A yoga practice is endlessly adaptable. There are poses for beginners that will lower stress, increase flexibility, make you stronger and improve your fitness level. Experienced yogis can challenge themselves with advanced poses to open the heart and mind as well as exercise a toned and fit body. Start wherever you are to enjoy yoga's benefits. And remember, you never master a pose, only deepen it. Even when you can slip effortlessly into Flying Crow, there is more to learn from your daily Downward-Facing Dog.
The most important focus for yoga newbies is mastering each pose correctly while breathing evenly. This isn't as simple as it sounds; it takes unbroken concentration to stay aware of the position of your arms, legs, core, back, head, feet and hands as you breathe deeply into a pose. "Yoga Journal" suggests a sequence of poses for beginners that includes Easy pose and Downward-Facing Dog to warm-up, followed by Sun Salutations, Tree pose, Extended Triangle and Side Angle, forward and backward bends like Seated Forward Bend and Boat pose, and ending with Legs-Up-the Wall pose and Corpse. (See Reference 2) Sivananda yoga starts beginners with a version of Corpse pose to calm the mind and a few slow Sun Salutations to warm up, stretch and tone. (See Reference 4) Leg lifts, Shoulder Stands, and forward, back and side bends alternate with Corpse pose for a low-key class.
Advanced yoga poses deepen and expand your practice, but they can sideline you with injuries if you are not ready for them. The poses meant for experienced students put stress on your neck, cervical spine and joints. (See Reference 5) A pose like King Pigeon Variation I will stretch your hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors and seldom-worked side thighs. Improperly performed, the pose could be risky for your bent knee. Only attempt advanced poses with a certified instructor when you have developed good control, range of motion and strength in beginner and intermediate poses. (See Reference 3) You could spend a lifetime working carefully in basic poses and still reap the benefits of a regular practice. But if you do try Tripod or Palms-Up Headstands, Extended Fish pose, Full Lotus or Toe Stand, for example, incorporate each new pose gradually into your routine. Lower your injury risk by practicing under supervision, and modify any pose you cannot perform correctly.
Tricks for Tougher Poses
Advanced poses are within reach when you break them into small steps and link them to similar basic poses. (See Reference 7) You don't have to fold yourself into an impossible pretzel on your first try, or your tenth. Go from Tree to Chair pose by concentrating on the placement of your legs, knees and thighs as you bend your knees. (See Reference 1) Add the alignment of your engaged core and lower back. Focus on your diaphragm and breathing. Finish with the position of your shoulders, arms, hands and head. Then settle into the pose and check yourself head-to-toe. Use props for a pose you can't quite master -- if your fingertips end at your ankles instead of the floor, use a block until your hamstrings and hip flexors are looser. Work up from Forward Bend to Head-to-Knee Forward Bend to Revolved Head-to-Knee pose, concentrating on the repeated moves common to each stretch.
Yoga poses are exercise and doing any exercise improperly can lead to injury. It can be confusing to plunge into yoga's twists and turns without a clear sense of your limits and an appropriate pace for mastering poses. The American Council on Exercise recommends leaving your ego at the door to yoga class with your shoes. (See Reference 6) Yoga is not a competition, so don't be in a race to nail new poses. Really focus on your body -- tightness or pain tells you to warm up more, modify a pose or skip it that day. Look for a class that begins with a thorough warm up, progresses from less challenging to tougher poses, winds down to easier moves, and flows at a pace you can handle. Check with your doctor about any medical conditions that could compromise your ability to practice yoga safely.
- Yoga Journal: Yoga Poses
- Yoga Journal: Sequences for Beginners
- Yoga Journal: Yoga Master Class
- Sivananda Yoga Europe: Exercises for beginners
- American Council on Exercise: Is Yoga Hazardous or Helpful? The Biomechanics and Benefits of Advanced Yoga Postures
- American Council on Exercise: How to Avoid Wrecking Your Body with Yoga
- Yoga Journal: Moving Towards Mastery
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .