Tis the Season... for Tissues, Hot Tea, and De-Congesting Yoga Poses

Ahhh December… the sparkly lights are all up, the holidays are just around the corner, and cold season is in full swing. For most of us, coming down with the common cold is a nuisance that doesn’t really cause a major disruption to our daily routine. Even so, its symptoms can certainly take a toll on our body, leaving us feeling achy, congested, and more tired than usual. The following 5 yoga poses are the perfect mini-sequence to help open your chest, clear your sinuses, and provide some much-needed relief:

1. Supported Downward Facing Dog (using 2 blocks)

Adho Mukha Svanasana is a mild inversion that aids circulation. It opens the chest and airways, which allows the sinuses to drain. The yoga blocks used in this variation provide support to the head & neck, creating a more restorative sensation in the posture.

Supported Downward Facing Dog

Supported Downward Facing Dog

1. Come onto all fours with your shoulders directly over your wrists and your hips over your knees.  Place 2 blocks stacked directly under your belly, with the bottom block on its lowest height, and the top block set to its highest height.

2. Tuck your toes, shift your hips back, and straighten your legs, coming into Downward Facing Dog. The blocks should end up directly under your forehead. Lower your forehead down onto the top block and allow it to rest there.

3. Hold for five to ten breaths, then lower down to release.

2. Supported Forward Fold (using 2 blocks)

Uttanasana reduces stress and relieves tension in the spine, neck, and back. It allows for fresh direct blood-flow to the head, helps to clear out blockages, and is considered therapeutic for sinusitis. The yoga blocks used in this variation provide support to the head & neck, creating a more restorative sensation in the posture.

1. Begin standing with your hands on your hips.  Place two blocks directly in front of you, one stacked on top of the other, both at their tallest height.

Supported Forward Fold

Supported Forward Fold

2. Exhale and lengthen the front of your torso as you bend forward at the hips. Press your heels down toward the floor as you reach your sit bones upward. Spin the tops of your thighs slightly inward. Don't lock your knees.  

3.  Gently lower your forehead to rest on the top block. With each inhale lift and lengthen your torso.

4.  Hold the pose for 10 breaths.  To exit, bend your knees, place your hands on your hips, and return to standing.

3. Plow Pose

Halasana is a calming stretch that can aid in sleep, which is often affected by a cold. It can provide relief for both sinusitis and headaches.

1. Begin lying on your back, with legs extended, arms down at your side.  Palms should be flat on the ground.

Plow Pose

Plow Pose

2. Inhale and use your core muscles to lift your legs and hips up toward the ceiling.  Align your torso so that it’s perpendicular to the floor.

3.  Slowly lower your legs and feet over your head and down toward the floor.   There should be little or no weight on the lower neck.  Keep a slight bend in the knees if you feel tension in your legs or back.  If your toes don’t yet touch the floor, support your back with your hands.

4. If you can rest your toes comfortably on the floor, straighten your legs completely and move your tailbone toward the ceiling.  Interlace your fingers and press your upper arms firmly into the floor.

5.  Bring your hips over your shoulders.  Lift your tailbone and soften your throat.

6. Hold for 5-10 breaths.  To release, support your back with your hands and slowly roll down, one vertebra at a time.

4. Fish Pose

Matsyasana is referred to in a traditional yoga text as the “destroyer of all diseases.” It stimulates the thyroid gland and opens the chest & throat, which helps improve breathing & reduce congestion.

1. Begin lying on your back, with legs extended, arms down at your side.  Palms should be flat on the ground.

Fish Pose

Fish Pose

2. Inhale and press your elbows & forearms into the ground as you raise your chest, creating an arch in your upper back. Lift your shoulder blades, upper torso, and head up from the floor. Then slowly lower just your head back down onto the floor. Either the back of your head or the crown of your head will rest on the ground (depending on how lifted your back and chest are).

3. Keep pressing through your hands and forearms. There should be minimal weight pressing into your neck.

4. The knees can be bent or straight. If they are straight, make sure to keep the muscles in your thighs engaged.

5. Hold for five breaths. To release the pose, exhale as you lower your torso and head to the floor. Draw your knees into your chest for a few breaths.

5. Headstand

Sirsasana is often referred to as to as “the king of all yoga poses”. It improves circulation, strengthens the lungs, and is said to be therapeutic for sinusitis. Headstand is an intermediate/advanced inversion, so if this posture is not a part of your regular yoga practice, perform another inversion such as ‘Legs Up the Wall’ which helps soothe the mind and body.

1. Begin on your hands & knees, then lower your forearms to the floor with your elbows directly under your shoulders (you can clasp each hand around the opposite elbow to ensure that your elbows are the right distance apart).

Headstand

Headstand

2. Clasp your hands, interlacing your fingers, and place the crown of your head on the floor. The back of your head should rest gently at the base of your thumbs.

3. Raise your hips & straighten your legs. Slowly walk your feet in closer to your head until your hips are over your shoulders.

4. Now bend your knees, and begin to draw one knee in toward your chest. If you feel balanced here, lift that foot up from the floor. If you feel totally balanced with the first leg lifted, raise the other leg so that both feet are off the floor. You can keep the knees bent, or extend the legs straight (this will make the balance more challenging).

5. Hold for 3-5 breaths and then slowly lower one leg at a time to release.

5 Poses to Help Beat the Fall Funk

Autumn is one of my favorite seasons - the air feels fresher, the leaves get more colorful, and pumpkin spice lattes start making their way back onto all the menus. I get excited for cozy sweaters and cute boots, and I’ve been known to celebrate Black Friday as enthusiastically as Thanksgiving (on more than one occasion). But even still, there are definite moments where I feel the ‘fall funk’. Perhaps it’s the time change and shorter days that leave me feeling a little less motivated than usual. Or maybe it’s the thought of a long winter just around the corner that makes me a tad restless. Either way, the good news is that rolling out my mat always gets me back on track. And on the days when I don’t have time for a full yoga practice, the below postures never fail to boost my mood and help me feel more grounded.

1. Boat Pose (Navasana)

Boat Pose

Boat Pose

This pose is popular for building strength in the core & hip-flexors, but did you know it also helps relieve stress? Boat Pose creates a sense of grounding by connecting our Root Chakra (the energy center located at the base of the spine) directly to the earth.

To Perform Boat Pose:

  • Begin seated with your legs extended and your hands a few inches behind your hips.

  • Bend your knees and raise your feet off the floor, so that your thighs create an angle about 45 degrees to the floor. Extend your arms straight alongside the legs, and parallel to the floor. (if not possible, keep the hands on the floor).

  • Lengthen your tailbone downward, and if possible, begin to straighten your knees (if not possible, keep the knees bent with the shins parallel to the floor).

  • Think about grounding the tailbone downward, extending the crown of your head upward, and keeping the core engaged.

  • Hold for 5-10 breaths and then slowly lower the arms and legs to release.

2. Inversions

Yoga inversions (poses where the heart is lower than the head) are unique in that they are both relaxing and energizing. And perhaps even important is that they get us to change our perspective on the world - literally & figuratively! Headstand (shown here) is just one kind of inversion, but if this posture is not a part of your practice, try one of many other inversion options, such as Downward Facing Dog or Legs Up the Wall.

To Perform Headstand:

Headstand

Headstand

  • Begin on your hands & knees, then lower your forearms to the floor with your elbows directly under your shoulders (you can clasp each hand around the opposite elbow to ensure that your elbows are the right distance apart).

  • Clasp your hands, interlacing your fingers, and place the crown of your head on the floor. The back of your head should rest gently at the base of your thumbs.

  • Raise your hips & straighten your legs. Slowly walk your feet in closer to your head until your hips are over your shoulders.

  • Now bend your knees, and begin to draw one knee in toward your chest. If you feel balanced here, lift that foot up from the floor. Again, if you feel totally balanced, repeat with the other leg so that both feet are off the floor. You can keep the knees bent, or extend the legs straight (this will make the balance more challenging).

  • Hold for 3-5 breaths and then slowly lower one leg at a time to release.

3. Heart Openers

Heart-openers such as Camel Pose are instant mood-boosters, and a great way to warm up the body as the weather gets cold.  Additional bonus: they also help improve posture by reversing the many hours of leaning forward we do on a day-to-day basis.

To Perform Camel Pose:

Camel Pose

Camel Pose

  • Begin on your knees with your legs hip-width apart. Place your palms on the back of your pelvis, with your fingers pointing to the floor.

  • Lengthen your tailbone downward as you begin to lean back, with your chin slightly tucked.

  • Stay here, or if you are comfortable, you can deepen the pose by reaching back and taking hold of your heels. If you can’t quite reach your heels, you can tuck you toes to elevate your heels.

  • Lengthen the spine bring your hips forward so that your hips are directly over your knees. Keep your head in a neutral position, or let it drop back if it feels comfortable for your neck.

  • Hold for 5-8 breaths, then bring your hands to your hips and lift your torso as you press your hips downward to release.

4. Happy Baby Pose

This posture embodies its name by instantly melting stress away and awakening our inner child. It releases the low back & sacrum while providing a gentle stretch to the hips - a place where many of us hold tension.

To Perform Happy Baby Pose:

Happy Baby Pose

Happy Baby Pose

  • Begin lying on your back with your knees drawn in towards the chest.

  • Grab hold of the outside edges of your feet with your hands.  Draw your shoulders down on to your back as you flex your feet.

  • Widen the knees as you pull them in toward your armpits. Try to stack ankles above knees.

  • Lengthen your lower back down toward the ground, with the intention of touching the tip of your tailbone to the floor.

  • Stay here for 8-16 breaths and then lower the legs to release.

5. Child's Pose

Child’s Pose

Child’s Pose

This classic resting posture is a favorite for good reason. It’s incredibly calming and comforting, and provides a wonderful sense of physical, mental, and emotional release. 

To Perform Child’s Pose:

  • Begin on all fours, with your shoulders directly over your wrists and your hips over your knees.  With an exhale slowly lower the hips down to the heels and the forehead to the floor. 

  • The knees can stay together or if more comfortable, spread them slightly apart.  The arms can be overhead with the palms on the floor, or they can be along side the body with the palms up.

  • Breathe slowly and deeply. Actively press the belly into the thighs on each inhale.

  • Stay here for 10-20 breaths.  Slowly return to a seated position to release.

4 Yoga Poses to Help Open Your Shoulders

Open Shoulders can help with Proper Alignment in Forearm Stand

Open Shoulders can help with Proper Alignment in Forearm Stand

So many of us carry tension in our shoulders - whether it’s from sitting at a computer for hours a day, using our smartphones, or even from the way we sleep - the shoulders are one of the most common parts of our body to hold stress.  Having stiff shoulders can affect our yoga practice too.  Many of the poses we perform are compromised when there is a limited range of motion in the shoulders (such as Forearm Stand).

Shoulder-opening poses are a great way to relieve tension and to help prevent injury in postures that require the shoulders to be more open.  Below are 4 of my go-to shoulder-opening postures:

1. Garudasana (Eagle) Arms

Garudasana Arms

Garudasana Arms

  • While in a comfortably seated position, reach your arms straight forward and parallel to the ground.

  • Spread your scapula wide as you cross your left arm over your right.

  • Bend your elbows. Your left elbow should be directly inside of the right one, and the backs of your hands should be facing one other.

  • Continue to twist the arms so that the palms of the hands are facing one another. Then press the palms together as much as you comfortably can.

  • Raise your elbows up, reaching the fingertips toward the sky.

  • Hold for 10 breaths, then release, and repeat on the opposite side for the same length of time.

2. Shoulder Stretch with Blocks

Shoulder Stretch with Blocks

Shoulder Stretch with Blocks

  • Begin sitting on your shins. Place two blocks, on their highest height, about 6-8 inches on either side of you and slightly in front of you.

  • Bring your hands to prayer pose behind your head, so that your fingers are pointing down toward the ground. Slowly lean forward until both elbows are resting on the blocks. It's ok if your hips lift up slightly.

  • Gently lower your head down as you sink your hips back slightly. Make sure to only go as far as feels comfortable for your body.

  • Hold for 10-15 breaths, then come up to release.

3. Thread the Needle

Thread the Needle

Thread the Needle

  • Begin on your hands and knees, with your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Your knees should be hip-width apart.

  • Slide your left arm under your right arm, with the palm facing up. Allow your left shoulder to lower all the way down to the ground . Rest your left cheek on the mat.

  • Keep your hips raised. You can extend your right hand toward the front of the mat, or straight up toward the sky. You can gaze upward if that feels comfortable for you as well.

  • Make sure not press weight onto your head, instead, and keep your lower back relaxed. Allow all of the tension in your shoulders, arms, & neck to malt away.

  • Hold for 5-8 breaths. Slowly slide your left out out to exit and release. then repeat on the opposite side for the same length of time.

4. Gomukhasana Arms

  • While n a comfortably seated position, reach your left arm out toward the left so that its parallel to the floor. Rotate your arm inwardly so that your thumb is pointing down.

  • Gently bend your left arm and place your hand behind your back. Roll your left should down and back, and begin to inch your left hand upward so that its parallel to your spine. Try to get the back of your left hand between your shoulder blades.

  • Now extend your right arm reaching it up toward the sky. Bend your right elbow and reach your right hand down for the left hand.

  • If you're unable to hook the right and left fingers, try using a strap so that you can reach.

  • Try to keep the chest lifted, as you lean back slightly.

  • Hold for 10-12 breaths, then slowly release and repeat on the opposite side for the same length of time.

Gomukhasana Arms

Gomukhasana Arms

Gomukhasana Arms using a Strap

Gomukhasana Arms using a Strap

Wrist Support: 5 Poses to Help Stretch & Strengthen your Wrists

Whether you're new to yoga, or a seasoned practitioner, there's a good chance you've experienced wrist tenderness at some point in your practice.  Many of the postures we regularly perform - Crow Pose, Wheel Pose, Chaturnaga, and even Downward Facing Dog - have us bearing weight in the delicate wrist joints.  Misalignment in these poses, or lack of necessary strength and flexibility, are some of the major reasons our wrists can feel sore during or after a practice. 

Poses that bear weight in the wrists

Poses that bear weight in the wrists

Incorporating targeted stretching & strengthening exercises into your routine is an effective way to alleviate wrist soreness and help prevent injury.  Below is a sequence of 5 poses to strengthen and mobilize your wrists as well as reduce tension in the surrounding areas (such as the hands, fingers, and forearms).

1. Wrist Circles

Wrist Circles

Wrist Circles

  • Curl your hand into a fist with your fingers wrapped over your thumbs.

  • Tightly clench your fists as you rotate your hands in a circular motion. Make the movements slow and deliberate, bringing your awareness to the muscles of your wrists.

  • Circle each wrist ten times before switching to the opposite direction.

2. Hand Under Foot Pose

  • From Mountain Pose begin to fold forward. Bend your knees as much as necessary so that your belly connects with your thighs.

  • Place your hands on the ground with your palms facing upward. Slide your hands under your feet until your toes are touching your wrists.

  • Play around in the pose by shifting your weight forward and pressing the toes into the muscular part of the palms. Your knees can remain bent, or you can straighten them for more of a challenge, if you feel comfortable doing so (make sure your hamstrings are properly warmed up first).

Hand Under Foot Pose (with bent knees)

Hand Under Foot Pose (with bent knees)

Hand Under Foot Pose

Hand Under Foot Pose

3. Upward Bound Finger Pose

Upward Bound Finger Pose

Upward Bound Finger Pose

  • Begin seated with your fingers snugly interlaced. Place the back of your hands on top of your head with the palms facing upward.

  • Slowly begin to straighten your arms as you raise them up toward the ceiling. Make sure to keep the muscles in your back and neck relaxed. If you feel any tightening in the shoulders, back, or neck, pause and soften them before continuing.

  • Once the arms are fully extended, slowly lower them back down so that your hands return to the top of your head with the palms facing upward.

  • Repeat this 5 times. You can also perform this exercise by extending your arms straight out in front of your chest, and then returning your arms back above your head.

4. Table Pose Wrist Stretch

Table Pose Wrist Stretch

Table Pose Wrist Stretch

  • Begin in Table pose, with the hands on the floor directly under your shoulders and the fingers pointing forward.

  • Slowly begin to rotate the hands outward in a semi circle until your fingers are pointing back towards your body.

  • Hold for 6-10 breaths. For a deeper stretch you can gently ease the hips back and shift more of your weight into your heels. You should feel a very deep opening in the wrists and forearms. Take care to only go as far as feels right for you.

5. Reverse Prayer Stretch (Phalen's Test)

Reverse Prayer Stretch

Reverse Prayer Stretch

  • Place the backs of his hands together at chest level, with both wrists completely flexed.

  • Press the hands firmly together (from the knuckles to the fingertips) for up to one minute.

  • NOTE: Pain or tingling along the inside of the wrist may be an indication of carpal tunnel syndrome (always consult a medical professional first if you're experiencing any unusual pain).

4 Counterposes to Help Balance Your Practice

A counterpose in yoga is a posture that helps neutralize the body after performing a particular pose.  Its purpose is to restore balance in the body, especially in the spine and pelvis.  Very often a counterpose will integrate the action of the preceding posture, but in a neutralizing (and sometimes opposing) manner.  For example, after performing Cobra Pose (a gentle backbend), one possible counterpose would be Table Top Pose (which returns the spine to neutral).  Another option would be Downward Facing Dog Pose (which encourages lengthening and neutralizing the spine.)   Counterposes help us avoid injury and imbalances in the body, and most of the time, they feel good too.

Below are a few of my go-to counterposes (along with the poses they are countering):

1. Backbend/Knees to Chest

After practicing any kind of heart-opening pose, such as Wheel, Camel, or Bow Pose, the tendency is to want to take the body into a complete forward fold.  But moving back and forth between the two extremes can cause strain in the body.  A preferred counterpose would be a posture such as Knees To Chest, which gently stretches and neutralizes the spine:

To Perform Knees to Chest:

  • Lie on your back, with your legs and arms extended. Exhale and draw both knees into your chest. Clasp your hands around your knees if possible.

  • Keep your back flat on the ground. Draw your tailbone and sacrum downward, lengthening your spine. Gently tuck your chin and gaze toward your knees.

  • Hold for 20 breaths. Slowly release your knees and lower your feet to the ground.

Wheel Pose

Wheel Pose

Knees to Chest Pose

Knees to Chest Pose

2. Forward Fold/Upward Plank Pose

Forward folds, such as Paschimottanasana, are wonderful for stretching the back side of the body, including the spine and hamstrings.  A perfect counterpose would be one that gently opens the front side of the body, such as Upward Plank Pose (Purvottanasana), which stretches the shoulders, chest, and ankles:

To Perform Upward Plank Pose:

  • Begin seated with your legs extended and your hands a few inches behind your hips. Your fingers should be pointing forward, and your hands shoulder-width apart.

  • Inhale and press your hands and feet down firmly down into the ground as you lift your hips upward. Raise your chest toward the sky, and keep your spine in a straight line. Try to press the soles of your feet into the floor. Keep your leg muscles engaged, but don't squeeze your glutes.

  • Hold for 10 breaths. Slowly lower your hips to the ground to release.

Seated Forward Fold

Seated Forward Fold

Upward Plank Pose

Upward Plank Pose

3. Headstand/Rabbit Pose

Headstand is commonly one of the first inversions that students learn.  Having the forearms and head on the floor provide a stable foundation for this inversion, but very often there's a lot of weight & pressure being placed on the head and neck (especially with beginners). Rabbit Pose is a wonderful way to counter that, however it's a also a pose needs to be performed carefully, to ensure that there is no strain in the neck:

To Perform Rabbit Pose

  • Begin in a kneeling position. Lean forward to place the crown of your head onto the ground (as close to your knees as you can.)

  • Reach back and grab hold of your heels (or ankles or calves) and begin to lift your hips as you lean forward slightly. You'll start to feel a nice stretch along the back of your neck, but make sure to keep it gentle, and be careful not press your head down too hard.

  • Hold for 5 breaths. Slowly lower your hips down to release.

Headstand

Headstand

Rabbit Pose

Rabbit Pose

4. Balasana: The Universal Counterpose

Child's Pose is a resting pose and therapeutic posture that can help relieve back and neck pain. Its is a calming counterpose that can be performed at any time during a practice because it helps to restore balance throughout the body.

Child's Pose

Child's Pose

To Perform Child's Pose:

  • Begin on your hands and knees. Widen your knees slightly while keeping the big toes touching. Lower your seat down onto your heels. (You can keep your knees together if your hips are tight.)

  • Exhale and lower your torso down between your thighs. Rest your forehead on the ground, and extend your arms long, with the palms facing down. Lengthen your body from your hips to your armpits, and soften your lower back. Keep your eyes closed.

  • Hold for 30 breaths. Inhale and sit up to release.