TAKING CARE OF THE SELF
Photos by Cara Brostrom
Our body is precious. While we are in this life, it is the home and base for our mind and the two are completely interdependent. The body benefits from moving in a variety of ways to encourage ease and freedom through the joints and tissues. Practicing yoga enlivens our physical, mental and subtle bodies, and is a great complement for those who spend a lot of time in study and meditation. A yoga practice can also help prevent and treat lung, an imbalance of the wind energy many meditators experience.
Every person’s body is different. It is not important to “achieve” a particular posture. Instead, enjoy your practice with awareness, curiosity and an attitude of gentleness. Never force your body into a position. Encourage your breath to be long, smooth, deep and comfortable, breathing through the nose. Emphasize your exhalations. This in itself will bring many benefits.
The following sequence can be practiced in full or you can pick one or two poses as time and inclination allow. Or simply do the last pose, Active Rest, to help release tension along the whole length of the spine and to refresh your nervous system.
Practice on an empty stomach or after a light snack only. It’s best to find a yoga instructor who can teach you directly and help modify the postures to suit your needs. Please consult your health professional before beginning any new physical exercise regimen.
Begin your session in a way that’s meaningful to you. Invite and contemplate bodhichitta, the compassionate wish to awaken for the benefit of all beings.
Mountain Pose with Side Bend
Stand looking out toward a view or perhaps your altar. Become aware of the space above your head and let your neck be free so that your head can rebalance itself on the top of your spine. Allow your spine to lengthen and your torso to widen and deepen. Sense the contact of your feet with the earth. Your arms hang by your sides, the backs of your knees are soft, your hip sockets release. Sense the space above, below, behind, in front and to each side of you.
Inhale deeply, turn your palms out and slowly sweep your arms out over your head, reaching out through your fingertips, palms facing one another (fig. 1). Your palms can come together over your head or shoulder distance apart. Exhale deeply while slowly bringing your arms back to your side. Do this four to eight times.
Inhale as you raise your right arm up, and exhale as you reach toward the left, lengthening the whole right side of your body, leaning a little toward the left; your left hand provides support to the left side of your thigh (fig. 2). Exhale bringing your right arm down to your side. Repeat four times. Do the other side.
Standing Forward Fold with Clasped Hands
Stand with your feet hip distance apart. While inhaling deeply, turn your palms out and slowly sweep your arms over your head. Exhale bringing your arms behind your back; clasp your hands, interlace your fingers; notice which thumb or forefinger is on top. Still standing, open across the front of your shoulders and chest, squeeze your shoulder blades together in your upper back, allow your tail bone to release toward the floor and breathe (fig. 3). You can bend your elbows if it helps.
Soften your knees forward and release your hips back. Bend forward from the hip sockets so that your belly comes toward your thighs, lengthen through the whole spine and neck, look toward the floor (fig. 4) and take a full breath.
If you can, continue bending forward, keeping a strong connection with the earth through your feet, knees bent. Allow the crown of your head to release toward the floor; with the back of your neck long, let your head hang off the top of your spine like a ripe piece of fruit (fig. 5). Take another full breath. Inhale to come up, rooting down into your feet; release the clasp and sweep your arms over your head. Exhale arms by side. Repeat this sequence once or twice.
A great alternative for tight shoulders is to use a towel or belt instead of interlacing your fingers (fig. 6).
Puppy Dog with Leg Extension
Using a chair or countertop for support, walk your feet back beneath your hips, setting your feet hip distance apart. Soften and bend your knees a little (fig. 7) or a lot (fig 8.) to help your pelvis tip forward. Reach your sitting bones back.
Press the heel of your palms down, lengthen out through spread fingers, arms firm and strong while rotating your upper arms outward and drawing your shoulder blades away from your ears, wrapping the shoulder blades around onto the side ribs. Lengthen your whole spine, especially through your neck. Hold Puppy Dog for five breaths while you listen and sense the effect of the pose. Walk your feet forward to stand up. Repeat two or three times.
From Puppy Dog bring your feet together, transfer your weight onto your left foot and with deeper breaths and stronger muscular energy reach your right leg and foot tremendously behind you. Spread your toes! The right side of your pelvis, torso and arms work as in Puppy Dog (fig. 9). Hold five breaths. Do the other side. Stand up and rest a few moments, then repeat.
Wide Leg Standing Fold
Similar to Puppy Dog but with legs wide apart. Ensure your feet don’t slip by using a sticky mat or another non-slip surface. Use a chair or countertop for support, walk your feet back beneath your hips and take your feet and knees wide apart, feet parallel. Soften and bend your knees a little or a lot (fig 10.) to help your pelvis tip forward, release your sitting bones back.
Press the heel of your palms down, lengthen out through spread fingers, arms firm and strong while rotating your upper arms outward and drawing the shoulder blades away from your ears, wrapping your shoulder blades around onto the side ribs. Lengthen your whole spine, especially through the neck and out through the crown of the head. Take five breaths. Repeat, walking your feet forward to stand up in between.
From Wide Leg Standing Fold with hands on a chair, keep your knees bent and bring your hands to the floor (fig. 11).
Ground into your feet, especially the roots of your toes and heels, lifting up through the inner arches of your feet and inner ankles. Allow your head to hang heavy like a ripe piece of fruit. Create space around your neck by bringing your shoulders away from the ears, your shoulder blades moving up toward your waist.
Reclining Knee to Chest with Half Happy Baby
Lie on your back somewhere warm and comfortable; draw both knees toward your chest. If this is difficult to do without lifting your head, simply put a folded towel under your head. Hold around your left knee as you bring your right foot to the floor, right knee bent. As in all the poses, listen and sense the effect of the pose. Take five breaths (fig. 12).
Extend and straighten out through your right leg, right heel on the floor, toes pointing toward the sky. Encourage your left knee closer toward your torso and toward the outside of the ribcage without force (fig. 13). Take about five breaths.
Bring your left arm to the inside of your knee, reach up and take hold of your ankle or foot and encourage movement through your hip socket by bringing your leg, knee and foot out wide; your knee can stay bent (fig. 14). This is Half Happy Baby – maybe or maybe not so happy! Take five breaths. Repeat this sequence on the other side.
Chest Opener Over a Roll
Roll a firm blanket or beach towel into a bolster. (Avoid polyester fleece as it does not create enough firmness.) Make sure that there are no big wrinkles and the bolster is smooth.
With knees bent, lower your upper back over the bolster, give support to your head and neck by clasping your hands behind your head. Yous should be lying over the bolster at the mid-back, not the shoulders, waist area or low back (fig. 15). Hold for five breaths and give your upper back and neck a chance to lengthen and release.
Bring your head and shoulders to the floor. Put a small towel as a pillow under your head to give support and lengthen the neck area, especially if your chin sticks up to the sky. Experiment with having the bolster a little higher or lower on your back to find the sweet spot that opens your chest and solar plexus area. Ensure the back of your shoulders are on the floor, take five breaths (fig.16). At first this position may feel weird and not all that comfortable because most of the time we round our upper back the other way – as we sit in the car, at the computer, on soft couches, leaning forward over our food, maybe while sitting in meditation and prayers, when we’re tired, depressed or lacking confidence.
If all feels well, lengthen the lower back by lifting your pelvis and extending your tail bone toward your heels. Extend one leg out and then the other. Rest and breathe for about a minute (fig. 17). To come out, bend your knees and roll over onto your side, curl into a ball, then use your arms to push up to sitting.
Lie on your back, knees bent, nothing under your head. Have your feet hip distance apart and several inches forward away from your sitting bones. Press down into the earth with your feet, and as you exhale peel your spine off the floor: first tail bone, then sacrum, lower back and then mid-back. Inhale at the top. Exhale and bring your spine down in reverse order: mid-back, lower back, sacrum and tail bone. Inhale while resting on the floor. Repeat five times and during the last repetition roll your shoulders under, clasp your hands, root into your feet and hold up for several breaths (fig. 18). Come down slowly lengthening your spine and rest.
Sphinx and High Cobra
Lie comfortably on your belly and turn your head to one side. For several breaths sense the connection of the front of your body to the ground. Reach your legs and feet back.
Come onto your forearms, elbows underneath the shoulders, forearms parallel, fingers spread. Lengthen your neck away from your shoulders and look between your hands. Sense your lower back and make sure you don’t clench your buttock muscles. Take five breaths in Sphinx (fig.19). If this is challenging, slide your elbows more forward (fig. 20).
Come down to the floor and rest or continue the backbend by lifting your elbows away from the floor. Keep your elbows bent a little and hug them in toward the mid-line. Take five breaths in High Cobra (fig. 21). Come down slowly and rest.
Lying Down Twist
Lie on your back, bend your knees, feet on the floor and rest a moment. Allow your spine to release and lengthen. Put a small folded towel under your head as a pillow if this is more comfortable. Lift your pelvis and buttocks up and shift them a couple of inches to the right. Draw both knees into your chest and exhale them over to the left side. Arms extend out and can be low, shoulder height (shown) or above shoulder height. Your neck can turn left, right or stay neutral. Take five long, slow, deep breaths, especially lengthening the exhalation (fig. 22). Come out and rest, or stay longer and lengthen out your lower leg for several more long, slow, deep breaths (fig.23).
Lie on a firm yet comfortable surface, your knees bent, feet on the floor. Place a small folded towel under the back of your skull. Put your arms on the floor, palms up, a little away from your torso (fig. 24) or bring your hands on your torso (fig. 25). Ensure you stay warm and put on extra clothes if necessary. Unhinge your jaw joint by bringing your lower teeth away from the top teeth. Allow your neck to be free so that your skull can release away from the top of your spine. Rest for 5 to 20 minutes. This is different from sleep. Keep your awareness present and embodied. As soft tissue tensions release you may lengthen in the spine: slowly lift your pelvis up a little, release your tail bone toward the feet and then bring your pelvis back down.
Allow yourself to be. There is nothing you need to do. Give your neuro-fascial-muscular-skeletal system a chance to rest, reorganize and refresh. Allow your mind to do the same.
To come out, roll over to one side, curl into a ball and rest a few more breaths. Use your arms to push yourself up. Take a few breaths seated.
Dedicate whatever positive energy you have created by practicing yoga to awakening for the benefit of all beings. Dedicate in any other way that is meaningful to you.
Wendy Cook has been practicing yoga since 1987 and teaching since 2001. She has been a student of His Holiness the Dalai Lama since 1987 and Lama Zopa Rinpoche since 1988. She has worked at Tara Institute and Wisdom Publications, was Director of Kurukulla Center in Boston for six years and has been Assistant Director at the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive since 1996. She is studying to be an Alexander Technique teacher. www.yesheyoga.com.
Cara Brostrom’s work can be seen on her blog: www.carabrostrom.com
Tags: health, yoga