Top Ten Yoga Positions
Don't let the masters at your local yoga studio intimidate you; yoga is a practice that anyone can incorporate into their fitness routine. Yoga is a great way to nurture your mind, body and soul — it's no wonder the practice has been handed down for thousands of years.
These 10 yoga poses are some of the most popular at classes across the world. Incorporating these favorites into your fitness routine is a great way to improve your overall health, no matter your skill level.
This top 10 list was selected by Ellen Dilthey, head yoga instructor and Thai massage therapist at Frog Lotus Studio in North Adams, Massachusetts.
1. Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Downward-Facing Dog stretches your hamstrings, calves, shoulders, hands, and arches of your feet. It's a great move for everything from back pain to digestion issues. This pose also calms the mind and relieves stress.
HOW TO DO IT: Start with your knees and palms on the floor, with your fingers spread. As you exhale, lift your knees from the floor, placing your weight on your toes and palms.
Lift your sit bones towards the ceiling until your legs straighten, and then bring your heels slowly to the floor (or, as close as you can comfortably get). Keep your head aligned with your arms, and maintain straight arms and legs.
2. Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Mountain pose strengthens your knees, ankles and thighs, and can improve your posture. It also relieves sciatica and flat feet.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand with your big toes together and your heels slightly apart, with toes spread. Stand straight, with your arms at your sides and your palms rotated forwards. Firm your thigh muscles and pull your kneecaps upwards; lengthen your ankles, stretching your arches upwards.
Feel the stretch extend in a line up through your legs, into your groin, up into your torso, and into your neck. Keep a straight line from the top of your crown to the base of your feet. Widen your collarbones and press your sternum up towards the ceiling without pushing your ribs forwards.
3. Warrior I Pose (Virabhadrasana I)
Warrior I is a great pose for relieving sciatica, and provides a deep hamstring stretch.
HOW TO DO IT: Start in Mountain pose. Then, step one foot slightly forwards and bring the other foot back, so that your feet are 3 1/2 to 4 feet apart. Keep your front leg bent at the knee and your back leg straight, with your heels aligned and your hips pointed forwards. Bring your arms up over your head, parallel to each other, and lift towards the ceiling. Press your front leg forward so that your shin is perpendicular to the floor. Slowly press your back heel into the floor as you stretch your arms upwards to the sky. With your rear heel anchored to the floor, feel the stretch travel up your back leg, through your belly, and up through your shoulders to the ceiling.
4. Warrior II Pose (Virabhadrasana II)
Warrior II provides similar benefits to Warrior I, and allows a deeper arm stretch.
HOW TO DO IT: From Warrior I, bring your arms perpendicular to your torso, with your hips rotated 90 degrees. Stretch one arm back towards your rear foot, and the other in front of you, forming a straight line from fingertip to fingertip across your chest.
Keep your head pointed forwards, towards your hand. Keep your shoulder blades stretched wide and your palms facing towards the floor. Keeping your shoulders directly over your hips, press your rear heel down towards the floor and your front knee forwards until your front shin is parallel to the floor.
5. Camel Pose (Kapotasana)
Camel Pose stretches the front of your body, from your throat and chest to your abdomen and groin. It also provides a deep stretch through your thighs, ankles and hip flexors.
HOW TO DO IT: Start in an upright kneeling position, with your knees at a right angle and your torso, shoulders and head stacked evenly above your pelvis. With knees slightly narrower than shoulder width apart, press your hands over the back of the pelvis. On inhalation, tuck your chin and slowly lean backwards without pushing your hips forwards.
Firm your shoulders and push your chest towards the ceiling, and slowly lean your head back. Advanced students can then bring the arms up and over the head, arching your back towards the floor while keeping your thighs as upright as possible. Slowly lower your head until you can grip your ankles or calves, with your forehead in contact with the floor.
6. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Bridge pose stretches the neck and spine, and is therapeutic for backaches. It also provides mental benefits, relieving insomnia, anxiety, stress and mild depression.
HOW TO DO IT: Lie flat on your back in a supine position. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor, with your heels close to your sit bones. As you exhale, press your feet and arms into the floor and raise your hips towards the ceiling.
Lift your sternum into your chin, rotating back on your shoulders with your neck bent. Firm your shoulders and spread your shoulder blades apart, and focus on lifting the space between them (at the top of your back) upwards, towards your torso.
7. Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
Cobra pose stretches your chest, opening up the heart and lungs. It also stretches and strengthens the spine, and is therapeutic for sciatica and asthma.
HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your stomach, with your legs straight behind you. Bend your arms so that your palms are directly beneath your shoulders, flat on the floor, with fingers outstretched. On inhalation, slowly straighten your arms, raising your shoulders up from the floor, while keeping your feet, knees, and pelvis pressed firmly into the floor.
Keep raising as far as you can without breaking contact between your pubis and the floor. Feel the bend evenly across your entire spine, without hardening your lower back. Slowly push your sternum towards the ceiling, without pushing your ribs forward.
8. Extended Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana)
Triangle pose strengthens the thighs, knees and calves, and stretches the groin and hamstrings. It also stimulates the abdominal organs, aiding digestion.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand with your feet flat on the floor. Then, step and spread your legs 3 1/2 to 4 feet apart, with your left foot facing forwards and your right foot rotated 90 degrees, with heels aligned. On exhalation, slowly extend your torso directly over your right foot, through your hip joint.
Keep your left foot pressed firmly into the floor to anchor the pose. Rest your right hand on your shin, ankle, or the floor (depending on your flexibility) without distorting your torso. Lift the other hand up towards the ceiling, and turn your head slightly to look towards your left hand.
9. Tree Pose (Vrksasana)
Tree pose targets your thighs, calves and ankles, and offers a deep stretch for your spine and groin. It's therapeutic for sciatica and flat feet.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand with both feet on the floor. Then, shift your weight to your left foot and slowly bend your right knee. Grab your right ankle with your right hand. Slowly pull your right heel up towards your groin, with your foot pressed into your thigh and your toes pointed towards the floor. Bring your hands together in front of your abdomen, with your palms pressed together and fingers pointed towards the ceiling.
10. Side Plank Pose (Vasisthasana)
The Side Plank improves balance and strengthen the abdomen and legs. It also stretches and strengthens your wrists.
HOW TO DO IT: Start in a plank pose, with your weight placed on the balls of your feet and the palms of your hands. Then, slowly rotate your weight sideways, supported by your left hand and outer left foot, and hold your body in a straight line angled diagonally from the floor.
Keep your right foot stacked on top of your left with legs straight, and balance your shoulders just slightly behind your left hand, with your left arm at a slight angle from the floor. Align your body from the top of your crown to the base of your heels, and tighten your thighs. Stretch your right hand upwards towards the ceiling, and slowly rotate your head to gaze at your right hand.
Yoga poses are a great addition to any workout routine.
Practicing a Yoga Routine
Each of these poses can be held for 30 seconds to a few minutes. Keep your breathing even and focused through each pose, and keep your movements slow and deliberate. if you're limited by flexibility, proceed through more advanced moves (like the Pigeon Pose) with caution, listening to your body. As you progress, it may be useful to attend a class where an instructor can guide you through smooth transitions between poses.
- The New York Times: Yoga For Everyone
- Yoga Journal: Downward-Facing Dog Pose
- Yoga Journal: Warrior I Pose
- Yoga Journal: Warrior II Pose
- Yoga Journal: Pigeon Pose
- Yoga Journal: Bridge Pose
- Yoga Journal: Cobra Pose
- Yoga Journal: Triangle Pose
- Yoga Journal: Tree Pose
- Yoga Journal: Mountain Pose
- Yoga Journal: Side Plank Pose
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- Baptiste B, Finn Mendola K. Yoga for swimmers: A new approach to dryland training. Yoga Journal. Updated April 5, 2017.
- Hakked CS, Balakrishnan R, Krishnamurthy MN. Yogic breathing practices improve lung functions of competitive young swimmers. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2017;8(2):99-104. doi:10.1016/j.jaim.2016.12.005
Max Roman Dilthey is a science, health and culture writer currently pursuing a master's of sustainability science. Based in Massachusetts, he blogs about cycling at MaxTheCyclist.com.