Best to begin with the truth as I know it: I’m no accessibility expert; I am a currently able-bodied (a.k.a.“A.B.”) yoga practitioner who also uses yoga in sport psychology practice with teams and athletes in Paralympic sport. There are an abundance of wonderful resources on accessibility, ability, disability, and yoga, including Jivana Heyman’s wonderful and growing organization Accessible Yoga and his 2019 book of the same name.1 What I’ll share here is not a how-to guide on yoga for people with disabilities, but rather a few personal reflections on working toward accessibility in the context of yoga practice.
Per the Americans with Disabilities Act, “accessibility” means that any area of public life – a space, an experience, or a technology – should be accessible by people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. And because all abilities, just like all sensations and body functions, are temporary, most people can occupy multiple positions across a range of abilities throughout a lifespan. So the word “accessibility” encompasses a lot but at its core is the facilitation of one’s fullest possible participation in public life and community for all people. Therefore, in yoga, it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to say that accessibility builds us toward samadhi.
Dialogues on accessibility and yoga are growing, and I hear “accessibility” applied in a spectrum of yoga conversations. In the work I do with elite athletes, accessibility has to permeate our whole environment – we create space and offer props (usually improvising with whatever is available when we’re on the road with whatever towels and blankets and pillows a hotel might let us borrow) so that any sequence can be practiced sitting, reclined, prone, or standing – and so that the athlete can choose – according to what is right in their very specific body, mind, and soul in the very specific context of the “right-now” we’re in right now together.
So accessible yoga is, well, yoga: the priority is the person over poses, movements, alignment, transitions, or what it looks like (though these external aspects of asana get top billing on “#yoga” on Instagram and “#yoga” seems to dominate any description people have offered me of why yoga is not for them). But what I’m trying to say is that adapting yoga or doing “adapted yoga” is probably what you’re already doing in your classes. From my perspective of working with elite athletes in adapted sport, one of the most important aspects of offering truly accessible yoga practices is awareness of the social and cultural context we live in. And that context – by which I mean everyday life beyond one’s yoga practice – tends to assume able-bodied-ness is what’s “normal” (e.g. hotel and airline check-in counters where wheelchair users have to crank their necks all the way back to have any shot at eye contact with the person on the other side). And this by default – however unintentional – sends the message that bodies differing from these expectations are marginal or deviant.
The Americans with Disabilities Act is 30 years old this year and while there’s certainly great progress in accessibility, narratives of disability remain profoundly limiting. People with disabilities are often painted as either needy and helpless or as “heroes” and inspirations.2 While “heroes and sources of inspiration” may sound nice, consider this experience from the lens of someone who is looking at the unchanged status quo that limits their full participation in public life and public spaces.
What that means for me — as a yoga facilitator, in a space focused on yoga asana, meditation, or relaxation — is that I have a lot of up front conversations. We talk about:
their daily obligations and movements and stresses and areas of fatigue and overuse and tension
about sensations they notice and how those sensations vary
about sensations they’re aware of not having – and how they experience that lack of sensation (for example, for someone who uses a wheelchair and who doesn’t have sensation in areas of the body that absorb pressure when seated, this might mean they pay careful attention to cushioning those areas adequately when sitting and spend time out of their chair as frequently as possible to avoid pressure sores – and I want to be as aware as I can be of what that adequate cushioning entails for them)
and as such, we explore what kinds of support and props their body may need to spend time out of their chair in a variety of positions, prone, reclined, etc.
We use these conversations to build our practice and I do my best to make the “why’s” behind each movement or sequence as clear as I can. Also, as much as possible, I aim to offer 2-3 different approaches to achieve each “why” that we’re aiming for. In this scenario, I want to be able to offer options to release that area that is accessible from within the wheelchair from a reclined position when it’s possible for the athlete to spend some time out of their chair, and a prone position. Wherever I can, I want to make space for each of these options to be possible so that the athlete can choose what works best for them in terms of the available space, cushioning, and energy level for transferring from chair to floor and back again.
Renowned yoga teacher Matthew Sanford describes how yoga helped him learn to feel the “hum” of his whole body. He writes:
I teach bodies that can stand, when I cannot, that can feel things where I do not. This is possible because I have experienced a different kind of connection between mind and body. Although I cannot move my legs – and have no goal to do so – I do feel a heightened level of presence throughout my consciousness, including my paralyzed body.3
Sanford’s own teacher, who explored this heightened level of presence with him, had no experience working with SCI or paralysis prior to working with him. Rather, he writes, she had to “intuit what it’s like to be paralyzed…She didn’t have to be the expert…we explored the possibilities of yoga and paralysis together.”4 For me, this comes as a relief. Not having to be an expert frees up some energy that can go toward connecting with people, understanding how they move through daily life in mind and body, and what kind of energy we can create when we move together.
In my career as a yoga teacher, I’ve had the great honor and opportunity to work with police officers, active and retired military, and firefighters. My experience actually started at a self-defense gym where I practice as well as taught yoga and group fitness classes. The training was high level self-defense and combat practices, and injuries were common, which is where my journey began.
Almost daily, one of these men and women would come to me, the yoga teacher, to ask what exercises or stretches they could do to help their injury. At that time, I often didn’t know. It was this knowledge gap that prompted me to seek answers on the therapeutic benefits of yoga, and this is what ultimately led me to Yoga Medicine®.
It seemed like the more I studied, the more I was presented with people to help but I still didn’t have the answers. Each person came with a new question, giving me new subject matter to study. In this process, I found myself teaching yoga to veterans at John D. Dingell Veterans Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. It was during this experience that I learned the in’s and out’s of teaching yoga to people with mental and physical trauma.
Each day began with a security check-in and a walk through the hospital to the pain clinic. This is where my teaching and my learning would start. Some days I would have advance notice of who I was seeing and what conditions they needed help with. Almost everyone had some combination of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), anxiety, and depression in addition to a whole host of physical and mental limitations, disabilities, and injuries. I taught both privately, one-on-one, behind closed doors in my own exam room in the pain clinic as well as group classes in a hospital waiting room that was temporarily turned into a makeshift yoga studio.
My one-on-one sessions began with an intake. I would ask a pre-set list of questions then take the client through a variety of exercises to determine their level of physical ability. Between our first and second session is when I would formulate our plan and study the conditions that I was being presented with. Our second session is when the work began. In many individuals, we were able to break significant ground in a very short period of time by simply focusing on breathing techniques. As a matter of fact, many of the people I had the opportunity to work with were able to come off of some of their medications for anxiety, depression, and even pain as we progressed in our sessions. This of course is the optimal result in a perfect scenario! Not all scenarios were quite that perfect.
Here’s where I’ll tell you the story of Rose (name changed to protect privacy.)
When I was at the VA Hospital, the yoga program was relatively new and it was part of the comprehensive pain management program. Attendance was required if it was prescribed by their doctor. As a result, many people I saw definitely didn’t want to see me and some were there to fulfill this requirement so they could access their medication for pain, anxiety, or depression.
Each morning when I arrived, I would get a list of who I was seeing from the reception desk. I would walk into the waiting room, state the name of the client and they would come back with me to the room and we would get started. This was not the case with Rose. The morning I met Rose began as normal. I said, “Rose, we’re ready to see you now.” There were plenty of people in the waiting room, a few females, but no one answered. I called, “Is there a Rose here?” No answer. No big deal, people were often late so I went back to my room, waited 10 minutes, then tried again. Rose was not present. Often when working at the VA, the people I was supposed to see wouldn’t show up, either out of defiance, lack of transportation, or many other reasons. I began to think this was the case with Rose. I went out a third time and still had no response, so I went back to my room and began to process the “no show” paperwork.
About a minute later there was a small knock on the door. I looked up and it was a woman from the waiting room. She said, “I’m Rose.” She was looking at the floor in a manner you would consider timid, but her words came out very angry. I said hello to her and asked her to sit down at the desk to begin the intake. She came over but would not look at me. I asked her the standard intake questions, many of which she stayed silent for. I attempted to begin the physical portion of the intake, but Rose would not stand. I told her in order to create a customized program for her, we needed to complete the intake. She paused briefly then said, “So, we’re done here then.” I told her we could be and she stood to leave. Her next appointment with me was three days later.
This session with Rose went much like the first. In the room where I did the intake we had a small yoga practice space set up. The space itself was very clinical, but we did the best we could. We had a yoga mat, bolsters, blocks, straps, and even a few plants to soften the space. While Rose agreed to come down to the floor and sit on the yoga mat, she refused to lay down. She also would not close her eyes. So instead, our session began with a creative breathing exercise made on the fly using counting and our hands. We would begin with clenched fists since her fists were already clenched. I asked her to breath in for the count of 4 and clench her right thumb in as tight as she could, then I asked her to release and straighten her thumb as she exhaled for the count of 6. We continued on with all 10 fingers. After her hands were open, Rose actually looked at me for just a moment. After that we were able to get through a small amount of physical exercises (neck stretches, side bends, twists) but our session didn’t last the full hour and she left early. Still, something had definitely shifted. As she left she said, “See you next week.”
The following week Rose missed her session. I was disappointed but as I mentioned, this happened often at the VA. The next scheduled session was a few days later, and I hoped but didn’t count on Rose being there. When I walked out to the waiting room that day, I was pleasantly surprised to see her there. She followed me to the room and we began as we had the first time. Clenched fist breathing. When we finished, she said she was interested in doing more this time, but she didn’t want to lie down. Instead, we practiced some standing postures and some basic modified sun salutations. The following weeks looked much the same, each week progressing in postures and Rose’s willingness to try more. There was little eye contact and definitely no savasana, but Rose was beginning to trust me and with that trust came healing.
Each week I would notice in Rose a softening. When she came to me initially, her demeanor, posture, and attitude were very protective. She still carried with her an air of hypervigilance in the lobby and the walk to our room, but when the door closed, it was almost as if her hard outer shell began to melt away. I had 6 weeks of sessions with Rose, seeing her two times a week, the prescribed amount of time the VA would allow and pay for. Occasionally they would extend but more often than not, the client “graduated” to the group classes after 6 weeks.
At the end of our final private session together, Rose agreed to try savasana. It was definitely out of her comfort zone, but she even closed her eyes. Our savasana lasted only about a minute, but I couldn’t have been more pleased with the progress we made. Rose said she would attend the group sessions and that I would see her the following week. In the weeks after our private lessons, Rose did come to the group classes from time to time, however the setting was not ideal because it was not private and the feeling of safety that she needed was missing in this setting. Still, she attended, was more communicative than when we first met, and even talked often to her fellow students in class.
What I learned from teaching yoga to Rose, many others at the VA, and subsequently working with first responders are some very important lessons that I’ve summarized below:
Be patient: Yoga is often times far beyond one’s comfort zone. Their training is to always be hypervigilant, meaning it can take them longer to relax and be present.
Adjust language: Words that are oftentimes used in a yoga class, such as “corpse pose,” can be a trigger word for those people who are faced with death on the job. Be mindful of the names and cues you use while teaching and adjust when appropriate.
Prioritize the student’s boundaries: A teacher’s presences should be supportive and respectful, and this is paramount when working in a community with higher rates of PTSD and trauma. Some helpful tactics are to announce your presence if you are moving around the room; observe personal boundaries by asking permission before adjusting; and prioritize your words over physical touch.
We know that people come in all shapes and sizes, have varied proportions, and have diverse lifestyles and habits. Yet somehow when we step onto our yoga mat, we seem to forget about these differences and expect everyone to achieve the same shapes and angles in every pose.
Textbook alignment in many yoga poses, even those considered basic or foundational (such as the examples below), requires more than average mobility. But “average” is a mathematical concept; none of us are truly “average.” Generally, we may be more or less mobile than average. We may have greater range of motion in our shoulders, and less in our hips. Or we could have muscle tension stemming from our posture, work environment, or sport that reduces our mobility on one side compared with the other.
Because we are all unique, it makes no sense to push our bodies toward a theoretical ideal of each yoga pose. So why not treat our practice as an opportunity for exploration and inquiry—a chance for each of us to get to know our unique configuration of joints, muscles, and fascia a little better.
Let’s examine how “average” range of motion compares with the range required for the “traditional” versions of a few more common yoga poses.
1. Warrior I
Warrior I (virabhadrasana I) creates a strong standing base from which to lift up our focus and energy. It stretches the hip flexors of the back leg, opens the chest, and lengthens the latissimus dorsi over the side ribs. Given that this foundational pose is key to every surya namaskar B, you would think it would be widely accessible. But, while reaching the arms directly overhead can be a challenge for some bodies, what keeps many of us from achieving traditional alignment in this pose is the range of motion required in the back ankle joint. Grounding the back heel while simultaneously squaring the hips forward isn’t comfortable, or even possible, for many students, and the challenge increases as the front knee bends more deeply. Because the alignment many of us strive for in this pose exceeds the ankle’s normal range of motion, no wonder it challenges so many of us.
2. Warrior II
Warrior II, virabhadrasana II, is a stable, purposeful, and powerful standing pose. With both feet solidly grounded and arms at shoulder height, this is one of the more accessible poses on this list—provided we observe the normal mobility limitations of the hips.
However, “textbook” alignment—the front knee bent at 90 degrees and tracking straight forward while the hips face the side of the mat—requires significantly more mobility, especially in the front hip and back ankle, than most bodies allow. As in warrior I, the range of motion required by the back ankle increases as we bend the front knee more.
3. Cow Face Pose
The combination of movements involved in cow’s face pose (gomukhasana) makes it an efficient stretch for multiple areas of the body. The arm position accesses almost every muscle in the chest and shoulders, including common culprits for chronic tension (the triceps, latissimus dorsi, and deltoids). And while many yoga hip openers involve hip abduction, gomukhasana brings the legs across the midline of the body. However, the complexity of this pose also explains why it is challenging for so many of us—even if one aspect of the pose is accessible, we may find it difficult to achieve traditional alignment elsewhere.
4. Bow Pose
Heart-opening backbends are a potent counter to life’s tendency to draw our shoulders forward and compress our chest. For that reason, they can benefit both our posture and our breathing. Prone backbends can be even more helpful, as lifting the head and limbs against gravity strengthens the neglected posterior body. Bow pose (dhanurasana) fits into this category. But because the arms and legs are connected, it requires significantly more mobility than alternatives like cobra (bhujangasana), or locust (salabhasana).
Whether or not we realize it, we each already find our own unique pathway to every yoga pose. Our bodies are more adaptive and resilient than we may know, but there are limits. For each person, there is an end point to the range of motion in every joint, and we are more likely to confront that point in yoga poses than in other daily activities. That holds true even with those poses considered foundational. That knowledge should change our physical practice, allowing us to let go of the theoretical ideal. Better to instead show up on our mats with open hearts and open minds, curious about where our practice may take us.
Follow along with this 4 minute shoulder release yoga sequence with Rachel Land. The Lats, or Latissimus Dorsi, are a common source of tension on the shoulder complex. When tight, they can draw our arms down and in toward the ribcage, closing off our chest and making it difficult to expand into full and effortless breathing. The same pattern can make it difficult to lift our arms comfortably overhead, both in life and in yoga poses like downward facing dog. Follow along with Rachel to release shoulder tension, open the shoulders and experience the difference between sides before moving on to complete the sequence.
Did you wake up on the first day of the new year ready to atone for the year before? I did. And millions of others around the world were making the same fresh start to their diets and physical routines.
But these are only two of the seven areas that can improve your brain health, build your resilience to disease and fortify your immune system, leading to a greater sense of overall wellbeing.
We may be familiar with the physical benefits of movement and exercise but compelling evidence shows that it also improves memory and cognition. A study published in the journal Neurology demonstrated that physical activity can slow brain aging by 10 years.
To get started, biohacker, human body and brain performance coach, Ben Greenfield recommends 20-30 minutes of fasted aerobic exercise a day.
Other ways to move your body: animal locomotion, strength training, yoga and myofascial release work. Most importantly, and after years of training, coaching and teaching, my best advice is for you to do something you love.
We all know that we should cut sugar and limit processed foods. But did you know that eating a plant-rich anti-inflammatory diet can help reduce symptoms of depression and improve brain health.
Recent findings demonstrated a significant drop in depression after eating a Mediterranean-style diet for over three weeks. Participants reported lower levels of anxiety and stress too. The Mediterranean diet is also linked to a reduced incidence of cancer, as well as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
“Sleep is the beginning to our biological day,” says Dr. Satchin Panda, scientist and author of Circadian Code. And yet an estimated 164 million Americans struggle to get enough. Dr. Panda suggests that the average person requires no less than 7 hours.
If you are struggling with sleep, you might want to try resetting your circadian clock. First, establish a 12 hour eating window, with your last meal at least two hours before bedtime. Next, add exercise and movement to your daytime routine. Take in plenty of sunlight during the day and if you need it, take a nap. Dr. Panda, recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise during the day to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm.
At night, try restorative yoga, cool the bed or room temperature and add room darkening shades. Be sure to cut out technology as those lights stimulate the brain. Many experts recommend installing dimmer lights to help you begin to wind down. Lastly, mindful breathing practices and/or a progressive body scan will help you relax the body for bed.
Mindfulness encompasses both informal daily attention practices (ie walking, eating and breathing techniques) and formal mindfulness or meditation practice. In mindfulness, we are focused and attending to the task at hand. Lack of attention leads to disconnection, disorder and eventually disease.
If you are new to meditation, start with 2 minutes a day, just sitting and observing the breath. Quit the multi-tasking too. Allow yourself to do one activity with clarity and focus before starting the next. Wash the dishes to wash the dishes.
Research shows that meditation helps enhance learning and memory, lowers stress hormone levels by decreasing the cell size of the amygdala and can improve the quality of one’s life, general wellness and ability to fight disease. It can also help you live longer and helps activate the insula, a brain region that is said to be a key player in self-awareness and empathy.
Building your emotional intelligence means that you can recognize emotion in others, be empathetic and connect socially, and harness your own emotions. This practices helps us to become better at self soothing and regulating our nervous system.
Start honing your emotional intelligence by learning about your own response to stress. Try journaling pleasant and unpleasant events. Document feelings and sensations in your body during those events. With friends and coworkers, practice noticing their emotions and being an active listener.
We are social beings who desire connection. It is vital that we improve our emotional intelligence to enhance our relationships with others to strengthen our wellbeing.
Science has long said that being married helps you live longer and reduce stress. But a healthy relationship is key.
Sue Johnson, clinical psychologist and author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Loves, says that secret to loving relationships is emotional responsiveness.
People want to seen, heard and understood. When we synchronize emotionally, we connect and we tune in. When that doesn’t happen, the divide becomes deeper. People feel as though they are moving further apart.
So to build your connection muscles. Express small acts of appreciation daily. Give more hugs. The physical act of cuddling reduces stress for the recipient and the giver. Hugs can improve your immune system, reduce blood pressure, release oxytocin, reduce perception of pain, among other things.
Family therapist Virginia Satir said, “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” And for the maximum health benefit, hug for at least 20 seconds.
Aristotle once said that the essence of life is “to serve others and do good.” Research shows that volunteering helps you feel more socially connected, reduces occurrence of loneliness and depression, and lowers blood pressure and helps you live longer.
It only takes service of 100-200 hours a year to reap the physical benefits. That’s 3 hours max a week!
Experts agree, the intention behind the service should be altruistic. A 2012 study in the journal Health Psychology found those who volunteered lived longer, but only if their intentions were to help others—not to make themselves feel better.
Fortifying these seven areas doesn’t make you immune to outside threats, but it makes us more resilient in the face of them. Here’s to live longer and happier lives.
Do you have a yoga pose that you really want to master, but that feels completely unrealistic and beyond reach? For me, that pose used to be one legged king pigeon, or eka pada raja kapotasana.
When I first started practicing this pose, I felt like I was miles away. I was confused – my hips and legs had the necessary flexibility needed. I had no problem bending the back leg in pigeon pose. Though I have never been an extreme back bender, I had been a dancer for most of my life. Still, it was just plain impossible for me to reach and hold on to that foot behind my head without feeling like I was about to snap in half. I couldn’t even think about breathing while in the pose!
It wasn’t until I started learning more about shoulder anatomy and function that I realized how my shoulders had uncharacteristically limited range of motion compared to the rest of my body. The last pieces of the puzzle started falling into place.
I had never before made a distinction between backbends with arms overhead like urdva dhanurasana (wheel) and the backbends where the arms are reaching back behind you, such as ustrasana (camel pose), which I actually quite enjoyed. The challenge when the arms are over head lies not as much in the flexibility of the spine, as in the shoulders.
An overhead backbend will challenge your shoulder mobility in a very different way than when your arms are reaching back behind you. Taking a closer look at my own shoulders, I realized that a lot was lacking.
Investigating the Anatomy of Abduction & Flexion
First, I needed my arms to be able to come into full abduction and flexion, in other words, I needed to freely extend my arms overhead. When I reached my arms overhead, my upper arms were nowhere near my ears. For example, in gomukasana my upper elbow would be pointing more to the window than to the ceiling.
To have full range of movement of the shoulder joint, it is crucial that the scapula is able to move with the arm into upward rotation, which means that the shoulder joint is actually to some extent following the arm upward as it moves. If this movement of the scapula is restricted, the shoulder joints are presented with a much greater challenge that often causes a pinching sensation at the top of the shoulders. This is what I felt when reaching my arms overhead.
A muscle that can typically restrict the movement of the shoulder blade in upward rotation is the levator scapula. At first glance, this may not seem so obvious but bear with me. Levator scapula runs from the medial top corner of the scapula to the transverse processes of the vertebrae of the neck. Its primary task is to elevate the shoulder blade into a shrug.
What happens for many of us is that the levator scapula works extra hard to stabilize the head and neck when we hold the head anterior to the shoulders, typically looking at our phones or computer screens. When the levator is chronically tight, it will not let the top of the scapula move down to allow the other side of it, where the arm is attached at the shoulder joint, to follow the arm (into upward rotation). Taking a closer look at my posture, I noticed that my shoulders were rounded forward, and my head held further forward than my shoulders.
Even if your scapulae can upwardly rotate, you might still find it hard to reach your arms overhead. The next part of this equation looks at how freely the arm bone /humerus is able to move relative to the torso and the scapula.
The arm is connected to the upper body and the shoulder blade by a number of muscles. What I previously thought of as my posterior armpit is really a cluster of different muscles crossing each other here, connecting the humerus to the posterior side of the upper body, and the scapula. Latissimus dorsi (that big “wing” covering large parts of the back), its little helper teres major, and the long head of the triceps muscle all pass each other in this area at the back of the arm.
Furthermore, if you have limited movement repertoire or lack of the right kind of movement, it’s likely that the fascia surrounding this braid of muscles and tendons can stick together, making it more challenging to move the arm into full flexion and abduction. Again, if you feel pinching at the top of the shoulder joint in abduction, there is good indication that you could benefit from taking a closer look at this group of muscles.
Another big and strong muscle that has the potential to limit the arm in abduction is the pectoralis major. It connects the arm to the front of the upper body, and is often tight and overworking, especially when the shoulders roll forward.
Freeing up all these areas can have a huge effect on the movement of the arm.
Back to My King Pigeon
To be able to grab that foot behind my head in raja kapotasana, or keep the elbows from splaying out to the sides in urdva dhanurasana. I also needed sufficient external rotation of the arms in full flexion, which I would argue is even more challenging than externally rotating the arms in most other positions, since the lats are being stretched here.
The latissimus dorsi, teres major, pectoralis major, and subscapularis on the underside of the scapula are all internal rotators of the arm, as they connect the front of the upper arm bone to the torso or the scapula. Consequently, most of these muscles are recruited for inward rotation of the arm and forward shoulder carriage.
Releasing this group of muscles not only made it easier to reach my arms over head, it also made a tangible difference in the potential for passive external rotation of the arm. I found it extra helpful to both release the internal rotators and activate the external arm rotators.
The infraspinatus and teres minor muscles at the back of the shoulder actively help to externally rotate the arm bone as it abducts. In addition to turning the arms to reach the foot behind you, this action creates more space in the joint socket for the head of the humerus to move into full abduction without any of that pinching at the top of the joint. If your shoulders slump forward like mine did, these muscles at the back of the shoulder can become both weak and tight.
When a muscle is held in a lengthened position for a long time, the fascial fibers interweaving the muscle tissue can “lock” it in that position. The muscle loses the ability to contract effectively, and with less movement there is a loss of hydration and glide.
To bring it back to a more supple and responsive state, using myofascial release techniques could be greatly beneficial.
As I started working to improve the mobility of my shoulders, my dream pose was literally coming within reach.
Here are Four Ways That I’ve Improved My Shoulder Mobility:
1. Armpit Release
Lie on your side with a foam roller or a block on its middle height under the armpit. One long edge of the block is in contact with the crease of your posterior armpit, the rest of the block is under your side ribs. Rest your head in your hand. If this feels like too much, put a blanket on top of the prop to make it softer. The sensation might be intense, but shouldn’t be intensely painful.
Spend a few moments here to soften against the prop while breathing into your side ribs. Then slowly start to roll back so the block is more directly in contact with the posterior armpit –lats/teres/triceps tendon. Rock back and forth here a few times, staying with points that feel tender while breathing and waiting for an incremental release.
Next, roll even further back, so you feel the block more on the back of the shoulder blade, where your infraspinatus is located. Again, spend some time to breathe and encourage the tissues to release. Stay until the sensation is less intense, or for as long as you are comfortable.
Lastly, roll forward until the edge of the block touches your anterior armpit, where the pectoralis major passes from the arm to the chest. Place both your forearms on the floor in front of you and look towards the ground. You can rest your head on your other arm if that’s accessible. Breathe here until the sensation is less intense, or for as long as you are comfortable.
Remove the block and lie on your back for a few breaths between sides, just noticing any differences in sensation between your sides.
Repeat on your other side.
2. Activate the External Arm Rotators
Lie prone with one arm bent in a cactus shape, elbow around 90 degrees, hand and wrist on a block or a folded blanket, depending on your ROM. The arm will be in external rotation here, adjust the height of the prop so your elbow is still on the floor and you feel a slight stretch. The other arm can support your forehead on the floor.
Just stay in a passive stretch here for a few deep breaths, as the muscles start to relax and lengthen.
Activate the core by pushing your legs and pubic bone into the floor, feel your belly lifting. Then start pushing your hand and wrist down on the block/blanket, activating the internal arm rotators, the muscles that were previously lengthening. Hold the pressure for 5-10 seconds before relaxing again. Repeat this 1-2 more times.
Again, activate your core, and now let the hand/wrist get lighter, and maybe even lift it away from the prop. This activates your external arm rotators. Hold for a few breaths before relaxing the arm. Repeat this 1-2 more times.
Repeat on the other arm.
3. MFR Levator
To release the levator scapulae, lie on your back with your legs bent, feet on the floor. You might want to keep a block near by. Place two tennis balls or therapy balls on the top medial corners of your scapulae. Take a few moments here to notice how this feels before moving on. Stop at any stage along the way if the sensation gets too intense.
When you are ready, use your legs to lift your pelvis off the floor, gradually pouring more weight over the balls. You can lift and lower a few times here, or just stay. If you want, you can place the block under your pelvis.
Make snow angel movements with your arms along the floor. You could also try crossing them in the air in front of you. Keep breathing, and picture how the shoulder blades are moving with your arms.
To finish, remove the block from under you and lower the pelvis back to the floor. Move the balls and stay on your back for a moment to rest.
4. Puppy Pose with Block – Externally Rotate Arms
Give your internal arm rotators a stretch with this exercise.
Come into puppy pose, placing your hips over your knees, stretching your arms forward along the floor. Make sure your elbows are no more than shoulder-width apart and place a block on the floor between your hands. Adjust the width of the block according to the stretch you feel; a wider distance between your hands will produce more stretch.
To begin, just stay here for a couple of breaths and let your sternum sink towards the floor as you release any tension in your arms and shoulders.
When you are ready, start lifting the block off the floor and above your head. When you get there, again, breathe deeply and release any tension in the neck and shoulders. Stay for as long as you are comfortable.
To come out, slowly lower the block down to the floor and rest in child’s pose.
If you are new to yoga, you might feel overwhelmed with how to safely and adequately perform all of the yoga poses. We have over 120 different yoga exercises listed in our asana index–fortunately, you don’t need to learn them all when you are just starting yoga. There are a handful of foundational yoga poses that share common alignment and muscular actions with all of the other poses. Even though there are hundreds of asanas, most yoga classes repeat the same primary ones. Becoming familiar with these fundamental poses will be essential for you to learn so you can feel comfortable going to a yoga class or can be safe practicing on your own at home.
We reached out to eleven yoga experts to get their recommendations for the most essential yoga poses that beginners should start with learning. We also asked them for their tips and advice on how beginners should approach these asanas and how to modify the poses to make them approachable for newbies. We recommend that you follow the link to the yoga pose instruction page to see the step-by-step instructions on how to perform each pose. If you are brand new to yoga, take your time to absorb all of this info, and always listen to your body and alter the posture to best suit your body’s level of ability, strength, and flexibility.
1. Cat and Cow (Marjaiasana / Bitilasana)
One of the most essential and easiest yoga poses for a beginner to learn is cat pose and cow pose. Yoga Instructor Brooke Nicole Smith explains that “this sequence connects movement with breath, moves through both flexion and extension of the spine, and allows the practitioner to experience stillness at the apex of each movement, as well as in a neutral spine position between the movements.”
“The key benefits are improved awareness and depth of breath as well as heightened awareness and control of spinal, shoulder, and pelvic position/movement. In other words, this pose helps new yoga practitioners experience the connection between the spine, shoulders, pelvis, and breath. These small movements and connections facilitate the understanding of alignment in so many other poses (e.g. understanding internal and external rotation of the hips makes more sense in the context of how the pelvis connects to the spine). This pose makes me feel deeply connected to and present in my body. When I practice it, my awareness goes directly into my body. My mind quiets. The sensations of my breath, my movement, and my body capture my full attention. I experience peace.”
“This movement and action of the spine is found in many other yoga poses, so it is considered a foundational pose for beginners to understand and master. If you have wrist discomfort or pain, you can use fists or place your forearms on a bolster or blocks. This spinal movement exercise can also be practiced in a seated or standing position.”
2. Easy Pose (Sukasana)
The classic seated pose with legs crossed and a straight spine isn’t always easy to do. Most yoga classes will start off in Easy pose, so it is essential to know how to make this beginner pose as comfortable as possible. As Yoga Teacher and Yoga Therapist Donna F. Brown tells us, “Easy pose is often difficult to do as most people do not know how to sit still for even 5 minutes in our chaotic, fast-moving society! This pose helps beginning students to establish a seated foundation for their practice, is a common pose for learning the art of meditation, and encourages lengthening and proper alignment of the spine. Sukasana also is very calming for the mind and body, and enables concentration.” To make Easy pose easy, try sitting up on a cushion, folded blankets, or even a yoga block. If your knees feel achy, support them with blankets or blocks.
3. Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
The foundation of all standing poses is Mountain pose. Laura Finch, founder of Yogakali.com, believes that “Tadasana is the most crucial yoga pose for beginner yogis as well as for yoga teachers who work with entry-level students. Before diving into more intricate yoga poses, both students and teachers have to analyze the foundation. From the anatomical point of view, Tadasana is the basic posture that carries a pool of information about where our mind and body are at the moment. What’s more, Tadasana reveals the uniqueness of each and every body, creating the opportunity for creativity instead of blindly forcing our bodies into the “perfect” shape we’ve seen on Instagram.”
“Tadasana is perfect for beginners and accessible to the majority of able-bodied yoga students. Opening a yoga class with Tadasana is a perfect moment to detect what’s “broken” and set an intention for the yoga practice. From reflecting on our emotional well-being, and hinting previous injuries to revealing adverse lifestyle patterns, the way we stand is the best indicator of what we need to focus on in our yoga practice today. I find Tadasana to be extremely grounding and soothing. I treat it as a sort of standing Savasana, a chance to connect with the breath, center, and scan the body and feelings.”
Mountain is also a pose that Donna F. Brown deems essential to the beginner. She notes that “standing still and maintaining good alignment can be difficult for most people. When you are in Tadasana, every muscle group in your body is utilized to hold you erect. The dynamics of the pose begins in the grounding of the feet to establish balance, and the energy travels from the feet up the legs and thighs and spreads to the entire body. The hips and abdominal muscles are engaged, and this helps to properly align the spine. The shoulders are relaxed, and the head is centered directly over the spine. This pose creates a sense of steadiness, power, and strength, and thus, the name, Mountain pose.”
If you’re struggling with feeling stable in this pose, try to have your feet wider apart. You can also practice the asana against a wall for extra support and to help you properly align your spine in the posture.
4. Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
One of the most practiced poses in a yoga class is Downward Facing Dog. This pose is often used as a transition between poses and can eventually become a great place to catch your breath in a fast-flowing class. Kelly Clifton Turner, Director of Education of YogaSix, tells us that this pose “can be challenging, but the fastest way for me to feel better in my body is to move into Down Dog for 5-10 rounds of breath. It decompresses the spine, all the way up through the neck, letting the head hang heavy. It lengthens the hamstrings, which is a great counter for those who either sit a ton or are super active (think marathon runners and cyclists, whose hamstrings are always firing). It opens the chest, allowing for easy and smooth breath. It is both grounding and energizing, and will leave people feeling better in their body with just a minute or two of practice. Place one block under each hand (at the lowest height). This helps release pressure from the shoulder girdle, which allows you to focus on maximizing the length in your spine.”
Adho Mukha Svanasana is also one of Donna F. Brown’s favorite poses. She tells us, “This pose strengthens, tones and energizes the entire body! It also is an inversion pose that improves circulation to the brain, head, and neck, and strengthens the shoulders and arms, and legs. Many students lean too much on their hands and need to focus more on centering their body weight back toward the legs and up toward the hips.”
5. Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
The most foundational and commonly practiced backbend in yoga is Cobra pose. Yoga Medicine® instructor Rachel Land, advises us to “think of Cobra as the antidote to a slumped posture. All backbends broaden the collarbones and lift the sternum, opening up space for better breathing and even digestion. Because the backbend in Cobra is against the downward push of gravity, it is particularly helpful in awakening back body muscles that commonly weaken when we sit a lot, as most of us do in modern life.”
“Backbends feature regularly in yoga asana practice, but deep backbends are challenging for many of us, especially for newer students. This pose encourages us to practice three actions required to make deeper backbends more accessible:
Posterior pelvic tilt: lifting the lower belly or lengthening the tail creates more space in the low back and lengthens commonly tight muscles on the fronts of the hips.
Deep abdominal engagement: cinching around the waist even as the skin over the belly lengthens can help transfer the sensation of the backbend away from the lumbar spine to the targeted areas of the chest and upper back.
Scapula retraction: squeezing the shoulder blades back toward the spine helps to lift and open the chest, creating the heart-opening benefits of the pose.”
“We sometimes confuse pose depth with pose quality, but it’s not necessary for a backbend to be deep in order for it to be beneficial. So rather than aiming to lift your chest as high as possible, practice the three actions outlined above to open your heart and lengthen your hip flexors without creating any compression in your low back. Some students feel best with their legs together, some with legs hip-width apart, and some with the legs wider; be willing to experiment to see what feels best for you. Finally, looking down or forward rather than looking up can also help you focus the sensation on your chest rather than your neck.”
Part of a traditional sun salutation, Crescent Lunge is also the foundational yoga pose needed to build up the necessary strength and proper alignment to perform the Warrior lunge poses. Tom Johnson, Yoga Teacher with Enjoy Community Wellness, describes Crescent Lunge as “an important pose which builds heat and strength in the body, preparing the body for more complex poses. Crescent Lunge uses and integrates muscles of the entire body (legs, core, arms), lengthening and strengthening the upper and lower body. It builds balancing capability and prepares the student for Warrior I pose.”
“Crescent Lunge is an awesome pose to counteract the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle as it opens up the chest, core, and hips in precisely the opposite direction from sitting. Crescent Lunge lengthens and tones the arms, legs, hip flexors, foot, and toes; and strengthens the legs, hips, and butt. Crescent Lunge is a strong and powerful pose for the mind and body. It encourages beginners to practice the power of concentration and gives them an opportunity to own and fully occupy space on the mat. This is a common pose to warm-up the big muscles and joints of the body to prepare for more challenging postures.”
“This pose is commonly entered into from Downward Facing Dog with the back leg straight, which is challenging for both beginners and experienced practitioners. So, the beginner may want to drop into a neutral table-top (on hands and knees), place one foot forward between the hands, then lift the back knee and straighten the back leg. What’s most important is to establish a strong base by planting the heel of the front foot underneath the knee, creating a 90-degree angle at the front knee. This may require “helping” the front foot into place by taking a couple of steps forward to get the knee over the heel. Beginners may also want to keep the back knee down on the mat and focus on building the base in the front leg.”
7. Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana)
Understanding how to align the arms, legs, shoulders, and hips in multiple directions is a key teaching of Triangle pose. This foundational pose is much trickier than it looks, so approach this posture with patience and persistence. Certified yoga expert Mackenzie Shier notes that “Triangle is a great posture with a lot of benefits while being accessible for most people regardless of yoga experience. This pose strengthens the legs, obliques, core, and back while stretching the hamstrings and calves as well as the groin muscles and chest. A common pitfall in this posture is allowing the ego to drive the lower hand all the way to the floor and allowing the body to come forward in order to do so, thus losing many of the great benefits of the posture as well as possibly putting the lumbar spine in jeopardy. A great way to avoid this is by either turning the palm up, so there isn’t weight in the lower arm or even by practicing this posture against the wall. If practicing against a wall, go down only as far as the back remains fully on the wall. It may feel more difficult, but it helps to ensure proper alignment and opening of the chest.”
“Triangle is one of the first poses taught to beginners and practiced in more advanced classes too,” notes Tom Johnson. “It’s a playful way to make shapes with the body while grounding down into the earth and opening the body. It helps build balance and is a preparatory pose for more advanced postures like Half Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana). Done with a strong base and proper alignment, the student will feel strong, balanced, and open.”
“As a beginner, focus more on creating a strong base with the legs and seeking length and alignment in the spine. Don’t worry about reaching the hand to the floor–use a block to bring the floor up to you, so you keep a solid alignment of the spine. Also, wedging the back foot against a wall can help create a strong base from which to extend the spine.”
8. Plank Pose (Kumbhakasana)
Many yoga newbies struggle with having the necessary upper body strength to protect the wrists from strain and to further advance in the practice. Plank pose provides this foundational strength. As Rachel Land notes, “Several key yoga poses require us to bear our weight on our hands, something that most of us don’t often do in daily life. It can be difficult at first, so plank helps us adapt to weight-bearing on the hands without the flexibility required by poses like downward-facing dog (adho mukha svanasana), or the upper body strength required by low push-up (chaturanga dandasana), inversions or arm balances.”
“There’s no doubt plank pose is difficult, but I love the feeling that every part of my body has to work in order to hold the position. Staying in plank pose, even when it is difficult, creates a sense of personal power that is a major part of what draws me to my yoga mat. As well as helping us adjust to weight-bearing on our hands, plank pose helps us stoke the internal fire or motivation that the ancient yogis called “tapas”: hold a plank for just a few breaths and you’ll soon feel the heat build in your chest, arms, core, and legs.”
“Even experienced students find plank pose difficult, so modifications can be helpful for all of us. If you’re building up to feeling strong in plank pose, lowering your knees to the mat will reduce the effort required to hold the pose with good alignment. On days where your wrists are bothered by weight-bearing, you can prop the heels of your palms on a folded blanket or mat, or take plank pose on elbows and forearms instead. Finally, try squeezing a block between your thighs to help you recruit leg strength.”
9. Child’s Pose (Balasana)
One of the most important poses for anyone new to yoga to learn is Child’s Pose, explains Heather Dressler, owner of BodyLift Fitness. “This pose is accessible for most, and it’s a position those practicing yoga can always go to when they are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or when they have the need to calm their body down. It’s also a good pose to move your body into when you are faced with a pose during your yoga class that you can’t physically or mentally practice at that time. When we get stressed out, often, our response is to bring our hands to our foreheads. Bringing your forehead to the mat in Child’s Pose automatically calms the parasympathetic nervous system, relieving stress, anxiety, and fatigue. If your forehead doesn’t reach the mat during Child’s Pose, you can grab a block and place it between the forehead and the mat to assist. You can also place a block behind the knees to lessen the bend and lift yourself off of your heels. Child’s Pose has extra benefits, including massaging the internal organs and opening the lower back, hips, shins, and quads. If you walk your hands forward, you can also add opening to the armpit area and the chest to the list.”
10. Corpse Pose (Shavasana)
Stress reduction is one of the top reasons people begin practicing yoga, and Corpse pose is the best yoga pose to teach one how to relax. While the name sounds a bit morbid, the goal of this asana is to let go of everything that you possibly can. While it might look like naptime, it is crucial not to fall asleep in this pose. Learning to relax in Shavasana will allow you to more easily and quickly relax into the other yoga poses, which will allow you to further reduce stress and tension in your body.
Registered Yoga Teacher Lucile Hernandez Rodriguez believes that “Shavasana is a perfect way of introducing meditation in a beginners’ class. Meditation can sometimes seem not accessible enough to beginners, especially if they are not used to seating for long periods of time and can feel discomfort when doing so. Laying down solves this issue as it allows for a total release of the body.”
“For some people lying down flat on your back might hurt. You can try modifying this pose by putting a bolster under your knees. If you have back issues, put your feet as wide as the mat, knees together for a constructive resting feeling. This pose should be all about relaxation, and you shouldn’t feel any tension in your body. When you are in the pose, bring a light focus to your breath. If you notice that your thoughts are running wild, don’t judge them and just come back to your breath.”
11. Warrior 1 (Virabhadrasana I)
There are several asanas that embody the strength and power and fearlessness, and Warrior 1 is the foundation for these empowering standing poses. “This is an energizing pose that strengthens the legs, ankles, arms, and back while stretching the hips and torso,” notes Mackenzie Shier. “It’s also great for improving balance and stability. If the full variation of the posture isn’t appropriate or accessible for your body, you can always lift the back heel to reduce pressure on the ankle and hips or even lower to the back knee. There are a wide variety of options to reduce tension in the chest, shoulders, and neck. If this is an issue, try separating the hands or even bending the elbows into cactus arms while continuing to lift the torso.”
If you need to make this pose a bit easier, have less bend in the knee. You can take a break by straightening the leg and then bending it back into position. Make sure the bent knee is pointing directly at the middle toe, to make sure you do not put excess strain on the knee joint.
12. Warrior 2 (Virabhadrasana II)
Of all of the leg lunging poses, Warrior 2 is one of the most essential for beginners to learn. Reverse Warrior and Warrior Angle both rely on the same alignment in the legs and hips as this pose. “The standing poses are a major part of yoga asana practice,” explains Rachel Land. “They create a platform through which to embody the dynamic balance between strength and softness. Warrior 2 is a relatively accessible way for beginners to explore these opposing forces—pairing a sturdy standing base with an open and expansive chest. Warrior 2 teaches us to build strength, stability, and endurance, especially in the lower body, without closing off the hips or chest; this can have flow-on benefits to our posture, and connect us to our feet in a way that boosts our stability in all standing positions.”
“Like all Warrior poses, the posture creates a feeling of strength, power, and focus. The open, side-facing nature of Warrior 2 reminds us to balance that strength with softness by relaxing the face, releasing the sides of the neck, and allowing our collarbones to broaden. Though a foundational pose, Warrior 2 still requires significant strength and range of motion. Try moving your feet closer together to reduce the load on your legs. You might also find that turning your back foot and hip slightly toward the front of your mat (rather than toward the side of your mat) makes it a little easier to keep your front knee tracking over your front ankle. If your shoulders fatigue, bring your hands to your hips or into prayer position (anjali mudra).”
13. Tree Pose (Vriksasana)
Of the many balancing poses in yoga, Tree pose is the most common and best suited for the beginner. Registered Yoga Instructor Annette Goubeaux describes Tree pose as a “simple, foundational pose that is physically challenging for the hips, balance, ankles, and feet. It will make you feel strong and grounded even if held for a few breaths. As a strengthening posture, it helps you for all other balances in yoga and is a wonderful transition posture to move smoothly from pose to pose with strength and focus.”
“The practice of this posture can change daily based emotional factors such as how much sleep you’ve had, type of day, interactions with others, so it is important to tune into your emotional body and simply notice, and never judge. Emotionally it can help curb anxiety and stress and is a great way to slow down when you are feeling overwhelmed. From a mental standpoint, it can help create more confidence and raise your self-esteem as you stand tall and proud, which is why this is one of my favorite beginning yoga postures. Although it can start off challenging, students often find they can mark progress easily as they master this posture and grow stronger.”
“Tree pose builds strength in the core for more advanced yoga postures later, and as a strengthening posture, it helps you for all other balances in yoga and is a wonderful transition posture to move smoothly from pose to pose with strength and focus. This asana also helps to open the hips which will help to counteract tight hips that we often get from spending time sitting at a desk, while watching TV or while driving a car. It is also a great standing posture for beginners to work on to learn to connect to their breath, gain focus and clarity and keep the body balanced on one foot. This posture also teaches the student to connect with themselves as it is difficult to let your mind wander while in a balancing posture. To make this asana easier for a beginner, you can try varying foot positions such as heel to your inner calf, a block, or inner thigh.”
14. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
One of the most common asanas to practice at the end of a yoga practice is Bridge pose. Tom Johnson likes Bridge pose for its accessibility and versatility. He tells us that “it can be either a calming posture or an energizing one, depending on how the pose is executed. It’s also a great preparatory pose for the more complex Wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana ) and Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana) postures.”
“Bridge Pose is a nice, grounding pose that creates flexibility in the thoracic spine, strengthens the back, legs, and glutes and opens the hips and shoulders. It’s an excellent counter-pose to the position many people assume during the day as they’re hunched over a computer or steering wheel. Bridge Pose is often performed after a vigorous flow sequence, so it helps to slow down the heart rate, calm the mind and ease anxiety. It’s a posture that opens up the shoulders and heart center, allowing students to feel more compassion for the self and others.”
“A beginner may want to enter into this posture using blocks as support. Initially, the beginner can use them by placing one block underneath the back at the base of the shoulder blades, which helps to open the heart center. The second block is placed under the head at the second-highest level to support the head. The beginner can keep the legs bent or straighten the legs and let the full weight of the body be supported by the blocks.”
15. Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana)
If you go to a popular vinyasa or flow yoga class, you will need to know how to properly move into a Four-Limbed Staff pose. Chaturanga is a part of the Ashtanga yoga Sun Salutation but can be substituted with knees-chin-chest posture if it is too challenging. This yogi pushup movement is one of the most difficult to have the correct alignment of all of the basic yoga poses, especially for new students.
Kelly Clifton Turner believes that “the most common misalignment in the classic yoga push up transition, often known as Chaturanga is rushing through and letting gravity do all the work. Instead of flopping down low, s-l-o-w it down. Move with control. Keep your upper arms hugging in towards the ribs as you hinge the elbow joints back towards your hips. Stop when the shoulders are either at or over the elbow line, avoiding the “stripper dip,” which can wreak havoc on your rotator cuffs. Knees can always be on the ground to support this mindful transition without sacrificing form.”
16. Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend (Prasarita Padottanasana)
Many people are afraid to go to a yoga class because they think they are too inflexible, especially in the hamstrings, to do the practice. The Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend pose is a perfect hamstring stretch for these beginners as it allows a gentle stretch in the backs of the legs to promote flexibility. Mar Soraparu, Partner at BIAN, believes that “the wide-legged standing forward bend is one of the most effective and approachable poses, in my opinion for any yoga practitioner to put to practice. This pose can be modified or advanced quite simply with simple shifts and opens the entire body with the added benefit of a slight inversion.”
“As you embark on your yoga journey there is naturally some anxiety around starting a new practice which is why the added benefit of having your head below your heart in this pose, allowing for extra blood flow to the brain, supports easing into your practice with a sense of serenity and confidence when you are just getting started. For a beginner specifically, this pose serves as an introductory point to opening some of the major muscle groups all at once in a safe and effective way. For those who feel that they do not have any flexibility, rest assured that with the use of blocks, bending of the knees, and adjusting the positioning of the feet to a wider stance, you are able to experience the benefits of this pose.”
“The lower back, hips, hamstrings, groin, and calves are the primary muscles being stretched; however as you ease into the pose, you may feel a release in the neck and entire spine as gravity gently pulls you downward and slightly forward. Additionally, the ankles, knees, and quadriceps are strengthened as you engage these areas to stabilize. The light inversion element is incredibly beneficial to calm the nervous system which can relieve anxiety, stress, fatigue, and many other unpleasant emotional states as fresh-blood flow circulates through the body and into the brain.”
“This pose not only is excellent for your physical being but is incredibly effective in the interconnectedness of the mind and body. I always feel the narrative of my mind slow to a steadier pace as soon as I begin this pose. The longer I hold, the more my body releases and my mind finds clarity.”
17. Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana)
One of the most accessible poses to increase flexibility in the hips is Bound Angle pose. Kelly Clifton Turner believes “this pose is great for beginners, as it is a pose that can easily be modified to fit the individual. This pose has many benefits – a few include stretching the inner thighs and knees, as well as enhancing overall circulation in the body.” If the pose is too deep of a stretch, you can modify by sitting up on a cushion or blankets, sliding the feet further forward, or by placing yoga blocks under the knees.
Turner also suggests that beginners practice this pose in the reclined variation. “Angle and support the torso up on a couple of blocks or (better yet!) a bolster. Draw the soles of the feet together and allow the knees to drape wide. If there is any strain on the inner groin, slide blocks, blankets or bolsters under the knees to give the body permission to truly relax. Rest one hand on the belly, connecting with the rise and fall of breath, and the other hand at the heart, feeling the steady drumming of the amazing organ that supports you every second of every day. Stay for five to ten minutes (or longer!) and connect with a sense of gratitude and love towards yourself.”
18. Fish Pose (Matsyasana)
If you have poor posture and tend to hunch forward then you will love how Fish pose opens up your chest and helps to realign your spine. This back-bending pose is an excellent gentle, and soothing stretch for beginners. Lucile Hernandez Rodriguez tells us that “this pose will greatly help you in beginning your yoga practice as it will bring you the shoulder mobility you need for other poses such as downward-facing dog.”
“Most beginners have tight shoulders from being hunched at a computer all day. If that’s your case, fish pose will bring a feeling of release and gently open your body. You will find a backbend in your thoracic spine and stretch the whole front of the body, including your throat, chest, and abs. I personally love this pose as it allows me to totally let go of tensions after working on my computer. I also love the soothing and energizing feeling that comes with slowly opening your chest while breathing deeply.”
“To make this pose easy, try rolling a blanket, placing it under your shoulder blades and laying down on it. If this is too much for you, unroll the blanket a bit until it is fully comfortable! Make sure there is no tension in your shoulders or neck and that you feel at ease breathing in this position.”
Practice Tips for Yoga Beginners
Even though this list of poses for beginners is small, it is still a lot of information to digest at once. It is highly recommend that you begin to explore these poses slowly and carefully to not be overwhelmed. The How to Start a Yoga Practiceguide will give you the four basic steps to starting a yoga practice. The General Practice Guidelines covers all of the dos and don’ts to starting a successful yoga practice. Once you have looked through these two articles, continue reading the Yoga for Beginner’s section for further tips and advice.
Whether you’re a regular yogi or someone who struggles to remember to stretch, flexibility is a key component of a well-rounded fitness routine. And while it’s important to squeeze in some stretch time after every workout, know that not everyone is capable of performing the backbend that fitness influencer is posting about—or even touch their toes.
“Different people have different bone structures, so nobody is going to feel the same stretch the exact same way, and not everyone is going to naturally have the same range of motion and that’s okay,” says Tiffany Cruikshank, founder of Yoga Medicine® and author of Meditate Your Weight. “The most important part is that you are taking the time to stretch, and that you maintain that sense of elasticity and pliability in the muscles.”
To see where you’re at—and where you may need to focus your practice—work your way through these five flexibility tests that gauge your elasticity from head to toe. (BTW, flexibility is different than mobility.)
Flexibility Test for Your Hamstrings
Most people think it’s best to test your hamstring flexibility while standing, but Cruikshank says doing so while lying on your back isolates the hamstrings so they don’t get assistance from the hip flexors or spine.
Start lying on your back with legs straight out.
Lift one leg up into the air, then see how far you can reach up your leg while keeping your back and head on the floor.
It’s best if you’re at least able to touch your shins, and then work toward being able to touch your toes, says Cruikshank.
If you can’t, grab a yoga strap to wrap around the base of your foot, and use the straps to help slowly guide you deeper into the stretch. Hold the stretch for 1 to 2 minutes on each side, practicing daily to help you become more comfortable in the position.
Flexibility Test for Your Hip Rotators
This is a big one for those who sit at a desk all day, as the external rotators of the hips become very tight—even more so if you add a regular running routine on top of it. Cruikshank recommends this test:
Start lying on your back, with the left foot on the ground and right ankle resting gently on top of the left knee.
Lift the left leg up off the ground and try to reach for your hamstring or shin, bringing it in closer to your chest; you’ll start to feel tension on the outside of your right hip.
If you’re unable to reach your hamstring, That’s a big indicator that your hips are really tight, says Cruikshank. To work on it, she suggests placing your left foot against a wall for support and finding a comfortable distance that allows you to feel tension without pain (which means the stretch is working).
Flexibility Test for Your Outer Hips and Spine
While Cruikshank says it’s difficult to test your spinal flexibility on its own, you can give it a go if you double up with a hip test, too. (And who’s going to say no to multitasking?)
Lie on your back and bring both knees into the chest.
Then, keeping your upper body flat on the ground—it may help to stretch your arms out to each side—slowly rotate both knees to one side, getting as close to the ground as possible.
The goal is to be able to reach the same distance from the ground on both sides, otherwise it could indicate an imbalance.
As you lower down, if you feel more tension in the hips, that’s your cue that the area is tight. You should focus on releasing tension in the area, says Cruikshank. Same goes if you feel it more in the spine (just remember to keep your back flat on the ground while you rotate your knees from side to side).
As for how low you can go? “If you’re nowhere near the ground, then that’s something you need to work on for sure,” says Cruikshank. “Find some pillows or blankets to support your legs while you settle into that position for a few minutes each day, gradually removing the support as you progress closer to the ground.”
Flexibility Test for Your Shoulders
“This is an area where people get really tight, whether you’re running, cycling, Spinning, or even lifting weights,” says Cruikshank. “It’s a significant limitation to be tight in the shoulders though, so it could be something you want to focus more attention on.” To find out if you’re in need of some regular stretching, try this test:
Start standing with feet together and arms down by your side.
Bring your hands behind your back and aim to grab the opposite forearm.
You should be able to at least reach mid-forearm, though touching your elbows is even more ideal, says Cruikshank. Think about broadening your chest as you perform the stretch, or pushing your chest forward while keeping your abs tight and posture tall. “That way you’re stretching the chest, arms, and shoulders, rather than just the arms alone,” she says.
If you’re unable to reach your forearms or clasp hands, Cruikshank suggests using a yoga strap or dish towel to assist you until you get closer to your goal. Practice it a few times each day, holding the stretch for 1 to 2 minutes each time.
Flexibility Test for Your Spine and Neck
“The neck and spine tend to get really tight nowadays, especially if you’re a desk warrior and an athlete—posture isn’t always kept at the forefront,” says Cruikshank.
From a seated cross-legged position, slowly rotate to one side and look behind you. How far around can you see?
You should be able to look 180 degrees, says Cruikshank, though it’s not uncommon to find your limit is less than that due to tension in the neck.
To help release that, practice this same stretch a few times throughout the day, even when you’re in that desk chair (you can grab the sides or back of the chair for assistance). Just remember to keep your hips and pelvis facing forward, she says. “Your lower body shouldn’t move; this is all about relaxing into the seated stretch with a neck twist to release where a lot of tension is held when we get stressed out.”
When my boys first took up BMX, off-road sports bicycling, I would sit in the bleachers at the BMX track and watch my two boys and husband race around the track. There were never moms out there and only occasionally other dads. I would watch as they laughed, worked together, and had a great time.
After two years, one broken collar bone, and one divorce later, I realized that I could foster a closer bond with my middle son, the last one left racing. This potential was worth facing my fear of the track itself so I bought a cruiser bike, geared up, and began BMX racing at the age of 44. Mind you – I didn’t learn to ride a bike until well after the age of 9 because as my mom used to say “April is afraid of everything.”
I can remember my first stare down the first straight away. I could feel my heart start to race and my palms began to sweat. I knew instantly that my sympathetic nervous system was kicking in high and it was either fight-flight-freeze or surrender. I chose to stay! I suppressed my sympathetic nervous system by beginning my Ujjayi breath right away and told myself that this wasn’t fear, it was change and that change can be very exciting. So with my little guy cheering me on, I kept one finger on my brake and off I went pedaling and carving around that track!
I have now been riding for about a year and a half, and even have a district title of 3rd in Southern California! Mind you there is not many women my age racing BMX so it is relatively easy to attain. Riding at Freedom Park BMX has not just been an effort to conquer fears but also a test of how I can incorporate what I have learned through Yoga Medicine and apply it to many things in life. When riding BMX, the mechanics of the body change. I am forced to use muscles in ways I don’t use them at the yoga studio. When I teach group yoga classes, I am constantly telling them to hug in their elbows for a chaturanga dandasana.
The first time I took a lesson for BMX, my coach told me to wing my elbows out when I pump my bike. I thought well she must be wrong, but nope, she was right. Using the mechanics I have learned about protecting the shoulder I was able to adapt on the track and still maintain the ethos of chaturanga.
After a Yoga Medicine yin and meditation module, I knew I had all the tools to meditate but I kept searching for a way to meditate. I found it very hard to meditate seated and I was working too hard to quiet my mind. I now know that riding BMX is my moving meditation — it is my way to train my mind. I find that when I ride, my mind is clear during the three hours that I am out there sweating and I feel like I jumped into the fountain of youth. Since this realization, I have been able to settle for a seated meditation twice a day.
The integration of Yoga and BMX has provided several profound benefits including:
A calm headspace
Improved balance on the bike
Increased strength and flexibility in the hip flexors
Increased strength in my shoulders
Breath work helps me recover faster from hours spent on the bike
I have found that for me, riding BMX is a complimentary form of yoga. It is a way for me to stay completely present and absorbed in the present without outside distractions of the mind.
The nervous system is a complex network that regulates our vital functions, our actions, and even our thoughts. Its central and peripheral portions link all body systems via nerves communicating through different types of receptors. Moreover, the peripheral portion can further be characterized as either controlling voluntary movements or involuntary reactions (“fight or flight ” vs. “ rest and digest”) to a situation. One could spend years (!) studying its intricacies, but we typically do not spend a lot of time thinking about these inner workings, focusing instead on the end-results of interactions with our environment: how our heart rate increases when we feel stressed, the withdrawal of our hand upon contact with something extremely hot, or stopping movement when we feel excessive pain in a limb.
As a practicing Anesthesiologist, I came to Yoga Medicine®’s Nervous System and Restorative Yoga module with a solid knowledge of the nervous system and the physiology behind its activation. After all, I alter levels of consciousness, motor, and sensory responses to nervous stimuli for my patients to obtain the best treatment for their conditions. Most of my work is done with chemicals that affect the brain by modifying the production and/or elimination of messenger particles called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters relay the information between the different body systems; changes in their concentration can directly influence how we move, how we think, and our emotional state. Also, acute and chronic pain result from neurotransmitters activating receptors that respond exclusively to intense and potentially damaging signals: nociceptors. Responses generated by these nociceptors could result in lasting unpleasant, unwanted sensory and emotional experiences. As such, acute and chronic pain management is also an important component of my patient care. Using medication is currently my method of choice to address stress and pain issues, yielding a variable degree of effectiveness and patient satisfaction…
However, as a yoga teacher, I brought some big questions to this training. For instance, could practicing yoga help regulate the nervous system to the extent of getting results comparable to those obtained with chemicals (and avoiding undesirable side-effects)? And if so, how? This module gave me an insight on how we can find ways to modulate responses generated by the nervous system for both wellbeing and mindfulness.
A key teaching point for me was that the stress and the pain response to a situation are heavily influenced by the emotional memory one has in regards to similar past events. This causes acute and chronic changes in brain chemistry, which in turn affects both the mind and body. Yes, we need a certain level of stress to enhance our performance or ensure our safety: we want the increased heart and respiratory rates to pump that oxygen-rich blood to our muscles and our brain at critical times! Unfortunately, chronic exposition could gradually transform into a physiological and psychological exhaustion state with devastating long-term consequences impacting our cognitive abilities, our behaviors, our relationships, our energy levels, and our athletic performance amongst others…
Restorative yoga is an excellent tool to balance our emotions, nourish the body, and most importantly, rewire our stress response patterns through relaxation, meditation, body awareness, and breath-centric practices. It focuses on emphasizing physiological goals rather than physical ones. For instance, supported yoga positions are held during longer periods to relax the body and reprogram our central and peripheral nervous systems activation process in a down-regulatory manner. Stimulation of the diaphragm through breathing exercises, pranayama breaths, and myofascial release also enhance this down-regulation. Props (]blankets, blocks, bolsters, straps, chairs, sandbags) are used to minimize the effort exerted in poses and allow for maximal relaxation.
It is crucial that an adequate environment be provided: a warm, dark, quiet safe place will foster a sense of well-being and encourage introspection (awareness of what is going on within ourselves), and visualization. As a yoga teacher, I am there to facilitate the students’ journey and guide them through what is accessible to them.
And yes, I strongly believe that this practice will impact my students and provide a useful way to deal not only with the stress (or pain) in everyday life, but eventually to prepare and cope better when faced with unexpected challenges. As an extension, I also plan to introduce the notion of visualization and breath work with patients consulting for pain issues. After all, the mind can be a powerful ally to help achieve our goals.
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