10 Easy and Essential Yoga Poses for Beginners
Although I don’t consider myself a yoga expert, it’s one of my favorite ways to exercise. When I have a headache, my back hurts, or I just don’t feel right, I turn to yoga to release tension and relieve stress. As I age, I try to practice more regularly so I don’t lose flexibility and stay active for as long as possible. Case in point: On my last yoga retreat with Traverse Journeys in Guatemala, there was a 78-year-old woman who walked, hiked, and did yoga just as well (if not better) than those who could be her grandchildren. She’s been practicing yoga for over 50 years.
If you’ve considered starting yoga, there are a few foundational poses your instructor will mention throughout your session. And if you’re intimidated, don’t be. “A yoga practice is for everyone — everyone,” says Leti Alvarez, an experienced registered yoga teacher who led our daily sessions in Guatemala. “It’s for every age, body size, strong or not strong, flexible or not flexible.”
And why yoga specifically? “Yoga is a great way to become acquainted with your body and how it moves,” says my former teacher, Crystal Miyazono — former only because she recently moved two hours away. “Because you are doing slower, mindful movements, you will learn what your body is capable of and what you want to practice more,” she adds. By familiarizing yourself with a few basic positions, you’ll be able to cat-cow your way through any yoga class while feeling better in the process. Here are 10 yoga poses for beginners to get you started.
1. Cow Pose (Bitilasana)
Generally paired with the opposing cat stance, cow pose is excellent for elongating your backbone. “It utilizes spinal flexion and is usually paired with cat pose in an alternating flow with your breath,” says Miyazono. However, the benefits go beyond your vertebrae. Alvarez notes, “It can improve your posture and gently massage the kidneys and adrenal glands.”
Cow pose involves being on all fours — often called tabletop pose — with your hands shoulder-width apart and your knees in alignment under your hips. Inhale and lower your belly while lifting your chin and sternum and directing your tailbone slightly upward as you stretch.
2. Cat Pose (Marjaryasana)
Cat pose — named after a feline arching its back — is typically used as a warm-up spinal extension combined with the cow posture to stretch the vertebrae. Alvarez says it’s one of her favorite positions and is beneficial to stretch and strengthen the spine.
To get into cat pose, go down on all fours with your hands shoulder-width apart and your knees directly under your hips. Think about drawing your belly button up as you lower your head and push your hips down slightly as you exhale.
3. Child’s Pose (Balasana)
One of the most relaxing positions, child’s pose is a fabulous way to stretch your back and hips. It’s also an excellent position for when you need to pause during a yoga session. “Your instructor may have you begin your class here, use this pose as a resting time to breathe throughout the class, or encourage you to take this pose anytime you need a break from the sequence,” advises Miyazono.
To execute child’s pose properly, kneel on your yoga mat while keeping your feet together and your knees about shoulder-width apart. Then lower your torso to the mat while extending your arms forward. Allow your body to rest and relax in this posture so you can feel a stretch throughout your back and hips.
4. Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Shavasana)
Also known as down-dog, this is one of the most recognizable poses, at least in name. And, if you’ve ever seen a canine stretch, it’s easy to see where the title of this pose originates. “Downward-facing dog is a gentle inversion as your heart is below your head,” says Alvarez. Incorporating inversions into your practice helps improve circulation while increasing strength.
For beginners, Alvarez suggests bending the knees and using yoga blocks under your hands until you get used to the position and feel more steady. Then you can work on the entire posture by resting your palms on the floor and extending your legs to create an upside-down V-shape. If you have trouble staying in downward-facing dog, Miyazono suggests taking child’s pose instead.
5. Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
“Mountain pose is the base for all standing poses,” advises Alvarez. “It gives you a sense of how to ground into your feet and feel the earth below you.” Not only will the mountain stance give you a good foundation for other yoga positions, but practicing it can help you stand firm and tall throughout your day.
To perform mountain pose properly, stand with your feet a few inches apart. Spread and firmly plant your toes so your weight is equal on each foot. Draw in your belly and concentrate on keeping your body long and lean while standing tall.
6. Forward Fold (Uttanasana)
In theory, forward fold is one of the most straightforward positions. However, entirely doing the pose can prove challenging for beginners until you increase your flexibility. “It stretches the hamstrings and buttocks and lengthens the spine, buttocks, and abdominals,” Alvarezsays, adding that the position also aids in decreasing stiffness in the calves, neck, and back.
Forward fold involves standing with your feet approximately four to six inches apart in mountain pose. Next, fold your body in half, so your head reaches your knees. Bend your knees as much as feels comfortable while you are in this posture. As time goes on and you increase your flexibility, you can eventually work on straightening your legs.
7. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Placing your body in bridge pose stretches your chest, neck, spine, and hips, yet this position also has many internal and mental benefits. “Bridge pose improves circulation of blood and stimulates the lungs, thyroid glands, and abdominal organs,” says Alvarez. “It also helps alleviate stress and mild depression.”
When executing this position, the body makes a shape resembling a bridge. First, lie down on your back, bend your knees, and place your arms at your side in the direction of your feet. Next, press into your feet and gently lift your pelvis. Avoid putting stress on your neck by slightly tilting your chin towards your chest.
8. Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I)
Although a bit more advanced, most beginner yoga classes include warrior poses. “Warrior I is a foundational standing posture in yoga creating a basic lunge,” offers Miyazono. “It helps to open the hip flexors of the back leg while strengthening many muscles in both legs, creating a strong base.” Because it’s a standing pose, warrior I also requires balance and a bit of concentration.
Start in mountain pose, and step your foot forward — you can start with either your left or right side — about four feet in front of you with your toes facing away from your core. Place your back foot at a 45-degree angle, and keep your back leg straight while bending your front knee. Raise your arms above your head while keeping your shoulders down. As you get used to the position, you can cast your gaze towards the ceiling to fully accomplish the warrior I posture.
9. Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)
The main difference between the two basic warrior poses is the direction of your hips. “Warrior II is another foundational standing posture in yoga where the hips are facing the side of your mat instead of forward like other warrior poses,” explains Miyazono. Along with stretching the arms, chest, and groin, Alvarez says that the pose commemorates inner struggle. “The spiritual warrior bravely does battle with the universal enemy or self-ignorance,” clarifies Alvarez. “Yoga does help one become more resilient and patient.”
Similar to the first warrior pose, you start in mountain pose and move to straighten your back leg while bending the front one, except this time, your back foot will be at a 90-degree angle. Face your hips towards the side of the mat, and extend your arms parallel with the floor while you gaze towards your front arm.
10. Corpse Pose (Shavasana)
Shavasana is one of the most comforting phrases in yoga, as it usually means that your practice is coming to an end, and you get to be still. “This is the final resting pose at the end of a yoga class where you get to relax and allow the energy that you created in your body to settle,” Miyazono explains. “Here is where the benefit of yoga really affects your body, leaving you feeling calm, grounded, and connected with yourself after class.”
To do corpse pose, you lie on your mat with your back on the floor, legs extended, and arms at your side with your palms facing up. If your class offers blankets or bolsters, you can feel free to cover yourself and prop up body parts as necessary. You can even do this pose from your bed. However, the primary purpose of this pose is to relax the body and mind. Let your thoughts drift off as you reward yourself for doing something good for yourself. “We need time in our busy lives to reset, relax, and rejuvenate the body,” recommends Alvarez, and Shavasana is the perfect way to end your practice.