Alignment and Yoga

In yoga classes, in the marketing and in mainstream media there is a lot of press around yoga being good for

Photo credit: myyogaonline / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: myyogaonline / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

flexibility. If you look around, the ads, Instagram pictures, and selfies are largely very flexible people doing incredible poses. There has been some push back on that to point out that yoga is also good for building strength, which is true. There are some truly challenging postures that require significant physical strength to safely enter, maintain and exit. But both of these focus on a very small part of a yoga practice, the physical aspect.


What I see as missing is how yoga helps with alignment. I choose the word alignment because what I am talking about is not just the physical alignment of the postures, which is important, but also the mental and emotional alignment that comes with a yoga practice.


To better understand how alignment in the postures leads to mental and emotional alignment, I want to explore each in more detail.


Physical Alignment

Yoga helps to adjust physical alignment by focusing on the postures and over time re-teaching the body what it means to work as it was intended. The emphasis on posture, stacking bones and muscle engagement often help to cartoonbigguyyogaalleviate certain chronic aches and pains such as lower back pain, shoulder and neck pain, poor posture and more.


This improved physical alignment frees the body to focus on things other than simply standing, or compensating and straining to hold itself out of alignment (think slouched shoulders or uneven shoulders from carrying a bag on one side all of the time). In addition, improved posture allows the body to function more efficiently. Breathing becomes easier because the diaphragm isn’t pinched or compressed. Blood circulates throughout the body more efficiently, carrying fresh oxygen in and carbon dioxide out faster. This helps to increase endurance and concentration and also combats mental fatigue.


Emotional Alignment

Emotional alignment is really the ability to deal with what life throws your way and still be able to (mostly) maintain a positive outlook on life. Not everyone is going to be flowers and sunshine every day. At least no one I’ve met yet. Office chaosBut developing an emotional balance through yoga allows you to let the little irritations that used to drive you over the edge, simply roll away. And the big hits in life, well, they still hit but you have a calm, confident mindset that no matter what, you will take that in stride and keep going.


With a positive outlook, your heart opens naturally. Your sense of compassion grows, as does your ability to experience the full range of emotions without being controlled by them. You may still be sad, but the likelihood of slipping into an all out depression lessens. The same with happy emotions. You can experience happy emotions at a higher level without necessarily becoming attached to them or feeling sad as they wane.


Mental Alignment

This can also be referred to as Spiritual Alignment. This in no way means you are off to shave your head, give away all possessions and sit on a mountain sustaining yourself with the dew of a ginko leaf and the energy of the Universe

Human head withred ladder to opened sky window

Human head withred ladder to opened sky window

(thank you Kung Fu Panda). Although maybe you will, it certainly isn’t a requirement.

Mental/spiritual alignment is more about doing the right thing for the right reasons and being compassionate. It can be the simple things, picking up a broken bottle and putting it in the trash. It can be helping a stranger by opening the door for them, or smiling at someone while taking a walk. It can also be more profound, say starting an organization to help those who aren’t able to help themselves.


When it all lines up…

So how does yoga fit into all this? Yoga works in layers. The initial layer is the physical, working through the asanas, or postures. This builds strength, balance and awareness. This leads directly to physical alignment. Once the body is strong and healthy, you move on to the next layer.


Once the body is in better alignment, the energy of the body is free to flow. This allows us to clean out the emotional gunk we accumulate day to day in life. With the emotional gunk out, we can experience life from a happier vantage point. There isn’t a dirty lens to look through. We begin to experience a more positive attitude and things that used to bother us seem less and less irritating.


The next layer involves the use of breathing to root out and release negative emotions. Sweeping out this gunk that

fine 3d image of dark grunge prison

fine 3d image of dark grunge prison

builds up in daily life quite literally allows us to breathe easier. This is why breath cues are layered into a yoga practice. Matching movement to breath not only increases the abilities of the body by making the physical postures easier, but it also allows the body to release emotions that no longer serve us and where we want to go.


With a strong and aligned body and an open heart, the mind flourishes. You may begin to start tapping into your intuition. Your sense of what actions you want to take becomes clear. Your desire to act upon these thoughts grows. You begin to experience a drive to do things that leave the world a little better off than it was yesterday.


Yes, yoga is good for making us stronger and more flexible physically. But it doesn’t stop there. A regular practice brings us into alignment in other ways leading to a more harmonious life with those around us. I believe that is more appealing than just focusing on the physical side and being able to do the best looking dancer pose.


Intuition; Your Map to the Universe

Intuition is that little voice that tells us things that we wouldn’t normally know. Sometimes it leads to great transformation, sometimes it means I make my train. Either way I am better off listening to my intuition than I am ignoring it. Here’s why you will be too.


I usually get 4 questions when it comes to learning how to tune into intuition.

  1. What does that mean, “tune into intuition?”
  2. Does it really work?
  3. Do I have to shave my head and become a monk to do this?
  4. How do I start?


I’ll start with question number 3. No, you don’t need to be a monk, you don’t need to shave your head, nor do you

Blackboard concept for leaving your comfort zone behind and moving in to the real life

even need to be a vegetarian or vegan. As for question number 2, yes, it really does work, although it requires practice, patience and a willingness to step outside of what is likely your comfort zone.


What does it mean to tune into your intuition? I view intuition as the uplink to the universe. It demonstrates our connection to everyone and everything else. That little voice that speaks up and tells you something is a bad idea, or that turning left instead of right is the better choice. Intuition is our insight into the larger world at a deeper level of consciousness that has fewer prejudged filters in place.


I’ll share an example of one of the uses I have for my own intuition. I drive from my house to the train to commute to work. I drive the same route every day at the same time every day. One day as I am about to get in the lane to turn right, as I always do, I hear myself inside my head saying “go left today.” That was it. Three little words. But I listened, got in the lane to turn left and as I entered the intersection, I saw that there was a massive backup of traffic and if I had gone right, as I always did, I would have been stuck and missed my train. Instead, I heeded those three little words, went left and made my train.


Questions arises suggesting there were some other clues that might have prompted me to turn left. Not really. The traffic was moving fine and even the first few cars to turn right seemed like they were going to move as normal. There were no sirens, nothing on the radio, a normal day. Just that little voice in my head. To further reinforce it, I don’t like going left because it means I have to later turn left onto a two way main road that feeds the train station. And that is never a pleasant nor expeditious route so I take great care to avoid that route.


As for how to start tuning in, that’s the easy and hard part. All you have to do is listen. Quiet your chatty conscious mind and let the signals be heard. I say it’s both the easiest and most challenging because it sounds simple enough; quiet your mind. However that is one of the most challenging thing for us to do.


To help start you off, I have a few exercises to help get you going.


Exercise 1: Get comfortable with your own mind

Human head withred ladder to opened sky window

In today’s world of digi-distraction and the constant bombardment of visual and auditory stimuli, it’s very easy to avoid the tough questions and the fears that we collect in life. But the first step to being able to hear your intuition is clearing out this clutter. And the only way to clear it out is to face it.


To do this, I like long runs by myself with no electronics. My mind flits from thought to thought for a bit but it eventually gets bored. And when the mind gets bored, that is when all the nasty stuff starts bubbling up. Doubts, fears, limiting thoughts all undercutting our confidence and goals. But this is only a distraction technique. It isn’t real and once you can face these thoughts without retreating, you begin to silence them. Once you start quieting those negative thoughts, you make room for your intuition to be heard.


Exercise 2: Count your breaths

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

This one is deceptively more challenging than it appears. The concept is simple. Sit or lay comfortably and count your breaths. One to twenty-one. When you get to twenty-one, start over again at one. If you lose count, simply start again at one. Once you can make it through this exercise for at least 5 minutes (set a timer so you don’t have to worry about tracking that too) without losing track or chasing random thoughts and having to start over, you will have built your concentration skills up enough to begin the third exercise, learning to listen.





Exercise 3: Learn to listen

Image courtesy of Moyan_Brenn   / Flickr.

Image courtesy of Moyan_Brenn / Flickr.

If you’ve gone through the other two exercises, this one will be much easier than attempting it without them. When I describe the thoughts in my head, I think of them in terms of quality of thought. There are the garbage thoughts such as anything negative about myself or others, the whiney thoughts such as my muscles are tight don’t go for a run or the distracting thoughts such as I bet I can get the next level of Game X if I started right now.


Next come the medium thoughts such as I’m hungry, did I leave the stove on when I left the house or wow, I’ve got a lot of work to catch up on. While not detrimental, they are still distractions.


At the top are the high quality thoughts. These are the ones that are insightful, helpful, positive, and show me options to challenges I otherwise might not have come up with. This is where intuition lies.


Whether you like to sit at home, in nature or add this on to a meditation practice, sitting quietly and listening to your thoughts will move you in the direction of telling your thoughts apart. This exercise of just sitting with your thoughts allows you to listen to everything that is going on in your head and enables you to identify the higher quality thoughts from the lesser ones. This in turn allows for you to identify them in the midst of daily chaos when they come up again.


What’s next?

Going through the first two exercises taught you to quiet your mind and built your level of concentration so that you

group of man and women during hiking excursion in woods, walking in a queue along a path. Low section view

could start sorting the garbage thoughts from the rest. I was surprised to find so much extra room in my head when I started dumping the garbage thoughts. It was like driving around with your windshield completely dirty and then suddenly it’s clean and you can see where you are going.


It will likely take a little time to adjust to the “clean windshield” you’re developing. Something pops into your head and you question it or second guess it. I recommend taking note of those times, what the thought or direction was and what you did, with a note about how it turned out. It’s been my experience that in hindsight, those odd thoughts were some really good recommendations. You won’t always take them, and that’s fine. As you track your thoughts, you’ll learn to trust this new insight more.

Perseverance or Stubbornness; the Desire to Never Quit

As you may have noticed, I’ve been lax on my posting for a bit. I’ve heard it say that the Universe never gives you any challenge you can’t handle. Of course I (and you) ARE the Universe, so really I’m really just challenging myself….but I digress. I’ve been confronting some particularly sticky challenges in my personal life lately (I won’t bore you with the details) and it came to a head recently when I contemplated throwing the towel in completely and giving up all the things I am passionate about; Tae Kwon Do, yoga, ki gong, teaching, writing, all of it. I was at a pretty low point.


I wouldn’t say I’m completely out of the woods, but I feel like I have definitely turned a proverbial corner. I took time one evening when I would usually be at Tae Kwon Do teaching, and I tried out not doing any of the things I am passionate about. I’m experimental. I learn best by doing.autoresponse


I went to a local park, sat on a bench and just did…well, nothing I would normally do at that time. I watched the world, nature and people. It was enjoyable and even relaxing. I marveled at the teens and 20’s that gathered in groups to look at their own phones; cat videos I assume, there was laughing. I stewed, I fumed, I sat with my tumultuous emotions. About then the Universe decided to stop kicking my teeth in to get my attention and went soft sell.


One of my students was walking by, spotted me and came over. They had been struggling with part of their curriculum in Tae Kwon Do and I had given them a little extra help to get them going in the right direction. They were so happy to feel like they were making progress, they just wanted to thank me for helping. Oh Universe you mysterious, thoughtful, evil, conniving beauty.


My plan to open my own school and strike out on my own has recently been nearly scuttled. It’s left me adrift Office chaosand uncertain. I’m good at adjusting my plans to reach a goal. Obstacles are simply ways to make the end result better and whether I go over, around or through the obstacle, with a solid goal, I can make it work. But when my goal evaporated, I was left, well, lost and directionless.


My student reminded me of why I wanted to make this change in my life. It isn’t ego, it’s service, it’s what I’m passionate about doing. I can help people. I have helped people. I help people now. I can help more people. I can’t help everyone, but I’m okay with that. I can help the ones I can help. I needed that reminder.


I’m not sure what the future is going to be. I am redefining my goals and still looking for some way to start my own place. No matter what shifts and changes happen, I remain resolute that I will continue to help. I will continue to teach. I will continue to write and share. I’m confident that I can help at least one person, and that’s enough. With that being said, you can expect to be hearing from me more and for me to get back on a regular publishing schedule.


I’m bruised, I’m battered, and I might even be deep fried (a little Southern humor there), but I am not buddha statuebacking down. I’m standing my ground. (And now I’m getting sued by Tom Petty.) More to come and more to share. Thanks for going with me on this always interesting, sometimes painful, wouldn’t change it for anything ride.

Through the Looking Glass of Perspective

I started this a few days ago on Star Wars day so a quote from Obi-Wan Kenobi seemed appropriate. “…you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” Perspective, or point of view, is the way we are able to frame our world, our place in it and how we make associations and even friends. It’s what keeps us sane. If left unchecked, it’s also one of the greatest limiters to new ideas and growth.


Perspective is shaped by experience, those around us and what we find comfortable. Perspective is a necessarily

fine 3d image of dark grunge prison

fine 3d image of dark grunge prison

narrowed view of the world. It protects us from things that we aren’t quite ready to see or accept, sort of like a psyche armor. Like armor it’s not meant to be worn at all times. Doing so cuts us off from others and what once served as protection becomes a prison.


Think about a plant left to grow in a pot. Eventually the plant outgrows the pot and needs to be transplanted to continue to grow. If not, then the plant becomes root bound and eventually dies. Similarly if we stay locked into our singular perspective, we will become mentally bound and like the plant, our growth will be blunted. While we likely won’t die physically, mental stagnation can be a type of death unto itself.


To move out of the armor of a singular perspective, I’ve found empathy, open mindedness and a willingness to step outside of my comfort zone to be a highly effective combination.



Understanding Road Sign with Dramatic Clouds and Sky.

Understanding Road Sign with Dramatic Clouds and Sky.

The ability to feel compassion for others is what allows us to see things from another’s point of view, allowing us to understand them. Empathy isn’t just about when people are sad or depressed. Empathy can be used with happy emotions as well. Have you ever been happy and celebrated someone’s accomplishment even though you had no idea what they were talking about, or if it was something you’d never do? Empathy in action. The challenge is bringing that empathy to bear when you are faced with a point of view or opinion that challenges a core belief.



Open Mindedness

Human head withred ladder to opened sky window

Human head withred ladder to opened sky window

This might also be called acceptance or a suspension of pre judgement. Remaining open to the possibility that something you believe or “know” could be skewed, biased or flat out wrong is challenging for pretty much everyone. After all at one point, everyone “knew” the sun revolved around the earth and “knew” that the earth was flat.







Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

Blackboard concept for leaving your comfort zone behind and moving in to the real life

Blackboard concept for leaving your comfort zone behind and moving in to the real life

Perspective is partially steeped in protection. A willingness and no small amount of courage is needed to step outside of that comfort zone. Being able to reevaluate your beliefs, judgements and ideals is one of the most difficult things to do. It’s also one of the most important when building trust, relationships and personal growth.


Applying these intertwined tools takes practice and patience but is well worth the effort. But if it’s so much work to take this step and so much easier to stay safe in the armor of perspective, why change? Why put in all that effort?


Because it’s one of the most powerful tools for growth we have at our disposal. Sadly it’s one that I see being utilized less and less. The adage of old that says you shouldn’t judge a man unless you walk a mile in his shoes comes to mind. It’s all about shifting perspective. Seeing things from someone else’s point of view. The reason to do that, is to better understand them and why they hold certain opinions and beliefs. This doesn’t mean you will change your beliefs or opinions, but you’ll gain a better understanding of why they believe the way they do. Understanding that is a cornerstone for being able to find common ground and acceptance.


Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes

group of man and women during hiking excursion in woods, walking in a queue along a path. Low section view

group of man and women during hiking excursion in woods, walking in a queue along a path. Low section view

If your entire life was spent in tight, pinching shoes, a pair of comfortable, fitting sneakers would be a delight. But if your life was spent barefoot those same shoes might feel constricting. The shoes didn’t change, only the perspective of the person wearing them. Neither person is “right” or “wrong.” They have an opinion based upon their prior experience and preferences. And when put in the same situation, they came to different conclusions. Understanding h

ow someone else sees something, even if you don’t agree with them, is a powerful tool for making a connection and perhaps even learning something new. Who knows, maybe once you’ve tried running around barefoot, you’ll find you like it.



Like the plant moving from the comfort and safety of a pot to the open ground, there are potential pitfalls, challenges

Broken tomato plant roots in soil isolated on white

Broken tomato plant roots in soil isolated on white

and opportunities for growth. I suppose you could say it all depends on your perspective.

The Judgement of Should

The power of meditation, yoga, kigong and the like is the ability to encourage awareness, growth and change. I look at it as a path. It might sound a little cookie-cutter, but while the process is essentially the same, the steps for each can vary wildly. I think that is the draw for each of them, the steps we take, or more specifically, the steps that call us to walk them.


I’ve talked in the past about some of the changes, such as going dairy free, eating seasonally and other things. One of my latest explorations centers around the word ‘should.’


‘Should’ started to illicit a pretty strong and negative visceral reaction in me. It took me a little while to figure out what was getting under my skin, and once I did, I sat with it and did a few focused meditations to better understand why it was bothering me so much.


Some rights reserved by moonhouse

Some rights reserved by moonhouse


Why ‘Should’ Bothers Me


First I wanted to consider why this word started bothering me. What was it that got under my skin so much to bubble up to my consciousness and spark this desire to change. Here’s what I came up with:



Should – It drips with judgment. Self-judgment (I should be…), judgment of others (you should ….). While it generally (I think) comes from a place of concern and desire to help, it often comes across emotionally as being looked down upon, or being judged in some way.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of


With judgement comes pressure and stress. I don’t know about you, but I have enough already and don’t need to add more through self-judgement. And as far as judging others goes, I don’t think it’s my place. Everyone has their own struggles and trials to deal with. Whether they are working off some karma, trying to improve themselves or even being a total ass, I’m choosing to withhold judgement. No, the judgement in that last statement didn’t escape my notice, but I did say I’m a work in progress.



How Much of a Hold ‘Should’ Had Me In


Once I wanted to make the change, I wanted to see how big a task that was going to be. I brought my full awareness to the challenge to see how often I was using that word. Of the times I caught myself (and I am sure I missed more

Image courtesy of  ruminatrix.

Image courtesy of ruminatrix.

than a few), I hit 114 times the very first day. Most of it leveled against myself. To break that down, I estimate 16 waking hours in a day. 114 ‘shoulds’ in 16 hours is 7.125 per hour or one about every 8 minutes.


Doesn’t sound too awful. Perhaps even manageable. After all, we live in a culture where the most popular headlines tell us what we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be doing. But think of it this way. What if there was an actual person outside of your head, standing behind you, criticizing what you were doing 7-8 times an hour the entire time you were awake? Every…single…day. I was beyond shocked.



How I Started My Change


After recovering from the math, I laid out a plan to help me. The plan isn’t complicated or convoluted, and I think that makes it easier for me to stick with. Simplicity rules when making big changes in life (you don’t think dropping this word is a big life change? Try it for just an hour….).


My Plan

  1. Stay conscious of my vocabulary and usage of the word ‘should’ both internally and externally
  2. Make space by slowing down my conversations so that when (not if) the habitual ‘should’ pops up I can catch it, evaluate it and alter my word choice for clearer meaning
  3. Be kind; especially to myself when one or two (or thirty) slide by before I can catch them
  4. Notice the difference both in my own reaction and the impact on others when I choose words that don’t contain the judgmental undertones
  5. Use that feeling of ease and acceptance to further fuel and encourage this change


I realize that for some, a carrot and stick approach might work better. An idea a friend of mine pitched was setting up the equivalent of a swear jar. This, or any other, word you wanted to remove could be the source of contributions to the jar. Maybe rename it to the Banished Words jar. That way when the contributions either end or are reduced to a mere trickle, you get reward yourself for all of your hard work.


What’s Changed for Me


I’ve noticed a number of changes since I started this endeavor. The two that stick out the most for me are how much

By MIT-Libraries [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Flickr

By MIT-Libraries [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Flickr

more receptive and engaged people are in conversations and how much happier I feel in general. Apparently not feeling judged is a great way to make connections with others and feel better about ourselves.


I haven’t completely shut down the relentless little ‘should’er’ on my shoulder. But he is less talkative these days. With practice, patience and persistence my goal is to eventually get this word out of my vocabulary. It’s been difficult, but has gotten easier over time.




Are there other words you have or would like to remove from your own vocabulary? If so, please share and you might inspire someone else to join you.

The Power of Presence – Creating Connection

Be present. Be in the moment. Be mindful. Staple mantras for yoga, meditation and a plethora of “new age” things. The idealistic preconceptions surrounding presence vary greatly and tend to focus on benefits that are purely philosophical. The required steps and/or time for achieving these awe-inspiring results varies just as widely. But is it necessary to sit and pick lint from your belly button for months or years to start realizing the benefits of being present?


I don’t think so. I have found some of the best benefits of being present are in the mundane of daily life. Yes, being

Image courtesy of .

Image courtesy of .

present may fire up your sex life, it can help you improve your health and at some point you may be able to drop the illusions of time and space and teleport anywhere you want, read minds and fly. Until then, being present has other benefits to offer.


The benefit I want to focus on is connection. How we connect to others, how we connect to ourselves, and even how we connect to nature. How quickly will you start to see it in action? That’s the good news. It starts as soon as you start. You just have to know how to recognize it when it happens.


I’ve been in yoga classes where the teacher tells the class to “bring your mind to the present and be present in the moment.” I don’t know about you, but that’s always been a little ethereal for me. I like simple, relevant examples so I can really begin to understand something and want to share a few I’ve experienced.


Think back to a conversation where you felt truly heard and understood. The person you were talking to, what were

they doing? I’m willing to bet they were doing nothing but focusing on you and what you were saying. No digi-distraction with phones, tablets, television or anything else to draw their attention off of you. They were focused on you and in that moment, they were present with you and that created a connection.





Next think about a time (and this one won’t necessarily apply to everyone) when you were either playing with or

Some rights reserved by JonDissed

Some rights reserved by JonDissed

talking to a young child. Could you feel that intense focus rushing out of them straight at you? That intense focus that comes so naturally to them is them being fully present. They weren’t thinking about their friends, what they were doing later or anything else. And in that moment with them, a connection was created because you were both present.


Now that you remember that feeling of connection and presence, the questions become how to build it and where else can it be used. The answers are amazingly simple; use it and anywhere respectively.




Cultivating Connection

To be able to consistently build a connection with someone takes practice and a few simple rules. The practice part is easy, build a connection with everyone you meet. The rules I use I’ve listed below.


  • Turn off and put away all electronics – not always possible in some environments, but at least the ones you carry with you
  • When you are in a public place and can’t turn off things like televisions, find a place where there isn’t a good view
  • Set aside your own baggage – forming a connection through presence is all about finding harmony with another person; this is almost impossible if your thoughts are occupied by your own stuff
  • Be flexible – trying to force a connection or insisting that it form in a certain way is a sure way to undermine the whole process
  • Hold space for the other person – as tips go, this is one sounds pretty vague; the essence being that as you are forging the connection, you both need to feel safe


Where Connections Can Be Created

The answer is, anywhere. The places where people will be most receptive are places that foster a common bond to begin with. Think yoga studio, spin class, pilates class, martial arts class, etc. While it’s easier to create a connection in these environments (there is already some common ground) it’s certainly not limited to these places. Below are a few examples of where else you can build connection outside of these places.


Some rights reserved by moonhouse

Some rights reserved by moonhouse

  • In meetings – need to sway a decision for an important project, create connections in the meeting and see just how much more open everyone is to your ideas and point of view
  • Commuting – more for the mass transit crowd, but even on long flights, I’ve met some very interesting people by opening with a present minded ‘hello’
  • Personal relationships – one of the best tools for resolving issues with your significant other is to let them know you have heard them fully and completely without judgment – it works wonders


With these ideas in your personal toolbox, I encourage you to go put this into practice. Worst case, you get a little TMI, best case you resolve a challenge you’ve been facing or even better, make a new friend.mentorhands

Stretching in the Winter; Safe Ways to Stretch When It’s Cold Outside

One of the reasons people take up yoga is to get more flexibility. Men are especially known as being less flexible on the mats than their female counterparts. During the summer months when it’s warm outside it’s easier to get a goodcartoonbigguyyoga stretch, especially in the beginning of a class. It typically doesn’t take much to get the muscles loosened up and ready to go.


But during the cold winter months, it can feel like an hour or more of warm up is needed just to get the muscles loosened up to take a class. And for those that are naturally less flexible, it can be very frustrating and potentially injurious. What can be done during this time of stress, super tension and cold? Is all hope of flexibility lost? Fear not, for there is still hope.


The key to getting a good stretch while minimizing the risk of injury is a good warm up sequence. Waking the muscles up, getting the blood flowing and getting your whole body warm are the three tips to getting the most out of stretching in the cold months. First a little on why it works, then a handy little set you can use to get yourself fired up inside and ready to go.


Why it works

During the warm months (weeks if you live in New York), the ambient heat from nature helps the body to relax. The body, muscles and connective tissues are in a pretty constant state of being warm, and as a result are more relaxed. This state of relaxation is what allows the muscles to stretch and lengthen when stretching exercises are done.


Now think to the winter months. It’s cold and the wind is slicing through every layer of clothing you have on. Most

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

people actively pull in towards their center during this time. This is a protective reflex buried in our bodies. What it also does is put the muscles into a constant state of tension. While tensed in this fashion, the muscles are far less likely to stretch safely as they are actively shrinking and pulling in. And that’s why injuries such as pulled muscles occur. But, take those same tense, cold muscles and warm them up first, and you create a safe state for the muscles to stretch.


How to warm up your muscles safely

  1. Take a few minutes to acclimate to the warmer workout environment (assuming it is warmer)
  2. Start *slow* and then build the intensity of the warm ups
  3. Stay focused on the fact that these are indeed warm ups and while some of the exercises contain a little cardio, this is not the cardio portion of your work out
  4. Be honest with where you are in getting warm; some days you may need a little more time to warm up adequately, treat yourself to that time
  5. The more body parts you warm up, the safer your work out becomes; avoid warming up just the legs or just the back in favor of time on other parts of your work out


To help get you warmed up, I’ve drawn up a list of exercises that will get the whole body warm and the blood pumping.


Warm up set

  1. Body tapping – tap your body, shoulders to palms (palms up) and back (palms down). Tap the around the body and finally tap down and back up the legs. This should leave you with a tingling sensation telling you that your blood is flowing now.
  2. Hand squeezes – make a fist as tight as possible and open as wide as possible, repeat 30 or so times
  3. Elbow and shoulder rolls – rotating the joints to open them up both physically and energetically
  4. Hip, ankle and knee rotations – same idea as the shoulders and elbows
  5. Squats – slow motion and holding
  6. Plank/push-ups – slow, steady push-ups with holding planks in between
  7. Jumping jacks – any variation
  8. Coordination drills (hand/knee and hand/foot) such as ladders or mountain climbers

Yoga (2 of 6)

A note to avoid lateral foot work drills before you are warmed up. Those put a lot of pressure on the connective tissue and muscles of the joints. If performed cold you run a greater chance of getting injured.


I know that I’m warmed up enough when I have little beads of sweat just starting to form on my forehead. Another good sign is when I check in with my shoulders and quads. When I feel those loosen and relax, I know I’m ready to start my work out safely.


This kind of a deliberate warm up isn’t always an option. The top question I get is how to get into a class safely when

By Kennguru (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Kennguru (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

this type of intentional warm up isn’t possible. The short answer is to manage the intensity of your work out. If you’ve not had the time to warm up before a class, cut the intensity of the work out down until you are warmed up. You can still do the exercises, but instead of going full bore, you can lessen your effort or limit your range of motion until you feel you are warmed up and ready to go.


In the end, it’s about listening to your body. It will tell you when you are and aren’t ready for something. Everyone is different and every day is different. Some days you may need to just think about getting to your work out and you are set to go, no more warm up needed. Other days maybe the warm up is all you ever get through. There’s nothing wrong with either of those extremes or anything in between. Push your limits, challenge yourself, but do it safely so you are able to stay healthy and don’t have to recover from injuries.