your knees downward. Roll side to side a bit on your sacrum if it feels good. This is a position that is familiar to anyone with children. Resist the urge to put your toes in your mouth. After five breaths, stretch your legs out on the floor and rest.