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10 Foundational Yoga Poses for Beginners

It can feel intimidating starting yoga for the first time. If you are considering going to class here are a few of the most common beginner’s yoga poses you are likely to encounter in class for you to practice at home so that you can feel confident and prepared for your first class.

Yoga poses can be divided into several “families”:

  • Standing poses (including standing balances)

  • Seated poses

  • Twists or lateral bends (poses where the spine is twisted or bent to the side)

  • Forward folds, backbends (or heart openers)

  • Supine poses (poses where you lie on your back)

  • Arm balances (poses where weight is born on the wrists)

  • Inversions (poses where the feet are above the head)

Some poses overlap into more than one family. I have selected a pose which serves as a foundational pose for each family – a pose which all other poses in that category build on from – to allow you to build a strong foundation from which to develop your practice.

1. Seated Pose: Easy (Sukhasana)

Most yoga classes will start sitting down on the mat, and many will start with Easy Pose. Easy Pose is sitting cross-legged with the feet under the knees.

  • Sit down and cross your legs, with the feet under the knees

  • If the hips are tight and the knees are very lifted, rest the knees on something like blocks, cushions or books

  • Root both sitting bones into the ground and grow the spine tall from the base, allowing the neck to be long with the chin parallel to the earth

  • If the spine is rounded, try sitting on a block or book to tilt the pelvis forwards slightly. You can also sit against a wall for support

  • Rest the hands gently on the knees with the palms facing up for energy and down for grounding

2. Arm Balance: Tabletop (Bharmanasana)

In yoga, many poses bear weight on the wrists. The first pose that bears weight on the wrists you are likely to encounter is tabletop or all fours position. This might be very new for your wrists, so be sure to warm them up before coming into this pose!

Tabletop is a gentle arm-balancing posture that can build strength in the wrists, arms, legs and core. Tabletop is also a great place to start learning about neutral spine alignment. Put simply, it’s coming on to your hands and knees.

  • Your yoga teacher might cue the wrists to be directly under the shoulders and the knees directly under the hips, which is a good basis for alignment, however you may find it more comfortable on the wrists to bring the hands slightly ahead of the shoulders

  • Pad out your knees and ankles with something soft if you like

  • Once you find a comfortable position, spread the fingers wide and press the palms and the tops of the feet gently into the ground. Feel how this moves the shoulder blades slightly away from each other

  • Feel a sense of the crown of the head and the tailbone moving gently away from each other so that the spine is long

  • A soft engagement in the belly will help to support the spine in this posture

From here, you can start to mobilise the spine by introducing cow pose (Bitilasana) and cat pose (Marjaryasana).

  • Cow pose: From Tabletop, as you inhale arch the spine and send the chest forwards between the arms, lifting the chin slightly. Allow the shoulder blades to move together slightly. Keep pressing gently into the hands and feet.

  • Cat pose: From Cow Pose, as you exhale round the spine and scoop the pelvis forwards, drawing the chin to the chest, doming the shoulder blades away from one another.

  • Keep moving back and forth between Cow and Cat pose, inhaling for Cow and exhaling for Cat, for a few breaths before returning to Tabletop.

3. Backbend/Heart Opener: Low Cobra (Bhujangasana)

Low Cobra is probably the first backbend you will encounter in yoga. It might be more useful to think of backbends as heart-openers, with an emphasis on opening in the chest rather than bending the spine. Opening the chest requires length in the spine, so try to think about becoming as long as possible in this pose rather than coming up as high as you can.

  • Start by lying face-down on the mat

  • Make sure the legs are active by rolling onto the tops of the feet and pressing them gently into the mat. Active legs will protect the lower spine from any pinching

  • Place the palms next to the shoulders, spread the fingers and point the elbows backwards towards your feet

  • If you can, introduce a gentle engagement in the lower belly. Again, this is to support and protect the spine

  • Gaze at the ground in front of you. Think of the neck as an extension of the spine (which it is!) and so allow the back of the neck to be long

  • Roll the shoulders back and down and, as you inhale, lift the chest and gaze forwards, using the muscles in the back of your body to do so

  • The hands can press gently into the ground, but shouldn’t be used to force the chest higher

  • Allow the lower spine to design the shape of the pose

  • Exhale to come down again

4. Standing Pose: Mountain (Tadasana)

Mountain is one of my favourite poses – appearing so simple, but with a richness beneath the surface that is fascinating and empowering. Mountain is a full-body experience that rises from the earth beneath the soles of the feet to the crown of the head. The beauty of Mountain is in its stillness and its sense of presence – come into a space of “being” rather than “doing” and explore how the mind reacts to the non-activity.

  • Stand at the top of your mat. You can either have the feet hip-width apart or have the toes together with the heels slightly apart. Either way, the toes are facing ahead of you.

  • Feel all four corners of the feet pressing into the mat

  • Activate the legs slightly by lifting the kneecaps and rolling the thighs slightly in towards each other

  • A gentle engagement in all four sides of the core supports the spine

  • Roll the shoulders a few times and then allow them to relax down and back, allowing a sense of width across the chest

  • Lightly spread the fingers and turn the palms to face ahead of you

  • The chin is parallel with the earth with the back of the neck long, the crown of the head reaching upwards

  • Breathe slowly and evenly. Perhaps close the eyes and stay here in stillness for a few breaths, noticing how the body sways gently over its centre of gravity

5. Forward Fold: Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)

Standing Forward Fold is a great pose to start building flexibility in the muscles in the back of the body (the posterior chain), particularly the hamstrings (the backs of the thighs).

  • From Mountain, bend your knees softly. Take your hands to your hips and as you exhale start to tip the upper body forwards from the hips, keeping the spine long

  • Come about halfway down to start, so your body is at a right-angle. Try to keep the hips over the feet and the tailbone and crown of the head moving away from each other

  • You can rest your hands on two blocks on the floor if you like

  • If you can and would like to, with the knees bent keep folding the upper body over the legs with the exhales, relaxing the neck and moving the crown of the head towards the floor

  • Rest your hands on the mat in front of you if you can

6. Balancing Pose: Tree (Vrksasana)

Standing balances in yoga are great for building strength and stability in the body. They're also a great challenge for the brain as they take a lot of focus and help to create new neural pathways. Tree pose is one of the first standing balances you are likely to encounter in yoga. There are several options you can take with Tree, which makes it a great pose for beginners.

  • From Mountain, find something still to focus your gaze on (a drishti or focused gaze - this will help you balance) and have your hands at heart centre or on your hips

  • Start to transfer most of your weight onto the left foot, then gently come on to the toes of your right foot and rest your heel above the left ankle, bringing the right knee to face the right of you, opening in the right hip joint

  • Stay here or, if you like, bring the right foot off the floor and place the sole of the foot gently on the inside of the left calf or the inside of the left thigh (do not rest the foot on the knee, only below or above it)

  • Keep the right knee opening out to the side and the spine tall

  • If you feel balanced, you can take the arms up above your head, spreading the fingers to "open your branches"

  • Keep breathing slowly and your gaze focused on a fixed spot for a few breaths, then place the foot back down and repeat on the other foot

7. Hip-Opener: Reclined Pigeon (Supta Kapotasana)

Tight hips are a common occurrence in modern day life, particularly if you spend a lot of time sitting in a chair. This gentle hip-opener is a great place to start releasing some of that tension.

  • Lie down on your back with the knees bent and the soles of the feet on the ground, about hip-width apart

  • Cross the left ankle over the right thigh, just below the knee, so that the shin is parallel to the ground. Press the left knee gently away from you

  • Stay here if you like, or interlace the fingers around the right thigh and lift the right foot off the ground. As you exhale, hug the legs gently in towards you

  • Keep the shoulders rooted into the earth and relaxed, with the back of the head resting on the ground

  • Stay here for a few breaths, then release the leg and repeat on the other side

8. Twist: Supine Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)

Twisting poses improve spinal mobility and gently massage the internal organs to improve their function. When starting to do spinal twists, it is advisable to start with Supine Twist as you have the support of the ground underneath you. This can also be a very relaxing posture and is usually included at the end of a yoga class.

There are several options for leg positions in this pose (see pictures) so you can really fit the pose around your unique body.

  • Lie down on your back and hug your knees into your chest

  • Shuffle your hips slightly to the left, then exhale to bring the knees to the right down towards the mat

  • Stack the legs on top of each other and rest them on the ground

  • Try to keep both shoulder blades rooted into the mat

  • You can take the arms out into a T or cactus shape with the palms facing up and, if it's comfortable for the neck, take your gaze to the left

  • Close your eyes if you like and breathe slowly here, relaxing completely

  • Inhale to bring the knees back up to centre, then repeat on the other side

9. Inversion: Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani)

Inversions, where the feet are raised above the head, can improve circulation by encouraging the flow of blood back to the heart and can be grounding and relaxing -particularly this beginner's pose, Legs Up the Wall. Don't worry if you don't have a wall handy, you can place the hands on the backs of the thighs to gently support the legs.

  • If you're using a wall, shuffle the hips fairly close to the wall but not right against it, and lie down on your back with the legs lifted about hip-width apart, heels resting on the wall

  • It can be really nice to place something, like a book or block, underneath the sacrum in this pose to allow the spine to decompress

  • Tuck the chin slightly to allow the neck to be long, with the back of the head resting on the mat

  • Bring the hands a fair distance from the body with the palms facing up

  • Close your eyes if you like and relax completely, perhaps bringing your attention to the space in the centre of your forehead (your Third Eye)

  • Stay here for as long as you like

10. Supine: Corpse (Savasana)

Corpse Pose, usually referred to by its Sanskrit name, Savasana, is always performed right at the end of class as the final resting pose. It is perhaps the most important and sometimes the most difficult pose of all, allowing us to fully absorb the practice, but requiring an extended period of stillness and inactivity which is often so difficult for busy, active people.

  • Lie down on your back as comfortably as possible

  • Allow the feet to relax fully

  • Bring the hands away from the body, perhaps with the palms facing upwards

  • It can be nice to support your head with a block or cushion if your chin is lifted

  • You may like to cover yourself with a blanket, place a cushion under your knees, use an eye pillow or use any other props to allow yourself to relax fully

  • Try to keep your attention on your breath

  • When you come out of Savasana, do so slowly and mindfully

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