If you come here regularly or follow me on my social media, you probably know that yoga takes a very big role in my life. Beyond the fancy headstands (and don’t be shy from trying them! check out those inversions for beginners) and strange contortions I sometimes photograph myself into, yoga established itself as a daily practice in my life when I started backpacking through South East Asia. Spending long hours in crammed public transport or walking with a heavy backpack for several kilometers ended up taking a toll on my shoulders, back and hips and I found that daily stretching and yoga was the best way to keep my body limber and pain-free. So today is all about yoga.
If you are new to yoga or prefer to be guided, check out my favorite travel yoga videos on YouTube and read a little about the history of yoga. I’ve listed below the poses that I find help the most in releasing weary bodies, so they are great after a long day of work or a long day traveling. If all you have is a few minutes, do a quick warm up (I do several sun salutations), and hold each of these poses for a minimum of 2 minutes, repeating on both sides when the case applies.
1. Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottasana)
Aim for a straight back and legs rather than hunching yourself over to reach your head to your knees – that way you’ll target your hamstrings, glutes and lower back much better. The hinging should come from the hips, so make sure to keep your torso long at all time, reaching the head up and shining the heart forward. You can place a folded towel or pillow under your butt to make it more accessible. If your hands land by your knees, so be it – as long as you feel a stretch in the back of the legs, butt and low back, that’s great.
2. Wide-Legged Forward Bend (Prasarita Padottanasana C)
This is a great multitasker as it stretches both the inner thighs and shoulders. Step your feet wide apart, clasp your hands at the back (keep the palms together at all time!) and, with a straight back and engaged inner thighs, hinge at the hips folding forward and reaching the hands to the floor behind you. Make sure you don’t round the back.
3. Squat (Malasana)
One of my favorite exercises to do in public while I wait around, ha. It’s especially inconspicuous in Asia, as a lot of people just hang out like this. Squatting stretches your groin, low back, and hips and is also great for digestion. Stand with your feet hip-width apart or wider and your feet slightly out-turned. If keeping your heels to the ground isn’t possible, you can place a rolled up towel underneath. Squat down with a straight back, placing the elbows in front of the legs and the hands in Anjali mudra to help.
4. Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Lie on your back with you feet flat on the ground, hip-width apart and close to your butt. Press into your feet, shoulder, and head as you lift the hips and pelvis up. You can roll your shoulders underneath you to increase the opening of the chest and clasp your hands together as depicted. This is a nice stretch for the front body and feels great on the back also.
5. Side Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana)
Any spinal twist is a wonderful release for a tired back, but I love this variation as it works on stretching and opening the hips at the same time. Always make sure you twist from the lower spine up. If you choose my variation, make sure both sit bones are grounded – otherwise, extending the folded leg will make it easier.
6. Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
A staple in every yoga practice, ye old down dawg is excellent for shoulder and back pain and is also great at making your upper back more flexible and less likely to store tensions. Proper alignment includes: having your hands shoulder-width apart and feet hip-width apart, reaching upwards with your hips, engaging your core, externally rotating your arms, reaching your shoulders away from your ears and your feet towards the ground – just to name a few! Downward dog is still a huge challenge for me as there are so many things to think about. Such a wonderful stretch in the back body though!
7. Cobra (or Updog) (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)
A great chest opener after being hunched over with a heavy backpack all day, cobra will also release lower back tension and help in strengthening the arms and shoulders. Always make sure to pull your shoulders down and away from your ears and lift from the sternum.
8. Extended Puppy Dog (Uttana Shishosana)
Possibly my favorite pose. Very much like Downward Dog, you will feel a nice long stretch all over the spine, but mostly in the shoulders. Keep your hands active, forehead on the ground, elbows lifted and hips aligned with the knees.
9. Pigeon (or Thread the Needle) (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)
Pigeon (or any of its variations) is a great way to open the hips and psoas. Place the front leg wherever feels comfortable to you and make sure your hips are square to the front. I personally find pigeon very difficult as I have tight hips, so I always do thread the needle beforehand. Both are incredible stretches and should be done daily. I always enter pigeon from Downward Facing Dog for ease.
10. Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
A great stretch for the quads, hips and front body, a low lunge will also help you work on stability and mental focus. Key points include proper front foot alignment (always make sure your knee doesn’t go beyond your foot, i.e. you should always be able to see your toes) and core stability to protect the low back. Try to tilt the pelvis forward to increase the stretch. The arms overhead and slight backbend aren’t necessary, but I do like to multitask on some poses, and this is a great example.