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Refresh your yoga routine

Get back to the basics

Poses. Meditation. Breathing.

Yoga can be intimidating. Yet, for good reason, many people are drawn to the practice.

The many health benefits of yoga cannot be covered in a few simple sentences. McCarthy sums it up with three main benefits: increased flexibility, improved muscle strength, and stress relief. She adds, "Yoga also improves sleep, decreases chronic pain, strengthens memory, increases range of motion, improves balance, and prevents falls, among so many other things."

"Yoga can give you energy to do the things you want to do," says McCarthy. "It is a one-size-fits-all solution."

"Yoga invites you to be who you are at the moment. Yoga is a process and a journey, so be kind to yourself."

Mary McCarthy, MPH Yoga Instructor

A new approach

So why do so many people try, then give up on yoga? According to McCarthy, yoga is too easy to approach the wrong way. We have an image in our minds of what yoga should look like and feel like, and often, we think we don't measure up. "When it comes to yoga, it's so important to open yourself to a place of non-judgment and compassion. Allow yourself time to settle into it. Practice with a sense of curiosity. Respect your body and listen to its signals."

The softer side

McCarthy tells a story of a client who had done extensive research before hiring her for a series of yoga sessions. At the end of the first session, the client asked, "So when do we start doing yoga?"

Her answer: "You are doing yoga!"

McCarthy appreciated the sentiment. "It is not unusual to feel this way when you start yoga," she says. "Yoga moves are simple stretches and body-opening movements. Yoga is about being present with your breath and body and moving in a conscious way. When you first start out, it's important to take it easy. And it's always important to not strain areas that are prone to injury."

"Our society tells us to push it," she sums up, "But yoga invites the softer side."

Six core poses for a wide range of muscles

Yoga is something anyone can personalize according to his or her fitness level. McCarthy created this sequence of poses perfect for a beginner. Move through the poses slowly, holding each for five breaths.

Mountain pose (Tadanasan)

The foundation for standing poses, mountain pose improves posture and stability. Stand tall and align your joints - place your feet firmly on the floor with feet hip-width apart or together, working your way up - knees over ankles, hips over knees, shoulders over hips, ears over shoulders. Balance the weight as evenly as you can between the four corners of your feet. Firm and lift your lower abdominals. Keep arms at your sides, palms facing forward. Reach fingertips toward the floor. Inhale and exhale slowly.

Tree pose (Vrksasana)

This pose helps increase balance and focus, and strengthens ankles and knees. From mountain pose, shift your weight onto the left leg, and bend the right knee to touch the left ankle. Use a chair (as shown) for stability. As you become more advanced, your right foot can move further up the left leg to the calf or your thigh (avoid the inner knee). As you advance further, balance without the use of the chair, pressing your hands in a prayer position at your chest. Repeat on the other side.

Wide leg standing forward bend (Prasarita Padottanasana)

This pose lengthens the spine and stretches your back and legs. From mountain pose, spread the legs 3 - 4 feet apart. With an extended spine, hinge forward, bringing the palms to the chair (as shown). As you advance, continue forward without the use of the chair. Bring the palms to the floor under the shoulders.

Plank (Phalakasana)

This pose strengthens the abdominals, shoulders and arms. Start in tabletop position (on hands and knees) and move the knees behind the hips to form a straight line from your knees to the back of your head. As you advance this pose, lift your knees and hold your body in a straight line from your heels to the back of your head. Avoid dropping or raising your hips, head or shoulders. Engage your abdominals by sucking your belly button into your spine.

Cobra (Bhujangasana)

This pose is a backbend that stretches the front of the body and strengthens the upper back and neck. From plank position, bend elbows and gently lower your body down onto your belly. Keep your pelvis down and your shoulders back so you do not overuse your arms. Squeeze your elbows in and gently lift up your chest.

Downward-facing dog (Adho Makha Svanasana)

This pose stretches the back of your legs, strengthens arms, shoulders and back. Start in table top position (on hands and knees). Firm your arms and lift your knees and hips while extending your arms and spine straight, forming an inverted "V" shape. If your hamstrings are tight, bend your knees to allow your pelvis to tilt and the spine to extend.

Take your poses outside

Many communities even offer group yoga in the park.

"You'll find an extremely relaxed atmosphere at yoga in the park, so long as the weather cooperates," says Max Smith, a yoga instructor in Des Moines, Iowa. "No one owns the 'outside,' so it may be less intimidating, particularly for beginners, to try yoga in an outdoor setting, rather than a yoga studio. Whatever you bring to the mat, it will be welcome."

Approach yoga in the park with an open mind, adds Max.

There are all walks of life at yoga in the park, she says. "You'll see babies crawling over their parents' mats, dogs chilling next to their owners, young children giving their all to keep up with the class, teens trying their first class with a group of friends, young and old couples, parents seeking stress-relief and retirees moving gracefully from on pose to the next."

Smith's tips for outdoor yoga:

  • Stay hydrated.
  • Wear sunscreen.
  • Bring bug spray.
  • Find smooth and stable ground without sharp rocks or other objects underfoot.
  • Whether or not you use a mat is up to you. You may want to have a yoga mat designated just for outdoor use. If the ground is especially hard, you may want to double up with more than one mat.

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Want more yoga?

"If you're interested in yoga," says McCarthy," enroll in a group class with an instructor you trust. Start at a lower level so you feel comfortable and learn the foundational things. Only expand to a higher-level class when you get comfortable in your own body."

McCarthy also recommends these excellent resources: