Yoga Basics 1
Yoga Basics 1
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Yoga Basics 1

Improving Body Awareness and Control

This book originally started of as a guide to improving hamstring flexibility. But part of improving hamstring flexibility involves knowing when the hamstrings are active and when they are relaxed and changing the foundation of a pose so that the hamstrings could be induced to activate or relax.

The book eventually turned into a book about learning body awareness with some tips and exercises for improving hamstring flexibility along the way. And so it’s actually a book for beginners.

It actually builds on some of the subject matter introduced in balance basics, which is also a book for beginners. You could think of this book as applying some of the the same principles and techniques learned in balance basics to basic “non-balancing” yoga poses.

One of the most important things that a beginner can focus on is creating stability, a strong foundation. Whether working on strength, flexibility or just staying upright, a stable foundation gives your muscles a fixed reference point making it easier to control your body.

And so to that end this book focuses a lot not just on feeling and controlling parts of your body but particularly on creating stable foundations and recognizing when a part of your body that is touching the floor is supporting some or all of the weight of your body and when it is not.

Learning Your Body

Generally when I teach my classes I’ll use the same routine a number of times but with slight differences in instruction.

Depending on the ability of the students in the class (and some days I get complete beginners) I have to simplify the exercises a lot. On other days, having had some experience with the same routine, the same poses can be done with a different, and perhaps deeper, focus.

The idea of repeating the same routine, but with different instructions, is to help my students get a better feel for the poses and their body. And to that end this book includes three workouts. Each workout uses more or less the same sequence of poses, but the instructions are slightly different so that you can get a better experience of your body.

In all cases, rather than just doing the exercises, focus on feeling your body as you do the exercises. Notice the sensations and changes in sensation generated by the muscles doing the work. And notice the way that parts of your body press into the floor, (or only lightly touch the floor.)

Modifications have been included but if there are exercises that you can’t do for whatever reason, then leave them out, particularly if they cause joint pain. If you can modify the exercise so that it doesn’t cause joint pain that’s fine, but if not leave the exercise out.

General instructions for exercises

Move Smoothly (and Slowly)

All exercises are non-ballistic. Instead they are slow and smooth.

  • Even for small ranges of motion the exercises are repeated with a slow, smooth and rhythmic tempo.
  • Take five seconds or more to do each phase of the movement.
  • If the instructions were for breathing, then take five seconds or more to inhale and five seconds to exhale with a smooth transition between each.

Although there will be very little breath instructions, you may find that repeating movements slowly and smoothly induces slow and smooth breathing.

In any case, make the movements slow and smooth and continuous.

Focus Your Awareness

All exercises have a directed focus.

  • While doing each exercise, focus on the changes in sensation that the movement generates.
  • This is to generate better body awareness and control and to make the movements easier.

Use Props When Your Body Needs Them

If a movement involves placing the hands on the floor but you can’t reach the floor then use props.

  • In standing poses place your hands on props so that you can use your arms to support your body at the bottom of a movement.
  • In seated poses you may need to raise your hips so that you can bend forwards with the help of gravity. Ideally, if you raise your hips, then place blocks under your knees also so that you can press your knees down when required.
  • If the instruction is to grab a foot, then use a strap, a belt or a towel (or even your mat) if you can’t reach the foot, or grab the ankle or shin or thigh.

Know What You Are Trying To Do

Understand what you are trying to do in each pose.

  • If you understand the general intent of the pose you may find it easier to create work arounds if your body doesn’t allow you to do it as described.
  • The instructions include modifications. See if you can figure out why each modification is used so that you can begin figuring out your own modifications when required.

Know the Destination

Know the destination but focus on the journey. As an example, doing the boat pose hip flexion you are trying to bring your knee to your chest. Even if you can’t get there that’s what you are working towards. To that end “focusing on the journey” could involve something simple like focusing on your hip as you do the movement. Can you make your hip feel “strong”?

Basic Practice 1a

This First Basic Practice is broken down into parts, 1a, 1b etc. This is to give you resting points where you can review the exercises done so far. If you are just getting into yoga, you could do part 1a on your first day. Then the next day, review 1a before doing 1b.

The following are basic exercises for the spine and shoulders.

Seated Cross Legged Back Bends

The first exercise focuses on repeatedly bending the spine backwards and then allowing it to return to neutral.

While sitting cross legged and keeping your torso upright:

  • Slowly lift your sacrum so that your pelvis rolls forwards.
  • Then move your sacrum downwards (or let it sink downwards) so that your pelvis rolls backwards.

Repeat a few times while focusing on feeling the movement of the sacrum and pelvis.

Continue repeating the same movement but expand your awareness to include your lower back.

  • As you lift your sacrum feel your lumbar spine bending backwards.
  • As you lower the sacrum feel your lumbar spine relaxing and bending forwards.

Once you have a feel for bending your lower back backwards and forwards, try to bend the thoracic spine backwards and forwards also.

  • As you lift your sacrum first bend your lumbar spine backwards then continue the action upward the spine and bend your thoracic spine backwards.
  • Then as you sink your sacrum downwards allow your lumbar and thoracic spine to bend forwards.
Relaxed with spine bent forwards.   
Sacrum lifted, thorax and head still relaxed (note chin position) 
Relaxed.    
Sacrum lifted, backwards bending lumbar and thoracic, neck long.
Relaxed with spine bent forwards.
Sacrum lifted, thorax and head still relaxed (note chin position) Relaxed.
Sacrum lifted, backwards bending lumbar and thoracic, neck long.

Scapular Retractions

The next two exercises are an introduction to isolating, feeling and controlling the position of the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage.

The first exercise focuses on Retraction, drawing the shoulder blades inwards.

While sitting cross legged hands can be on the floor or on your knees.

Lift your chest. Keep it lifted.

  • Move your shoulders back relative to your chest
  • Then relax them so that they return to neutral.

Repeat this action a few times, then focus on feeling the inside edges of your shoulder blades.

  • As you move your shoulders back feel (or imagine you can feel) the inside edges of the shoulder blades moving inwards.
  • Then as you let your shoulders return to neutral feel the inner edges of the shoulder blades moving away from each other.
Scapular Retraction Exercise:   
With chest lifted, move the shoulders back so that the shoulder blades move inwards, towards each other.
Scapular Retraction Exercise:
With chest lifted, move the shoulders back so that the shoulder blades move inwards, towards each other.

Scapular Protractions

This next exercise focuses on Protraction, drawing the shoulder blades outwards.

Using the same seated position:

  • Lift your chest.
  • Move your shoulders forwards without dropping or sinking your chest.
  • Then relax so that they return to neutral.
  • Relax your chest.

Repeat this action a few times, then focus on feeling (and moving) the inside edges of your shoulder blades.

  • As you move your shoulders forwards focus on pulling the inside edges of the shoulder blades outwards.
  • Then as you let your shoulders return to neutral feel the inner edges of the shoulder blades moving towards each other.
Scapular Protraction Exercise:   
With chest lifted, move the shoulders forwards so that the shoulder blades move outwards, away each other.
Scapular Protraction Exercise:
With chest lifted, move the shoulders forwards so that the shoulder blades move outwards, away each other.

Basic Practice 1b

Review the exercises from 1a before doing this next set of exercises.

Table Top

The next exercise focus on the shoulders, spine and legs first in isolation then together as an integrated action.

While sitting, place your hands on the floor behind you with fingers pointing forwards.

Bend the knees and place the feet flat on the floor about shoulder width apart in front of you.

  • Retract the shoulder blades. Feel your hands press into the floor.
  • Relax the retraction.

Repeat a few times then:

  • Retract the shoulder blades
  • Bend the lumbar and thoracic spine backwards (you can lift the sacrum as you do so)
  • Then relax both actions

Repeat a few times then:

  • Retract the shoulder blades
  • Bend the lumbar and thoracic spine backwards
  • Press the feet down to lift the pelvis a few inches off of the floor.
  • Lower the pelvis and relax

Repeat a few times then:

  • Lift the pelvis gradually higher while keeping shoulder blades retracted and chest open.
  • Lower and repeat a few times, then hold.

While holding see if you can reach your chest/front ribs backwards, away from your pubic bone and towards your chin.

For Table Top:   
Start with shoulders relaxed.  
Retract shoulder blades.   
Then lift and open chest (bend thoracic spine backwards).  
Then lift the hips.   
If you have trouble with any of these steps, then practice that step in isolation.     i.e. for retraction practice relaxing shoulders then retracting shoulder blades. Repeat until you are comfortable with the action.
For Table Top:
Start with shoulders relaxed.
Retract shoulder blades.
Then lift and open chest (bend thoracic spine backwards).
Then lift the hips.
If you have trouble with any of these steps, then practice that step in isolation. i.e. for retraction practice relaxing shoulders then retracting shoulder blades. Repeat until you are comfortable with the action.

Boat Pose Hip Flexion 1 & 2

This next exercise focuses on active hip flexion one leg at a time while balancing on the buttocks.

You can also think of this as bending the hips forwards.

While sitting upright with knees bent and feet on the floor hip width apart reach your arms forwards and then lean your torso backwards keeping your spine “straight.”

While balancing on your butt with both heels on the floor:

  • Lift one foot and pull the knee to the chest (keep the other foot on the floor.
  • Then lower the leg.
  • Lift the other foot, pull the knee to the chest (while keeping the chest lifted)
  • Then lower the leg.

Repeat 3 to 5 times for each leg, alternating legs each time.

Sitting upright, lift the chest.   
Lean back and reach the arms forwards (keeping the chest open.)  
Lift one knee and pull it back towards the chest (without collapsing the chest.)
Lower the leg and repeat with the other leg.
Sitting upright, lift the chest.
Lean back and reach the arms forwards (keeping the chest open.)
Lift one knee and pull it back towards the chest (without collapsing the chest.) Lower the leg and repeat with the other leg.

Rest for a few breaths and then do the same exercise but straighten the knee after pulling it towards the chest.

  • Lift one knee
  • Straighten that knee
  • Put the foot down
  • Repeat with the other leg.
Sit upright with chest open.  
Lean back keeping chest open.  
Lift one knee and pull it towards your chest using your hip flexors.  
Keep the knee pulling backwards, straighten the knee. (Then release and repeat on other side.)
Sit upright with chest open.
Lean back keeping chest open.
Lift one knee and pull it towards your chest using your hip flexors.
Keep the knee pulling backwards, straighten the knee. (Then release and repeat on other side.)

Repeat two or more times on each side.

Seated Twist

This next exercise focuses on assisted spinal twisting.

Sitting cross legged with your hands on your waist or together in prayer in front of your chest, turn your ribcage to the right.

Hold the twist:

  • gradually bend your thoracic and lumbar spine backwards and deepen the twist.
  • slightly bend your thoracic and lumbar spine forwards and relax the twist a little.

Repeat a few times then switch the cross of your legs so that the other shin is in front and repeat the twist to the other side.

While twisting, bend your spine forwards and then backwards.  
While bending forwards you can relax from the twist a little.    
While bending the spine backwards work at deepening the twist.
While twisting, bend your spine forwards and then backwards.
While bending forwards you can relax from the twist a little.
While bending the spine backwards work at deepening the twist.

Rolling Squat

The next exercise is to from a seated position to a squat. This is simply a way to transition from sitting to squatting (or standing).

  • With feet lifted and knees spread apart reach your arms and chest forwards between your knees and try to roll to a squat.
  • If you need to, start on your back and use momentum to first roll up to sitting a few times, then try rolling up onto your feet.
  • You can also hold on to your knees when rolling up.
Balancing on the butt with the hands reaching forwards between spread knees, rock forwards into a squat.   
(If you have difficulty, try sitting on a yoga block and then rock forwards onto your feet.)
Balancing on the butt with the hands reaching forwards between spread knees, rock forwards into a squat.
(If you have difficulty, try sitting on a yoga block and then rock forwards onto your feet.)

Work towards the point that you can slowly roll from your hips to your feet.

Basic Practice 1c

If you’ve taken a break after part 1b, review parts 1a and 1b then do this next step.

(See if you can do parts 1a and 1b from memory. Don’t worry if you got something wrong, make a note of where you made the mistake so that you can correct it for next time.)

Triangle Forward Fold

Rather than holding the “triangle forward bending” position, this exercise involves bending forwards and standing back up.

While the eventual goal is to be able to touch the hands to the floor, what is more important in this exercise is:

  • Being able to slowly and smoothly bend forwards (take 5 seconds or more to bend forwards) and
  • Slowly and smoothly stand back up again (5 seconds or more!)

For this exercise stand with one leg forwards and the other leg back.

Turn the back foot outwards enough that you can keep your back foot flat on the floor.

Keep both knees straight and turn your hips square to the front.

  • Bend forwards while keeping both knees straight and both feet flat on the floor.
  • If your hands touch the floor, slowly bend the elbows to sink the chest deeper.
  • Relax the arms and then stand back up again.

Repeat 5 times or more. Standing with one leg forwards and the other leg back with both knees straight:   
Slowly bend forwards and touch hands to the floor if possible. Then stand back up (not shown).

Next, add a twist to the front leg side as you bend forwards.

  • Keeping the same leg position as you bend forwards turn the ribcage to the same side as the front leg.
  • Reach the bottom hand down and the upper hand up.
  • If possible touch the bottom hand to the floor.
  • Pause for a moment at the bottom then stand back up, turning to face the front as you do so.
As you bend forwards, turn your ribcage towards the front leg side.  
Reach the back-leg hand down and the front-leg hand up.   
Touch the floor if possible with the bottom hand. Then stand back up (not shown.)
As you bend forwards, turn your ribcage towards the front leg side.
Reach the back-leg hand down and the front-leg hand up.
Touch the floor if possible with the bottom hand. Then stand back up (not shown.)

Repeat five times or more.

Squat

The basic squatting exercise that I use is to lower from standing upright to a squat position with thighs horizontal.

Pause, then slowly stand back up.

Another variation is to lower to half way, hold then lower to a full squat. Then lift to the half way position. Then stand.

Start in a standing position with feet hip width and with knees and toes pointing straight ahead

  • Reach the hips back and bend the knees.
  • Reach the arms forwards and tip the pelvis/ribcage forwards to stay balanced.
  • Lower to thighs level and hold.
  • Then stand up slowly.
  • Repeat.

Next:

  • Lower to the half squat position.
  • Then lower all the way down and relax.
  • Lift back up to the half way position.
  • Lower all the way down again.

Repeat 3 or 4 times, then from the final half squat position slowly return to standing.

First row, from standing, squatting to the thighs horizontal position.   
Second row, from a relaxed deep squat, lifting up to the half squat position.   
Notice in the bottom middle picture, I lengthen my spine prior to lifting the hips.
First row, from standing, squatting to the thighs horizontal position.
Second row, from a relaxed deep squat, lifting up to the half squat position.
Notice in the bottom middle picture, I lengthen my spine prior to lifting the hips.

Forward Bend with a Weight Shift

The next exercise involves balancing on one foot while bent forwards. Bend forwards with feet hip width or shoulder width apart, toes and knees pointing straight ahead.

  • Shift your weight to your right foot. Lift your left foot.
  • Shift your weight back.
  • Press your right forefoot into the floor.
  • Lift your hands.
  • Pull the left foot forwards rather than letting it reach back.
  • Switch sides, repeating 3 times for each side (or repeat on one side 3 times then do the other)
While bending forwards with hands on the floor (or on yoga blocks), shift weight to one foot.    
Lift the non-weighted foot.  
Then lift both hands an inch off of the floor.   
The key in this pose shifting your weight back and also pressing the forefoot into the floor.
While bending forwards with hands on the floor (or on yoga blocks), shift weight to one foot.
Lift the non-weighted foot.
Then lift both hands an inch off of the floor.
The key in this pose shifting your weight back and also pressing the forefoot into the floor.

Basic Practice 1d

If you are short on time, just review parts 1b and 1c (or even just 1c) prior to doing 1d.

Standing side bend

In standing side bend both the spine and the hip joints are bent to the side. However, for better body awareness (and muscle control) the spine is bent sideways first, then the hips.

Stand with feet hip width, toes and knees pointing straight ahead, knees straight.

  • Reach the right arm up. (Lift the shoulder. Lengthen the right side of the body and arm.)
  • Then bend the lumbar spine and thoracic spine to the left.
  • Then push the hips to the right.
  • Then Reach the left arm to the left.

While holding the pose:

  • Press the thighs outwards to activate the outer thighs. At the same time widen/protract the shoulder blades. Then relax these actions.
  • Next pull the thighs inwards to activate the inner thighs. At the same time retract the shoulder blades. Then relax.
  • Repeat 3 to 5 times.
Standing side bend.   
One way to enter standing side bend is to first reach one arm up and lengthen that side of the body.   
Then bend the spine to the opposite side.   
Then push the hips in the opposite direction.   
You can then reach to the side with the bottom hand.
Standing side bend.
One way to enter standing side bend is to first reach one arm up and lengthen that side of the body.
Then bend the spine to the opposite side.
Then push the hips in the opposite direction.
You can then reach to the side with the bottom hand.

Half Moon Pose

The goal for this exercise is to slowly place the hand on the floor. Then slowly lift the hand and pause prior to standing up under control.

To get into half moon pose:

  • Turn your left foot out 90 degrees.
  • Stand on your left foot with the right foot lifted.
  • Turn the pelvis to the front.
  • Slowly touch your hand to the floor. For bonus points reach the right leg and right arm upwards towards the ceiling.

Hold for a few breaths then:

  • Press your forefoot into the floor (You may have to shift weight away from your hand)
  • Lift the hand an inch off of the floor. Pause.
  • Slowly stand up.
With the standing foot turned out, shift weight onto that foot.   
You can pause here and focus on balancing.     
Then tilt the pelvis in order to touch the bottom hand to the floor.  
You can then focus on lifting the other leg higher.
With the standing foot turned out, shift weight onto that foot.
You can pause here and focus on balancing.
Then tilt the pelvis in order to touch the bottom hand to the floor.
You can then focus on lifting the other leg higher.
Half moon pose.   
Prior to lifting the hand make sure your weight is centered over your standing foot.  (Notice how my standing leg is vertical)
You can also make sure that the foot and ankle are stable.   
Then try to lift the hand.
Half moon pose.
Prior to lifting the hand make sure your weight is centered over your standing foot. (Notice how my standing leg is vertical) You can also make sure that the foot and ankle are stable.
Then try to lift the hand.

Repeat to the other side.

If you are using a yoga block as a prop for half moon,  I'd suggest holding it in the hand as you reach the hand towards the floor.
Gradually reduce the height of the block as you get more comfortable with this exercise to the point that you no longer need the block.   
Another option, if you have trouble touching the floor, is to bend the standing knee.
If you are using a yoga block as a prop for half moon, I’d suggest holding it in the hand as you reach the hand towards the floor. Gradually reduce the height of the block as you get more comfortable with this exercise to the point that you no longer need the block.
Another option, if you have trouble touching the floor, is to bend the standing knee.

Difficulties?

To make lifting the hand easier, practice weight shifting in half moon.

With weight on the right foot and right hand on the floor:

  • Shift weight towards the hand so that the hand presses down more. Pause.
  • Then shift weight away from the hand just enough that the hand feels relaxed. Pause.
  • To lift your hand make sure your forefoot is pressing down. Pause, then put the hand down and repeat the weight shift.
  • Repeat 3 or more times.

So that you stand with grace, keep weight over your foot as you stand up (keep your forefoot pressing down.)

With hand on the floor in half moon pose, first shift weight towards the hand.   
(Look at the change in angle of my standing leg in the top right picture.)    
Then shift weight back entirely onto the supporting foot.  
Then lift the hand. Then put the hand down again and repeat.
With hand on the floor in half moon pose, first shift weight towards the hand.
(Look at the change in angle of my standing leg in the top right picture.)
Then shift weight back entirely onto the supporting foot.
Then lift the hand. Then put the hand down again and repeat.

Repeat on the other side.

This is the end of the preview.