A steady yoga practice offers tremendous benefits. Each time we arrive on our mats, we stretch and strengthen the physical body while cultivating mindfulness. We explore what it means to know and accept ourselves and to live with compassion. We peel away layers of self-doubt and criticism and challenge our personal limitations. To reap theses greater gifts from the practice, we must first learn the foundational yoga poses. Once we can move safely and comfortably through the basic postures, we can begin peeling off the layers.
Many basic yoga sequences begin with child’s pose. In this gentle posture, your knees and hips are spread wide (perhaps as wide as your mat), your forehead is resting on the mat, your arms and hands reaching towards the top of your mat. It is common for the hips to resist; sometimes they will soften within a few minutes and with deeper breaths, other times you might use a block or blanket underneath. In child’s pose, you focus on the present moment, setting an intention for the practice.
Next in a warm up sequence is cat-cow posture. In this pose, you place your hands shoulder distance apart and come on to both knees, your body mirroring a table. Pressing your palms into the mat, you inhale and push up, bringing your gaze upward, your body the shape of cow. On the exhale, you draw your body inward, peering towards your navel, curling your spine into the shape of cat. At your own pace and breath, you move back and forth from cow into cat. This posture serves as a moving meditation, preparing both the physical and mental body for the practice.
Downward facing dog gains the most popularity in terms of postures. Although it is technically a resting posture, the physical body is active. In downward facing dog, alignment mistakes are both common and dire. Fortunately, they are also easily prevented. From the table top position, you lift your hips high. With your feet hip distance apart, you straighten the arms, turning your palms slightly outward. Then you walk your feet in, inching them closer, trying to reach your heels to the earth.
In mountain pose, you stand firmly at the top of your mat. With feet hip-distance, pelvis tucked, and shoulders back, you feel strong, stable.
Many basic sequences include warrior two and reverse warrior, both of which are strengthening postures and both of which require precise alignment. In warrior two, you have heel to arch foot alignment. Your hips open wide to the side of the room and you spread your arms in opposing directions, both at shoulder height. Your back leg will be straight and your front knee bent over the foot. With each inhale you lengthen, and exhale you sink deeper.
In a flow, reverse warrior often follows warrior two. Your foot placement remains the same, and you focus on the upper body. With your legs strong and steady, you lower your back arm down towards your leg, allowing it to brush the leg. Your front arm moves upward, as though shooting a straight line of energy to the ceiling.
The final pose of any sequence is savasana, final resting pose. On your back, with limbs relaxed, you let go. You might notice thoughts float into your mind, or tight muscles, or just a sense of fatigue. Your eyes remain closed and you focus on your breath, allowing yourself to deepen fully into relaxation
Although yoga classes, teachers, and sequences are diverse, it’s important to understand the basic postures. Some instructors provide props, others hold a pose longer or offer different cues. Always listen to your body, heeding messages of pain or discomfort. Over time and with patience, you will experience another layer of yoga. Perhaps, in warrior two, you will notice the fatigue in your arms and muster the courage to ask what you are shouldering and how you can let go. Master these fundamental postures and you will cultivate the courage to ask the deeper questions.
By Erin Walton