One look at handstands, the splits, or fancy arm balances could fool you into thinking that yoga is only about unlocking your inner-Cirque du Soleil performer—and that would be a shame because the practice has something for everyone. The Eight Limbs of the practice encompass so much of the human experience: joy and strength, wisdom and surrender, feeling upside-down and right-side-up. Specifically, on days when you need movement that supports your body, a gentle yoga practice might be just the ticket.
Modo Yoga teacher Alyssa Arroyo, YTT, who has over 1,000 hours of yoga training under her belt, says that one of yoga’s most valuable attributes is its flexibility. It can be vigorous and cardiovascular on one day and completely meditative the next. And choosing what you need from the practice on a given day is really what makes it “gentle.”
“I think there’s a huge misconception that yoga is only a physical practice,” says Arroyo. “If you look at the Eight Limbs of yoga, asanas—or postures—are just one, and the other limbs include things like the yamas and the niyamas: the way you treat others, the way that you treat yourself.”
“I think there’s a huge misconception that yoga is only a physical practice.” —Alyssa Arroyo, YTT
Gentle yoga isn’t a specific type of yoga, such as Ashtanga, Power Yoga, or Bikram. Instead, it’s a way of feeling when you’re practicing—and the moves, breathwork, meditation, and study are going to be different for every yogi. One day, for example, you may be in need of a full yin practice or a restorative flow might be what you need; on another, a seated meditation will fit the bill. Below, Arroyo offers poses, pranayama (breathwork), and meditation to help deliver you to that gentle yoga space you’re seeking.
5 poses to turn to for a gentle yoga practice
1. Supported bridge pose or Setu Bandha Sarvangasana
Grab a block or a couple of hardcover books and come to lie on your back. Bend your knees and bring your feet hip’s width distance apart so that you can brush the back of your heels with your fingertips. Without arching your back, engage your glutes and legs to lift your body off the floor and slip the block or books under your sacrum (just above your butt, but not so far up that you’re crunching in your low back). If you want, extend your legs straight forward and your arms up overhead. Stay here and breathe.
The purpose: “This is allowing for the front of the hips to open up, where a lot of us have tightness from sitting at our desks. This kind of a stretch that’s long and passive for just your average person who works and wants to feel the hips opening up,” says Arroyo.
2. Child’s pose or Balasana
Push your hips back to come into child’s pose with your knees together or apart. Stretch your arms forward and breathe for a few moments. When you feel ready, walk your hands over to the right to feel a stretch along your left side. Breathe here for a minute or two, then switch sides.
The purpose: To feel the stretch all the way up and down your sides, while also opening up those hips.
3. Tabletop pose or Bharmanasana
Come to your hands and knees, making sure your shoulders are right over your wrists and your hips are directly above your knees. On an inhale, push into your hands and press your belly button toward the floor, coming into a backbend. On an exhale, push into your hands once more and press your belly button up toward the ceiling, arching your spine like a cat. Keep repping between your cats and your cows to your heart’s content.
The purpose: “Cat-cow is just flexion of the spine it’s pretty accessible for most folks. Even those with wrist injuries can put their knuckles or their elbows on the floor and modify,” says Arroyo.
4. Legs up the wall or Viparita Karani
Come to lie right alongside the nearest wall. Keeping your hips as close to the wall as possible, swing your legs up the wall and come to lie down on your back. Close your eyes and chill out here. If you want, you can widen your legs to make this pose more about your hips and groin.
The purpose: “This is another really great restorative one, especially for those folks who work on their feet standing a lot during the day. It completely chills out the nervous system by bringing you into the rest and digest, or the parasympathetic nervous system—as opposed to the sympathetic, which is the fight or flight,” says Arroyo.
5. Supine twist or Supta Matsyendrasana
Come to lie on your back. Bring your knees together, extend your arms into a T, and drop them over to the right. Look over your left shoulder. Breathe here for a few minutes and switch sides. To make this more restful, place the block or pillow between your knees, or roll up a blanket and place it below your legs.
The purpose: “A gentle twist is really good to help with digestion, which folks who are more sedentary often have because they’re not moving around the muscles in their gut as much,” says Arroyo.
You can follow this video for gentle poses, too:
Nadi Suddhi, or alternate nostril breathing, calms the mind and body
Of course: There are days when even moving your body feels like a lot—and that’s where a practice called Nadi Suddhi comes in clutch. “It really creates an equilibrium in your body,” says Arroyo. “And because you’re breathing through the right side and the left side of your nostrils, it’s hitting both the feminine the masculine in the more subtle body. Crossing over from the left to the right is super calming and grounding.”
Nadi Suddhi in eight steps
1. With the palm of your right hand facing you, fold down the pointer and middle finger. Keep the other fingers extended.
2. Close your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale slowly through the left nostril.
3. Close the left nostril gently with your ring finger and little finger so both nostrils are held closed for a moment.
4. Open your right nostril and exhale slowly through the right. Then, inhale slowly on the same side.
5. Close the right nostril with your right thumb, and pause for just a moment as you hold both nostrils closed again.
6. Open your left nostril and exhale slowly. Then, inhale slowly on the same side.
7. Repeat the cycle for as long as you like. Even two minutes will make a major difference.
3 meditations for unwinding your brain
Yogis believe that yoga’s physical postures and breathing techniques were originally created to help make sitting still for meditation more bearable—and if you’ve made it this far, well, you’re ready. To make your meditation practice as gentle as possible, stick with the absolute basics. The following three meditations are all great options.
1. Deepak Chopra’s 6 minutes of gratitude
Arroyo’s a big fan of this brief, but relaxing meditation. Just plug in your earphones and let Chopra lead you for six minutes.
2. Practice mindfulness meditation
This one is simple: Come to a comfortable seat with your hips above your knees and follow your breath with your eyes either open or closed. When you get lost in your thoughts, let them go and come back to your breath.
3. Complete a body scan
The body scan is all about noticing your body. Start at your toes. How do they feel against the ground? How are your ankles, your calves, your knees and thighs? Keep making your way up the body.