Yoga poses (also called asanas) are at the heart of the physical practice. Although there are many different types of yoga, you will find similarities throughout most of the lineages. There are families or groupings of yoga poses that focus on specific parts of the body, fascial chains or intended outcomes. As yoga is ever expanding, there is always something to explore on and off the yoga mat.
There are only a handful of poses that come from the earliest surviving yoga sources, and they are largely seated poses for meditation. In fact, the word asana means seat.
Although each yoga pose has a specific focus, it's the consistent practice of a wide variety of postures that builds a well-rounded practice, which in turn offers the greatest physical and mental benefits.
Yoga postures are categorized in three ways: by the type of pose, the level of difficulty, or anatomical focus.
The major types of poses are as follows, and there is—of course—a lot of overlap among them. For example, a pose like king dancer (natarajasana) is a standing, balancing backbend. In general, the more elements that are combined in a single pose, the more difficult it becomes.
- Standing Poses
Standing poses, which strengthen the legs and core, are some of the first foundational poses you will learn, including yoga's most well-known pose, downward-facing dog. Other basic standing poses include mountain pose, warrior poses, extended side angle, triangle, and half-moon pose, which are all included in these eight classic standing poses flow sequence.
- Seated Poses
Seated poses are focused on deep stretching and often include forward bends. The first seated poses you will learn include staff pose, cobbler's pose, and easy pose, which is simply a comfortable cross-legged position. For more, check out at our library of 20 seated poses.
- Supine Poses
Supine (supta in Sanskrit) poses are done lying on your back. It's an ideal position to work on leg stretches (supta padangustasana for the hamstrings, supta virasana for the quads) and for letting gravity do its work in the reclined twists that often end class. Corpse pose or final relaxation is the ultimate supine pose.
- Prone Poses
The opposite of supine is a prone position, lying on the stomach. This is a good position for stretching and strengthening your back in poses like cobra, locust, sphinx, and bow.
- Balancing Poses
Balancing poses include standing balances, some of which are done on one leg, and arm balances, in which only your hands are on the ground. All balancing poses require core strength to keep the body stable. Improving your balance is particularly important as you age.
- Forward Bends
Forward bends bring the spine into the position of flexion. They can be done in a standing or seated position. Uttanasana is the classic standing forward bend with the legs together, prasarita paddottanasana is much the same with the legs wide apart. The corresponding seated poses are paschimottonasana (legs together) and upavistha konasana (legs apart). Almost any seated posture can be taken into a forward bending position.
Backbends are poses where the spine is in extension. Though you may picture a deep backbend (which is called wheel pose in yoga), our backbends library includes many options that are less intense, for instance, bridge pose and camel pose.
Twists are a wonderful way to cultivate spinal mobility, which helps keep back pain at bay. Twists can be done in the standing, sitting, or supine positions. The Sanskrit word parivrtta, which means revolved, in the name of a pose indicates it involves a twist. Seated spinal twist is a popular option, as are revolved triangle and revolved side angle.
Inversions are poses where the head is below the heart. These include balancing poses like headstand and handstand, but the downward-facing dog pose can also be considered an inversion. Legs-up-the-wall is a gentle inversion that is appropriate for beginners.
Although classifying poses by the level of difficulty makes yoga seem goal-oriented, quite the opposite is true. As you build your practice, more poses become accessible.
It's fun to try challenging poses, but don't get attached to the results. Instead, try to tune into your body every time you get on the mat. Every day is different, so let go of expectations and really experience each posture.
- Beginning Poses Library
Beginning poses are yoga's building blocks; you will return to them again and again. Practicing these poses starts to establish strength and flexibility throughout the whole body. Foundation poses include standing poses, seated and supine stretches, introductory backbends, and balancing poses. These ten essential poses for beginners are a great place to start, particularly if you've never done yoga before. And be sure to also look at the riskiest poses for beginners so you know what to avoid.
- Intermediate Poses Library
At the intermediate level, the foundation poses are further refined and more challenging variations are introduced as the body becomes stronger and more flexible. There is a wide range of intermediate poses, so don't be surprised if you find some easy and others impossible at first. At the intermediate level, you will be ready to add some arm balances and inversions to your practice, as well as increase the difficulty of your standing poses and backbends.
- Advanced Poses Library
Advanced poses require even more strength and flexibility, usually achieved through years of practice. Advanced poses continue to expand the limits of what the body can do through deep backbends and intense arm balances and inversions. When you feel comfortable trying these poses will vary greatly, though it is neither unusual nor inappropriate for them to be introduced in an intermediate level class. As you begin to attempt them, perhaps with the help of props, your body learns the shapes. One day you might surprise yourself by doing something you never thought was possible.
Anatomical focus means the area of the body that is targeted the most by a pose. This is a good way to find poses if you know you are looking for hip openers or hamstring stretches, for example.
Most poses have several areas of anatomical focus. Even if you have a specific body part in mind, working multiple body regions with the same pose will help you increase your overall strength and flexibility.
- Hamstring Stretches
Tight hamstrings are the bane of so many folks. People who spend a lot of time sitting are often afflicted, but so are athletes. Yoga is one of the most effective ways to stretch your hamstrings to avoid back pain and sciatica.
- Hip Openers
Our conception of what constitutes a hip opener is evolving. There are a lot of muscles that interact with the legs and pelvis around the area that we think of as the hips, including the hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes, psoas, and piriformis. It's important to stretch and strengthen these muscles for greater core stability.
- Heart Openers
Heart openers are intended to free up the chest, ribs, and upper back, counteracting the hunched posture we develop from sitting at desks and driving cars. Most of them are also backbends but approached with the intention of improving mobility in the thoracic and cervical vertebrae, not just the lumbar.
As a joint, the shoulder is a very tricky area of the body to work on. The primary focus of these poses is to loosen up the tension that builds up across the trapezius muscles, including the neck and upper back, while also finding safe ways to work on strengthening and stretching the muscles that support the shoulder girdle.
- Arm Strength
Build your triceps and biceps with yoga poses in which your arms bear most or all of the body's weight. For a flow sequence, try these 10 poses for arm strength.
- Ab Strength
A strong core is essential for intermediate and advanced yoga postures, as well as supporting the spine and improving athletic performance. This abs sequence, which includes balancing poses and boat pose, will build abdominal strength, but you may also want to try these yoga crunch alternatives and plank variations.
- Leg Strength
The legs are targeted most directly in standing poses. Make sure that you don't let your legs get lazy in these postures. Keeping the thighs engaged and the knee caps moving upward ensures that you are working your leg muscles.
Take a peek into a yoga class at your gym or local yoga studio and you will see students moving through poses as if choreographed. The teacher calls the name of the posture and the students assume the position in unison. If you have never done yoga, this may seem mysterious. But once you get started, you'll soon learn how to join in.
Some poses are so simple, you're probably already doing them without realizing it. Remember, however, that the ability to do a difficult pose doesn't make anyone better at yoga. The simplest poses have the same value as the most complex.