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.
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.
Our arms and hands are in front of the body most of the time, creating a common postural pattern where the head of the shoulder drifts forward in its socket. This pattern can impact our posture, breathing, and the weight-bearing position of the joint. In this video with Rachel Land, E-RYT 500 yoga teacher and Yoga Medicine® Therapeutic Specialist, you will learn how to activate one of the muscles on the posterior shoulder, our external rotator Infraspinatus, to help draw the head of the shoulder away from the chest back into the centre of its socket. You’ll then use that muscle activation to create central joint positioning in side plank.
Life has a compressive quality. We are all subject to the downward pull of gravity, and at this busy time of year often find ourselves carrying the weight of stress on our shoulders or, at least in the northern hemisphere, shielding ourselves against cold weather.
The expansive heart-opening poses common in yoga practice offer the perfect antidote. However, many of us arrive on our mats ill-prepared for these poses. We are sitting more than ever before: in front of computers and devices, in our cars, on our couches. This sedentary lifestyle leaves a legacy in our muscles and fascia, including shortened hip flexors and shoulders shifted forward in their sockets, patterns which can make backbends uncomfortable, even confronting, especially when we try to increase our range of motion.
Yoga heart-openers can help reverse these patterns, opening us up to more balanced biomechanics, better breathing, and potentially improved mood and energy. But unless we practice them skillfully, even compassionately, we take our postural habits with us, collapsing into our low back instead of opening our chest as intended.
One of the most well-known of the sage Patanjali’s sutras is 2.46: sthira-sukham asanam, commonly translated to mean that posture should be steadfast and easeful. This is particularly true in heart-openers, where the soft surrender of the chest must be supported by strength in our legs and core.
But how do we find that balance between effort and ease? The key is to find new pathways, like the three key actions outlined below, rather than exploiting habitual ones.
1. Posterior Pelvic Tilt
Short, tight hip flexors can pull the front rim of our pelvis forward into what is called anterior pelvic tilt. During backbends, anterior tilt increases the amount of extension required by the lumbar spine and can create a feeling of compression there. However if we create posterior pelvic tilt by lifting our pubic bone toward our navel and lengthening our sacrum, we not only take a rare opportunity to lengthen our hip flexors, we also create more space around the low back.
2. Scapula Retraction
The heart-opening aspect of backbends comes from expanding our chest, rather than extending our spine. Squeezing our shoulder blades toward each other, an action known as retraction, allows them to act like a scoop behind the heart. It’s the resulting lift of our sternum and broadening of our collar bones that gives backbends their potent benefits.
3. Core Support
Our abdominals link these two actions together, integrating the expansiveness of the upper body into the supportive strength of the lower body. Zippering our lower abdominals and knitting our ribs in and down creates an energetic connection between the sternum and the pubic bone. The result is a sense of balance or containment, channelling our backbends into uplift and expansion in the chest, as opposed to compression into the low back.
This simple sequence gives you a chance to try out these actions, allowing you to expand your heart space with compassion.
Hero Pose (Virasana) Variation
Find a comfortable kneeling position with your hands in prayer position (anjali mudra), resting your hips on your heels (or on a block or two if you need a little more support for your knees). As you inhale, allow your abdomen to expand, tipping your frontal hip points closer to your thighs – creating anterior pelvic tilt. As you exhale, hug your navel toward your spine and scoop your tail, directing your sitbones toward the back of your knees – creating posterior tilt.
Flow back and forth for four or five smooth steady breaths, familiarizing yourself with the sensation and noticing the influence pelvic position has on what you feel in your low back.
Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana) Variation
Lift your hips off your heels and step your right foot forward into a low lunge. Stack your right knee above your right ankle, taking a long enough step to bring your left knee behind your left hip.
The position of your back leg will tend to tilt your pelvis forward toward your right thigh, so balance that tendency by drawing your pubic bone toward your navel and lifting your right frontal hip bone away from your right thigh, recreating a some of the posterior pelvic tilt you practiced previously. Notice how that action creates length over the front of your left hip, and more space in your low back.
Now draw your arms behind you, squeezing your shoulder blades toward each other and turning your palms out to open your chest. Breathe into your front ribs, supporting that expansiveness by guiding your low ribs in and down.
Wild Thing (Camatkarasana)
Fold forward and plant your palms, stepping your right foot back in line with your left to transition into plank pose. Roll onto your left palm and the outer edge of your left foot, shifting into side plank (vasisthasana). Bend your right knee and step the ball of your right foot behind you, roughly level with your left knee. Then reach your right arm across your chest to catch hold of your left side ribs. Drive down through your left hand and use your right hand to help you roll your heart toward the sky, gliding your left shoulder blade toward your spine. Complete the pose by stretching your right fingertips overhead, creating space from fingers to toes. Expand into a few deep breaths before returning to hero pose to repeat the sequence on the second side.
After moving through the sequence on both sides, come to kneeling with your hips stacked above your knees. Set your feet and knees hip-width apart and tuck your toes under. Lengthen your sacrum and lift your pubic bone toward your navel to create posterior pelvic tilt. Then draw your arms behind you, retracting your shoulder blades and turning your palms out to open your chest.
Tilt back from your knees until your fingertips catch your inner heels, then press out through your hands and meet that outward pressure by magnetizing your heels toward the midline. Create support for your open heart by energetically drawing your pubic bone toward your sternum and knitting your low ribs in and down.
Stay here for another three or four full, deep breaths, poised in the balance between courage and compassion, effort and ease, strength and surrender. When you are ready to move on, use your core and legs to lift you up and out, returning to the kneeling position where the sequence began for a moment of reflection.
As Patanjali outlined centuries ago, one of the core benefits of yoga practice is its capacity to help us create balance in our lives. Case in point – as the modern lifestyle becomes increasingly compressive, yoga heart-openers offer the chance to feel spacious: to access deeper breathing, and to counter the physical effects of sitting. But the lifestyle habits that make backbends helpful also make them a challenge for many of us. Rather than following old patterns and pathways, it benefits us to explore new ones – to learn to balance a soft heart with supportive core and legs.
Injuries and medical conditions exist in any population, but the prevalence increases with age. Older beginners aren’t fragile, but even if they have been lucky enough to avoid injury or surgery they may be experiencing other challenges less common in younger beginners. As teachers, it’s not our job to diagnose injuries or medical conditions, but it can be helpful to know more about those we’re likely to encounter most often. That way, we have an idea of how to help our students work with them and make our classes more accessible.
Here are some of the most common conditions you may come across while working with older students, as well as how they might impact a yoga practice.
1. Inflammation and Soft Tissue Changes
Some of the degenerative changes we call “aging” are thought to be linked to persistent low-level inflammation, 1, 2 and natural changes to soft tissue.
Inflammation is a natural process required to fight infection or repair tissue damage. However, it should be balanced by equally important anti-inflammatory processes that tend to become less effective as we age. Chronic inflammation has been linked to many of the conditions we will discuss later including arthritis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, autoimmune conditions, and certain kinds of cancer. Several studies have suggested that regular yoga practice can help reduce inflammatory markers. 3 4 5
Be aware that older students are more likely to feel stiff and sore after exertion. In addition to this, our skeletal muscle tends to lose mass and strength as we grow older—a condition called sarcopenia—while our connective tissue, or fascia, often becomes more fibrous, less elastic, and less readily hydrated. Due to these natural changes, our students’ range of motion, strength, and endurance may decrease.
IT CAN HELP TO:
Start gently and progress slowly.
Incorporate simple practices that lubricate and mobilize the body, such as joint circles, gentle twists, and side bends.
Include varied poses rather than overemphasizing a single muscle group.
Allow rest between poses and between yoga sessions to allow for full recovery.
2. Osteoarthritis and Joint Replacement
In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that almost half of Americans aged 65 and older had osteoarthritis (OA). This condition involves gradual deterioration or loss of the cartilage that covers and cushions the articulating surfaces of our bones and the formation of bony growths (called osteocytes) around the joints, potentially leading to joint pain and inflammation and reduced bony range of motion. OA can occur in any joint, but is seen most often in the knees, hips, spine, wrists, fingers, and toes. If the condition progresses far enough, joint replacement might be required.
Students with OA might find it painful to bear weight on or through affected joints, so kneeling, all-fours positions, or standing on the balls of the feet could be uncomfortable. Bony changes in the hip, knee, or ankle joints could make it difficult or impossible to step forward from downward facing dog, come into a deep lunge, transition readily between standing and the floor, or practice postures like hero (virasana), supine hero (supta virasana), pigeon (eka pada rajakapotasana), cow face (gomukhasana), or garland pose (malasana).
IT CAN HELP TO:
Focus on achieving the benefits of yoga poses—such as strength, tissue elasticity, standing stability, and better posture—rather than on enforcing traditional alignment.
Include poses and practices that build stability and symmetry around the joints, potentially reducing further wear and tear.
Use props, walls, furniture, or (better yet) poses and sequences that avoid weight-bearing on affected joints.
Be prepared with standing sequences that allow for reduced range of motion and avoid frequent transitions between standing and the floor.
Try supine stretches that reduce body weight on any painful joints—like a supine figure four instead of pigeon or happy baby (ananda balasana) instead of malasana.
If your students have given you permission to touch them, use light, directional adjustments rather than trying to move them into an idealized version of the pose that may not be possible due to bony changes around their joints.
Be aware of any joint replacements. Joint replacement surgeries are more successful than ever, but some positions will still be contraindicated postoperatively. Make sure your student has been cleared for practice by their medical team and get clear guidelines on what range of motion is considered safe.
3. Osteopenia and Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is a condition in which loss of mass makes the bones porous and brittle, much more vulnerable to collapse or fracture from even minor injury. Osteopenia, also called low bone mass, is lower than normal bone density that has not reached the point of osteoporosis. These conditions are increasingly common as we age; data from the 2010 census suggests that more than half of Americans aged over 50 had either osteoporosis or low bone mass, particularly postmenopausal women of Caucasian or Asian descent. The joints most commonly affected are the spine, ribs, hips, and wrists.
Many people don’t know they have low bone mass until they experience a fracture, so as a teacher of older students it’s worth taking basic precautions whether your student is aware of having low bone mass or not. The simplest of those is to reduce the likelihood of falls.
However, some bone fractures can occur due to even more subtle factors, like chronic postural changes. Osteoporosis tends to exacerbate thoracic kyphosis, or rounding of the upper back, so positions that put additional force through this area—like standing forward fold (uttanasana), seated forward fold (paschimottanasana), seated twist (ardha matsyendrasana)—are not generally recommended.
IT CAN HELP TO:
Incorporate poses and practices that improve coordination and balance like crescent lunge, eagle pose (garudasana), or the kneeling balance bird dog. At the same time, reduce the risk of falls by avoiding jumping, bouncing, and rapid changes of direction as well as removing tripping hazards like props, electrical cords, low furniture, and loose rugs.
Focus on poses that counter thoracic kyphosis—like mountain pose (tadasana), bird dog, and active backbends like locust pose (salabhasana).
Avoid rounded-spine forward folds and twists, and replace them with those where the spine is neutral (such as the supine hamstring stretch supta padangusthasana) or supported (such as a reclined spinal twist).
For students with known osteoarthritis, avoid positions that place unaccustomed weight directly on weakened bones. Headstand (sirsasana) and shoulderstand (salamba sarvangasana) are contraindicated if there is osteoporosis in the spine, because of the weight these poses place on the neck.
4. Vascular and Heart Conditions
The CDC names heart disease as the leading cause of death for Americans over 65, so it’s reasonable to assume that some of your older students may have heart disease or hypertension (persistently elevated blood pressure) if you are teaching in a group setting.
The implications of heart disease in yoga practice relate to poses and practices that require cardiovascular exertion, or strongly influence circulation. Known conditions should be monitored closely by your student’s doctor, but it’s sensible to take general precautions.
IT CAN HELP TO:
Emphasize practices that soothe the central nervous system. These include slow and mindful movement, restorative poses, guided relaxation, savasana, yoga nidra, meditation, and calming pranayama techniques. Humming bee breath (bhramari), left-nostril breathing (chandra bheda), and lengthened exhalations are considered particularly calming.
Start gently and progress slowly. There’s nothing wrong with building strength, stability, and endurance, but allow your student’s circulatory system to gradually adapt to yoga practice.
Avoid rigorous or heated practice and observe your students’ breathing, color, and facial expressions closely to ensure that they don’t overexert themselves and overtax their circulatory systems.
Avoid forceful breathing exercises, including bellows breath (bhastrika), skull shining breath (kapalabhati), or breath retention (antara kumbhaka), all of which have the potential to overstimulate the nervous system and thereby increase blood pressure.
Avoid strong inversions, which significantly increase blood pressure in the head; headstand, shoulderstand, forearm stand (pincha mayurasana) and handstand (adho mukha vrksasana) are commonly contraindicated. You may also suggest that your student consults their doctor for advice on more gentle inversions including downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana), standing forward fold, or legs up the wall (viparita karani).
5. Other Conditions: Respiratory, Diabetes, Cancer
Any population can experience serious health concerns (such as cancer, diabetes, spinal stenosis, respiratory illness, stroke, Alzheimer’s, or dementia), but prevalence does increase with age. Any serious illness requires specific advice from the student’s medical team, but even if yoga practice is unable to help the student’s symptoms directly, a growing body of research suggests that it may be able to help indirectly.
Reflective practices that soothe the nervous system can reduce perceived pain and support faster healing and improved immunity.
Any condition that limits our capacity to breathe freely, including respiratory disorders and chronic pain, could benefit from gentle, gradual pranayama.
Yoga philosophy offers concepts designed to build mental and emotional equilibrium in the face of hardship. It may be appropriate to discuss non-attachment (vairagya), reflection or self-study (svadhyaya), contentment or gratitude (santosha), and surrender to a higher power (ishvara pranidhana).
Even something as simple as connecting regularly with a friend or two in a private or small group yoga session can have a hugely positive influence on energy and mood.
It can be daunting to start working with anyone who has an injury or medical condition. While it helps to know about the conditions we commonly encounter when working with older beginners, there’s no need to be fearful, or treat older students as fragile. We don’t even need to be experts—our role is to simply help and support however we can. Even when we are unsure how to start, we can rely on simple and time-honored practices like progressive relaxation or mindful breathing to help our students feel better.
Inflammaging and anti-inflammaging: A systemic perspective on aging and longevity emerged from studies in humans: Claudio Franceschi, Miriam Capria, Daniela Monti, Sergio Giunta, Fabiola Olivieri, Federica Sevini, Maria Panagiota Panourgia, Laura Invidia, Laura Celani, Maria Scurti, Elisa Cevenini, Gastone C.Castellani, and Stefano Salvioli, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047637406002491.
Innate immunity and inflammation in aging: a key for understanding age-related diseases: Federico Licastro, Giuseppina Candore, Domenico Lio, Elisa Porcellini, Giuseppina Colonna-Romano, Claudio Franceschi, and Calogero Caruso, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1166571/.
Yin yoga is commonly equated with passive stretching, which is perhaps why some people see it as an unhelpful practice for more flexible people. If the aim of yin yoga were merely to increase range of motion, I might agree. Fortunately, however, yin has much more to offer than flexibility gains.
There are four other potential effects of yin that even the most supple students can benefit from.
1. Collagen Synthesis
Yin targets the connective tissue, or fascia, that surrounds, encapsulates, connects, and interpenetrates the bones, muscles, organs, nerves, and blood and lymph vessels. Fascia is adaptive, constantly responding to the demands we place on it.
So rather than aiming to stretch fascia, yin poses subject it to subtle but sustained “stress”—including compression and shear, or rotational force, as well as stretch. This seems to stimulate specialized cells within the fascia, called fibroblasts, to lay down additional collagen fibers in the direction of the stress. Collagen fibers give our soft tissue its structure, strength, and capacity to connect the parts of the body into a unified whole.
This adaptive process is not unique to fascia—most of us are familiar with the idea that strength training makes our muscles stronger, or that cardiovascular training makes our heart and lungs more efficient. So for flexible students, instead of making their already supple tissues weaker, yin can actually encourage their fascia to become stronger and more resilient; the key is to set up in yin poses in a way that creates a gentle, sustained sensation rather than a deep stretch.
To do butterfly pose in a way that prioritizes subtle but sustained “stress” over a deep stretch, a flexible student might practice with knees propped with blocks, and hands on the floor with arms straight to support the spine.
Subtle stress on our fascia has multiple flow-on effects, including temporarily squeezing fluid out of our fascial layers. As discussed above, it also stimulates fibroblasts, resulting in collagen synthesis, and the production of a chemical called hyaluronic acid. Water-loving hyaluronic acid attracts a rush of water molecules from surrounding tissue back into the fascia, initiating a process of rehydration that outlasts yin practice by hours.
Visualize a sponge submerged in water: Squeezing, twisting, and pulling on the sponge drives out residual fluid, creating space for fresh water to fill it up again.
Good hydration is vital to the healthy function of fascia for two key reasons:
• Hydration yields better glide between fascia layers, allowing for free movement and circulation between body surfaces and structures and reducing the potential for irritation and adhesion.
• Water is incredibly resistant to compression, so that when our tissues are well-hydrated they are stronger and more resilient to life’s demands. An easy way to visualize the structural strength of a fluid-filled system is to imagine a plant wilting from lack of water, its stems bowing under the weight of its leaves—but as soon as you water that plant you’ll see it stand tall again.
The gentle compressive forces of a twist can initiate a process of rehydration that outlasts yin practice by hours.
3. The Relaxation Response
Physiologically, yin practices have the capacity to balance our autonomic nervous system (ANS), which governs unconscious or involuntary body processes like heart rate, breathing, pupil dilation, and muscle tension. The ANS has two arms. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) triggers the fight or flight response, priming us to handle perceived threats with quick and decisive action. The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) governs the relaxation response: It is ideally the dominant force during daily life—diverting blood away from the muscles to the digestive, reproductive, and immune system organs.
Few would dispute that modern life is very yang—emphasizing movement and action, and exposing us to constant stimulation. The frantic pace of life today means that the SNS is far more active than our biology intended it to be, and many of us are seeing that imbalance reflected in our physical and mental health.
Yin yoga allows us the time and space to find the nourishing stillness required to downregulate the ANS. When we prop ourselves in yin poses in a way that allows us to truly rest, we might feel our vigilance, heart rate, and blood pressure lower while our immune, digestive, and reproductive functions improve.
Students with large ranges of motion won’t feel stress on their fascia in all positions. But if they simply settle into stillness they can still benefit from the soothing impact on their nervous system.
While a very flexible student may not feel a big stretch in bananasana (a.k.a. supine half moon pose), by resting there in stillness, their nervous system can still benefit greatly.
4. Energy Flow
The same way a road map and a weather map show completely different views of the same terrain, the Western view of the physical body comfortably coexists with the Eastern model of an energy body. The energy body referenced in yin comes from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and is composed of life force, or qi, which is thought to flow through specific channels called meridians.
According to TCM principles, the physical stress created by yin poses also stimulates the flow of qi through the meridians. Poses that compress the abdomen could be viewed as supporting healthy digestion by compressing our abdominal organs and by nourishing the stomach meridian. Poses that lengthen the back seam of the body not only gently stress the thoracolumbar fascia and hamstrings but also support the soothing and introspective qualities of the bladder meridian.
We in the Western world may not be as familiar with the energy body as we are with the physical body. However, we don’t have to be able to see or understand electricity in order to grasp its effects when we switch on a light. Likewise, we don’t have to fully understand Traditional Chinese Medicine to know that we feel different after yin yoga; even the most flexible students can still benefit hugely from its capacity to nurture good flow of qi.
Caterpillar pose, propped, is a great way for flexible students to feel nurtured and turn inward in practice. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, this pose supports the introspective qualities of the bladder meridian.
The key to reaping these broader benefits, especially for students with extensive range of motion, is to follow three guiding principles in each pose: • REDUCE YOUR DEPTH. Rather than coming to your usual endpoint, approach each pose slowly enough to stop where you first feel sensation. If you’re anything like me, that will be an enormous reduction in the depth of the pose—meaning that you’ll stay closer to 50 percent of your full range of motion. Unlike in restorative yoga, the aim is to feel some sensation, but the key word is: some. • FIND SOMEWHERE YOU CAN RELAX. Once you’ve found your new version of the pose, take time to set yourself up so that your muscles can relax as completely as possible. That may involve using props to fill the gaps between your body and the floor, or leaning into the support of your arms or a wall. It could even involve an alternate version of a pose, like lying on the floor with your legs up a wall instead of doing a seated forward fold. • STAY IN STILLNESS. Fascia, the target tissue of yin practice, is highly adaptive— constantly responding to the demands we place on it. Its response, however, is slow and gradual. To target our slow-reacting fascia we need to stay in the same subtle, relaxed shape for at least a couple of minutes. There’s no doubt that yin yoga can help those who would like a little more mobility. But it also has the potential to maintain well-hydrated, elastic, and resilient soft tissue, rebalance the nervous system from the constant stimulation of modern life, and regulate the flow of energy. Even the most flexible students can realize these benefits by practicing yin with a subtle approach—not going as deep, finding a shape they can relax into, then staying patiently still. The key, as with any yoga practice, is not in what we do but how we do it. Photography: Andrea Killam
Senior Yoga Medicine® teacher, Rachel Land, examines five familiar poses and explains the value of adopting a more open-minded approach to asana.
If there were one belief I could dissuade my students of it would be that there is a single version of a pose that everyone can achieve with patience and persistence, and that any variation of that ideal represents failure. This false notion underpins many of the questions and comments I hear from students, such as: “How can I get my heels down to the ground in down dog?” “When will my hips open enough that my knees can come to the floor when I sit cross-legged?” or “I have such tight hamstrings; I’m terrible at this pose.”
But what if the problem wasn’t the student but the pose or our expectation of how the pose “should” look? Because here’s the thing: If we dissect the range of motion required by even foundational yoga poses (as we will in the examples below), we see that many require above average ranges of motion.
Our range in any given joint could be above or below average, meaning that the idealized image of a yoga pose may or may not be available to us. The good news is that it doesn’t need to be in order for us to reap the benefits of practice, which include strength, stability, coordination, and focus. And when we let go of our need for a pose to look a certain way, we create space to receive those benefits while respecting our unique anatomy.
So what is “average” range of motion?
Before we go further, let’s define “average” range of motion. Range of motion charts commonly used by physical therapists and other movement professionals were calculated by measuring joint end range in a specific direction across a large sample of people. Then averages were calculated from that sample, roughly midway between the most flexible and least flexible people.
Of course, some people will have more range of motion than average and some will have less, but understanding the average ranges can help us manage our expectations of what’s possible in practice.
Can we increase our range of motion?
Put simply, our flexibility is a reflection of the elasticity in our muscles and fascia as well as the hard boundaries created by the shapes and proportions of our bones. How do we know whether we are limited by muscle tension or bony compression? Soft tissue tension is likely to be on the opposite side of the joint into which we are moving: In a forward fold, for example, we might feel a tug on our hamstrings. Bony compression would be on the same side of the joint: In the same forward fold we would feel the tissues deep in the front of the joint meet, preventing us from folding further
Yoga does have the potential to increase soft tissue flexibility over time, so if muscle tension is preventing us from moving deeper into a particular yoga pose, we may be able to increase our range by stretching the muscles that are involved. However, the shapes and proportions of each person’s bones vary slightly, and will not change, so we each have a unique end point in the range of motion of every joint.
If bony compression is limiting us in a particular yoga pose, there are ways to adjust our alignment, potentially changing the positions of the bones enough to bypass that limitation. But that requires us to let go of our attachment to the textbook version of the pose and take a more open-minded approach.
Let’s examine a few poses that could be enhanced by this approach—poses regularly featured in all-levels classes that require above average range of motion.
1. Downward Facing Dog
Downward dog, adho mukha svanasana, is a staple in yoga classes for good reason. It stretches the hamstrings, calf muscles, pectoralis major, and latissimus dorsi. It also helps us balance upper- and lower-body strength, and prepares us to more effortlessly support our body weight on our hands.
Downward dog is regularly offered as a resting pose, but for many of us there’s nothing restful about trying to use our arms overhead without compressing the sides of our neck, straightening our legs without rounding our back, or attempting to get our heels to the floor. These challenges aren’t imagined; this pose requires average or above average range of motion in the shoulders, hips, and ankles.
2. Standing Forward Fold
Looking around the yoga studio and seeing students effortlessly fold in half, you could be forgiven for thinking of the standing forward fold, uttanasana, as an easy pose. But now knowing that the hip flexion required by downward dog exceeds average range of motion, you can see how uttanasana presents an even more significant challenge.
Standing forward fold does offer a hamstring stretch, an opportunity to gently traction the spine and neck, and the chance to cultivate an inward focus. However, the goal of uniting chest and knees or head and shins is simply not accessible for most of us. Average ROM in hip flexion is, at 70 to 90 degrees with straight legs, not even halfway into the forward fold. This suggests that most of us will need some kind of modification for this pose.
3. Upward Facing Dog
Upward facing dog, urdhva mukha svanasana, stretches commonly tight muscles on the front of the body, including the abdominals and hip flexors. It even presents us with a rare opportunity to lengthen the muscles on the tops of our feet. The inclusion of this pose in sun salutations can also teach us alignment lessons we can apply to deeper backbends. However, the surprisingly deep range of motion required in the wrists, spine, and ankles could make it an unexpectedly challenging part of a vinyasa practice.
4. Triangle Pose
Extended triangle pose, utthita trikonasana, contains enough benefits to be sequenced into classes of all levels. It offers a hamstring stretch for the front leg, eccentric strength work for the gluteus medius and quadratus lumborum on the top side of the body, a subtle chest opener, and a chance to build balance and stability with both feet on the ground. But if this pose is tough for you, you’re not alone: It requires well above normal range of motion in the front leg, especially if you try to connect your bottom hand to the floor.
5. Seated Spinal Twist
Seated spinal twist, ardha matsyendrasana, is a regular in vinyasa classes, often used to transition between standing poses and the floor. It can help us mobilize the spine from a stable base, shifting our postural habits—and potentially our perspective. It also provides a valuable opportunity to release outer hip and thigh muscles. However, without modifications this pose does require well above average flexibility in the spine and hips.
I don’t have X-ray vision. I can’t see my students’ bones or the makeup of their connective tissue. I don’t know whether their potential range of motion is above or below average. I don’t know whether they will ever be able to ground their heels in downward dog or get their chest to touch their thighs in a forward fold. Fortunately, asking them to do these things is not my goal as a teacher. I want them to have a successful, by which I mean beneficial, yoga experience.Guiding my students toward more realistic expectations frees them from perceiving any deviation from an imagined notion of alignment as failure. It means they can cultivate open-minded curiosity instead of brute force determination, allowing them to focus on the benefits of each pose rather than its idealized shape. As far as I am concerned, that approach can bring us all closer to the true practice of yoga.
Tips for working with a fast-growing segment of the yoga student population.
Older beginners are a fast-growing segment of the yoga student population. According to the 2016 Yoga in America Study commissioned by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal, over one in three yoga students in the U.S. were aged over 50 and that number had more than doubled since 2012.
Unfortunately, yoga injuries in older students have increased even more markedly. Another 2016 study found that while yoga-related injuries in the U.S. had become twice as common between 2001 and 2014, they had increased more than eightfold in students aged over 65.
These two factors make specialized classes, small groups, or one-on-one sessions the ideal format for older students new to yoga. But the Yoga In America Study highlighted another potential issue: that while more than one in three students were aged over 50, just one in seven teachers was in that age range—meaning most teachers don’t know how it feels to be an older beginner.
The statistics reflect my personal experience. I started teaching yoga in my mid-30s, physically fit, and two decades away from my first time on a yoga mat. I received a new private yoga student as a referral—a woman in her late 60s who was recovering from a spinal fracture related to osteoporosis and highly motivated to see how yoga could help her feel better in her body.
Though I regularly taught experienced students in their 50s and 60s in group classes, it’s no exaggeration to say that I was terrified. My new student was no longer in serious pain but was not capable of, or interested in, flowing through sun salutations or working on peak poses. Even making her way down to the floor and back up to standing involved significant time and effort. I had no idea where to start, but we figured it out together and learned along the way.
Fast-forward to today and much of my work involves teaching students in this age group, many of whom started with me as beginners. They are perhaps the most varied beginner population I have come across, and a highly flexible and individual approach is required. However, I’ve encountered some common themes, and these are my top five to consider when working with beginners over 60.
1. Maintain Mobility
You’ve heard the saying “Move it or lose it.” Many of us become increasingly sedentary as we age, so the adage can apply even more to older beginners. Gentle movements in varied directions can help maintain tissue elasticity, lubrication, and hydration while also circulating syn
ovial fluid in the joints and lymphatic fluid. It can also bring students’ awareness to differences in sensation or range of motion between left and right sides.
YOGA ABOUNDS WITH OPTIONS TO GENTLY MOBILIZE THE JOINTS, INCLUDING:
• Unweighted joint movement, such as lying supine while circling the ankles, hips, and wrists or rolling the head from side to side.
• Gentle backbends, such as cat and cow or rolling bridge, flowing into and out of bridge pose one vertebra at a time.
• Easy side bends, including a variation of cat and cow on all fours, which involves sliding the lower legs to one side and looking over the same shoulder.
• Supported twists. Supine windshield wipers for the knees can release the hips and lower back. The thoracic spine can be mobilized from side-lying with bent knees level with the hips, using the top arm to flow into and out of a gentle supine twist as if opening and closing the cover of a book.
• Chest and shoulder mobilizers, such as circling the arms holding a strap between the hands, or taking supine “snow angels,” where the arms glide out wide and overhead aiming to maintain contact with the floor.
2. Build Strength in Underutilized Areas
Gentle mobility work is hugely beneficial, but don’t be afraid of challenging your older students. Because muscle mass and function tend to decline as we age, strength work is crucial. Muscles used regularly for work or sport will often still be strong, so look for areas that have been overlooked.
COMMONLY OVERLOOKED AREAS INCLUDE:
• The upper body, where strength tends to decline along with a decrease in lifting and manual work. Holding the arms in a T-shape or cactus shape during standing poses like warrior II or chair pose can be used to build upper-body endurance. Weight-bearing on either hands or forearms is also useful; options include tabletop, plank, side plank, downward facing dog, or dolphin pose. Creative options such as using light hand weights or resistance bands in asana practice can also help.
• The posterior shoulder and upper back, where weakness can accentuate the tendency for the upper back to round into kyphosis as we age. Include active backbends like cobra or locust, as well as positions in which arms externally rotate (palms turning forward) or the shoulder blades retract toward the spine.
• The glutes. Include active backbends like locust and bridge pose to target the gluteus maximus, plus side plank, crescent lunge, and single-legged standing balance poses like tree pose to target the gluteus medius.
• The core and pelvic floor. Focus on neutral-spine core work that strengthens the transverse abdominis, such as supine knee lifts and toe taps or the kneeling balance bird dog where we extend the opposite arm and leg from all fours. Learning to engage the pelvic floor can help students feel grounded during pranayama, core work, and standing poses.
• The diaphragm. Many students find it challenging to breathe without using accessory muscles in the neck and at the top of the rib cage. Learning to use the diaphragm more effectively by practicing relaxed abdominal breathing can have a surprisingly positive impact on posture, neck tension, digestion, balance, strength, and endurance.
3. Improve Stability and Coordination to Prevent Falls
We know that stability tends to decline and that falls can have more serious repercussions on our lives as we age. It makes sense to incorporate balance and coordination exercises with older beginners, though it might be sensible to ensure that your student can reach a wall or prop so there’s no risk of falling while they build stability.
HERE ARE SOME POSSIBILITIES:
• Introduce movements or poses that coordinate opposite sides of the body—like circling the arms in opposite directions, practicing eagle pose, or extending the opposite arm and leg in locust pose or bird dog.
• Kneeling balance work is a great option to maintain hip, spine, and shoulder stability without risking a fall (though the student’s knees or wrists may need cushioning). Bird dog is one of my favorite options. A kneeling version of half moon is also a fun challenge, as is the side plank variation with the bottom knee on the floor.
• Placing one or both feet on soft foam yoga blocks during standing poses is surprisingly challenging and a great way to awaken neuromuscular connections in the legs and feet. This option works in mountain pose, fierce pose, warrior I and II, and crescent lunge.
• Traditional one-legged balances like tree pose, eagle pose, half moon pose, or warrior III are always options. If your student needs a little extra support, suggest they use a wall; placing their back to the wall will feel much steadier, but if they are ready to up the ante, a student could also play with positioning themselves so that one knee (in the case of tree pose), one hip (for eagle pose), or the lifted foot (for half moon and warrior III) is pressing into the wall.
• Working with one or both feet on tiptoes is another way to build foot and ankle strength and improve stability. Crescent lunge is one example, so is lifting the front heel in warrior II, or taking mountain pose or fierce pose on tiptoes.
• Training stability during movement is also key to maintaining keen proprioception and coordination. Starting in a low lunge with the back knee down and slowly lifting the hands and torso is a challenge for many students. Walking in a straight line as if on a tightrope—both forward and backward—can also help. Stepping forward, sideways, or backward over an obstacle like a yoga block is also good practice for avoiding real-life tripping hazards. For variety, take inspiration from smooth, slow-moving practices like tai chi (also called taiji).
4. Down-Regulate the Nervous System
Reflective and introspective practices like pranayama and meditation emphasize the parasympathetic nervous system, which creates the “relaxation response”—decreasing feelings of vigilance, lowering heart rate and blood pressure, stimulating digestion and immunity, and eventually reducing chronic inflammation. These changes benefit any age group but are particularly relevant for older students, especially those managing chronic medical conditions or injuries.
CONSIDER INCLUDING SOME OR ALL OF THE FOLLOWING:
• Mindful movement and embodiment practices.
• Restorative postures, guided relaxation, yoga nidra, and savasana.
• Calming and balancing pranayama, including diaphragmatic breathing, 2:1 yogic breathing, bumble bee breath (brahmari), left-nostril breathing (chandra bheda), and alternate-nostril breathing (nadi shodhana).
5. Cultivate Acceptance
Whether we like it or not, change is inevitable. If we are lucky enough to enjoy a long life, we will see changes in how we look, feel, and view the world; we will have to let go of some things and embrace others. Building on a foundation of asana, pranayama, and meditation, the philosophical practices of yoga can help us navigate these changes more smoothly.
Yoga philosophy teaches us that change is inevitable but that the suffering that sometimes accompanies change is not. Yogis believe that suffering can stem from either desire (raga), defined as clinging to a person, possession, ability, or situation, or aversion (dvesha), the fear of pain or suffering. Freedom from suffering requires the practice of non-attachment or equilibrium (vairagya). As a teacher of older students, you may want to introduce these concepts, and invite your students to create space for deeper reflection and self-study (svadhyaya). In fact, seeing how this depth of practice supports my older students has reaffirmed my own commitment to it.
Working with beginners over 60 can seem daunting to begin with, especially if, like the majority of teachers, you are currently in a younger age group. But this population isn’t weak or fragile; in fact, they have weathered a lifetime of storms. When you really get down to it, the real-world outcomes many of them seek—the need to maintain mobility and strength, to support themselves through the uncertainties of life—can benefit students of all ages. Devising creative ways to meet these needs is some of the most challenging, but also most satisfying, work we can do as teachers.
I started my teaching career in my mid-30s, when I was physically active and mentally driven. Power vinyasa was initially a great fit for me, but when I, quite by accident, started working with older students my perspective shifted. Gradually I moved from fast flows and advanced poses to a practice more geared toward physical and mental balance. I still teach, and love, slower-paced group classes, but much of my time these days is spent working with older students one-on-one—and I wouldn’t change a thing. I never expected to learn as much as I have from working with older people: It is challenging, varied, and fulfilling, and has enhanced my teaching in unexpected ways.
Being a yoga teacher has become increasingly popular, and that trend looks to continue. According to the 2016 Yoga in America study conducted by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal, two people were enrolled in yoga teacher training for every person currently teaching, while an additional two people expressed interest in becoming a teacher in the future.
Because of this unprecedented level of interest, it’s less and less likely that graduates will follow the well-worn pathway to teaching only open classes in yoga studios. Many teachers, myself included, have created a more sustainable career by focusing on a specialized student demographic.
Here are my top four reasons for focusing on older beginners.
1. Older beginners are a fast-growing demographic.
The Yoga in America study revealed some additional insights into the yoga world:
More than one in every three yoga students in the U.S. were over 50—more than double the number in 2012—making this population a growing percentage of the yoga market.
A third of students had been practicing for less than a year and nearly three-quarters for less than five years, meaning that many of the older students attending yoga classes were fairly new to the practice.
The main benefits sought were flexibility, physical strength and overall health, and mental health or stress relief. These statistics are consistent with my experience that increasing numbers of older people are drawn to yoga by physical and mental benefits that might feel more and more significant as we age.
At a time when many teachers face pressure to maintain or increase class attendance and secure private yoga bookings, older beginners constitute too large a market to ignore.
2. Older beginners are highly committed students.
Every teacher has dedicated students who show up day after day to practice. But in our 20s, 30s, and 40s life is busy; family and work demands are high and many of us take our physical and mental health for granted. This is not necessarily true later in life.
Firstly, older students often have more time at their disposal. For many, gone are the years of frantic mornings and weekends devoted to childrens’ extracurricular activities. Older students may be retired or have settled into a satisfying area of expertise and no longer have to put in 80-hour weeks to prove themselves.
Secondly, this age group is more likely to be established in their homes and careers and without children living at home. The greater likelihood of financial stability means that older students may have the discretionary income required to pay for small group and private sessions.
Finally, in my experience, older students tend to be more appreciative of their physical and mental health, and committed to practices that support their ongoing well-being. For some, yoga allows them to more fully enjoy their leisure time—whether to help them unwind after work, to maintain the physical health required for their favorite sports, or to keep them limber enough to play with their grandchildren. Others place higher value on improving their posture, breathing, or balance. And for some, regular yoga practice is the difference between putting on their shoes unaided or driving their car and depending on others for help.
Students like these—who potentially have the time, the means, and the motivation to practice regularly—are a gift to any teacher.
3. Practices tailored to older beginners could reduce injuries.
While the number of older students practicing yoga has grown, yoga-related injuries in this group have unfortunately increased even more markedly. Another 2016 study found that yoga-related injuries in the U.S. overall became twice as common from 2001 to 2014, but increased more than eightfold in students over 65.
In my experience, many students with a long-standing practice are able to safely attend group classes at any age, but older beginners face challenges that younger beginners do not. As we age, our muscles tend to lose some of their strength and mass, while our connective tissue becomes more fibrous and less readily hydrated. Older students are more likely to feel stiff and may take longer to recover from intense activity. Having lived longer also makes this population more likely to have had injuries or health issues that influence whether or not a group class is appropriate to their needs.
And there’s one more factor. The Yoga in America study found that, while more than one in three students was over 50, only one in every seven teachers were, meaning that most teachers, like myself, have not experienced what it’s like to start practicing yoga in an older body.
Older beginners aren’t weak or fragile, but these factors do suggest that they could benefit from specialized classes or, better yet, one-on-one instruction to learn how to build a yoga practice that safely meets their needs. Giving this demographic the option of tailored practice is a win-win: the potential for fewer yoga-related injuries, plus new teaching opportunities for educated teachers.
4. You will become a better teacher.
Compared with my students in other age groups, older beginners tend to be more interested in real-life outcomes than in ticking off poses, and while yoga offers myriad options, traditional poses and sequences don’t always do the job. Being willing to use tools from other disciplines—like resistance training, Pilates, Tai Chi, and physical therapy—has given me more options to share with all of my students.
In fact, I never expected to learn as much as I have from working with older people. I’ve learned not to gauge a student’s capacity by their appearance. I’ve seen how potent simple practices like mindful breathing and gentle movement can be. I’ve learned to ask questions and listen, because my students’ experience of a pose could contrast hugely from my own. I’ve learned that prevention is easier than cure, but that patience and persistence can overcome even decades of habits. I’ve learned that stopping to laugh, listen, or offer a hug can be a better use of time than fitting in one more yoga pose.
They weren’t always easy lessons to learn, but they have influenced both my own practice and how I teach other populations. I’m more creative in my sequencing, and less dogmatic regarding what constitutes “correct” alignment in yoga poses. I am more aware of common limitations in asana practice, like reduced joint range of motion or pain when weight-bearing on hands or knees. I spend less time on complex sequences and “advanced” poses and more time focusing on real-life benefits to mind and body.
New yoga teachers are being trained every day, and the growing and committed presence of beginners over 60 opens up fresh opportunities for them. Focusing on these students has changed my career for the better in every way. It has led to work that is more varied, more interesting, and more sustainable than rushing from studio to studio to maintain a busy group class schedule. It has also helped to make me a safer and more knowledgeable teacher to students of all ages.
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