The real reason we do yoga poses is to prepare the body for meditation. Yep. In fact, in the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the only pose or asana mentioned is the simple seated posture we use for meditation. In a classical yoga practice, the primary reason for doing poses is to help the body be strong enough and flexible enough to meditate comfortably. Of course, that translates to better overall health as well, which is one reason yoga has become so immensely popular in recent years. The good news is you don’t have to do a long, complicated or showy practice to prepare for meditation. Here’s a simple practice that you can modify based on what your body needs and how much time you have. Each pose has a unique effect on the body, so it’s best to pick one pose from each category to get a well-rounded practice.
Step 1: Side Stretch
Side stretches are energizing to the body and good for the digestion. A simple side stretch can be done while sitting, standing, kneeling or lying down. To start, try reclining half-moon. Lie on your back on the floor, and stretch the arms out overhead, touching the floor behind you. It’s OK if the elbows to bend in order for the arms to relax in this position. With the legs straight, walk the heels over to one side as far as they’ll go, and then inch the arms, head, and shoulders in the same direction, forming a “C” or half moon with the body. This will create a stretch through the elongated side of the body. Take a few deep breaths, and allow the body to sink into this stretch without using force. Come back to center before repeating the stretch on the opposite side.
Step 2: Twist
Twists are cleansing and calming to the body. Like side stretches, they’re also good for the digestion as they gently squeeze and massage the internal organs. Here’s a quick and easy twist anyone can do.
Sit in a comfortable position on the floor or in a chair. Stabilize the hips so they will not move when you twist. Place the right hand directly behind the spine on the chair or floor, and place the left hand on the right knee. Inhaling, imagine you could actually grow taller, extending the head toward the sky and tucking the chin slightly to create length through the back of the neck. As you exhale, gently squeeze the belly button toward the spine to begin twisting. The heart and ribs turn to face the right while the hips stay grounded. Turn the chin over the back shoulder. When you’re ready to come out, inhale once more to sit up tall, and on the exhale, gently unwind the pose. Then do the same twist in the opposite direction.
Step 3: Back Bend
Back bending is considered very energizing – no wonder it’s the first stretch most of us want to do when we wake up! When you spread your arms wide and raise the chest with a big yawn, that’s a gentle back bend. To do a seated back bend, simply rest your hands on your knees while sitting up nice and tall (just like you will for meditation). Inhaling, lift the heart and press the chest forward while rolling the shoulders back and down. Slightly lift the chin to create a sense of length and openness in the front of the throat. As you exhale, hug the belly button in toward the back, tuck the tailbone, and create length through the back of the body, reversing the curve. Do several rounds of this movement combined with slow, deep breathing. The same thing can be done on the hands and knees and is usually called “Cat/Cow” in yoga classes.
Step 4: Forward Bend
Forward bends are calming and are great for times when introspection is needed. There are tons of great forward bends to pick from, such as child’s pose, standing forward bend, wide-leg forward bend, and downward dog. If you’re seated in a chair, place both feet firmly on the floor, and simply drape the upper body over the thighs, allowing the head to hang. If your chest doesn’t reach your thighs, a blanket or pillow across the lap can make this more comfortable. Alternatively, sit on the floor in a comfortable cross-legged position (also known as sukasana or easy pose), and place the hands on the floor in front of you. Walk the hands out in front of you, bending forward until you feel a gentle stretch in the back of the hips. Whichever foot is in front, that side of the hips will feel the stretch first. After a few breaths, change the cross of your feet and do the stretch again to make sure you address both sides.
Once you’ve completed this brief practice, try sitting for a short meditation. Notice if there is any difference in the body, the breath, the energy level, or the state of mind. If you are very distracted, a longer practice can be helpful in calming the mind. Several rounds of Sun Salutation, for example, can be a great preparation for a longer meditation.