One ephemeral quality that many of us are missing during these COVID-19 times is space. We may be longing to be able to travel anywhere, anytime; or perhaps we’re chafing against being restricted to our households, especially if we’re sharing the space with several family members or housemates. At times like this, we can channel that desire for freedom and expansiveness into our yoga practice and search for those qualities in our physical, mental, and emotional bodies. The following sequence is designed to explore the possibilities for space within and lead to fostering and maintaining it in all aspects of our lives. You will need one bolster, one blanket, and two blocks for this one-hour yin practice.
Establish a comfortable seated position. Allow your breath to deepen. Focus on visualizing a scene that conveys wide-open space to you. One or more of the following suggestions might resonate with you. Choose the one that makes you feel expansive, and then breathe into the details of the visualization, allowing the imagery and your breath to intermingle and facilitate a feeling of vastness. Here are some prompts to begin with:
the night sky, replete with stars
the ocean and pale blue horizon above
an indigo sunset in varying shades of blues, violets, and grays
a large, open meadow, complete with a wide array of colorful wildflowers
Slowly open your eyes after five minutes, letting go of your visualization but not the residue of spaciousness in your mind and body.
Start with your toes together, knees apart, arms stretching toward the top of your mat, and seat reaching toward your heels, as you would for child’s pose. Remain here, in tadpole pose, with your seat reaching toward or touching your heels, for two minutes.
See if you notice an openness in your hips, upper thighs, and even in your outstretched arms. Then move your hips forward so they’re more in line with your knees, and allow your pelvis to soften toward the floor. This is half frog.
Become aware of shifting sensations and where you may now feel openness. Breathe deeply as you focus on these feelings.
Stay here, or, if you feel you have not fully explored your range, move your heels away from each other until your ankles are directly in line with your knees, feet flexed and turned out, for frog pose.
Hold frog or half frog for three minutes. To come out, shift back into tadpole for one minute. Notice where in your body you feel open and where you feel less open, or closed.
From tadpole, lift your hips and shift your weight forward to come into tabletop. Tuck your toes under and lift your hips up and back to come into downward facing dog. Step your left foot forward between your hands and assume a low lunge position. Keep your right toes tucked under and your right knee lifted off the mat. Reach back through your right heel to find more length in your right leg, allowing the ankle to dorsiflex until you feel a lengthening and opening in your right calf or perhaps your hip flexors. See if you notice a feeling of spaciousness in your right leg from toes to hip.
For more sensation, come down onto your forearms. If this position is not optimal for your body, you can place your hands on blocks or on your left thigh or release your right knee to the floor. Stay in your variation of choice for two minutes.
To come out of the pose, bring your right knee to your mat, then ease yourself back into tabletop. Switch sides. After two minutes on the second side, bring your left knee to the mat and ease yourself back into tabletop. Pause to notice any sensations of expansiveness in the right and left sides of your body.
Now take a few cat and cow movements as a counterpose: Inhale and lift your sternum and tailbone up and away from each other, letting your belly move toward the ground. Exhale and round your back, drawing your navel toward your spine and allowing your head to dangle.
Continue for a total of one minute and then return to a neutral spine before letting your hips sink back to your heels.
Place your bolster horizontally about a third of the way down from the top of your mat. Lie down on the bolster so your low to mid back is supported, aligning the top edge of the bolster with the bottoms of your shoulder blades. Roll over onto your right side with the bolster under your right armpit and upper side body. For support, you can cross your arms over your chest and bend both knees to the right side.
If you’d like to explore some more openness along your side body, reach your right arm out alongside your ear onto the floor and rest your head on your right bicep.
You can rest your left arm along your side (as depicted above) or extend it overhead, bringing your left palm to rest on your right. Play with lengthening your left leg and reaching your left toes away from your hips, with your right knee bent. Notice any sensations of openness.
For a different sensation, extend your left leg back and away, stretching on the diagonal.
Stay in your preferred variation for three minutes. To switch sides, come into a fetal position, roll over to your left side, adjusting your position on the bolster as necessary. After three minutes, support yourself in coming up to a comfortable seated position. Take a few breaths here, noticing how your ribs, chest, and heart feel in terms of expansiveness.
From your seated position, move into tabletop with pointed toes. Extend your left leg out in front of you. Walk your hands back toward your hips. Flex your left foot and press your left heel into the mat. Fully flex your right knee so you can drop your hips to the floor inside your right heel. Press the top of your right foot into the mat. If your right knee doesn’t like this pose, consider wedging a rolled-up blanket or towel just behind it. Place your hands behind your hips, fingers pointing forward, and lean back, seeking to find the stretch in the front of your right thigh. You may decide to rest back on your forearms or recline fully in pursuit of the stretch. You can also place a bolster under your back for support.
As you hold for two minutes, breathe deeply and attach the word “space” to the rhythm of your inhalations and exhalations. To come out, push the floor away with your hands and use your core to bring your torso upright. Walk your hands to the front of your mat, bending your left knee and lifting your hips. Come back to tabletop and switch sides. After two minutes on the other side, lift up into downward facing dog and alternate flexing your knees and ankles as you walk out your dog for one minute. Notice the openness in your legs. Identify what length feels like in your physical body. Return to tabletop.
Keep your hips right above your knees and walk your hands forward until you feel a stretch in your shoulders. Tent your hands, pressing the tips of your “cupcake fingers” into the mat to keep your palms lifted to protect the “frosting" of imaginary cupcakes beneath them. Let your heart melt toward the mat as your shoulder blades draw together and your thoracic spine arches in extension.
Notice where you feel expansive and open to sensation and experience. Encourage your breath, thoughts, and emotions to become open in concert. If your shoulders feel tight, try moving your hands wider apart. You could also extend just one arm, bending the other at the elbow and resting your forehead on that forearm (parallel to the short edge of the mat), switching after one and a half minutes for each side. If both arms are extended, hold for three minutes. Sink back into tadpole for one minute.
Build a bolster ramp by leaning the bolster on a block on its low or medium setting about one-third of the way down the bolster’s length. Sit with your sacrum against the bottom edge of the bolster, and then recline so the bolster ramp supports your spine and the back of your head. Bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet together, with your feet about a foot or foot and a half away from your hips, and then let your knees open to the sides. You can also place blocks under your upper thighs or knees, or a bolster horizontally under your thighs and knees.
Let your upper body be completely supported by the bolster. You can fold your hands or forearms on your belly or rest them on the floor.
Allow gravity to gently work on your legs, drawing your knees, thighs, and calves ever closer to the ground, allowing the tissues in these areas to lengthen. Imagine your heart, ribs, and chest completely open and growing increasingly expansive as your breath deepens, lengthens, and nourishes. Imagine your lower body moving into the feeling of being supported as well. Stay for five minutes, and then place your feet on the floor and windshield-wiper your knees from side to side. To move out of the pose, come to lie on your side and use your hands to press the floor away and ease yourself up. Remove the ramp.
Straighten your legs out in front of you and place a rolled-up blanket under your knees. Relax your knees and ankles. Inhale to lengthen your spine, and exhale to walk your hands forward on either side of your legs as you fold forward from your hips.
Go slowly, stopping when you feel an opening in the backs of your legs. Aim for the sensation of stretch, not pain, throughout the pose. When you have arrived at a place where you feel comfortable staying for five minutes, relax your back muscles and let your spine round. You can tuck your chin in toward your chest or keep it lifted an inch or two.
Contrast the feeling of openness in your legs with the closing, or sheltering, of your upper body, heart, and solar plexus as you are rounded forward. To come out of the pose, slowly lift your head and lengthen your spine, coming upright as you walk your hands back toward your hips. Give your legs a shake and rock them from side to side a couple of times.
Lie on your back. Draw your left knee into your chest and keep your right leg lengthened. Guide your left knee across your body to the right side and rest it on the ground, holding it in place by resting your right hand gently on the outside of your left knee. Reach your left arm out to the left at shoulder height and look in that direction (or straight ahead if that's more comfortable), facilitating spaciousness in your spine and left shoulder and chest. Relax into the twist.
After four minutes, draw both knees into your chest, rock from side to side, and then switch sides. Draw both knees into your chest and hold for one minute before releasing into savasana.
During these challenging times, give yourself the gift of savasana—for a minimum of 10 minutes, and more if possible.
As you breathe deeply for a few breaths, return to the visualization from your opening breath. Revisit the sensation those images evoked, this time imagining that you occupy all the space in that setting. Consider that your energy and breath are so vital that they can fill the entire universe. Allow your exhales to become gigantic, and your thoughts and emotions to be anchored by the earth. Remember that while your physical dwelling may be small and confined, your mental realm is vast. Revel in the openness in your mind, body, and soul. After these few deeper breaths, relax control of your breath and your thoughts and drift into pure savasana. Namaste.
Photography: Andrea Killam