Does the idea of attending a yoga class full of bendy, twisting people with perfect bodies make you nervous? You’re not alone. Many people are intimidated about trying yoga for various reasons, and not measuring up to the yoga bodies they see among the genetically-gifted is one of them. But yoga is for everybody, and with the proper foundations, you can get into nearly any pose, regardless of body type. The keys are breath and alignment. Through proper breathing, your stamina and endurance will skyrocket, and through proper alignment, you’ll find the strength and flexibility to get yourself into any posture.
Breath Is Essential
Breath is the cornerstone of every yoga practice. It is through breath that you go deeper into the poses and also protect yourself from injury. On an esoteric level, breath unites body and mind. For our purposes here, we’ll focus on two different ways of using breath: "ujjayi breath" and "breath of fire".
This is the basic yoga breath and helps yoga practitioners pace themselves and maintain a consistent heart rate. To begin, imagine that you’re fogging up a mirror. Notice the “O” shape your mouth makes, and the way your throat becomes active, sort of pushing the breath out of you instead of passively letting it out.Now, close your mouth and keep that same feeling as you breathe out through your nose. Ujjayi breath is audible and controlled. As you practice various postures, pay very close attention to this breath. Is your throat active? You should breathe deeply and rhythmically. As you get better and better at the ujjayi breath, you’ll find that you can work up a sweat in even the simplest poses. It is also extremely useful in stressful everyday situations, or just to help you relax.
Breath of fire
This breathing exercise is different from ujjayi because it is not something you should do throughout your practice. Rather, it’s a breathing exercise typically done at the beginning of class to heat up your core and clear your lungs. Take a deep breath in and out through your nose and push all that air out of your lungs, out of your diaphragm – get that breath out of you completely. Next, take another deep inhale through your nose, but this time only exhale halfway. You should have a reservoir of breath left. Using that reservoir of breath, make small, sharp exhales through your nose. Try this for 30 seconds. You will feel this in your abdominal muscles, like doing a series of crunches. Warm up with two to three rounds of breath of fire before beginning your practice. Like ujjayi breath, it is also useful in everyday situations. You’ll be amazed at how well you can breathe after this exercise.
The Importance of Alignment
If breath is the cornerstone of yoga, alignment is the foundation. Without proper alignment, the benefits of yoga are missed and, in some cases, injury can result. This isn’t meant to scare anyone away from yoga. It's better to ease into a yoga practice rather than just jumping into it. You want lifelong results, so what’s the hurry?
To build proper alignment, let’s start with a simple standing pose (mountain pose).
1. Feet: Stand with your feet as wide as your inner hips. Since so many of us think our hips are wider than they actually are, make two fists and place them between your feet. That should be about the width of your inner hipbones. Now, imagine you have four points on the bottom of each foot, like a rectangle. Each of these points should be pressing into the ground. Your balance and strength comes from these four points, never from your toes. You should have a natural arch in your foot and your toes should be spread just a bit. If you’re flat-footed, try raising your toes and then gently placing them back on the ground.
2. Knees and legs: Once you’ve rooted all four points of your feet down, focus your attention on your knees and legs. Your knees should be soft, not locked. Calves and thighs should be engaged, but not clenched. Imagine your legs growing upward into your hips.
3. Hips and pelvis: You’ve aligned your legs and feet, but is your lower back swaying out? Gently tuck your tailbone under but don’t try to completely straighten your lower back. You want to keep a natural sway without sticking your booty out too much. A mirror is useful here, but don’t exaggerate anything just to see a difference. It’s more important to feel the small adjustments than to see the big ones.
4. Torso: Your core abdominal muscles should be engaged but not clenched, like your thighs. When it comes to your torso, think “grow” instead of “tight”. You want to be expanding upward. As you breathe, imagine your sides elongating. Your ribs should be floating above your core. Shoulders are important here. Are they tense? Relax. Are they pulled forward so your chest is concave? Open your chest and gently let your shoulder blades slide down your back. Your arms are static, hands are relaxed but not dead weight.
5. Neck and head: Your neck should be in line with your spine, and your chin should be parallel with the floor. Look straight ahead. Is your neck pitching forward so your head is sticking out in front of you? This is common. Just pull your chin back so that it’s behind your chest. Remember to always keep your head behind your heart. It will keep your spine and neck in alignment. And last, reach up to the ceiling through the crown of your head.
Feel taller? You should. You’re now in proper alignment. How’s your breath?
Four Simple Poses
An asana is a series of yoga postures, often flowing together to create a cardiovascular workout. You can pace yourself slowly or more quickly as you become more familiar with each pose. For now, start slowly so you can focus on breath and alignment.
Purpose: Find proper alignment, warm up body
Stand with your feet hips-width distance apart. Align your body according to the steps of alignment described above. Take three to five deep breaths.
2. Forward bend
Purpose: Lengthen spine and stretch hamstrings
On an exhale, lift your arms above your head so your palms are facing each other. Make sure to keep your neck long and reach through the top of your head. On your next exhale, slowly bend forward, maintaining the reach through your arms and head. Imagine yourself reaching out instead of down towards the ground.
Keep your core engaged and your knees soft. If you have lower back problems, bend your knees slightly. Remember to breathe. When you have reached your maximum flexibility, let your arms hang like a ragdoll but keep your core engaged and continue to reach through the top of your head. You can clasp your elbows and bend your knees as necessary. Stay here for three to five breaths.
Purpose: Strength building for core, legs and arms
From forward bend, gently bend your knees and roll up to mountain, your head coming up last. Check your feet: Are they still hips-width apart? On an inhale, bring your arms above your head. You should be back where you started before the forward bend.
Chair pose is basically just sitting in the air, like you might do against a wall to build strength. To get into chair properly, you have to use counter-balance. As you let your legs bend and your booty sink downwards, your torso and arms will come forward slightly (not a lot, this is an upright posture). The trick is to keep it balanced. Bend your knees and think “down” instead of “back”. Look down at your feet. Can you see them? If not, shift your knees back so that you can see your toes. Engage your core, reach out through your head and arms. Take three to five breaths.
Purpose: Return to center
From chair, let your hands drift down to your sides. On your next inhale, come to a standing position slowly as you sweep your arms up towards the sky (or ceiling). With your arms still raised above your head, take another deep inhale and exhale as you bring your feet together. On your next exhale, draw your hands down in front of your heart in prayer position. Close your eyes, inhale and exhale.
Ending a series with namastatiki is a great way to take a moment to yourself, but yoga is full of moments like this. Even if you’re at work or sitting on the freeway, you can apply the principles of breath and alignment and easily decrease your stress level. Yoga was originally a real-life practice and its principles are still applicable today, in the gym or off the mat.