Bringing Health Home

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A studio is a wonderful place to practice, but when you practice at home, you step into a whole new dimension. You have more time and space to tune in to yourself, to experiment with different postures, to see what works for you. You can explore which sequences flow naturally for you or how long to hold a pose without instruction. In short, you begin to build awareness. You start to notice where your shoulders perch in Chaturanga Dandasana, where your mind habitually strays when you do Downward Dog, and where your heart hovers in Savasana. And as your awareness builds, you start to make healthier choices on and off the mat.

When this newly aware you awakens one morning with a twinge in your shoulder from habitually pushing too hard in Chaturanga, you can choose something better—namely, modifying the pose. Likewise, if you've pulled a hamstring—or you're sleep deprived, stressed out, achy, or heartsick—you can tailor your practice accordingly. Alternatively, on the days when you're lucky enough to wake up with a bucketful of energy, you can work up a sweat in a long, vigorous practice.

Keep in mind that this whole awareness thing takes time. That's why it's called practice—none of the benefits occur overnight. But practicing vinyasa yoga, which is a form of meditation in motion, will help you become more conscious of your own inner workings by connecting your mind to your breath as you move gracefully from pose to pose.

So don't be discouraged. Be kind to yourself. Listen to your body, heart, and mind to determine what to include in your practice today. As you get under way, you may change your course—curiosity and spontaneity are important elements of a healthy life too.

The following sequence emphasizes twists, which have a powerfully healthy detoxifying effect—we yogis believe that twists squeeze out old blood and fluids from the abdominal organs, making room for freshly oxygenated, nutrient-rich blood when you unwind. In this new year, think of it this way: You're "wringing" out the old and bringing in the new!

This sequence is fairly vigorous, with a fun arm balance. If you want to try it but your discriminating awareness tells you it's too much for you today, modify it this way: Do steps 1, 2, 3, and then step into Downward Dog. Then do step 6, step forward and move around into step 9, and do step 10. Then either do step 11 on your back or just visualize yourself doing step 11 while you rest in Child's Pose. It's all good!

1. Utkatasana with Anjali Mudra Twist

(Chair Pose with Prayer Position Twis)

Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with the inner edges of your feet touching. Inhale as you bend your knees and come into Utkatasana. Fold your palms together in front of your heart in Anjali Mudra (Prayer Position). As you exhale, twist to the right, placing your left elbow or shoulder on the outside of your right knee. Look at your knees to make sure they’re in line with each other. Slowly rotate your face up to the ceiling. Stay here for 3 breaths.

Note: Photo A shows the direction to face for this sequence in relation to the following poses. Photo B is included to show the placement of your hands in the pose.

2. Uttanasana

(Standing Forward Bend)

Swan dive into Uttanasana, then inhale and come back into Utkatasana with your arms reaching up by your ears. Exhale and fold forward over your legs again. If you feel tight anywhere along the back of your body, bend your knees. Even if you are usually loose in your hamstrings, cultivate the awareness of your experience today and make a mature and beneficial choice. This takes discipline. If you find yourself wishing you could straighten your legs, don’t worry. Do what’s right for you today and keep in mind that tomorrow will be different. Stay here for 1 breath.

3. Ardha Uttanasana

(Half Standing Forward Bend)

From Uttanasana, inhale and lift the spine parallel to the floor. At this point, there are a few options: If you can touch the floor easily, align your fingertips with your toes, as shown. If not, place your hands on your shins or on blocks. You can also keep your knees bent if it allows you to open your chest. Once you’re in the pose, reach your pubic bone and sternum away from each other. Tune in to your breath—if it is moving freely, you’ve made the right choice.

4. Chaturanga Dandasana

(Four-Limbed Staff Pose)

From Ardha Uttanasana, exhale as you jump into Chaturanga Dandasana. Do this by extending the legs back while at the same time keeping your gaze and your chest reaching forward. This is similar to what you did in Ardha Uttanasana, when you extended in both directions from the navel. Make sure that your shoulders do not go lower than your elbows in this pose by really using your legs and belly. Notice what emotions arise as you work on this pose. If you feel stressed, it might mean you don’t quite have the strength yet. If that’s the case, step into Plank Pose and slowly lower yourself to the floor.

5. Urdhva Mukha Svanasana

(Upward-Facing Dog Pose)

From your position on the floor, inhale into Upward-Facing Dog. Press down with the tops of your feet and each of your toes as you lengthen the tailbone. Find a place for your shoulders to rest—somewhere in between sagging down and crunching up toward your ears. Extend your neck naturally from your spine by imagining a nostril on the back of your neck and breathing in and out there. Scan your body with
your breath and mind to see where you need to work less or more. Can you let
go of expectation and experience what is happening in this moment?

6. Adho Mukha Svanasana with a Twist

(Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

As you exhale in Upward Dog, roll over the tops of your feet and draw your upper thighs back to come into Downward Facing Dog. Try to roll over the toes evenly. Inhale and on your next exhalation, reach your left arm underneath your body to take hold of the outside of your right calf or ankle. Initiate the twist from your waist and try to keep both sitting bones reaching back equally, just as you would in a regular Downward Dog. Work both legs evenly. Stay in the twist for 3 breaths.

7. Virabhadrasana I

(Warrior Pose I)

As you inhale in the previous twist, place your left hand back into Downward Dog position. On your next exhalation, turn your left foot out and place your heel on the floor. Step your right foot forward between your hands, inhale, and, pressing your feet into the ground, lift your heart. Reach your arms up and gaze up to the ceiling. How does this pose feel after those twists to the right?

8. Virabhadrasana II

(Warrior Pose II)

From Warrior I, exhale and open the arms into a T position, parallel to the floor, creating the broad, openhearted feeling of Warrior II. Expand through both arms evenly, as if they originated from your spine, right between your two shoulder blades. What are you looking at now? Keep your eyes soft but alert to your
environment. Stay here for 3 breaths.

9. Prasarita Padottanasana with a Twist

(Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend)

From Warrior II, straighten your right leg on an exhalation. Rotate your right foot so it’s parallel to your left foot and interlace your fingers behind your back. Turn your toes in and heels out slightly. Inhale and drop your tailbone as you lift your chest up to the ceiling. Exhale as you fold over strong legs. Let your arms release over your head as far as they can without scrunching your collarbones. Then exhale and release the hands to the floor. Hold your right ankle with your left hand and inhale to lengthen the spine, just as in Ardha Uttanasana.
On your next exhalation, slowly unfurl into the twist by turning your belly to the right, opening the right armpit chest area, reaching up with your right arm, and, finally, extending through your right fingers. Keep your hips square, as in the Downward Dog Twist, and extend through the crown of your head. Stay in the twist for 3 breaths.

10. Utkatasana with Anjali Mudra Twist

(Chair Pose with Prayer Position Twist)

From the previous twist, exhale, unwind, and fold over your legs. Heel-toe your feet together, moving into Uttanasana. Bend your knees and come into a version of Utkatasana with your heels off the ground and your ankles moving toward each other. When you work the legs and “zip” them together, can you feel how that supports the spine? Place your palms in Anjali Mudra and twist to the right, keeping the spine long. See everything along the way. Does waking up to your environment shift your practice? Can you cultivate inner vision and outer awareness at the same time?

11. Parsva Bakasana

(Side Crane Pose)

Untwist to face front, then twist to the right again; this time, place your palms on the floor with the left baby finger in line with the right baby toe, about 12 inches from your body. Your right hand should be shoulder distance from your left hand. Make sure your knees are together. Lift your heels and at the same time, bend your elbows as if you were in Chaturanga Dandasana. Slowly shift your weight forward, resting your right thigh on top of your left upper arm. First, just lift your top leg off the floor. If that feels OK, shift forward a bit more and lift the bottom foot to meet the top foot. Keep your gaze lifted to lessen the chance of falling. You can also put a blanket or pillow on the floor in front of you as a crash pad—caution is nothing to be embarrassed about.

If you can’t get your right leg up on your arm, use a block, which makes it easier to get your leg on your arm. The instructions are the same, except you start with both feet on a block, then move into the twist from there. Hold the pose for 3 to 5 breaths, then come back into Utkatasana.

12. Uttanasana

(Standing Forward Bend)

From Utkatasana, place your palms on the floor; on an exhalation, lift your hips and fold over into Uttanasana. Dangle your head and see if you can release any tension or apprehension about doing the second side. Consciously incorporate letting go into your practice. The healthiest practice is to be precise in your organization, gentle in your approach, and free from worry.

Do this sequence again, repeating everything to the left. Notice how different or similar it feels. You can also explore how it feels to do each twist to the right and left both times you do the sequence.

Cyndi Lee is the founder of OM Yoga Center in Manhattan and East Hampton, New York. She is the author and artist of OM Yoga: A Guide to Daily Practice; OM at Home: A Yoga Journal; the OM Yoga in a Box series; the book Yoga Body, Buddha Mind; the OM Yoga Mix CD series; and the OM Yoga DVDs.