These days, if I were to create a vision board for the ways that I want to move, it would prominently feature pain-free, functional, and multifaceted movement. As I grow older, I no longer perform certain movements or exercise regimens only because someone else has declared them “good” for the population at large or because they help me attain a certain aesthetic. I do certain movements in particular ways because they support my goal of pain-free movement—especially with the types of activities I want to be able to do for many years to come. If I can’t hike, paddle, or swim, I’m not happy. So I need to consider how to maintain my body in order to achieve the movements those activities require. If an achy back takes me out for a day or a week, I’m not able to do the things I want to do. That means I need to regularly practice the techniques and movements that help to keep my back in optimal health.
It’s easy to go too far to one extreme or the other—we probably all know someone who loves to work on strength but dislikes mobility training. Another person may love to stretch and increase their flexibility but finds strength and stabilizing exercises to be a chore. Regardless of what you find “yucky” and what you find “yummy,” we need both. Yin cannot exist without yang, and vice versa.
This yoga sequence (which you may notice is somewhat barre-inspired) is designed to build strength in the core, glutes, and legs, and features mindful movement to encourage a functional range of motion. Even though I gravitate toward mobility training, yin, and myofascial release, I know I need to build strength. I strengthen my glutes to enable me to hike up hills. I strengthen my core to help with my balance and my ability to power a paddleboard across a lake. Those are my motivators—I expect you have some of your own.
This series of movements takes about 25 minutes. It can serve as a quick strength practice or as an opening to a longer vinyasa practice. An optional prop is a yoga knee pad (a great prop to have on hand) or a blanket to go under your knees, as most of the poses begin or are executed from all fours.
Find a comfortable seated position that allows you to relax your hips and legs. Close your eyes if you like.
Let your shoulders soften and your spine lengthen. See if you can release any constriction that you notice anywhere, and allow your breath to expand into these areas of "opened space" in your body. Visualize your core as strong, flexible, and free from any restrictions in movement. Picture your back as healthy, moving optimally, and able to withstand loads. Envision your hips as free from pain and moving in a range that is just right—not too little movement and not too much mobility. Picture your hip joints as strong, stable, and healthy. Imagine oxygenated blood circulating through your back and hips. Release any last holding. Allow your eyelids to flutter open if they were closed.
Move into an all-fours position. You may wish to place a blanket or yoga knee pad under your knees. Looking down at the mat, lengthen the back of your neck. Envision your sternum reaching away from your navel. Straighten your right leg behind you, placing the ball of your foot on the mat. Lift your right leg to a level that works for you, no more than hip height. Keep your right foot flexed with toes pointing down. Extend your left arm in front of you with the palm facing in. Continue lifting your sternum away from your navel to keep your lower back from overarching. From here you have two options:
Option 1: Stay in this pose for five breaths, working on finding stability.
Option 2: Inhale to reach the fingertips of your left hand away from your right heel. Exhale and round through your spine, bending your left elbow and right knee toward each other. Inhale to reach your limbs away from each other, and exhale to round and tuck. Do this a total of 10 times, and then return to all fours before switching sides.
End in all-fours position.
Straighten your right leg behind you and lift it to hip height, or slightly lower to a height that works for you, with your foot flexed and toes pointing down. Then direct it out to the side, perpendicular to your body, with the toes pointing forward, while you also focus on reaching the crown of your head away from your tailbone. From here there are two options:
Option 1: Stay here for five breaths.
Option 2: Reach your left arm out to the side in a half T position and hold for five breaths.
Return to all fours and switch sides, ending in all-fours position.
Straighten your right leg behind you and begin stacking your right hip on top of your left as you move your left shin until it’s parallel with the short edge of your mat (so it can act as a kickstand). Your right toes will face the right side of the room. Open your heart to the sky and try bringing the left side of your rib cage to face the right side of the room. Root into your left hand. Once again, there are two levels of intensity to choose from:
Option 1: Press into the inner edge of your right foot and let your right hand rest on your right hip. Stay for five breaths.
Option 2: Lift your right foot to hip height and continue to flex the ankle. Reach your right arm up to the sky. Hold for five breaths.
Return to all fours and switch sides.
From all fours, straighten your right leg behind you, pointing your toes. Focus on keeping your hips level by spiraling your thighs inward. Lift your right leg to hip height, reaching your toes away from your hips as you do so, and then tap the top of your right foot on the mat.
Lift and lower 10 times, and then lift your right leg to hip height and pulse it there 10 times.
After the last pulse, hold your leg lifted in extension, flex your ankle to point your toes to the floor, and perform 10 hamstring curls—imagining that you’re trying to kick your own right glute with your right heel.
After 10 reps, pause with both your right knee and your right ankle bent at 90 degrees, with the sole of your right foot facing the ceiling, and pulse 10 times.
Return to all fours and repeat. End on all fours.
Straighten your right leg behind you and then cross your right thigh over your left so that your right leg is on a diagonal. Let the ball of your right foot rest on the floor on your left side. Draw your left shoulder toward your left hip and look over your left shoulder while opening up through your right rib cage. Stay for five breaths.
Then return to neutral, looking forward again, and lift your right leg up (to no more than hip height). Point your toes and lower your foot to the floor, and then lift it back up once again to hip height.
Do a total of 10 repetitions, and then keep your leg lifted as you pulse 10 times.
Return to all fours and switch sides.
From all fours, inhale and straighten your right arm out to the side, into a half T position. Exhale and thread your right arm under your left, coming to rest on the side of your right shoulder and the side of your head. Now choose from two options:
Option 1: Stay here for 10 breaths. You can a) leave your left hand where it is, or b) walk your left hand toward the top of your mat, or c) to more fully open your left shoulder, lift your left arm, bend your elbow, and place the back of your left hand on the small of your back.
Option 2: Straighten your left leg until it’s perpendicular to your body. See if you can bind your left big toe with your right thumb and first two fingers. Options for your left arm are the same as in option 1. Stay for 10 breaths.
To come out, release the bind if practicing option 2, and return your left leg to the all-fours position. From either option, place your left hand back under your left shoulder and press the floor away, sliding your right arm out, and placing your right hand back under your right shoulder in all fours. Switch sides.
Come onto your right forearm and bent right knee in side plank, stacking your hips and lifting them away from the mat; your left leg should be fully extended, as you root into the inner edge of your left foot. You can either stay here, or straighten the right leg as well, resting your left foot on top of the right; you can also scissor your legs for more balance. Inhale and lift your left arm so that your fingertips point toward the sky. Exhale and twist your torso so you can thread your left arm under your right; the front of both shoulders will be parallel to your mat (or almost). Inhale to reach your left arm back up to the sky, and exhale to twist. Keep your hips squared to the side—and don’t let them droop!
Do a total of 10 reps and then release your right hip to the mat. Push the mat away with your right hand and forearm to come up to a cross-legged seated position; let your left hand rest on the ground beside your left hip, and reach your right arm up and over to the left side to stretch the right side of your body. Hold for five breaths, breathing into the stretch.
At the end of the last breath simply move your left forearm into position at that end of the mat and set up to do this sequence on the other side.
If this is the end of your movement practice for now, please take at least five minutes in savasana to allow your mind, body, and emotions to settle. And remember to balance your strength and stability workout with some flexibility training later in the week.
Core and glute strength is critical to feeling and moving at our best. I find that these practices help immensely. Here’s to strong and stable bodies that allow us to do the activities we love in a functional, pain-free manner!
Photography: Andrea Killam