A few of my clients have been recently asking for a morning mobility yoga sequence that they can do on a regular basis.
Personally, I try to make some time in the early morning to do some sort of mobility/yoga practice. Sometimes this will mean 10-15 minutes, sometimes a little longer. Either way my days seem to go a little more gracefully and fluidly when I have spent some time connecting to, and taking care of my body, before the demands of the day set in.
I have created a sequence that includes some of my favourite ways to move my body in the morning. Many of these are simple, functional type movements that take care of major places where tension gets stored, namely the shoulders, spine, hips, legs and feet.
This whole morning mobility yoga sequence will take about 20-30 minutes depending on how many repetitions you make of each movement and how long you dwell within each pose. If you have less time feel free to skip some of the movements out, instead choosing the poses that feel most useful or relevant for your body on that particular day.
Here are a few guidelines for getting the most out of your practice:
Be kind and respectful of your body
As we get more tuned into our unique body experience, we start to see how the body is constantly evolving and changing. Your mobility, energy-levels, balance, co-ordination and strength will vary day-to-day based on a whole number of factors, including what kind of acitvities you did the day before, how well hydrated your tissues are, the quality of your sleep and even what kind of mood you’re in. Be kind and respectful of where you’re starting your practice from.
It’s also worth noting that your body is probably at it stiffest and most inflexible in the morning – therefore be patient, manage your expectations and recognise that this is the not the time to create new personal bests in terms of flexibility!
Bring a spirit of playfulness and curiosity to the practice
I prefer a more fluid and dynamic practice in the morning – I will rarely hold stretches statically but instead use this time to explore the full range of motion in my joints, moving gently in and out of stretches.
The spirit of this practice is exploratory and I invite you to bring a sense of playfulness and curiosity to the movements. Don’t be fixed or rigid but allow yourself to take the visual template of each movement or pose and then feel free to explore in and around that position, finding angles and ranges of motion that feel useful, interesting and opening for your body.
It’s fine to explore non-traditional alignments – the body is capable of moving in a variety of unique and interesting ways, so don’t limit yourself and enjoy yourself!
Work with an awareness of your breathing
In yoga, we typically emphasise moving in co-ordination with the breath and this can be a powerful way to quieten the mind, calm the nervous system and reduce the tendency to hold the breath, particularly during difficult or awkward-feeling movements.
However, I am aware that syncing movement to breath can be confusing for beginning students, so my main advise is to just stay tuned in to your breathing and aim for a fluid, regular, gentle, three-dimensional breath. Watch for any restrictions, tension or holding around your breathing. This is why I recommend starting with a minute of deep diaphragmatic breathing. Place your hands on your lower ribs and work to gently expand and soften the bottom of the ribcage front-to-back and side-to-side as you breathe.
You might find it useful to use the inhale breath during parts of the movement that accentuate lifting or lengthening of the spine. The exhalation is useful for movements where we are folding forwards, twisting or using some amount of muscular effort.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
This is a must-read for anyone who is interested in improving the quality of their life. It is essentially a book about how to create more meaningful experiences by accessing a state of ‘flow’, or complete absorption, with what one is doing in any given moment.
Csikszentmihalyi’s research suggests that our happiest moments in life are those in which we are completely present and immersed in what we are doing. Moments where the demands of the task in front of us are perfectly matched to our capabilities, and all sense of time and self-consciousness recede into the background.
I love this book, because I feel it beautifully encapsulates the experience we try to create when we step onto the yoga mat – the breath, sensations and movements of the body all working to bring us into the immediacy of the moment. Although not a yoga book per se, it is a lovely reminder of how we might bring the yogic qualities of mindfulness, attention and intention into the greater context of our lives.
The Stress Solution by Dr Rangan Chatterjee.
We know that stress is one of the biggest issues when it comes to undermining our physical and mental health. It is an oft-reported fact that up to 80% of doctor’s visits are related to the negative physiological and psychological effects of stress.
Dr Chatterjee has written a wonderfully practical book, packed full of tips about how to reduce your own stress levels. What I find particularly inspiring and encouraging is his emphasis on the often overlooked but incredibly important emotional side to stress management. How we manage our stress can depend a lot on how strong our levels of social support are, or whether we have a strong sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. These two factors alone can help us us to re-frame potentially stressful events, putting them into better perspective thereby reducing their insidious negative impact.
Ancient Wisdom for Modern Health by Mark Bunn
This is such a lovely, practical, common-sense guide to optimal health and wellbeing. The fact it’s written by an Australian ex-AFL player somehow makes it even more appealing!
Working in the health and wellness sector, I know how easy it is to become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information about health. Amidst the noise, I think we often forget that many of the keys to good health are both simple, common-sense and timeless. He offers simple guidance around the importance of eating real food, getting enough sunlight and fresh air, prioritising rest and finding ways of moving that you enjoy.
Every time I read this I feel like a huge burden is lifted. We already intuitively know the answers to what makes us feel like we’re functioning at our best. We just need to get quiet enough to listen, trust, and ultimately reconnect with what we already know.
Bringing Yoga to Life by Donna Farhi
Probably one of my favourite yoga books judging by the amount of underlining and annotations throughout it!
Donna Farhi’s considerable experience and passion shines through every page. This is a yoga book about bringing the wisdom and learnings gained from our yoga practice off the mat and into our lives.
Farhi explores the yamas and niyamas – philosophical tenets that are designed to act as a framework for good living. She also discusses the inevitable ups and downs of any long-term spiritual endeavour like yoga. It’s a beautifully written, honest book that you’ll definitely want to read a few times through.
The Slow Down Diet by Mac David
This is a love letter for anyone who has ever struggled with their weight, food-related issues and/or just sheer confusion about what it means to eat for health and happiness.
This and Marc David’s other great book Nourishing Wisdom is about the yoga of eating well – putting pleasure and mindfulness at the heart of decisions we make about what, how and when to eat. It’s a beautiful, gentle exploration into how we can be kinder and more intuitive towards ourselves in relationship to food.
What I particularly like is the avoidance of any dietary dogma and instead lots of suggestions for developing greater self-confidence in trusting your body and finding out what works for you.
One of the most frequent requests in both my private yoga teaching and public classes is a yoga sequence to help improve balance. I often say to my students that working on balance requires a healthy dose of patience and a good sense of humour. Balance can be a notoriously tricky thing to pin down – some days we can feel very steady, other days like we’ve just stepped off a boat! That said, there are definitely proactive measures we can take to improve our balance. Below are just three of my favourite tips, followed by a short standing sequence designed to get you feeling centered and steady.
3 Tips for Better Balance
One of the best pieces of advice I was given about balance was ‘to be more like the bamboo’. The bamboo plant represents the perfect blend of strong and supple – it’s branches are firm and hard, with strong roots and yet it flows and bends easily with the wind, never fighting against it. We can keep this image in mind when balancing, trying to find that perfect combination of stability and fluidity, allowing for the inevitable micro-movements and readjustments that the body makes in order to find center. Many of us instinctively tense up when we try to balance – we become rigid, our joints lose their supple elasticity and we might find ourselves holding our breath. Paradoxically it is this tension and rigidity that often throws us off kilter. So next time the teacher cues tree pose in class, be more like the bamboo, allow yourself to flow with the movements a little bend don’t break.
Keep your eyes steady!
Our bodies (and minds) tend to move wherever our eyes go. The yogis understood the distracting power of sight and created the concept of dristi, a Sanskrit word that describes keeping the eyes steady and focused on a single point. I often encourage my students to find something at eye level, or if preferred, a few meters out in front that they can gaze at (in a relaxed way, no hard staring!) whilst balancing.
Work on your feet
As described in earlier posts, our feet have the potential for an enormous amount of pliability and movement, and they are key to our sense of foundation, connection with the ground and therefore our balance. However our footwear, predictable terrain (think tarmac, carpets, flat surfaces) and general lack of movement have created rigid, tense feet that lack shock absorption and the ability to really ‘feel’ the floor. We need to improve the mobility, strength and flexibility of the feet to ensure proper articulation of the joints, to maintain arch support and to ensure better balance. For ideas on how to work the feet check out this earlier yoga sequence – many of the exercises will be helpful for improving balance.
THE YOGA SEQUENCE
Please note for a printable version of the sequence please click on this link.
BALL ROLLING FOR THE FEET:
Focus: To release tight connective tissue on the sole of the foot, improving tissue glide and gently re-mobilise the joints of the feet.
Place a firm ball under the sole of your foot. Put pressure through the foot as you roll the ball around the whole surface area of the sole of the foot. Roll front to back, side-to-side, explore circles. If you find a particularly tender spot, pause, apply gentle pressure and take a few deep breath before rolling to another spot. Continue for about 1 minute on each foot and then repeat on the second side.
Focus: Strengthen the muscles of the outer hip and thigh which help to stabilise the hips and knees in standing postures.
Stand on a yoga block
with one foot and hover the other foot off the ground until both hips are level.
Gently engage the lower abdominals towards the spine and create a sense of
length through the tailbone.Visualise extending up through the crown of the
Without moving the spine or rest of the body, inhale and as you exhale lift your right leg out to the side, as high as it will go without leaning to the sides, lifting the hip or turning the foot out. Inhale to bring the legs back together. You should feel a sense of muscular engagement on the outer hip and thigh. Repeat this action 10 times on each leg.
HIP FLEXION/ EXTENSION:
Focus: Strengthen the muscles on the front and back of the hip and thighs.
Start as per the previous pose. Stand on a yoga block with one foot and hover the other foot off the ground until both hips are level. Gently engage the lower abdominals towards the spine and create a sense of length through the tailbone. Visualise extending up through the crown of the head.
Now again, without moving the rest of the body bring the right leg forwards as high as it will go and then extend the leg back behind you as far as it will go (note: it won’t be very high). Keep the knees straight throughout. Be mindful not to lean forwards or backwards in your spine as you move the leg. Repeat this action 10 times on each leg.
MOUNTAIN POSE WITH BLOCK BETWEEN THIGHS:
Target: To strengthen the muscles of the inner thighs, pelvic floor and deep core that help to stabilise the pelvis and lower back.
Stand with your feet about hipwidth apart. Place a yoga block or rolled up firm blanket between your inner thighs. Visualise lengthening up through the crown of the head. If you tend to hyper-extend your knees, try unlocking them slightly and engaging all of the muscles around the knee joint.
Inhale, as you exhale, squeeze the block with your inner thighs and at the same time feel the muscles of your pelvic floor lift up and the muscles of your lower belly hug in towards the spine. Notice the lower back and hips stay neutral throughout – be mindful not to tuck under. Try to hold the contraction for 10 seconds, breathing normally and then release. Repeat 2 more times.
MOUNTAIN POSE WITH HEEL RAISES:
Target: To strengthen and mobilise the feet and the muscles of the front and back of the legs.
Stand in mountain pose,
feet a comfortable width apart. Lengthen your tailbone and draw the lower
abdominal muscles gently in and up.
Inhale lift the heels off the floor coming onto your tip-toes, reaching the arms overhead. Exhale lower the heels and arms down and then try to lift the toes off the ground, rocking the weight slightly back into the heels. Make sure your spine stays neutral throughout – don’t let your lower back arch when the arms come overhead. Try to lift up and lower down through the center of the foot – avoid letting the ankles sickle in or out. Feel free to rest your hands lightly on a chair or table surface for balance if needed. Repeat this action 10-15 times.
CHAIR POSE ON TIPTOES:
Target: To strengthen and mobilise the feet, ankles, calves, hamstrings, glutes and quadriceps.
Start in mountain pose and on an inhale lift up onto your tiptoes. As you exhale slowly bend your knees and lower your hips down, keeping your heels lifted. Inhale to lift your hips, straighten your legs and lower your heels. Only lower as far as feels right for you – eventually you can make this movement stronger by lowering your hips all the way down towards your heels. You can use a chair to support and stabilise your balance if you like. Repeat this 5 times.
STANDING CROSS CRAWL:
Target: To improve proprioception (an understanding of where your body is in space), co-ordination and balance through fluid movement.
Start in mountain pose.
Gently engage the lower abdominal muscles, feel them cinching in around the
waist. Lengthen up through the crown of the head. Inhale lift your right leg
and your left arm up overhead. Exhale lower down. Then switch sides, lifting
the left leg and right arm up. Continue for 30-60 seconds. Move as slowly and
as controlled as possible and don’t forget to breathe!
Target: To improve balance in a static one-legged position. This pose strengthens and builds endurance and stamina in the muscles and joints of the legs and hips.
Standing tall place your
left foot onto the inner ankle, calf or thigh of your right leg. Make sure the
foot is placed above or below the knee rather than directly on the side of the
knee. Keep the hips and toes of your standing foot pointing forwards, as
you widen the right thigh to the right by squeezing the buttock muscles gently.
Find one point of focus to gaze at for greater balance and stability.
Firm the muscles of your legs and outer hips in, lift tall through the sides of
the waist and extend the crown of the head to the sky. Hands can rest on your
hips, in prayer at the chest or reach them skywards.
To make this pose more challenging for the muscles of the feet, ankles and hips, you can stand on a soft surface such as a rolled blanket or spongy yoga block. To test your balance and proprioception still further you could explore closing the eyes! Hold for 5 slow, relaxed breaths and then switch sides.