This is the first in a series of “From Our Resident Yoga Teacher.” Every two weeks, Kristin will answer any questions regarding yoga that you, our readers, have. Today, the focus is on how to start a yoga practice, how to become comfortable in Downward Dog, and poses for your back. Kristin is a 200-hour registered yoga instructor. She was first introduced to yoga in 2008, and had an intermittent practice until late 2014, when she began to crave more. She favors fun, stretchy and fast-paced Vinyasa, and relaxing Yin classes. While she is a certified yoga teacher, she is not a medical doctor. Consult your MD if you are concerned about pre-existing conditions about you and your yoga practice.
How to start a yoga practice
Today, yoga is extremely popular in the West. People practice the asanas (the physical practice and poses of yoga) either for a workout, as therapy, or a way to enhance their already established physical exercise (such as dance). Some people practice for the spiritual and calming effects of yoga. If you do not have a regular practice, but want to start one, we’ve got some tips for you, darling. If you wish to start your yoga practice at home, here are some ways to create a at-home yoga studio. However, if your budget allows it, then the energy of a group of people and having a knowledgeable teacher makes group classes a preferred choice. But figuring out how to create space and time within your schedule may be the biggest hurdle in actually getting on your mat.
So how can you begin your practice? First thing you need to do is ask yourself why you want to practice yoga. Do you feel overwhelmed, stressed, and feel like you need a quiet space? Do you wish to start a physical exercise, or to return to one? Are you recovering from an injury, and want to try something gentle to help you move again? Or do you just want a nice butt and want to share a pic of you in a split on your IG account?
Figure out your reason – whatever is – and you’ve already given yourself the motivation to begin. Take a look at your schedule, and find a two-hour window at some point in your week. Many yoga studios offer classes at 6:00, 7:00, and 8:00 AM. If mornings aren’t good, immediately after the work day (around 6:00 PM) is also a popular class time, but some studios also offer lunch hour classes, or even night classes. Chances are, you will be able to find a class that fits your availability. Look up two or three or more local yoga studios. Read reviews, go to the studio, and purchase either a low-cost new student incentive, or a cheap multi-class pack.
Really, it’s up to you to go. If you believe you need to go to yoga to let go, you’ll find time. If you want to go for the physical benefits, you’ll find time. Once you do, try to commit to going at least once a week. I personally feel that twice a week is the best minimum in order to really receive the benefits. But again, whatever fits your schedule. If that means once a week, then you are doing yourself a big favor that one time per week.
How to become comfortable in your Downward Dog
For some yoga beginners (and a few long term practitioners, too) Downward Facing Dog is an uncomfortable pose. Why? The typical culprit is wrist pain, but discomfort can also happen in the hamstrings. This isn’t ideal, as you will be going into Downward Dog often and frequently in any Vinyasa, Flow, or Hatha style class. It’s part of a warm up and acts as a resting pose. For those who find it uncomfortable it may even turn you away from an asana practice altogether. To make Downward Dog a restful place for you in your practice, try out one, two, or any combination of these tips:
For pain in the wrists:
Bend your knees and think of moving the weight of your body off your wrists, and into your legs. You’ll still want to have the tailbone reaching for the sky (so no rounding of the back) but with bent knees, you will be in a sort of crouch. Mentally push your weight into the legs, and off those wrists.
Root down in the index fingers and thumbs. You shouldn’t be dumping your weight into your wrists anyways, so check to see where you are putting the weight. Make sure your fingers are spaced apart and active. Your hand shouldn’t just be laying there, but the fingers should be actively supporting you, more so than your wrists.
Invest in some gel pads. Check out Yoga Jellies, and use them for your wrists, knees, elbows, or wherever you feel discomfort when applying pressure.
For pain in the hamstrings:
If your feet aren’t flat on the ground, don’t worry about it. Absolutely do not unnecessarily strain yourself just for your heels to touch the ground. Every body is different, and all of our physical experiences have impacts on how we get into poses. Maybe one day your heels will touch – or not- but that’s OK.
Bring your hands and feet a little closer together. You still want to be in your Downward Facing Dog, but by shortening your stance, you may find that you actually can touch the mat. You can also make your hammies happy by bending the knees, and following the tips above.
Yoga to Help with Back Pain
If you suffer from back pain, yoga is a great way to soothe the tension, and to help release it. If you suffer from intense pain, rest is the best for you, but for those who suffer from mild or chronic back pain, yoga can greatly reduce your discomfort. In order to really notice the benefits, you will need to practice regularly – at least once a week. Here are just a few poses that are great for your back (and a few that you should avoid if you have back issues).
Spinal twists are a good way to twist out toxins, to aid in digestion, and to release and relieve lower back pain. Marichi’si Pose is a simple way to begin your twisty poses. Sitting down with your legs straight out in front of you, and with square hips, bend your right knee, and bring it in close to your chest, while sitting tall. Place your right hand behind you, and either hug your knee with your left hand, or place your left elbow to the outside of your right knee. Before turning your head to look over your right shoulder, begin to twist from the mid spine, and then allow your head to follow. Remain sitting tall, gazing at the side, or all the way over your right shoulder. Do the same on the opposite side.
You can also try Half Lord of the Fishes pose (shown above), a reclined spinal twist (one of my very favorite poses), and revolved triangle. These will ease any lower back pain, and if done deeply (and correctly) can also release tension in the mid-spine.
Massage and Restore:
These gentle (and simple) poses will awaken, rejuvenate, and restore the spine. Because they are so gentle, a warm up isn’t necessary, although you will get more out of them if your body is slightly warm, so maybe put in some sun salutations before doing these.
The most restorative is Child’s Pose (above). Start in a all fours, bringing big toes together, and then sit on your heels. Your knees can be wide (which rounds the spine and slightly opens the hips) or close together (which lengthens the spine). Bring forehead to the mat, and relax your arms out in front of you. Or bring hands by your hips and feet, to be gentle on the shoulders. Breathe fully and relax. Hold for at least five breaths, but you can be rest for several minutes.
Bridge pose, especially when used with a block, can be very restorative, and you can be here for about a minute. A Cat/Cow sequence is a simple way to wake up the spine by both rounding (tucking tailbone, chin to chest on exhale) and arching (tailbone turns up, lifting head and gaze on inhale).
Lengthen and Stretch:
If you wish to grow taller and to stretch out the spine, these poses will do that for you. Mountain pose, or Tadasana is the most simple, and can easily be practiced every morning. Simply stand with the feet together (or hip distance, if you prefer), shrug the shoulders back and along the spine, and be tall with the neck. With your hands by your hips, open the palms so they face forward. Really root down in the feet, but lift up from the arches. Close the eyes, and think strong and tall like a mountain.
Downward Facing Dog is another way to lengthen out the spine, especially done in the traditional pose. Plow pose is a great stretch, but use caution here. If you have neck or dental issues, avoid Plow pose, as it can put a lot of pressure on the neck. Otherwise, this is a great way to stretch out the entire spine.
Strengthen and Bend:
Locust and Bow poses can be intense, but they both deeply strengthen your back. If you’re just starting out building strength, start in Locust, or even a half Locust. In Locust, you’ll want to lay down on your belly, with ankles close to one another, and hands by your hips, palms up. Turn your big toes inward, and really root down with the hips into the floor. With a straight spine and on an exhale, lift up the head, chest arms, legs, and feet, but keep the hips rooted, and glutes engaged. Hold for 5 full breaths, before releasing. Gently sway your feet from side to side to massage the back body, especially if it feels tense.
Sphinx pose (above) is a baby back bend, or heart opener. It’s a gentle way to encourage a curve in your back, without the intensity of other heart openers. Usually held for 10 breaths, you can hold up to a minute.
Do not practice Camel or full Wheel if you are new to yoga or have back issues. These are intense back bends, and you can injure yourself if you go into the poses incorrectly or too deeply. Shoulder stand should also be avoided, as it may place a lot of weight and pressure on the neck and back if done incorrectly.
Do you have any question of your own regarding yoga? If you do, comment below, on Facebook, or message us! Happy practicing in the meantime.
Featured Image: “Brook Yoga” by raganmd