Morning Yoga for Recovery: Physical, Psychological, Emotional Benefits
This is the second in a two-part series.
A regular practice of yoga brings many physical, psychological and emotional benefits. Physical benefits include increased strength, flexibility, balance and control. Psychological benefits include an increased sense of clarity, a balanced mental perspective and the ability to remain calm when placed in stressful situations. Emotional benefits include a boost in self-esteem, a balanced emotional perspective, a level of comfort and acceptance of personal strengths and weaknesses, and an overall sense of well-being. For a person in addiction recovery, all of these benefits can help access and achieve the type of mental and physical states beneficial for approaching therapy, 12-step work, and mining the deep emotional spaces necessary for creating a full and productive life, free of substance abuse and self-destructive behaviors. Also, on a simple level, yoga is exercise, and almost every addiction recovery program considers exercise to be an important top-line behavior.
In this article, I’ll introduce a simple yoga routine, which builds on a short morning yoga routine I introduced in an earlier article. This routine can be used at any time of day, but I like to use it in the morning, as a way to clear my mind, open my body and face my day with a fresh and clear perspective.
Morning Yoga II: Say Hello to Your Hamstrings
This series of yoga postures takes five to seven minutes, but you can make it last longer if you do everything twice. It begins in the same way as the routine published in an earlier article—steps 1 though 3 are identical—but then, instead of side-bending, this routine teaches a couple of basic forward bends.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you have back any back/spine issues, adapt these forward bends to your level of comfort. These exercises are very helpful and completely safe for people with back stiffness and occasional pain; in fact, they are often prescribed by physical therapists as part of a course of treatment. However, anyone who has undergone spinal fusion surgery should not practice these forward bends. Rule of thumb: if your back complains, bend your knees, place your hands on your knees, and use the combined strength of your arms and legs to return to Tadasana, the standing posture.
Ready? Here we go:
- Stand with your feet shoulder distance apart, and your feet parallel, i.e. toes facing forward—not pigeon-toed in, or turned out—straight ahead, as if on a pair of railroad tracks. Relax, and begin to breathe easy. Keep your knees straight, but not locked. Relax your pelvis. Allow your low back to lengthen and feel free—do this by gently tucking your tailbone just a tad. Lengthen the torso—front, back and sides. Open your chest, and relax your shoulders. Roll your shoulders a few times forward and back; now relax. Relax your neck. Reach the top of your head upward—imagine a string attached to the crown of your head, gently lifting you up. Some people like to imagine they’re like a marionette, suspended by the string. Keep your gaze straight ahead, at eye level. Your chin is neither tucked nor jutting out. Allow your arms to hang loose by your sides, with your hands free of any tension. This is called Tadasana: the Mountain Pose. Tadasana is the ground-zero standing posture common to all styles of yoga.
- As you inhale, reach your hands out to your sides and up over your head. As you exhale, release them back down to your sides. Repeat this 10 times. Take nice, deep breaths as you inhale and reach your arms up, and relax completely as you exhale and return your arms to your sides. Send your mind and your energy out past the ends of your fingers as you reach out and up. Imagine your arms are longer than they actually are. As you inhale and reach out and up, open your chest and gain length in your spine. As you exhale your arms back down, keep this sense of length and openness while staying completely relaxed. When you finish your 10 inhalations/exhalations, return to Tadasana by following the directions in Step 1.
- From Tadasana, inhale and raise your arms up over your head, and leave them there, palms facing inward—as if you’re a referee signaling “touchdown” in a football game. Keep your arms straight, right in line over your shoulders. Make a perfect line of alignment that runs downward from your hands, through your elbows, shoulders, hips, knees and heels. Hold this posture for three of four breaths.
- From Tadasana, begin to bend forward, slowly, from the hips. For a moment, simplify the way you look at your body: think of it as two pieces of wood, joined together by a hinge at the hips. When bending forward, send the energy of the bottom half of your body down to the ground, and send the energy of the top half of your body up and out. Keep your legs firm, and the muscles of your thighs engaged, i.e. “turned on.” Forward bend halfway over, with a lengthening spine, or until you feel the muscles on the backs of your legs—the hamstrings—tell you to stop. In this part of the bend, your hamstrings are the limiter. Listen to them! For this part of the bend, your reference point will be halfway over, with a flat and lengthening spine, meaning that your torso will be parallel to the floor. If your hamstrings tell you to stop before your torso reaches parallel, then stop—you’ve just discovered your level of hamstring flexibility. This is your first chance to say “good morning” to your hamstrings. Stay in this position—bent forward, halfway over with a flat and lengthening spine—for one or two breaths.
- Next, bend your knees a bit and lay your torso down on your thighs. Don’t bend your knees all the way down into a squat; just bend them until they’re at about a 45-degree angle. Relax your arms completely and let them hang loosely in front of you. This bend should be comfortable enough for your torso to relax over your thighs. This position should feel nice and easy. Relax your head and shoulders completely. The top of your head should be pointing toward the ground. The neck should be lengthening, rather than shortening. Your hands might reach the ground; they might not. It does not matter where your hands end up, just relax and let the arms be free.
- From this bent-knee forward bend, take a nice breath in, and as you exhale, slowly begin to lengthen your legs and straighten your knees. Keep the top of your head pointing toward the floor as you lift your hips up and lengthen your legs. This is the moment when you get to say a nice “good morning” to your hamstrings. If your knees straighten completely, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s great, too—all you’re doing is gathering information about your body. Your hands might reach the ground; they might reach your shins; they might reach your knees. It does not matter where they end up. Simply note where they are without judgment, and allow them to be there. You are now in a full forward bend—Uttanasana.
- Stay in Uttanasana for at least four full breaths. Keep your breathing calm and steady. Allow your hamstrings to lengthen. Remember to keep your neck relaxed, and the top of your head pointing toward the ground. If you feel any twinges in your spine, simply bend your knees, place your hands on your thighs, and return to Tadasana, the standing posture.
- To come out of Uttanasana, start by taking a nice breath in as you bend your knees, and then exhale and relax in this bent-knee forward bend, just as you did when you were entering Uttanasana. Take just a breath or two here to give your hamstrings, spine and torso a break.
- Next, place your hands on your thighs as you inhale, and then, as you exhale, use the combined strength of your legs and arms to return all the way to Tadasana, the standing posture.
- To finish this routine, repeat steps 1 and 2 above. As you repeat those steps, pay attention to your body. What feels the same? What feels different? Tadasana is your ground zero, your reference. Use it now to gather information—without judgment or preconception—about your body, and about how Uttanasana may or may not have changed your body.
Congratulations! You’ve just finished a yoga routine. If you’ve read and practiced the sequence from my previous morning yoga article, then double congratulations—you’ve just finished your second one!
A regular practice of this Uttanasana routine will lengthen and relax your spine, relieve tension in your neck and shoulders, open the muscles of your hips and calves, and increase your hamstring flexibility. Also, since you spend time focusing on your body and breath and not on the day-to-day worries of life, a regular practice this Uttanasana routine will help to reduce overall stress and anxiety, as well as energize you to face whatever comes next in your day.