Composition of Yoga Asanas (poses)
Each pose has a description broken down into the following sections (when relevant) so we can describe in a to-the-point way that is most easy to readily apply.
Approach: a brief introduction and anything to consider first.
Entering: coming into a pose is as much a part of it as the end picture you see; to fully feel how your body is responding you need to be present along the whole journey. That way, you get to make the most space and length as you come in, to create the optimal alignment with least force. This also helps set the attitude that every time you do a pose, it is like the first, different to any other time and treated as such to avoid just ‘going through the motions’ and not being engaged.
Focus: the point in the pose where you concentrate your energy and awareness but don’t grasp or grip around. Easy and full breath helps you to stay here and feel the length of the pose that is right for you at that time, connecting with your intuition rather than a specific breath count.
Root: the point of the pose where you drop down into, push up from or anchor, depending on its nature. Strong roots make for poses that aren’t held in a brittle, easily tired way but sustain through best alignment and a sense of continual play, exploration and rhythm with the breath.
Energetics: how your use of energy and direction brings life and freedom to the pose, helping us to not get too serious or precious about our practise.
Be mindful of: common areas where force, ambition, ego or muscular gripping can bring in stress or suck the life-force from a pose.
Leaving: as with entering, a graceful and unravelling departure helps retain the space made and not suddenly ‘ping’ out of a pose because you’ve been gritting your teeth to stay. Observing a slow release out ensures that preparing for this is part of the pose, helping you to only stay as long as you can keep the face, jaw and breath smooth.
Variations: any props used or changes for those less flexible. Also variations to expand your breadth of practise.
Benefits: any De-Stress stuff not mentioned before.
Check with your doctor before starting any new movement regimen, especially if you have any neck, head, shoulder, arm, wrist, back or knee issues or tendencies to headaches, dizziness, numbness, tingling or high blood pressure.
Siddhasana – Adept’s Pose – Loose version
Approach: easing into your practise and lengthening the spine after sleep
Entering: sitting on at least on block or cushion to allow yourself to lift up from the front of the spine, take each buttock out and back to find and sit up from the sitting bones. Have elbows positioned easily under the shoulders.
Focus: opening the heart from inside the ribcage with each in-breath.
Root: sitting bones and allowing the hips to open so legs can drop down with each out-breath for a strong platform from which to rise. Abdominal support protects the lower back.
Energetics: continually countering collapsing in the lower back by lifting up from the back of the pelvis and through the crown of the head.
Be mindful of: shoulders lifting, knees gripping – release these with the out-breath.
Variations: add in chin mudra with tip of thumb and index finger meeting and palms up – an energy seal to focus conscious breath.
Benefits: meditation posture to practice.
Parivrtta Siddhasana – twist variation
Approach: maintain the drop into sit bones and rise in spine.
Entering: keeping the crown of the head above the centre of the sitting bones, inhale and twist to the right on the exhalation.
Focus: breathe space between each vertebrae to avoid compression of spinal discs as you turn.
Root: belly lifting back and up to support lower back so any turn felt between shoulder blades.
Energetics: continual lift in spine with in-breath, drop of shoulder with out-breath.
Be mindful of: turning too far or straining the neck round thinking further is best. Keep the chin in line with the breastbone, shoulders dropped and turn into area between shoulder blades.
Leaving: as you came in, inhale and turn on exhale, a few breaths to centre, repeat other side.
Variations: can be done on a chair with legs together if hip or knee issues or at work to quickly De-Stress and help back pain.
Benefits: all twists massage the adrenal glands and give your organs and internal massage to encourage circulation, energy and help you cope with stress.
Marjaryasana/Bitilasana – Cat/Cow Pose
Approach: coming onto all fours find a neutral position for the neck, lengthening spine from head to tailbone
Entering: hands below the shoulders with knees under hips and same distance from sides of mat. Pad the hands open like a cat to get most contact with the floor. On exhalation, lift the spine up, dropping the head and on inhalation, dropping spine between shoulders and hips.
Focus: keeping shoulder blades moving down the back.
Root: belly lifting spine up and then supporting as spine drops.
Energetics: let movement follow each breathe right to its end point. The movement is an exaggeration of the natural movement of the spine as we breathe, with the inhalation opening the heart and chest, the exhalation contracting and releasing stress.
Be mindful of: looking up too far in cow pose and over-compressing a tight neck, feel the breath opening up the spine without you forcing the issue.
Benefits: stretches front and back of body.
Adho Mukha Svanasana – Down-face Dog
Approach: on all-fours as cat/cow, check your middle fingers are parallel or even turning slightly out.
Entering: on an exhalation, lift the bottom to the ceiling, start with the heels up or legs slightly bent to mindfully open the backs of the legs.
Focus: suck in the side ribs for spine extension and length through the waist. Keep the jaw and face soft to keep space between the shoulders and ears. Release the head and neck from between the shoulder blades, opening the chest and lifting the breastbone as you do.
Root: contact with base of the index finger and thumb to lengthen up the armpits as you draw in muscles of the outer top arms.
Energetics: push back from the palms to take the top thighs back and lift the sitting bones, preventing stress across the shoulders.
Be mindful of: prioritising bringing the heels down over lengthening the spine, move the heels back behind you first to open fronts of ankles and draw up the knees to help lengthen hamstrings.
Leaving: stay for anywhere between 10 seconds and a minute, as your breath decides.
Benefits: as the highly respected yoga teacher Donna Farhi says, “Downward Dog is an asana no yoga student ever outgrows….a panacea for whatever ails you, which combines the benefits of an inversion, arm balance, forward bend & restorative pose all rolled into one.”
Uttanasana – Intense Stretch Pose
Approach: aka Standing Forward Bend, can come into from Tadasana too.
Entering: coming from down-face dog, walk hands towards feet hip-width apart, outer edges of feet parallel. Hold elbows with opposite hands and hang from the hips.
Focus: only folding as much as hips allow, not from any desire to strain back down further.
Root: gather muscles around the tops of the thigh bones and lift them up.
Energetics: strong legs support softening across the lower back; draw up kneecaps and broaden down heels for upward lift of sitting bones to sky.
Be mindful of: turning feet out which can lock lower back.
Leaving: bend your legs with knees as wide as your feet, to drop the torso onto the thighs and hang with head and arms free and loose; the slowly start to curl up, keeping the knees loose and supporting the lower back with pelvic floor and abdominal tone as you unfurl up to standing like a fern opening upwards.
Variations: bend your legs if you have tight hamstrings and if feeling strain across the lower back, bring hands onto high blocks or a chair seat.
Benefits: safer full forward bend than seated, as the hips can move back to give the lower back and hamstrings room to release.
Tadasana – Mountain Pose
Approach: the basis of all standing postures and not to be rushed, as allows organisation of posture up from gravity.
Entering: stand feet together and pad balls of the feet and toes wide and heels back. Drop into the feet and rise up from a ‘press-lift’ into the floor to the crown of the head.
Focus: breath creating trust in your body’s ability to know its own best posture.
Root: drop down more and more into broad heels, lifting insteps and gathering hips in together.
Energetics: drawing the belly back and up brings the thighs and hips bones above the fronts of the ankles, engaging all of the postural muscles at the front of the body to feel a natural, more effortless rise up as bones are stacked up straight up from the floor. This means less muscular force is needed to support your skeleton.
Be mindful of: allowing the shoulders to creep up to the ears as you breathe in. Jutting out the lower ribs and lifting up the chin to feel taller, but actually losing support of the lower back from the belly.
Variations: can stand feet hip-width apart if any lower back problems.
Benefits: integral postural awareness.
Vrksasana – Tree Pose
Approach: from Tadasana, find one point to gather in a soft, focussed gaze at eye line – called a drishti in yoga.
Entering: gather the hips in to stop the left splaying to the side as you move the weight onto the right foot. Feeling the inner right thigh drawing up, lift the left foot – keeping the tips of the toes on the floor if balance is hard – and place onto the inner thigh or inner calf. Bring your hands together into prayer position at the heart.
Focus: if you have balance, lengthen the inner thigh on the bent leg to rotate out at the hip and turn out the knee.
Root: broaden the heel and lift the kneecap and gather in the hip to create a strong standing leg.
Energetics: press foot into leg and vice versa and lift up from there to the crown of the head.
Be mindful of: placing the foot across the knee which can strain it. Getting frustrated if balance is eluding you; come back to Tadasana and establish ease from the beginning again.
Leaving: mindfully bring the foot down to meet the other, settling in Tadasana before moving to the other side.
Vajrasana – Diamond Pose
Approach: awareness of the spine and settling breath after down-face dog.
Entering: sit back on the heels drop down top thighs and lift spine up to crown of the head.
Focus: particularly if you’re bendy in the lower back, pull the waist back and up to have the same postural considerations as in Tadasana.
Energetics: bring the hands together into the heart for a point of focus for a few breaths.
Be mindful of: lifting the chin and creating tension in the neck and top of the back.
Variations: if you have tight thighs you can put a cushion or block between buttocks and heels. If painful for the feet, place a thin rolled towel across the fronts of the ankles to support the tendons if not used to being stretched in this way.
Benefits: helps move into Child Pose by anchoring down the weight of the pelvis.
Balasana – Child Pose
Entering: from Vajrasana bring the big toes together, open the knees just wide enough to get chest through and move the hips back to drop down the top thighs towards the heels. Keep looking forward to lengthen the spine and take your time to release the lower back and eventually bring the hairline to the floor or onto one or two blocks.
Focus: even when staying for a short time, focus on dropping down into the ground with each out-breath.
Root: breathe into the tops of the thighs to release them down and anchor as the back of the pelvis broadens.
Be mindful of: if practising as part of an energetic sequence don’t stay too long or can make you sluggish.
Leaving: walk hands back towards knees, stacking up the spine as you go.
Variations: if your bottom doesn’t easily touch your heels, have a block or cushion under your forehead to be able to drop back. If causes pain in feet, have same support as in Vajrasana.
Benefits: forehead to floor helps still the mind between poses.
Balasana – restorative version
Approach: good to unwind for any length of time in a restorative sequence or before savasana.
Energetics: can be used at any time to feel safe and secure as a similar shape to the foetal position.
Variations: for the restorative version of child pose, you can support the head and torso with a bolster or couple of pillows, turning the head to face each side for an equal amount of time.
Benefits: antidote to tight thighs from exercise or sitting on chairs.
Note on ‘bridging’
This is a pose or short sequence that neutralises the spine between bending it in any direction. Down-face Dog can always be used and a bridge from there to Vajrasana and then Balasana can be done between poses in any sequence, even to release tension between restorative poses in the evening.
Setu bandha sarvangasana – Bridge Pose
Approach: spine flexibility creates backbends but the preparation lengthening the front body, opening hips and shoulder joints created by previous poses is crucial.
Entering: Lying on the floor, position your feet comfortably close to the buttocks, hands palm-up by hips. Make sure the feet are hip width apart, outsides of the feet parallel. Feeling good contact with the base of the big toes, inhale and lift the pelvis off the floor one vertebra at a time. Keep rolling the thighs in, flatten the belly and lift the breastbone towards the chin.
Focus: Breathe to keep the chest lifting, stay for a few rounds of breath, as long as you can without force and a soft jaw and face, feeling the back arch into the upper spine.
Root: press up and back from the feet, freeing the toes to lift the foot-arches.
Energetics: this pose demands continual energy, but not force, keep the jaw soft to sustain without tiring and keeping the pelvic floor lifting but not gripping the buttocks stops an ‘energy vacuum’ in the centre of the body. Lifting the breastbone strongly can fire off the nerves between the shoulder blades, breath in the face of intensity!
Be mindful of: allowing the feet to creep outwards and thighs to roll out; your body might want to do this to appear to make the pose ‘easier’ but this takes the curve into the lower back rather than supporting there and emphasising the arch into the upper, thoracic spine.
Leaving: Roll the spine down and rest until the back muscles settle. Walk your feet out as wide as your mat with ‘pigeon-toed’ heels wider than toes. Let your knees drop in together to broaden across the back of your pelvis and stop any ‘pinching’ in your lower back.
Variations: roll the spine up on an inhalation, roll down on an exhalation.
Benefits: best backbend for neck and shoulder release.
Supta Matsyendrasana – Supine Lord of the Fishes Pose
Approach: from feet as wide as the mat, wait until your belly and lower back are fully settled.
Entering: Open your arms out to a wide position with elbows comfortably bent. Inhale and then on the exhalation, allow the legs to drop to the right side, rolling on to the sides of the feet. Inhale back to centre, (with pelvic floor support), then exhale down to the left, inhale up.
Focus: follow the movement from side-to-side, letting the breath lead and melt.
Root: let gravity take the weight of the legs down – this is safe for the lower back – and release any gripping in the knees.
Energetics: let the full out-breath open up a line up through the groin and abdominal cavity.
Leaving: you can finally spend longer on each side for a deeper stretch and then lift up the pelvis to lengthen out the tailbone.
Variations: taking the lower foot to the outside of the top thigh deepens the pose.
Benefits: eases the lumbar spine into its natural curve.
Savasana – Corpse Pose
Approach: Always support your head with all of the skull and none of the neck to allow the neck to lengthen and front brain to relax. Support the legs over a bolster for an even more restorative version or if there is any pinching in the lower back.
Entering: position the arms about 45 degrees away from the body, the optimum to relax across the top of the chest. Lift each shoulder blade up in turn and move down the body to open the chest and rotate the arms out from the shoulders to allow the thumb side of the hands to drop towards the floor.
Focus: just ‘being’ in the comforting familiarity of simply lying down. Maintaining and deepening awareness.
Root: staying with the breath to not attach to any stories or sudden thoughts.
Energetics: occupying the whole body to feel every part and staying as long as you’ve got.
Be mindful of: drifting off when the physical demands of other poses aren’t there to anchor our attention.
Leaving: bend your legs and roll onto your side, lie for a few breaths to gather in the energy you’ve created and keep intact as you start to open your eyes for a smooth transition into your day. You may want to sit in Siddhasana before coming to stand.
Variations: support under the knees with a rolled blanket or towel to keep the lower back soft, especially if there is any back pain or pinching.
Benefits: after any practice or as a restorative pose in its own right if feeling anxious or fatigued, lie down in savasana or corpse pose.
Focus: Stay as long as you can, a minimum of 10 minutes is best. Focus on the passage of each breath in and out of the body. Stay mindful that your jaw, throat, mouth and forehead stay soft. Be aware of allowing a full out-breath to release any last bits of tension into the ground. If your mind drifts at any point, draw it back to the breath.
Variations: You can place an eye pillow or scarf over your eyes to cut out the light and make this pose more internal and restful. Lavender eye pillows help soothe your passage to sleep. Also cover yourself with a blanket to stop any contractions that can happen in response to cold and to feel the full De-Stress effects of being cocooned.
Pavanamuktasana – Wind-Relieving Pose
Approach: start from resting with soles of the feet on the floor, legs bent, skull supported by a block or cushion to lengthen out the back of the neck and broaden the back of the skull.
Entering: when your lower back is settled draw the knees up into the chest, making a loop to bind the legs around the shins, holding the fingers of one hand with the other. Allow the knees to drop into the crooks of the elbows and allow the weight of the legs to start opening the hips.
Focus: this wider-legged version allows the hips to naturally open as the knees drop in the direction of the armpits.
Root: soft face, jaw and throat set the tone for this (and all) postures. If you are feeling the stress of the day set in your face, open the mouth wide and deep into the jaw, even sticking out the tongue to release its root and the throat. Then swallow as many times as you need to stop the breath ‘sticking’ in your throat and upper chest.
Energetics: as you feel the hips and lower back succumb to the weight of the legs, use deeper inhalations to meet the accompanying sensations with accepting, full exhalations.
Be mindful of: rocking about indiscriminately. Some movement can make you aware of where you might feel tension in the back and you can have a lovely massage if you are mindful enough to identify these and allow a bit of pressure to dissipate blockages. Do come to still though as an important part of the posture’s effects.
Leaving: drop the feet to the floor, feel the lower back give into the floor. Roll to one side and lay comfortably before coming up.
Variations: if you have large or tight thighs or your belly is in the way, hold the backs of the thighs.
Benefits: yes ‘wind-relieving’ in that sense, but also release of stagnant energy up from the deep belly for de-stressing. As Mukunda Stiles says in his book Yoga Structural Therapy, “Perhaps the most common error in this pose is underestimating its value. Most students do not hold the pose long enough for it to do its duty.”
Loose Siddhasana into forward bend – variation to blocks or chair
Approach: sit in Siddhasana as in morning practice, breathing until the hips are settled. Have a chair facing you about a foot away.
Entering: bring the hands to the seat of the chair and use the leverage to lift up the breastbone and front spine. You can reach up for the back or sides of the chair to lengthen the spine more, then drop the head to the rest on the chair seat. You may need to move the chair to find the best position for you and have a cushion under your head if your neck feels over-stretched. You may prefer to cross your arms on the seat above your head if your shoulders are tight.
Root: dropping into the sitting bones allows the muscles that have been holding up your spine all day to safely elongate.
Energetics: breathe into the brain-soothing that pressure on the forehead brings.
Be mindful of: thinking that a more ambitious forward-bend would be ‘better’ when this version can allow much deeper muscle and nervous system release.
Leaving: press into the chair to sit for a few moments before changing the cross of the legs and repeating.
Variations: if you know you are very flexible in the hips, you can bring your head to blocks to rest, with hands on the floor.
Benefits: forward bends help to still a racing mind after a busy day and hip openers release the back after hunching over a computer. Using a chair helps to avoid any over-rounding of the back caused by this habit.
Jathara Parivartanasana – Revolved Abdomen Pose
Approach: have a bolster or stack of blankets or towels ready to drop your legs onto in this restorative version of the pose.
Entering: from lying with a block or folded blanket under your skull, take your arms out to the side above your shoulders, elbows loose to feel most ease across the chest. Bring the knees together up into the chest, inhale to pull up the pelvic floor to lift pelvis up and exhale to drop the knees to the right hand side, releasing to the floor with the knees close into the chest.
Focus: broaden the collarbones to open in the chest and flatten the belly to lengthen the spine. This allows the twist to happen safely from the weight of the legs and makes space for the left shoulder to drop down naturally without force.
Energetics: forcing the left shoulder down, feel it open away from the chest with ribcage revolving away from the legs.
Be mindful of: when there is more lost from tension created in the top of the back from over-turning the neck, than gain from the action when we have so much neck stress from chair sitting. Better to focus on lengthening the back of the neck as an extension of the spine with head remaining centre.
Leaving: inhale legs back to centre, exhale to the floor, rest belly and repeat other side.
Variations: practise without support for a deeper twist or part of more energising sequence if your shoulders allow.
Benefits: opens the chest, lengthens the spine and nourishes the adrenal glands. Great pose if you have to work late and need some recharging without over-stimulating, but still good before bed.
Supta Baddha Konasana – Supine Bound Angle Pose
Approach: use the same lift for Viparita Karani but lengthways on your mat, making sure it is as long as your body, with a cushion or block at the far end for your head.
Entering: sit in ‘cobbler’ pose about a fist-width in front of your lift, bringing soles of your feet together close into your groin. Press hands down either side of your hips to lift your pelvis and strongly tuck your tailbone under with strong belly and pelvic floor contraction. Hold these, drop bottom back down to original position and feed your spine up and over your lift, positioning head rest under your skull. Relax down with arms 45 degrees out to the side, palms up.
Focus: natural position to focus down to your ‘root’, breathing down to belly and pelvic floor to feel openness and circulation in this area.
Leaving: tuck chin firmly into chest, press down into floor with hands and come up in one breath. Sit comfortably where you rise to acclimatise the breath and spine.
Variations: can use a belt to ‘bind’ the legs for deeper focus. Place a cushion or blanket under both thighs equally if hip-opening too intense here, even if just in one hip. For breathing exercises you can straighten the legs out on this lift, lengthening the lower spine first with legs bent. Soles of feet on the floor.
Benefits: open belly and groin signal to the body that it must be safe so very calming, especially with the lift to also open the chest.
Viparita Karani – Waterfall Practice
Approach: place a bolster or 4” high, hand-length wide towel stack a couple of inches away from a wall, further if you have tight hamstrings.
Entering: lay one hip close to the wall, swing the legs up as you come onto your back. Shimmy in towards the wall if your lower back is not fully on the blocks with the tailbone dropping slightly between the wall and the blocks. You should feel secure on your lift with the whole of your pelvis supported but not digging into the waist. Lie either with the arms out 45 degrees to the side, palms up or arms over the head if shoulders feeling open enough.
Focus: this is a gentle backbend similar in shape to Bridge Pose, but here your body is set to flatten the belly and lift the chest without effort.
Root: allow the weight of the legs to drop the hips further and further down, to flatten the belly and lift the chest without effort.
Energetics: as you feel more heart-opening, periodically walk each shoulder blade up into the body and down towards the hips to move further onto the shoulders.
Be mindful of: overstretching the backs of the legs if you have tight hamstrings; move further away from the wall or bend the knees slightly.
Leaving: roll off your lift with one breath, lying in a foetal position to relax before coming up.
Variations: a sequence with legs wide, then feet against the wall in a squat, then Pavanamuktasana with raised pelvis.
Benefits: one of the most restorative poses with the legs fully raised above the heart so it doesn’t have to pump blood back up from the bottom body. Helps tired legs or achy legs, a common symptom of adrenal fatigue.