Watching a classroom full of yogis contort their bodies in strange and seemingly impossible ways can be pretty intimidating to a first-time student. But one great thing about yoga is that there are so many variations and modifications that it can be a rewarding and beneficial practice for people of all fitness levels.
If you are brand-new to yoga, it will be helpful if you can find a beginner or introductory level class at a gym or studio near you. "Let your instructor know that you've never done yoga before and anything that you're unsure or particularly worried about," says Laura Burkhart, a yoga instructor based in San Francisco.
Every beginner's class will be different, but chances are that most of them will include at least several of the following postures, or asanas. These asanas are some of the easiest to pick up, but they're also some of the most used throughout all levels of yoga. Learn them first, and the rest of your practice will fall into place around them.
Child's Pose (Balasana)
"The first pose you should learn is Child's Pose, because this is a pose you can always come back to and rest in at any time during your practice," says Burkhart. It is a resting pose, but it still provides a gentle stretching of the hips, thighs, and ankles.
Start on your hands and knees on the mat. Bring your feet to the center of the mat, so your big toes touch, and sit back on your heels. Your knees should be about as wide as your hips. If you have trouble sitting back on your heels, put a rolled up blanket or yoga block between your feet and sit on that, instead. Lay the front of your body down on the mat, between your thighs, touching either your forehead or one cheek to the mat. You can choose to bring your hands back alongside you, with your hands down by your hips, palms up; or, for an extra stretch in the back, keep your hands outstretched in front of you, palms down.
Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Another pose you can always rest in during class is your Downward Dog; this pose is central to many traditional vinyasa sequences (series of poses linked together with inhales and exhales), like the Sun Salutation, and also provides a nice stretch on its own.
Start on your hands and knees on the mat, with your toes tucked under. Spread your palms wide, about shoulder width apart and slightly in front of your shoulders. With a exhale, lift your knees off the floor and think about moving your hips up and back while you straighten your arms and legs and push your heels into the ground. Push out of the ground evenly with both hands and feet, firming up your arms and legs without locking your knees. Keep your head between your shoulder blades, without letting it hang and straining the neck.
The Sphinx Pose is a very gentle backbend, and something you can use to work your way into more intense poses like Cobra and Upward Facing Dog. Backbends are very important in yoga -- and for everyday life -- because we spend so much of our day being hunched over, shoulders rolled forward. Try this pose whenever you want to counterbalance those effects.
Lie on the mat facedown, toes pointed back with the tops of your feet on the mat. Try to get as long and lean as possible by firming up your legs, lengthening your tailbone, and reaching toes toward the back of the room. Raise the upper half of your body slightly off the mat, setting your elbows down below your shoulders with your forearms flat against the mat, palms down. Your back should be slightly arched back, with your head level and your gaze forward. Draw your lower belly away from the floor so that it's not collapsing into the mat.
Warrior I (Virabhadrasana)
This is one of the most iconic poses in yoga, and part of the Sun Salutation sequence that's practiced in many classes.
Start by standing on the mat with one foot 3 to 4 feet in front of the other, feet parallel, hips forward. Turn your front foot slightly in toward the center of your body, and your back foot out, so that your toes are pointed at a 45 to 90 degree angle. Bend your front knee and sink down into a lunge, trying to bend as low as possible without letting your knee cross over your ankle. Push your hips forward. While you're doing all of this, raise your arms over your head and reach your fingertips toward the ceiling. Feel yourself stretching tall as you keep your heels grounded and pressing into the mat. You'll want to practice this pose with both legs forward for even stretching on both sides.
Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)
Once you're in Warrior I and spend a few breaths there, you can transition into Warrior II, the next step in a Sun Salutation sequence. In Warrior I, your hips and torso are facing forward; here, you will shift the stance of your feet and open your hips, turning to face the side of the room.
From Warrior I, with your front knee bent and your heels grounded, spin your back toes out so that they're at 90 degrees, pointing at the side wall. Lower your arms so that they're parallel with the floor, straight out on either side of you, as you slide your hips open to the side. Your body should now be in one long line with fingers pointing to the front and back of the room. Keep your front knee bent over the front leg, and keep your back leg straight. Repeat this pose on both sides.
Triangle (Utthita Trikonasana)
Another posture related to the Warrior sequence is Triangle pose. It provides a great lower-body stretch and also serves as the primary standing pose for many forms of yoga.
From Warrior II, come up out of your lunge so that both legs are as straight as possible without locking knees. While you're still facing the side of the room, slowly begin to slide your shoulders and your torso (without moving your bottom half) toward the front of the room, as if a string was pulling on your front fingers. When you've reached as far forward as you can, bend from the hip joint and tip your torso directly over the plane of your front leg, reaching your front hand down toward your ankle and your back hand straight up toward the sky. Rest your bottom hand on your shin or ankle, or reach down and touch the floor with your fingertips. Turn your eyes up, gazing toward your top hand.
The next two poses, Cat and Cow, are often done together in sequence. Together, they stretch the back and shoulders, and are a great exercise to do every day, whether you're practicing a full yoga routine or not.
Start on your hands and knees on the mat, knees below hips and palms down, below shoulders. As you exhale, begin to lower your head and round your back, lifting your abdominal muscles up and in. Your head should release toward the floor, but don't strain it by tucking all the way into your chest. On your next inhale, come back to a neutral "tabletop" position with a flat back, or continue the flow into Cow pose.
This pose is often done in conjunction with Cat pose and provides a slight backbend that can counteract hours of sitting at a desk or slouching forward with poor posture.
From Cat pose or from a neutral "tabletop" position on the mat, begin your next inhale by dropping your belly and lifting your head, chest, and sitting bones. This will create a natural arch in your back as you look straight forward. On your exhale, return to your neutral position or flow back into Cat pose, alternating between the two as you breathe deeply in and out.
Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
One of the most common standing poses in yoga may not even feel like much of a pose -- but when you do it correctly, you will realize that even this simple position is a very active one that promotes good posture and balance and a strong lower body.
Stand on the mat with feet together, shoulders back and hands at your side. Lift the tops of your feet up and spread your toes, rocking slightly back and forth a few times until you feel that you are balanced evenly between the heels and the balls of your feet. Firm up your thigh and quadriceps, trying to feel your kneecaps lift up, and try to lengthen your back as much as possible. Look straight ahead, and press your shoulder blades down and back. You may keep your hands at your side, or press your palms together in the center of your body.
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Most yoga classes end with a meditation period that lasts for several minutes; here, your body should be totally neutral and relaxed so that your mind does not have to focus on any one body part.
Lie on your back on the mat, arms at your sides with palms up. Try to soften every muscle in your body, so that your feet fall naturally to the sides. If your head is uncomfortable in this position, you can support the back of your neck with a folded blanket. Make sure your shoulder blades are resting equally on the floor. Pay attention to where you might be holding tension -- in your jaw, forehead, chest -- and release it. Stay here for about five minutes, focusing on your gentle breathing. To come out of Savasana, roll onto one side and slowly push yourself up to sitting, bringing your head up last.
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- Burkhart, Laura. Yoga instructor. Personal interview. March 21, 2013.
- Hagen, Annelise. Yoga instructor. Personal interview. March 21, 2013.
- Taylor, Michael. "Yoga Poses for Beginners: How-to, Tips, Benefits, Images, Videos." MindBodyGreen. May 3, 2010. (March 31, 2013) http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-682/Yoga-Poses-for-Beginners-Howto-Tips-Benefits-Images-Videos.html
- Yoga Journal. "Yoga Poses - All Categories." (March 31, 2013) http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/finder/browse_categories