While practicing yoga may seem less intense than, say, going for a five-mile run, it’s a workout that’s physically demanding in a different way. Spending five to 10 minutes (both before and after your practice) stretching the muscles and joints that get worked during a typical yoga session can improve your flexibility and help prevent injury and soreness.
Sun Salutations are a sequence of classic asanas (postures) that align the spine and prepare your large shoulder and hip joints for deep stretches and challenging movements. Some instructors may guide you through modified versions of these poses, and many will have you repeat a series of them multiple times while deep-breathing. Here are three popular Sun Salutations:
- Forward Fold
Stand with your hands on your hips. As you exhale, bend forward from your hips, lengthening your torso and reaching your hands toward your feet. With your knees straight, place your palms or fingertips on the floor just in front of or to the sides of your feet. (If you can’t quite reach, grasp opposite elbows so your forearms are crossed.) Bend a little further with each exhale and let your head hang naturally. Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. When you’re ready, place your hands on your hips and hinge back up, keeping your torso lengthened and flat.
- Cobra Pose
Lie face down with your legs extended and the tops of your feet resting on the floor. Place your palms on the floor under your shoulders, fingers spread, elbows against your body. Inhale as you straighten your arms, lifting your chest off the floor, always keeping your pelvis, thighs and feet in contact with the ground. Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds before lowering back down to the floor.
- Downward-Facing Dog
Start on the floor on your hands and knees; place your knees under your hips and your hands slightly in front of shoulders. Spread your fingers, turn your toes under and exhale as you lift your knees. Then, lift your hips and buttocks toward the ceiling, pushing the tops of your thighs toward the back of the room and stretching your heels toward the floor (they may even touch). Try not to lock your knees. Press your index fingers into the floor and keep your head between your biceps. Remain in this pose for one to three minutes, depending on your comfort level. When you’re ready, bend your knees back down to the floor.
Some traditional stretches can do the trick, too—great to try if you arrive to class early.
- Arm Swings
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, your back straight and your arms down by your sides. Then, in one fluid movement, swing both arms upward toward the ceiling, back down and behind you. Repeat this movement 10 to 15 times. Next, raise your arms to the side so they’re parallel to the floor and swing them forward, across your body and back out to the side. Alternate which arm crosses over the top. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
- Prasarita Lunges
Stand with your feet wider than hip-width apart, bend your knees and bring your hands to the floor in between your feet, a few inches above your toes. Then begin swaying your body from side to side, lunging back and forth. Try increasing your pace to generate even more heat in your hips. After 30 to 60 seconds, walk your feet into a hip-width stance and slowly roll your body up, your head arriving last.
- Sideways High Knees
Start in a standing position with your hands on your hips and, as you walk forward, raise your knees outward to your sides and up to waist level. Alternate your legs as you go, performing 10 reps with each knee.
Many of the soothing asanas we do in the last 10 to 20 minutes of yoga provide an effective cool-down stretch that help both your heart rate and blood pressure return back to normal. You may be asked to hold these poses longer to slow your pace and rhythm, and get a deeper extension. Here are three you might do in class:
- Knees-to-Chest Pose
Lie on your back and close your eyes. Draw your knees into your chest, wrap your arms around them and give them a squeeze. Lower your pelvis toward the floor and away from your navel for a deeper stretch. Hold this position for 60 seconds before lowering your legs back down to the floor.
- Bharadvaja’s Twist
Start by sitting on the floor with your legs straight out in front. Then shift your weight to the right, bend your knees and swing your legs to the left so the tops of your feet are flat on the floor. Your left ankle should be resting in the arch of your right foot. Inhale, lifting your torso, and then exhale as you twist your trunk to the right, lengthening your spine and keeping the left buttock close to the floor. Cup the side of your right knee with your left hand and place your right hand on the floor next to your right buttock. (For a deeper stretch, swing your right arm behind you and tuck your right hand between your left elbow and your body.) Turn your head to the right. Try to twist a little more with every exhale. Hold the stretch for 60 seconds and then return to the starting position and repeat on the left side.
- Corpse Pose
This final pose is more of a release than a stretch, but it’s an essential part of relaxing your muscles after they’ve worked so hard. Lie flat on your back with your legs extended out straight. To make sure your body is in a neutral position, lift your pelvis and use your hands to push the back of your pelvis toward your tailbone, and then lower back to the floor. Let your legs, ankles and feet naturally turn outward as you relax. Use your hands to lift the base of your head away from the neck and then lower back down. Position your arms a few inches from your sides, palms up. As you remain still, close your eyes. Allow yourself five minutes of Corpse Pose for every 30 minutes of yoga you practice. Finish by gently rolling onto your right side, pressing your palms to the floor and lifting your body up to a sitting position with your head arriving last.
To continue your wind-down after class wraps up, consider adding on some of these traditional stretches:
- Hamstring Stretch
Lie flat on your back and lift your legs so they’re perpendicular to the floor. Slowly straighten both legs, flexing your feet and reaching your hands toward your toes. For a deeper stretch, lay a towel or canvas strap across your flexed feet and pull the ends down gently. Breathe and hold for 60 seconds or more.
- Spinal Twist
Lie flat on your back with both knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Extend your arms out to your sides so you are in a T-formation, palms facing the floor. Let your bent knees fall to the right so your hips are stacked. Try to keep both shoulder blades on the floor. To deepen the stretch, place your right hand on top of your left knee and press down gently. Hold here for 60 seconds or more. Return your knees to center and place your feet back on the floor. Repeat on the other side.
- Thread the Needle
Lie flat on your back with your legs extended straight. Then, bend your right knee and cross your right ankle just above your left knee. Lift your left leg and grasp the back of your left thigh with both hands, interlacing your fingers, and draw your left knee toward chest. Hold the stretch for 60 seconds or more, circling your ankles in both directions and pointing/flexing your feet. Repeat on the other side.