By Robin Silver
Yoga has been steadily gaining popularity across the world for the past several decades, and the health benefits have been well studied and reported. Those benefits include increased flexibility, respiratory health, and mind-body awareness.
There are many different styles of yoga, each with different aims. Some poses show up frequently across the forms and are foundational aspects of any yoga practice. Each of these poses serves multiple purposes, both physical and mental.
You can augment your sequence to add or subtract poses depending on your intention for your yoga practice on a given day. Those intentions can and will change depending on your health, strength, and mood. If your practice needs a dose of sunshine, here are three poses that are proven mood-lifters:
Happy Baby (Ananda Balasana)
Happy baby is a popular pose in most modern yoga styles. The physical benefits of this pose include stretching the outer hips, inner thighs, chest, and shoulders, and lengthening the spine. It also releases tension in the lower back, which makes it the perfect pose for those who spend much of their day sitting in office chairs. It can also help relieve stress and fatigue.
Because it is also a hip-opening pose, happy baby releases the tensions and emotional baggage stored in our hips. Allow yourself to fully relax into the pose to fully experience the benefits it confers on your mind, body, and soul.
Remember, the pose is called happy baby for a reason! While keeping proper alignment is important, this is a playful posture. Think about how babies are joyful when exploring the world and their bodies—they love to play with and grab onto their feet. Channel that energy and wonderment as you do the same. Explore how it feels to experience your feet, toes, shoulders and back as if they were new to you. Stretch out one leg, then the other. Keep your heart open and your gaze to the sky throughout the pose.
The Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana or Chakrasana)
The wheel pose is also sometimes called upward bow, because it looks like a mirror-image version of the bow pose, with the chest pointing skywards instead of forwards like in bow. The physical benefits of the wheel pose are many: it stretches the hip flexors, shoulders, and core; strengthens the arms, legs, thighs, glutes, and spine; and increases flexibility in the spine. However, the benefits reach beyond just physical.
The wheel is a heart-opening pose (as is its counterpoint, bow). The physical manifestation of sadness and fear is often a posture that brings the shoulders forward, quite literally protecting the heart from the dangers of the outside world by shielding it with the rest of the upper body. On a physiological level, when you do a chest and heart-opening yoga pose, you feel happier because you are letting your limbic system know that you are safe, you can relax, and your heart may crack the beginnings of a smile.
If the wheel is too challenging for you, bridge pose (Setu Bandhasana) is a great preparatory pose as you build up the requisite strength and flexibility in your spine for the full expression of the wheel pose. Here are some more suggestions of heart-opening poses for yogis of all levels.
Many yogis, this writer included, feel a wave of relief wash over them when hearing their teacher announce the close of class with Savasana, known in English as corpse pose. This pose is a meditative moment after physical exertion, and it is as essential to a yoga practice as any backbend or sun salutation. It works to balance the nervous system and helps release any tension that may have been built up throughout the physical practice. The physical aspect of yoga, after all, was developed to keep a practitioner’s body comfortable during long seated meditation sessions.
Of course, you can meditate at any time without needing to lay down in Savasana or completing physical movement beforehand. Meditating, even just for a few minutes daily, has been scientifically proven to have noticeable effects. An increased sense of well-being, decreased anxiety, and overall feelings of calm and peace are all benefits of regular meditation practice.
To truly experience the benefits of meditation, consistency and frequency are more important than how long each session lasts. As any meditator will tell you, sometimes even five minutes of meditation can feel like an eternity. Learning to observe your thoughts without needing to engage them will have a long-lasting effect on your overall clarity, as well as give you a sense of happiness that comes from being completely aware in the present moment. There are guided meditations available to tap into all of that or to specifically tap into joy.
All of these poses and their benefits can be seen incrementally. Practice them on a single day, and your mood may be lifted. Then, try practising them every day (or as many days is realistic for you) for a week, a few weeks, a month, and see how transformative a few simple poses can really be.