Here comes the sun salutation

Vicky Hallett
Fit editor, Express April 1

No one is more ready for sun than Mimi Rieger. On April 5, the yoga instructor is slated to lead Cherry Blossom Yoga, an outdoor free class at the foot of the Washington Monument.

“And I don’t want to have to wear a ski jacket,” says the Louisiana native, whose voice hasn’t lost its Southern lilt even after 16 years in Washington.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express. View Archive

But if chillier temperatures prevail, Rieger has a surefire way to warm up the crowd: sun salutations.

Known in Sanskrit as surya namaskar, the two series of postures are found in several popular styles of yoga, including Ashtanga, vinyasa and power.

The sequences can look like slower, more controlled versions of the burpees commonly found in boot-camp-type workouts, and they have some of the same physical benefits. Both require people to lower themselves to the ground and get back up again, which raises heart rates and engages muscles all over the body. But sun salutations are a particularly intelligent and safe way to move, Rieger says.

“Basically, it’s the foundation of the yoga I teach,” she says. And that’s a lot of yoga. Rieger leads 26 classes a week at several studios and gyms across town, in addition to her outreach work through Sweetgreen in Schools and Anacostia’s Community Wellness Collective.

Every practice starts with the first sun salutation series, or Sun Salutation A (as opposed to Sun Salutation B). Begin by standing tall and lifting your arms to the sky, “creating length in the spine and limbs,” Rieger says, while taking a deep inhalation.

With sun salutations, she explains, “each breath has a movement, each movement has a breath.” So each subsequent step can be counted in inhalations and exhalations. You let that first breath out as you dive down and fold your body over.

Then you inhale again as you stretch your spine and bring your gaze forward. On the exhale, place your hands down, step your feet back into plank pose (which looks like the top of a push-up) and lower yourself until your body is just barely off the ground.

This pose, chaturanga, is the most challenging part of the series, says Rieger, who notes that the trick is “finding the architecture of alignment.” She offers a string of cues for students: “Support the body with the core. The chest leads, the shoulders are in line with the elbows, rather than dipping forward. Squeeze elbows to ribs; don’t bow them out to the sides.”

Many students have a tendency to rush through these steps, but it’s important to take the time to do it right, Rieger says. The upper-body strength you begin to tap into here is what you’ll need to call on when you move into more advanced postures down the road, such as handstands or other arm balances.

The next pose in a sun salutation also has an important foundational purpose. With that inhale, you push your chest up and press the tops of your toes into the ground, so you’re in upward-facing dog, the first backbend and heart opener of the practice.

“We spend so much of our days hunched over,” says Rieger, who revels in the chance to counteract that.

On the next exhale, press the soles of your feet on the ground and press your body up into the inverted V-shape of downward-facing dog. It’s a chance to lengthen the spine and stretch the sides of the body while balancing equally on hands and feet.

For those with tighter hamstrings and hips, Rieger encourages students to bend their knees or take another modification. There are ways to make every part of the sun salutation series accessible to everybody, Rieger adds. (That includes putting knees on the mat during chaturanga.) And there’s no need to worry if you can’t do the whole thing perfectly.

Rieger certainly couldn’t the first time she faced a sun salutation during her first yoga class in 1998.

“I remember thinking it was so hard. I wanted to get stronger so I could rock it out,” she says.

You can contemplate that as you hold downward-facing dog for five full breaths, which is traditional in the Ashtanga practice. By the time you’re ready to move on to the next steps, which are a return to the straight-back forward fold (with your spine extended and gaze forward) and then full forward fold, you should find your hamstrings more accommodating than they were even a few seconds ago.

All that’s left is one more inhale, as you sweep your arms up and stand tall, and then a final exhale as you bring your arms back to your sides. And then you do the whole thing over again.

Get lost? Just remember that when you inhale, you lengthen, and when you exhale, you go deeper. “You’re dancing with your breath. It’s progressing you forward,” Rieger says. “You’ll feel it in your body.”

Some 3,000 people of all ages, shapes and abilities are expected to feel it at Cherry Blossom Yoga.

On hand to help will be 20 graduates of Rieger’s teacher-training program and another 40 area yoga instructors, all in blue shirts so they’re easy to spot. Rieger will be onstage in the middle of a circle, and everyone else will radiate out from there — just like the sun.

@vickyhallett

Cherry Blossom Yoga, sponsored by Lululemon Athletica, will be held Saturday 10 a.m.-noon. Bring your own mat to the Washington Monument, at Constitution Avenue and 15th Street NW. Participation is free, but you must fill out a waiver (either on-site starting at 9 a.m., or in advance online at www.eventbrite.com).

Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.

MisFits archive Read past columns at washingtonpost.com/wellness . There, you can subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter to get health news e-mailed to you every Wednesday.

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