Yoga is an age-old practice that stretches the body and calms the mind. By performing a series of poses, called asanas, yoga students make themselves more limber and relaxed. This results in lower blood pressure, a decrease in stress, and healthy joints and muscles. But beyond its health benefit, yoga is a lot of fun! With poses that range from simple to challenging, yoga feels great and gives your mind something to think about while you exercise.
If you're just getting started with yoga, it's best to sign up for a class at a nearby gym, community center, or fitness club. The yoga teacher will help you learn to perform the poses correctly, so you don't strain your back or neck. You can also learn from a DVD or a good book with pictures. If you're studying on your own, ask a trusted friend to critique your form as you do the poses, focusing on your head, back, and neck position.
Get started with your yoga practice by trying out a few simple poses.
Mountain Pose (or tadasana)
Standing barefoot on a no-slip mat, put your feet side-by-side so that the bases of your big toes are touching. Stand comfortably and adjust your feet as necessary until they feel good against the mat. As you stand straight up and down with your arms at your sides, feel the strength in your legs. Contract your thigh muscles and feel your knee caps lift. Practice holding your head and neck in a straight line, as if you're being dangled from an imaginary threat that extends out the top of your head. Relax your shoulders. Breathe in and out, and focus on your breathing.
Begin in Mountain Pose. As you exhale, move your left foot about three or four feet to the left side. Lift your arms until they're parallel with the floor. Stretch your fingertips outward. Then pivot your left foot 90 degrees to the left, and turn your right foot about 45 degrees toward your left. The heels of both feet should be in line underneath your arms.
As you exhale, reach your left hand out and over your left foot, bending at the waist. Reach downward with your left hand and let your torso follow, until your torso is parallel with the floor and your left hand is either on the floor or resting on your left shin or ankle. Don't stretch any more than in comfortable. If the stretch hurts, pull back and move your left hand up to your upper shin. Your left arm should be straight; your torso bent to the side, so that your face and torso are pointed at the wall (not the floor).
When you feel comfortable here, with a gentle stretch in your waist and hamstrings, lift your right arm until it is pointing straight up toward the ceiling. Stay here, breathing, for one minute. For a more advanced version, turn your head to look up at your right hand. It can be hard to balance this way! To come up, inhale and press back into your heels as you reach your right arm back, over your right foot. Come up to standing, pivot your feet in the other direction, and perform triangle pose on the other side.
Cat to Cow Pose
This is a great way to loosen a tight back, neck, or shoulders. Begin on all fours with your palms under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Hold your spine and neck in a straight line. Then drop the head and neck toward your mat, pull your stomach muscles in tight, and round your back up toward the ceiling. Hold that pose and breathe in and out. As you exhale, return to neutral, then drop your belly toward the mat and tilt your head back gently so that your eyes move up toward the ceiling. Feel your spine move more deeply into your body. Breathe in and out here.
Continue to roll back and forth through the two phases of cat pose. After your initial movement through the pose, you can speed up your movement so that you roll your spine toward the ceiling on the inhale and drop your belly toward the floor on the exhale.
Perform these poses every day, if you can, and gradually add more asanas to your repertroire. Before long, you'll notice a positive change in your posture, your strength, and your flexibility.