The Warm Up!
So what is the ‘warm-up’? What’s it all about and what are the benefits? What should it be and why do we do it? What do I do? And for how long…….?
The warm up of a yoga class can vary enormously from one class to another and from teacher to teacher in my experience. As part of the warm-up some teachers play music to get their students aerobically moving to the rhythm and beat. This is a great way to get a good aerobic work out, warming up the body oxygenating the red blood cells let alone the fun aspect of moving rhythmically in a cross-crawl pattern which can be mentally stimulating, activating the left and right hemisphere’s of the brain. The side left of the brain influences the right side of the body and likewise the right of the brain side influences the left side of the body, promoting co-ordination and proprioception. The right kind of music can also be used to raise the energy of the class as well as their spirits!
Then of course there is the glorious feel of the warm-up through practicing the Surya Namaskar. It’s wonderful to start off nice and slow then gradually increasing the speed in a methodical mindful manner. Using the breath to aid graceful controlled stretches to awaken and revitalise the body. I love chanting while practicing the classical version of the Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskara). Chanting while flowing through the vinyasa makes me feel like I am completely in the present moment and also very focused in both my mind and body. And there is also the added benefit of taking wonderful deep inhalations followed by the controlled release of the breath. Very uplifting and calming!
There is also the mat warm-up. What I like to call the transitional warm-up from savasana into the first mindful moves on the mat at the start of the class. The start of the practice. The bodily wake up call and preparation for the more vigorous part of the warm-up. That delicious first full body stretch and release. I think this is very much as important as the main part of the warming up, because it is a kind way to signal to the the body that it’s time to start, wake up and get moving. I like to call it the gentle mat warm-up part. It also feels very grounding to have that connection to the earth at the beginning of ones practice. This can be done with feet flat on the floor or in a seated position enabling us to feel more grounded and rooted.
I like to start lying down knees bent with my feet flat on the floor and just focusing on the connection that my body is making with the ground and tuning into my breath. In this position one can become aware of the pelvis and tail bone gently moving backward and forward (this is called nutation). As you breathe in the tail bone tips downward towards the floor, on the exhale the it tilts back up again. If you think of the pelvis as a rolling pin you can visualise the pelvis gently rolling back and forth. It’s not exactly an aerobic warm up but it is preparing that region of the body and limbering up the whole length of the spine. So much so that if you completely relax the whole of the upper body and gently and slowly roll the pelvic region up and down you will experience a little soft nod of the head. This is also a wonderful way to tune into the the wave of the breath connecting the mind and the body as well as preparing the pelvis and the whole length of the spine for further movement.
Going back to the idea of feeling grounded and centred during the warm-up part at beginning of the class I actually love sitting in sukhasana (easy pose). This enables one to feel the connection of the earth with the perineum (the location of the muladhara base chakra). Then one can focus ones attention on rooting down with the spine and at the same time draw up the spinal column to the crown of the head on an inhalation at the same time sweeping the arms up and over the head lengthening out of the pelvic girdle to comfortably and safely turn the body to give the torso a gentle twist. This can then be repeated to the other side. Once again gradually warming up the muscles of the back and the spine. This can then progress into gentle lateral side flexion as well as a very soft seated forward bend and back bend taking the hands in front of the body and behind the body to open up the front of the chest and shoulders. It is at this stage very important to move slowly and mindfully as the body is only just starting warm-up and release areas of tightness and tension. Moving too quickly could result in over stretching and straining the muscles, tendons and ligaments.
During my teacher training I read a book called `Yoga Education for Children’ (V1) by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, I then discovered the Pawanmuktasana Series.
It says in the book that “Pawanmuktasana is a group of exercises which release wind and gasses from the body”. The exercises are relatively simple and are linked to regulating what are referred to in India as the humours: phlegm or kapha, wind or vata, and pitta acid and bile. According to the ancient practice of Ayurveda if these three elements are out of balance then the body becomes out of balance. Which could contribute to dis-ease and illness in the body.
I love practicing these pawanmuktasana exercises as part of my warm-up during my personal practice as well as offering them as part of the warm-up in my classes. As well as being good for warming up they also develop awareness and help facilitate equal development of the body and both right and left hemispheres of the brain.
The most important thing is to never go into your asana practice ‘cold’. Always give your muscles a gentle warm-up. You can use the cat-cow pelvic tilts and puppy dog stretching to gently stretch and limber uptake spine. Great preparation for forward and backward bends. Downward dog (sumeru asana)) with very soft knees and pedalling the heels up and down gently stretching the hamstrings, calves (soleus and gastrocnemius muscles) ankles and facia of the feet. The list is endless.
Gradually warming up the body increases flexibility and more importantly reduces the risk of injury. An active warm-up also has added benefits in yoga: increased heart rate, which prepares the cardiovascular system for more intense activity; increased blood flow through active muscles; increased metabolic rate; increased speed of nerve impulses, which facilitates more subtle awareness of body movements and increased reciprocal innervation, in which opposing muscles work more efficiently.
So there is a lot to be said about making time, ten, fifteen or twenty minutes at the beginning of your asana practice to warm and wake up the body, but above all it should be enjoyable and fun. I often have a number of people smile and giggle with the practice of the cross-crawl to music when they are trying to co-ordinate their arms and legs in opposing directions! And it doesn’t have to be the same each time you do your practice, it can be varied from day to day. It is a wonderful way to tune into your body and your breath. Resist the temptation to rush or omit your warm-up all together. Embrace the warm-up relax and enjoy!