Last week, after class, one of my newer students approached me after class asking what she could do to get into better "yoga shape." We had just finished an hour of hip openers and, while she was much more comfortable sitting in Sukhasana (easy pose) at the end of class, she felt worked over to the point that she was a bit sore. I suspect she was also frustrated with herself for not being able to do some of the poses that my regulars could do. I promised to think about good asana for a beginner to work on at home that would help increase flexibility, but also be easy to remember and pleasant to do. I thought some seated poses would be appropriate, because you can really focus on the alignment of the spine and pelvis--a crucial juncture in yoga.
A nice way to bring awareness to the arms, legs and side body is a combination of Dandasana and Hastasana. (Staff Pose + Overhead Arm Stretch) Extend the legs out in front of you, pressing the soles of the feet away evenly and engaging the thigh muscles. Raise your arms to the side and keep the shoulders away from the ears as you lift your arms overhead. Interlock the fingers and turn the palms towards the ceiling. After your initial stretch, bend the elbows slightly and let your palms come further back to deepen the rotation in the shoulder joints. Try to straighten the arms.
Another of version of this stretch is Upavistha Konasana (Seated Wide-Angle Pose). It will work on the hip joints and inner thighs, so lift yourself on a couple of blankets, if you can't keep your lower back long. Extend the legs out to the sides, but only so far that you can keep your toes and knees pointed to the ceiling. Lift the side ribs and lengthen the spine. Stretch your arms towards the ceiling to get extra length in the torso. Start folding forwards from the hip joints as you stretch the arms out…don’t collapse the chest and keep the spine long. Lower the arms but continue to lengthen the side ribs as you fold a bit deeper.
“Loop” breathing Pay attention to the beginning and end of each breath. Notice how much “silence” there is at the end of each inhale and exhale; the moment when there is no breath at all. On the next cycle, try to imagine your breath as a loop and let the exhale begin as soon as the inhale finishes, so there is no stopping. This will be a bit jerky at first, especially between the exhale and inhale (it is easier to let full lungs empty than to begin filling them again). Imagine the cycle as an oval, with the transitional points at each end and visualize the breath moving smoothly around those curves during the transition. Continue this for a while (5-10 mins.) and then let your breath return to its normal pattern.
Of course, there are lots of other beginning poses you can work, but I think this short series is good at increasing awareness of length in the spine and the work of the hips and legs. What asana do you think are good places to start, when easing into a yoga practice?