When I was a kid, I could never understand why grown-ups were always going on and on about how stressful the holidays were. Parties, presents, time off school, yummy treats, making snow angels (I grew up in a place that’s cold this time of year)—what could be stressful about that?
But now that I’m the adult, I totally get it. Parties can be draining. Presents cost money. And someone has to take the time to make all of those cookies. And while I still live in a place that’s cold this time of year, the fluffy, white terrain now seems less of a snow angel canvas, and more of an inconvenience. Now don’t get me wrong, my heart still flutters with joy when I hear the Muppets’ variation of the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” or when the barista at Starbucks hands me a peppermint mocha in a seasonal cup, or when I look out my office window to glimpse my town’s holiday light display outside. Still, I now understand that the holidays might not always feel so blissful and carefree. At this busy time of year, even yoga practice can start to feel like yet another item to check off of a seemingly never-ending to-do list.
Now that I’m the adult, I totally get it. Parties can be draining. Presents cost money. And someone has to take the time to make all of those cookies.
But, of course, it’s that very yoga practice that helps to keep me balanced when life gets extra busy, and give me a boost when I feel drained. And it’s important to me to stick with my practice, even when I’m not particularly inspired. Thankfully, I know that when I’m feeling a bit Scrooge-like, there are specific asanas and breathing exercises I can do to perk me up—practices that help to imbue my mat time and my day with a greater sense of joy and playfulness.
Here are a few of my favorites. If your yoga is feeling a little lackluster this time of year, or if you could simply use an extra burst of energy and levity, you may discover that they’re just what you need to infuse your holiday season with some childlike delight.
Breath of Joy
This quick yet potent breath-centered exercise from the Kripalu Yoga tradition is a great way to begin your yoga practice, and it can also serve as a mini-practice of its own any time you need a bit of a pick-me-up. I first learned it several years ago at a workshop on using yoga to help with depression, and I’ve considered it a go-to ever since.
I’ve sometimes heard the arm movements of this exercise described as if one is conducting an orchestra. And while I’m sure any actual orchestral conductors reading this would shake their heads in horror at the analogy, I sometimes can’t help but imagine that I’m leading the New York Philharmonic in an especially joyous rendition of “Carol of the Bells.”
Your breath pattern for this exercise will be “inhale, inhale, inhale, exhale” (inhaling through your nose, and exhaling strongly through your mouth while making a “ha” sound).
Begin by standing with your feet parallel, a little wider than hip-distance apart, with knees softly bent.
• Inhale (but only about a third as much as you could), as you sweep your arms forward and up to shoulder height, elbows bent and palms facing upward.
• Inhale again (another third) as you sweep your arm out to the side, again at shoulder height, and with palms up and elbows bent.
• Take the final third of your inhale as you sweep your arms forward and overhead (as you would for urdhva hastasana, upward salute), palms facing in.
• Exhale powerfully through your mouth, making a “ha” sound, as you bend your knees a little more, hinge forward, and sweep your arms back behind you.
• Then inhale right back up into your next round. If it feels good, you can do up to ten rounds. When you’re finished, take a moment or two to rest in stillness. Notice how you feel before returning to the rest of your practice or the rest of your day.
Variation: For an even simpler version with similar benefits, remain standing upright the entire time as you swing your arms forward and up overhead (inhale), down and back (inhale), and forward and overhead again (inhale); then exhale with a “ha” as you bend your elbows and pull them back in toward your sides.
You can practice any one of the next few poses by itself, or practice all of them together as a seasonal mini-flow.
A friend of mine recently described this as “the ultimate power pose.” Practicing it might feel a little silly—but hey, silliness is often just what we need when the whole “adult” thing becomes overwhelming, right? And at least for me, it’s hard not to feel at least a little childlike joy when I’m making the same shape that a group of kindergarteners in tinsel halos might make at the end of their Christmas pageant.
Silliness is often just what we need when the whole “adult” thing becomes overwhelming, right?
Simply stand with your feet wide apart, turn your toes out slightly, and extend your arms up overhead in a V-shape, spreading your fingers wide (think “jazz hands”).
From star pose, you can bend your knees and bring your hands to your heart to come right into goddess pose.
Keep your hips higher than (or at least no lower than level with) your knees, making sure your knees are pointing in the same direction as your toes.
Admittedly, the main source of joy that comes from this quad-challenging super-squat is often the joy you feel coming out of it. But you may find that holding it for a while (I like to set a timer for a minute or two) proves to be a fun and empowering practice for getting out of your head and into your body—or you could just flow right into the next pose.
Skandasana (Side Lunge) Variation
This upright variation of side lunge is sometimes referred to as “ice skater pose,” and it just might inspire you to head out for an afternoon of skating and hot cocoa. What could be more festive than that?
To move from goddess pose into a simple version of skandasana, straighten your left leg and sweep your arms over to the right, keeping your right leg where it is. Then bend your left knee and straighten your right leg, sweeping your arms off to the left. Continue flowing from side to side as you breathe naturally. Make sure that your bent knee stays pointing in the direction of your second and third toes (so that it’s not dropping in).
After moving back and forth several times, you can repeat the flow (star pose to goddess to skandasana variation) a couple more times.
Or, if you’re practicing skandasana as part of your asana practice, you may wish to move into a deeper variation of the pose, bringing your fingertips to the floor for balance as you widen your stance, and bringing your pelvis lower to the ground if that’s comfortable for your knees. Choose to either keep the sole of your bent-leg foot on the floor, or lift your heel and come up onto the ball of your foot. Let the sole of your straight-leg foot lift away from the floor with toes pointing up toward the ceiling.
Avoid hyperextending your straight-leg knee. Dig your straight-leg heel into the floor and resist back (engaging your hamstrings) for stability. Keep your bent-leg knee pointing in the same direction as your toes.
As you shift from side to side in this lower position, you can walk your fingertips along the floor; or challenge your balance by lifting your hands up off the floor, bringing your torso more upright. Arm variations here include resting your hands at your heart in prayer position, reaching them out to the side as if shooting a bow, or any other creative variation you’d like.
Backbends are sometimes described as embodiments of joy. I find this is especially true for hand-to-heart variations—both because this hand position encourages me to broaden and lift my chest (helping me to guide my backbends more into my thoracic spine, i.e., the upper and middle back, which feels a lot more comfortable and joyful than collapsing in my lower back), and because there’s just something especially lovely and (literally) heartfelt about the gesture. A simple, physical reminder to be kind and loving toward myself.
If you feel stable, you can try bringing a hand to your heart in poses such as natarajasana (dancer pose), ustrasana (camel pose), urdhva dhanurasana (upward facing bow or “wheel” pose), and camatkarasana (wild thing, or “flip dog”).
For example, to practice this variation in wild thing, after you've moved into the pose, bring your free hand to rest over your heart, encouraging an expansion and lift through your chest.
So, even if you're not going to be making snow angels this year, you can still fill your heart with a little holiday joy right on your yoga mat. (But if there's snow, I say go for it!)