“Spring break, wedding season, and bikini season are right around the corner,” they say. Well, of course, these (rarely helpful) reminders often succeed in turning our attention to our day planners and our post-hiberation bodies. If you’re like me, then your inner monologue usually follows, “So, how much time do I have?” (Time enough to fit in one more weekend of Ben & Jerry’s and red wine indulgence, I hope!)
Checking in with ourselves, as I discussed in a different context in “No Regrets: A Guide to Managing the Chaos,” is all it takes to stay healthy and happy on a daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal basis. Every day, checking in allows us to notice how our bodies are feeling, what our minds are up to, and consequently, how one might be negatively influencing the other.
For example, recently, I realized that my busy busy mind had been neglecting some physical discomfort and ailments that really deserved closer attention – so, I scheduled a doctor’s appointment. After taking the time to be more present to my body, I also began to notice how my headaches and other symptoms were affecting my focus, and thereby making me cranky and irritable. Not getting enough rest at night (8 hours or more, most nights each week) was also contributing to my negative attitude and my overall mindset. These are examples of how the body and mind are in sync at a very fundamental level, which ultimately affects our day-to-day comfort and productivity. By giving both my mind and my body the attention they deserve, as you would ‘take care’ or check in with a good friend or family member on a consistent basis, you’ll notice it’s much easier to be and stay healthy and happy for as long as you’re willing to stay present.
As I’ve said before and am often reminded, it’s already in you. Don’t bother looking at magazine covers with pictures of a body they’re telling you you should have this summer. Instead, check in with your own body, and treat it well; and you will undoubtedly be the happiest, healthiest, and sexiest you this summer, and always. Physical fitness can and should mean checking in with our body and what it’s really craving, (extra cookies are always okay to have sometimes; and despite your regular gym routine, maybe your body is craving a run outside or an exercise class this week). By paying attention to what the body really needs to be flawlessly in sync with our mental health and well-being, we can find balance and fitness that’s easily sustainable – if it’s approached as a welcome lifestyle shift, rather than a ‘quick’ fix.’ By listening more closely to what we already know (like that voice that tells me when I’m full, before I make the decision to pick up another cookie anyway), we can be our happiest and best selves without the high anxiety and the love-hate relationship. We’ll just keep the love part…
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best when it’s part of wanting to be your best. As much as yoga helps to manage daily mental chaos – of should’s and shouldn’t’s, temptations and remorse – by providing steadiness and clarity with regular practice, yoga also has its physical benefits. For me: I crave healthier, lighter foods because I have a greater awareness of how different foods impact my physical and mental well-being (and equally how I impact my food, through my footprint on the environment). I also am slowly but surely getting into the best shape of my life, effortlessly. Because, I return to my mat for benefits beyond a few push-ups; simply because I’m better (and certainly a better friend, daughter and girlfriend) when I do.
Since I’ve already introduced a few well-rounded basic asanas for home practice in “Happy Holidays! Your Asana Cheatsheet,” I wanted to share a few basic postures that specifically target arms – an area that caused my college girlfriends and I much anguish, as seemingly always “the last part to tone!” – so you can feel confident whatever the new season brings, without needing to master handstand or flying lizard pose to do it.
So…let’s do it.
ARM YOURSELF with Crazy, Strong Asanas:
All the poses I’ve included below are for beginners, unless noted otherwise. Any beginner posture can be made more challenging by either holding it longer (anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes) or by adding modifications which require additional strength building, as I’ve noted below. My daily practice is a fluid (ever-changing) combination of these postures, which I’ve built upon over time to further challenge myself and engage new muscles in the body. Through repetition, we gain muscle memory – so as we practice more and more frequently, learning to engage our muscles in new ways, our bodies naturally start using these muscles more in our daily lives. For instance, bending over, you might find you engage new muscles in your core, or you might not notice. But over time, your body will change, as it becomes more engaged, stronger, and healthier. This heightened awareness and efficiency of our physical body is called body clairvoyance.
The sequences below are basic techniques that will, at face value, promote greater arm strength and stability. With further practice, however, these postures can also become a full body work-out, enabling you to begin to engage your muscles in new ways and stimulate greater all-day awareness for all-over strength building.
As always, be careful and present in your practice by listening to your body. Every body’s different and, as I’ve learned more and more throughout my studies, not every body is able to do every pose. Don’t judge yourself for what you can or cannot do today, just be present in acknowledging where you are, and set a goal for yourself of where you’d like to go from here. With patience and determination (aka repetition), the form and strength of the posture will come and you’ll be able to embody more and more of the cues I’ve included here. (But likely not at first, so go easy on yourself!)
Click the posture name below for step-by-step instructions and check out my full body cues for an added challenge. Enjoy, and let it flow! 😉
Down Dog Vinyasa Flow
-Widen the fingers of each hand apart from one another, and press the palms firmly into the ground. (This means there should be no gap between the floor and your fingers, particularly where your ring finger meets the palm of each hand.)
– Lift your hips up and press back through your arms, engaging your triceps and keeping a micro (small) bend at the below. Then, gently straighten your knees and engage the backs of your legs (your hamstrings) to lower your heels closer to the ground. Once this is accomplished, you can press firmly through your heels, with equal force pressing through the hands, to engage the calves and enjoy a rock solid down dog. (Go ahead and try me, tsunami – I ‘ain’t budging!)
– Lowering into plank from down dog, extend from your wrist through your shoulder without lifting out of your shoulder socket, by ensuring your arm/the head of the humerus rests securely in the shoulder socket.
– Holding this position, lower your hips and engage your core to maintain a straight spine.
– Flex your feet and push your heels away from you, to lengthen from your hips through your heels. This way, you’re engaging and lifting from the legs away from the ground and away from your upper body.
– Check back in to straighten your spine and engage your upper and lower body muscles, planting firmly into the floor and lengthening away from it in equal opposition for full body strengthening.
– Slowly lower from high plank to chaturanga by first bending at the elbows and focusing on drawing the elbows in against the sides of the body as you lower. (This is a great example of listening to your body, as some bodies may need to modify by moving the elbows slightly away given their unique skeletal structure.)
– Engage the core, flex your feet and push through the heels to engage your hamstrings and lengthen the legs away from the hips. Set your gaze slightly in front of you to straighten your neck and cervical vertebrae for a straight spine.
– As you build arm strength, you will be able to lower more slowly, hold this posture, and even push back up into high plank for a yogi push-up. Using your breath to guide this movement makes it much easier, by pressing up on a strong, deep inhalation and slowly lowering down with a deep exhale. (Trust me, it helps a lot.)
Vasisthasana/Side Plank (with advanced modifications)
– The secret to holding this posture is core strength. Lift your hips away from the ground and lengthen the spine. Flex your bum and hamstrings, and lift your lower body up while pushing away through the feet.
– Widen your fingers and press firmly through the hand grounded into the floor. (Remember, the ring finger rule!) Once you’ve found this stability, draw your other arm up and lengthen away from the body, gently pulling your torso in opposite directions. (To start, it’s helpful to rest your arm on your hip to lift into the posture and work towards lengthening through the fingertips, only once you’re firmly grounded and comfortable in the basic posture.)
– *This posture has recently been scientifically proven to reverse sclerosis by practicing for 15 sec. or more per day on the side with the spinal curvature.
– Once you’ve mastered side plank in it’s conventional form (above), begin to play with movement and test your strength and stability by trying these variations:
– Remember to utilize your core by lifting from the hips for stability, and flex the foot using the heel to guide movement of your free leg while strongly engaging the leg muscles. You may rest the foot above or below the knee to hold this posture, but do not rest your foot or put any pressure directly on your inner knee in this posture.
– Maintaining the opposite force of pressing down and drawing up through the fingers and wrist is also key to maintaining upper body power and stability in this posture.
– Head and neck positioning is really unimportant in this posture, as long as you’re comfortable and not straining or holding tension in these places. Gazing up and through the finger tips is a popular choice for an added balancing challenge.
– Fully engage your leg and slowly reach your foot up and away from your body through the heel, while maintaining upper body stability.
One-armed dog push-up’s
– Lower from downward-facing dog into a position similar to high plank (except here, it’s okay if your bum sticks up in the air a bit). Lift one foot off the ground and lengthen your leg away from you by flexing the foot and lengthening through the heel.
– Bend at the elbows, and draw your arms alongside your body (for stability). Lower the forehead towards the ground while lengthening your leg further away from your body through the heel.
– Lower fully down in an upper body chaturanga with your forehead on the floor and your leg still raised and pushing away from the body through the heel.
– Raise back up, pressing firmly through the hands on a deep inhalation, keeping the elbows slightly bent and held tightly alongside the body with leg raised. (Returning to original ‘one-armed dog’ posture)
– Repeat 10, 20, 30+ times, switch legs and completed on the opposite side. (In a recent workshop, we were asked to do 50 of these on each side, in unison. There was a 60+ year old woman beside me who killed it. Time to give it a try?)
Intermediate/Advanced: Upward Bow or Wheel Pose Push-up’s
– For intermediate to advanced practitioners only, this posture becomes much easier once a solid foundation of arm strength is gained.
– First, lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet firmly planted on the floor. Bending your elbows and pressing your palms into the ground behind your head, push firmly into wheel pose while engaging the core to stabilize the spine. (See link above for more detailed instructions.)
– Find a comfortable position in wheel pose by walking your feet in towards your hands and always keeping a micro bend in your elbows as well as your knees. (Did you catch it? I’m missing my micro bend below! This creates instability and undo pressure at the joints which can cause bone degradation and nerve damage over time. So keep that bend!)
– Bend your elbows and gently lower the top (crown) of your head to the floor. Just like in chaturanga, be sure to draw the elbows in toward the body rather than letting them splay out and away, to maintain stability of your joints.
– Once your head is planted on the floor, push firmly through the feet and lift the hips up through the core. Move your hands slightly back (1 inch) towards your head, allowing brief and gentle pressure to rest on the crown of the head (*advanced practitioners only*), and press back up firmly through the hands into wheel pose, for an inverted yogi push up!
– For beginner and intermediate practitioners who want to give it a try, keep your hands firmly on the ground at all times and lower the head down to the floor before lifting back up for a safer, modified version of the push up.
Resting Postures* (These are counter postures designed to stretch your muscles in gentle opposition to the work you’ve already done. Feel free to sprinkle these in between your more intense postures, but definitely include them during your post-practice cool down – that is, before you take your well-earned, luxurious Savasana!)
Relaxed Standing Forward Fold
– Grab onto the elbows and release the head and neck to fully relax the neck and spine.
– Press firmly through the feet and legs, but keep a micro bend in your knee to alleviate undo pressure to your joints.
– Gently hang here, releasing any remaining tension in your upper body and allowing your autonomic nervous system to kick in, sending ‘feel good,’ relaxation-inducing hormones to your brain. (This happens anytime you lower your head below your heart. Hence, why EMT’s have patients lower their head between their legs following an accident.)
Knees to Chest Pose
– Gently wrap the arms around the knees, drawing the knees into the chest. Grab onto your fingers, wrists, or elbows, whatever is most comfortable for you. Hug your knees in and rest here (remembering to maintain your deep breathing).
– Hold for 30 seconds – 1 min., with or without rolling gently side to side, if this feels good to help loosen up tight hips.
Reclining Bound Angle Pose
– Bring the soles of your feet together, and allow your knees to relax towards the floor and your hips to gently open. If you feel any tension or discomfort in your knees, move your feet further away from your body (1 foot away, or more) until you find a comfortable position.
– Allow your arms and shoulders to relax, turning your palms upward. Draw your arms alongside your body, place them farther away or let them rest above your head; whatever is most comfortable for you in the moment.
Photo Credit: A big thanks to my photographer, Matt Annese! Check out more of his work here.