Even the easy yoga poses will be challenging the first time you attempt them. Plus, “easy” is not the same for everyone. Unlike many other types of sport and fitness, yoga has its own language, its own breath patterns, and is intensely tied to self-realization. Practicing yoga will likely transform how you approach other sports, your body, and your sense of self. Many people start noticing the benefits of yoga after their very first session; most people will see a change after three to six weeks. But getting started is the hardest part, especially if you have ZERO yoga experience! Here, we tell you everything you need to know about beginners’ yoga.
Before you start, review our blog post about yoga basics and some benefits of yoga. The post familiarizes you with the language of yoga (Sanskrit), the history of yoga, and the most popular types of yoga.
Table of Contents
Step 1: Set Up Your Space
While outdoor yoga is inspiring, we recommend starting your yoga practice indoors, where you can more easily hear and see your instructor, app, or other guides. We’re not going to lie: yoga can feel awkward when you’re getting started! Becoming comfortable in odd positions is part of the resiliency that yoga develops. But it takes a while to feel “okay” having your glutes in the air and your head near the ground! It’s best to learn yoga in a quiet, safe, private space.
Be sure that your space is large enough to practice. It should be a few feet longer than your body when you lay on the ground. The ceiling should be high enough to lift your arms overhead with straight elbows. You will be moving side-to-side while laying on the ground, so it’s best to have a few feet available to each side of your mat, too.
Once you’ve memorized the poses and learned a few flows, you can take your practice outdoors. Again, we recommend finding a safe and relatively secluded place. An ideal outdoor practice space allows you to let your guard down and zone out in the flow. If you’re fair-skinned or overheat easily, find a place with some shade.
Yoga Gear Checklist
Like most types of fitness training, a yoga class can still be successful even if you don’t have the perfect equipment. But, having all the gear you might need will make your first classes more streamlined. Here’s a recommended list of yoga gear that you might use during your yoga session. By the way, to follow the environmentally-conscious paradigms of yoga, we recommend sourcing sustainable yoga materials as often as possible!
Yogis call tools like blocks, blankets, mats, and straps “props.” You’ll often hear an instructor say, “Use a prop underneath your knees in this pose.” And yogis often use props without being told to! There are no rules. Whichever props you need to make your practice work for your body and ability level are the right ones to use.
The following props can be helpful during a yoga practice, but they’re not required. Whichever works for you is the best prop for you to use!
- Mat: find a mat that’s not too slippery. Ensure it’s not a Pilates mat. Yoga mats are thinner; they should be only centimeters thick, like a blanket.
- Block: these blocks are about 23 centimeters long and 15 centimeters thick. They come in a variety of shapes, colors, and materials. Avoid getting a heavy block as they’re difficult to move. Consider purchasing two blocks (one for each hand). If you don’t have a block, you can use other things like a book, a shoebox, or a stiff pillow.
- Water bottle: even simple yoga poses will get your juices flowing! Keep hydrated.
- Towel: yoga may not be HIIT, but it’s likely to make you sweat, especially if you are a beginner yogi! A small amount of sweat on your mat can become a slip hazard. Plus, towels can also double as pillows!
- Pillow: small pillows are an underrated prop! Use them to lift the back of the head when laying down for more comfortable neck positioning. They can also pad the knees when kneeling on the ground.
- Warmer clothing: practicing yoga in a teeny-tiny-sports bra and shorts is great. But when you lay down for savasana, your heart rate and core temperature will quickly decrease. Take a brief pause before savasana to put on socks and a hoodie.
- Blanket: in addition to warm clothing, have a folded-up blanket nearby. You can use it to cover the body during savasana for extra-cozy meditation. You can also use it as a prop for poses like halasana (plow pose).
- Strap: there are specific straps created for yoga made of non-flexible materials with looping mechanisms at the ends. But any stiff fabric with open ends that can be tied in a circle also works (like a leather belt). Yogis use the straps as arm and hand extensions when challenged to reach (like in seated forward fold pose).
- Journal: for ultimate rebalancing, journal before and/or after a yoga session. For more guidance, read on! This blog post discusses journaling in the “mindfulness” section.
Step 2. Learn About 12 Of The Most Common Yoga Poses
As you progress in your yoga journey, you’ll find all sorts of crazy pretzel-poses to experiment with. These wild poses are mostly newer versions of foundational yoga poses. Learning the foundational poses first is imperative to exploring more creative flows and poses later. And our yogi ancestors believed that inner-stillness develops in more basic poses. So: start small! Get to know the following 12 poses, how your body feels in them, and how to modify the poses so that they serve you.
“Modification” simply refers to variations from the original posture. When a yogi assumes a modified pose, it’s not because they’re weak or incapable. They use a modification because their body finds it more effective and enjoyable. Modify without judgment! Your body is unique and deserves to be treated as such.
1. Table Top Position
- Function: to find symmetry between left/right, top/bottom, front/back. Activate core muscles.
Form: back must be completely flat, which means no convex or concave curvature anywhere along the spine. Since most people have some thoracic and lumbar curvature, this means that the belly muscles must be strong to push the lower back up. Muscles between the shoulders are engaged. The back of the neck is long, gaze toward the ground.
- Errors: having hands and knees close together (remember: yoga is all about making space). Sagging in the lower back. Shoulder blades poking upward. Hands further toward the top of the mat than the head so the neck is tense and shoulders elevated. Head to drooping lower than the shoulders.
- Modifications: many people struggle with table top position because of pressure on the knees and ankles. If so, use a prop below the knees to cushion them.
- Inspiration: Personal grounding and feeling centered in the self. Inner reflection and silence. Preparing oneself mentally for what’s to come. Being self-supporting.
2. Forward Fold and Seated Forward Fold
Function: both grounded and standing versions of the forward fold lengthen the hamstrings, glutes, and calves. Deep core muscle engagement and isometric contraction. Lengthen the spinal muscles.
- Form: legs are touching or hip-width distance apart. The lower belly is firm, pulling the spine into flexion. Flexion occurs at the hips, not the back. Knees can be bent, but try to straighten the knees as flexibility increases. Feet point toward the top of the mat or the sky while hands reach toward the feet. The head relaxes toward the legs.
Errors: having feet too wide so that the lateral glute muscles are engaged. Allowing the toes to turn out to the sides. Intensely reaching with the shoulders and arms so that the neck is tight and shoulders are elevated (but the back is still curved). Folding from the back, rather than at the hips. Not engaging the core. Holding breath.
- Errors: having feet too wide so that the lateral glute muscles are engaged. Allowing the toes to turn out to the sides. Intensely reaching with the shoulders and arms so that the neck is tight and shoulders are elevated (but the back is still curved). Folding from the back, rather than at the hips. Not engaging the core. Holding breath.
Modifications: people with herniated discs in the back should be careful with this pose or avoid it altogether. A prop can be used between the legs and back to support the spine. A strap around the toes, held in hands, can help find depth.
- Inspiration: Reaching for goals and moving boldly toward challenges with a sense of self-awareness and reflection. Loving oneself even despite struggles.
3. Halfway Lift
Function: reset the spine between forward fold and plank during vinyasa. To activate back and core muscles. Lengthen hamstrings.
Form: halfway lift might be the most misunderstood and frequently repeated yoga pose! It’s table top position but in a vertical structure. Enter from standing forward fold or after stepping to the mat’s top from another inverted position. Lift the spine until it’s even with the hips, forming the shape of a table. Place hands on the calves or thighs (not the knees), lift the head to align with the shoulders and gaze toward the ground below the nose. On exhale, release back to forward fold or continue to the next pose.
- Errors: same as table top position. And allowing the front of the rib cage to jut toward the floor, creating a spinal extension. Not lifting head high enough. Looking forward instead of down. Using only the back muscles to lift without tightening the core muscles. Pressing hands onto knees (the knees don’t deal well with this kind of pressure). Hyperextending knees.
- Modifications: people with chronically tight lower back muscles may struggle with this pose; their lower back muscles might try to do all the work. If this pose bothers your lower back, simply skip it and take an extra breath in forward fold.
- Inspiration: Preparing to surmount a challenge or go toward a goal. Reminding oneself of the future but staying grounded in the present. Keeping sight of aspirations.
4. Low and High Lunge
Function: whether grounded or standing, these poses aim to create more mobile hips. Build strength in the legs (especially in the standing version). Learn proper recruitment of hip, core, and back muscles with arms elevated.
Form: one leg is forward, and the other is back (in a low lunge, the back knee is on the ground). The front knee stacks over the front ankle. Both hips squared to the front of the back. The rear ankle stacks above the back toes (or lie flat on the ground in a low lunge). Back is straight; hips in a slight posterior pelvic tilt; front rib cage pulled into the core. Arms elevated, elbows straight, shoulders relaxed. Gaze forward. The spine is long, stalked vertically from the hips to the crown of the head.
- Errors: Legs in a straight line with feet directly behind one another (like walking on a tightrope). Rib cage jutting forward so that abs are relaxed and lower back organizes into a lordotic position with anterior pelvic tilt (tailbone lifted). Shoulders squeezed up toward ears. Leaning forward instead of stacking shoulders, spine, and hips. The front knee barely flexed.
- Modifications: this pose is a total-body workout, so start with a low lunge until you get the hang of it. If the back or shoulders hurt, keep hands in prayer position at heart or resting on the hips. If there is a pain in the front knee, move the foot forward or backward until the pain is gone. Or, do not lunge so deeply into the pose.
- Inspiration: Jumping from one point in life to another without hesitation or worry. Embracing the unknown with an open heart. Boldness, bravery.
5. Downward-Facing Dog
Function: lengthen all muscles along the posterior chain, from heels to back of the neck. Build strength in the shoulders and upper back muscles. Stimulate brain function. Strengthen deep abdominal muscles.
Form: to find a proper “down dog,” start in a plank position on the hands. Then, lift the glutes straight up to the sky without moving the hands or feet. Once there, you can move the feet slightly closer to the head so that the heels are entirely on the ground. Eventually, your ankles will be flexible enough that you need not take an extra step. The body should look like an isosceles triangle: the arms to glutes, glutes to ankles, and space between the hands and feet are equal in length. Feet are hip-width distance apart. Abs are engaged so that tailbone gently tucks and the lower back muscles relax. Shoulders pull-down spine, away from ears. The front ribs gently tuck toward the belly. Fingers are spread wide on the ground; as much of the hand is pressing into the ground.
- Errors: Fingers closed and most of the hand lifted off the ground (which can cause wrist pain). Arching spine so that chest curves toward legs. Hands and feet too close together, so tailbone just toward the sky and spine compresses. Keeping ankles tight so heels can’t relax. Arms and legs are too narrow or too wide.
- Modifications: people with high or low blood pressure should avoid holding this pose for a long time or skip it entirely. Knees can be slightly bent if you experience hamstring or lower back compression. A child’s pose is a fantastic substitute for downward dog.
- Inspiration: Pausing in times of conflict or hardship to investigate one’s true intentions and desires. Resiliency when the expected does not happen. Belief in one’s abilities. Creative inner thoughtfulness.
6. High Plank or Low Plank
- Function: A high Plank is a plank with hands on the ground; a low plank is elbows down. Most flowing styles of yoga cue high plank because it’s extra effort to drop and lift elbows continuously. Both versions of the pose require core strength, shoulder strength, and quadriceps strength. Nearly every other muscle in the body strengthens isometrically.
Form: shoulders are stacked directly over hands and ankles are stacked directly over toes. The back of the head, shoulders, spine, and hips are all in a flat line, like table top position. The gaze is toward the ground directly below the nose. Legs are together or hip-width distance. The front rib cage pulls toward the spine. Mild posterior pelvic tilt.
- Errors: Fingers close together with most of the hands lifted off the ground. Hands forward of the head so that shoulders are elevated and tight. Back muscles lengthened so that the spine bows toward the ground. Hips higher than lower back; tailbone poking out. Lower back sagging with hips below shoulder level. The feet spread wide. In low plank: elbows splayed out to the sides.
- Modifications: if the wrists hurt in plank, replace high plank with low plank on the elbows (although this is not recommended for vinyasa classes). Both versions can be done with the knees on the ground (just be sure to keep the abs equally engaged).
- Inspiration: development of resiliency. Fostering a sense of inner self and independence. Asking oneself difficult questions. Sitting with discomfort. Building one’s strength for the future by staying present in the moment. Self-worth.
7. Cobra and Upward-Facing Dog
- Function: strengthen the spinal extensors, upper back muscles, and glutes. Lengthen muscles around the chest and fronts of the shoulders. Release hip flexors; activate hip extensors and engage glute muscles. Lengthen quadriceps.
Form: start with hands directly under shoulders and elbows tucked in toward the chest. With hips squared toward the ground, lift the chest. You can start with slightly bent elbows and work towards full elbow extension. Contract the muscles between the shoulders blades to widen the chest. Engage the glutes, pressing hips closer to the ground. Ankles plantarflexed (toes pointed, laying on the ground). Gaze is forward with the back of the neck long, stacked directly above the shoulders. The only difference between upward-facing dog and cobra is that cobra presses the hips to the ground, whereas upward-facing dog features elevated hips.
- Errors: beginning with hands forward of the shoulders and elbows opened toward the sides. Lifting shoulders toward the ears instead of engaging upper back muscles. Letting hips lift off the ground using only lower back muscles and no glutes. Keeping feet dorsiflexed (heels over toes, rather than ankles long on the ground).
- Modifications: if you suffer from certain kinds of lower back pain or have a herniated disc, it’s best to take this pose easy (or avoid it altogether by staying in the plank position). However, there are many ways to modify this pose to put less pressure on the spine. First, you can keep your elbows against the ground so that your thoracic spine and cervical spine are the only parts that lift. Second, you can simply take a few breaths on the earth without lifting. Third, you can keep your feet dorsiflexed and arch the spine, dropping the hips slowly while maintaining a Plank Pose (keeping abs engaged).
- Inspiration: belief in one’s ability to conquer any challenge with an open heart. Sending love into the world. Being receptive to other people’s love and feedback. Self-pride, self-worth, and the ability to share it with humility.
8. Warrior II
- Function: strengthen the front leg’s gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and quadriceps. Strengthen and stretch muscles around the pelvis, inner thighs, and shoulders. Develop proprioception.
Form: organization of the feet is perhaps the most crucial aspect of warrior II. The back foot must be turned at a 90-degree angle to the front with heels aligned. The front foot faces the top of the mat, with the knee directly over the ankle. Both feet are flat on the ground. Hips and shoulders squared toward the side of the mat. Upper body vertically aligned from crown of the head to tip of the tailbone. Gaze is forward over front hand. Arms reaching toward front and back of mat (respectively), stacked over ankles. The front leg knee is horizontal to the ground; the back leg knee extends.
- Errors: “charging” by pushing the torso forward over the front leg. Having the front knee too far ahead or too far backward of the ankle. Not flexing the front knee enough. Arms out to sides rather than over ankles; arms weak, elbows bent. Lower back arched and ribs flared; pelvis in an anterior tilt. Back leg knee bowed inward and/or bent. The back foot turned out into an obtuse angle (rather than a 90-degree angle perpendicular to the front foot).
- Modifications: warrior II is one of the more safe and comfortable yoga poses (although it’s challenging for the muscles to hold). People with knee pain can shorten the stance and refrain from flexing the front knee. For any back, ankle, or knee pain, experiment with bending or straightening the knee until comfortable. Be sure the back foot is perpendicular to the front foot!
- Inspiration: hopefulness and courage toward the future. Respecting the nature of past, present, and future. Care and caution when “drawing one’s sword.” Focus on the present moment.
9. Warrior I
- Function: strengthening the quadriceps of the front leg and gluteus muscles of the back hip. Lengthening and strengthening muscles of the pelvis. Gentle abdominal contraction. Lengthen latissimus dorsi and serratus anterior muscles (with arms overhead). Stretch back ankle.
Form: warrior I is a complex pose in that it blends warrior II and high lunge. The legs are arranged like a high lunge, but the back foot opens to a 45-degree angle. So, the back foot of warrior I is more acute than the back foot of warrior II. Like warrior II (and unlike high lunge), the heels are linear. Like high lunge, the hips and shoulders are square to the front of the mat, with arms held overhead. Traditionally, the hands are pressed together in a prayer position above the head with elbows extended. The front knee flexes until the thigh is parallel to the ground. Back knee extended. The pelvis tucks into a gentle posterior pelvic tilt; the front ribcage moves toward the back of the body; the spinal column is vertical and long.
- Errors: feet crossed like a curtsy lunge (this makes balance difficult). Jutting the front ribs forward, arching the lower back, anterior pelvic tilt. Lifting shoulders with arms raised overhead. Straightening front leg.
- Modifications: like warrior II, warrior I is a relatively gentle pose. If knee pain occurs, shorten the stance. If pain in the hips or lower back occurs, widen the stance. A wider stance also helps with balance.
- Inspiration: self-reflection and external analysis before diving in. Rising from the ashes of previous pain and form to become a more robust version of yourself. Willingness to fight the good fight. Defending and serving one’s community.
10. Child’s Pose
- Function: lengthening the spinal extensors and compression of the spinal flexors (compression being a positive impact). Lengthening muscles along lateral edges of the torso. Stretching glutes, front of calves, and ankles. Compression and stretching of knees. Relaxation of neck muscles.
Form: knees are open wider than torso, toes are touching. The torso relaxes between the knees. Arms are extended overhead, resting on the mat, with elbows straight. Eyes can be closed. The head rests on the ground between elbows. Glutes hover over or rest on the heels.
- Errors: keeping knees closer together (this is a different pose, called “ball pose”). Dorsiflexion of ankles rather than plantarflexion. Arms toward the edges of the mat rather than directly overhead. Stiffness in the belly that prohibits glutes from sinking toward hills.
- Modifications: while a child’s pose is considered a resting pose, it can be excruciating on some yogis’ knees. There are several modifications. First, pad below the knees with a pillow. Second, place a cushion between the knees and thighs to lift the hips off the ankles. Finally, keep the hips directly above the knees in a tabletop position. If the neck or shoulders are irritated with arms overhead, bring the hands back toward the feet with palms face-up
- Inspiration: self-reflection and internal connection; understanding one’s existence as a small part of a big world. Relaxation, stress relief, independence, awe, and creativity.
- Function: strengthening every muscle in the body, like a push-up. Especially the muscles of the triceps, shoulders, and core. Development of shoulder and wrist mobility.
Form: chaturanga begins in plank pose. With elbows pulled tight to the body, perform a reverse tricep push-up. The less-intense version involves lowering oneself to the ground. The more-intense version consists of hovering above the ground with upper arm bones horizontal to the ground. Gaze toward the ground below the nose with head is as high as the shoulders (no lower). Entire back is flat, like table top position, with no curvature of spine. Shoulder blades pulled together. Feet dorsiflexed. Inhale to prepare, exhale to lower.
- Errors: chaturanga is a challenging pose that gets easier with practice. Issues occur when the lower back sags, shoulder blades peel apart, and the head drops below the shoulders. The pose should move like a plank lowering to the ground, not a snake curving and flopping down! Elbows being too broad is also an error. Holding the breath.
- Modifications: lower the knees to the ground and lower the chest and chin next. Hips are last to touch the floor. Ask a partner to place their hands on your elbows while standing above to help you feel the sensation of elbows tucked close to the body. Look forward so that the head stays elevated. Place hands on yoga blocks with the fingers hanging off the front edge to support wrist mobilization.
- Inspiration: overcoming challenges and the continuous work toward personal development. Self-confidence. Ability to speak one’s truths with humility.
12. Standing Side Bend
- Function: stretch and strengthen the obliques, rectus abdominis, lower back muscles, and shoulders. Strengthen inner thigh muscles. Balance.
Form: Like all other side bends, the standing side bend requires a neutral pelvis and spine. Only the muscles on the sides of the body contract and extend. Keeping ribs stacked over hips, the obliques on one side of the body contract and shorten. The opposite obliques lengthen and stretch. Arms raise overhead with fingers clasped in a “steeple grip” (i.e., only the first fingers are outstretched). Elbows straight, knees straight, legs locked together. Hips are horizontal, square, and symmetrical.
- Errors: lumbar curve and forward ribs so that the pose resembles a back-bend rather than a side bend. Standing with legs wide apart so that one hip also lifts. Elbows bent.
- Modifications: if the shoulders are irritated or elbows cannot straighten with arms overhead, drop the arm you’re bending toward and only keep one arm aloft. For balance issues, stand with the feet slightly wider. If you have lower back pain, focus on maintaining a mild posterior pelvic tilted posteriorly and engaging the lower abs.
- Inspiration: bending but not breaking. Choosing unique and creative paths in life. Leaning into discomfort. Exploration of the inner and outer self. Sense of strength in unexpected and irregular situations.
Step 3. Practice Mindfulness
Yoga carries fantastic physical and athletic benefits. It’s one of the most accessible ways to increase flexibility and mobility. But it’s a special kind of exercise in that it carries elements of spirituality, meditation, and mindfulness. These elements do not reflect religion but are inspired by the mind-body connection. Do not discount this element of the journey! Here’s a few things you can do to practice mindfulness.
We’ve got an entire blog post dedicated to this very idea! Journaling is a fantastic way to keep track of the subtle and beautiful changes in the body, mind, and spirit that may (or may not) occur during your yoga practice. Try checking in with yourself BEFORE you begin to set intentions for the session. Then, check in with your feelings after the session to notice if any changes have occurred.
Listen To Your Body
Yoga goals aren’t like other fitness goals: they value the experience of the practice rather than the outcome. You can set unique goals before every session based on your present needs. In yoga, taking modifications, up-leveling, and down-leveling, are signs of self-awareness and self-love. Yogis allow their bodies to dictate the intensity of the class and even individual poses. Such attunement and adjustment to the minute details of one’s body might seem hyper-vigilant at first. Eventually, such perception will become natural and calming.
Yoga promotes a sense of curiosity and exploration (it’s no wonder so many travel bloggers post images of themselves doing yoga poses in incredible places). Just as you experiment with new foods, styles of make-up, outfits, and sports, so should your yoga practice be a chance to escape the mundane and find delight! Here are a few ways to mix up your practice:
- Try a class in person at a local studio
- Do yoga with other sports, like at the top of a hike or after a soccer game
- Invite friends to join you! Teach each other your favorite poses
- Challenge yourself to a wild-n-wacky pose. Laugh when you fall out of it!
- Buy a spunky new outfit to practice in
- Do your yoga class at different times of day and adjust the intensity accordingly
- Try different types of yoga, just for fun (aerial hoop, anyone?!)
Lean Into It
Starting a yoga practice can feel confusing, complex, and downright weird. If you feel that way, you’re doing it right! Yoga is unlike any other form of exercise, mindfulness practice, or physical therapy because it blends all those things into one. By educating yourself on the practice before you begin and showing yourself grace through your initial struggles, you’ll find that the practice feels easier every time you get to the mat. Who knows? You might even find that your body, mind, and spirit crave it.
About the Author
Emily Stewart is a freelance writer at Runtastic. She’s a 200-Hour and nearly 500-Hour certified Vinyasa Yoga Instructor. And, she’s a certified Trauma-Informed Yoga Instructor. She’s taught yoga in the USA, England, Malta, and Austria (and online). She’s attended and hosted yoga retreats around the world. She spent six months studying abroad in India, where she practiced at an inner-city Sivananda Vedanta Yoga ashram at least twice weekly. She spent three days at their forest ashram in Tamil Nadu, India. She has served as a Mentor and Teacher Trainee with The Kaivalya Yoga Method Teacher Training.