Strenuous body poses of contortion demanding the highest flexibility, held for prolonged periods, is typically what most of us understand by yoga today. These kinds of yoga poses are called asana(s).
It is widely believed that asana practice predominantly originated in one of the older branches of yoga – hatha-yoga. As most Western yoga today is focused on asana it is assumed by most that our modernist postural yoga is a direct descendant of hatha-yoga.
However, through most of history only very few yoga practitioners practiced demanding asanas. Many would, at best, perform a mild form of stretching, others more energetic movements combined with intensive breathing, and yet others, simply quiet meditation. Some only studied religio-philosophical texts while others chanted sounds.
Finally, throughout India’s history will be found millions of people called jogis (yogis) who were performing neither postures nor meditation but rather were beggars, magicians, thugs, merchant soldiers, and fortune-tellers. Many yogis never practiced any yoga (defined as either asana or meditation).
Branches of Yoga
There are, in fact, several branches of yoga, but you will not find official schools with any clear definitions of their specialty. Possibly hundreds of styles of yoga developed and mutated in India over an extensive period. Scrolling through old Indian scriptures we find names like raja-yoga, jnana-yoga, karma-yoga, Kundalini-yoga, laya-yoga, bhakti-yoga, and kriya to mention a few well-known examples.
Many of the branches overlap and thus there is no consensus among the present schools as to how they define themselves. Each practice gives a different answer to what they believe is the nature of yoga.
Yoga refers to a broad variety of ancient Indian spiritual practices. These practices are designed to liberate the individual from their ordinary, bound, unfree experience of the self and the world, into an expansive, unlimited state of complete freedom.
So right away we can do away with the idea that to do yoga, you need to sign up with a religious group and give up your own beliefs, adopting a new set of doctrines and strange behaviors. If you’re not into the metaphysical ideas behind yoga as spiritual transformation, that’s no problem.
Yoga is, first and foremost, personal, practical, and experiential. What you get out of it depends on what you bring into it; your goals and purposes for doing yoga will determine what kind of positive effect it has on your life.
In particular, the popular perception associates yoga with a system of bendy, twisty physical movements and positions. Some may even think yoga is just glorified stretching. But yoga is about more than just stretching. It’s about creating balance in body and mind, joining the two together, and bringing them into close communication.
Recent scientific research into the effects of yoga on the body and mind has shown that these physical practices have enormous benefits for physical and psychological health.
They can help you lose weight, tone muscles, treat several medical problems, improve your flexibility and posture, keep your muscles relaxed and supple, regulate your appetite, etc. They also decrease the all-too-common psychological sufferings of stress, anxiety, and depression, improve concentration and mindfulness, and boost your mood and brainpower overall.
Yoga offers a profound sense of physical and psychological wellbeing. Through the practice of yoga, your body and mind will become more and more closely integrated. That’s the central lesson of yoga: by connecting with our bodies more deeply, we go further into our experience as embodied beings in the world. That, in turn, will enrich our lives, as we bring the mindful awareness of yoga into our everyday world.
Finally, a word of warning needs to be said about the practices that follow. Some yoga poses can be dangerous if you’re not careful. You can get injured trying to get into some positions. So proceed with caution.
Always pay attention to what your body is telling you, and don’t do anything if it starts to feel uncomfortable or painful. Sometimes your body will whisper, “Um, maybe not.” Sometimes it will scream, “NO WAY, STOP NOW!” Be careful and sensitive to these messages.
While this article is intended to give you an introduction to the physical poses and the meditative side of yoga, it’s strongly advised that you learn yoga under the guidance of a qualified and experienced yoga practitioner or an instructor.
A good yoga instructor can help you avoid mistakes and injury, correct your posture, and guide you into more advanced stages of practice as you get deeper and deeper into yoga.
15 Yoga Poses for Beginners
Yoga Pose #1: Low Plank (CHATURANGA DANDASANA)
Although you might find this to be a physically challenging pose, just keep telling yourself that it can strengthen your upper-body stamina. To execute this pose, you must recruit your arms, shoulders, chest, and core muscles.
- Place your hands and knees flat on the mat, with your toes curled toward your knees and your wrists aligned with your shoulders.
- Extend your legs behind you one at a time until your legs are straight, curling your toes toward your body. Press your hands into the mat and push your heels away from your body.
- Bend your elbows and lower your body until your upper arms align with your torso, pulling your elbows toward your body and squeezing your thighs together. Hold this position for 3 to 5 full breaths.
Yoga Pose #2: Low Lunge (ANJANEYASANA)
Sometimes known as Runner’s Lunge, this pose stretches your quads, hamstrings, groin, and hips. This can also create more flexibility in your lower body, and it’s great for anyone who needs some extra strength in their lower body.
- Stand with your weight equally balanced between your feet and your arms relaxed at your sides.
- Bend at your waist, lean your torso toward your thighs, and place your hands on the mat in front of you, slightly bending your knees.
- Extend your left leg behind you and align your right knee with your right ankle, lengthening your spine through the crown of your head and looking forward. Hold this position for 3 to 5 full breaths. Repeat these steps on the other side.
Yoga Pose #3: Extended Hand to Big Toe (UTTHITA HASTA PADANGUSTHASANA)
This pose tests your balance and core strength while requiring an intense focus to help you hold the final position. These movements demand hamstring and hip flexibility, which this pose can also help you develop.
- Stand with your weight balanced equally between your feet and your arms relaxed at your sides.
- Shift your weight to your right foot, bend your left knee, lift your left knee toward your left armpit, and wrap your left hand around the outer edge of your left foot.
- Hook your left index and middle fingers around your left big toe. (Or continue to hold the outer edge of your foot.) Extend your left leg to your left, pull back on your big toe, and press down through your left heel. When you find your balance, extend your right arm to your right. Hold this position for 3 to 5 full breaths. Repeat these steps on the other side.
Yoga Pose #4: Reclining Hand to Big Toe (SUPTA PADANGUSTHASAN)
Are you looking for a way to give your hamstrings and lower back an incredible stretch? This pose can help you do that. The movements of this hip opener also stretch your hip flexors and your calf muscles.
- Lie on your back, with your legs extended and your feet slightly apart, and lift your kneecaps toward your head.
- Bend your right knee, bring your right leg toward your chest, and grab your right big toe with your right index and middle fingers. (You can also hold the outer edge of your right foot with your right hand.)
- Gently straighten your right leg and arm, continuing to keep your left leg flat on the mat.
- Extend your right leg to your right and extend your left arm to your left. Hold this position for 3 to 5 full breaths. Repeat these steps on the other side.
Yoga Pose #5: Handstand (ADHO MUKHA VRKSASANA)
This challenging pose requires a great deal of upper-body strength, especially from your arms, chest, and upper back. It also demands balance, focus, determination, and practice, making this pose exhilarating and terrifying.
- Lift your knees off the mat, straighten your legs, and slowly walk your feet toward your hands.
- Bend your right knee, press your right foot into the mat, and lift your right leg toward the wall.
- Push up through your left foot, bending your left knee as needed, and lift your left leg toward the wall until parallel with your right leg. Press down through your hands, pulling your shoulder blades together, and try to push the mat away from you. Hold this position for 3 to 5 full breaths.
Yoga Pose #6: Forearm Stand (PINCHA MAYURASANA)
This is an excellent pose for strengthening your arms, shoulders, upper back, and core muscles. These movements ask a lot of you—from strength and balance to focus and courage—but with continual practice, you can handle them.
- Facing a wall, kneel in the middle of the mat, with the tops of your feet flat on the mat and your hands resting on your thighs.
- Intertwine your fingers and place your forearms flat on the mat, with your elbows aligned under your shoulders.
- Lift your knees off the mat and walk your feet toward your shoulders, pressing down through your forearms, pulling your shoulder blades together, and pressing your upper arms toward each other.
- Lift your left leg toward the wall. Once you find your balance, lift your right leg until parallel with your left leg, using your forearms to help maintain your balance. Press your thighs together and push up through your heels. Hold this position for 3 to 5 full breaths.
Yoga Pose #7: Wide-Angled Seated Forward Fold (UPAVISTHA KONASANA)
This is an excellent preparatory pose for deeper forward folds, twists, and wide-legged poses. These movements stretch your hamstrings, inner thighs, calves, glutes, and lower back, but your upper body won’t be neglected.
- Sit with your legs extended and your arms relaxed at your sides.
- Spread your legs as wide as possible and place your hands flat on the mat in front of you.
- Bend at your waist and press down through the backs of your legs. Walk your hands forward as far as you can go. Hold this position for 3 to 5 full breaths.
Yoga Pose #8: Forward Fold (uttanasana)
Helping you stretch your lower back, hamstrings, and calves, this pose offers grounding energy and can help recenter your thoughts. This pose’s simple movements can also be a relaxing way to relieve stress in your body.
- Stand in the middle of the mat, with your weight balanced equally between your feet and your arms relaxed at your sides. Lift your toes off the mat, separate your toes, and anchor each toe into the mat.
- Place your hands on your hips and gently bend at your waist, bringing your chest parallel with the mat and pulling your shoulder blades together. (Slightly bend your knees as needed for balance.)
- Extend your arms toward the mat, placing your fingertips or hands on the mat. (Or rest your hands on your shins or feet.) Push up through where your legs meet your buttocks—close to your sitting bones. Hold this position for 3 to 5 full breaths.
Yoga Pose #9: Head-to-Knee Forward Fold (JANU sirsasana)
Forward folds are essential components of a well-rounded yoga practice because they’re soothing and quieting for the nervous system. Because this particular pose is one of the more accessible forward folds, enjoy the calm it brings.
- Sit on a folded blanket, with your legs extended and your arms relaxed at your sides. Lengthen your spine through the crown of your head and press down through the backs of your thighs.
- Bend your left knee to bring the heel of your left foot toward your pubic bone, keeping your left foot flat on the mat. Press down through the back of your right leg. (Bend the knee of your extended right leg if you feel tightness in your hamstrings or lower back.)
- Bring the sole of your left foot toward the inside of your right leg. Align your body with your right leg and lengthen your spine toward your right foot. Walk your hands forward as far as you can and place your hands on your right shin. (You can also place your hands on the mat. If your left knee lifts too much, place a block under it for support.) Hold this position for 3 to 5 full breaths. Repeat these steps on the other side.
Yoga Pose #10: Revolved Side Angle (PARSVAKONASANA)
This twist starts from under your rib cage, and the flexibility of your clavicle and scapula aids in the upper-body stretch. This pose builds strength and balance in your legs while also stimulating your abdominal organs and lungs.
- Stand in the middle of the mat, step your right leg forward, and keep your right foot flat. Step your left leg behind you and lift your left heel. Face your torso toward the top of the mat and place your hands on your hips.
- Bend at your waist and lean forward until your shoulders align with your right knee.
- Rotate your torso toward your right thigh. Place your left elbow on the outside of your right knee and press your upper left arm against your right thigh. Extend your right arm until aligned with your left leg. Hold this position for 3 to 5 full breaths. Repeat these steps on the other side.
Yoga Pose #11: Wind Relieving (PAWANMUKTASANA)
This supine pose helps massage your internal abdominal organs and encourages the release of tension in your belly and lower back. And as the name suggests, this pose can also aid with digestion.
- Lie on your back, with your legs extended and your arms relaxed at your sides.
- Bend your right knee, bring your right leg toward your chest, and wrap your hands around your right shin. Slightly lift your head and bring your forehead toward your right knee.
- On an exhale, bend your left knee and bring your left leg toward your chest, wrapping your hands around your shins. Hold this position for 3 to 5 full breaths. Repeat these steps on the other side.
Yoga Pose #12: Yoga Squat (MALASANA)
This is no ordinary squat. It’s a powerful pose that stretches your inner thighs and hip flexors while also strengthening your lower back and leg muscles. Engaging your abdominal muscles helps you maintain your balance.
- Stand in the middle of the mat, with your weight balanced equally between your feet and your arms relaxed at your sides.
- Place your feet as wide as the mat, angling your feet toward the corners of the top of the mat. Place your hands on your hips or in a prayer position in front of your chest.
- Bend your knees to lower yourself into a squat. Lift onto your toes or widen your feet until your heels touch the mat. (If you lift onto your toes, you can place a folded blanket under your heels.) Hold this position for 3 to 5 full breaths.
Yoga Pose #13: Fire Log (AGNISTAMBHASANA)
This powerful hip-opening pose is known for building heat within the body, especially an intense stretch in your hip flexors. These movements can also invigorate your outer hips, thighs, buttocks, lower back, and internal organs.
- Sit in a cross-legged position, with your hands resting on your thighs. (You can also sit on a folded blanket for more support.)
- Step your right foot forward and slide your left heel toward your sitting bones, placing your hands at your sides.
- Place your right foot on top of your left knee, grab your right foot with your left hand, and rest your right hand on your right knee.
- Press your tailbone down into the mat, lengthening your spine, bend at your waist and lean your chest over your legs. Hold this position for 3 to 5 full breaths.
Yoga Pose #14: Dancer (NATARAJASANA)
It’s time to show off your dance moves! And while you’re doing that, you can increase strength and flexibility; relieve tightness in your shoulders, chest, and hips; develop your thigh muscles, and improve your overall balance and focus.
- Stand in the middle of the mat, with your weight balanced equally between your feet and your arms relaxed at your sides.
- Bend your right knee and lift your right heel toward your buttocks. Grab your right ankle with your right hand, shift your weight to your left foot, and extend your left arm toward the sky.
- Bend at your waist and slowly lean forward until your left arm aligns with your right leg. Lift your right leg as far as you can and press your right foot into your right hand. Hold this position for 3 to 5 full breaths. Repeat these steps on the other side.
Yoga Pose #15: Half Moon (ARDHA CHANDRASANA)
From challenging your balance, building strength in your legs, and stretching your glutes, shoulders, and hips, this pose can impact your entire body. These movements are also great for warming up your muscles.
- Stand in the middle of the mat, with your left foot pointing forward, your right foot extended behind you, and your arms forming a T.
- Bend at your waist toward your left and place your left fingertips on the mat in front of your left foot. Place your right hand on your waist and keep your gaze toward the mat.
- Walk your left fingers forward and lift your right leg until parallel with the mat. Place your right fingertips on the mat for extra balance.
- Rotate your hips to turn your torso toward your right. Keep your left fingertips on the mat and extend your right arm toward the sky until aligned with your left arm. Hold this position for 3 to 5 full breaths. Repeat these steps on the other side.