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Articles by Stuart Stark

If I only have 5 minutes...

If I only have five minutes for my yoga practice, what should I do?
December 2020

Within our yoga practice we know the benefits of an active practice that can improve our strength, flexibility and balance abilities, and though Western society tends to place less value on learning how to relax, it should not be underestimated.

Many years ago during a workshop taught by a senior Iyengar instructor we were asked “According to Mr. Iyengar, what is the most challenging of all of the Asanas?”. I first thought of something like an ankle behind your head type of pose, but everyone else in the room responded in one voice and said “Savasana”.

Like with any yoga practice, we need to be working at a level that is within reach of the practitioner. In other words, a challenging pose such as supported Supta Baddhakonasana could be a wonderful pose for the experienced yoga student, but can actually RAISE muscle tension, pain level and stress for someone else. The great news about our restorative practice is that even the simplest forms of a relaxation pose can benefit everyone!

A question that I will occasionally get is “If I only have five minutes for my yoga practice, what should I do?”

My answer is often “a restorative pose that you feel the most benefit from.”, whether it is legs up the wall, rest over roll, Viparita Karani or Mountain Brook. In my 30 plus years of working as a physical therapist incorporating yoga into therapeutic exercise, by far the most common exercise that I send patients home with is a form of supine rest over roll chest opener (pictured here).
To experience the pose:

Start with the roll in a lengthwise position so that the head and tailbone are supported and the hips and knees are bent, beginning with arms slightly away from the upper body with palms facing up.

Then bringing the arms out to a 90° angle at the shoulders, and eventually bending the elbows as able.

Every single time I do this pose I have the same reaction. At first I think “My chest and shoulders are relaxed,” but within 30 seconds I notice a letting go of the tension across the collarbones and chest that allows the outer upper corners of the shoulder blades to release towards the floor. “Oh, NOW they are relaxed” is my next thought.

Using the built-in moment of relaxation in your exhalation is extremely helpful. During a relaxed breath the inhalation is caused by a contraction of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs). The exhale takes place because you relax those two muscle groups that created the inhale. This means that you can take on whatever relaxation position that you want, i.e. hip opener, supported lower back or upper back opener, etc. and during the inhale, bring your attention to the area that you want to relax. Then while you exhale (relaxing the breathing muscles) you can see how much you can let go in the body part that you are focusing on. Each exhalation allows you to release a little more than the one before it.

It is especially helpful, I have found, during a restorative pose to spend some time relaxing the facial muscles as well. The mouth, jaws, eyes and forehead can hold muscle tension without there being much awareness of it. The moment you say to yourself “Relax the muscles under the skin of the forehead” not only do those facial muscles relax but you may find that other body parts sink into the ground or your props a little more.

And truly, according to Dr. Christiane Northrup, the best exercise is the one that you will actually do. If you only have 5-minutes, why not make it something that restores your body and your breath?