Back to basics: 5 yoga poses for beginners and how to do them correctly

ESPNW article
By Gwen Lawrence | Apr 6, 2016
Special to espnW
Each month, yoga coach Gwen Lawrence shows us five yoga poses designed to keep athletes in the game. To start your yoga practice off strong, she’s putting the focus on perfecting your form as a beginner. And if you’re more advanced in your practice, this will serve as a good reminder about basic poses. (As always, consult a doctor before you begin any new exercise program.)

Yoga helps increase your flexibility and strength as well as decrease your stress and anxiety. But that only happens when you practice the poses correctly.

I’ve been teaching yoga for years, and I’ve noticed that few classes actually teach how to do the poses. That’s why I’ve decided to personally teach at least a few beginner-friendly instructional classes this year — so I’m practicing what I preach.

Here are my top five basic poses with instructions on how to avoid common mistakes.

Downward facing dog

downward dog

You would be hard pressed to attend any yoga class and not do this pose. While it does seem straight forward, there are a few crucial points to remember to be sure your practice is a success and you don’t injure yourself.

Keys to the pose

* Your hands must be set at shoulders-width apart.

* Your hands should be flat with equal spacing between each finger. Be sure to keep your entire palm pressed down.

* A common mistake is floating the part of the hands between the thumb and index finger. Those who do this often complain of pain in their wrists.

* Feet should be hip to shoulders width apart. A common myth is that your heels must touch the floor. This is not true; your heels might never touch the floor, even after years of practice. It’s not important.

* Your back should be flat.

Upward Facing Dog

The main counter pose to downward facing dog is upward facing dog; you will rarely see one without the other. This pose is one I see many students disregard or even skip because it pains their backs. That does not have to be the case.

Keys to the pose

* The simple way to avoid back pain with this pose is to make sure you stack the joints of your arms — shoulders over elbows, then elbows over wrists.

* A common mistake is to place the hands too far out in front of the shoulders, which causes the back to sink and can result in back pain.

* Instead, be sure to push through the pose and press the chest forward. Pull the shoulders back towards each other. Keep ears off shoulders.

Chateranga

The Chateranga can seem elusive to some. In it, you move from from high push-up to low push-up and then sweep through into an upward facing dog. Don’t give in and collapse on the ground. Perfecting this pose can help you build amazing shoulder stability and strength.

Keys to the pose

There are two ways to go about this pose.

* For beginners, put your knees on the ground to lower the upper body, which reduces the load on the arms.

* If you are more advanced, then your legs will be straight as you lower to the ground.

* As you lower, push off your toes, untuck them and move the body forward.

* Full expression of Chateranga is having the body hover as low as the elbows (no lower). Notice the 90-degree angle in the elbow and wrists and elbows close to the body. If you do not move forward as you lower yourself, you will be misaligned for your upward facing dog (which usually follows) and then you could experience back pain.

Standing Forward Bend

yoga downward dog

This simple move is often misunderstood. To be clear, you do not need to have straight legs to accomplish an effective standing forward bend.

Keys to the pose

* You should have strong feet on the floor, usually hips-width apart and parallel.

* Although there are many variations, the basic idea is that you fold the torso over the thighs. Connect the torso and thighs. Then drop your chin to your chest. You will only straighten your legs as much as feels comfortable.

* Do not force the pose because that could over-stretch the back and disconnect the hamstrings.

* When your chest and belly connect, and your head drops as low as it can go, you will still feel an amazing hamstring stretch even if your knees are bent (and you won’t damage your back).

Headstand

Headstands can make people nervous, but I promise you can learn to do headstand safely and effectively. This pose will help develop strength and stability in the neck.

When learned properly, you do not need depend on a wall for support. In fact, I prefer that you not use a wall at all. You should learn this pose step-by-step. Do not advance to the next step until you can breathe deeply and be comfortable in the stage you are in. If you push through before you are ready by using a wall, then you are inviting injury to your neck because it’s not fit to support the weight of your body yet.

Keys to the pose

* Start with head and hands in a perfect triangle shape, top of the head on the floor. This is stage one. Some people need weeks just to feel comfortable with this new upside down view.

* Once you are comfortable here, keep the head and hands in the same position — making sure you’re on the top of your head, not on your forehead — straighten your legs (sort of a downward dog with your head down).

* For the next stage, put a knee on your elbow on one side. Then place your other knee on the other elbow on the other side, completing a tripod pose. Once you’re confortable in a tripod, then draw your knees into your chest. Feet should be towards your hips. You’re still not in a full headstand yet, and that’s OK.

* The final step is a full headstand. Keep in mind this whole process can take two weeks to two years, so take it slow and be proud.

Note: Do not attempt a headstand if you have a neck herniation or glaucoma.

Gwen Lawrence owns Power Yoga for Sports and works with athletes in professional basketball, football, baseball, hockey and soccer as well as Olympians and collegiate champions. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @gwenlawrence and at www.gwenlawrence.com.