—ANGELA NUÑEZ, Certified Yoga Instructor
Equestrians, athletes in their own right, can benefit greatly from incorporating yoga into their daily or weekly routines. There are eight limbs, or guidelines, of yoga, that help yogis live a life of purpose, but in this post we’re going to focus on asana, or physical postures, and, specifically, Sun Salutations. A regular asana practice will improve your balance, strength, and flexibility, and your horse will feel the difference in your body, too. The best way to build an asana practice is to work with a private yoga instructor or find a group beginner yoga class. Learning proper alignment in the poses is key to getting the most out of your practice while preventing injury. We’ll cover some basics in this post to help you get started on your journey.
Before getting into any deep stretching, you’ll need to warm up your body. Sun Salutations are a great way to build heat in the body and prepare it for deeper stretching. If you don’t have time for a whole hour or 75-minute practice, just doing a few Sun Salutations will still give you the benefits of improved balance, flexibility, and strength.
Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Stand at the top of your mat with your big toes touching and your heels slightly apart. Gently lift the arches of your feet. Keep a micro-bend in your knees and engage your quad muscles (fronts of the thighs), lifting the kneecaps. Engage your core muscles, widen your collarbone and lift your heart, and relax your shoulders. Relax your facial muscles and slightly lift the crown (top) of the head to lengthen the spine. Take three to five deep breaths.
Bring your hands together over your heart. As you inhale, lift your arms up and out, reaching up toward the sky with your palms facing in, shoulders relaxed down away from the ears.
As you exhale, fold forward with a flat back, still keeping a micro-bend in the knees, folding forward into Uttanasana (Forward Fold). Allow the crown of the head to fall toward the mat, relaxing the head, neck, and shoulders.
Step the left foot back, coming into Alanasana (Crescent Lunge) on an inhalation. Be sure to keep the right knee stacked directly over the ankle. Stay on the ball of the left foot, pressing the back of the left knee up toward the sky. Engage the core to protect the lower back. Gaze directly ahead and keep either palms, fists, or fingertips on the mat under the shoulders.
With your next exhalation, step the right foot back and lift the hips toward the sky, coming into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog). Keep at least a micro-bend in the knees, press the tailbone up toward the sky, keep the core engaged, press the chest toward the thighs, and allow the head to hang relaxed. Keep the shoulders moving away from the ears, and have a slight external rotation in the shoulders. Spread the fingers wide and press the knuckles into the mat.
As you inhale, move into high plank pose, keeping the core engaged and the gaze down toward the mat. Be sure to align shoulders directly over wrists.
Lower knees, chest, and chin to the mat on an exhalation.
Slide forward as you inhale, lifting the chest and crown of the head in Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). Keep the tops of the feet pressing into the mat to protect the lower back.
Bring the toes back onto the mat and use the core to lift the hips up, coming back into Adho Mukha Svanasana on an exhalation.
Look toward the top of the mat and step the left foot forward as you inhale, coming into Alanasana once again, but with the left foot forward instead of the right.
Exhale and step the right foot forward, coming into Uttanasana.
Inhale and lift the arms up and out, coming up to standing with a flat back.
Bring your palms together at the top, then slowly bring your hands to heart center as you exhale.
You have now completed one half of a Sun Salutation. Repeat the poses starting with the right foot in step 4, and then you will have done one full Sun Salutation. After doing a few Sun Salutations, the body will be ready for deeper stretching. We’ll go over some stretchy poses in our next blog post.