Caffeine might be your favorite way to start the day, but too much can lead to sleepless nights, anxiety, anger, and a case of the jitters. One of my mantras is “no coffee no prana!” However, I have to limit my intake of caffeine because my dominant dosha is Vata. Through yoga and meditation, I’ve become more aware of my body’s reaction to caffeine. I can still enjoy my morning Americano, but I can’t have more than that. When I need an energy boost without the negative side effects, I turn to specific pranayama and asanas. The next time you’re tempted to pour that second or third cup of coffee, try these exercises, in order, instead.
Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath)
This is a diaphragmatic breathing technique to stimulate energy and is best practiced, at least initially, with a certified teacher. Avoid this breathing exercise if you are heavily menstruating, pregnant, have high blood pressure, or have heart or any abdominal issues.
Find a comfortable seat where your spine is long and erect. Root your sitting bones down into your chair or mat and elongate the sides of your waist, from hips to armpits. Lift the chest and soften your shoulders back and down. Grow taller through to the crown of your head as you relax your jaw. There is a tendency, especially during this breathing exercise, to start clenching your teeth. Be aware of your body.
Find a point to gaze at, towards the extension of your nose and keep your gaze softly there. One of the purposes of breathing exercises is to support the transition from activity to meditation, so keeping your gaze steady is helpful. Wherever your eyes are wandering to, that is where your attention is moving.
Relax your hands, palms down on your thighs, and take a few breaths just to settle into your seat and the present moment.
Begin with a cleansing breath. Take a deep inhalation through your nose (about 4 seconds) and exhale out your mouth for about 4 to 6 seconds.
Take another deep inhalation through your nose and begin short exhales (about 1 second) also through the nose. Just focus on the exhalations and your inhalations will happen naturally. For your first round, take 15 short exhalations through your nose. Your abdominal muscles will contract with each exhalation. Keep your shoulders level and soft. There is no need for tension anywhere else besides the abdominals.
Once you’ve completed your 15 short exhalations, take a deep breath in through your nose and exhale completely out your mouth. Take a few more “recovery” breaths, breathing in through your nose and breathing out through your mouth. If at any point you feel dizziness, let go of Kapalabhati breathing and breathe naturally.
If you’re feeling comfortable, try another round. Try to work your way up to 30 short exhalations. Take about three rounds with recovering breaths in between. Before moving back into activity, rest for a minute and notice the difference in your energy levels.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)
Adho Mukha Svanasana, or downward facing dog pose, is an energizing yet grounding inversion that leads to many physiological benefits, including lengthening the hamstrings, calves, shoulders, and strengthening and toning the arms and quadriceps. Avoid this posture if you have any wrist, elbow, or shoulder injuries, are in your last trimester of pregnancy, or have high blood pressure or headaches.
Begin in Balasana, or child’s pose, resting with your feet together and knees apart. Your forehead should be relaxing on the mat or on your forearms. Settle into this pose and begin Ujjayi breath, taking long, slow inhalations through your nose and long, slow exhalations out your nose, while contracting the muscles of your throat. Soften your jaw and breath. Know that you can always come back to child’s pose anytime or even replace downward facing dog with child’s pose.
When you’re ready, come up to your hands and knees in table top position and walk your hands forward so they’re about shoulder-distance apart or somewhat wider. Spread your fingers and align your wrists so they are somewhat parallel to the short length of your mat. Imagine holding a basketball in each of your hands as you engage your fingertips. This will alleviate excess pressure in your wrists. Start to rotate your triceps in and your biceps out without shifting the foundation of your hands.
Engage your core muscles, including your pelvic floor muscles. Tuck your back toes underneath and slowly, as you inhale, lift your knees off the floor. Lift your tailbone high toward the sky. Keep breathing as you lengthen your spine and shift your weight equally between your hands and your feet.
Your feet will be about hip-distance apart and parallel. Notice the creases in your wrists. If you have excess creasing in your wrists, you have too much weight in your hands. You will use too much of your energy.
Keep lifting your tailbone while drawing your rib cage closer to your thighs. Notice the sensation in your hamstrings. If they are talking to you, listen. Bend your knees and lift your buttocks up. If you’re pretty flexible, you can work on straightening your legs—keeping your core engaged, your bottom ribs drawn in, triceps rotating inward, and biceps outward, while plugging the head of your arm bones into your shoulder sockets.
Turn your gaze towards your navel and breathe deeply. This can be a challenging pose, especially if you are new to the practice. Notice your breath. If you’re able to maintain a 4-second inhale and exhale, take about 10 full cycles of breath. If not, slowly, lower your knees down to the earth and rest in child’s pose.
This posture increases strength in the entire body, especially the abdominals. Avoid this pose if you have any lower back or abdominal issues or are pregnant.
From downward facing dog, shift forward to upper push plank pose. Your shoulders will be stacked on top of your wrists or slightly forward of the wrists. Keep your core muscles engaged.
If you have trouble holding plank pose, lower the knees down to the earth, but keep your core muscles stable. Your gaze should be slightly forward of your hands. Make sure you’re not creating tension in your jaw and neck. Keep your breath deep and free.
Your shoulders, hips, and ankles should make a straight diagonal line. There is a tendency to excessively arch the lower back and disengage the abdominal muscles. Make sure to keep the abdominals drawn in and up and your tailbone lengthening down. If your knees are lifted, keep the quadriceps engaged and the kneecaps lifted. Press your heels into an imaginary wall behind you. Take about 5 to 10 deep breaths, lower the knees down, and rest in child’s pose. Feel free to repeat a couple more times.
From plank pose, lower your knees down to the earth as you yield your shoulders slightly forward of your wrists. Gaze slightly forward, and on your exhalation, keeping your elbows by your ribcage, lower down to the earth.
Press the tops of the feet down, engaging your legs. Your knees will be lifted off the floor, but not your feet. Keep your hands right underneath the shoulders. Pull the belly button into your spine as you inhale and gently peel your chest off the floor, using a combination of strength in your back and triceps.
Soften your shoulders down and hug the shoulder blades in towards each other. Release gently on your exhalation. Repeat a few more times, inhaling as you peel the chest off the floor and exhaling as you lower slowly down. Rest in child’s pose.
Cool Down with Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold)
Come to a seated position with your legs extended right in front of you. Notice if your lower back is rounded. If so, prop yourself up onto a block or bolster for more support. Tilt your pelvis slightly forward. Keeping the legs engaged, inhale to lengthen your spine. Exhale, hinge forward at your hip crease, and rest your hands wherever they comfortably land. This may be on your shins, ankles, or feet. With each inhalation, have the intention of growing longer from your pubic bone all the way up to your collarbones. With each exhalation, have the intention of deepening your breath. Don’t worry about deepening the posture, just focus on the breath.