As a yoga teacher living in Washington, DC, I see a lot of people attempting to change the world for the better. With a two-party system, it’s hard to see eye-to-eye with the other side and it’s easy to feel like we’re heading into conflict each and every day. It’s important for yoga practitioners to focus on the one thing that we know for sure that we can change: ourselves.
The feeling of dealing with things as they are—even when we don’t like how they are—is a skill I call distress tolerance. In this political climate, yoga functions as a powerful ally when running headlong into the struggle to affect positive change.
This sequence focuses on strong holds to harness calm in your nervous system and build strength and flexibility. By approaching these postures consistently, you’ll build acceptance of your body as it is, and become appreciative of incremental changes as you become both stronger and more flexible.
A consistent practice of yoga has a tendency to highlight both the beautiful and the humbling aspect of the human condition. By going about a daily practice, we begin to develop a radical acceptance of things as they are—not how we want them to be. And by accepting things as they are, we can then begin to use the tools in our toolkit to help curate change in the direction we envision.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
Begin with your feet about hip-width apart and a tennis ball in each hand. To establish a deep internal sense of strength, shift your weight into your heels and squeeze the tennis balls intensely. The squeezing will help stabilize your joints and create a sense of safety. Bend your knees and keep sending your weight back without losing a feeling of grounding through your toes. Flex your shoulders by bringing both arms over your head. Keep your abdomen and ribs strong and roll your pinky fingers toward one another until you feel your shoulders upwardly rotating and protracting around your ribcage. Begin to internalize your senses. Don’t forget to squeeze the tennis balls for strength! Hold for 5–10 breaths.
From Utkatasana, try to minimize any shifting as you flex your right hip and knee as much as you can. Pause for a moment, feeling your strength, and then extend your right hip and knee, finding yourself in a High Lunge. Reach back through your left heel. Note the arrangement of your pelvis and shoulders and try to keep them them strong and stacked. Continue to squeeze the tennis balls, which will help to stabilize your shoulders—and your nervous system will love all of that control. Stay poised, with a thousand-mile stare and an interest in looking inward. After 5–10 stable breaths, step your back leg forward into Utkatasana. Try to keep your front knee bent for this transition. Repeat on the other side.
See also Master High Lunge in 6 Steps
Starting from a standing wide-legged position (a distance that ranges between the length of one of your own legs and your wingspan), turn your right foot out and your left foot in, moving from your hip. Bend your right knee in a manner that allows you to roll in and come down to find your big toe. (Feel free to leverage available props.) Grip your toe or a prop strongly, and then move your right hip back as your knee extends. Find a place where your chest is turning up to the sky and your left hip is firming your left leg down. Try to find a position where you can work a gentle twist of your chest up without losing the rooting down of your feet. Squeeze your shoulders toward your spine and away from your ears to help work your twist. If possible, gaze up at your top hand. Stay here for 5 breaths. To exit, bend your right knee, pivot up to center, straighten the right leg. Repeat on the left side.
See also Stand Strong Grounding Sequence
Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle)
Start with wide legs as you did for Triangle Pose. Externally rotate your right hip, and flex your knee. Then, bring your right hand down to the inside of your right leg or a block. Line your arm up with your shin and press your knee into your arm. Reach your top arm up into the air as in Triangle, and then drape it over your back by internally rotating your shoulder, retracting and extending. If your bottom shoulder and knee can touch, try it on the bottom arm, too. If possible, hold hands, keeping the knuckles of your bottom hand on your thigh. Keep your waistline firm, and your legs strong. If possible, take your eyes over your top shoulder. Breathe here 5 times, and then switch sides just as you did for Triangle.
5. Janu Sirsasana A (Head-to-Knee Pose A)
Start in Dandasana, the seated Staff Pose. Hover your right leg off of the ground, and then externally rotate your hip, rotating your thigh and foot out to the right. Flex your knee, contracting your hamstring and bringing your right heel as close to your pelvis as you can without using your hands. If your heel is more than a few inches from your hips, go ahead and move it in some more with your hand. Press down through your right thigh and let the sole of your foot turn up. Keep your weight centered between your legs and fold your body over your legs. Keep your spine supported with your breath. Hold for 5–10 breaths. To switch sides, exit how you entered: hover your bent leg, extend your knee, roll your leg back in, and then adduct it (bring it back to midline) to Dandasana.
See also 4 Steps to Master Head-to-Knee Pose
Take Janu Sirsasana A on your right leg to begin and point your right toes. Bend your left knee into a squatting position. Then, shift your weight forward so that you’re sitting on or over your right heel and squatting in your left leg. Reach your arms overhead as you learn forward, similar to how you held them in the High Lunge and Utkatasana. As you lean forward, see if you can take a bind across your left shin by internally rotating your shoulders and swimming them around your body. If you can, hold hands behind your back. Here, you can choose what position of your torso serves your best: relax your spine and shoulders toward the floor or stay upright. Hold for 5–10 breaths. To exit, shift your weight into the squatting leg and use the Janu leg to help you stand up. Sit down and switch sides.
Set up this posture in the exact same way you did Marichyasana B. Hug your squatting knee into your body, and begin to twist your body toward that leg. Attempt to get the armpit of your hugging arm in contact with the squatting knee. Keep your spine tall and proud. Take your gaze over the shoulder that you’re twisting toward. Once you feel stable, start counting your breaths, getting up to 5–10 breaths—stop while you feel calm. Untwist, step up, and switch sides.
Navasana (Boat Pose)
Establish Dandasana, and then bend your knees and come onto your tippy-toes. Bring your arms parallel to the floor. Engage your arm muscles and feel your arm bones pull into their sockets, with your shoulder blades firm to your body. Extend your right knee to 90 degrees and hold. If that goes well, extend your right knee fully. Bend and switch sides. After that, bend both knees to 90 degrees. If that’s sustainable, extend both knees at the same time. Find your maximum and stay for five breaths.
Shalabhasana (Locust Pose)
Come to your stomach and lie flat. Zip up your legs tight, squeezing firmly the whole of your backside and inner legs as you lift whatever you can off the mat. Shift your weight to your belly flesh and ribs and breathe deeply into the floor. The breath and the back function together to lift the front of your body up. Try to feel your front body. Pay attention to what’s no longer contacting the ground and try to lift even farther. Stay here, with a soft focus of your eyes for 5–10 breaths. When finished, push back into Child’s Pose and breathe.
Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
From Child’s Pose, stack your hips over your knees, and your shoulders over your hips. With your arms alongside your body, bend your elbows and begin to extend your shoulders. Place your hands on your buttocks as you squeeze your shoulders back and together and push your hips forward. Allow your neck to extend back, and slowly segment your spine into a supported backbend that targets your upper back. If this is comfortable, cup your heels with your hands. Feel the stretch of your front body, the tone of your back body, and the balance between lifting up, going back, pushing forward, and rooting down. Internalize your senses and focus on the expansive, multidirectional quality of the posture. Breathe for 5 or more steady breaths and then sit back down when you’ve had enough.
Sasangasana (Rabbit Pose)
With you hands on your buttocks, fingers pointed down, flex your neck by tucking your chin deeply into your chest. Curl your spine in a segmented fashion, using your abdominals to slowly round your back (imagine going disc by disc), and taking your head toward your knee and your tailbone down toward the floor. When your head is close to your knees, cup your heels and roll your body forward by extending your knees. Avoid putting weight on your head. Pull tightly on your heels. Round your back strongly, internalizing your senses, and find an expansive quality for 5 breaths. This pose’s gift is the recognition that at some point there will be nowhere to go but in.
See also 5 Poses to Boost Creativity
Savasana (Corpse Pose)
Come and lie flat. Let your arms drop out to the sides and let your legs roll out, too. This practice started with developing internal physical integrity and continued onward to cultivating a sense of internal looking. As you let go of the physical work of holding things together, let the earth and your efforts support a certain ease. Trust that this process matters. Follow your breath in and out and let your mind be. Stay here for as long as you can, and then head out into the world. Affecting positive change in the world is no small task. A strong healthy body, coupled with a regulated nervous system, helps quite a bit. More importantly, the spaciousness for inner reflection you cultivated can help you hold space for paradox and the differences that are necessary in today’s world. Stay for at least 5 minutes.
See also Rest Your Way to Self-Love
Michael Joel Hall is an Ashtanga Yoga teacher based in Washington, DC. He is the director of DC Ashtanga, a Mysore-Style yoga school proudly in residence at Eaton DC. Michael specializes in developing excellence amongst practitioners through individual instruction and professionals through local mentorship and remote coaching. Follow him @michaeljoelhall.