The snow-filled winter season can often leave us feeling stiff, tight and simply unhappy. Our “free” time is spent shoveling snow, sitting tightly curled up on our couches, or walking around with our shoulders hiked up trying to avoid the blustery wind. Sound familiar?
Although we can’t escape the winter, we can do something to alleviate its effects. Below you will find several basic yoga techniques and postures that can help heat your body, increase blood flow to your extremities, and allow you to feel freer and happier. They can be incorporated into any fitness routine, regardless of your gender, age, or experience.
Before we get into the physical postures (“asanas”), let’s talk about breath. It may sounds crazy, but breathing, in itself, can release tension and enhance the benefits of any physical activity. Below are two breathing techniques to use throughout the winter months.
1) Ujjayi Breathing (Ocean Breathing)
Benefits: Ujjayi breathing is meant to warm the body, clear the mind, and calm the central nervous system.
Setup: The technique can be completed in a seated position or used to accompany physical postures (asanas). Begin by slowly inhaling through the nose, first filling the lower belly, then the lower ribcage, and then the chest and throat. Exhale out of the nose in the opposite order.
As you breathe, imagine a mirror in front of you that you are trying to fog up with each breath, but keep your lips lightly sealed. This will create an ocean-like sound in the back of your throat and roof of your mouth. Allow each inhale and exhale to be equal in duration and smoothness.
Duration: This breathing technique is used throughout the asana practice and can also be used at anytime, for any duration, to create more ease and to calm the mind and body.
2) Kapalabhati Breathing (Breath of Fire)
Benefits: Kapalabhati is a rapid breathing technique meant to clear your passages by eliminating built-up mucus, as well as heating and moving the inner body.
Setup: This technique should be done in a seated position, which allows length and ease in the spine. Each inhale is passive and each exhale is rapid and highly energized. With each exhale, engage your lower abdomen to quickly expel air, but relax all other muscles of the body and face.
Duration: Complete 3-5 rounds, beginning with 30 breaths and gradually increasing to 100.
We’ve included a short demonstration below.
The following physical poses open the sinuses, throat, and lungs, which aid in decongestion and support the respiratory organs. Additionally, we can use these postures to release tension in the back, shoulders, neck, and other areas.
Allow 10-15 minutes to complete all 6 poses in the order noted. It’s important to focus on breathing and find ease in each pose. If a particular pose is feeling good, feel free to repeat it throughout the sequence. If your time is limited, poses 1) Downward Facing Dog, 2) Cobra Pose and 3) Locust Pose can be done individually. I would recommend doing poses #4-6 only after you have practiced #1-3.
Please remember that while some of these poses may be challenging, please stop if you feel any pain, carefully come out of the pose, and consult a trained yoga instructor. Feel free to contact me directly with any questions or concerns.
1) Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Benefits: Improves circulation by encouraging blood flow to the head. Also releases tension in the head, neck, shoulders, lower back, and hamstrings.
Setup: Think of this posture as an upside-down “V”. Place you palms firmly on the mat, shoulder-distance apart. Spread your fingers apart (pointer and middle finger facing the top edge of your mat) and ground your hands. Lift your hips back and up, lengthening your spine, as you stretch your heels down towards your mat. Your feet should be hip-distant apart. Heels should not fully touch the mat – if they do, walk your feet further back.
It may be beneficial to practice this pose with the knees softly bent and focus on the pelvis tilting and moving back and up to allow more length and space in the spine. Let your head drop, ears in line with your upper arm, while keeping space between the chin and the chest.
Duration: Maintain this pose while taking 5-8 rounds of Ujjayi breaths.
2) Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
Benefits: This pose, along with #3-5, is a “heart opening” posture. All share the same benefit of stimulating blood flow to the thymus, an organ in the chest that is essential to the production of T-cells (molecules that serve as the immune system’s frontline). An additional benefit of Cobra Pose is that it opens the chest and facilitates breathing.
Setup: Lay on your belly with your hands and palms flat next to your rib cage. Press the tops of all ten toes into the mat as you roll your shoulders up off the mat and then down away from your ears. This creates maximum space between the shoulders and ears. Roll the top of your shoulders toward your shoulder blades to engage the upper back. You should feel a slight stretch across your chest. Elbows can stay deeply bent or slightly bent (see photos). If you begin to feel tension in the neck and chest, bend your elbows deeper and think of your chest moving forward of your shoulders. Lift your chin to open up the throat while keeping length in the back of the neck.
Duration: Take 2-5 rounds of Ujjayi breaths and then lower the chest and head back down. Try to repeat this, with ease, 3 times.
3) Locust Pose (Salabhasana)
Benefits: Improves immune function, opens the chest, and strengthens the back.
Setup: Lay on your belly with your arms by your sides, palms down. If possible, bring your big toes together and allow your heals to drop apart. Like Cobra Pose, begin by rolling your shoulders up off the mat and then down your back away from your ears. Allow the chest and head to rise. Lift from your inner thighs to take the legs off of the mat. Once again, the goal is not how high we lift, but to feel openness across the chest.
Duration: Take 3-5 Ujjayi breaths and then gently lower down. Repeat 3 times.
4) Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
I recommend practicing poses #2-3 before attempting this pose.
Benefits: Improves immune function and opens the chest, hips, and thighs.
Setup: Lay on your belly, arms extended by your sides, with your legs hip-distance apart, toes pointing in. Bend your knees. Reach back and grab the outer feet or ankles. If you are unable grab your feet or ankles, wrap a strap around the tops of your feet and hold the ends with your hands (see photo). Be sure your knees and feet are no wider than your hips. Begin by lifting the shoulders off the mat and moving them down away from your ears. Press the feet back and up into the hands or the strap. This will allow the chest, head, and thighs to lift off the mat. Think “feet back and up, chest forward and up”. Once again, we want to focus on the lift and full expansion of the chest.
Duration: Take 3-5 Ujjayi breaths and then gently lower down. Repeat 2-3 times.
5) Fish Pose (Matsyasana)
Benefits: Improves immune function and opens the chest and throat.
Setup: Lay on your back with your arms extended by your sides, palms down. Legs are straight and together. Begin by slightly bending your elbows and pressing your hands and forearms into the mat. Allow the pressure of your arms into the mat to help the chest lift up and the shoulders roll down, engaging the upper back. Keep lifting your chest as you allow the crown of your head to drop back to the floor. If the stretch of the throat becomes too intense, you can drop the crown of the head onto a block (see photo). Think “belly button down, chest up” to protect the lower back. Find the lift of the sternum bone.
Duration: Take 3-5 Ujjayi breaths. Repeat 1-2 times. To release the position, tuck the chin to the chest and then lower the upper body.
6) Shoulder Stand (Salamba Sarvangasana)
Benefits: Improves circulation, lengthens muscles of the neck, spreads muscles of the shoulders and back, and releases tension headaches.
Set Up: For this particular variation, you will need a wall and a blanket. Fold the blanket so it is approximately 2-3 inches thick. Lay on your back: back and shoulders on the blanket, head on the floor. You want an inch of space between the top of your shoulders and the edge of the blanket. Lay with your buttocks against the wall and your legs straight up the wall. Arms should be straight by your side.
Bend your knees and begin to walk your feet up the wall. Once the hips are off the mat, knees still bent, walk your shoulders under you to create a “shelf” for your chest. This will allow your hips to lift higher as your body becomes more vertical. Bring your hands onto your lower back while maintaining a fully open chest. Extend one leg up to the ceiling and then the other.
Safety note: If new to this pose, or if it begins to feel too intense on the neck, stop with the legs bent on the wall (see photo). Additionally, once up in this pose, DO NOT move your head side to side. Press the back of your head into the floor, aiming to keep an inch of space between the chin and the chest.
Duration: Take 5-8 Ujjayi breaths. Release slowly in the reverse direction that you went up.
The goal of these poses and breathing techniques is to create more space and ease in the tighter, blocked-off areas of the body. Practicing these techniques and poses with the goal of ease (versus force) will allow deeper effects on the mind and body. Utilizing these accessible, ancient asanas with patience will help you feel freer and happier as we move into the end of our winter season.
About the Author
Joanna holds certifications from the Yoga Alliance, Pilates Academy International, and National Academy of Sports Medicine. Read her full bio or visit joannasilvers.com. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks to Jason Griebeler for demonstrating select postures.