How to Get All Bent into Shape

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, December 1995

How to Get All Bent into Shape
By Stephanie Pearson

"Yoga's aim is to connect the mind and body in friendship," says Holiday Johnson, director of the Health and Fitness Yoga Center in Portland, Oregon, and instructor to many mountaineers, boardsailors, and runners. According to Johnson, the first step in opening that intellectual-anatomical connection is to consistently and consciously take deep breaths--it will help you concentrate while keeping your muscles warm. Once you've got that down, Johnson suggests the following 30-minute stretching and strengthening routine, a basic program that's a precursor to more advanced astanga yoga. Keep your movements between positions continuous and fluid--no pausing in the middle of a stretch--and stop to rest only when your form gets clunky, which is when you're most likely to get injured. Before long, Johnson says, the regimen will become a daily necessity. "It's like brushing my teeth," she says. "I don't go anywhere without taking care of my joints and muscles first."

Child's Pose
The child's pose is the position you start in and return to between other positions; with some experience it will serve as relaxation. The pose stretches the ankles, groin, back, and shoulders while extending your torso. Kneel on a pad with your knees a few inches apart and the tops of your feet and toes pressing against the pad. Keeping your rear resting on or as close to your heels as is comfortable, stretch your torso toward the floor. For the extended child's pose (photo 1), stretch your arms well out beyond your head, spreading your fingers wide as you try to bring your torso to the pad.

Cat Stretch
From the extended child's pose, come up onto your hands and knees. Simultaneously tuck in your tailbone, lift your belly, and bring your chin toward your chest--like a cat arching its back (photo 2). Then, continuing to move slowly but steadily, shift your tailbone rearward and up while pushing your chest down and your head toward the ceiling (photo 3). Finally, bring your right knee toward your ear before extending your right leg back and up as far as it will go (photo 4). You should feel the stretch primarily in your lower back, butt, and shoulders. Perform the last movement four to six times per leg, resting in the child's pose between sides and afterward.

Downward Dog
The downward dog stretches the hamstrings and also works the Achilles tendons, neck, and shoulders. From the extended child position, rock to your hands and knees. Lift your hips as high as they'll go, coming off your knees and onto your feet to elevate the hips higher still. Your body should resemble an upside-down V; now press your heels toward the floor to further stretch--but never strain--your hamstrings. Return slowly to the child's pose and repeat, this time stretching the hamstrings more.

Warrior II
Standing with your feet three feet apart, turn your left foot out so that it's almost perpendicular to your right. While keeping your right leg straight, turn your torso to the left and bend forward with your left knee--angling it slightly inward--and extend your arms (photo 5). The goal is to dip far enough to get your thigh and lower leg at a 90-degree angle, though that may come only with practice. Do this hip and thigh stretch once per side, and then return to a standing position.

Forward Bend to Knee-Down Lunge
Start with a hamstring stretch: Standing with your knees slightly bent and your feet shoulder-distance apart, lean forward from the hips. When you feel your hams stretching, return to the starting position and repeat. In the middle of the second stretch, work into a knee-down lunge by bending your knees until you can rest your fingertips near your heels. Now, with your toes dragging on the ground, extend one leg back as far as you can, and then try and lift your torso until it's fully upright. You should feel the stretch in your back, groin, hamstring, and quads. Repeat with the other leg and finish in a standing position.

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