These asanas let you put your mat to practical use.
By Lisa James
Ab Work: Boat
Why You Should Do It: Your abs aren’t going to tone themselves. There’s a lot more to floating your Boat, however; other benefits include:
- Strengthening the hip flexors and the muscles around your spine.
- Stretching the hamstrings.
- Helping to ease stress.
- Improving digestion and balance.
- Stimulating the kidneys along with the prostate and thyroid glands.
How to Do It: Sit with your knees bent and feet flat, hands positioned a little behind the hips with fingers pointing toward the feet. Then:
- Engage your core and lean back until you balance on your sitting bones. Keep the back flat and lengthened; arching or roundness will put pressure on your lower back.
- Exhale and lift your feet as you lift the upper part of your body with an open chest.
- Depending on where you are in your practice, you have three options:
- Keep your lower legs parallel to the floor (knees bent); extend your arms and gently hold onto your knees.
- Maintain the bent knees while reaching your hands toward your feet; keep the hands energized.
- Straighten your legs to roughly eye level so that your body assumes a V shape. (You can use a strap if needed.)
Note: Remember to breathe. And while you may have to keep your hands on the floor the first few times you go into Boat, you won’t get the pose’s full value without making your arms work, too.
Variations: If you really want to blast your core, pump your knees in and out with the legs bent.
Be Careful If: You have lower back or neck problems, or have either low blood pressure or diarrhea; you should also avoid this pose if you’re pregnant.
Balance: Warrior III
Why You Should Do It: If you participate in any sport that requires good balance, Warrior III needs to be in your practice. This powerful pose also aids in:
- Strengthening the legs, glutes and core.
- Toning the entire body.
- Improving your memory and ability to concentrate.
How to Do It: Start in Mountain Pose. Step one foot ahead about a foot’s length, and spread the toes of that foot wide to build a strong foundation. Then:
- Inhale your arms over your head, interlacing your fingers with the index fingers pointing up.
- While exhaling, lift the back leg by hinging at the hips. Be sure to keep the back foot pointed downward and the hips level, and to keep a straight line from the raised heel forward through the crown of the head.
- Looking at a specific point on the floor for balance, extend your arms forward past your head, fingers spread.
- Support your lower back by pulling in your navel.
- To come out of the pose, inhale to release the back foot down to the floor and the arms overhead before stepping the feet back together.
Note: Try using a chair, with the back facing towards you, if you struggle with balance; you can also place your palms on a wall.
Variation: Become a Warrior on a plane by extending your arms back, palms facing down.
Be Careful If: You have blood pressure issues or are dealing with chronic hip or leg problems.
Why You Should Do It: You may totally love your bike but you can do without the tight hips and achy back that comes with all those hours on the road. Camel is the perfect antidote for the cyclist’s usual fetal position; other reasons to go into this pose include:
- Opening up the chest, which increases respiratory capacity.
- Promoting lymph drainage, which helps your body detoxify.
- Improving mood and energy.
How to Do It: Kneel, knees hip-distance apart, and shins and tops of your feet pressed into the mat. Place your hands on your lower back. Then:
- Slightly rotate your thighs inward, as if you’re pulling up your sitting bones.
- Inhale and lift your sternum, drawing your elbows towards each other and engaging your core. Tuck your chin and bring your hands to your heels, cupping the heels with your palms.
- Keeping your core engaged, press the heels of your hands into the heels of your feet, with your fingers draped over the soles. Keep your neck in a neutral position.
- Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Then move your hands to the front of the pelvis, inhale and push down on the hip points to lift the head and torso, again using your core. You may want to slowly go into Child’s Pose afterward.
Note: Don’t press your shoulders together or squeeze your butt. Keep hips stacked over knees.
Variations: Camel can be a beast, especially if your spine isn’t flexible. If that’s the case, don’t reach for your feet; just keep your hands on your back, pull your lower abs up and in, and stay for five breaths, focusing on lengthening your spinal column.
Be Careful If: Avoid Camel if you have serious back or neck problems, or if you have migraines.
Why You Should Do It: If you run on even a semi-competitive basis, you know that peak performance occurs when your lower body works in sync. That’s something Triangle can help with: It improves lower-body balance while stretching the hips and strengthening the ankles and knees. This pose can also:
- Open up the chest and shoulders.
- Work the side body, which aids in maintaining proper alignment.
- Strengthen the core muscles.
- Help improve digestion.
How to Do It: Start in Mountain Pose. Then:
- Step your feet wide and turn the right foot to form a 90° angle with the left foot, which should turn slightly inward. The right heel should intersect with the left arch.
- Extend your arms parallel to the floor. Inhale, then exhale while reaching your right arm down towards the floor and shifting your hips to the left.
- Place your right hand on either the floor (or a block) by the right ankle or on your shin. Extend your left arm up, fingers spread.
- Inhale as you turn your head to gaze up at your fingertips. Hold for up to five breaths, then come up and repeat on the other side.
Note: Keep your shoulders aligned—don’t allow the top one to slump forward.
Be Careful If: You have neck problems; look forward instead of upward.
Why You Should Do It: Bow is a really great pose for getting your shoulders and chest loosened up, along with the front of your hips. In addition, stringing your Bow will help:
- Ease fatigue, anxiety and mild backache.
- Relieve menstrual cramping.
- Gently massage your inner organs.
- Improve your posture.
How to Do It: Lie on your stomach (using a folded blanket for comfort, if you want) with your arms lying along your sides, palms up. Then:
- Exhale and bend your knees like you’re leaving footprints on the ceiling; bring your heels as close to your torso as possible. Reach back and grab your ankles (not the tops of your feet).
- Inhale and lift your heels back while lifting your thighs. This will lift your upper body off the mat; press your shoulder blades toward each other while keeping the tops of your shoulders away from your ears. Look forward.
- Stay in the pose from 20 to 30 seconds; keep breathing. Exhale while releasing, and lie quietly for several breaths.
Note: Can’t reach your ankles? Either just reach back as far as you can or use a strap wrapped around the front of your ankles while holding the ends.
Variations: You can make Bow more difficult by having your thighs, calves and inner feet touch. Or you can really take things to the next level by exhaling and dropping your right shoulder towards the floor while tugging on your left heel; this will bring you onto your right side. Stay there for 20 to 30 seconds before exhaling, rolling across your stomach and onto your left side for the same amount of time; roll back onto your belly before coming out of the pose.
Be Careful If: Pregnant women or people with either blood pressure problems or migraines shouldn’t do this one. Ditto anyone with a serious neck or lower back injury.
Shoulders: Dolphin Plank
Why You Should Do It: What do you get when Dolphin Pose meets Plank Pose? You wind up with the Dolphin Plank, a great way to get your shoulders ready for anything from throwing axes with your friends to humping boxes into a new apartment. In addition, this pose is excellent for:
- Stretching the hamstrings and calves.
- Improving posture by strengthening muscles around the spine.
- Building a strong core.
- Relieving stress.
- Increasing bone density.
How to Do It: You can start in Dolphin and then walk your feet back until your torso is parallel to the floor, shoulders right over your elbows. Or you can start on hands and knees, wrists under your shoulders and knees under your hips. From there:
- Lower your elbows to the floor, keeping them under your shoulders; forearms and upper arms should create a 90° angle. Your forearms should be parallel to each other with your weight distributed equally between them.
- Step back, keeping your body and head in a straight line. Keep your thighs lifted, and don’t let your hips sink or your bottom stick up.
- Pull your abs and pelvic floor muscles towards your spine. Widen your shoulder blades east-west; lengthen your spine north-south.
- While gazing between your hands or at the front edge of your mat, breathe evenly for five breaths. Then lower onto your knees and press back into Child’s Pose. Repeat 10 times.
Note: If touchy wrists make it difficult for you to do Plank, this wrist-friendly version might work for you.
Variations: If you can’t yet support your full weight on your arms, lower your knees to the ground; you might have to walk the knees back a bit to keep your body in a straight line, shoulders above elbows. If you need more of a challenge, switch between Dolphin Plank and full Dolphin 10 times.
Snow Sports: Chair
Why You Should Do It: Whether you want to hit the perfect ollie or tuck it downhill, strong legs are essential for all snow sports. That’s where Chair comes in handy: This pose strengthens your thighs while making your ankles flexible and sturdy. Other reasons to have a seat in Chair include:
- Increasing your lung capacity.
- Stretching your chest and shoulders.
- Improving your posture.
How to Do It: Start in Mountain: Feet together, standing tall, core energized, arms at your sides, fingers extended. Then:
- Inhale and sweep your arms upward, parallel to each other with the palms facing inward. Reach through your fingertips.
- Exhale and bend your knees, a few inches to make it easier or bringing your thighs as close to horizontal as you can for a deeper Chair.
- Shift your weight onto your heels and keep your knees right above your ankles. Hold for one to five breaths.
Note: Don’t let your tailbone move in or out too much. Also, avoid lifting your heels or letting your feet separate.
Variations: For Twisting Chair, inhale and bring your hands into prayer position in front of your chest. Then exhale and twist to the right, keeping your hips square, and bring your left elbow to the outside of your right knee. After one to five breaths, come center, extend your arms, then twist to the left.
Be Careful If: Avoid Chair if you have headaches.
Snow Sports: Warrior I
Why You Should Do It: Love to hit the early-morning powder on those backcountry runs? Then you need to include Warrior I in your practice; it can help fine-tune your balance while giving your ankles, knees and hips a real workout. Warrior I can also:
- Improve hip and shoulder mobility.
- Stretch the chest and lungs.
- Strengthen the back muscles.
How to Do It: Start in Mountain Pose facing the short end of your mat. Then:
- Step your left foot back, keeping your right foot pointed towards the front and angling the left one out about 45 degrees.
- Exhale and rotate to the right, lining up your hips with the short end of the mat as much as possible. Draw your tailbone towards the floor while pulling your upper torso into a slight backbend.
- Keep your left heel firmly planted while bending your right knee over your right ankle to form a 90-degree angle.
- Reach overhead, lifting your ribcage while grounding down through your back foot. The palms of your hands should face each other; bring them together if possible. Look up.
- Hold for up to a minute before stepping forward, taking a full cycle of breath and repeating on the other side.
Note: Don’t tip your pelvis forward; be sure to lengthen your tailbone towards the floor as you set your feet.
Be Careful If: You have neck problems; look forward instead of upward.
Stress Relief: Legs Up the Wall
- Why You Should Do It: It’s pure chill, for starters. But there are other reasons, too:
- Easing anxiety and headaches.
- Promoting better sleep and greater energy.
- Encouraging fluid to flow from the legs into the lower abdomen, strengthening the digestive and reproductive systems.
- Improving respiratory function.
- Learning to simply be instead of always being active.
How to Do It: The name pretty much explains the pose and once you’re up, just relax and enjoy. But the trick is getting there:
- Sit with either shoulder against the wall, knees bent and heels close to your buttocks.
- Lean back on your hands, turn your body and swing your legs up the wall as you lower onto your elbows.
- Lie back with your head and shoulders on the mat; scoot forward if you need closer contact with the wall but without a sensation of your pelvis feeling tucked under. Adjust as necessary.
- Let your arms rest at your sides, palms facing upward. Close your eyes and tune into your breath for five to ten minutes.
Note: This pose can be done with a prop, such as a folded blanket or a bolster, under the hips. Having someone place a small sandbag on the soles of your feet may help deepen the sense of relaxation and grounding.
Variations: You can spread your legs into a wide V. Or bring the soles of your feet together and slide them down, outer edges against the wall, with your knees out wide.
Be Careful If: You have a serious back or neck injury, a hernia or glaucoma; some teachers advise against doing Legs Up the Wall during menstruation.
Stretches: Crescent Lunge
Why You Should Do It: If you spend a lot of time on the road, Crescent Lunge can help loosen your shoulders and lower back. This pose is also good for:
- Strengthening the muscles needed for running.
- Stretching the hip flexors.
- Building balance.
How to Do It: You can go into Crescent Lunge from Downward-Facing Dog by stepping your right foot between your hands, aligning your right knee over the heel. Or you can simply set your feet hip-distance apart and then step forward with your right foot far enough for your left heel to leave the mat. Then:
- Inhale and raise your torso upright, bending the front knee to a 90° angle.
- At the same time, sweep your arms overhead and draw your tailbone down towards the floor.
- Engage your core (don’t let the lower ribs protrude forward) and draw your shoulders down from your ears.
- Hold the pose up to one minute, dropping back into Downward Dog if that’s where you started, then repeat on the other side.
Note: Make sure your front foot is facing forward as much as possible, and don’t forget to push into your back foot.
Variation: If you’re on the road, push into your car for some resistance.
Be Careful If: You have blood pressure or heart problems.
Stretches: Downward Facing Dog
Why You Should Do It: This is one of those poses that screams “yoga,” even among people who would never dream of taking a class. And there are good reasons to do Down Dog, which:
- Stretches the spine as well as the arches, calves, hamstrings, hands and shoulders.
- Strengthens the arms and legs.
- Aids digestion.
- Helps relieve headache and menstrual discomfort.
How to Do It: Kneel down on all fours, placing hands under shoulders, index fingers parallel to each other, and knees under hips. Curl your toes under and:
- Exhale, lifting your knees and buttocks upward. Spread your fingers.
- Press your chest towards your thighs and bring your head between your arms; draw your shoulder blades in and towards your tailbone. Don’t let your head hang.
- Move your heels towards the floor. (They may not reach the floor—don’t worry.) Straighten your legs without locking your knees; your thighs should be rotated slightly inward.
- Set your gaze at either between your feet or your navel.
Note: Keep your core engaged and don’t sink into your shoulders. It’s more important to maintain a straight line from the wrists to the hips than from the hips to the heels.
Variations: If this pose poses problems, try placing your hands on either blocks or the seat of a chair.
Be Careful If: Avoid Down Dog if you have carpal tunnel syndrome or a shoulder injury, or if you are pregnant and late in your term.
Surfing: Upward Facing Dog
Why You Should Do It: Every surfer knows that a good pop-up is crucial to a good ride—and a strong, flexible back is crucial to a good pop-up. That’s why Upward-Facing Dog, which employs the same motion needed to come into a standing position on the board, should be a part of your practice. Besides increasing spinal flexibility, Up Dog also:
- Stretches the abs, chest and shoulders.
- Firms the butt.
- Improves posture.
How to Do It: Start by lying prone on the floor with your legs stretched back, the tops of your feet on the floor and your hands (fingers spread) alongside your waist. Then:
- Inhale and press the inside edges of your hands down and slightly back; straighten your arms while lifting your torso and your legs a few inches off your mat. Your elbow creases should face forward.
- Press your tailbone down while lifting your pubic bone toward your navel. Keep your butt firm.
- Push your shoulder blades into your back while looking straight ahead or tipping the head back slightly.
Note: Don’t push your front ribs forward, which is tough on the back, or compress the back of your neck.
Variation: To make this pose a bit easier, position a blanket roll under the tops of your thighs for light support.
Be Careful If: You have a back injury or carpel tunnel syndrome.
Surfing: Warrior II
Why You Should Do It: Similar to the stance you assume on a surfboard, Warrior II stretches and strengthens your legs and shoulders while building balance and concentration. Becoming a strong Warrior also helps to:
- Relieve backaches.
- Boost stamina.
- Stretch the groins.
- Strengthen abdominal muscles.
How to Do It: Stand in Mountain Pose, legs and core muscles engaged. Then:
- Exhale and step your left foot three to four feet back, turned out to the left 90°; keep the heel of your right foot in line with the arch of the left, hips open to the long side of your mat.
- Turn your right foot out to the right slightly as needed to maintain balance. » Bend the right leg so that the shin is perpendicular to the floor; look to make sure you can still see your big toe.
- Inhale and extend your arms into a T-shape, palms facing down; keep the tops of the shoulders in alignment and directly over the pelvis.
- Set your gaze at the third finger of your front hand; hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
- Lower your arms, straighten your right knee and turn your left foot to match the right. Repeat on the other side.
Note: Don’t lean over your bent leg or arch your lower back.
Variations: To give your arms a workout, draw the shoulder blades down the back while turning palms and inner elbows up, then turn back down.
Be Careful If: If you have neck issues, look straight ahead instead of turning to look over your hand; perhaps shorten your stance if you have knee problems.