Yoga Poses: An Introduction to Asana Practice

Yoga poses (also called asanas) are at the heart of the physical practice of yoga. Although there are many different types of yoga, the same group of poses ties almost all of them together. However, the yoga pose canon is always expanding. There are only a handful of poses that come from the earliest surviving yoga sources, and they are largely seated poses for meditation. In fact, the word asana means seat.

Yoga is constantly evolving and has picked up a lot of poses along the way, particularly in the past century. Although each yoga pose has a specific focus, it's really the consistent practice of a wide variety of postures that builds a well-rounded practice, which in turn offers the greatest physical and mental benefits. The postures can be categorized in different ways: by type of pose, by level of difficulty, or by anatomical focus.

Types of Poses

The major types of poses are standing, seated, supine, prone, balancing, forward bends, backbends, twists, and inversions. Of course, there is a lot of overlap. For example, a pose like king dancer (natarajasana) is a standing, balancing backbend. In general, the more elements that are combined in a single pose, the more difficult it becomes.

  • Prone Poses
    The opposite of supine is a prone position, lying on the stomach. This is a good position for stretching and strengthening your back in poses like cobra, locust, sphinx, and bow
  • Balancing Poses
    Balancing poses include standing balances, some of which are done on one leg, and arm balances, in which only your hands are on the ground. All balancing poses require core strength to keep the body stable. Improving your balance is particularly important as you age. 
  • Forward Bends
    Forward bends bring the spine into the position of flexion. They can be done in a standing or seated position. Uttanasana is the classic standing forward bend with the legs together, prasarita paddottanasana is much the same with the legs wide apart. The corresponding seated poses are paschimottonasana (legs together) and upavistha konasana (legs apart). Almost any seated posture can be taken into a forward bending position.
  • Backbends:
    Backbends are poses where the spine is in extension. Though you may picture a deep backbend (which is called wheel pose in yoga), our backbends library includes many options that are less intense, for instance bridge pose and camel pose.
  • Twists
    Twists are a wonderful way to cultivate spinal mobility, which helps keep back pain at bay. Twists can be done in the standing, sitting, or supine positions. The Sanskrit word parivrtta, which means revolved, in the name of a pose clues you in that it's going to be a twist. Seated spinal twist is a popular option, as are revolved triangle and revolved side angle
  • Inversions
    Inversions are poses where the head is below the heart. These include balancing poses like headstand and handstand, but downward facing dog can also be considered an inversion. Legs-up-the-wall is a gentle inversion that is appropriate for beginners. 

Yoga Poses by Level

Although classifying poses by level of difficulty makes yoga seem goal-oriented, quite the opposite is true. As you build your practice, more poses become accessible. It's fun to try challenging poses, but don't get attached to the results. Instead, try to tune in to your body every time you get on the mat. Every day is different, so let go of expectations and really experience each posture. 

  • Beginning Poses Library
    Beginning poses are yoga's building blocks; you will return to them again and again. Practicing these poses starts to establish strength and flexibility throughout the whole body. Foundation poses include standing poses, seated and supine stretches, introductory backbends, and balancing poses. These ten essential poses for beginners are a great place to start, particularly if you've never done yoga before. And be sure to also look at the riskiest poses for beginners so you know what to avoid. 
  • Intermediate Poses Library
    At the intermediate level, the foundation poses are further refined and more challenging variations are introduced as the body becomes stronger and more flexible. There is a wide range of intermediate poses so don't be surprised if you find some easy and others impossible at first. At the intermediate level, you will be ready to add some arm balances and inversions to your practice, as well as increase the difficulty of your standing poses and backbends.
  • Advanced Poses Library 
    Advanced poses require even more strength and flexibility, usually achieved through years of practice. Advanced poses continue to expand the limits of what the body can do through deep backbends and intense arm balances and inversions. When you feel comfortable trying these poses will vary greatly, though it is neither unusual nor inappropriate for them to be introduced in intermediate level classes. As you begin to attempt them, perhaps with the help of props, your body learns the shapes. One day you might surprise yourself by doing a something you never thought was possible. 

Anatomical Focus

Anatomical focus means the area of the body that is targeted the most by a pose. This is a good way to find poses if you know you are looking for hip openers or hamstring stretches. However, as noted above, most poses have several areas of anatomical focus so even if you have a specific body part in mind, you'll work other regions of your body as well, resulting in greater strength and flexibility overall.

  • Hamstring Stretches
    Tight hamstrings are the bane of so many folks. People who spend a lot of time sitting are often afflicted, but so are athletes. Yoga is one of the most effective ways to stretch your hamstrings to avoid back pain and sciatica
  • Hip Openers
    Our conception of what constitutes a hip opener is evolving. There are a lot of muscles that interact with the legs and pelvis around the area that we think of as the hips, including the hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes, psoas, and piriformis. It's important to stretch and strengthen these muscles for greater core stability. 
  • Heart Openers
    Heart openers are intended to free up the chest, ribs, and upper back, counteracting the hunched posture we develop from sitting at desks and driving cars. Most of them are also backbends, but approached with the intention of improving mobility in the thoracic and cervical vertebrae, not just the lumbar. 
  • Shoulders 
    As joints, the shoulder are a very tricky area of the body to work on. The primary focus of these poses is to loosen up the tension that builds up across the trapezius muscles, including the neck and upper back, while also finding safe ways to work on strengthening and stretching the muscles that support the shoulder girdle.  
  • Arm Strength 
    Build your triceps and biceps with yoga poses in which your arms bear most or all of the body's weight. For a flow sequence, try these 10 poses for arm strength
  • Ab Strength
    A strong core is essential for intermediate and advanced yoga postures, as well as supporting the spine and improving athletic performance. This abs sequence, which includes balancing poses and boat pose, will build abdominal strength, but you may also want to try these yoga crunch alternatives and plank variations
  • Leg Strength 
    The legs are targeted most directly in standing poses. Make sure that you don't let your legs get lazy in these postures. Keeping the thighs engaged and the knee caps moving upwards ensures that you are working your leg muscles. 

A Word From Verywell

Take a peek into a yoga class at your gym or local yoga studio and you will see students moving through poses as if choreographed. The teacher calls the name of the posture and the students assume the position in unison. If you have never done yoga, this may seem mysterious, but once you get started you'll soon learn how to join in. Some poses are so simple, you're probably already doing them without realizing it. Remember, however, that the ability to do a difficult pose doesn't make anyone better at yoga. The simplest poses have the same value as the most complex.

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