As the days become colder and shorter, everything in nature becomes quieter and more dormant. Winter can be a wonderful time for soul-searching; a time to reflect and reset our own energy. Winter can be a time to recharge our energy before the onset of Spring. This cooler and quieter energy is also related to Yin energy in the traditional Taoist philosophy. If this calming Yin-style energy is left unbalanced, it can lead to lack of motivation, lack of energy, and lethargy. To balance this energy, we can incorporate its opposite energy, Yang-style or warmer asanas, which heat up the body and mind during these cold Winter days. Here are a few of tips to help warm and energize your body and mind:
Practice a Warming Yoga Sequence
To begin asanas for wintertime, warm-up with a few rounds of Sun Salutations to heat up the body. Make sure to end your yoga practice with some restorative, calming asanas(poses) that allow time for you to reflect and recharge your energy levels. Some asanas to practice are supine and stretching asanas that are held for longer periods of time, such as: Savasana, Wide-Legged Forward Fold (Prasarita Padottanasana), Extended Puppy pose (Uttana Shishosana), Happy Baby (Ananda Balasana), Plow pose (Halasana), and the Sage’s pose (Marichyasana C). When practicing yoga in the winter at home, make sure not leave your home (or studio) to quickly after a practice. Cooling down too quickly can tighten muscles and reduce circulation, which can put you at risk for muscle injuries. Waiting 5-10 minutes before going outside, and bundling up when you do, should be sufficient to allow for a proper cool-down.
Practice Breath Retention (Kumbhaka Pranayama)
In this gentle, beginner-level Kumbhaka Pranayama, we are working to heat the body. Kumbhaka is traditionally practiced holding the breath for 10 seconds, but keep in mind that this length is recommended only for advanced students. In this practice, begin with holding the breath for 2-3 seconds.
To begin, come sit in a comfortable seated position. Take a big inhale in, fully inflating the lungs. Next, hold the breath for 2 or 3 seconds. Slowly exhale out all the air from the lungs. Repeat for up to 10 minutes or longer.
Cold and gloomy weather can certainly affect your mood and disposition; don’t let the weather outside get you down. Be mindful of the benefits that yoga (and meditation) offer. Just a few minutes of daily yoga can set the overall tone for your day! Reading and studying books on yoga or going to a class can help boost your motivation. Can’t get out because of snow or ice? YouTube has some fantastic yoga classes!
Snow, ice, and freezing temperatures can be an excuse for avoiding all kinds of tasks. But don’t put your yoga practice aside, the overall benefits are wonderful for your mind, body, and spirit.
Chair Pose, or Utkatasana is not just a beginner pose, but it is also part of the Sun Salutations and is often used as a transitional pose. It can also be practiced on its own to build strength and stamina throughout the whole body.
Utkatasana comes from the Sanskrit words utkata meaning powerful or fierce and asana meaning pose. Many yogis may skip this pose or they will not hold it for long because it can feels tiresome, and it is not the most “glamorous” of postures. However, practicing Chair Pose is good for you, not only because of its physical benefits, but because it advances your practice physically as well as, emotionally.
Modifications & Variations
Utkatasana can be an excellent full-body strengthener when practiced correctly. It can take time to build enough strength to hold the pose for more than a breath or two. Take it slowly and be careful not to over-stress your knees or shoulders. To deepen or modify the pose, try these variations:
Utkatasana can build a lot of strength and stamina throughout the body when it’s done with correct alignment:
Maintain a slight arch in your back.
Squeeze your thighs as close together as possible.
Bring your thighs as parallel to the floor as possible.
Draw your chest back and up, instead of reaching your torso forward.
Keep your weight evenly distributed in your heels. Shifting the weight forward can over-stress your knees..
Remember to breathe evenly throughout the pose! If your breath becomes strained, come out of the pose until you can breathe deeply again.
Just saying the name Pigeon pose can evoke a myriad of emotions for most yogis; they either love or hate this asana. Those with open hips that easily externally rotate will happily get into pigeon without hesitation or fuss. However, yogis who favor internal over external rotation of their hips, those who may run, cycle, or sit (all of which tend to tighten the muscles of the hips), may find pigeon pose uncomfortable or avoid the pose completely.
Fortunately, there are numerous variations of pigeon pose and a modification for everyone. Whether you want to make this asana more accessible, or go deeper and relax more into the pose. Here are my 5 favorite variations of pigeon pose to get you started.
Standing Pigeon: You can build strength and balance with this Pigeon variation. Stand on one leg and bring the opposite leg over crossed in front of you holding on to the foot and heel(similar to a figure four). Try to stand tall without hyper-extending your hip. Repeat other side.
Seated Pigeon: Try this seated Double Pigeon Pose sometimes called Fire Log Pose to keep both hips solidly rooted to the ground. This grounding helps prevent the asymmetrical shifts in the lower back. From a cross-legged position, shins stacked on top of one another, place your right ankle on top of the left (keeping both feet flexed to prevent knee injury). Don’t worry if your right knee has some gapping between the left leg, you can place a block or a towel to fill in the gap. Rest your fingertips on the floor at either side of your body. Those who are more flexible, walk your hands forward along the floor, folding your torso over your crossed legs. Repeat other side.
Reclined Pigeon: This variation is ideal for yogis with sensitive knees. It still allows for a hip-opening stretch while keeping the knees protected. Lie on your back. Place your right ankle across your left thigh close to the knee. Externally rotate your right thigh then bring both knees towards your chest. Thread your left arm through the gap between your legs and reach your right arm around the outside of your legs to clasp hands either around your left shin or at the back of your left thigh. Keep your head and shoulders on the ground and relax into the posture. Draw your knees closer to your chest to increase the stretch. Repeat other side.
Upward Pigeon: This more “traditional” Pigeon pose is a deep stretch for your hips and inner thighs. This Pigeon pose is one of the most commonly practiced poses in yoga classes. From Downward Dog, step your right foot forward, placing your right knee just to the outside of your right wrist and the top of your right foot behind your left wrist. The front side of your left leg will come to the floor. Your left foot might come right behind the left wrist so that your shin is parallel to the front edge of your mat (it’s likely that your foot will feel be somewhere between your left wrist and your left hip point). Once you have your front leg in a comfortable position, tuck your left toes under and scoot your left knee a little further back on your mat. Release the top of your left foot to the floor with your toes pointing back. Repeat other side.
Sleeping Pigeon: This version of Pigeon is a deep and powerful stretch for your hips. Going beyond the basic pigeon pose, this increases both the intensity of the stretch as well as the relaxation of the pose. Sleeping Pigeon takes a basic hip-stretching pose by lowering the chest down to rest over the top of the stretching leg and adds a deeper sensation to the stretch. Begin getting into this pose by following the same instructions from the previous pose. For a more intense stretch, extend your arms and chest to the ground in front of you. To fully experience the pose, keep the spine long versus rounding. Make sure to begin by placing the belly down, then the ribs, and finally the chest and head. This keeps your spine in proper alignment and gives you better posture and a deeper stretch.
Caution: If you have any knee injuries or surgeries some of the above poses can put pressure on your knee cap. Alternatively you can turn over onto your back and pull your leg toward your chest for a “supine pigeon” (reclined pigeon). This takes the pressure off the knee joint while also giving a similar hip stretch.
Modify any of the poses when needed by using props. Slide a yoga block or rolled up towel under your hip (the bent one) for extra support. There’s nothing to be ashamed about using props - even the most flexible yogis have days where they need some added cushion to protect their bodies.
For many people their daily lives consist of a lot of sitting; whether that comes from work, school or driving, we sit for many hours these days than previous times. Some people try to balance that with exercise, such as walking, running, cycling swimming or cardio, but how many of us spend quality time stretching our muscles, tendons and ligaments? Lack of stretching leads to immobility of joints, mainly the hips and shoulders, causing stiffness and, often at times, pain. How does your lower back feel? How about the muscles between your shoulder blades? Where do you carry your stress? We spend a lot of time on our cell phones, computers and tablets, hunched over. This shortens the muscles in the front of the shoulders, this atrophies the hip flexor muscles. To combat this, practicing the above yoga poses on a daily basis can begin to reverse the effects of tight hips and shoulders. Just a few minutes of yoga can make a big difference for your overall well-being!
Bow Pose is considered an intermediate yoga backbend that opens the chest and the front of the body. If you spend your day hunched over a computer you know how good it feels to stretch your arms and lift your chest. Bending backward is a great way to regain balance after hunching forward! Named after an archer's bow, the Sanskrit word Bow Pose (Dhanurasana) comes from two words: "Dhanu" meaning "bow" and "Asana" meaning "pose." Bow pose offers some amazing benefits to the body (as seen in the picture above).
Modifications & Variations
*Remember to always practice yoga within your own means! Poses don't have to "look" perfect; focus more on how it feels in YOUR body.
Yoga tends to get a bad reputation because people think it’s all about stretching and bending your body into a pretzel; and while the later may be true (you’ve seen those Instagram pics) it’s also better than just doing crunches all the time! While many types of traditional yoga practices are based on mindfulness and spiritual mantras, yoga is also a great ab workout. These 5 poses here offer a ton of core strength. I mean, there’s a reason you can’t hold them for long before collapsing onto your mat. Start with these poses to begin to strengthen your core and tone your abs without doing any crunches.
1. Boat Pose
Boat pose is amazing for your entire core because it works the muscles in your upper and lower abs at the same time. Start by sitting on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Then, press your hands on the floor behind your hips and lift your legs off the floor, leaning back slightly and lifting your hands in front of you. Your tailbone should now be on the ground with your legs and arms forward in the same direction. You can either hold it there for maximum time, or hold it for a few breaths, release, and then repeat for reps (10-12).
Bend your knees at first if you’re not able to extend them fully.
2. Warrior III
It might sound weird to do an ab exercise while standing up, but the whole point of the Warrior III is to challenge your balance by standing on one foot, and then stabilize using your core. Start standing up with your feet hip-distance apart and your arms at your sides. Then, turn to your left and step your feet wide, bending your right knee over your right ankle. Press your weight into your right foot and lift your left leg out behind you while your arms extend out in front of you. If it feels wobbly or awkward to be on one foot, that’s the point. Engage your abs and squeeze tight to stabilize yourself for as long as you can—at least 30 seconds before switching legs
Keep your arms in prayer position to help with balance.
3. Side Plank
Side planks may seem basic, but there’s a reason you do them in every yoga, Pilates, and workout: they do the trick. The idea of the side plank is to stack your feet on one side of you while your forearm is on the ground and your hips are lifted. You want to engage your oblique muscles. Hold the pose on each side of your body for 30 seconds and remember to keep your obliques and hips lifted and squared the entire time. The other option is to support yourself with a fully-extended arm, which takes some burn off your abs but adds an additional balance component—still good for your core.
Stacking your feet is standard, but lowering your back leg for stabilization is a modifier.
4. Chair Pose
Chair pose tends to feel like a quad workout (and it is), but if you’re doing it right and taking your time, you can feel this in your core too and it’s great for your abs. Standing hip-distance apart with your arms straight over your head, sit down into a mini squat without moving your arms at all. Bring your hips as low as you can and engage your core muscles so that you don’t lean too far forward. Take deep breaths and hold the pose for a minute if you can.
Keep your weight in your heels, lift your toes off your mat to remind yourself if need be.
5. Elevated Plank
Planks are basic and sound boring, but by elevating your feet onto a higher surface, (like a yoga block, wheel or a bench) you can get a deeper burn in your abs and really engage all your muscles at once. The idea is to have your feet elevated behind you and your body in one straight line. Try to think about pulling your belly button toward your spine and slightly lifting your buttocks; making sure your back stays straight the entire time. The burn will kick in pretty quickly but that just means you’re doing it right. Start with 30 seconds and work up to a minute.
Just like with side planks, dropping to your forearms puts more stress on your abs, but is also more stable.
Parsvottanasana comes from the Sanskrit words Parsva meaning side, Ut meaning intense and tan meaning to extend, stretch or lengthen. Hence the name Intense Side Stretch Pose. This pose is also called Pyramid Pose, which emphasizes the powerful foundation and strength created in this pose.
Getting into the pose:
Caution: Do not practice this pose if you have a hamstring injury. If you have a shoulder or wrist injury, do not practice the full version of the pose. Women who are pregnant and those with back injuries or high blood pressure should practice the pose against a wall. Always work within your own range of limits and abilities. As with any exercise regimen, including yoga, talk with your doctor before practicing.
Uttanasana, or intense forward-bending pose, is a component of Sun Salutes and vinyasa, as well as, a dynamic part of the transition between standing and Chaturanga Dandasana. In Sanskrit, Ut means Intense, Tana means stretched and Asana means a yogic pose.
Uttasana is often dismissed as an uninteresting and basic pose; yet it offers a wealth of opportunities to develop muscle actions that support other standing poses like Warriors and Pyramid Pose. Practicing this foundation pose brings numerous benefits. Uttasana is also an inversion. Albeit a much more accessible inversion than head stand or handstand but with many of the usual benefits and more. Personally, I lovepracticing Uttansana because the weight of the head hanging heavy is enough to give my neck a gentle stretch. The stretch decompresses the spinal joints allowing a little stretch of the muscles and ligaments as well as a burst of nourishment.
Beginner’s Tip: If you cannot touch the ground, hold onto the backs of the legs wherever the hands fall (except for the knees) or cross the arms in front of the body holding onto the elbows. Let the head hang with gravity. If this is still too intense, take tension off the hamstrings and low back by bending the knees. Working with the breath, try “inhaling, bending”, “exhaling, straightening”. Deepen the Uttanasana pose to increase the stretch on the backs of the legs, stand in the forward bend with the balls of your feet elevated an inch or more off the floor on a sand bag or thick book or lean slightly forward and lift up onto the balls of your feet, pulling your heels a half-inch or so away from the floor. Draw your inner groins deep into the pelvis, and then, from the height of the groins, lengthen your heels back onto the floor.
Caution: Uttanasana requires patience and practice. It can take a while to reach the deepest variation of the pose. Those with back injuries can practice this pose with bent knees, use a block for support under the hands, or substitute Half Forward Bend instead.
Dandasana may look like a simple pose, but it's important to make sure that you're doing it the correct way because it is the foundation of all seated poses. Dandasana comes from the Sanskrit words Danda – meaning “stick”, and Asana – meaning “posture”. This pose is best known as the base of all asanas in seating position, forward bends and twists.
It's easy for your everyday posture to slump forward since most of us suffer from poor posture, and staff pose helps correct us. When the spine is straight and the shoulders back, our breathing naturally becomes deeper and more regular. The nervous system relaxes and the mind and body become in alignment and harmony.
Caution: People with high blood pressure should not perform this pose. In case of any wrist or lower back injury avoid this pose.
Wide-Legged Forward Fold comes from the Sanskrit words Prasarita meaning separated. Pada meaning legs or feet. Uttana meaning intense stretching. The literal translation is “wide-stance forward bend’. This pose can also be translated as “spread out feet intense stretch”. When practiced with compassion, inversions such as this pose, can be very beneficial to your well-being. They reverse blood flow, which usually has to fight against gravity on its way back to the heart, thus improving circulation. Similarly, they help to move the lymphatic system, which runs parallel to the vascular network but doesn’t have a pump. Flushing that system means increased immunity and decreased illness.
The best beginner's tip for Wide-Legged Forward Bend is to place a soft padded yoga block or a soft folded blanket in front and place the crown of your head on the block of the blanket. Since beginners are usually not able to bend completely and place their crown on the floor, this helps maintain balance while still improving your stretch.
Do not hold this asana for more than 1 minute, especially if you are a beginner.
If you have low blood pressure or vertigo avoid this pose for longer times and perform for 2 to 3 breaths only. Come out of the pose gradually to avoid dizziness. Pregnant women should not perform this pose at all, especially during the 3rd trimester because of the excess belly weight..
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