If you’re like me, you’ve got a serious case of cabin fever by this time of year. But as we shake off winter’s slumber, it’s a good idea to make sure our bodies are ready for the increased activity. Every season has its own rhythms, and yoga is a great way to keep your body humming along with them.
If you’re familiar with yoga, you already know that it encompasses much more than just the stretches that have become a popular form of exercise in the West. Many health experts cite its benefits, from calming the nervous system to promoting joint health to enabling a steadier state of mind.
And though it’s easy to think of yoga as something reserved for the gym or studio, it can actually find its way into all aspects of life, including your outdoor adventures.
Catch your breath
Rain or shine, one of the most important aspects of practicing yoga is noticing your breath—its quality, depth, frequency and duration. No matter what kind of activity you choose to do—whether rock climbing, ultrarunning, walking or hiking—this is one of the most elegant ways to observe your body and live fully in the moment.
Each of the following yoga poses (or asanas, as they’re called in Sanskrit), can help tone muscles, mind and spirit for outdoors pursuits. As you perform each of these poses, the challenge is to bring yourself, through the breath, into a union of body, mind and spirit. Sound daunting? As renowned yogi Sri Krishnamacharya observed, “In stages, the impossible becomes possible.”
Like the lunges
One of the best leg stretches around is the low lunge. From a kneeling position, place your hands on the ground in front of you. Bring one leg forward and place the foot on the ground between your hands. (You may want to put a jacket or shirt underneath your back knee for comfort.)
For an even deeper stretch, place your hands on your knee and rise up, using your hands for leverage or contracting your core abdominal muscles until your spine is almost perpendicular to the ground (see photo). Breathing deeply here is always a good idea, especially if your muscles are really feeling tight.
It’s always best to go to your “intelligent edge”—that is, the place where you’re feeling a good amount of stretch but you aren’t maxed out. Then try to breathe energy into those tight areas and ask the muscles to relax. It’s amazing what the body will do when you tell it what you need! Remember to do both legs, and repeat as necessary.
Twist and [no] shout
One of my favorite asanas for relieving back pain due to a big ol’ backpack is the seated twist. There are many variations on this pose, and you can always find a new way to stretch the back’s complex of muscles. CAUTION: If you have back “issues,” it’s particularly important to be mindful and gentle. While sitting cross-legged, inhale and straighten your spine. Imagine that a string attached to your tailbone runs all the way up your spine and out the top of your head. “Pull” on that imaginary string, and visualize the motion as creating space between all of your vertebrae.
Next, inhale deeply, take your left hand and place it on your right knee. Place your right hand on the floor behind you, just behind your right hip. Exhale. Inhale deeply, straighten the spine again and, as you exhale, twist from your navel (not your head!). Find an intelligent placement for your neck, being mindful of the tender muscles in this area as well. Besides bringing fresh life to your back muscles, this twist delivers fresh blood and fluids to your abdominal organs once you unwind, helping the body detoxify. I tell my students that what’s important is not the degree of the twist but your alignment and how you’re breathing in the pose. Take a few deep breaths and enjoy.
Open those hips
For all you bikers out there (whether your ride is fueled by energy bars or gas), the Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana in Sanskrit) is an essential hip opener that helps maintain flexibility. Again, while seated on the ground, bring the legs forward, placing the soles of your feet together in front of you. One of my favorite things to do in this asana is to give myself a good foot rub! This can be a nice way to unwind after a particularly long walk or if you experience circulation problems in cold weather.
Your knees may be way up in the air at this point, and that’s just fine. Place your feet as far away or as close in to your pelvis as is comfortable for you—you’ll get a different stretch depending on the placement of your feet. If you’re a person with particularly open hips (meaning your knees will be pretty close to the ground), use the string imagery mentioned above as you inhale and straighten the spine, and again as you exhale and fold your torso forward. Most likely your muscles will have something significant to say in this position! Remember to breathe in the smell of the grass or the fresh air, and cultivate a feeling of gratitude for your body and the services it does for you every day.
Live in the moment
Perhaps the best yoga for the outdoors is simply this: knowing that this moment in time, this moment right now, is the only one we truly have. In this sense, nature is one of the best yoga teachers. When you take a long backpacking trip or ascend a rock face, nature has a way of putting you fully in that moment, senses tuned to the rustle of the trees or the call of a bird floating on the wind. So get out there, take in the sunshine—and keep breathing!
[Artist, writer and yoga instructor Anna Ferguson lives in Asheville. She can be reached at http://anna.ferguson.googlepages.com]