Even though I've been practicing yoga for almost three decades, I still find myself drawn back again and again to the "simple" poses. I‘ve played with more advanced postures, but beginner-friendly, foundational postures and practices seem to offer the greatest long-term benefits with the lowest risk. Without supernatural strength or flexibility, we can mobilize and lubricate our joints, improve our posture and balance, stimulate digestion, boost energy, soothe the nervous system, and create mental focus and clarity, at any age or stage of life.
In my opinion, these 10 poses and practices might just be the best tools yoga has to offer for a healthy and vibrant life, with huge benefits for body and mind.
There is a Sanskrit proverb: "For breath is life; if you breathe well, you will live long on earth." Western wisdom agrees. It doesn’t seem to matter whether we use diaphragmatic breathing (also called abdominal or belly breathing), deep ribcage breathing, or a specific pranayama technique—research suggests that slow, deep breathing can trigger the “relaxation response," slowing respiration and heart rate, reducing blood pressure, soothing digestion, improving energy, and reducing stress and perceived pain. Even better, this tool is available to everyone regardless of injury, age, range of motion, or physical strength.
See also A Mindful Breathing Practice for Tough Emotions
Circling wrists and ankles, flexing and pointing the toes, windshield wiping the knees, Cat/Cow—these gentle movements don’t look fancy, but they can help connect us to the rhythm of the breath and the proprioceptive sensations of the body; gently stimulate blood and lymphatic flow; and warm and mobilize our joints. Flowing like water can also help dissolve muscular and mental tension, moving us away from rigidity and stagnation.
See also Classic Asana, New Twist: 15 Traditional Poses and Variations
Even the most dedicated yogis only practice for a couple of hours a day, which means that what we do off the mat (i.e. our posture) has much more impact on our health than what we do on it. Our posture influences our breathing, digestion, and mood; over the long term, it can even create asymmetric strain on our joints, leading to premature wear and tear. Every time we find our roots in Mountain Pose, we are encouraged to notice, and correct, our postural habits. This helps us to build new posture habits that we can carry off the mat and into our daily lives.
See also Why Tadasana Is the Blueprint Pose
Downward-Facing Dog is a hatha yoga staple for good reason. The pose creates harmony between the upper and lower body, opening the chest while lengthening the backs of the legs. It balances the inward focus of a forward bend with the upper body strength of an arm balance and the energy boost of an inversion. And, like most of my favorite yoga postures, it is easily modified to suit each student’s needs.
See also 4 Steps to Master Downward-Facing Dog
Though some yogis are born with deep backbends or open hips, we are all able to improve our balance. Challenging our stability in Tree Pose (Vrksasana), Eagle Pose (Garudasana) or Crescent Lunge boosts body awareness and mental focus while teaching us how to use our core muscles functionally to coordinate the upper and lower body. Because we practice one side of the body at a time, we also get the chance to notice small discrepancies between the left and right sides before they become big ones. Balance work also fosters a feeling of resilience—mentally and emotionally as well as physically—and boosts stability as we age.
See also 15 Poses for Better Balance
Standing balance poses help us maintain strength and stability in the lower body; Side Plank helps us achieve the same in the upper body. This is a key benefit for women, because we tend to lose upper body strength as we age. Whether we use the regular version of the pose or a modification, Side Plank activates the rotator cuff (the small muscles that correctly position the head of the upper arm bone in the shoulder socket), tones the often neglected muscles of the side waist and outer hip, and forces us to recruit core, chest, back, and leg muscles to retain our balance.
See also Challenge Pose: One-Legged Side Plank
Over time, many of us tend to slouch, letting the head and shoulders fall forward and the upper back round. This habit shuts us down, limiting breath capacity and organ function, depressing our energy, and creating uneven wear and tear on the joints of the neck, back, and shoulders. Simple belly-down backbends like Cobra (Bhujangasana) and Locust (Salabhasana) counter this pattern by strengthening the muscles of the posterior shoulder, spine, buttocks, and legs. As we open up our posture, we open up energetically, too.
See also 5 Yoga Pose Modifications for Low Back Pain
Like shaking up a snow globe, inversions change our relationship to gravity, shifting blood and lymphatic fluid from the legs and hips toward the heart and head. It also takes the weight off our feet, ankles and knees, giving hard-working joints some welcome rest. Legs-Up-the-Wall-Pose (Viparita Karani) is my favorite inversion because it also helps to relieve neck and back tension. There is an element of surrender that, for many of us, is missing in our frantic lives.
See also How the Teres Major Can Make or Break Healthy Shoulders in Inversions
A gentle twist is the yoga equivalent of hitting the reset button on our postural habits, releasing patterns of myofascial tension around the torso, and encouraging the intervertebral disks between the bones of the spine to plump up by imbibing fluid from surrounding tissues. Twists can also stimulate circulation to our abdominal organs, which is beneficial to our digestion, and thereby our vitality.
See also Prevent Low Back Pain in Twists
Regular meditation, regardless of its style or duration, has been shown to boost immunity, focus, and creativity, while reducing anxiety, stress, and perceived pain. No matter what yoga postures we can or can’t do, these powerful and lasting benefits are available to anyone who can find a comfortable seat to pause, reflect, and observe without judgment for just a few minutes a day.
See also Everything You Need to Know About Meditation Posture