Pre-Thanksgiving Meal Yoga Sequence
Before you indulge, try the sequence below in the morning, prior to eating any breakfast. This will stimulate agni, your metabolic fire. Ideally, drink only room-temperature, warm or hot beverages beforehand (no caffeine before this sequence if possible, which only dehydrates you and slows digestion).
(Bonus: This breaks down a Sun Salutation and gives solid alignment cues to keep your body safe in your forward folds, back bends, and in downward dog.)
First, here is the reasoning behind this practice:
We start with Ujjayi Pranayama ("Conqueror Breath") and Sun Salutations, which are meant to generate heat in the body. This is good prior to a large meal because it will ignite your metabolic fire, helping you to better digest those mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie later on ;-) We would want a fire to be blazing and strong if we plan on piling a bunch of wet logs on---this is a good analogy for our metabolism and eating a large meal.
Then, we do a couple longer held twists, which move Samana Vayu, or the current of prana (energy) that aids in kicking your digestive system into gear. And then, 2 poses to stimulate Apana Vayu, or the current of prana that moves waste down and out. To be blunt, you want to go to the bathroom before putting more food into your system.
Legs up wall is the finisher because it brings the nervous system back into balance--aka: back to the parasympathetic nervous system/ "rest & digest" system. If you notice your tummy gurgling a little at this point, it only means that we have achieved the goal of this practice.
Stand at the top of your mat and begin Ujjayi Pranayama: Breathe in and out through the nose, creating a whispering or "Ha" sound at the back of the throat, but with your mouth closed. It is easier to do this on the exhale, but with practice you create that whisper sound on both the inhale and the exhale. (Another way I teach this: How would you breathe out if you were fogging up a mirror? Make that same sound and sensation in the throat, but with your mouth closed.)
Surya Namaskar/ Sun Salutations: This version uses a high lunge to transition on your mat. We begin leading with the right leg, meaning the right leg will step forward and step back in the cues below. The second time around, lead with the left, and so on. Try 6-10 rounds.
Mountain pose, arms overhead to lengthen the spine.
Looking up is optional.
“Swan dive” into a forward bend (Uttanasana). You may bend your knees generously if your hamstrings are tight to keep your low back safe. Let your head drop. Gaze is inward.
Lengthen your spine in a half forward bend (Ardha Uttanasana), often called "Monkey Pose." You can use blocks, as I am, or press your hands into shins or thighs. If you are very flexible, your hands may reach the floor. Avoid rounding your back. Keep the back of the neck long and head in line with the rest of the spine. Draw your shoulder blades into your back (it almost feels like you are doing Cobra Pose in your upper back). Gaze is where it naturally falls on the floor, a few feet in front of your mat.
Back into Uttanasana, forward bend. Lift your belly up towards your spine and perhaps fold slightly deeper with a new length to your spine after Ardha Uttanasana.
At the bottom of the last exhalation, set up for a high lunge. Place your hands on the floor (or on blocks as I am demonstrating) and take a very large step towards the back of your mat with your right foot. Keep the ball of the right foot lifted and all ten toes straight ahead.
High lunge, arms overhead. Stay strong in your foundation, bend your left knee so it is directly over your ankle and your left big toe is in sight, but none of your other toes (this will ensure you have safe & stable knee alignment). Press back through your right heel to straighten your right leg, but be sure your low abdomen is engaged and lifting up to protect your low back. Arms are reaching overhead at the very top of your inhale. Focus on something not moving ahead of you for stability.
Adho Mukha Svanasana, Downward Facing Dog
Plant your hands alongside your right foot. You may need to wiggle the front foot back or to the side a little so this is possible. Point your pointer fingers straight ahead, not your middle finger. Press into your fingertips and grip the mat. Roll your triceps under so your elbow pits face forward. This helps to open up the shoulders once you are in the pose.
You can pass through plank (top of a push-up position) as you make your way to Down Dog in order to measure the distance between hands and feet. In most cases, hands and feet are in the same place in plank as they are in down dog.
Be careful not to hyper-extend your shoulders, meaning, pressing your chest SO much back towards your thighs that your arms are way back behind your ears and your head is close to the floor. This can cause major damage to the capsule of the shoulder over time. On the flip-side, if your shoulders are really tight, it may help to think of pressing your chest towards your thighs and bringing your shoulder blades into your back.
In the pose: Gaze is back between your big toes on your mat. Head is hanging loose. Low abdomen lifts up, sending the tailbone up and back. The sides of the waist get longer as you push down into the floor.
Plank pose, shoulders over your wrists. Try not to sag through your middle, or be too much in a tepee with your bottom in the air. Legs are very active, pressing back through the heels. Low belly lifts up.
You have two options; choose what feels good in your practice. In either option below, shift forward as you lower so that the tips of your shoulders are past your fingertips. This “stacks” your joints to add stability. Hug the elbows towards the sides of your body to activate your lats (latissimus dorsi, that big muscle on your back)..
You can lower all the way onto the floor, knees down first, then hips and chest touch at the same time (don't "belly flop").
Chaturanga Dandasana or Four-Limbed Staff Pose, and also known as low plank: The tendency is to let the front of the shoulder collapse down; instead, keep the “shoulder heads” (the fronts of the shoulders) lifted and your shoulder blades drawing into your back. Activate your quads, lengthen your tailbone towards your heels. Don’t stick your butt up in the air, this makes your shoulders do all of the work. Keep your hips low, in line with your shoulders, and lift your low abdomen up away from the floor.
Backbend of your choice. These are the most common two options, but if you have learned and like to practice a different variation, that is absolutely fine too. In either option, it is important to stabilize the lumbar spine by activating core/ abs. The “opening” in the backbend comes from the thoracic spine (aka, opening shoulders/ heart).
Low/ high Cobra: Before you lift, draw your shoulder blades into your back. Don’t crease the back of the neck; keep the neck neutral, a natural extension of the thoracic spine. Legs are active. Tops of the feet press into the floor. Pubic bone is on the floor.
Upward Facing Dog: Flip onto the tops of the feet (you can do this one foot at a time, or both at once). Thighs and hips are off the floor. It is really important to lift from the belly to stabilize the low back and open across the collarbone area.
Pull back from your low abdomen back into Downward Dog again. (Breathe 1 more complete breath, in and out, here. And then 1 more inhale....and as you exhale....see the next step)
Prepping for lunge on the last exhale in down dog: Step the right foot forward between your hands. It may need a little help from your right hand, which is ok. Blocks optional.
High lunge with the right foot forward now.
Stay strong in your foundation, bend your right knee so it is directly over your ankle and your right big toe is in sight, but none of your other toes (this will ensure you have safe & stable knee alignment). Press back through your left heel to straighten your left leg, but be sure your low abdomen is engaged and lifting up to protect your low back. Arms are reaching overhead at the very top of your inhale. Focus on something not moving ahead of you for stability.
Uttanasana, forward fold, again.
Let your head drop and fully empty the lungs.
Reverse the “swan dive” action all the way up to Tadasana, Mountain Pose, arms overhead. *The important part is to NOT round your low back as you rise. "Pass through" monkey pose, low back flat, and use your legs and core to lift your torso. At the very top of your inhalation, you look like the picture.
Hands in front of your heart in Anjali Mudra. This completes this round. Do it again, leading with the left foot next time.
Half Lord of the Fishes/ Ardha Matseyandrasana: Seated spinal twist, right leg crossing over: Sit with right foot firmly pressed on the floor next to your left outer thigh. You may sit on the edge of a blanket to lengthen the lumbar spine. Equal weight on each of your “sitting bones.” Sit as tall as possible, like a pole is up the back of your shirt. Rounding the back can be dangerous in a deep twist. Lengthen your spine by inhaling and reaching the left arm overhead, exhale to hug the right thigh in OR hook the left elbow outside the outer right thigh.
Optional to start with the left knee also bent, and heel next to outer right hip. Every inhale, try to grow taller. Every exhale, possibly guiding yourself into a deeper twist. Turn from the heart center first. You will feel the twist moving lower into the belly area as you hold. Only turn your head to the right as far as it feels comfortable. *Breathe 6-10 breaths, using your breath, not force, to deepen the twist. *Repeat on other side.
Supine spinal twist, knees to the left first: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Arms straight out from your shoulders (palms can be up or down, whatever feels better to you). Lift your hips off of the floor and set them down 5 inches or so to the right (this will feel weird at first, but it helps the spine to be in better alignment once you are in the twist.) Then lift your knees towards your chest, squeeze the thighs together and slowly let the knees fall towards the floor to your left. Try to keep the right shoulder blade on the floor (it helps to scoot the left shoulder blade a little to the left to “open up” the shoulders. *Breathe 6-10 breaths. *Repeat on other side.
Knees to chest/ Apanasana: This literally means “downward wind pose.” For most people, it feels better to let the knees part a little rather than forcing the knees to move straight in towards the chest. (There is a “bony stop” in the pelvis that can get in the way and cause discomfort.)You can do the pose just as shown, or you can rock gently and slowly side to side, or draw circles with your knees. Don’t force your knees in or clench the face or jaw. It is important to relax the face, arms, and belly. *10 breaths, then turn to your side to press up.
Seated forward bend/ Paschimottanasana variation: This variation compresses the abdomen to gently move anything in the digestive system down and out. You can use a pillow, blanket, or small yoga bolster.
Prep: Sit with legs in front, a prop (pillow, blanket, or bolster) on thighs, blanket under sitting bones, and optional block nearby to possibly be used to hold up the head once you fold. Knees bent. Inhale arms up to lengthen spine.
Hinge forward from the hips on the exhale, trying to compress abdomen into your soft prop. Try to be as long through your torso as possible so that your navel is landing on the prop. If the prop is too uncomfortable, try to compress belly into thighs instead. You can use a strap or belt to reach feet, or let your hands land on the floor.
Settle in: Let your head drop, using a block under the forehead if possible. Keep the deep hinge in your hips and the compression in the belly, but start to straighten your legs as much as your hamstrings will allow. Keep your low back extended, not rounded. *Breathe 10 breaths or more.
Legs up wall/ Viparita Karani with block under sacrum: Sit sideways with one hip touching the wall. As you lie down, swing your legs up. Get as close to the wall as you can, sitting bones on the wall and sacrum resting on a block. It may take some wiggling to get there. The block should not be digging into your low back at all, it is simply holding up the back of the pelvis. Once your hips are in place, snuggle your shoulder blades under so the chest is open. Align the lower body joints just as you would in a standing pose. Stay here for 5 minutes or more:
Diaphragmatic breath: Breathe with a focus on filling up the low belly like a balloon. Exhale slowly; work towards a 1:2 ratio of inhale: exhale.
After your breath practice, take a moment to remember the blessings in your life. As you think of these things, notice how you feel. Maybe smile a little.
When you are almost ready to come out of the pose, press let the soles of the feet come together and the knees open into the bound angle variation. Breathe for a few cycles of breath there. Turn to your side and slowly press up.
Continue to hydrate with warm/ room-temperature, non-caffeinated beverages after the practice. Move slowly and mindfully as you enter back into your day. Your digestive system has been prepped for Thanksgiving!