There are countless reasons to practice yoga. In fact, some will say that there are as many benefits to this practice as there are people that practice. Whether you are interested in the physical benefits of greater mobility, improved balance and strength, or you wish to increase your inner peace and sense of ease during times of stress and challenge … yoga has something for everybody.
If you are new to the practice (or even if you have been practicing for years), it is important to have a strong understanding of the common poses (asanas) and transitions. Not only to keep you safe and free from injury, but to allow for the more subtle aspects of the practice to come into effect. Because only when you are safe and secure in your physical body, can you become aware of the subtle shifts in breath and thought and emotion that occur throughout your practice. And it is in this greater awareness (of these shifts/patterns) that your yoga practice has the ability to positively impact your life off of the mat. So if you are constantly wondering or worrying how and where to put your what and when and why (?!), then you are not only going to miss the subtle shifts happening within, you are also likely to get hurt.
Thinking about the classes I teach (and take as a student), I made this list of 6 Common Yoga Poses for All Students to break down the structural aspect of each pose as well as its benefits and common misalignments/issues. The poses I chose aren’t necessarily the most physically challenging, but sometimes it is the more simple poses that students tend to take for granted and check out (mentally and physically). Remember, each pose serves a purpose. Even if it is to simply show you how you respond to comfort and ease: do you misinterpret it for boredom or deem it insignificant/unnecessary? There are endless opportunities for expanded awareness.
As I mentioned earlier, even if you have been practicing for decades, it is important to check back in and see the poses with fresh eyes. Students (and teachers!) that have been practicing yoga for many years are actually more likely to become complacent and mindless within the practice and that presents a great opportunity to ask, ‘where else in my life am I becoming complacent or mindless?’
1. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Tadasana is commonly skipped over, but could very well be one of the most important asanas in any yoga class. It provides the blueprint and foundation for support in your physical practice. If you can understand the template of this pose, it is easier to apply the principles to other postures. After all, ‘tadasana in every asana.’
Benefits: allows neutral alignment within your unique skeleton, setting the foundation for your practice by building a relationship to anatomical alignment and muscular engagement, strengthens + stabilizes head-to-toe, develops concentration, coordination, and balance, and relieves mild anxiety
Basic alignment: stand with your feet parallel, hips-distance apart, arms down by your side. Lift all ten toes and then press down through the four corners of your feet (big toe and little toe ball mounds + inner and outer edges of your heel), then lower your toes back to the earth. Lengthen your tailbone toward the ground with a slight posterior tilt of the pelvis and draw your navel in and up. Lift your knee caps to engage and press your knee caps back (without locking the knees) to engage the front and back lines of your legs. Find a slight external rotation of the arms (thumbs out) to draw your shoulder blades back. With your chin parallel to the ground, extend through the crown of your head, keeping your shoulders soft yet engaged.
(Variations: extend arms overhead maintaining external rotation, place a block between thighs to maintain a neutral pelvis and engagement through the legs)
Common misalignments: excessive anterior tilting of the pelvis and internal rotation of the shoulders, locking out the knees, collapsing through inner ankles or bearing weight on outside edge of feet
2. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)
Benefits: commonly used as a resting pose in vinyasa classes, provides decompression/lengthening + strengthening of the spine, strengthens the legs, shoulders, and arms while stretching feet, ankles, legs, buttocks, and back, relieves insomnia and menstrual or menopausal discomfort, low back pain and sciatica, improves focus and reduces mild anxiety
Basic alignment: starting in plank pose, spread fingers wide and draw your tailbone toward your heels to lengthen your lower back, keeping your hips level with your shoulders (this is the distance you want between your hands and your feet). Bend your knees and lift your hips to the sky, melting your chest through your arms toward your thighs (creating an upside-down ‘V’ shape). Descend heels toward the earth. (Know that your heels will likely not touch the ground, and that is OK. In fact, for most people it is anatomically impossible to bring the heels to the earth in this pose without compromising the foundation of the pose and the length of the spine.) Stay active through all 10 fingers (especially ‘L’ fingers – index and thumb) to support your wrists. Knees can remain soft (legs do not have to be straight) to emphasize the lift and lengthening of your lower back.
(Variations: bring hands wider than shoulder distance and find a slight external rotation by bringing your thumbs slightly forward to allow more space through chest and shoulders, step feet wider than hip distance if feeling tight through the lower body, press down through your 10 finger pads and lift knuckles ‘lizard hands’ to maintain engagement while supporting your wrists)
Common misalignments: too much or too little space between hands and feet, lack of connection through hands and fingers (dumping into wrists), rounding the back to bring heels to the floor
3. Chaturanga Dandasana (‘Low Plank’ or Four Limb Staff Pose)
Benefits: strengthens shoulders and core, builds heat/energizes the body, decompression of spine, strengthens legs, buttocks, back, and abdomen, shoulders, wrists, and arms
Basic alignment: starting in plank pose with hands underneath your shoulders, spread fingers wide and draw your tailbone toward your heels to lengthen your lower back, keeping your hips in line with your shoulders. Lift the space between your shoulder blades (behind your heart) to keep your chest lifted. Slightly lift the back of your head to keep your ears in line with shoulders (and maintain spinal alignment). Inhale to shift your weight forward + bring your shoulders in front of your wrists. Find an external rotation of your arms, bringing the soft spot of your arms (‘eyes of your elbows’) forward. Exhale to lower halfway down and hover. With hands shoulder width apart and proper external rotation of your arms, when you lower down your arms should make contact with your side body. This protects the front of your shoulders. Maintain your solid ‘plank’ engagement in the low plank pose.
(Variations: if you find that your lower back or your chest is sagging, maintain your knees on the earth and maintain the long line from your tailbone to the crown of your head. *If your lower back and/or chest is sagging in high plank pose, please do not attempt low plank pose without your knees on the ground. Knees on the ground is a great way to build strength while avoiding injury. Chaturanga is generally used as a transition pose, so another variation is to lower all the way to the floor on your exhale and inhale to cobra before returning to downward facing dog on your exhale. Cat/Cow as a transition provides the same flexion/extension of the spine and serves as a gentle transition.)
Common misalignments: hands too far apart, elbows splaying out (not externally rotated), sagging through the chest and/or lower back, lowering too far down (dumping weight into the front of the shoulders), lack of engagement through core
4. Virabhadrasana Dwi (Warrior 2)
Benefits: strengthens the body head-to-toe, builds heat in the body, opens the inner line of the legs, stabilizes the ankles, knees, and hips, stimulates circulation, builds confidence and focus
Basic alignment: standing with feet 2-3’ apart, find a slight ‘pigeon toe’ bringing toes in and heels out. Spin front foot forward to find heel to arch alignment (front heel will dissect back arch), and bend into front knee. Ensure that your front knee is traveling over the midline of your front foot. If knee is collapsing inward, lengthen out your front leg, turn front foot slightly in and then re-bend into your knee. Press down through the midline or pinky-edge of your back foot to lift through your medial arch and avoid collapsing through your ankle and knee. Stretch your arms to the horizon, pulling your front side-ribs back to maintain your shoulders over your hips. Lengthen your tailbone down and lift through the crown of your head. Gaze over your front fingertips.
(Variations: hands on the hips for more support or eagle arms to stretch the shoulders and upper back)
Common misalignments: feet too close together, bringing front knee past toes (dumps into front of knee), front knee collapsing inward past inner arch (dumps into inner knee), weight pressing into middle arch of back foot (collapses ankle and inner knee), forced external rotation of front knee over midline of front foot (as opposed to adjusting foot inward) which tears into the labrum, lack of energy through arms and fingers, weight of body shifting forward into front leg and foot
5. Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
Benefits: strengthens the legs, builds heat in the body, relieves arthritis in the legs, alleviates stress, improves concentration and balance
Basic alignment: starting in Tadasana (feet hips-distance apart), root into the four corners of the feet, bend into the knees and send tailbone back to maintain knees above or behind the knees, rock weight toward the heels to avoid clenching toes, energize inner thighs toward the midline, and find a slight posterior tilt of the pelvis to root your tailbone toward your heels, keep heart lifted and gaze forward, lifting through the crown of your head, arms extend forward to the horizon
(Variations: for more heat, cactus the arms or bring biceps by the ears, but be careful not to exaggerate the anterior tilt of the pelvis. A block can be placed between the thighs to maintain the neutral foundation within the pose, support the low back, and build additional heat in the legs. For support through the shoulders and lower back, hands can maintain on hips or in prayer pose.)
Common misalignments: excessive anterior tilt of the pelvis, forcing biceps by the ears (causing impingement in the shoulders), rocking weight too far forward into the toes, placing pressure on frontal knee
6. Savasana (Corpse Pose)
Some people love this pose, and some people find it the most challenging of the practice. But just like Tadasana, Savasana is one of the most (if not THE MOST) important physical poses of an asana practice and is often overlooked, rushed, and/or skipped.
Benefits: supports a parasympathetic response in the nervous system, allowing a complete ‘reset,’ reduces stress, supports healing and regeneration, and a deeper connection to Self and others
Basic alignment: lying on your back, extend your legs bringing your feet to the corners of your mat, relax your arms by your side-body with your palms faced the sky, shift your shoulder blades under your heart. Relax through your face and jaw, allow your lips to part and your tongue to fall free in your mouth. Eyes can be open or closed. Return to the natural rhythm of your breath. Lay in stillness.
(Variations: one or both knees can be bent with feet on the floor to support the lower back or a bolster or blocks can be under the knees. Palms can be faced down for more grounding energy or on the belly. A bolster can be used under the heart for opening or over the hips for calming. Avoid placing a block or bolster under the head *unless required for medical reasons* to avoid excessive flexion in the cervical spine.)
Common misalignment: skipping the pose altogether, not moving props + water bottles, etc out of the way to allow for complete openness of the body
It is important to remember that all poses are generally designed to be uncomfortable (mentally and/or physically), but never painful. Focus on the desired outcome and benefits of the pose to choose modifications which maintain the integrity while serving your own unique body structure. If you are new to yoga, I always recommend working one-one-one with an experienced teacher to learn your own personal functional alignment within the poses. Once you are safe and supported within your physical practice, the benefits of yoga are endless.