Of the thousands of yoga poses, hundreds are used regularly in studio, ashram and home practices. Non-yogis may be familiar with a handful of the poses, while long-time practitioners may have mastered several dozen. Either way, a good instructor of any brand of yoga will guide you through the poses to vary and deepen your yoga experience beyond Sun Salutations, to work your whole body and to help you achieve holistic health and spiritual goals.
Types of Poses
Yoga postures fall into general categories based on physical position. Most poses overlap categories slightly, but have a main focus. When designing a sequence, you can choose from standing poses, forward bends, back bends, arm balances, twists, inversions and restorative poses. (See Reference 3) Several poses, like Plank and Boat, emphasize your core muscles while working other parts of the body. Breathing exercise positions, also known as Pranayama, and meditation are also considered postures. Standing poses and arm balances are grounding and energizing; inversions are invigorating and boost circulation; back bends open your chest and heart; forward bends are inward-turning and contemplative; twists stimulate your organs and loosen your spine; and restorative postures like Savasana are calming and relaxing.
Yoga can tone your body, but the poses contribute specific benefits to every aspect of your physical health. Expect your immune function to improve as your cortisol levels, which depress the immune system, drop and serotonin, dopamine and other relaxing neurotransmitters increase. (See Reference 2) Yoga reduces inflammation, which causes all kinds of problems, from heart disease to diabetes. The "Times of India" associates well-known poses to particular benefits: Mountain pose corrects poor posture and aligns your body; Downward-Facing Dog tones your legs and reduces shoulder stiffness; Extended Triangle relieves backache, tones your pelvic region and eases indigestion. (See Reference 1) Warrior poses work your abs, hips, legs and shoulders; Staff pose stimulates your liver and reproductive organs as it detoxes your body and tones your abs; Shoulder Stand balances your thyroid and parathyroid glands and boosts energy; Corpse pose soothes your nervous system.
Mental and Emotional Benefits
Yoga's mind-body connection is a powerful tool to increase your focus and lower your stress. Concentration in the poses re-aligns physical and emotional imbalances while easing anxiety and clarifying thoughts. Yoga was first designed to enhance spiritual attainment with a complete integration of the entire being, so meditation is still the heart of the practice. Focus on the poses and stillness in meditation posture slows the chatter of your mind and allows you to examine your thoughts, challenges and beliefs dispassionately and non-judgmentally. Stephen Cope, director of the Institute for Extraordinary Living at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, says that, in yoga poses, the body anchors the attention. (See Reference 5) This means the mind settles into an absorption in the present moment. And from that awareness, a yoga practitioner is able to observe feelings, sensations, misperceptions and the consequences of choices. Your heart rate goes down, brain waves lengthen, stress hormones decrease and feel-good endorphins flood your brain.
Practice yoga safely with a certified instructor, but honor your own physical limitations to stay injury-free. All poses can be beneficial unless you have a condition that will make it off-limit to you. (See Reference 4) Plow pose should be modified if you have high blood pressure and skipped if you have a neck injury. The same goes for Headstand, though a back injury, headache, any heart condition or low blood pressure are also reasons to proceed with caution. (See Reference 3) Reclining Hero pose opens your hip flexors and gives the entire front of your body a good stretch, but work with an experienced instructor if you have any back, knee or ankle problems. In general, yoga will stretch, strengthen and calm you; just check with your health care provider and your certified trainer before attempting intermediate or advanced-level poses.
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 .