Beginning a yoga practice can be a daunting task. Watching a seasoned yogi move gracefully into taking flight in Eka Pada Koundiyasana is an intimidating experience, particularly since pronouncing the Sanskrit name is challenging enough.
Each has taught many levels of students. From their pool of wisdom, Erin Ward has gathered advice to assist a beginner in dipping a toe into the deep and magical waters of yoga. And for experienced practioners who might want to polish up their skills. (Read their biographies below)
Erin Ward: What five poses are essential to a beginner's practice?
Kat Schamens: 1: Chaturanga - it builds upper body strength and gives the foundational alignment for most arm balances 2. High lunge: trains students to power up their legs, essential for kicking up into handstand 3: Warrior 2 - strengthens the hips and the legs. 4: Putting your body into an L shape with legs on the wall and hands on the floor - It’s not a traditional pose, but it builds strength in the upper body and prepares students for handstand. Also a fun way to go upside down, so inverting doesn't seem so scary. 5. Sukhasana- It means “easy pose”, but is not so easy when you have to meditate. It's important for the student to not only dive into the asana practice but to also strive for the meditation practice! That's where one reaps the benefits of yoga and allows them to connect off the mat to a place of peace.
Sheri Uslander: 1: Standing Forward Fold. It’s the first fold. In origami, if you don’t have the first fold, it’s impossible to create your final shape. A good forward fold will translate into every other posture. The key is to fold in a way that works for your body. In most cases that means bending your knees a LOT. Over-stretching the back is a huge issue among newer practitioners (and the reason I injured myself as a beginner). 2: Lunge. A good lunge is the basis for all of the standing warrior poses. Your hip, knee and ankle should form a 90-degree angle to the floor. Your back heel should be lifted so high that the bottom of your foot and the floor create a 90-degree angle as well. As the foot and ankle start to open and gain flexibility, turning down the heel becomes more accessible which leads to standing warriors. 3: Down Dog. While I’m not sure a down dog is a necessary life skill (though it feels pretty good!), they are taught in most yoga classes so getting it right is extremely important. Down dog will be a reflection of your forward fold. You are effectively creating a wedge with your body. Bending your knees, lifting the hips high and pressing your chest back toward your thighs will give you a great start. (Heels will lift too! Jamming them down at the expense of your knees is not worth it) 4: Pigeon. Part of a balanced practice includes seated postures! Pigeon is a great way to begin because it feels good for most people, even if you need 5 blankets under your seat to get into it. It’s relaxing but also really deep and transformative. 5: Crow. As a beginner, yoga can be really boring. As an adrenaline junkie, it was hard for me to be still! Crow was one of the reasons I stuck to the practice. Accessible to beginners, crow is fun, exhilarating and feasible
Susanna Harwood Rubin: Working from the beginning to end of a practice in terms of sequencing:1: A comfortable seated posture in which to begin and end class, enabling us to sit for meditation, so either Sukhasana, Siddhasana, or Vajrasana 2. Cat-Cow: It doesn't matter if you are a beginner or an advanced student, cat-cow enables us to focus on the breath, open the entire torso and hips, and cultivate suppleness in the spine. it was hard for me to be still! Crow was one of the reasons I stuck to the practice. Accessible to beginners, crow is fun, exhilarating and a feasible challenge. A great way to hook a newbie to the deeper elements of the practice.
3: A basic standing pose such as Warrior II, because it's not overly challenging, but you can do so much with it from practicing key foundational points, alignment, and playing with variations. 4: A prone twist such as Jathara Parivartanasana is a great introduction to twists: grounding, opening and almost everyone loves it. 5: Savasana - Without Savasana our practice isn't really able to take hold, to be internalized. I think of Savasana as a falling back into the arms of our practice, as our yoga embracing us.
Erin Ward: Which of these poses do you think is the most challenging?
Sara Clark: Warrior 1. Your feet are angled in different directions, your front leg is at a 90 degree angle, your hips and shoulders are squaring forward all while holding your arms above your head and breathing deeply. It can be a bit overwhelming.
Susanna Harwood Rubin: As a New Yorker I'd have to say Savasana because it is so difficult for us to recognize the value of slowness, ease, and release. When I rediscovered yoga as an adult in the mid-late 90s, I could barely keep my eyes closed due to stress-crazy but true!
Sheri Uslander: Honestly, a forward fold is pretty challenging. To get it right you are humbled. You have to know that bending your knees is imperative. You have to relax your head, which can be scary at first. You also have to be patient and hang there long enough to really get into the posture. I find the more seemingly simple the posture, the more difficult.
Kat Schamens: Chaturanga is the most challenging because it requires a strong core, upper body, and powering up the thighs. Also, I've found that most students look at chaturanga as a basic pushup, when really you need to pull the chest forward, have the shoulders slightly beyond the wrist, and then lower down while hugging your elbows into your ribs. It's also super challenging because one has to lower in one straight line, so lowering down to the knees is a great modification for someone who is working on the strength.
Erin Ward: What are the physical and emotional benefits of these poses?
Sheri Uslander: Physically these postures will challenge, stretch and strengthen you. If you’ve never done yoga before and cycle through these properly, your body will thank you! Emotionally, it’s about opening yourself up in a different way. The mind and body are interwoven so as you break through tension stuck in the body, you will effectively break through tension in the mind.
Susanna Harwood Rubin: When I teach beginners, I want them to feel good about themselves and their practice, to find joy and wonder within their bodies, and to get a taste of their inner power and beauty. I know that this can be achieved through joining breath to movement in a meaningful way. The poses I listed access the entire body in different ways, so students will experience spaciousness, strength, and ease from their practice, both physically and emotionally.
Kat Schamens: I personally like incorporating down dog with legs up the wall in an “L” shape into my practice because it trains the body to be upside down which not only flushes out the system but is also super liberating! I feel the more ways students have to go upside down, the less scary it is. Also, a flow practice builds endurance and stamina, which I find is beneficial in just living my life! The practice starts to imbue all parts of life. Yogis tend to be able to approach situations with more ease and can see the lighter side even when dealing with dark and difficult situations.
Sara Clark: Each of these poses requires both strength and surrender. Allowing your body to sit without the support of a chair develops strength in the back muscles and the core and opens the hips. Emotionally it can bring a sense of calm especially for meditation. Child's pose stretches the entire back body along with the quadriceps and tops of the feet. Allowing yourself to turn inwards and let go is a beautiful practice that can be used on and off the mat. It also calms the nervous system. Table top, or simply resting on hands and knees, is a lovely way to turn your awareness towards safely and properly aligning the body. It engages the core and strengthens the arms. It can also be used for rest and reflection. Mountain pose encourages you to root down and lengthen out and up all while finding stillness; a common focal point in most asanas. Connecting your feet to the earth and your crown towards the sky is allows your whole body to lengthen. It tones legs and belly and can also strengthen the feet. Mountain pose can also bring about the feeling of being rooted and grounded. It is also a fantastic place to breathe deeply. Warrior 1 is encourages you to be fierce, calm and strong. It strengthens your whole body from toes up to the crown. Warrior 1 requires deep focus as the body is moving in several directions. As the body heats up in this pose your breath is vital to calm the mind and stay focused. If you can hold warrior one you can do anything!
Erin Ward: What inversion or inversion preparation would you recommend for a beginner?
Sheri Uslander: I love starting with tripod headstand. Because you can scaffold, it’s a really well supported and fun way to stand on your head! Create an equilateral triangle from head to palm to palm, and make sure your elbows are at 90-degree angles with the floor. Then stack your knees on your upper arms. Eventually you can lift your legs up, but by no means do you need to at the beginning. Otherwise, you can always put your legs up the wall, which is incredibly relaxing as long as your hammys aren’t too tight.
Kat Schamens: L Dog against the wall. It strengthens the muscles and the mind and trains the body to be upside down. I recommend practicing this everyday (unless on the moon cycle) working your way up to 10 breaths.
Susanna Harwood Rubin: I love teaching a forearm stand variation of L-pose with the hands clasped. It is incredibly stable, puts no pressure on the wrists, and some beginners can lift a leg off the wall, which feels exciting and empowering
Sara Clark: Downward facing dog and dolphin pose can be a great introduction to inversions. As the heart is above the head you are still reaping the benefits of a full inversion. These two poses will also strengthen your upper body for going upside down while allowing you to feel comfortable.
Erin Ward: Starting a yoga practice can be intimidating, what piece of advice or thought to keep in mind would you give a beginner who felt frustrated with or defeated?
Susanna Harwood Rubin: I think that it is so important to find the right teacher, and that can be a mysterious combination of qualities from personality to yoga style, sequencing to attentiveness. If you don't feel happy in the class, try another.
Sara Clark: The beauty of yoga is that wherever you are in your practice, you are still receiving the same benefits as a yogi who can balance on one hand. If frustration arises which is normal because you are human, keep reminding yourself that you are exactly where you need to be.
Kat Schamens: Keep it simple, be patient and dedicated. Rome wasn't built overnight and neither was the perfect handstand. Most "aha" moments happen when you least expect them.
Sheri Uslander: Don’t take it too seriously!!! When you learn a crazy arm balance or handstand, confetti doesn’t fall from the sky. You don’t win anything and chances are no one will really care (sorry!). Putting pressure on yourself to do those things will make you bitter.
A little bit about our teachers:
Susanna Hardwood Rubin has been teaching yoga in New York City for over a decade. She is a writer, visual artist, and yogi, who infuses her unique creativity into her alignment based classes. To find out more about Susanna, click here.
Sara Clark is a rock star yoga teacher and Ayurveda expert who offers invigorating and liberating classes, promoting individual meditation in motion experiences. Visit her here.
Kat Schamens is a vinyasa and aerial yoga teacher as well as a play enthusiast. She believes laughing can be the highest form of meditation and likes to turn the world upside down in her aerial classes. To learn more about Kat, visit here.
Sheri Uslander is on a mission to help stressed out Manhattanites to smile with her as they find their peace on the mat. She offers classes at studios and in her home, and you can even travel to Italy with Sheri this spring. To learn more, click here.
Illustration: Sharon Watts, for more of her work, click here.