You've probably heard of sun salutations before. They are traditionally a specific set of poses at the beginning of a Hatha or vinyasa yoga flow to show gratitude to the sun. While learning the sun salutations is a great starting point for a brand new yogi, forcing yourself into a structured sequence may not be best for everyone and is not necessary to begin a journey into yoga, especially if you're just trying to wake up. Trying to remember a specific sequence could cause frustration and anxiety, which is counter-productive to starting off a good day.
The most important thing to do is to simply move the body in whatever way feels good. The following list of poses are just examples of gentle, beneficial poses to practice in the morning for waking up the body. It focuses on areas like the spine, hips and other joints that can become stiff during the night. Bringing movement into these parts of the body not only gives you energy to take on the rest of your day, but it also helps prevent injury, especially for those with active lifestyles, whether for work or for hobby. Every body is different, so you may find poses that do not work for you. Simply listen to your body, take in what it needs and leave the rest.
* Disclaimer: While I am a certified yoga instructor, always consult a physician or qualified health professional for medical advice if you have any injuries (previous or current) or any other physical concerns before starting or changing any exercise regimen.
The hips are often the stiffest parts of the body. To get them ready to work with your legs during the day, one of the most gentle stretches for the hips is butterfly. While comfortably seated, place the soles of your feet together, and use your elbows to lightly press down onto your knees. If your hips are extra stiff, place your feet further away from you. To deepen the stretch, move your feet closer towards you and lean your torso forward while keeping your spine as straight as possible.
Seated Spinal Twist
As one of the most important structures for moving your body, warming up the spine in the morning is extremely helpful, especially to prevent back injuries. The seated twist is a gentle way to stretch your spine with transverse rotation. Begin by sitting tall with a straight back. Lift one of your feet across your other leg and place it down flat on your floor/mat, pointing your knee upwards. You can keep your other leg straight or bend it while keeping your knee down on your floor/mat, whatever feels most comfortable. With a long spine, begin twisting in the direction that feels most natural. Use your arm to push against your knee for leverage, but keep the twist gentle, not forced. Remember that your neck is also an extension of your spine, so turn your gaze behind you to complete the twist. Do this on both sides.
Because your spine can not only rotate but also bend forward and backward (also called sagittal flexion and extension), another great way to warm up the spine is going through a series of cat and cow poses. Start on your hands and knees, with your shoulders stacked over your wrists and your hips stacked over your knees. For cow pose, on an inhale drop your belly down towards your floor/mat. Rotate your pelvis back so that your tailbone is pointing up, and send your gaze upwards toward the sky. For cat pose, on the exhale pull your belly in and curl your back upwards. Rotate your pelvis down, and gaze toward your belly. Flow with your breath between these two poses a few times to get the most benefit from their complementary movements.
Now that you've risen onto your hands and knees, you can give your hips a nice deeper stretch with a modified lizard pose. Keep one leg long behind you, and plant your other foot forward on the outside of your arm, making sure that your foot is further forward than your knee to protect your joint. You can stay on your hands, or you can come down onto your forearms for a deeper stretch. Play around with pressing your knee in towards you and pushing it out away from you for different sensations.
Standing Forward Fold
This pose is again focusing on the spine (I did say that it's important!) by using gravity to gently release pressure from the lower back. Start with your feet wider than your hips. Bend your knees a lot and drape your chest over your thighs. Send your weight forward towards your toes. You can hang out here by grabbing opposite elbows and gently swaying side to side. You can also add a deep shoulder and upper back stretch by interlacing your fingers behind your back, gluing the heels of your palms together and pressing your hands forward over your head.
It's time now to rise up and stand as tall as a mountain. Ground down into your floor/mat with your feet together (or slightly wider if that feels more comfortable), and lift your arms up towards the sky. Squeeze your biceps towards your ears, but relax your neck and shoulders. This pose helps elongate and stretch your spine through axial extension by creating space in between each bone. If desired, you can also add a tiny gentle backbend here for an extra back stretch.
To finish warming up, willow pose helps stretch the spine in its final direction by bending laterally. Interlace your fingers over your head and press them to one side to encourage your torso to follow the side bend. Allow your hips to move in the opposite direction of your hands. Keep your chest open by pulling your opposite shoulder back and sending your gaze towards it (ie. if you're bending to the right, pull your left shoulder back and gaze towards it).
While it is important to strive for proper form in order to prevent injury and gain the most benefit out of each pose, ultimately it does not matter what your shape looks like as long as you are being safe with your practice. Yoga is not about how the poses look, but rather how they make you feel. I do recommend moving into sun salutations or practicing through a whole yoga class (whatever that looks like for you) if you have the time and ability. However, know that even just moving a little bit is still yoga and is still more beneficial than not moving at all. I hope these poses help you welcome your morning and make a great start to your day!