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November 26, 2020

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Stretching out: A beginner’s guide to 10 essential yoga poses

Yoga On The High Roller


Yoga on the High Roller observation wheel Wednesday, May 11, 2016. Courtesy/High Roller Observation Wheel

Yoga is a practice dating back thousands of years, first as an oral tradition from teachers to students, then collated into the Yoga Sutra, a 2,000-year-old treatise on yogic philosophy.

Today, there are many styles of yoga using different sequences of poses (asanas), which, in tandem with the breath (prana), cultivate harmony between the body and the mind. It’s often said that yoga is a movement meditation, and when you pay attention to the breath as well as the poses, you’ll reap the full benefits of your practice.

There are five categories of asanas, and they’re usually done in a sequence or flow. Think of these poses as a series of doors that open and lead to the next room, and then the next. With consistent practice, your body will open up, too. (To learn proper technique, there’s no shortage of instructional videos on YouTube, if you’re not comfortable taking an in-person class at this time.)

Standing Poses

Standing poses, which occur in the beginning of class, build heat. They’re usually done one after the other, and they strengthen and stretch the group muscles of the legs, including the thighs, hamstrings, glutes, calves and ankles.

Mountain pose is the basis for all standing poses. Though it might look like you’re just standing, getting the correct alignment actually takes a lot of concentration. A proper mountain pose should ground you firmly to the earth below you. Benefits: Corrects posture and improves balance; increases joint flexibility; tones hips and abdomen.

One of yoga’s most recognized poses, Downward Facing Dogis named after the way dogs naturally stretch their bodies. It’s a standing pose with a mild inversion, with your body forming the shape of an “A.” Benefits: Stretches the hamstrings, shoulders, calves, arches, hands and spine while building strength in the arms, shoulders and legs.

Balancing Poses

Balancing for beginners builds core strength and lays the foundation for more advanced postures. Proper breathing technique is essential, and over time and with consistent practice, you will find that these poses get easier as you get stronger.

Though both your arms and legs are on the floor, Plank pose is actually considered a balancing pose, because it’s about building up core strength and stability, which are building blocks for all balancing poses. Benefits: Tones all the core muscles and strengthens the arms, wrists and shoulders, along with the muscles surrounding the spine, improving posture.

Tree pose is a good introduction to standing balance. For beginners, it might prove to be challenging, but one of its biggest lessons is self-compassion. You’ll fall out of the pose over and over, and that’s perfectly OK. Benefits: Strengthens and tones the leg muscles, groin, inner thighs, ankles and feet; opens up the hip and aligns the spine.

Seated Poses

Seated poses, which focus on stretching the hips and hamstrings, signal that the class is winding down.

Staff pose is the complement to Mountain pose and the basis for all seated poses. It engages the leg muscles by flexing the feet. Spine alignment while in an upright position is the goal in this posture. Benefits: Improves posture, strengthens back muscles, and lengthens and stretches the spine.

Cobbler’s pose focuses on stretching the inner thighs. This posture requires patience while the hip slowly opens. Gravity is your friend here—with time and practice, the hip and adductor muscles of the groin will gain more flexibility. Benefits: Stimulates the heart and abdominal organs; improves general circulation and relieves fatigue.

Back Bends

A healthy spine is a healthy life, many yoga teachers will tell you. In our everyday lives, we’re often hunched forward, so it’s important to take care of our spines with gentle flexion and extension.

Cat-Cow pose is one of the most important postures to learn for beginners or for those with back pain. It starts with a spinal extension followed by spinal flexion, giving the whole length of the back an invigorating stretch. Benefits: Improves posture and balance; increases flexibility of the neck and spine.

Bridge pose is the antidote to too much sitting. This beginner backbend improves the mobility of the spine. Even if you don’t have a regular yoga practice, this is one pose you should incorporate into your daily life. Benefits: Strengthens the back, buttocks and hamstrings, and improves blood circulation; stimulates the lungs, thyroid glands and abdominal organs.

Resting Poses

The greatest gift yoga gives you is the ability to be more in tune with yourself. Your body will tell you when it’s energized and when it needs to rest. Thus, learning the resting poses is just as important as mastering the standing or seated series.

Child’s pose is a position available to you at any time during a class. If you feel overheated or dizzy, this position will offer instant relief. It opens the hips and elongates the back, which relieves tension. Benefits: Releases tension in the back, shoulders and chest, and lengthens the spine; alleviates stress and anxiety.

There’s no sweeter—or more challenging—pose in yoga than corpse pose, and it comes at the end of a class. Lying on your back, you get a chance to reflect on what your body has just accomplished. Bringing the body to stillness is just as hard as any of the other asanas, and you’ll find that calming the mind poses its own challenges. But yoga is a practice—you can do it again the next day and the day after that. Benefits: Relieves stress and relaxes the body; helps lower blood pressure.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.