If there is one thing I have learned again and again in the last year and a half, it is how quickly the nervous system can settle down simply by lying on the floor.
When yoga studios abruptly shut down a year and a half ago, it was the first time in 22 years I had zero pressure to practice yoga. I was no longer responsible for instructing several yoga classes a week, leading teacher trainings, and mentoring new teachers. During the first week or so of no in-studio classes, I thought, “what a great opportunity to finally take a break from yoga.”
By my third week of doing as little as possible, everything hurt and I felt like complete garbage. I’d conveniently forgotten how much I needed yoga. I practiced yoga regularly not only to take care of myself, but also because it inspires me, keeps me curious, and informs my teaching. My home practice was essential to my being able to effectively share yoga with students.
Even after that realization, on more days than I care to admit, I struggled to do yoga on my own. I would intend to practice but then curl up on my sofa and mindlessly scroll on my phone. Even though I knew that moving would improve my mood, I found that getting onto my mat felt monumental. It was as if there was a force field holding me back from doing the one thing that makes me feel better.
I still find it challenging to practice. I’ve come to understand, though, that when I start with the support of the floor against my back, I instantly feel better. I bend my knees, place my feet flat on the mat, close my eyes, and my attention immediately shifts to my breath. The moment I come back to my breath, my frazzled nervous system begins to settle. The quality of my breath changes and something inside me softens. My body feels better, my mind has more clarity, and everything in life seems more tolerable.
The entire last year, my home practice, which has always included lots of backbends and inversions, has shifted to floor work, core stabilizing, and anything else I can think of to ground, strengthen, and quiet me. These poses still open the shoulders and strengthen the core as well as the lower back. My practice remains slow and close to the mat and comprises only poses that I can do while lying on the floor. Getting on my mat is often the hardest part.
Movement is medicine. Even a little is better than nothing.
A grounding, floor-based yoga practice
The following sequence is one of my go-to practices. I find it both incredibly grounding and strengthening. It’s designed to strengthen the core and is ideal for anyone with low-back sensitivity or weakness. It also builds strength in your arms and shoulders and releases tension in your upper back and chest. Consider it an antidote for endless Zooming.
Use this series on its own or as a warm-up for a longer home practice. You’ll need a bolster (two or three folded blankets work just as well).
This pose brings you to stillness. Also, you get to find a position that requires no work on the part of your low back.
How to: Lie flat on your back and draw your knees into your chest. Breathe here. Bring your feet flat on the mat. Rest your hands on your chest, close your eyes, and slow your breathing.
If your low back overarches—meaning, if there’s space between your back and the floor—subtly shift the front of your hip bones toward your low ribs until you feel your lower back make contact with the mat. If your back doesn’t touch, slide something, such as a folded blanket, beneath you. Feel this flattening of your low back. Create an imprint in your mind of how your body is touching the floor. You will want to maintain this shape throughout the next few exercises.
In addition to strengthening your lower back and core, this exercise helps teach your arms to externally rotate, which is essential for weight-bearing postures such as Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), and Plank.
How to: Grab a bolster or a folded blanket. The heavier the weight, the harder this pose. Start with less intensity.
Lift the bolster directly above your head with your arms shoulder-distance apart and your palms facing up. If your shoulders are strong (which tends to make them stiff), turn your hands out at a slight angle (think of a clock and do 10 p.m. with your left hand and 2 p.m. with your right hand).
Maintain the shape of your lower spine and straighten your arms. Turn your inner arms toward your face, inhale, and continue to lift your arms up and begin to slowly move the bolster up and slightly behind your head. The moment you feel your lower back begin to arch is when you stop. (At that point, you start to move from your spine when you want to move from your shoulders.) Lift your bolster as high as you can, reaching it toward the ceiling until you feel your shoulders come off the floor and your shoulder blades spread. Your abdominal muscles must work hard to allow for opening in your shoulders and sides. Bring the bolster back to its start position. Repeat a total of 5 times. Then hug your bolster.
Make the pose more intense: If you want to up the ante, do this exercise with straight legs.
This pose strengthens the core, but not at the expense of low-back stability.
How to: From the same starting position of knees bent and feet on the mat, hip-distance apart, press into your feet and lift your hips enough to slide the bolster (or folded blanket or towels) horizontally underneath your pelvis. You should be able to slide your hand between your back and the floor.
Inhale and bring both knees into your chest. Exhale and extend your legs straight up toward the ceiling, directly over your pelvis, inner edges of your feet touching.
Take a deep breath in and as you exhale—without arching or rounding your low back—slowly lower your legs toward the front of your mat. Only go as far as you can before your low back starts to tilt.
Pause on your inhale and let go of any tension in your face. As you exhale, move your legs back to the starting position. Repeat a total of 5 times.
Bend both knees into your chest and wrap your arms around your legs and breathe. Bring your feet back to the mat, press down through your feet, and lift your hips enough to slide the bolster (or folded blanket or towels) off to the side. Lower your back to the mat and remain here.
Make the pose easier: If your hamstrings are tight and you cannot straighten your legs, bend your knees and/or separate your legs and feet hip-distance apart. If your neck and shoulders are tight, reach your arms down by your sides, grab the sides of your mat, and rotate your arms outwardly until you feel your shoulder blades move up toward your chest and away from the floor.
This lower back stretch relies on your strong core to initiate movement.
How to: From legs bent, feet hip-distance apart, move your arms straight out to the side, maybe a few inches wider than you would in Savasana. Exhale and slowly move your bent knees to the left until your left leg is on the mat. As you lower your legs to the side, create your own resistance (as opposed to just letting them drop). You will be on the outer edge of your left foot and the inner edge of your right foot.
Pause while you inhale and, on your next exhale, initiate movement from your abdominal muscles to slowly bring your legs to the right. Pause while you inhale and, on your next exhale, come back to the starting position. The core work in this pose is subtle. You can place your hands on your lower abdomen until it becomes more apparent to you what is initiating the movement. Repeat a total of 5 times.
Make the pose more intense: Lie down with bent knees, feet hip-distance apart, and cross your right ankle over your left knee (thread the needle hip opener). Slowly, creating your own resistance, move your legs to the right then over to the left. Repeat for a total of 5 times. Switch sides.
Superman to Modified Side Plank
You will be in a prone position to challenge your muscle and your mind in a slightly unfamiliar way. Then you roll onto your side into a position that is similar to Tadasana (Mountain Pose) that allows you to do all the core strengthening work of Vasisthasana (Side Plank) minus the challenging balance part of the pose. Like regular Side Plank, it can be frustrating if you’ve never done it before. Work on it a few times. The more you do something, the better you get at it.
How to: From Reclined Twist, slowly roll over and lie on your abdomen. Bend your elbows out to the sides, stack your hands, and rest your forehead on top. Pause and connect with the floor in this new way. Use the contact of the floor to observe the quality of your breathing. Stay here for about a minute.
Start to engage your legs. Separate them hip-distance apart, stretch the tops of your feet, and press all 10 toenails on the floor. Continue to breathe smoothly as you press down and straighten your legs. Your knees will come off the floor. Maintain this strong work in your legs as you begin to engage your glutes and draw your tailbone toward your heels.
Slowly lift your head a little off your hands and stretch your arms forward on the floor in front of you. Reach as far forward as you can, arms straight and shoulder-distance apart. Reach your legs back as far as you can, making them as long as possible. Remain here for 5 breaths. Feel the space you’re creating in your back. Visualize yourself as a superhero flying through space!
Without losing the straightness of your legs or the firmness of your glutes and abs, bend your right elbow and place your hand on your mat just to the right of your ribs. Carefully roll onto your left side.
Align the entire left side of your body in a straight line—heel, leg, torso, armpit, and arm. Just as you did when you were lying belly down, straighten your knees and engage your tailbone and abs so there isn’t an arch in your lower back. Reach your left arm as far forward toward the front of your mat and rest your head on your arm. Continue to breathe as you work on balancing. Strongly press down into the outer edge of your bottom heel and straighten your knee more than you think you need to. (Trust me, this seemingly insignificant adjustment is sometimes all it takes to help you balance more gracefully.)
Lift your top leg off your bottom leg until you feel your outer hip muscles engage. Remain here for 5 breaths.
Make the pose more intense: If you’re ready to challenge yourself and move on, reach your right arm in the same direction as your legs. Straighten your arms and legs like there’s no tomorrow. Breathe smoothly as you continue to work your tail and your navel toward each other.
Carefully (and without flopping) roll back onto the front of your body, repeat the superhero prep from the first side, and repeat on the other side. Roll onto your back and bring your knees into your chest. Come into Savasana (Corpse Pose) or continue with your home practice.
Jenny Aurthur started practicing at YogaWorks in Santa Monica in the early 90s. She left her soul-crushing job in the music industry after taking yoga teacher training. YogaWorks relocated Jenny to New York City where she taught classes, led teacher trainings, and mentored teachers. She currently teaches privately in-person and online.