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The ideal yoga workout incorporates six types of poses, says Roger Cole, PhD, a psychophysiologist and yoga instructor. "Together, they improve alignment, strength, flexibility, and relaxation." Standing poses build strength and stamina. Balancing poses improve balance, of course, but also promote focus. Forward bends stretch back and hamstring muscles; back bends improve breathing. Twists aid in digestion and tone abs. And inversions increase circulation, leaving you calm yet energized. We've designed a program with one pose from each group, plus modifications to make it easier for newcomers. Do each exercise once in the order given.
Make it easier: Leave your hands on your hips and don't bend your knee as deeply; instead, focus on lengthening the spine.
Make it easier: Bring your right foot to the inside of your left ankle, keeping your toes on the floor for balance. As you get stronger and develop better balance, move your foot to the inside of your left calf.
Make it easier: If you have tight hamstrings, keep your knees slightly bent or pedal your feet by alternating the heels toward the floor.
Make it easier: Support your head on a yoga block.
Tip: Keep your jaw soft and your shoulders pressed away from your ears, even when you're working hard in a pose. When you're relaxed, your muscles will release, which increases flexibility.
Stretches: Chest and thighs; extends spine
Make it easier: Place a stack of pillows underneath your tailbone.
Make it easier: Keep bottom leg straight and place both hands on raised knee. If your lower back rounds forward, sit on a folded blanket.
"Yoga's physical, emotional, and mental benefits are inextricably linked," says Roger Cole, PhD. "Stretches help to release pent-up tensions, while strength-building poses boost body confidence," he says. "Plus, holding a pose for a minute or more improves your focus and gives you the opportunity for spiritual insight." So while you may not walk out of a yoga class with the wisdom of a swami, at least you'll be more in tune with yourself.Find Your Yoga Style
Ashtanga or Iyengar? Hatha or Hot? With a little knowledge, it's easy to determine the practice that's right for you.Hatha
Best for: Beginners
Although it's the umbrella term for all physical yoga practices, it is often used as a name for beginners' classes that include basic poses, breath work, and meditation.
Try this: Yoga Zone's Introduction to Yoga (DVD; $14.95 at yoga.com)
Best for: Busting stress
Props such as bolsters and blankets support your body so you can totally relax.
Try this: Relax & Renew by Judith Lasater, PhD (book; $21.95 at rodmellpress.com)
Best for: Perfecting your form
This practice emphasizes precise alignment and develops strength and flexibility.
Try this: Yoga for Beginners with Patricia Walden (DVD; $15 at yoga.com)
Best for: Working up a sweat
A series of 26 poses practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees to increase flexibility.
Try this: Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class (CD; $20 at bikramyoga.com)
Best for: Raising your heart rate
This steady stream of flowing movements coordinated with the breath doesn't stop until the final resting pose.
Try this: Sun Salutations Awakening the Flow (DVD; $16.95 at soundstrue.com)
Best for: Sculpting your upper body
A standardized sequence of athletic poses that connects movements with the breath.
Try this: Ashtanga Yoga DVD Set (set of 2 DVDs; $40 at gaiam.com)
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2006.