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No-Sweat Workout

During the hot summer months, it can be hard to psych yourself up to get out and sweat. When you just can't stand the heat, take a lesson from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). According to this ancient medical system, intense cardio isn't the only way to boost heart health. Gentle poses can tone this life-giving muscle, too, by stretching and compressing the torso and rib cage, which house and protect the heart, and by activating the meridian (energy path) that carries the heart's energy.

"When you hold a pose and relax into it, you stimulate the connective tissues that the deeper meridians run through, improving their ability to function. Healthy meridians create healthy organs," says Sarah Powers, renowned yoga teacher and author of "Insight Yoga." This sequence of poses, developed by Powers, addresses the major body parts through which the heart meridian flows. "The idea is to relax, release stress, and let your body rest," says Powers, "so it can balance and heal itself."

The Routine
For optimal heart health, Powers suggests alternating between a day of quiet practice and a more active one like Vinyasa yoga or traditional cardio. Balancing physically demanding exercise with a gentler routine works your heart in new ways, says Powers, while nourishing your whole being -- and not through sweat alone.

In that spirit, find a cool spot to spread out your mat, and use whatever props (pillows, blankets) you need to make each pose comfortable. Breathe naturally when performing this routine -- don't strive or push -- and let your muscles soften. Start by spending one to three minutes in each pose, and then gradually work up to three to five minutes.

1. Butterfly
What it does: Compresses the front of the torso, nourishing the heart meridian. Also opens the hips and lower back, and decompresses the spine.

How to do it: Sit on the floor with knees bent and soles of the feet touching.

Move your feet away from your hips so that your legs form a diamond shape. Lift your spine tall and bring your hands to your ankles, palms together.

Fold forward at the hips; at the same time, extend your arms as far in front of you as you can, keeping your palms together.

Let your head fall forward or rest it on a firm pillow (or stack of pillows, depending on your flexibility) placed on your feet or lower legs (again, depending on flexibility). Hold for one to three minutes.

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2. Sphinx Pose
What it does: Lifts and broadens the chest, which stimulates the heart meridian. Temporarily puts pressure on the lower back, releasing tension and stimulating the kidneys, which promotes vitality.
How to do it: Lie on your belly on the floor with your legs, buttocks, and feet relaxed and arms folded (palms down) by your sides.

Prop yourself up on your forearms, with your elbows shoulder-width apart and one inch ahead of your shoulders. Bring your palms together. The buttocks, legs, and feet remain relaxed.

Gaze straight ahead, keeping your chest lifted and shoulders back. Hold for one to three minutes.

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3. Seal Pose
What it does: Opens the chest and heart meridian and relieves lower back tension. Also stimulates the kidneys.

How to do it: Lie on your stomach with your legs relaxed and arms extended in front of you.

Using your back muscles, lift your torso up into a backbend and rest your hands on the floor about four inches in front of your shoulders, keeping them slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Turn your hands out to a 45-degree angle; don't lock your elbows.

Look directly ahead. Hold for one to three minutes. (If you feel any pain, follow suggestions from Sphinx pose.) To come out, bend your arms and lower your torso to the floor. Spend a minute on your stomach, and then push your hips back and sit on your heels, with head down and arms stretched in front of you. Stay for a few minutes to rest the lower back.

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4. Quarter-Dog Pose
What it does: Applies gentle pressure to the shoulders and upper arms, stimulating the heart meridian as it travels to the fingertips. Also relieves tension in the neck and upper back.

How to do it: Start on all fours with your knees directly under your hips and palms below your shoulders.

Drop your left forearm to the floor; it should be horizontal in relation to your body, with the upper arm perpendicular to the forearm.

Reach your right arm straight out with fingers spread and extended.

Stretch your spine until it is as long as possible, keeping your hips directly above your knees (adjust your arms to accommodate the length of your spine), and rest your head on your left forearm.

Relax for one to three minutes. Come back to all fours, reverse the placement of your arms, and repeat the move.

Press into your fingertips to stimulate the corresponding meridian points.

If you experience sharp back pain, engage your buttocks and inner thighs and pull in your ab muscles. This takes pressure off the ligaments that run along your spine.

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5. Lateral Dragonfly
What it does: Energizes the chest and side of the body, nourishing the heart and lung meridians. Also stimulates the meridians of the lower body, improving the flow of qi (energy) throughout your body.

How to do it: Sit on a mat with your legs in a wide straddle and your weight shifted slightly forward.

Lift your spine tall, and then lean your torso to the left and bring your left elbow to the floor in front of your left knee.

Reach the right arm overhead and let it rest on your head. Relax for one to three minutes, then return to the starting position for five breaths. Repeat on the right.

If your elbow doesn't reach the floor, rest it on a block just inside your knee or on your leg.

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6. Lying Spinal Twist
What it does: Stretches the spine, abdomen, and chest, stimulating the heart meridian. Also improves digestion. "This pose is particularly helpful to anyone with diseases of the breast, heart, or lungs," says Powers, "because it gently opens the chest, encouraging the flow of qi and activating the body's natural healing response."

How to do it: Lie on your back with your knees bent, soles of the feet on the floor, and arms extended in a "T."

Drop both knees to the floor on your left, keeping your right leg stacked directly on top of your left leg and your knees at hip height. Keep your right shoulder weighted toward the floor.
Extend your right arm straight above your head. Turn your head to the left and stay for one to three minutes. 

Use your abs to bring your knees back to center. Rest here for five breaths, then switch sides and repeat. When done, hug your knees into your chest for five breaths to allow your spine to unwind.

If you find it too difficult to keep your shoulder down, place a folded blanket under your knees to make the stretch less intense.

Wrap Up
When you've completed all six moves in this sequence, unwind for one to three minutes in corpse pose: Lie on your back with your arms resting beside you, palms up. Allow your thoughts to quiet and your muscles to relax completely.

Text by Kate Hanley

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