5 Yoga-based Exercises to Warm Up this Chicago Winter

Everyone knows winter in Chicago sucks. But, like many people, my mood begins to drop long before snowfall.  For me, the blues typically sets in come fall.  Cold weather and I are not friends.  I see the beauty in the idea of falling leaves and blankets of snow.  But, in practice, I find myself ill-equipped to cope with losing the safety of a green canopy, manipulating frozen water and standing up to cold weather's most nasty villain, wind.  So I turn to my yoga practice to keep my mood elevated and my body motivated to withstand Old Man Winter.   Here are my favorite go-to yoga tips to stay fluid amid the deep freeze ...

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Start in Downward Dog

Often our yoga classes begin in a seated  posture or another grounding pose.  I love this idea to integrate my body and mind into practice. But, when the weather's chilled me to the bone, I like to begin in something that is more active and can help me create heat quickly.  That's why I find it refreshing to build my mantra from Downward Facing Dog. I enjoy the strength I feel in my arms and legs, and because it's an inversion, the rush of blood to my heart and heart clears out the frosty cobwebs.

Something to note is that this posture is huge for the back and hamstrings. So, when starting in this posture (and really any time in class when you are feeling sticky) use bent knees and cycle your legs a couple rounds to get comfortable.

Cultivate Ujjayi Breath

One great side effect of this "breath of victory" is that it helps maintain heat in the body. You may have heard this style of breathing in your last yoga class; it sounds like an ocean, or for overzealous yogi a bit like Darth Vader ;P  With slight constriction of the throat muscles ujjayi breath flows in and out of the nose with closed lips.

I like to practice this breath to establish a deeper awareness of energy in my body, and moderate how quickly I lose heat with exhales. With a engaged abdomen the constricted breath through my nose gives me an audible rhythm to follow during practice and makes me aware of the expansion between each rib in all directions, taking my mind off of the day's struggle and onto my mat.

Some folks have contraindications and are not advised to practice closed-mouth breathing during physical activity  *always talk to your doc :)  Some feel uncomfortable maintaining the closed mouth for their entire practice.  If that's you, breath out of an open mouth. Not all is lost.Breath measured with equal  inhales and exhales can still set an even pace and establish a calming rhythm for class.

Move Your Spine in All Directions

My typical body posture when the wind is howling is closed in, arms folded and head down.  This is a great position to fend off the intruding snow storm, or to use running from my car to the store without getting windburn. But, its not a fantastic long term option for my back, chest and shoulders.  I use my yoga practice to neutralize defensive body postures and encourage opening in a new direction. Physically, this feels awesome, but mentally, I also soak in an attitude of openness and release.  To balance out a forward, closed-in attitude I look to back bends, side bends and twists.

From Mountain pose I place my hands on my low back and breath in to arch my chest towards the ceiling. I spend 3-5 breaths focusing my inhales into my upper chest to lengthen out tight pec muscles. After opening my chest, I reach my arms up to the sky and exhale into open arm twist, rotating from my waist and extending my arms out side-to-side.  Instead of immediately forcing my opposite hip back, I allow my body to move in the direction of the twist and only apply slight resistance back.  When I'm frozen from the physical elements or emotionally guarded, it makes little sense to react to my body's inclination with strong force. I find that that gentle coaxing works wonders.  Following an open arm twist on both sides, I bring my arms overhead and begin side bends.  Often I grab on to the opposite forearm, but for more support a grounded hand on the inside hip and reach of the  opposite arm up-and-over works well. In side bends, I think 'prima ballerina' and channel my inner Misty Copeland - gracefully strong. After my chest opener, open arm twist and side bends, I close my hands to heart center and take a few breaths, acknowledging new space.

Get Flowing

Vinyasa style yoga links breath with movement.  Many varying lineages of yoga use this concept to warm up the body for practice and clear the mind for meditation. One common series of postures that crosses many styles it the Sun Saluation,

Even if the sunshine seems to last for only a few fleeting hours during the cold-weather months, I salute the sun and drink up every ounce it can give. Sun Salutations have traditional and varying styles, but when my shoulders are up to the challenge, I gravitate to a basic Sun Salute that incorporates Upward Hands Pose (starting from Mountain and lifting arms up), Forward Fold, Low Plank (Chaturanga Dandasana), Upward Dog and Dogward Dog.  On days in which my shoulders are not up to the challenge of low plank, I take a variation that incorporates Upwards Hands Pose, Forward Fold, Low lunge, Kneeling Crescent Lunge and Down Dog.

The beauty of yoga is that you can adapt for your day!  Try out your own Sun Saluation. As a general rule of thumb assign an inhale breath to postures that move your heart up (think Up Dog!) and exhale breath to postures that move your heart down (think Down Dog!).  But truly, as long as you keep the breath flowing, you'll start to feel more fluid and awake

Work Your Sides  11013484_958731290803897_849181037422887185_n

I come to my mat for more than the physical benefits, but a new awareness of my side body muscles was the first physical perk I realized when beginning my practice over 10 years ago.  What are obliques?  Who knew I had lats?  Strong, side body postures made me feel like a badass on my mat.  They are now my go-to when I want to fire-up my midsection and feel the heat of my practice.  A pose like Extended Side Angle (or its cousins Triangle and Half Moon) all demand focus and strength. They also ask me to accept where  I am on that day.  If my neck hurts, my balance is off, or my hips and sides just don't feel like working, I have to modify these postures. That's ok!

Here's a tutorial I did last year with CheckGear demonstrating my favorite yoga pose, extended side angle.

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No matter what you do this winter, just make sure you do something!  The more we move, the better we feel.    Let me know in the comments that you like to incorporate into your yoga practice or exercise routine to stay upbeat!

Peace.

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