Believe it or not, there are days when rolling out a mat and getting into a vigorous practice is the last thing diligent practitioners and even yoga teachers feel like doing. I used to get frustrated with myself on days when I neglected to move my body, but over time I have realized that not practicing can be just as much of a yoga practice as plowing through sun salutations.
Which is OK, because yoga is a multifaceted practice not limited to asana or physical postures. As such, flowing and moving through poses does not have to last a certain amount of time or look a certain way in order to be considered a yoga practice. It does not even have to be executed on a mat, and it does not have to last for more than a minute. It may or may not include strengthening muscles, but it will most definitely include paying attention to the breath and body for however long you have.
For example, sometimes after a flight or a long day of running around, I will stand wherever I have space in my apartment, with or without a mat, and stretch my arms overhead. I'll go back and forth for a few side-body bends, then take a gentle forward fold with my hands interlaced behind my back and bent knees. I hold these for a few breaths each, for as long as feels necessary, and then take a moment with my hands pressed together at the center of my chest to say a heartfelt "thank you."
Sometimes, I feel like going upside down when my brain is tired of doing so much processing, so I'll kick up into a handstand against the wall to test my balance and focus on something else for a few breaths. Other times, I'll sit in child's pose with a blanket rolled deep in my belly for up to five minutes in order to make space for my lower back, because that is what feels best for my body in that moment.
The key is not to push ourselves into practicing, posing, overdoing, or underdoing. The practice of yoga encourages us to pay attention to what is going on around us and within us. Some days we may need a little nudge to get moving, in which case it might feel good to keep moving once we start. On other days it may behoove us, at the very least, to lie on our backs in savasana and feel our inhales and exhales naturally float through our nostrils.
On days when you just can't make it to class and don't feel like moving through sun salutations or vigorous postures in your home practice, check in with yourself to see if it still might feel good to move your body in some way.
If you secretly think it would feel nice to make some space in your joints even on days when you don't feel like doing yoga, here are six postures and tips to keep in your back pocket:
1. Try a simple twist on your back.
Lie on your back, bend your knees, and flatten your feet. Widen your arms side to side in a T-shape, and place your pelvis a good couple of inches over to the right. Let your knees fall to the left at the same height as your hips, stacking one leg on top of the other once they land. Your torso will be about 90 degrees to your thighs, and your thighs can be at 90 degrees to your shins.
Let your knees fall to the left in opposition to your right shoulder. If your right shoulder blade does not easily come to the floor, bend your right elbow to place your hand on your right rib cage in order to avoid straining the area around the right shoulder joint. Breathe easily in and out of your nose, keeping the neck soft and the eyes deep. Switch sides when you are ready.
2. Move through an easy sun or moon salutation.
Find a space with enough room to do plank pose and go through as many sun salutations as you feel like. If you don't feel like hopping back into chaturanga, keep it simple and step or walk back to downward-facing dog. You can also modify upward-facing dog with low cobra, hold plank pose, or nix the whole thing.
3. Take a few rounds of cat-cow.
Move through a few rounds of cat-cow (arching and rounding the back in a tabletop position on hands and knees), keeping the arms and legs even, or flow from downward dog to plank pose a few times. Let the inhale glide you forward to plank or cow pose, and allow the exhale to lift your belly and hips back to downward dog or cat pose. It's a nice way to connect with the breath and gently begin to get the blood flowing.
4. Pick a pose, any pose.
Pause to connect with your breath or "tune inward" if you will, and move in a way that feels good to you, whether it's a flow or posture. I love to experiment by rolling around on the floor or stretching in various ways, letting my limbs take the lead. This is especially fun before, during, or after traveling to support your center and maintain a connection to the self when your brain and body are vulnerable to disorientation.
Sit, stand, or lie down for however long you have time for. My personal seated practice is usually 10 minutes, but five is fine too. Sometimes I just put my hands on my chest and close my eyes for a few deep breaths to reconnect. Close the eyes or pick a gazing point, and let the breath easily flow to soften unnecessary tension. Let sounds and sensations be as they are without inhibiting your experience. If thoughts arise, allow them to drift past. Come out of it gently and appreciate yourself in the moment, just as you are.
Lie down on your back and breathe, allowing the floor to hold you. Spread your limbs and give them space, turning your palms up to surrender to the moment, supporting your knees with a pillow if you need to make more space in the lower back. Stay for as long as you need because sometimes all we need is to rest.