First, I’ll discuss some factors that should influence which warm-ups you choose, and how many you do.
Time of Year
Different seasons of the year have different effects on us. Let’s look, for example, at the choice of a pranayama technique for your initial centering.
In the summer-time you might want to focus more on cooling pranayamas, such as sitali and sitkari. Breath of fire would not be a first choice for hot summer days.
Remember: the immediate effect (warming or cooling) of pranayamas continues to affect us long after the practice ends. However, I’m not talking only about the weather (which I’ll get to shortly).
Certain times of the year, such as the year-end holidays, have an emotional and stressful effect on so many people that you might say it’s in the air, affecting everyone to some degree. So even though it’s winter, and one might think of breath of fire, it may be more appropri-ate to use a calming pranayama like simple belly breathing, then transitioning into even-count breathing.
The yoga postures that follow the warm-up should be chosen with these same considerations in mind, because it’s more than just a matter of temperature. For a more thorough understanding of the effect of seasons and times of day on asana choices, look to the science of Ayurveda. ( Dr. Vasant Lad’s book, Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing, is a good place to start. Even better is the Ayurvedic Healing and Yoga Retreat with Gyandev and Diksha in Kerala, India.)
Time of Day
In the morning, the body will naturally not be as warm as it will be later on in the day, and many people will be especially stiff in the morning. The earlier the practice, the more time one needs with warm-ups. People are ready to get moving in the morning, so energetic warm-ups are usually welcome.
In the evening, people are more naturally warmed up, and are often ready to wind down. Warm-ups that help to release tension and stress accumulated during the day are good to use at this time.
Weather and Temperature
When the weather is cold, it makes sense to warm up thoroughly even if the room is warm (more on this later). Warm weather may permit a shorter warm-up period, but don’t forget that all the joints need to be given attention and “oiled,” and the blood needs to be flowing through the muscles to insure an adequate supply of oxygen for whatever task may be at hand.
In addition, some people’s bodies react subtly, or even dramatically, to a change of weather. At this time they will tend to be stiffer and need more-thorough warm-ups.
You might ask, “If we can control the temperature in the room, does the outdoor temperature really matter?” Yes, it does matter, because that’s where students have come from, and their bodies and minds have adjusted to it.
Additionally, as Ayurveda tells us, our bodies and minds are affected by the seasons in a way that a mere adjustment to the thermostat won’t dramati-cally change.
The next question you might ask is related: “Since it takes less time to warm up in warm weather, should I turn the thermostat up to make the room quite warm?”
The answer is “No,” and to understand why, let’s take a closer look at what is happening physiologi-cally in extremely cold or extremely hot temperatures. In extremely cold weather, the blood moves away from the extremities to keep the brain and vital organs warm. The body knows that it is better to risk losing a finger or toe than to lose function of the brain or other vital organs.
The body also naturally contracts muscles, sometimes vibrating them (as in chattering teeth or shivering) to generate warmth and keep the blood circulating. It also keeps limbs tucked in close to the trunk to conserve heat. This will still happen in less cold weather, although to a lesser degree. So when a person comes in from the cold, s/he has a lot more to do to get the blood flowing into the extremities and to loosen up the tightness of the muscles.
In warm weather, the body does the opposite: the blood is spread out to the very peripheries of the extremities to help keep the body cool, especially the brain and vital organs. The muscles are ideally relaxed, so as not to stimulate circulation and potentially cause overheating.
So when a person comes in from the heat, the muscles feel loose, yet the blood flow is not yet stimulated, and there is not an abundant supply of oxygen immediately available to the muscles if they are suddenly asked to perform demanding tasks.
Furthermore, we still need to thin the synovial fluid and facilitate healthy, active joint movement. So you see that if the temperature in a room is artificially high, people may think that they are warmed up when they’re not. This can lead to unsafe yoga practice, and perhaps injury.
Many of the “hot” styles of yoga originated in southern India, where the temperatures can indeed be very hot. People who live in such a climate without abundant air conditioning are acclimated to the heat. They are less likely to fool themselves into thinking that they are already warmed up before they begin their yoga practice.
Fresh air is always recommended for yoga practice, for it carries more prana and leads to a clearer mind. If you practice outside, depending on your climate, you will be adjusting not only your warm-ups but also your whole practice to the temperature. For example, I teach an outdoor class once a week (although we go indoors if it is raining or too muddy).
Depending on who shows up (some of the students are hardier when it comes to the cold than others), we may also go inside if it is very cold (a relative statement — in Marin County it almost never freezes, but we can get chilling weather from the coastal fogs). So when it’s cool, we do a lot of warming up in the beginning, and we actively keep the blood flowing for the duration of the class.
On the other hand, when the sun is shining down on us in the summertime, we’re more interested in finding shade under the big old oak tree than in getting hot and sweaty from a vigorous warm-up.
State of Mind
You may walk into a class with a well prepared warm-up routine for the time of day, year, weather, level and particular needs of your students, and be ready to go with, say, an energizing routine. But then you realize that everyone’s uptight because it’s Election Day and they are on pins and needles about the outcome.
Well, hopefully you will have a calming backup routine in your back pocket. (This actually happened to me on Election Day last November—it was striking how emotional people were that day. I switched gears as soon as I realized what was going on).
Special Needs Groups
In general, the principles of the cautions and emphasized elements recommended for asanas for any specialized group will apply to the warm-ups as well.
For example, seniors need slow, thorough warm-ups with a lot of range of motion for their joints. Pregnant women need to be careful throughout the class (including the warm-ups) not to overheat the body.
Children need the fewest physical warm-ups, but they do need some, not only for their bodies but also to help focus their minds and establish good habits for later in life.
Finally, remember that although many warm-ups are suitable for all levels, there are some very good ones that are not appropriate for beginners or those with special needs. For example, when I first started teaching yoga part-time, my other job was as a makeup artist in downtown San Francisco.
Before class, I needed a quick warm-up, not only for my body, which had been in high heels and dress clothes all day, but for my mind to shift gears quickly as well.
The perfect warm-up for me at that time was to do a handstand against a wall. This immediately got my blood flowing, my mind focused, and energy flowing into my brain.
To quickly get a little more movement and range of motion, I would then walk my hands away from the wall and arch my back like a scorpion pose, still using the wall to keep my balance. Then I would contract the abdominal muscles and, with control, come out of the handstand and into downward-facing dog for a few moments. When I stood up, I felt warm, focused, energized, and ready to teach class.
I cannot say, however, that I have ever had a class where this would be an appropri-ate warm-up to teach, though I have had individual students to whom I would suggest this. The moral is: know your students.
Now for Some Warm-Ups
As you know, the centering comes first in an Ananda Yoga routine. I like to use a pranayama for this; think of it as a warm-up for the breath. For beginning students, deep belly breaths (diaphragmatic breathing) can be adequate.
When-ever you are going to do another pranayama, regardless of the class level, it is still a good idea to at least start with deep belly breathing even if you are simply having them focus on their breath as they get themselves into their supine, seated or standing position.
Then when everyone is aligned and focused from conscious deep belly breaths, you can begin with the pranayama of choice. Remember yoga is about learning how to control life-force energy; prana means energy and yama means control. Without awareness of the breath and practice of pranayama, yoga postures begin to look and feel more like exercises.
I have two favorite standing warm-ups. When appropriate, I use these warm-ups one after the other. They double as pranayamas for beginning a class. If you want to include a different opening pranayama, you could have your students sit for that pranayama, then stand for the continuation of the warm-ups.
Double Breathing, Palms Touching
If you read The Perfect Warm-Up, you might not be surprised that the first favorite is double breathing, palms touching. You already know from the last article what great things it does for us as a warm-up. What I also like about it is that practically everyone can do it. I use it in healthy backs classes, therapeutic classes, and prenatal/postpartum classes, as well as more advanced classes.
I even use it when I substi-tute teach for a teacher whose classes are normally very vigorous (in which case I give them the vigor they’re accus-tomed to, but still within the Ananda style, complete with affirmations—and everything works just great).
Modified Full Yogic Breath Flow
The second one I like is not quite so universally accessible. It is a modified version of Full Yogic Breath Flow (see photos at below) that I do not use for prenatal or for anyone with spinal injuries.
I say “modified” because one traditional expression of the Full Yogic Breath Flow is to roll down the spine into a full forward bend, and roll back up again. But here I’m talking about a warm-up version, and after what we’ve learned about warming up and stretching, you can see that rolling down into (or up out of) a full forward bend is not an appro-priate way to warm up, even if you have no back injuries or vulner-abilities.
Later on, after a thorough warm-up with students who have some asana experience, are rela-tively flexible (e.g., can at least get their knuckles to the floor with straight legs or with bent knees), and have no contraindications for this Flow, then it would be fine to use in its traditional form. You may have learned another safe version to use as a warm-up.
What I teach is to roll down the spine, one vertebrae at a time, only until you reach your waist. (See middle photo at left, which shows where to stop. image placeholder)
Simultaneously draw the abdominal muscles in toward your back to further protect the spine. That’s the modification; all the rest is the same as usual: As you go down, you are exhaling, and the palms face down as though, energetically speaking, you are pushing all the air out of the lungs.
As you inhale and sequen-tially roll up the spine; the open palms move upward, close to the body, and face upward or toward your body as though energetically helping to draw breath into your lungs, and life-force up the spine.
At the top of the inhalation, allow the arms to move overhead, a little more than shoulder-width apart, lift the sternum slightly, and lift your face upward without jackknifing the neck. Pause the breath for just a moment before exhaling and repeating the sequence. All through this, the breath should be following a Full Yogic Breath sequence of expanding the belly, then the lower rib cage and finally the upper rib cage in a smooth continuous motion during the inhalation—and reversing the movements with the exhalation.
Circle of Joy
Probably my all-time favorite sitting warm-up is the Circle of Joy; as you may know, it can also be done standing.
Again, this is one that almost everyone can do, even though some people may need to sit not cross-legged, or even a chair. Even the name of this one is uplifting, and it helps students to get into a positive, uplifting, inward state of mind.
Be sure that students are sitting upright with straight spines (i.e., natural curves). This awareness of the spine is not only healthy from a physical point of view, but also helps them draw their attention more into their center where they can begin to explore more-subtle energy.
Begin with hands in namasté position in front of the heart center, with deep belly breathing (top photo at right – image placeholder, many photos needed). Stay here as long as needed to get your students upright, yet relaxed, centered, and breathing properly.
The first time through, I instruct everyone to breathe naturally as I lead them through each position once, making adjustments—helping tight students to take their arms only as far up or behind as they comfortably can without distorting their posture, and helping flexible students to not hyperextend.
When the arms separate between some of the positions, I remind students to feel space between their shoulder blades, and sometimes ask them to feel the energy that is all around them, all the time, ready to be drawn upon. The next step is to put all of the movements into one flowing sequence of breath and movement, harmoniously warming the chest, shoulders, arms while internalizing the mind and connecting with the breath:
- Inhale and interlace with the opening namasté position.
- Exhale as the arms go forward (second photo placeholder, page 8).
- Inhale as the arms go up (third photo placeholder, page 8).
- Exhale as the arms go out to the sides, down, and back.
- Inhale as the arms move into chest expander (fourth photo, page 8).
- Exhale as the arms reach out and around to the front.
- Finally, inhale back to the namasté position.
The sequence should flow without interruption. I like to end with at least three deep belly breaths in the namasté position. After the hands come down, it’s a nice time to ask your students to watch their breath for a few moments, observing it without any attempt to control it—just observe what it does on its own.
The Joint Oiler
Now we get down to the floor. For many people, just lying down on the floor, stretching out, and breathing is tension-releasing and energizing.
Encourage students to put a rolled up blanket or bolster under their knees if they like—it helps relieve low back discomfort and is more relaxing even for some students without back discomfort.
Choose pranayamas that are conducive to the supine position, such as, deep belly breathing, Full Yogic Breath, or Even-Count Breathing. The Joint Oiler is a great one that again nearly everyone can do (a prenatal class would need to do a similar standing version); it is effective as a beginning warm-up for advanced students as well as a great one for seniors or other special groups.
Remind your students to periodically take deep breaths to release tension and bring fresh oxygen into their bodies.
- Begin at the toes and wiggle them. Get as much motion in the toes as possible.
- Next, spread the toes wide apart and then squeeze them tight together like a fist, repeating several times.
- Point and flex the feet.
- Circle the ankles several times in one direction, then in the other direction.
- The next joint—the knee—is a little trickier. Do not rotate the knee in a circular fashion. Extension and flexion are adequate for warming up the joint and the muscles around it. It is easy to go too far and stretch ligaments unnecessarily if one tries to rotate the knee.So, have your students bring one knee to the chest and hold onto the thigh underneath the knee, then extend (start to straighten) the knee and bend again repeating a few times, not going for a big stretch, just gentle movement. Do the same on the other side.
- Turn the legs in and out from the hip joints repeatedly. The entire leg moves back and forth—initiate the move-ment via the hip rotators.
- Bend the knees with both feet on the floor and do pelvic tilts. For healthy backs, both under-curve and over-curve tilts can be done; otherwise stay with under-curve tilts (i.e., tuck the pelvis) only.
- Let the legs stretch back out along the floor. Wiggle the fingers, making sure that thumbs do not get left behind!
- Spread the fingers wide apart, then squeeze them tight like a fist. Repeat several times.
- Circle the wrists for a while in one direction, then repeat in the other direction.
- Bend and straighten the elbows several times.
- Turn the arms in and out from the shoulder (similar motion as in #6 for the hips.)
- Shrug the shoulders by inhaling and drawing the shoul-ders up toward the ears, then exhale and draw them down away from the ears. Repeat a few times.
- Place the arms beside you with the palms down. Gently press the hands into the floor and draw the shoulder blades together and lift only the upper back—not the neck or head—off of the floor, inhaling. Exhale and release down. Repeat a few times.
- Gently roll your head from side to side. Breathe deeply, exhaling away all tension.
The Joint Oiler “oils” all the joints (i.e., facilitates move-ment by thinning the synovial fluid) and moves all the major muscle groups. Sounds almost as good as an energization exercise, right? Well, you can guess what I like to sometimes follow this with and/or do by itself: all three phases of 20-Part Body Recharging, from the Energization Exercises!
Stay on the floor and do these. Then your students will be well warmed up, and they never even had to leave the floor!
Asanas as Warm-Ups—and Cool-Downs
I’d like to leave you with one final thought about warm-ups. Once the body is warmed up, the muscles are prepared to stretch, and we can also start working them to build strength and balance. Many of the yoga asanas do this, simultaneously building strength and increasing flexibility.
When working on an asana that focuses primarily on stretch-ing muscles, you will find it beneficial to have worked the targeted areas with strength asanas first. That way you have a good supply of circulating blood, which by the way is not only bringing in fresh oxygen, but is also removing toxins from the muscles and the rest of the body.
For example, after doing a series of standing asanas like the warrior pose and side angle pose, the hamstrings and external rotator muscles of the hip will be more receptive to stretches like forward bends and pigeon pose.
As the stretching takes place in this type of asana, the body will actually begin to cool down. So now we come full circle, and we see that stretching is actually a good way to cool down!