By Jessica Kraft
Yoga is a uniquely centering, calming, and invigorating activity. The goal isn't to contort the body into extreme poses, but rather to help the mind reconnect with the body. Gentle movement is enough to build muscles and increase flexibility while decreasing anxiety through mindful breathing. This practice can be especially helpful for anyone living with physical limitations to understand their healing process and to maintain and build on their capabilities. Yoga is also wonderful way to introduce the dynamic of physical activity into time with friends and family.
There is a yoga practice for every level of physical ability. A good place to start is Chair Yoga, a widely taught and extremely gentle adaptation of traditional yoga poses. As the name suggests, the poses are done while sitting in or leaning on a chair, moving the focus from balance to stretching. A full class is available on YouTube here.
Tree pose is excellent for improving balance. Standing behind the chair and holding the back of it for balance, lift one foot and press the sole of the foot to the anchoring foot's ankle. This should naturally make the bent knee swing out, opening the hip. Then let the foot trace up the leg as far as it can comfortably go on the lower leg. Be careful not to rest it against the knee.
Try to put as little weight on the chair as possible. With repeated practice, you may not need to use on the chair at all. Aim to hold the balance for at least 30 seconds, then switch feet.
Warrior II improves lower body strength, while stretching the hips, groin, and inner thighs. Start by sitting towards the edge of the chair. Separate the legs, and twist in one direction. Then straighten the back leg behind you, while keeping the front leg bent. Raise the arms parallel to the ground, one behind and one in front. Look over the front fingertips. Again, try to hold the pose for 30 seconds before switching to the other leg. Using a short chair can let you test holding more of your weight in this pose.
Many core yoga poses are variations of sitting or lying on the ground. These are good to practice on your own because they allow you to focus on getting it just right, instead of trying to balance in an unusual position.
Happy Baby Pose
This pose is a great way to relax the hips and legs and release tension throughout the body, but avoid this one if you have a history of knee problems.
Start by lying on your back. Then rock your knees towards the chest, until your shins are perpendicular to the ground. Hold on to the feet by the inner or outer soles. Keep the feet above the knees to prevent torque on the joint, but let the knees spread. Gentle rocking back and forth and side to side in this pose helps relax the back. A fun addition is to trill the lips, which relaxes the face—and often prompts a giggle. Think of a baby in the pose, joyfully reaching out to discover his feet!
When first beginning to practice yoga, it's important to find a teacher that you connect with. A good yoga instructor will give personalized guidance and adjustments. Though many poses look simple, trained yoga teachers make them more effective by noting where the body is unbalanced or misaligned. Try a few classes to find a teacher who is engaged and supportive, and moves at your prefered pace. Group classes are also a good social experience.
When you go to a class, touch base with the teacher about any movements that you struggle with, or goals you have for fitness or flexibility. He or she will be able to tell you how to adapt poses to fit your needs, and which poses to focus on to gain the skills you want.
Outside of group classes, YouTube is full of guided, gentle yoga practices. Once you've learned some poses, practicing along with a video is free and on-demand. Whenever you feel tension, yoga can be a sanctuary.
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