I love to practice what's known as the "Infant Series" in Yin Yoga (more resources here), as I find it a lovely light way to nourish my body when I'm feeling slightly more fragile - the morning after a late night at the weekend (you can even do this from bed!) or as a wind-down at the end of a long day. It's a wonderful series to improve and maintain posture as we age.
The series replicates the types of movements a baby goes through to during infancy to evolve to a walking child, building curves in the spine along the way. It's very healthy to replicate this kind of process regularly to reinforce a healthy spine and supportive musculature. It also offers some wonderful opportunities to stretch the hamstrings in ways you don't normally find in more traditional forward bends - hamstring flexibility being intimately connected to spinal health as it controls the tilt of the pelvis.
1. Cradle the leg
First, gently work into the hip sockets, circling the knee around and then squeezing the head into the knee. Then give both knees a big hug.
2. Gentle spinal twist
Take a twist with both legs over to the side, knees bent, arm and upper body twisted the other way. Hold for at least a minute, breathe deeply, allow gravity to gently help you find a little openness. Hold for a couple of minutes to allow the body to begin to open up.
3. The Stirrup
Take hold of the foot and gently pull the knee towards the head / foot towards the floor by your side. Keep the moment fluid - experiment with bending and straightening the knee, taking the foot wider and narrower,
4. Twisted roots
Moving into a slightly deeper twist, lie on your back and wrap your left leg around your right. Take the knees over to the right and twist the upper body over to the left. Experiment with taking the knees higher or lower, and the are placement. Taking the left arm up towards the head, for example, can find a wonderful way to open across the chest, neck and shoulder. Try holding this for 5 minutes and notice the effect of the pose on the body over that time. Repeat on the other side.
5. Baby feet
Lying on the back, pull both feet towards the head, bending the knees as much as needed and allowing the base of the spine to rise, finding a stretch for the lower back.
6. Snail (plough)
(NOT FOR BEGINNERS) Lying on your back with arms by your sides, push into the arms and use the momentum to lift your legs overhead. Support your back at first by bending your elbows and holding the upper back, keeping the elbows as close together behind your back as you can. If you feel any strain in the neck come out of the pose, and also do not turn the head in this pose under any circumstances. You might want to rest the arms behind the back on the mat or wrap them around the legs if the feet reach the ground and you feel secure. Hold for a minute if you can.
7. Cat tail
Two options for cat tail, which neutralises the spine after the previous forward bend - preparing us for back bends.
Option 1: draw the left knee over to the right and rest your head on your right elbow. Draw the right hip back along the mat and catch hold of your right foot, possible finding a quad stretch. Hold for a few minutes and notice the effect on the body.
Option 2: Kick the back foot away from the body, place the right arm flat along the mat and find a back bend. Again, holding this for a few minutes will serve as a lovely low-impact stretch for the back.
8. Infant Pose
This is a great back strengthener. Hold for 30 seconds if you can and concentrate on reaching out lengthwise as well as lifting the chest and legs upwards.
9. Seal (sphinx)
This pose serves as a wonderful preparation for deeper backbends and helps to prevent lumbar curve from degenerating - a common problem as we age. You may not get very far off the mat at first, and bend the elbow as much as you need to but try to find openness in the chest, pressing the sternum forward and feeling the bend throughout the length of the spine rather than just in the lower back.
An infant needs strong quads to be able to crawl, and we need to sustain strength in these muscles to maintain good posture. Camel pose finds a means of accessing these muscles while bending the back. Hold for 30 seconds.
Option 1: Keep the hands on the lower back and gently push the hips forward, lift the chest and arch back. You can tuck the chin towards the chest as an alternative if you feel strain on the neck as you reach your head back.
Option 2: Take the hands towards the feet. Toes can be tucked under or feet can be flat on the mat.
11. Bear rolls (Cat and Cow variation)
To counteract these backbends, take a minute from all fours to freely bend and contract the spine, circle the hips, work into the shoulders and generally loosen off. Taking the hands slightly wider than the mat will allow a greater range of movement.
12. Forearm plank (crocodile)
Other than the narrow spinal column, the only things things that hold the upper and lower body in alignment are the core muscles. It's essential we keep these strong to maintain good posture. Hold forearm plank, but rather than worrying about finding a perfectly straight line, instead, play will lifting the hips higher and lower, noticing how the core muscles respond and getting a sense of upper and lower body as two parts, united by this network of muscles. Try this for a minute.
13. Downward Dog
Push up into down dog and focus on the spine - avoid "collapsing", sinking the body too much towards the mat. Also avoid hunching the shoulders and rounding the back. Aim for straightness even if it's not quite happening yet.
14. Forward fold
Walk the hands back towards the feet and take a gentle forward bend. Allow the body simply to hand, releasing any tension in the shoulders, neck or face. Drawing in the belly will help you gently pull the body closer to the legs. Experiment with the bend in the knees - first bend them a lot, then straighten them a little. Find a place where you feel you're getting a good stretch without straining. More advanced practitioners can wrap their arms around the legs to intensify the stretch. Hold for 2 minutes.
Finally, slowly uncurl the spine and roll up to standing. Reach the hands overhead and take a big stretch up to the sky. Namaste.