This is the second in a series of articles that will cover a number of variations on classical yoga practices in the hopes of supporting teachers in finding safe and beneficial ways for all students to participate.
Hatha Yoga, the branch of yoga that consists of physical practices, is designed to create balance in the body. As yoga teachers, we direct students to bend their bodies forward and backward, twist right and left, stand upright and go upside down, always helping them move toward balance. The physiological experience of balance is reflected in the mind as peace—that wonderful feeling we get from practicing yoga. The word “hatha” itself refers to balance—the balance between “ha,” sun, and “tha,” moon.
In the beginning of a yoga class, we build the “ha,” or sun energy, through a variety of warm-up practices such as sun salutations. At the end of class, we use the “tha,” moon energy, of savasana to create balance.
One of the benefits of sun salutations is that they move all the major joints and engage all the major muscle groups. But sun salutations may be too complex a series of movements for students with physical limitations, or simply too challenging the first thing on a cold morning. If you aren’t teaching some variation of a sun salutation, then it’s important to offer other warm-up movements that achieve a similar goal. Such warm-ups, like the ones described below, can also be used as preparation for a sun salutation.
Sun salutations may be too complex a series of movements for students with physical limitations, or simply too challenging the first thing on a cold morning.
Focusing on moving the major joints is a useful way to warm up the body. You can offer movements for the neck, wrists/fingers, shoulders, hips, knees, and feet/toes. These practices can be done in the flowing vinyasa style of a sun salutation, connecting the movement with the breath. (Combining breath and movement is essential for keeping the mind engaged during practice.) For example, gentle neck rolls (avoiding rolling the head back, which can compress the nerves and arteries in the back of the neck) can be combined with the breath:
Inhale: lengthen the neck. Exhale: lower the chin to the chest. Inhale: roll the head toward the right, bringing the right ear toward the right shoulder. Exhale: bring the chin toward the chest. Inhale: roll the head toward the left. Exhale: bring the chin toward the chest. Repeat.
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali defines yoga practice as “effort toward steadiness of mind” (Book 1: Sutra 13). If it is the effort to steady the mind that defines yoga practice, then we can bring that mental focus to our warm-ups, asanas, and to all else we do in the name of yoga.
Mindful breathing during warm-ups and sun salutations will help your students foster that focus in the beginning.
Other warm-ups might include wrist rotations, ankle rotations, pointing and flexing the toes (being careful not to cause cramping in the feet), shoulder rolls, knee flexion and extension, and hip circles. Hip circles are done by gently rotating the thigh in a circle, and can be done supine, sitting, or standing. Cat/cow is an effective warm-up for the entire spine, which is made up of over seventy joints. For students with wrist or hand issues, cat/cow can be practiced while resting the forearms on two stacked bolsters. Cat/cow can also be practiced standing, seated in a chair, or seated on the floor.
Sun salutations can be made more accessible in a number of ways. We can either practice a variation of a traditional sun salutation series by adapting the individual positions, or we can remove poses or sections of the sequence that present the greatest physical challenge. Other ways to vary the sequence include using props, such as a wall or chair.
This version of a wall sun salutation is useful for students who either don’t want to practice on the floor, or who can’t easily reach the floor with their hands.
Wall Sun Salutation
To prepare, place your mat perpendicular to a wall (one of the short edges of the mat touching the wall).
1. Stand in tadasana (mountain pose) facing the wall, slightly further than arm’s length away. With your palms together in front of your chest, exhale.
2. Inhale: raise the arms overhead; stretch up and look up without straining the neck.
3. Exhale: hinge forward from the hips, placing the palms on the wall at waist height (or slightly higher) for wall-supported downward dog.
4. Inhale: step forward with the left foot, bringing the toes up to the wall and bending the left knee. Keep the right leg straight. Keeping the hands on the wall, straighten the arms. Lengthen the spine upward into standing lunge.
5. Exhale: step the left foot back into wall dog.
6. Inhale: raising the torso, step both feet forward, halfway to the wall. Arms bend slightly.
7. Exhale: press the chest and chin toward the wall in a reverse push-up, coming into wall cobra. Keep the neck long.
8. Inhale: press into the hands to come out of wall cobra.
9. Exhale: step both feet back, and hinge forward into wall dog.
10. Inhale: step the right foot forward and bend the right knee, keeping the left leg straight. Straighten the arms and lengthen the spine to come into a standing lunge.
11. Exhale: step the right foot back into wall dog.
Inhale: raise the head and push off from the wall, coming back to tadasana. Lift the arms overhead and look up.
Exhale: bring the palms together at the chest.
Chair Sun Salutation
There are at least two possible forms of sun salutation using a chair. A traditional standing form of the practice can be done facing a chair, which offers an elevated surface and can make some of the poses more accessible. Sun salutations can also be done as a seated practice, which takes a little more imagination to teach. You can add variations to this sequence to align with the form of sun salutation that you normally teach. In this way, you can integrate different levels of students in the same class. For example, when you teach a lunge with the right leg forward in a traditional sun salutation, you can have those students who are practicing in a chair hug the right thigh toward the chest.
When practicing yoga in a chair, it is important to choose a sturdy chair that allows for a full range of motion (preferably a chair without arms). The chair can be against a wall for support, or on a yoga mat to provide more traction. When practicing in a chair, students need to be careful to keep the bulk of their weight in the chair to avoid falling out of it.
1. Come to seated tadasana: feet firmly planted with knees over ankles and thighs parallel to the floor. (For shorter legs, place a blanket or block under the feet. For longer legs, sit on a folded blanket). Lengthen the spine (avoid leaning back against the chair), and bring palms together in front of the chest. Exhale.
2. Inhale: lengthen the arms out in front, and stretch them up over head; look up gently if that feels comfortable for the neck.
3. Exhale: lower the hands to the thighs and hinge forward at the hips, bringing the abdomen toward the thighs. Slide the hands down the legs toward the feet. Relax the neck.
4. Slowly rise up. Take hold of the right thigh and lift it up toward the chest into a modified lunge. Inhale: move the chest forward and look forward.
5. Release the leg, hands on the knees. Exhale: round the back and lower the head into a cat stretch.
6. Inhale: move the chest forward and look up, coming into a seated cobra stretch.
7. Exhale: round the back into cat stretch.
8. Inhale: move the chest forward and look up, coming into a seated cobra stretch.
9. Exhale: hinge forward at the hips, bringing the abdomen toward the thighs. Slide the hands down the legs toward the feet. Relax the neck.
10. Slowly rise up. Take hold of the left thigh and raise it up. Inhale: move the chest forward and look ahead.
11. Exhale: lower the leg, and slide the hands down the legs toward the feet. Bend down toward the floor and relax the neck.
12. Place the hands back on the thighs. Inhale: raise the head first and lengthen the spine, sitting up. Lift the arms up overhead, and look up in seated tadasana.
13. Exhale: bring the palms together in front of your chest.