12 Days of Yoga Gifts

For the first day of yoga gifts my true self gave to me…

Pushan MudraIt’s tough to find time for yourself during the holiday season. Much of our energy is directed externally: gifts for others, parties, family, planning how to fit it all in and stay festive in the process. Yoga class? What a gift that would be! Many of us just resolve to make up for lost mat time in the New Year. But what if… you gave yourself 12 days of yoga gifts this season, to redirect some precious energy internally? It won’t take much time and it won’t make a big dent in your holiday budget. This holiday season, give yourself some small yoga gifts that pack a big pranic punch: 2 books with healthy tips in small packages (perfect for short holidaze attention spans); 2 bountiful blessings; 2 mudra meditations; 4 balancing one-pose wonders to keep you grounded; and looking ahead with your third eye — a few yoga intentions to inspire you for 2012. Add it up and you’ve got 12 Days of Yoga Gifts, just for you. Read on and let the giving begin.

Books

Now is probably not the time to sit down and read the Yoga Sutras or Bhagavad Gita. Now is a great time for bite-sized, daily doses of yoga yumminess, and tips for maintaining a healthy focus during the season of excess. Read a few to wind down and close your day, or in the morning for some self-care inspiration. These two books also make great gifts for the yoginis on your shopping list. Want more yoga book gift ideas? Find them here.

  1. 1,001 Pearls of Yoga Wisdom: Take Your Practice Beyond the Mat
    This adorable little book includes 1,001 gems related to yoga practice, philosophy, history, you name it: a “treasure trove of yoga.” So fun to dip into for instant inspiration and yogic reminders, any time you’re craving either. Which during the month of December, may be quite often.
  2. Secrets of Longevity – Hundreds of Ways to Live to be 100
    Holiday stress feel like it’s shaving minutes off your life? Counter balance with these simple and practical ideas designed to lengthen a healthy life. The author is a doctor of Chinese medicine who combines elements from that ancient tradition, as well as modern Western medicine.

Bountiful Blessings: Count ‘em

In a season that can tend towards desiring things we don’t have, take some time to be grateful for blessings you already enjoy.

  1. Food Gratitude. Celebratory meals and more decadent vittles are likely to make their way to your lips during the holidays. Although we typically complain about overeating during this season, with the expectation to deprive ourselves after the New Year, remember how unbelievably fortunate we are to have such wonderful choices with which to sustain ourselves. Not just during the holidays, but all year. So take a moment once a day to say a prayer or invocation, to take a moment of silence and gratitude for what you’re about to eat. Allow yourself to indulge a bit, and be grateful that you have the opportunity to do so.
  2. Breathe in the blessing of your breath. I had someone once tell me that she hated it when yoga teachers say, “just breathe.” You go to class and the teacher is constantly reminding you. I know, it’s the ultimate yoga cliché, but seriously: how many times have you found yourself in said yoga class, holding it? It even happens to the best breathers. It’s interesting that we can so easily lose touch with our most basic life force.
     
    Personally, I think we need to be reminded to just breathe, on a daily basis. As adults, it’s estimated that we breathe 3-4 times faster than is optimal (approximately 15-20 breaths per minute). We’re working against evolution here — our flight or fight response triggers a shortening of breath. So anytime we’re feeling challenged or stressed (holiday time, perhaps?), we’re not breathing deeply. Sometimes we’re not breathing at all. I think that justifies the ongoing reminder. My yoga practice is responsible for helping me appreciate the power of my breath, so that I won’t take it for granted. It may be a natural thing to breathe, but it’s definitely a practice to cultivate strong, powerful breath. Like asana, we have to work at it. With intention. With reminders.
     
    Remind yourself to breathe deeply this holiday season, and take time to honor the power of the breath. Stop, sit down, close your eyes, and let everything else melt away, except: inhale, and exhale. Breathe in things you need on your inhale, get rid of things you don’t need on your exhale. Just a few quiet moments focused on the breath can downshift your stress level significantly.

Mudra Meditations

It’s a season of activity — there’s a lot going on that can bring on a bit of sensory overload. While sitting in stillness might be the perfect yin to that yang, it also may be more challenging this time of year. Try sitting quietly and channeling some of that holiday buzz with mudras. Mudras are gestures, typically involving the hands, that have an intended effect on the body’s energies. They are commonly used during meditation, and sometimes added to certain asanas too. Practice these two mudras to awaken the celebratory, positive aspects of the holiday season — because truly, isn’t that what this time is supposed to be all about?

Pushan Mudra

  1. Pushan Mudra for Receiving Joy. Joy! That’s the word that should capture the holiday spirit, and so often gets lost. Cultivate the energy to give and receive joy.
  • Right hand: Touch the tips of your index and middle fingers to the tip of your thumb. Lengthen the ring and pinky (this will require concentration).
  • Left hand: Touch the tips of your middle and ring fingers to the tip of your thumb. Lengthen the index and pinky.
  • Sit quietly with your hands in these positions for 5 minutes, up to 4 times a day. You can rest the backs of your hands on your thighs. Keep your intention focused on the position of your hands, but don’t worry if they slip – when you become aware of any shifts, reconnect your fingers and reestablish the energy of the mudra.

Shanti Mudra

  1. Shanti Mudra for Peace. We might see the word “peace” on multiple holiday cards, but how often do we take a moment to really connect to that wish? Practice this moving mudra and make it your wish for peace during the season of light.
  • Close your eyes and place your hands on your navel, taking 5 deep breaths.
  • Keep your eyes closed, and move your hands to your heart center for 5 breaths.
  • Bring the palms together at the third eye (spot between the brows), applying gentle pressure for 5 breaths.
  • Take the arms overhead, palms together, and open your eyes as you look up to your hands for 5 breaths.
  • Repeat this sequence 3-5 times. Increase the number of breaths, if you like.

One-Pose Wonders for Balance

They’re back… and there’s no better time than the holidays to practice one-pose wonders. One-pose wonders are just like they sound — one pose that works wonders. None require a warm-up, so each can be done on its own, anytime of day — whenever you need to tap into that uplifting, healing power of yoga but can’t do a longer practice. These four yoga asanas are focused on balance, to cultivate a sense of grounding in a season that swirls all around us (and can sometimes threaten to knock us over). Want more? You can find additional one-pose wonders here.

Vrksasana. Tree pose is the winner for most grounding one-pose wonder, no matter what the season. For holiday style, decorate your tree with some creative variations.

Vrksasana - Tree Pose

  • Stand in mountain pose and gaze softly at a fixed point in front of you on the floor, about 4 or 5 feet away.
  • Shift your weight to the left foot and bend your right knee. Reach down with your right hand and gently take hold of the outside of your right foot.
  • Draw the outside edge of your right foot up and snuggle it into your left hip crease for half lotus. Open the sole of your foot towards the ceiling. If you have knee trouble, place your foot on the inside of your thigh above the knee, as in regular tree pose (view instruction here). If you cannot get your foot into your hip crease, place it on your upper thigh; as your knee and hip open more, you will be able to place it higher.
  • Press your hands together at your heart center. Maintain your drishti (gazing point). If you fall out of the pose at any point, as trees do fall sometimes, slowly and deliberately go through the process again.
  • Option 1: Grow your tree. Reaching up overhead, take Jnana mudra by connecting your index fingers with thumb tips; Jnana mudra symbolizes uniting the individual self (index finger) with the universe (thumb).
  • Option 2: Leaning tree. Take your arms overhead, and drop your right hand, palm up, onto your right thigh. Reach through your left side, and slowly lean to the right.
  • Stay in the pose for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Return to mountain pose and repeat for the same length of time on the other side.

Natarajasana - Dancer PoseNatarajasana. Dance the night away at a holiday party? Reconnect to the earth and get your balance back with dancer pose.

  • Stand with your feet together and reach your left arm up.
  • Turn your right palm out and reach back for the arch of your right foot.
  • Push your foot into your hand and send your leg up and back behind you (don’t let it go out to the side).  Use the strength of your leg to push your foot into your hand and get more lift.
  • Keep your chest lifted and your left arm by your ear, reaching the left hand up. Bring your index finger and thumb tip together in Jnana mudra.
  • Hold for 3-5 breaths. Repeat on the other side.

Utthita hasta padangusthasana. Hips tight from holiday travel in planes/trains/automobiles? Standing hand-to-foot pose is a balancing hip-opener.

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana

  • Stand tall in mountain pose. Place your left hand firmly on your hip.
  • Reach with your right hand just below your knee, at the top of the shin. Draw the knee into the chest, while maintaining a straight spine.
  • Take a few breaths with the knee to the front, and then on an exhale slowly take the knee out to the side. Make sure to keep your right hip from lifting up as you open it to the side (hips stay level).
  • Option: Take yogic toe hold by wrapping the first two fingers of the right hand around the right big toe. Slowly extend the right leg as much as possible.  Take a few breaths with the leg to the front, then on an exhale slowly take the leg out to the side.
  • Hold your knee/leg to the side for 3-5 breaths, then slowly return to center and release the right side.
  • Repeat on the left side.

Standing SplitUrdhva prasarita eka padasana. Forward bending soothes the nervous system and frazzled holiday nerves. Combine it with a bit of balance work and core strengthening in a standing split.

  • Fold forward into uttanasana, with the feet together.
  • Come onto fingertips, with the hands in front of your feet.
  • Draw your navel in towards your spine and engage your core to lift your right leg up. Take your toes to the ceiling. Your right hip may lift slightly, but don’t exaggerate this lift.
  • Use your hands to deepen the pose; you may take one or both hands to your left ankle to further challenge the balance.
  • Hold for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the other side.

2012 Intentions

Don’t dread the resolutions… instead, set some positive yoga intentions to look forward to exploring in the New Year when you’ll have more time on your mat.

  1. Flow, don’t force. There are days when we are yoga rock stars, and other days when the practice is a struggle. The problem is when we want to be a rock star every day, and push ourselves when we should be honoring our limits. Rock star yoga is one of those magical times when everything feels effortless and smooth; your body feels strong and supple, your head calm and clear. Even if we only get a little taste of what that feeling is like, it’s what keeps us coming back for more. It’s when body and mind make new connections, in poses you’ve done hundreds of times. So next time you get that feeling of walking on air after rolling up your mat, hear that voice inside your head remind you: Flow, don’t force. (Sort of like Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voice saying to Luke Skywalker, Feel the Force, Luke. For you Star Wars aficionados.) What a mantra to live by, both on and off the mat, and definitely words to help you flow through the holiday season with more grace.
  2. Pick your poses. Think about your goals for your yoga practice – wait – not supposed to have goals in yoga. OK, consider how you would like your yoga practice to evolve and choose some of the poses where you appear to be stuck. Perhaps you’re at 85%, maybe 90% on a good day, but just never seem to break through.
     
    I remember how I practiced a certain pose awhile ago, with intent; well, I did have a goal, and it was to do this pose for a photo shoot. So I have to admit to being motivated by that, which I think is a good thing, actually. I’d also always wanted to do full natarajasana, king dancer. I spent a few months preparing: breaking it down, using a strap, figuring out other poses that would help open my stuck spots, and above all, accepting patience as part of the process. I’m not going to say that has always been the case. Being a fairly impatient person, there have been plenty of times in my yoga history when I have not practiced patience (or ahimsa) and have tried to force a pose. Luckily I have never injured myself this way, and believe myself to be past the point of trying this stunt. Now there’s evolution.
     
    Pick your poses for 2012, and plan out a journey towards them. I remember my journey to full dancer pose fondly, and am intending to apply the same approach to the following poses in my practice next year: hanumanasana, the splits, which I am convinced requires almost daily work; and titthibasana, firefly, where for some reason my hamstrings act tight. Maybe I’ll even get a good picture in one of them…
     
    What are the poses that you would like to evolve in your practice this year? Tell me with a comment and we can explore them together in an upcoming Chi article.

Wishing you a very happy and healthy holiday season. Namaste.

Photo Credit: Larry Stanley, Montana-People.com

Big Sky Yoga Winter Wonderland & Wellness RetreatWinter is a wonderful time to focus on your well-being! Join Margaret at the luxurious Double T River Ranch in Clyde Park, Montana for a Winter Wonderland & Wellness Retreat this January 26-29 (Thursday-Sunday), 2012. Book this retreat by December 15th, 2011 and mention Athleta Chi for a 10% discount. Visit BigSkyYogaRetreats.com for details »

MARGARET BURNS VAP is the founder of Big Sky Yoga Retreats, combining yoga and outdoor fitness in Montana Big Sky country. Her relationship with yoga began almost a decade ago as a way to balance her hectic New York City lifestyle and a corporate career with cosmetics giant L'Oreal... {more»}

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