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A lot of us tend to be grateful for the external things in our lives. Our partner. Our friends. Our home. Maybe our work. But how often do we pause in gratitude for ourselves? Specifically, how often do we appreciate where we are in our physical yoga practice at the moment?
I spent most of the early days of my yoga practice trying to achieve things. I wanted to nail certain poses or get through a certain Ashtanga sequence by a certain time (which is traditionally determined only at a teacher’s discretion).
Cut to 20 years later. An extensive shoulder surgery, two pregnancies, and innumerable small physical and mental setbacks later, I appear to have actually gone backward in my practice in a lot of ways, if you measure where I am at physically. I still can’t Handstand in the center of the room. And whereas I used to wrap my legs behind my head every morning with ease, I now much prefer doing less intense hip openers such as Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged Pigeon) on a mountain of props.
Despite my asana practice outwardly looking less challenging—some would even say “less advanced”—these days, I am simply grateful to be able to lift my right arm, let alone have the time and space to do an entire yoga practice.
This approach has made my experience of yoga so much richer. Rather than spending the whole practice trying to accomplish one thing or get anywhere, I spend the precious time I have on the mat enjoying where I am in that moment. Perhaps this is the true advanced practice.
Let’s set the intention in our asana practice to not accomplish anything other than being grateful for exactly where we are.
A sequence that cultivates gratitude for where you are right now
You can try these five poses as a full sequence or incorporate a few of them into your regular home practice. Let them remind you that you are exactly where you need to be.
Why it works: This opener is a great psoas release, which is the primary hip flexor muscle that notoriously tightens with stress, which in turn tightens your ability to move with ease. This is the same effect that stress can have on your psyche. The arm variation for this soothing stretch is like a hug.
How to: Lie on your back. Separate your feet as wide as your mat and let your inner knees rest against each other. This should feel comfortable on your lower back; if not, adjust the distance between your feet. Inhale your arms wide into a “T” shape. On an exhale, wrap your arms around your chest, with your right elbow over your left. Let your arm bones feel heavy and fall toward the floor. Imagine there is a weighted blanket on your chest. Feel your shoulder blades widening away from one another. Simply breathe into your upper back and the area behind your heart. Remain here for 10 breaths.
Inhale and reach your arms wide again and switch the crossing of your arms so your left arm is on top. Remain here for 10 breaths.
Why it works: When you place your hands on your thighs, it’s like an anchor to the nervous system. This can slow your racing thoughts sufficiently to remind you to pause and be here in the moment. Hero is also an accessible pose for finding a neutral alignment of the spine. When our spine is hunched forward, it can be fatiguing. Conversely, when it is unnaturally arched, it can be overstimulating. When the spine is in a neutral position, such as Tadasana (Mountain P0se), the effects can be equalizing and clarifying. Recreate the feeling of Tadasana in your spine here.
How to: Come to sitting on your heels. Touch your inner knees together and have the tops of your shins and feet on the floor. If you like, take a block on the low or medium setting between your ankles. Hug your block with your ankles. Use the block as feedback to find balance in your pelvis so your pubic bone, tail bone, and sitting bones are aligned evenly. Rest your hands downward on your top thighs. If it’s comfortable, close your eyes. As you quietly sit and breathe, observe how you are positioned. Align your crown above your rib cage and your rib cage above your pelvis. Remain here for 10 breaths.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose) Variation
Why it works: Often when you are doing something strenuous, whether it’s a pose or you’re a challenging experience, you drop your head and try to barrel forward with might. This can collapse your chest and, therefore, your heart. Doing Chair with your hands in prayer enables you to nudge your heart and lift it a little, even during adversity. The hand position can also be a reminder to ourselves that we don’t have to work that hard. We’re strong enough.
How to: Stand at the front of the mat with your feet either together or hip-width apart. On an inhale, bring your hands to your hips and begin to bend your knees. Keep your weight back toward your heels, as if you were sitting into a literal chair behind you. Place your hands into Anjali Mudra (Prayer Hands) at your chest, with your thumb gently pressing up and into your top sternum. Lengthen your lower spine by aiming your tailbone down. Look straight ahead. Hold for 5 breaths. On an exhale, press to standing. Consider repeating.
Why it works: One of my favorite ways to strengthen my appreciation of something is to place myself in a situation where I have to work to maintain it. For example, I recently committed to waking up at 5 am every day to write. There are many days when I’m tempted to hit snooze, but I’m always grateful when I don’t. I have a similar relationship with standing forward bends. When we fold, the body tends to get heavy and round forward. By working to maintain a slight backbend despite the pull of gravity, it becomes a practice for me of commitment and resolve. Once I am on the other side of it, I experience gratitude.
How to: Face the long edge of your mat and step your feet wide. On an inhale, take your arms out to the sides. As you exhale, if it’s possible for you, reach your arms behind you and flip your palms into a reverse prayer with your fingertips pointing toward the back of your head. Try to keep the heels of your hands connected. If you’re able to inch your hands further up your back, you can play with that. Once in that position, draw your shoulder heads back to keep your upper arms safely in the sockets and to initiate the backbend. Inhale and lift your chest. Exhale and bend forward. Observe when your chest wants to round and pause there as you recommit to your backbend. You may find that you’re unable to fold as deeply as before without losing the backbend. Stay in gratitude wherever you land. Remain here for 8 breaths.
It should require effort but not strain or discomfort. If reverse prayer hands are not appropriate for your body, there are many alternatives, including interlacing your fingers behind your back or simply keeping your hands on your hips and working the backbend.
Inhale and lift yourself upright, release your prayer hands, and bring your hands on your hips before stepping your feet back together.
Why it works: In many ways, restorative poses, in which your body is supported by props, embody the ultimate practice of relaxing and being exactly where you are. It’s not unusual for restoratives to seem to be the “easiest” physically yet the most challenging mentally. If it becomes too much, keep your eyes open and do shorter holds. Remember, the goal is to not have a goal. There is no perfect time limit or even alignment. This pose is all about being.
How to: Place a bolster or a pile of 1 to 3 folded blankets vertically along the center of your mat. (If you’re a bit taller, like me, it’s necessary to have an extra folded blanket or block at the far end of your bolster or blankets.) Sit in front of the bolster, facing away from it, so your sit bones are on the mat and your sacrum is at the edge of the bolster. Lie back so your entire spine and the back of your head are on the bolster. Pull your heels toward your hips and open your inner knees, with the soles of your feet together. Take your blocks and prop the outside of your knees and thighs. Personally, I like tipping my blocks on a bit of a diagonal, which lifts my thighs up a bit more. Play with the height until you find what is right for you.
Once you feel fully supported, place your hands on your front body wherever they organically land. You can have both hands on the belly, observing your breathing, or one hand on the heart and the other on the belly. Allow the props to support you fully and as you rest and breathe here for 25 long breaths, imagine that every exhale is like a message to your nervous system saying, “I am here, and everything is exactly as it should be.” Because you are exactly where you should be.