Why You'll Love Yoga
- Your body weight provides all the resistance you need to strengthen and sculpt from head to toe.
- It's the perfect way to cross-train because it stretches tight muscles, increases range of motion, enhances balance, and improves alignment.
- It's good for your body and mind: Yoga boosts energy and calms you as it teaches awareness, focus, and patience.
How Yoga Works
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.
1. Warrior II (standing pose)
Strengthens: Butt and thighs; stretches hips
- Stand with legs 3 to 4 feet apart, turning right foot out 90 degrees and left foot in slightly.
- Bring your hands to your hips and relax your shoulders, then extend arms out to the sides, palms down.
- Bend right knee 90 degrees, keeping knee over ankle; gaze out over right hand. Stay for 1 minute.
- Switch sides and repeat.
Make it easier: Leave your hands on your hips and don't bend your knee as deeply; instead, focus on lengthening the spine.
2. Tree (balancing pose)
Stretches and strengthens: Butt, thighs, calves, ankles, chest, and shoulders; improves balance
- Stand with arms at sides.
- Shift weight onto left leg and place sole of right foot inside left thigh, keeping hips facing forward.
- Once balanced, bring hands in front of you in prayer position, palms together.
- On an inhalation, extend arms over shoulders, palms separated and facing each another. Stay for 30 seconds.
- Lower and repeat on opposite side.
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.
3. Downward Dog (partial inversion)
Stretches: Hamstrings and calves, strengthens shoulders
- Begin on all fours; press spread fingers firmly into the floor.
- Bring your knees off floor as you lift tailbone toward ceiling.
- Gradually straighten legs by shifting thighs back, pressing heels toward the floor.
- Press shoulders down and keep head between arms. Stay for 1 minute.
Make it easier: If you have tight hamstrings, keep your knees slightly bent or pedal your feet by alternating the heels toward the floor.
4. Wide-Legged Forward Fold (forward bend)
Strengthens: Thighs; stretches hamstrings and calves
- a. Stand with feet 3 feet apart, hands on hips.
- Inhale, then exhale and hinge forward from hips until chest is parallel to floor, hands on floor directly under shoulders.
- b. Exhale, then bend elbows and deepen stretch by lowering head toward floor, palms pressing down and upper arms parallel to the floor. Hold for 1 minute.
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.
5. Bridge Pose (back bend)
Stretches: Chest and thighs; extends spine
- Lie on floor with knees bent and directly over heels.
- Place arms at sides, palms down. Exhale, then press feet into floor as you lift hips.
- Clasp hands under lower back and press arms down, lifting hips until thighs are parallel to floor, bringing chest toward chin. Hold for 1 minute.
Make it easier: Place a stack of pillows underneath your tailbone.
6. Seated Spinal Twist (twist)
Stretches: Shoulders, hips, and back; increases circulation; tones abdomen; strengthens obliques
- Sit on the floor with your legs extended.
- Cross right foot over outside of left thigh; bend left knee. Keep right knee pointed toward ceiling.
- Place left elbow to the outside of right knee and right hand on the floor behind you.
- Twist right as far as you can, moving from your abdomen; keep both sides of your butt on the floor. Stay for 1 minute
- Switch sides and repeat.
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.
Find Your Yoga Style
"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.
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.