It’s sunny and 14 degrees outside. The basement office in my 1917 bungalow is probably sub-60 degrees. I’ve been wearing layers indoors for more than a month. Every time I remember to pay attention, I find my shoulders ever-so-slightly hunched up and pulled forward, my body reflexively trying to guard against the cold.
But here’s the thing. Hunching up and pulling in doesn’t help. It doesn’t make me even a fraction of a degree warmer. All it does is create tension and stress and restrict my breathing.
I explored this on a long-ago 30-day meditation retreat. I discovered that being a little chilled, as I am now, is nothing more than a set of sensations that are not actually unpleasant in and of themselves. My aversive response is what’s unpleasant. So when I remember to think about it, I simply note that my body is guarding itself and let it go. It’s that simple.
However, I don’t always remember to notice it—old habits die hard. Icy sidewalks don’t help either. I find myself mincing along, taking careful baby steps, and tightening basically everywhere to keep from falling. After weeks and months of chronically, unintentionally contracting inward my normally fluid body starts to feel like, well, molasses in February.
Standing Poses to the Rescue
The best antidote I’ve found is yoga’s standing poses, most of which are all about expansion. Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose) is particularly helpful for unwinding winter’s chronic contraction, promoting steadiness by strengthening our connection to ground and strengthening our ankles, knees and thighs; and even warming us up internally. B.K.S. Iyengar claims it expands the lungs and tones the heart muscles.
Begin by gathering props—a nonskid mat and a yoga block. Stand on your mat with your feet approximately a leg length (one of your own legs) apart and your inner feet parallel. Rotate your entire right leg out 90 degrees and your entire left leg, including the pelvis, inward about 30 to 45 degrees. Adjust the inner rotation of the leg and pelvis until your left foot feels strongly rooted.
Now extend your arms out to the sides at shoulder level, turning your palms down. Make sure you’re not hunching your shoulders. Bend your right knee into a 90-degree angle, tracking it straight out so that it ends up directly over your ankle. If your knee is extended past your ankle, widen your stance to protect your knee.
Ground your left foot even more strongly as you extend your torso out over your right thigh. Place your right elbow on your right thigh. Now extend your left arm up alongside your head, palm down, adjusting the angle until you can feel your arm extending from your waist, not simply from your shoulder joint.
Feed the left side of your pelvis down into your left foot and grow your left waist out of the pelvis so that you feel a continuous line extension along the entire left side of your body. Breathe fully. Imagine expanding your breath from your belly out in all directions into all your limbs. Notice if you are leaning into your right elbow, collapsing it into your right thigh. Instead, press your forearm and elbow into your thigh to help you rotate your torso open.
Take five to ten deep breaths. Return to standing and rest with your feet parallel for a few breaths before repeating on the other side.
Practicing with Integrity
While you may see photos of people practicing Parsvakonasana with their heads turned toward their upper arm, I rarely do this. It is too easy to compress your neck by practicing this way. I prefer to look straight forward so that my neck and head follow the natural trajectory of my spine.
Another option is to place your right hand on a block or on the floor on the little toe side of your foot. Only do this if your breathing remains as free as it did when your elbow was on your thigh. The freedom of the breath is always more important than the form of your pose—always.
In Western yoga, we often think that using a block or leaving your elbow on your thigh is sissy yoga compared to placing your hand on the floor. Not true. While I held fast to this belief in my younger, more ego-driven days, I realize now that yoga asana practice is about creating a vessel that allows us to expand, not contract, the breath. Expanding the breath expands our energy; contracting the breath depletes our energy.
Our breath can only expand when we practice for alignment integrity rather than for the most extreme manifestation of a pose. Think continuity in Parsvakonasana, especially continuity along the upper side of the body, and think stability and grounding in the lower side. Balance deep, strong rooting with expansion. Let Parsvakonasana help you face the freeze with ease.