Yoga is a relatively recent import to the United States, but since its introduction in the 1940s, the number of practitioners reaping yoga's benefits has steadily increased. Originating in India more than 5,000 years ago, yoga is actually a very broad term encompassing a number of disciplines that range from the esoteric and spiritual to the more health-oriented forms in common practice today. Roseanna Rich, Martha's yoga instructor, recently visited the Westport studios to demonstrate five basic yoga positions. Each one offers multifaceted benefits that positively affect the health of the body, well-being of the mind, and calmness of the spirit.
Equipping yourself for a session is simple; you'll need a yoga mat, which has a nonskid surface; one or two yoga blocks; a belt to help support the knees; and a bolster (or blanket), which is optional but also provides additional knee support.
Roseanna says it depends on the individual, but practicing yoga for 20 to 45 minutes a day is optimal. She also reminds us to breathe throughout the exercise -- don't hold your breath -- and stop immediately if something isn't comfortable. As always, before undertaking any new fitness regimen, it's essential that you check with your physician.
Stand with your feet together. Firmly press your feet down onto the floor keeping your weight on the center of your feet. Tighten your legs, buttocks, and abdomen, pulling them up. Extend your arms down the side of your body, palms facing your legs. Keep your head and spine in a straight line, and raise your sternum.
This position can help correct bad posture, tone the buttocks, and counter the effects of age on the spine, legs, and feet. Roseanna notes that if you have a back problem or suffer from Parkinson's disease you should alter the position by facing a wall and placing your palms against it for support.
Extended Triangle Posture
Stand in mountain pose. With your left leg, take a giant step forward in a lunge position, toes straight ahead. Turn your right foot and leg out perpendicular to your left foot. Bend over your left leg and place your palm flat on the floor, on the outside of your left foot (place your hand on a yoga block if you can't stretch all the way to the floor). Raise your right arm up toward the ceiling, keeping it in line with your left arm. Turn your head and fix your eyes on your right thumb, remembering to breathe evenly through your nose. Repeat on the other side.
Good for digestion and toning the abdominal organs, the extended triangle posture also improves spinal flexibility, helps alleviate backaches, strengthens the ankles, and aids in achieving better posture.
Extended Side Angle Stretch
Stand in the mountain pose. Inhale and jump, or step your feet apart, as wide as feels comfortable. Be sure and keep your toes pointing forward. Raise your arms out to the sides to shoulder level, palms facing the floor. Rotate your right leg and foot 90 degrees to the right. Turn in your left foot slightly to the right, keeping your legs tight, and making sure your feet remain in line with each other. Bend your right knee until it's directly over your foot at a 90-degree angle. Lower your torso and place your right palm on the floor on the outside of your right foot; use a block if necessary. Stretch your left arm out over your left ear, turn your head and look up. Repeat on the other side.
The benefits to this posture come in the form of further toning to the abdominal and pelvic organs, as well as improved digestion. Roseanna cautions that if you are prone to dizzy spells, vertigo, or suffer from high blood pressure, look down at the floor in the final posture instead of turning your head up. If you have any sort of cardiac condition, perform this exercise against a wall, resting your arm along your hip rather than raising it.
Downward Facing Dog
Standing upright, bend over from the waist, placing both palms on the floor. Step both feet back, one at a time, to about 4 feet from your hands, making sure your hands and feet are aligned. Tighten your legs and push your buttocks up.
Roseanna says this exercise calms the mind while gently stimulating the nerves, as well as strengthening the ankles, toning the legs, and eliminating stiffness in the shoulders and neck.
Reclining Bound Angle Posture
Use a strap and bolster (or rolled-up blanket) to practice this position. Sit on the floor with your back straight. Bend your knees and join the soles of your feet together, drawing your heels as close to your body as feels comfortable. Loop a buckled belt or a blanket over your shoulders and let it drop to your waist. Pass it under your feet so the belt is looped between your waist and feet. Place your elbows on the floor, and lower your head and back onto the floor. You can use a bolster to support your back and head. If your knees don't touch the floor, you can support them with yoga blocks. Stretch your arms out to the sides with palms facing up. Maintain this position for 1 minute, eventually increasing to 5 to 10 minutes.
According to Roseanna, this position can help regulate blood pressure, increase circulation, aid in alleviating menstrual cramps, prevent hernias, relieve varicose veins, and help both digestion and kidney function. She cautions that it's best to avoid this position if you have a lower back ache or poor bladder control. If you experience any strain while assuming the posture, use two bolsters instead of one. If you feel strain in the groin, place a folded towel or blanket on the yoga blocks under your knees.