Daily Dozen: Twelve yoga poses I like to do every day and why
Your yoga instructor leads you through a diverse, guided yoga practice. But what if you can't make it to class? Here are the top 12 yoga poses (asanas) I like to do every day and why.
Note: Each pose has contraindications. Consult with your doctor before engaging in physical activity.
1. Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Arguably the most recognizable yoga pose, downward-facing dog is actually an inversion that improves circulation, builds strength and improves flexibility.
Tip: Press into the index and thumb knuckle to remove pressure from the wrists. If you feel tightness in your back, take a stronger bend in the knees. Gaze (drishti) in between the thighs.
Myth: "Your heels have to touch the ground." The heels drive toward the ground but it's not necessary for them to touch the mat.
2. Plank Pose (Kumbhakasana)
This foundational pose strengthens the core and the shoulders. With the hands rooted firmly on your mat, press away from the floor and broaden your shoulder blades. Try a slight tuck of the tailbone. Slight rounding of the spine is okay. Drive the heels behind you as you engage the quads by lifting the kneecaps.
Modification: Build up to holding plank by grounding the knees if you feel tired.
Turn It Up: The variations of plank pose are endless. Lift one leg at a time (you can even lower into chaturanga with one leg lifted). Or try tapping opposite shoulders (take a wider stance with the feet - slightly wider than the shoulders).
3 & 4. Cat (Marjaryasana) / Cow (Bitilasana)
Flow gently and slowly between these two poses to warm the body, bring flexibility to the spine, and deepen the breath. Exhale in Cat, compressing the abdominal area as you tuck your tailbone and bring the chin to chest, and inhale in Cow as your drop the belly button to the floor, opening the chest and collarbones as your bring your gaze (drishti) to the ceiling.
5. Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)
Named after a fierce warrior, Warrior II takes strength, stamina and concentration (dharana). This pose strengthens the muscles of the ankle, legs and arms while stretching into the groin and inner thighs.
Modification: Bump the back leg in as much as you need to but try to maintain front heel to back arch alignment in the feet.
Turn It Up: Sink deeper into the pose as you lift the heel of the front foot.
Alignment: Ensure that the knee of the front leg stays directly above or behind the front ankle. Check to see if you can see the big toe of the front foot.
6. Triangle (Trikonasana)
Transition from Warrior II to Triangle Pose by straightening the front leg, reaching forward, and hinging at the hips. This standing pose
Modifications: Bump the back leg in as much as you need to. Take a bend in the front leg, or use a block in the lower hand for additional stability. Keep the gaze at the ground.
Turn It Up: Hover the fingertips an inch or two off the ground to engage the core muscles even more. Want even more fire in the core? Extend both arms out directly overhead, parallel to the floor.
7. Garland or Yogic Squat (Malasana)
This grounding posture is a deep squat that tones and strengthens the legs while stretching into the Achilles tendon and the calf muscles. This pose is also said to help with digestion as lowering the pelvis directs the flow of energy downward (apana vayu).
Modifications: Tightness in the Achilles tendon, hip flexors, or the calves can make Malasana a very challenging pose for some. Roll up a blanket and place it under the heels or come up onto the balls of the feet altogether. As an alternative, practice Happy Baby (Ananda Balasana).
Turn It Up: The fullest expression of this pose is attained when you fold forward in between the legs, clasping the hands around the ankles, lowering the forehead onto the mat.
8. Crow Pose (Bakasana)
Malasana is an excellent prep pose for Crow. This challenging arm balance is for intermediate practitioners as it requires intense concentration (dharana) and core strength.
Tip: If it's accessible, place the knees directly onto the back of the arms as close to the armpits as possible. If not, squeeze the inside of the knees into the outer triceps. Keep the gaze (drishti) on the ground a few feet in front of you. Breathe!
Modifications: With both feet remaining grounded, practice shifting your weight forward and backward on the hands. Continue to build strength by lifting one foot at a time.
9. Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana)
Widely known as one of the most challenging yoga poses for a reason, handstand is an inverted version of Mountain Pose (Tadasana). Our bodies (and brains) are used to balancing on our feet so I practice handstand pose every day to build muscle memory and strength.
Before you begin: Before you attempt working with handstands, ensure you can hold plank pose for at least 1 minute and downward-facing dog for 3-5 minutes. Start practicing at the wall or with someone who can spot you.
Strength building prep poses: Downward facing dog with feet on the wall (hips over shoulders) or plank with feet on the wall.
10. Thread the Needle (Sucirandhrasana)
Come into this gentle twist from table position to give your shoulders and low back some love. A perfect counterpose that massages the shoulders and releases tension.
Arm Variations: Crawl the top arm overhead and for an added stretch, come up onto the fingertips as shown here. For another shoulder opening variation, inhale the top arm up and around for a bind in the opposite hip crease or place the top of the hand on the low back.
11. Half Pigeon (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)
An extremely effective hip opener, Half Pigeon work the external rotation of the femur in the hip socket in the front leg, while stretching the psoas muscle in the back leg. Puff your pigeon for a gentle backbend or fold gently for a more relaxing version of the pose.
Alignment: Keep the foot flexed to protect your knee. Check the back leg to ensure the toes are pointed straight out behind you and your back knee is pointed down. Rest the hip on a blanket or pillow if it is lifting off the mat.
Alternative: Half Pigeon can be performed on your back. Bring both knees into the chest as you cross your ankle over the knee. Keep the foot flexed. Clasp the hands behind the thigh.
12. Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani)
Typically practiced at the end of a class (even as a substitute for Savasana) or at the end of the day before bed, this restorative, gentle inversion will reduce stress and bring a wave of calm over the body and the mind.
Tip: Move away from the wall a bit if the hamstrings feel strained. Place a blanket under the hips or a rolled blanket under the neck for added comfort.
Variation: Keep the feet together for a restorative version of the posture, or take wide legs (as shown here) for a more active posture.