There are many different styles of yoga out there today. They are all basically a spin off of two original styles that came to us from India; Ashtanga and Iyengar. So whether you are doing Hot Yoga, Athletic Power Yoga, Vinyasa Flow, Hot Core Power or one of the many other variations out there today, they all, at their foundation, use the same basic postures. These poses or Asanas can be broken down into 10 main categories. The categories are Standing postures (Neutral and External Rotation) Standing Balances, Backbends, Twists, Inversions, Arm Balances, Abdominal Strengtheners, Seated postures, Supine postures, and Restoratives. They each have their unique benefits and we should all strive to practice as many different postures as we can in each class to touch and invigorate (as well as strengthen and stretch) every part of the body inside and out.
Standing postures usually take up the bulk of a class because they are relatively low risk, heat the body quickly and are accessible to almost everyone through modifications. Here are a few other amazing benefits of Standing Postures;
Warm up parts of the body that need to be open for more complex postures. For instance, they heat, strengthen and open the hips creating optimal alignment in the pelvic girdle and low back allowing greater access to asanas like twists and arm balances.
By loosening the hips to better align the pelvic girdle over the legs, they balance muscular action in the torso. They are the building blocks for a healthy extension of the spine
They are the most strengthening and stabilizing as they activate the biggest muscles and joints in the body
They tone the cardiovascular system since the lateral wall of the heart is fully stretched in standing postures increasing the supply of fresh blood to the heart. For instance, if you look at Utkatasana, Chair Pose, you can see it clearly works the muscles of the arms and legs, but it also stimulates the diaphragm and heart.
Standing postures build stamina by engaging slow twitch muscle fibers. All muscles have both slow-twitch and fast-twitch fibers and how many of each is different in everyone. (which is one of the reasons why someone can hold Warrior II longer than you or run faster than you) These muscle fibers use oxygen carried by blood as their energy source. Working these slow-twitch fibers increases the oxygen capacity of your muscles allowing the body to burn energy for longer periods of time. These fibers are smaller and lead to smaller more toned muscles.
Psychologically, Standing Postures “ground” energy. Those who drift, are too airy, have a hard time making a commitment or standing up for themselves should focus on these postures.
STANDING BALANCE POSTURES
Standing balance postures demand full attention and therefore force us to drop all extraneous thoughts, instilling a deep sense of calm and groundedness. These postures are tremendously useful in cultivating core strength and stability. They also offer the following benefits:
Strengthen the arches, ankle, knee and thigh of the standing leg
Recruit abdominal and core muscles cultivating deep strength and stability
Allow us to work the weaker side of the body on its own creating greater balance and symmetry
Cultivate spinal extension. Balance is achieved physically by dynamically rooting down and extending up. By powerfully pressing out of the standing leg, the torso is lifted up off the pelvis and space can be achieved through the entire spine, kidney band and waist.
Balance Postures require intense, unwavering alertness and give us the opportunity to notice our habitual reactions to challenge, imbalance and difficulty. They teach us that balance doesn’t come from thinking, it comes from being present and calm.
The spine loves backbends. They improve spinal mobility and flexibility and open the entire front of the body as well as work the legs and arms.
Backbends massage and exercise the heart in much the same way that running does. The upper thigh muscles are used to push the pelvis forward while the feet and hamstring muscles support the lift of the hips, legs and lower back. By moving the spine both forward and backward, the heart is stretched in many directions increasing the flow of blood.
Unlike running where the knees receive a full impact from each step taken, backbends realign and reinforce the ligaments of the knees and ankles.
Stimulate the adrenal glands and kidneys, thus detoxing the body
Release physical tension in the upper body and can be therapeutic for lower back problems
The dramatic opening or blooming of the chest can invoke an emotional catharsis. We protect ourselves by closing the chest and weighing down the solar plexus. Bending backwards is to unfold the vulnerable parts, expose the heart and diaphragm. Thus Backbends can be emotionally cleansing, and quite confrontational.
If you have tight shoulders, getting into full wheel may be a process for you. Having a great instructor who understands the importance of opening the shoulders and hip flexors before taking class into backbends is key. Want a therapeutic backbend that opens the chest and stretches the spine without having to do an hour of yoga first? Try simple Cobra pose.
Paramount to a healthy spine, twists wring out the intervertebral discs as well as the pelvic and abdominal organs. If you regularly practice yoga twists, there are some clear benefits to your spine, as well as your shoulder and hip joints and soft tissues. Not only do you maintain the normal length and resilience of the soft tissues, but you also help to maintain the health of the discs and facet joints (the small pair of joints on the back of the spine where each two vertebrae overlap).
Improve the suppleness of the diaphragm and relieve spinal, hip and groin disorders. The spine also becomes more supple, improving the flow of blood to the spinal nerves and increases energy levels.
Help to cleanse and tone the internal organs. If you like drinking on the weekend, fill your week with twists to keep your kidneys and liver healthy and happy.
One of the fathers of yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar, describes twists as a "squeeze-and-soak" action: The organs are compressed during a twist, pushing out blood filled with metabolic by-products and toxins. When we release the twist, fresh blood flows in, carrying oxygen and the building blocks for tissue healing. So from the physiological standpoint, twists stimulate circulation and have a cleansing and refreshing effect on the torso organs and associated glands.
Most arm balances are pretty advanced and require core strength as well as hip flexibility. You probably won’t be introduced to any in the average yoga class around town, however, I LOVE them and you can come practice them with me any time.
Arm balances tone the belly and spine
Strengthen the arms and wrists
Give your self-confidence a big boost.
Arm Balances are challenging at first but you don't necessarily have to practice them every class to get better at them. Almost every other yoga pose makes you better at arm balances so if you keep showing up to the mat, eventually you will surprise yourself and be able to pop up into a cool and pretty fun pose. It’s not that being able to do harder postures like arm balances makes you a better person, or even a better yogi, it’s just fun to see what your body can do with a little dedication and hard work.
Real strength begins in the core. The stronger the abdominal muscles are, the better balance a person has, the safer their backs are, and the more functional strength they have. The area most at risk in abdominal or core work is the low back. It is important that the low back stay long and grounded. We can achieve this by maintaining stability in the pelvis and not letting it shift into an anterior tilt. The transverse abdomens must also be engaged in these asanas so the postures don’t just work the hip flexors. Ideally, we maintain the natural spinal curves in the abdominal strengtheners but for people with low back problems, very mobile spines and those who have underdeveloped core muscles attempting to flatten the low back will be helped by keeping the belly engaged and the low back safe.
Create a feeling of being centered
Protect the low back
Create deep strength and balance
Support good posture
After pranayama, or yogic breath work, inversions are considered primary in a traditional yoga context as they benefit the physiologic or organic body more than any other class of postures. Shoulderstand, along with headstand, effects the digestive and eliminatory systems by countering the compressing effect of gravity on internal organs and encouraging and increased blood supply to these vital body parts. The expansion and opening of the chest in shoulder stand is essential. This benefits the respiratory system immensely.
Inversions reverse the flow of blood in the body thus flushing the brain, heart, and lungs with blood, while stimulating drainage and circulation in the legs. This flush of blood into the brain is both mentally and physically revitalizing.
Inversions increase immunity and prevent illness by stimulating the lymph to more easily travel into the respiratory system where much of the toxins enter the body
And of course they increase core strength which is vital to any healthy body
Being upside down can be an overwhelming experience. The fear of falling or of hurting is an obvious obstacle. Therefore, inversions are a great way to cultivate courage and self worth.
Most seated postures involve stretching the hips or hamstrings. These two spots are generally the tightest 95 percent of people and are to blame for most non injury related lower back pain. Stretching your hamstrings once a day for even 5 minutes can greatly decrease the discomfort caused by an increasingly sedentary lifestyle or a career that has you on your feet for hours at a time. Seated postures are not to be taken lightly, however, and can be some of the most confrontational. We store a lot of tension as well as emotion in our hips and deep stretches can certainly bring about a release on several levels. Forward Bends are initially restive, but can be the most frustrating or confrontational of all yoga postures. The mind wanders easily and often times the hamstrings and hips feel like they are never going to budge. But there are many benefits to forward bends, both standing and sitting.
They create length and space in the spine, counteracting compression
Their inward nature can promote introspection
Excellent for digestion and digestive disorders, headaches, and chronic fatigue
*Their form is the most abused of all postures. The spine must extend, not round. Otherwise the diaphragm and chest are constricted and the back will be over stretched and weakened.
Forward bends bring up people’s restlessness and therefore remind us to come back to our breath
Restorative poses offer the opportunity for restoration, relaxation and healing.
Relieve stress, help to quiet the mind thus building concentration and focus
Foster a deep state of relaxation.
Stimulate and soothe organs and improve concentration. A restorative practice is excellent for calming and grounding. While traditional restorative yoga uses many props such as blankets, bolsters straps, etc, there are a few that can be done at home without all the gear.