Release stress and get stretchin’ with virtual yoga

Throw on your comfy pants, grab a mat or towel and get ready to center yourself.

 

The physical benefits of yoga are convincing as-is — increased flexibility, energy and metabolism — but the mental and spiritual grounding is what most yogis are truly after.

So why not start practicing yoga now, when most of us have been cooped up in our homes for months? The convenience and comfort of meditation and stretching at home is normally popular among night owls, busy bees and introverts, but we all could use a little zen in our lives.

Getting started doesn’t need to be daunting — “the first and hardest step is unrolling your mat and setting the intention to start a practice,” according to Hannah Moran, studio manager for Inner Fire Yoga — especially if you give it your first shot right in your living room. Watching an online video or signing up for a virtual class with one of the many studios in town is a great way to begin, just be sure to listen to your body and pay attention to your form as much as possible.

Setting up a dedicated space in your apartment, house or bedroom for yoga — think boho chic Pinterest board material — is ideal, but a luxury we don’t all have. Pets, kids and roommates are sure to interrupt or need to share the same space as your temporary studio, but that may just be part of the charm. Rather, when you sit down for your first stretch take a deep breath and imagine yourself transporting elsewhere — to a different mindset.

“With multiple family members working from home, it can sometimes be difficult for students to carve out a quiet and uninterrupted spot to participate, but we have seen our students get more creative and navigate this better over time. They are using outdoor spaces, patios and negotiating boundaries with their families related to indoor space,” says Kathleen Slattery-Moschkau, owner of The Studio. “Many students have told us they are practicing more than ever because commute times and issues like parking have been eliminated.”

Similarly, paying attention to your breathing patterns is (arguably) the most important part. Strive for a steady, deep rhythm as you hold and shift between poses. Ujjayi breathing, a method used in Ashtanga and Vinyasa practices, is one way to ground yourself. To do ujjayi breathing: Fill your lungs all the way and constrict your throat, then breathe through your nose.

“Yoga trains us to be more mindful not only in how we move and care for our bodies, but also how we think and feel about the world, ourselves, and others,” says Moran. “It gives us the tools to breathe our way through any stressful situation.”

Yoga certainly isn’t a hippie theory created by 21st century white women (as much as they may try to claim it) but is rooted in thousands of years of tradition and discipline. An illustration of Hindu culture and exercise, implementing the mindfulness techniques and fundamental practices of yoga can be beneficial for everyone so long as they are informed on the sport’s origins.

“There is so much more to yoga than the physical practice and I urge you to start simply, maybe even just matching breath with movement in your everyday tasks like laundry or putting away the dishes,” says Megan Tucker, founder of Dragonfly Hot Yoga and Dfly On Demand. “This will help relax you in your next Zoom meeting or in talking to your kids about how school is going to work this semester … the energy you bring to others has an effect on so many.”

Another facet — one that can’t be so easily replicated at home — is the sense of community often felt within a physical studio. Sharing a space and an exercise with others brings many yogis comfort, but locals are making it work despite months of closures.

“While holding outdoor classes is great, you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature and most people want the experience of what our interior studios provide, from the beautiful tea lounges to the special heated yoga rooms,” says Tucker.

Perennial Yoga, with spaces in Fitchburg and the Garver Feed Mill, has switched their sessions and booked discussions and other events on Zoom or on other online platforms.

“We consider Perennial to be a literal and figurative gathering place for kindred spirits who want to live a gentler and more loving existence [and] now, more than ever, is it apparent that each of us needs healing, growth, and spiritual nourishment so that we can be a source of love in this world,” says Elsa Gumm, Perennial’s general manager. “When we practice yoga and meditate together, whether in person or virtually, we not only prioritize self-care, self-love, and self-compassion, we also cultivate the ability and responsibility to take the fruit of our personal transformation and work out into a hurting world.”

The Studio, which typically has programming at its Williamson Street location, has also gone online.

“There is a spiritual connection more than ever, in part because we are all having this shared experience of the impact of COVID on all aspects of our lives … it is palpable through the screen,” says Slattery-Moschkau. “We need each other … we have each other’s backs.”

These Madison-area yoga studios have a few tips and tricks for beginning yogis, most of them along the lines of patience.

“Whatever your yoga goals are, they definitely won’t happen overnight. Notice the benefits as they come naturally over time, rather than striving to achieve something,” says Moran. “Perfection and mastery should not be the goal — just be along for the ride and observe yourself as you go!”

Turning your camera on during virtual classes — like Dragonfly’s or Inner Fire’s on-demand courses — is a great way to ensure good form, but it is completely okay to shut it off, ask for pose modifications or any other adjustments to keep you safe, healthy and body-positive.

“Practicing yoga doesn’t have to look any particular way or last for a specific amount of time,” says Gumm. “Bring any feelings and hesitations you may have to your mat, place some trust in the teachers you have chosen — this includes you — move your body for a little while, and pay attention to what comes up for you.”

Needing some pose inspiration? Try out these beginner moves:

“Simply stand up straight, press your feet evenly into the floor, lift your heart high, reach your arms overhead and your fingertips to the sky, get taller than you have ever been in your life … then bring the hands down to your heart, take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. Magic,” says Slattery-Moschkau. “[Or] drop down and do a downward dog to lengthen out your spine and strengthen your upper body. Take a low lunge (with the back knee down) to get a stretch in the front of the hip, which will counter all the sitting and help keep your lower back healthy.”

“If you’ve found yourself becoming more sedentary, I suggest getting up and walking around, maybe going outside, every couple of hours at least. Get the body moving with some simple exercises … shoulder and chest openers, hip openers for people who sit a lot — especially hamstrings and hip flexors. For a nice shoulder or chest opener, interlace your fingers behind your back. If clasping your hands behind you isn’t doable, no worries — just grab a towel behind your back. Straighten your arms and take the gaze gently upwards. Make sure to feel the opening across the front of the chest and shoulders,” says Moran.

 

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Warrior 2 (Virabhadrasana II): Front toes pointing forward, back toes angled slightly forward. Both feet flat on the floor. Front heal aligned with the arch of the back foot. Breathe. Lunge into the front knee, not extending past 90 degrees. Strengthen both legs. Breathe. Point the tailbone straight down and engage the core, supporting an upright spine. Lift through the sternum and crown of the head. Breathe. Stretch the arms straight forward and back, palms face down. Engage the muscles in the arms and fingers. Relax the shoulder blades down the back. Take the gaze gently over the front fingertips. Breathe. Breathe. Warrior 2. Breathe. Photo taken by Sarah Maughan. Pictured: Inner Fire Yoga teacher Jonathan Ivry. #warriortwo #virabhadrasanatwo

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“You can begin with simple arm and torso movements even while you’re seated … just search online for chair yoga or find an online beginner’s class,” says Gumm. “We are also offering our library of online classes free of charge through the end of August.”

“If you’re able to invest in some yoga props [like] blocks, a strap, a mat and a bolster that’s great, otherwise you can use items in your home like a stack of books, a towel, a pillow or blanket. If you can start with 10 to 20 minutes of a Flow or Yin class a couple times a week, you will notice a change in your energy and mood,” says Tucker. “Try to find joy in movement … Maybe it’s simply dancing in your kitchen or playing catch with your child, it’s all in the attitude you bring!”

For more tips, check out the above studios’ websites or refer to this guide from “The New York Times.

We recognize that the practice of yoga has been largely culturally appropriated here in America and across the world. As individuals, we must do research and educate those around us in order to appreciate yoga in its true, intended and culturally-sensitive form. Learn how to decolonize your yoga practice here, or refer to the “Decolonizing Yoga” blog here.