Flexibility | Sun Salutation

Hello ladies! I’m Claire Deacon, the human behind recycled plastic Olas leggings. I’d like to let you know a bit more about my yoga background and share some knowledge. I trained in Hatha Yoga in India and like to spread the good vibe message of yoga – I mostly do this stretching out tired surfers, burnt out workaholics and often clients with ongoing pains looking for an answer - in yoga together we always find it!

I’d like to bring you some yoga basics - bitesize yoga food goodness! Some no-nonsense yoga tips. I'd like to help you lengthen and stretch your muscles in a safe and effective way. We might touch upon some yoga philosophy along the way but things will be kept super simple. I’m not going to spam you with audio clips of me chanting or invite you to rituals don’t worry! Actually that sounds quite fun…

Anyyywaaay, think of me as your yoga express (although there is no fast route to yoga! It's a lot of discipline, consistency and there's a lot of baby steps along the way. So just bear with it - it's a worthwhile journey).

Yoga one of the oldest holistic healthcare systems, not just because of the general healing approach but because of the many benefits for physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

This is why it has become very, very popular. It was always going to be popular I think because it's so beneficial for you. But if you find yoga a bit daunting, or pretentious, complex or even coming with too many religious connotations…or any other reason that puts you off yoga – let’s break it down and simplify it.

There's a reason this 5000 year old Indian science of exercise and healing has become so crazy popular in this modern world. Yoga provides increased strength balance, stamina and relaxation.

If you’re a weekend warrior and partake in strenuous sport activities, then you really ought to be incorporating a mobility program in there somewhere.

A good place to start is with some pranayama. You can invite your body to relax with pranayama (prana meaning life force and ayama meaning control). In short, this is control of breathing. You can train the nervous system into a ‘safe mode’ with controlled breathing, you can relax and loosen your muscles and reign in your focus a little more. If you've got one of those swirling minds (like me!) and you're thinking about what you want for dinner or who you need to phone back, then try simply adopting a four second inhale through the nose and an eight second exhale through the nose - you'll find yourself slipping into a state of relaxation eeeven further. Let's touch a little bit more on flexibility...

There really is no fast track to becoming more flexible. It takes groundwork and time, but once you get there you-are-in! It's long lasting. But to make progress on flexibility you need discipline.

If your muscles are tight today you cannot really magic them loose tomorrow! So for example if you can’t do the splits today you're not going to miraculously do the splits tomorrow. It will take consistency, discipline and an ounce of determination as well.

Flexibility does matter. It matters for performance, general posture a range of movement…and generally just a higher quality of life. More space equals more room.

I’m just referring to the basic backbends, twists or reaching your palms to the floor in a forward fold - I'm not talking about bending over backwards and doing backflips - I'm talking about accessible flexibility that is easily reachable for everyone. Flexibility is accessible for everyone. Yes, genetically some people might be a bit more flexible than others. Each person does have an individual flexibility level and we generally start to lose mobility through repetitive tasks and stress. If every day we're sitting at the desk, getting up from the desk, sitting back down at the desk…then we're sitting on the train, on the bus, or the car…the dinner table - we are not really lengthening our muscles. We spend a lot of time nowadays contracting and especially hunching over the shoulders on our phones, on our laptops, etc. In my yoga sessions I drill it into clients to roll the shoulders back and down, open the chest and you're left with stronger, more confident posture. This will make you feel good. A lot of people on a daily basis don’t even raise their hands above their heads.  From child to adult we become accustomed to a default range of movements.

The good news is we can reprogram and lengthen our muscles and definitely, definitely become more flexible.

It takes baby steps of course, but just remember consistency and discipline! You will have had the classic stretching prevents injury - in short it does, because it increases mobility and range of movement and in theory if you can move better, you can perform better.

Just a bear in mind that intense stretching is best done after intense sports because there is some element of truth in deep stretching temporarily weakening muscles. This will only last a couple hours but just bear in mind if you know if you are about to go on a very long run maybe don't do a very intense muscle stretching yoga class beforehand – it’s best do it the other way round. Yang before Yin! (So Yang in this example is the run and Yin is the yoga.)

So we want to focus on carefully lengthening the muscles in our mobility programme. We're also stressing the tendons and ligaments in this process, which is great because stressing these boys is also strengthening. We don't want to deep stretch joints so listen to signals from your body and stay in your comfort zone!

If your if your body is sending you signals if it doesn't like something, you feel something is tingling, or you're experiencing some pain - then don't do it.

That goes for any yoga session, if at any point you're feeling uncomfortable or you just don't fancy taking part in that section or that pose - then you are fully entitled to take a Child's Pose. (So that's simply going down onto your hands and knees, lowering your hips toward your feet and sliding your hands forward taking your chest lower toward the floor.) This will signal to the teacher that you're OK but you just don't fancy this part and no one will be judging you!

You are allowed to take a rest. It's yoga. It's not the Olympics! It’s about relaxing and nurturing yourself.

I’d like to talk about Sun Salutation (Sanskrit name: Surya Namaskara). The Sun Sal sequence is a yoga essential for general flexibility. It's a full body stretch using well over 100 muscles and massaging inner organs. It can in itself be a cardiovascular exercise aligning and benefiting the whole body (it will become a cardiovascular exercise if with each transition you move with your breath, so then it's quite a quick pace. However it will become more of a moving meditation if you pause in your poses - if you take time to really explore the pose. Basically if you’re moving quickly you'll get a bit more of a workout from it but if you are slowly lengthening the muscles you can treat it as amazing meditation).

Sun Salutation provides all the primary health benefits of yoga in one awesome express package.

So it's a good overview of yoga. If you include the sequence in your practice regularly you will see improvements in your flexibility. You will see improvements in your mobility range without a doubt. But again it will take a bit of discipline and consistency. Throughout your Sun Salutation try transitioning into the next pose each time you inhale or exhale. Unite your body with your breath. The best part of Sun Salutation, or yoga in general, is it's portable! (Now having visions of busting a Savasana in the middle of Picadilly Circus haha) You can do it in the park, at the beach, in your garden…in your kitchen?! And if there's no sun around to salute :( try to visualise the sun shining - and this is where you begin to scratch the surface of yoga being a mental exercise as much as a physical. A meditation. While you're focusing on that sun shining big and bright, you are clearing the mind of the unnecessary. Focusing the mind. It’s important in Sun Salutation to focus in on the breath and work to a rhythm.

Ideally you want to do at least 12 rounds of Sun Salutation. A round consists of two rounds - six leading with the right leg and six with the left leg. And if you don't fancy that many try at least four rounds for a good ol’ stretch. So it depends. You can customise it for you! Yoga is an individual journey.

In a class, try not to compare what anyone else is doing on their mat beside you. Yes they might be able to bend over backwards or wrap their limbs in knots…but they might not be able to do something else as good, for example they might not be able to hold a plank for that long! Yeah. Leave all competition off the mat. Let the ego go! Yoga is not a place for comparison. It's a place for personal development.

 So let’s look a little closer at the steps in this version of Sun Salutation C!

  1. The first pose in this version of Sun Salutation is Mountain Pose: with your feet together at the top of your mat you want to distribute your weight evenly on all four corners of the feet with your pelvis slightly forward. We’ll take a deep inhale with the hands by the side and then on your exhale take the palms together in front of the heart - take a moment of focus here and leave everything off the mat which is no longer serving you. Think of this as your preparation - this is your welcome pose. Set an intention here if you want to.
  2. When you’re ready, inhale the arms up and back and press the hips forward if you want more of a back bend. Extend through the chest, crown and fingertips. (This is your rise and shine moment! Hello to the sun and hello to the world! You got this.)
  3. On your next exhale fold forward all the way, taking a bow down. Draw the head and the heart towards the knees. Take the hands to the floor. Try to get your fingertips in line with the toes if you're feeling flexible, but if you're feeling about as flexible as a pole here then it's OK to micro bend the knees! We really want to avoid rounding that spine too much in this pose.  (Again it's just yoga it's not the Olympics! So remember this is about you it's about relaxing)
  4. Next we'll inhale the right leg back and bring down the knee, taking a low lunge really opening the hip flexors. (You want your left knee over the left ankle and try to align the fingers with the toes.) You're looking forward and you're raring to go. Check in and relax the shoulders away from the ears.
  5. From here retain the breath and step back to a high plank, stacking your shoulders over your hands and pushing your heels backwards away from the body. Bring your attention to your abdominals here, engaging your core strength. Imagine drawing your hips toward your rib cage and you'll notice this engages your abdominals, locks and tightens everything. (we don't want the hips to sink!) You want to point your gaze about one foot in front of the hands. Reminder: you're not rounding the shoulders, you are relaxing the shoulders. Don't use any muscles unnecessarily! Don't waste any energy on tensing things that you don't need to tense, conserve the energy.
  6. You will be very much looking to your exhale because you have just been holding your breath! So keeping your elbows and biceps close to the body, take an exhale - lowering the knees, chest and chin down to the floor (you're sticking your bum to the sky here). You're really stretching it out!
  7. From here you'll take an inhale sliding forward and up, opening your chest (again, your shoulders are away from your ears). You can bend your elbows in this pose and make sure not to straighten or hyper extend the arms. Point your gaze forward or up (you'll find if you point your gaze up your hips will naturally lower more and that will be bending thus stretching the lower back even more).
  8. Tuck your toes and exhale to a downward facing dog. Raise your hips up, push your tailbone to the sky and push the back of the legs back back back. Again you're relaxing your shoulders away from the ears and you're lowering your chest (and armpits mmm sweaty) toward the mat. Spread your fingers, ground yourself. Take this time to really feel where you are right now, observing the points of contact you have with the mat. Bring yourself into the present moment, focus on the breath. If you're not feeling that flexible, no worries you can micro bend the knees and lift the heels. It's about you feeling good. It's about relaxing. Just bear in mind that downward facing dog is a relaxation pose, I like to call a sanctuary pose. You may want to pause here to peddle the feet and stretch out the calves and hammies even more!
  9. From here inhale the right foot forward, then exhale the left knee down (so we're back to our lovely low lunge and again). Take time to lower the shoulders away from the ears and enjoy opening the hip flexors.
  10. Inhale the left foot forward, then take an exhale into a forward fold.
  11. And from here we're going to inhale the arms out and up to standing. Reach your hands up and opening your heart toward the sky (taking the pelvis forward).
  12. Exhale back to a more neutral standing position. We're back to our Mountain Pose.

So that was half a round with the right foot leading. Now you can prepare for the second half of the round with the left foot leading! Try carrying on with at least three more rounds and then you'll really feel the benefits of Sun Salutation.

You will feel content and all stretched out! You've been through your whole body and really opened everything up. You’ve really engaged with your breathing, united your body with your breath and that's a really nice harmonious place to be - to feel your mind and body. And after you've finished your ideal amount of Sun Salutation, treat yourself to Savasana - the best part of yoga! After any mobility program treat yourself to lying on the floor, spreading your legs out, opening your arms and palms to the sky. Relax everything into the mat and have a bit of a shuffle around to make yourself comfortable. Make sure you're tucking your shoulder blades underneath you and your collarbone is smiling across from shoulder to shoulder. Try to draw your chin down toward your chest to keep the back of the neck lengthened. It's quite common to clench the jaw or push the tongue to the roof of the mouth, so just try to relax the mouth (open the mouth slightly, wiggle the jaw around and then just kind of reset the mouth because you want to be relaxed in the face). Do in a bit of a body scan checking in to see if there's any other areas of tension and if there are a remaining few niggles then just try to inhale relaxation into the area and then exhale the tension. Continue to focus on your breath.

You let go of any remaining tension in the body or in the mind - you're left with the best version of yourself.

I hope you enjoyed my explanation of Sun Salutation and outlook on flexibility. I have been wearing recycled plastic Sacred Galaxy leggings. The gorgeous painting in the feature image is by Joanna Tokarczyk. A great source for all things yoga is Yoga Journal - they have great videos on YouTube too.

Namaste xx

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