Opening the upper body so you breathe with ease

Think about it. When you wake up in the morning and you take a deep breath, stretching your arms overhead as your mind and body try to ease into the day, what is the first bit of tension you feel? Usually we feel the shoulders, the back, the ribs stretch, stretch, stretch, trying to get that deep breath in. And while our bodies will warm up as we go through our day, if you’re like me, and you try to sneak in a morning run or a morning meditation first thing, it may take a good 10 to 15 minutes to feel like we’ve hit our groove, where our bodies are taking in enough oxygen. For me, that is the entirety of my morning meditation, and it’s a large chunk of my run. Lately I’ve been taking 15 extra minutes to open my upper body, actively stretching the intercostal muscles that expand and contract the chest/ribcage, as well as the neck muscles which can tense with increased respiration or shallow breathing.

This is also a great sequence to warm up the body for a longer yoga practice, or just as a short practice to start off your day. When you’re finished, you’ll feel relaxed, calmed by the deeper breaths your body is able to achieve. Follow along with the video, or read through the various postures and exercises below.

As always, be conscious of your body and how it is feeling today, in this moment. If you have sensitivity in your knees, the child’s poses may not be for you. If you feel any pain, discomfort, or dizziness at any time, you should stop practice immediately, and seek medical advice as appropriate. With that disclaimer, let’s move along to the sequence!

Extended Child's Pose Extended Child’s Pose
Start out on your knees in a kneeling pose. Take the knees out, as wide as your mat, bringing the big toes together. Exhale, walk your hands out toward the top of your mat, feeling the stretch across your shoulders and back. Rest your head on the floor, maintaining the stretch. With each inhale, breathe into your back, and with each exhale, relax every muscle in your body, releasing toward the floor. When you finally feel your body relax (and you will) take another 3 to 5 breaths, enjoying the release of muscle tension.
Side Child Pose Side Stretch Child’s Pose
From child’s pose, walk your hands back a couple of inches, looking up. Walk the hands toward the right side of your mat. Take the right hand to the outside of the mat, and place the left hand on top of the right hand. Stretch back through your left side, pulling the left hip back and down toward the feet. Drop the forehead to the floor. Breathe into the left side body, feeling the rib cage expand with each inhale. As before, once you feel the body’s muscles release, take another 3 to 5 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Neck Stretch Side Neck Side Stretch
From child’s pose, walk the hands back toward you, coming up to a seated, kneeling position. Take your right ear toward the right shoulder, exhaling. Inhale, bringing the head back to center. Exhale taking the left ear to the left shoulder. Repeat once more. The third time you take your right ear to the right shoulder, bring the right arm up, wrapping your hand around the side of the head, to provide a light weight against your skull, providing additional stretch across the neck and shoulders. Breathe deeply and do not tug or pull on the head. Stay here for at least 5 breaths. Repeat on the left side.
Chin to shoulder Chin to shoulder
After the neck side stretch, bring your head back to center. From here, exhale, looking over the right shoulder. Inhale back to center. Exhale, looking over the left shoulder. Inhale, back to center. Repeat once more. The third time you look over your right shoulder, drop the chin down, toward the shoulder. Take the right hand overhead, and wrap it lightly around the back of your skull. Similar to above, you want a light weight, not pulling or tugging, to give you a gentle stretch across the neck and shoulders. Breathe deeply for at least 5 breaths, then release the arm. Look back up over the right shoulder and return to center. Repeat on the left side.
Cat Cow Cat & Cow
Bring the hands to the knees, looking straight forward. From here, inhale, bringing the breast bone forward, as if there is a string pulling it. Exhale, sinking the breast bone back, curving the upper back, dropping the chin toward the breast bone, and pulling the abdominals in. Repeat this movement 3 more times.
Chest Opener Chest Opener
Similar to above, bring the breast bone forward again, and then start to lift it toward your chin. Roll the shoulders back and clasp the hands behind your back, stretching them down toward the ground. Look up toward the ceiling, taking care not to drop your head too far back. From here, inhale, feeling the breath move through the chest and into the belly. Exhale, feeling the breath release first from the belly then from the chest. Take 3 more deep breaths here, then tuck the chin in toward the chest, and rise back up to neutral.
Side Stretch Side Stretch
Interlace the fingers in front of you, taking the palms toward the sky. Inhale, feel the side body grow long. Exhale, let the shoulders relax, keeping the arms overhead. Inhale again, stretching, and on your exhale, take your arms toward the right side, feeling the stretch across the left side body. Inhale back to center, and repeat on the left side.

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