As a yoga teacher I often see an influx of students around the New Year. Many students are honoring fresh resolutions and commitments to return to the body, hoping to heal, nourish, or strengthen it in some way.
In times of significant change or transition—such as a new year or a presidential inauguration—decisions to support the body can be very useful. What many practitioners may be pleased to discover is how the body can support them in return. The five yoga postures and practices described below remind us what it’s like to experience groundedness and balance in the body. And, if we practice these postures regularly, they may also help instill more equanimity and tranquility in the mind.
Mountain pose (Tadasana)
In mountain pose we stand as upright as possible. When we align the joints and actively engage the leg and core muscles to support the standing body, we can experience our innate stability.
To stand in mountain pose, separate the feet six to eight inches apart. Contract the muscles in the front of the thighs and draw the abdominal muscles in. Reach the arms down along the sides the body. Lift the chest forward and up and pull the shoulders back. Raise the chin so that it is parallel to the ground. As you breathe, rest your gaze—strong, but soft—on an unmoving point in front of you.
Mountain pose can help us discover balance and poise by teaching us to reach in opposite directions. We root down into the ground through the feet while simultaneously lifting up through the top of the head. If you close the eyes when you’re in mountain pose, you may notice how muscles in the toes, feet, and ankles make micro-movements to steady the body. This can be a useful reminder that no matter what kind of change is going on around us, the body intuitively knows how to steady itself.
Tree Pose (Vrksasana)
Tree pose is a one-footed standing posture that encourages us to practice focus and balance while remaining as grounded as possible.
Begin by standing with both feet flat on the floor. Separate the feet six to eight inches apart. Raise the right knee, which will lift the right foot several inches off the ground. Turn the knee out to the side and press the sole of the foot against the inner calf, aligning the arch of the foot with the calf muscle. For additional support, you can also place the ball of the foot on the ground and press the heel of the foot into the ankle of the standing leg. Press the hands together at the center of the chest. Rest your gaze on an unmoving point in front of you. To maintain your balance, pay close attention to the breath moving in and out of the body.
Practitioners sometimes lose their balance in tree pose or find themselves wobbling despite their best efforts to remain grounded. Embrace this; it’s in the nature of trees to sway and shift.
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
While corpse pose is typically done at the end of a yoga practice, resting in this posture at any time can teach the body how to relax and release muscle tension. It can also restore breathing to a natural, passive state, which may settle an anxious mind.
To practice corpse pose, lie on your back on a comfortable surface, such as a yoga mat or a soft carpet. Extend the arms out alongside the body. If you feel tension in the lower back, roll up a towel or blanket and place it underneath the knees. Move the arms slightly away from the body and open the palms up to the ceiling. Let the feet gently fall out to the sides.
Close the eyes. Bring your attention to your toes. Silently suggest to yourself, “toes, relax.” Then continue up the body, gradually suggesting relaxation to different muscle groups, providing extra attention and care to areas where you feel tension. When you arrive at the top of the head, let go of all suggestions. Let the breath be natural. Rest.
Some people daydream or fall asleep in corpse pose. Others may find it very difficult to rest, so they twitch and fuss about. Like all postures, corpse pose is meant to be practiced, not perfected. Offer yourself time and patience. It may take a while for the body to unwind and settle into a calm, peaceful state.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classic yoga text, describes nadi shodhana as a type of pranayama (breathing practice) that activates and harmonizes the right and left energy channels in the body. This practice is said to balance the flow of energy (prana) as well as stabilize and deepen the breath as it moves through the right and left nostrils.
To begin this practice, sit upright in a comfortable way. Raise your right hand. Curl the index and middle fingers in toward the palm. Bring the hand to the face. Close the right nostril off by gently pressing the thumb against the nose. Release. Then use the ring finger to close off the left nostril. Release.
Keep the hand near the nose and release both nostrils. Take a long, deep breath in. At the peak of the inhale, press the thumb against the right nostril. Exhale through the left nostril, slowly and steadily, over three counts. Then slowly inhale through the left nostril over three counts. At the peak of the inhale, close off the left nostril and release the right nostril. Exhale through the right nostril over three counts. Then, slowly inhale through the right nostril for three counts. At the end of the inhale, close off the right nostril and release the left. Exhale through the left nostril over three counts. This cycle is one round of nadi shodhana. Try completing five complete rounds. If you become lightheaded or feel like you are straining or forcing the breath, stop to rest.
Yoga philosophy associates the right energetic channel with the sun and masculine energy. The left energetic channel is associated with the moon and feminine energy. By bringing balance to the right and left energy channels, we activate the central energy channel, which is said to bring greater balance to the body and help cultivate higher levels of awareness and compassion.
When I first started practicing yoga, I was fortunate enough to be part of a community that practiced kirtan, or call-and-response recitation of mantras. I found chanting to be both meditative and uplifting. Sometimes the melody was slow and our voices were inbued with longing. Other times I found myself clapping, swaying with the beat, and even dancing.
Chanting with others—especially mantras, prayers, or uplifting words—can be a powerful antidote to feelings of powerlessness or fear. If other people aren’t within reach, I’ve found that singing or even humming to oneself can also offer a subtle yet transformative sense of peace. Try lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu (“May all beings everywhere be happy and free”) or Om.