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.

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.

10 Reasons to get Upside Down Everyday

An inversion in yoga is a posture where the head is positioned below the heart.  Most of the time we think of these as advanced poses, such as handstand or shoulder stand, however there are more accessible and gentler variations you can take.  Asanas like Downward Dog and Legs up the wall are considered inversions and will give you many of the same benefits as the more advanced postures.  Those with injuries and limitations such as high blood pressure should speak to their doctor before attempting any inversions.

10 Reasons to Get Upside Down:

1.       Encourages Blood Circulation – gravity does the work by promoting fresh blood flow throughout the entire body.

2.     Improves Concentration – oxygen to the brain is increased, leaving us feeling invigorated and more alert.

3.      Strengthens the Immune System – getting upside down helps the body release toxins and bacteria which are eliminated by the lymph nodes.

4.      Alleviates Mild Back Pain – inversions help the spine to decompress, relieving pressure and easing back pain.

5.      Strengthens Your Core – the inner abdominal muscles are required to get into, out of, and to hold many unsupported inversions.

6.      Relaxing – legs ups the wall and other cooling inversions help calm the nervous system, reduce stress, and create a sense of serenity.

7.      Builds Confidence – facing our fears teaches us to overcome our reservations, and accomplishing new things is highly rewarding.

8.      Increases Body Awareness – moving into unique postures forces us to be more conscious of our body in space.

9.      Provides a New Perspective – getting upside down literally changes our viewpoint and gives us a fresh outlook in other aspects of our lives.

10.  Mood Boosting – Inversions are fun!  Once you become more comfortable with inversions you can practice them anywhere and all of the time.  Practicing a headstand on the grass or handstands on the beach adds playfulness and joy to your everyday life.