Why and How to Warm Up for Yoga: The Complete Guide

It is important to stretch your muscles before participating in an exercise. But many people are not sure if yoga is an exercise that requires a warm-up because yoga already utilizes a lot of stretching poses. However, just like any exercise, it is important to warm up for yoga.

Warming up for yoga isn’t only important to the muscles; it is also important to the mind. This time should be used to evaluate any tension in the body and set intentions for the practice. Doing light stretches like twists, spine and neck movements, and side body stretches will help the body open up for more intense posing.

Warming up is an important aspect of yoga and is something you should learn how to do correctly. If you are unsure as to why you should warm up for yoga or not sure how to, this article provides a complete guide to get you started.

Why You Should Warm Up for Yoga

Many people believe that warming up for yoga seems to be a little counter-intuitive because yoga seems like a warm-up. Yoga can act as a warm-up before a more vigorous workout. But when you are going into long, deep poses, you don’t want to dive right into them while you have cold muscles.

Warming up your muscles creates heat from within that helps to maximize blood flow, flexibility, lubricates the joints, and defends against stiffness. When you are practicing yoga, you want to be flexible enough to flow through different asanas. Having your body prepared for movement helps to increase the benefits of yoga. (Source: Yoga Teacher Training)

Another important reason why you should warm up for yoga is so you can bring awareness to your body and assess any aches or pains you may have. How you’re feeling in your body sets the tone for how your practice will be. If you notice a pain in your knee, you can prepare yourself to make adjustments and modifications to accommodate the pain.

It is beneficial to use your warm-up as a time to set your intentions for your practice. What do you want to get out of your session? Do you have any goals? Do you want to challenge yourself, or do you want to take it slowly? Go over your intentions in your head during your warm-up, and you will have an easier time achieving your goals. (Source: Yoga Journal)

Added Benefits of Warming up for Yoga

Along with preparing yourself for deeper stretches, the time you take warming up for yoga has many benefits for your body, such as:

  • Stimulates blood flow to the heart – Warming up decreases the chance of cardio concerns. It also properly oxygenates your muscles.
  • Raises body temp – When your body is cold, and you jump into a workout, injuries to the connective tissue are more bound to happen.
  • Enhances nerve impulses – Your motor skills and nerve impulses have a positive response to light warm-ups.
  • Promotes sweating – During a warm-up, you will begin to sweat, which reduces heat stored in tissues.
  • Stimulates synovial fluids – Synovial fluid is the thick fluid that is found in the joint cavities that helps to lubricate and protect the joint. Warming up stimulates these fluids.

(Source: Aura Wellness Center)

How to Warm up for Yoga

There are several different ways you can warm up for yoga. While warming up, you should stick with dynamic stretching and save static stretching for the end of your practice. Dynamic stretching is stretching that involves small movements. These small movements allow your body to heat up slowly.

Some dynamic stretches include:

  • Cat-cow
  • Cat-cow crunch
  • Head rolls
  • Shoulder rolls
  • Side bends
  • Leg peddling in downward dog
  • Arm swings

During your warm-up, you want to focus on warming up the major joints in your body. These are the neck, shoulders, wrists, hips, knees, ankles, and toes. You should also incorporate wrist and ankle rotations and hip circles into your warm-up

Here is a helpful yoga warm-up using dynamic stretches:

  1. Starting with the neck – Have your head in a neutral position and inhale. Exhale while you turn your head to the right. Inhale as you center your neck and exhale as you turn your head to the left. Repeat one more time.

Using that same inhale-exhale pattern, lift your head to gaze at the ceiling, lower it back to neutral, and then bring your chin into your chest. Repeat.

Now from a neutral position, exhale while you bring your right ear to your right shoulder (not lifting the shoulder). Bring your head to a neutral position then repeat on the left side. Do this once more.

Lastly, starting at a neutral position, inhale and exhale as you bring your chin to your chest and then inhale as you roll your head to the right. Once your gaze is toward the ceiling, exhale as you roll your head back down. Repeat on this side once more and then go in the opposite direction.

  • Move to the shoulders – Inhale as you lift your shoulders to your ears, and exhale as you bring them back down. Repeat two more times.

To allow your shoulder and chest to open up, perform some shoulder rolls. Inhale as you lift your shoulders, then exhale as you bring them back and down. Repeat two more times and then go in the opposite direction bringing your shoulders forward and down.

  • Side body stretch – Warm up your side body muscles by inhaling and side bending to the right as you exhale, inhale back to neutral and exhale to the left. Repeat once more. You can do this with your arms by your side, hands on your hips, holding your wrist

above your head, or by extending the arm of the side you are stretching overhead.

  • Spine movements – The cat-cow stretch is a great way to warm up your spine. Starting on your hands and knees, begin by inhaling as you push your chest down – keep your head forward, shoulders back, spine arched, and tailbone toward the ceiling. Exhale as you push your hands into the Earth, tucking your pelvis and rounding your back with your head toward your chest. Repeat the motions while you inhale and exhale. Here is a detailed video on proper cat-cow alignment.

Going back to a neutral spine, inhale and then exhale while you side crunch to the right side. You can do this by moving your hips to the right while you also move your shoulders to the right, similar to a standing side bend.

  • Downward-facing dog – This pose is a whole-body move that will help activate the heat from within. It stretches your arms, back, and legs and helps to build strength. Inhale starting at the tabletop position, exhale and tuck your toes under, lift your hips to the ceiling and move your gaze between your toes. Begin to pedal your feet to keep the movement active. Here is a detailed video on how to downward dog.

(Source: Siddhi Yoga)

Sun Salutations

Sun salutations are a fantastic way to warm-up your body because they offer a full range of motion to all the major joints of the body. They include front-body offerings followed by surrendering forward-folds that will leave your body feeling balanced.

Another benefit of sun salutations is that they allow you to get creative. You’re able to add in whatever stretched you feel are necessary and make it your own.

Here is a basic sun salutation to get you started:

  1. Mountain pose (Tadasana) – Standing at the top of your mat
  2. Upward hand pose (Urdhva Hastasana) – With your palms out, inhale as you move your arms to the side and up overhead until your palms face each other.
  3. Standing forward fold (Uttanasana) – Exhale as you hinge at your hips and forward fold until your chest meets your thighs, bend your knees if needed.
  4. Half forward fold (Ardha Uttanasana) – With your hands on your thighs, inhale as your lift your head and chest into a flat back. Exhale back to forward fold. You can return to mountain pose to repeat that sequence a couple of times if you’d like, or you can add on to it.
  5. Lunge (Anjaneyasana) – From your forward fold, place your hands on the mat, inhale, and step your right foot back into a lunge pose. Make sure your front knee is aligned over your ankle at a 90-degree angle and that your back ankle, knee, and hip are aligned. Open your chest and move your gaze forward.
  6. Downward-facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) – As you exhale, step your left foot back and lift your hips to bring you into a downward-facing dog position.
  7. Plank to chaturanga – Inhale and move yourself to a plank pose. From there, drop your knees if needed, exhale, and slowly lower yourself to your mat.
  8. Cobra (Bujangasana) – Place the tops of your feet on the mat, inhale, and lift your chest off the ground. Keep your shoulders down and back and your gaze forward.
  9. Exhale and push back into downward-facing dog  
  10. Inhale then exhale as you step or jump back to the top of your mat
  11. Return to mountain pose
  12. Repeat salutation to lunge with your left leg back

(Source: Breaking Muscle)

Centering

Centering is an important aspect of your yoga warm-up; it is like a warm-up for the mind. This time is meant for you to clear your mind and set your intentions for your practice. This will allow you to remain focused throughout the session and set a clear path to your goals. The centering part of your warm-up will take your yoga from just an exercise to something more spiritual.

If you choose to do a centering warm-up, it should be done before you begin your regular warm-up. This is how to center yourself:

  1. Get into a comfortable seated position. You can sit on a yoga block, pillow, or blanket if your knees sit higher than your hips.
  2. Either place your hands on your lap or hold them in a prayer position (Anjali mudra).
  3. Relax your shoulders down and back.
  4. Close your eyes.
  5. Bring your focus to how to are breathing.
  6. Begin to breathe with meaning by setting an intention with every deep inhale and exhale. You should be breathing through your nose.
  7. Take a moment and focus on your breathing, and find a good rhythm
  8. Set your intention for your practice. What brought you to your mat?
  9. Stay a few minutes in this position.

(Source: Yoga by Candace)

If you have trouble staying focused, practicing Ujjayi breathing helps keep you centered. Ujjayi breathing is done by slightly contracting the back of your throat while you inhale and exhale through your mouth. If you want an example of how this feels, place your hand over your mouth and exhale as if you were warming up your hands. Now, do that with your mouth closed.

Breathwork

The way you breathe can also help to warm your body. Luckily, ancient breathwork, or pranayama, can help create a fire from within that’ll warm you up faster. To do these breathing techniques, you should be in a comfortable position because lightheadedness can occur. Place your palms in your lap and close your eyes if you’d like.

To do breathwork, try the centering techniques:

  • Kapalabhati breathing –Take a deep inhale through the nose and a deep exhale through your mouth. From there, inhale three-quarters of the way through your nose, then sharply through your mouth. Repeat 10-20 times.
  • Box breathing – Inhale for four counts, hold the breath for four counts, and exhale for four counts, hold the bottom of the breath for four counts. Try to see if you can go longer than four counts, but the point is to have the same amount of counts for each breath.
  • Twisting with breath – Stand with your feet a hip’s width apart. Extend your arms out and begin twisting your torso, allowing your arms to sway naturally. Begin twisting faster and faster while alternating between inhales and exhales with each twist. Let your arms swing and hit your shoulders, lower back, and chest. Keep twisting for a couple of minutes. This breathing exercise is also great for warming up the spine and raising your heart rate.

(Source: Chopra)

Other Types of Yoga Warm-ups

If you don’t want to do a regular yoga warm-up before your practice, there are other warm-ups you can do, such as:

  • Running
  • Walking
  • Stair climbing
  • Jump roping
  • Jumping jacks

These exercises are good for warming up your body. However, because they are mostly using your leg muscles, you still want to do a couple of head and shoulder rolls and spinal movements. These high-energy warm-ups are a bonus since they burn calories if that is your goal.

How Long you Should Spend Warming up for yoga

A good warm-up for yoga can be anywhere from 5-15 minutes. A good rule of thumb would be to pay attention to your heartbeat and the warmth of your skin. Once you begin to feel warm to the touch, and your heart rate is beginning to rise, you are warmed up.

There are three factors that come into play when deciding how long your warm-up should be:

  1. How intense is your practice going to be? If you are planning on having an intense yoga session with long and challenging holds, you should do a longer warm-up to allow yourself to ease into those tougher poses.
  2. Have you been active or sedentary? If you have been sedentary for most of the day, your muscles are most likely cold and will need extra time warming up. But if you’ve spent the day on your feet, your muscles are most likely already warmed up, and a shorter warm-up will be just fine.
  3. Is there a warm-up incorporated into your class? Whether online or in a studio, your instructor will most likely incorporate a workout into the practice. However, it is still beneficial to do some warming up before class begins, just in case your body needs it.

Things to Keep in Mind when Practicing at Home

When you are practicing yoga on your own time, several factors will decide how long you should warm-up. Just like in an instructed yoga practice, how active you’ve been throughout the day plays a large role in your warm-up.

Here are some other factors:

  • How warm your space is – The temperature of your room will impact the temperature of your body. If you keep your space chilly, your muscles will need extra time to become warm. If you have been in a warm, cozy environment, your muscles will warm up faster.
  • How your body is feeling – If you are naturally a cold person, it may take you longer to warm up, so add a few extra minutes for your warm-up. Also, pay attention to how your muscles and joints feel. If you are feeling tight or sore, spend extra time in your warm-up before diving into deeper stretches.
  • Yoga style you are planning on practicing – The different types of yoga styles also dictate how long your warm-up needs to be. If you are going into a more restorative yoga practice, then you won’t need much of a warm-up since you are not exerting your muscles. On the other hand, more fluid yoga styles like Vinyasa require more muscle movements and need a more solid warm-up.

Can You Do Yoga Without Warming up?

If you are planning on having a calm yoga session that doesn’t involve deep or challenging yoga poses, you could probably get away with not doing a warm-up beforehand. But that is only if the yoga session is similar to what a regular warm-up would look like.

Depending on the style of yoga, you could get away with preparing your body with smaller versions of the larger poses you will be doing. This would work with Hatha yoga as this type of yoga focuses on breath control, which naturally warms up the body. (Source: Yoga with Melissa)

If you are planning on having an hour-long yoga session that includes lots of movement, deep stretches, bending, and balancing, you should not skip your warm-up. Skipping your warm-up in this scenario can result in injury.

A big part of yoga is being aware of your body and being able to listen to its limits. If you think you can begin yoga without a warm-up and not get hurt, you can do yoga without a warm-up. But it is important not to push your body over its limits.

What Can Happen if you Don’t Warm Up?

Warm-ups are designed to get the blood flowing and the muscles moving before you go into more strenuous work. However, skipping your warm-up can have some bad effects on your practice, such as:

  • Bad performance – If your blood isn’t properly circulating and your muscles are tight, you won’t be able to perform at your best.
  • Injuries – If you go into a workout without warming up your muscles, they can become stressed, which leads to injury.
  • Cramping – Muscle cramps can happen as a result of not being properly warmed up. This creates a painful contraction in your muscles while holding poses.

(Source: Your Fitness Mentor)

Static Stretching Vs. Dynamic Stretching

When you are warming up for yoga, you want to focus on dynamic stretches. These are the stretches that include small movements during the stretch – like peddling your feet while you are in downward-facing dog. The goal of dynamic stretches is to prepare your body for bigger actions.

The benefits of dynamic stretches are:

  • They strengthen your muscles.
  • They increase joint stability.
  • They improve coordination.
  • They prevent injury.
  • They activate your muscles.

Many beginners make the mistake of going into deep stretches for their warm-up, which can lead to injury. These are the stretches that you simply hold for an extended amount of time. The reason why you don’t want to incorporate static stretches into your warm-up is that they are designed to relax your muscles.

During static stretching, your muscles are not being contracted or engaged, so they are not properly warmed up. Instead, static stretches lengthen your muscles and connective tissues, which is why these types of stretches should be saved for the end of your yoga session. (Source: Cleveland Clinic)

Can Yoga be a Warm-up for Other Workouts?

There is a misconception that yoga is commonly used as a warm-up before other types of exercises. People often confuse basic stretching with yoga. Although you can use a yoga warm-up before exercise, stretching before your workout is not considered yoga.

During your warm-up, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you moving with the rhythm of your breath? Your breath should help guide you through different poses.
  • Are you breathing with intention? Your breathing should be calm and smooth.
  • Where is your attention? You should keep your attention on your breath and in the present.
  • Is there a sense of ease? Instead of pushing yourself into deep poses, you should perform them with a sense of ease and stability.

(Source: Fitness Republic)

These are the things that separate yoga from stretching. If you are not following those guidelines, you are not practicing yoga, and you are just stretching. You certainly can use yoga that includes dynamic stretching as a warm-up, but you should not take a full yoga class before doing other exercises.

Practicing a full yoga sequence can stretch and relax the muscles that are needed to withstand more strenuous exercises, like running. The muscles that are being worked need to be a little tighter than what they would be after yoga. Additionally, if your muscles are too relaxed, and you move into harder exercises, you can end up injuring yourself. (Source: MindBodyGreen)

The Cool Down

The static stretches that should be avoided in the warm-up should be incorporated into your cool down after your yoga practice. These are the stretches that can be held for however long you need. Because your muscles are warmed up and stretched out from your practice, static stretches will not hurt your muscles and will help them to relax instead.

Here are the best static stretches to incorporate after your yoga session:

  • Pigeon pose – Extend your left leg back and have your front leg’s ankle and knee on the ground at a 90-degree angle in front of you. If your right glute doesn’t reach the floor, place a rolled blanket underneath to keep you stable. For a deeper stretch, bend forward over your front leg. Repeat on the other side.
  • Supine spinal twist – Laying on your back, bring your right knee into your chest and move it across your body and toward the floor. Keep your shoulder blades on the floor and your arms in a T position.
  • Happy baby – Bring your knees to your chest and then separate them toward your armpits, bringing the soles of your feet towards the ceiling. Keep your shins perpendicular to the floor and hold on to the inside or outside of your feet.
  • Legs up the wall – Push your glutes up against the wall and extend your legs against the wall. Move your legs into a V position if you need a deeper stretch. This can be done for a couple of minutes and up to 20 minutes. This is a good pose to help with blood circulation.
  • Savasana – Also known as corpse pose, lie on your back with your feet slightly apart and your arms at your sides with palms facing up. Take however long you need to focus on your breath and cool down.

(Source: VeryWellFit)

In Conclusion

Warming up before your yoga practice is an important part of keeping your body safe and your mind centered. A light warm-up helps to get your blood circulating, your heart rate up, and prepares your muscles for harder work. Your warm-up should focus on the major joints and muscles of the body.  

Sita

Mother of three and Yogi of 20+ years and 200 Hour Certified Yoga Teacher. I am also a Certified Thai massage therapist and I have taught Gymnastics for more than 10 years. In the last couple of years, I've been a big promotor of intermittent fasting.

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