Which Poses Should Be Learned First?
4 Teachers Weigh in
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.
Luckily, there are yoga asanas that most serve a beginner, granting immediate access into the myriad benefits of yoga. We’ve talked to four experienced New York City teachers about the best poses for a beginner: Sara Clark, Sheri Uslander, Kat Schamens and Susanna Harwood Rubin.
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?
Sara Clark: 1. Sukasana/a comfy seat 2. Child's pose 3. Tabletop 4. Mountain pose 5. Warrior 1.
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?