The benefits of yoga have long been recognized, with everything from increases in strength and flexibility to improved energy and blood flow attributed to the practice. To help those who enjoy yoga but don’t have a lot of time in their schedules to devote to the postures reap the health perks, we asked Nya Alemayhu of Washington, D.C.-based Yoga with Nya to share five of her favorite postures. While some of these poses may require a knowledge of yoga beyond a beginner level, they provide an overview of a variety of beneficial postures and sequences and can serve as inspiration for those thinking about taking a class.*
Cobra posture (Sanskrit name: Bhujangasana): Cobra posture is one of my favorite poses and the beginning of backbends. I like to come into cobra using spider fingers.
Benefits: When performed correctly, cobra posture can strengthen the spine; stimulate the abdominal organs; open the heart and lungs; and stretch the abdomen, chest, lungs, and shoulders.
Getting into the pose: Lie on your stomach, bringing ankles together with the top of the feet down. Tuck the tailbone down toward the heels. Place your forehead down and align your hands with your shoulders by placing your hands on the outside of the mat. Tee-pee your fingers like spider legs, and on an inhalation press down through the tops of the feet, the tops of the hips, and the tops of the fingers and lift head, shoulders, and upper spine.
What to watch out for: Please be cautious with this posture if you have a back injury, carpel tunnel, severe headaches, or if you are pregnant.
Camel posture (Sanskrit name: Ustrasana): Camel posture is in the family of backbends and heart openers. It’s great because it also works the quadriceps.
Benefits: When performed correctly, camel posture can strengthen the back, open the chest and shoulders, and leave you in a euphoric and uplifted state.
Getting into the pose: Come to your knees with your legs hip-width apart and sit on your heels. There are levels of intensity in this posture (the photo is the fullest expression of the pose); to come into the modest variation of this backbend, tuck your toes under. Place your hands on your hips with your thumbs on your sacrum (the bony plate at the base of your spine) and draw your elbows in toward one another. On an inhalation, tuck your tailbone down toward your heels and gradually push your hips forward. On another inhalation, lift your sternum up toward the sky, allowing your ribcage to expand. Stay rooted in your feet, continuing to push your hips forward and lifting your sternum. If you feel up to it, you may dip your head back (note: only do so if it feels comfortable). To come out of the pose, on your next inhalation, tuck the chin down first, tuck the tailbone down, and return your seat back onto your heels.
What to watch out for: It’s important that you do not crunch the lower back—focus on really tucking the tailbone down, elongating the spine, and pushing the hips forward. Do not allow your knees to come wider than hip-width. Keep the chest, neck, and shoulders open by focusing on lifting the sternum upward and drawing the elbows in.
Bridge posture (Sanskrit name: Setu Bandha Sarvangasana): Bridge posture is one of the most versatile backbends. I like coming into this posture as a restorative option with a block underneath the sacrum and the legs extended up. This really cools down the nervous system and allows the redirection of blood flow.
Benefits: When performed correctly, bridge posture can lengthen the hip flexors, strengthen the legs, tone the upper back muscles, calm the brain, and ease anxiety.
Getting into the pose: Begin by lying on your back. Bend your knees, planting your feet on the ground hip-width apart and parallel. Press down and forward with your feet, drawing the inner thighs toward one another without bringing them to touch. Broaden the space of the chest and shoulders and place the arms alongside the torso. On an inhalation, press down with your feet to lift your hips, and place a block right underneath the sacrum. Move your chest toward your chin, but don’t let the back of your neck touch the floor, and do not move your head side to side. Either stay in this position or extend your legs up. To come out of the pose, inhale and release the feet back on the floor. Lift the hips up and remove the block.
What to watch out for: When approaching this pose, it is important to double-check the feet and hips. It is possible that the feet and hips will both feel hip-width apart, but are actually wider, or that the feet will feel parallel but are actually pigeon-toed. If there is any sensitivity in the neck, shoulders, and lower back, play with the height of the block to protect the spine.
Wheel posture (Sanskrit name: Urdhva Dhanursana): Wheel posture, sometimes called upward facing bow pose, is accessible from bridge pose. In fact, in many yoga sequences, wheel pose comes after bridge. Wheel is also a natural progression from cobra posture and from camel posture.
Benefits: When performed correctly, wheel posture can stretch the chest and lungs; strengthen the arms, wrists, legs, buttocks, abdomen, and spine; stimulate the thyroid and pituitary; increase energy and counteract depression.
Getting into the pose: Begin by lying on the floor. Bend your knees, setting your feet on the floor, heels as close to the sitting bones as possible. Bend your elbows and spread your palms on the floor beside your head, fingers pointing toward your shoulders. Pressing your feet actively into the floor, inhale and tuck your tailbone toward the heels, and lift the hips off the floor. Keep your thighs and inner feet parallel. Take two or three breaths, then firmly press the inner hands into the floor and your shoulder blades against the back, and lift up onto the crown of your head. Pause here and keep your arms parallel. Take two or three breaths. Press your feet and hands into the floor, and with an inhalation, lift your head off the floor and straighten your arms. Stay connected to the palms of the hands and all four corners of the feet as you draw the inner thighs in toward one another. To come out of the pose, lift the heels high, tuck the chin down, and lower down slowly from the shoulders to the base of the spine. Hug your knees into your chest and wrap your arms around them.
What to watch out for: Wheel pose is a very deep heart opener. It is important to approach this pose with caution and also very slowly. If you have heart problems, backaches, or headaches, opt for the more accessible bridge pose.
Handstand (Sanskrit name: Adho Mukha Vrksasana): Handstand is one of the most popular poses in yoga. Nearly every one of my clients wants to learn how to do this. Inversions are scary and can feel self-defeating, but when approached at the wall, they can be very liberating and supportive.
Benefits: When performed correctly, this particular approach to handstand can open up the shoulders, strengthen and tone the arms, relieve the back, and tighten and tone the whole body.
Getting into the pose: Set up in a downward facing dog facing the wall with your hands shoulder-width apart. Choose a leg that will kick up first, and try your best to keep it straight when kicking up. Inhale and kick the chosen leg up toward the wall (if you feel far away from the wall, inch a little closer). Once your chosen leg has made it to the wall, press down into your hands and guide your other leg to meet the one on the wall. To guide your buttocks toward the wall, walk your feet in to touch, bend the knees, and slowly release your buttocks to the wall. To come out of the pose, inhale, draw your hips away from the wall, straighten your legs, and release down to the floor, returning to downward dog.
What to watch out for: This pose is very intense on the shoulders. If you have neck or shoulder injuries, this pose may not be the right one for you. Be mindful of your breathing and come out of the pose any time it does not feel right to you.
*Please note: these instructions are no substitute for learning in person from a professional, and readers should remember that performing any exercise poses the risk of injury. Consult your doctor before beginning an exercise regime, and with any questions or concerns.