What with all the holiday preparations and commitments, winter can be hectic…but also restful and cozy in its own way.
In some corner of the world—perhaps your own—animals may already be in full hibernation mode, safe in their burrows and dens. The weather requires that people bundle up, and folks may be gathering around a fire drinking sweet, hot beverages. Amid the chill and the holiday bustle, there’s a warmth and calm that can feel more palpable than at any other time of year.
If it isn’t snowing where you live, I invite you to imagine that it is. Imagine yourself sitting by a window watching it fall slowly, like fairy dust. As you watch, take a deep breath, inhaling through your nose, and then let out a big sigh by exhaling audibly through your mouth. Then do this a few more times.
Sighing stimulates the vagus nerve, which activates our relaxation response—The Cut contributor Edith Zimmerman compares this nerve to “a secret piano key, under our skin” that we can “press internally” to calm ourselves down. And sighing, combined with a deepening of our awareness, is one of the most accessible ways to do yoga. Because yoga, a mindful practice, can be this simple. To some degree, all that mindfulness truly requires is this basic attention to our body, mind, and breath—to the world outside and the world within.
The following gentle yoga practice is intended to deepen this sense of presence and awareness of the breath. It’s incredibly simple, though some practices and movements may feel less familiar than others.
Doing what feels right will help you get more out of this sequence as only you know what you truly need from your practice moment by moment.
This practice is mostly about feeling what you need, and really connecting to yourself. The suggested hold times and repetitions for each action are just that—suggestions. Doing what feels right will help you get more out of this sequence as only you know what you truly need from your practice moment by moment.
And there’s a lot to be gained from a simple sequence such as this, as Yoga International teacher Shari Friendrichsen recently reminded me when I interviewed her for this article. “Breath-focused practices help us turn inward, reflect on our true nature, restore those areas where we are depleted, rest those areas that are tired, and nourish our inner well-being,” she said. And then she added: “The breath is guided by prana [life force] providing a connection to a deeper and abiding well of grace that sustains us through all of the seasons of our life. Winter's dark is perfect for spending more time reconnecting with this grace.”
All you’ll need is a blanket and a bolster (or large pillow) to begin.
Benefits: strengthens the diaphragm, expanding capacity for deep breathing; cultivates breath awareness.
Rest on your back, with your legs a comfortable distance apart and your hands a comfortable distance from your body.
Place a folded blanket on your belly, between your lower ribs and hips. Allow your shoulders and hips to soften. Close or soften your eyes, and then feel yourself breathing: your belly rising (raising the blanket as you inhale), and your belly falling (lowering the blanket as you exhale).
Notice how the blanket on your abdomen naturally increases your awareness of your breath. Over time, your breath may deepen. See if you can also allow your breathing to become smoother with time. Notice the pauses between the inhales and exhales, seeing if you can reduce them.
After three to five minutes, remove the blanket. Then rest and feel yourself breathing without resistance. As you notice the space for breath you’ve cultivated, and you focus on releasing all tension from your abdomen, repeat the following affirmation: “As I inhale, I am nourished. As I exhale, I let go.”
Tip: If you’d like more resistance, you can use a sandbag or a bag of rice or beans instead of a blanket.
Benefits: mobilizes the shoulders; connects breath and movement.
From savasana, with palms turned up, inhale and slide your arms along the floor, bringing them over your head—as if making a snow angel (with just your arms). Then sweep them back down on your exhale. Keep sweeping your arms up and down, synced with your breath for about five breaths. Then inhale through your nose and reach both arms overhead, stretching fingers and toes in opposite directions for a full-body stretch. As you sigh, release the stretch, but keep your arms overhead.
Note: This movement practice is part of the "Basic Six" of the Bartenieff Fundamentals.
Benefits: stretches the sides of the body and facilitates side-body awareness.
Make an X shape on your back with your arms and legs. Inhale, and on the exhale, draw your right knee and right elbow toward each other, contracting the right side of your body while lengthening your left (keeping your hips and shoulders on the floor). Return to your X on an inhale, and stay there for the exhale and an additional inhale before doing the left side on an exhale. Or, if you prefer a quicker pace, continue moving, without the pause at center.
Stop when you feel complete, perhaps after five to ten repetitions on each side. Then roll onto one side.
Benefits: enhances coordination; cultivates playfulness.
From your side, roll onto your hands and knees and come into child’s pose for three breaths. Then come to sitting with your feet flat on the floor, mat width apart, and your hands behind you, with fingers pointing either toward or away from your body.
Inhale, and then on an exhale let your knees drop over to the right. Come back through center on an inhale, and then exhale your knees over to the left.
Continue releasing your knees to one side and then the other, synced with your breath. Then eventually add upper-body movements: As your knees drop to the right, spin your upper body to the right, reaching your hands to the floor outside your right hip as your body comes into a deeper twist. Linger for a breath or two, deepening your twist on your exhales by walking your hands farther to the left. Then switch sides, coming through center.
Move through this slow-flowing twist for five to ten breaths.
When you’re complete, come to hands and knees and then transition up to mountain pose at the top of your mat, perhaps by walking your hands toward your feet to come into a squat and then rising up to standing, or by stepping forward from hands and knees, or by coming into a down dog first.
Note: Pandiculation is spontaneous movement/stretching that you probably do every day, whether upon waking up or after a long period of being otherwise sedentary. It’s the body’s natural method of releasing tension and preparing for movement.
Benefits: relieves tension.
From mountain pose, move in any way that feels good to you—maybe doing some shoulder rolls, arm swings, hip circles, ankle rolls, twists, or side bends. As “natural” as this practice is, without someone telling you what to do, it can seem awkward at first.
Move for about a minute or two, or for as long as you’d like. Remember: If you’re practicing alone at home, no one is watching!
Benefits: cultivates breath awareness.
From mountain pose, step your right foot back about a leg’s length or half a leg’s length (depending on what feels most stable), planting it at about a 45-degree angle; bend your left knee, stacking it over your left ankle, to come into warrior I. Instead of immediately raising your arms overhead, place your hands on your lower ribs. Use your hands to turn your rib cage to face forward and then connect to your breathing: Your front ribs, side ribs, and back ribs flare out on every inhale and gently draw back in on every exhale.
After a few breaths, allow your arms to float effortlessly overhead, as if filled with helium.
Stay for three to five breaths.
Before switching sides, explore the following flow:
Note: This is your vinyasa. One definition of vinyasa is “to place in a special way.” Consider this as you practice the flow, allowing your transition between poses to be slow, deliberate, and breath-filled.
Benefits: dynamically stretches the back muscles and hamstrings, connects breath with movement.
From warrior I, make your way to the floor and come into tabletop. From here, inhale to lift your heart and hips into cow, and then exhale and round back into child's pose. From child’s pose, inhale back to cow pose, then, on the exhale, curl your toes under, lift your knees, and shift your hips up and back into downward facing dog.
From downward facing dog, bend your knees and release them to the floor as you inhale back into cow, then exhale to round back into child's pose, inhale back into cow, then exhale back into down dog, and so on, continuing the flow in this way. Move through this flow five to ten times, or until you feel complete, ending in tabletop.
Do warrior I with hands on ribs on the left side, then repeat the sun bird flow five to ten more times, once again ending in tabletop.
Benefits: can promote feelings of comfort and calm.
From tabletop, place a bolster (or two bolsters if yours are thin like the ones pictured) lengthwise on the mat, then deepen the bend in your knees to bring your seat to your heels, draping your torso over the bolster, coming into a wide-knee version of child’s pose with big toes touching. Begin with your head turned to one side, and about halfway through turn to the other side, so that the pose feels balanced.
Hold anywhere from one to five minutes, or until you feel complete.
Note: One of my favorite teachers, Colin Hall, once joked that it’s possible to live our whole lives with our hips in flexion as most of the activities we do daily involve hip flexion. This pose includes an optional hip flexor stretch variation, which provides an ideal “counterpose” to the walking and sitting we do all day long.
Benefits: provides a mild, supported chest stretch and an optional enhanced hip flexor stretch.
From child’s pose, move your bolster off to one side and roll over onto your back, coming into constructive rest pose with your feet hip-width apart and arms along your sides.
As you inhale, imagine that you could lengthen your spine from your tailbone to the crown of your head. As you exhale, aim to maintain that length. Stay here for three breaths.
Then press down through your feet, lift your hips, and slide your bolster under your pelvis for a simple supported bridge pose.
Remain here, or come into half wind relieving pose by hugging your right knee into your chest, feeling your weight supported by the bolster. Keep your left knee bent or stretch it out long for more of a hip flexor stretch. Hold for a breath or two, and then switch sides, exhaling as you transition. Feel free to practice this pose more than once per side.
From there, bend both knees and place your feet on the floor before fully extending one leg at a time, resting your heels on the floor. If you’d rather focus on one side at a time, you can also keep one knee bent, which may feel less intense. Let your hip flexors “breathe” (i.e., release).
Stay anywhere from one to three minutes, or until you feel complete. To come out, return to supported bridge with both feet on the floor, lift your hips away from the bolster, slide it off to the side, and lower your hips, coming back into constructive rest pose.
Benefits: strengthens the diaphragm; stretches the paraspinal muscles.
From constructive rest pose, separate your feet a little wider apart (perhaps to shoulder width), and then, on an exhale, lower your knees to the left. From there, open your arms into a T. Then rest and breathe, turning your head to the right, if that’s comfortable for your neck.
After a minute or two, return to center and switch sides.
When you’re done, lie on your back with your feet on the floor in constructive rest pose.
Benefits: cultivates a sense of openness.
From constructive rest pose, come back into your X shape (keeping with the spirit of the season, I like to refer to it as "supine star" or "snowflake pose"). Stay here awhile—anywhere from one to three minutes, or until you feel complete. As you rest, think about cultivating an open awareness of your body in space, paying attention to inner and outer feedback: the way you feel, how you breathe, the sounds you hear, the temperature of the air, and the texture of your clothes on your skin.
Take it all in. Allow it to appear and then somehow disappear by arising and dissolving within your awareness.
An optional affirmation to use as desired: “My body rests. I am a part of everything and everything is within me.”
Benefits: stimulates the vagus nerve, promoting relaxation; improves concentration.
From supine star pose, roll to one side and pause there for a moment. Then, on your next natural exhale, press up to come to a comfortable seated or kneeling pose. Sit on a blanket or other prop if you’d like. Close or soften your eyes, breathe through your nose (unless you’re congested), and become aware of your breath flowing in and out of your nostrils.
If you’re practicing this sequence right before bed, try making your exhales longer than your inhales in this final seated pose to promote feelings of relaxation.
If you’re just starting your day, try equal-part breathing, in which your inhales and exhales are equal in duration—also known as sama vritti—to promote feelings of balance and vitality.
After three to five minutes, if your eyes are closed, gently open them. To make the transition easier, especially if you’re in a bright room, it can help to first cup your hands over your eyes, separate your fingers, open your eyes into your palms, and then release your hands to your sides.
And when you’re done, remember the snow. Perhaps now it falls even more slowly than before—floating in the air, as if wanting to linger awhile, reflecting the unhurried sense of calm, and the presence you’ve cultivated within.
Photography: Andrea Killam