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With many weeks of cold, wintry weather ahead, it’s time to turn to yoga to generate some internal fire and warm up stiff joints and tense muscles.
There comes a time in winter, after weeks of sub-zero temperatures or at the very least a constant chill, when I feel like my actual core is frozen and my shoulders have taken up permanent residence around my ears. I know I’m not the only one.
But before you crank up the thermostat another degree or two (ooh, look at you with money to burn!) there is a much better (and cheaper) way to generate some warmth. Time to roll out the yoga mat and get acquainted with tapas (no… not those tapas).
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“The practice of building heat in yoga is called ‘tapas’,” explains Laura Pearce, senior yoga and breathwork teacher and the founder of Yoga Collective London. “In yogic philosophy, tapas not only denotes physical heat, but also the burning off of negative energies, helping us persist when things get tough – this is useful during the winter months when everything seems a bit tougher and the body is sluggish and tired.”
This heat physically warms our bodies but it also helps motivate and energise us. To harness it, Pearce recommends a dynamic yoga practice to get the blood pumping and help mobilise stiff ‘hunched’ shoulders.
Sun salutations help generate heat
“The ultimate heat building-sequence in yoga is the classic sun salutation. The name ‘sun salutation’ comes from the idea that these movements heat up and awaken our internal ‘sun’, warming and preparing the body for other poses. It’s a particularly dynamic part of most western yoga practices and the simple repetitive nature makes it an easy sequence to learn,” she says.
Pearce recommends adapting your sequence by holding a strong downward dog a little longer to wake up the shoulders, adding more asanas on each round, or accompanying it with ujjayi pranayama (also known as victorious or ocean breath) to really heat things up.
How to do sun salutation A (surya namaskara A)
You can modify sun salutations any way you wish but this classic sequence, recommended by Jaime Hepburn, is a must-try on a frosty morning.
Inhale or exhale with each move, starting with an inhale as you raise your arms up.
- Start by standing tall in tadasana (mountain pose)
- Raise your arms up and gaze up
- Fold forward
- Lift halfway, hands to shins, look forward
- Plant the hands and step back through chatarunga (low plank – or modify through knees-chest-chin)
- Upward-facing dog (modify through low cobra)
- Downward-facing dog – take three to five full breaths here
- Look forward to prepare for the next steps
- Step to the top of the mat
- Lift halfway, hands to shins, look forward
- Forward fold again
- Lift the arms as you rise up, gaze up
- Finish in tadasana (mountain pose)
Repeat five times.
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Backbends can provide an energy boost
Another warming move that also opens the shoulders is a backbend. “Any backbend will do – back extensions nearly always cause the heart rate to soar as they put a little tension on the diaphragm, heart and aorta,” says Pearce.
“Try locust (salabhasana) or bow pose (dhanurasana), holding for five breaths then repeating. More advanced yogis can go for a full-wheel pose (urdhva dhanurasana). Stop to notice that high energy rush after a big backbend. I think of them as natural coffee shots and a great way to wake us, energise us and warm us in the winter.”
Jaime Hepburn, founder of The Yoga Library, is also a fan of incorporating ujjayi pranayama (ocean breath) into her practice during colder weather.
“The winter months tend to bring a bit of tightness to our bodies. A dynamic practice that utilises ujjayi pranayama is incredibly efficient at warming the body to help reduce any stiffness or tension in the muscles and joints. Simply breathing this way when performing any asana will help stoke our internal fire,” she explains.
How to do victorious or ocean breath (ujjayi pranayama)
“This breath involves a slight constriction of the throat as you breathe in and out of the nose,” says Hepburn. “Don’t be deterred if you find this quite challenging. It certainly takes a bit of practice to get it.”
- Try it first with your mouth open. Take a regular inhale.
- Exhale and imagine you’re trying to fog up glass. A soft sound should accompany the breath.
- Now try the same thing breathing inward, remembering to constrict the throat slightly to direct the breath inwards at a steady pace. The same sound should be heard.
- Repeat the exhale but with your mouth closed. Again, there is a soft hissing sound, a bit like the ocean.
- Inhale again, with that slight constriction, but with your mouth closed.
Practise lion’s breath (simhasana)
Another breathwork exercise to get things warmed up is lion’s breath. Mara Cimatoribus, yoga instructor on the fitness app WeGLOW, likes to start with some neck massages while in a kneeling position before moving on to lion’s breath.
“With your right hand, massage the left side of your neck – from your back to your chest. Repeat this a few times before moving to the other side. Start with connecting with your natural breathing first, then do a round of 10 lion breaths,” says Cimatoribus.
“Inhale through the nose and exhale forcefully through the mouth, sticking the tongue out. You should feel the abdomen contracting. Come back to natural breathing, soaking in the heating effects of this breathing technique.”
Cimatoribus is also a big fan of a sun salutations to generate heat, and she recommends making time for a short cat/cow beforehand to help warm up the spine.
Be dynamic and strong with a warrior sequence
Yogi Eloise Skinner believes a sequence involving any warrior variation (virabhadrasana) – warrior I, II, III, plus reverse and humble warrior – is a wonderful way to counteract the effects of cold weather.
“Warrior sequences engage the biggest muscle groups of the body – glutes, quads and back muscles – and help to reduce shoulder and neck tension. Flowing between warrior poses, or even holding poses for a few breaths before transitioning, can be a simple way to sequence a home practice in the colder months,” she advises.
Watch Yoga with Adriene’s ‘dancing warrior sequence’ (which also includes a bit of lion’s breath for good measure).
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