With June 21st being recognized as the first International Yoga Day, I reflect on my relationship with yoga and everything it has taught me. I get a little nostalgic reminiscing about how yoga has brought me where I am today through memories of my first classes at Casa de Luz with my first teacher. Practicing yoga since 2000, I find it difficult to answer the question about your favorite yoga practice, or your go-to pose. Thus, in honor of my yoga life, I crafted my top 10 list, because there are so many favorites (and I can’t chose just one!).
10. Child’s Pose (Balasana)
Child’s pose is a restorative pose, meaning it can be very calming to your central nervous system. The simple gesture of resting your forehead on the mat, that point of contact, can be a signal to slow down your thoughts. Believe it or not, child’s pose is an inversion, because your heart is lifted above your head. Child’s pose is great for releasing tension in the lower back. This posture also stretches your hips, thighs, knees, all the way down to your ankles.
9. Spinal Flexes
Moving your body in gentle ways helps loosen and stretch your spine. You can do this seated, holding on to your knees, loosening up through a gentle spinal flex (very common in Kundalini yoga). When you are in table pose, round your spine into a cat/cow movement and then transition into making the number eight with your tailbone. Play with it and have fun! There’s no wrong way to move your spine as long as you are listening to your body and backing away when anything feels uncomfortable.
8. Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
Letting your body hang down loosens the hamstrings, stretches the lower back, and draws your awareness inside. This forward fold has a nice calming effect, especially when you let your head hang naturally, releasing any tension in the neck, and imagine dropping any unwanted thoughts out the crown of your head. I like to do this pose by grabbing onto opposite elbows with knees slightly bent and gently swaying side to side and forward and backward.
7. Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana)
Balancing poses are great for bringing clarity to the mind. Any time you are in the middle of a project and need a break, try a balancing pose to increase your focus and attention span. If Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose is not in your practice, try Tree Pose. You can first practice balancing poses against the wall to learn the posture, and, as you gain your balance, move further away from the wall, using it only as support.
6. Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I)
With so many standing poses to chose from, Warrior I stands out from the rest for it’s subtle nuances that keep it far from simple. While it may look easy, there are many things going on in this pose, from the calf stretch to the opening of the hip flexor to the pelvic tuck (activating the core) all the way to the little back bend at the finish. Warrior I is a good dose of confidence and “Here I am!” feeling that helps lift your mood.
5. Headstand (Shirshasana)
If a headstand is outside of your comfort zone, there are many other inversions to chose from. Essentially, an inversion is any posture where your head is lower than your heart. You may chose to do Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) as your inversion, or legs up the wall pose as you get ready for bed.
4. Supine Twist
A yoga practice is not complete without some version of a twist. I like this type of twist because it is more restorative and gentle. Once you get into the shape, relax and let the pose do the work, meaning you should not be pushing or forcing anything. As the day wears on, your spine becomes compressed and tight, and, by rotating the body, you elongate the spine and create space between your back bones. Another benefit is this pose helps your body release toxins. Next time you are on a cleanse, consider adding twists into your practice.
3. Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)
I never want to get out of this pose. Seriously, I’m always sad when the yoga teacher transitions out of it. Guess that’s the beauty of a home practice! Not only is pigeon pose the king of hip openers, it’s also great to help stretch the hamstrings and lower back and relieve sciatic pain. This pose has helped save me from piriformis syndrome, so I recommend doing this pose before going for a jog. If you do this pose while staying upright, you will feel a nice opening in your hip flexor.
2. Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhan Pranayama)
I find this breathing exercise to be very calming and soothing. The idea behind this technique, by breathing into one nostril and out the other in a methodical way, is that it helps balance out your nervous system. In doing so, you calibrate the two hemispheres of your brain. When you notice that you are becoming more logical or analytic (left side of brain), try alternate nostril breathing to bring more creativity and “big picture” thinking into your experience (right brain dominance).
1. Meditation (Dhyāna)
It is said that the goal of yoga – the poses (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranyama) – is to train the body to sit for meditation by relaxing the body and clearing the mind. This way, when you sit in meditation, you can stay in a simple seated pose for an extended period of time. Your mind becomes soft and ready to enter into one pointed concentration, or concentration on one thing, like the breath. Even if you practice just a few minutes a day, meditation, or staying present in each moment, is a great way to teach the mind to hold your thoughts more loosely.
To end, and most importantly, allow your yoga practice to unfold organically by listening to your body. When I am on my mat, my body tells me what movement or position it wants to be in – what feels good to me in that moment, and I honor that. Over time, yoga teaches you to become more curious and in tune with what your body needs. To me every day is Yoga Day, but now we have a day to celebrate it, so roll out your mat, do some yoga, and see where your practice takes you!