Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
As we often do each December, we’re reflecting on the past year and how we—and our yoga practices—have grown and changed over these 12 months. As the COVID-19 pandemic entered its second year, and yogis around the world continued their pursuit of an epic home practice, our readers sought out sequences and poses that promised to improve their fitness, flexibility, and overall health and well-being—as well as provide some relief for the aches and pains we’ve picked up along the way.
Whether you’re searching for poses that make you stronger, can ease tight legs and shoulders, or fire up your core, our most-read practices of 2021 have you covered.
The top yoga sequences of 2021
We could all use a little more strength and power in our practice. Whether you’re looking to build to tricky arm balances and balancing postures or increase your overall physical performance, these yoga poses for strength will make those muscles work. Practiced consistently (and correctly!) over time, these poses will make you stronger—and prepare you for those advanced asanas. Suddenly, you’ll feel more powerful and ready to tackle that Handstand (yes, really).
Whether you’re doing an intense exercise such as running or a sedentary activity, like sitting at a desk for long periods of time, you’re likely to experience tightness in your hamstrings. Fortunately, stretching is an excellent way to release tension in these important muscles, and many common yoga poses can directly alleviate your discomfort.
The hamstrings flex the knee and extend the hip, meaning they’re used every day for walking, climbing stairs, or riding your bike, so it’s crucial to give them the care they need to keep you moving. Just make sure not to overexert yourself in postures, which can lead to injury. Always listen to your body and be proactive when it comes to protecting this group of muscles. Use props such as blocks and blankets to provide support so you can stretch safely and more efficiently.
You don’t need to hit the gym to strengthen or sculpt your body. Instead, you can turn to yoga for toning muscles throughout your body (and best of all, you can do it from the comfort of your home).
With toning, you’re looking to reduce body fat and replace it with lean muscle. High-repetition exercises, like what you move through in a yoga practice, pave the way for that change. If you’ve ever taken a vinyasa class or completed 10 Sun Salutations in a row, you know that the feeling in your body is similar to running for a few miles—your heart is beating and you feel the strain in your muscles. Yoga has the added benefit of toning your muscles—and you can target areas of your body based on the poses that you practice.
Confession: When crop tops made a comeback a few years ago, I was relieved that high-waisted pants were also still “in.” After all, the mid-to-late 1990s style of Gwen Stefani and Britney Spears baring their entire torso proved daunting for me, as I never felt comfortable showing my stomach. Even after buying an ab roller and trying every diet under the sun, my tummy still wasn’t flat. The reality is that I am just not built that way, and what little preteen me did not yet know was that it would not matter what my stomach looked like when it came to harnessing power in my asana practice.
So when midriff-baring shirts came back into style in 2013, I took the brave leap and purchased one. My courage was quickly tested even more when the first thing someone said to me when they saw me in it was, “Why aren’t you more toned? Don’t you do yoga every day?”
The 13-year-old in me wanted to run and hide, but the 30-year-old took a deep breath. And that is when I offered some core wisdom to this person by sharing what I wish I had known as that little girl, desperately doing crunches and chugging celery water.
Got lower back pain? Join the club. According to the National Institutes of Health, 80 percent of Americans will experience lower back pain at some point during their lives. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean that it’s something you have to live with. Your lower back is designed to stabilize and support your every movement. When it’s out of whack, not only does your back feel awful, but it mental health can be impacted, as well. The good news is that yoga for lower back pain can help you find some sweet, sweet relief.
The one thing that cyclists, runners, and desk-bound office workers have in common? Tight hips. If you’re experiencing tight hips post-workout or during your yoga practice, you’re not alone. Turns out, spending too much time sitting (at a desk, in your car, etc.), cycling, or running constricts the hip muscles, making them super tight and uncomfortable. Over time, that can lead to other aches and pains elsewhere in your body, which is why incorporating hip stretches into your yoga practice is critical.
Slumpy computer posture, improper strength training, and mechanical misalignments can all lead to a world of tight shoulders and tired upper back muscles. The solution: yoga stretches for shoulder pain. These movements reduce stiffness, improve flexibility, and increase your range of motion.
This sequence of stretches for shoulder pain can also reset your shoulders for more aligned posture and better breathing. Stretching the shoulders also opens the door for more bendy upper-body asanas.
We get it. Yoga can seem daunting. Seeing somebody gracefully hold their fully outstretched leg behind their head in Compass Pose tends to feel more aspirational than practical. But the history and heart of yoga is geared toward beginners. Straightforward poses practiced mindfully give your body the stretch and strength that you seek while still requiring your mind to turn quiet and focus.
For yogis who are just starting their journey, establishing a strong foundation in “easy” yoga poses for beginners will help you find the balance and body positioning you need to grow your practice. Many poses build off one another, so knowing how to keep your breath steady and your body in alignment in a foundational pose will soon transition you into more involved postures.
Seriously, you don’t need to hold a Handstand for 5 minutes to be completely in your body—you just need to move, tune in, and connect with your breath.
We’ve got bad news for the desk-sitters out there: All that sedentary time staring at a screen is doing a number on your health. Not only has too much sitting been linked to serious health problems, like obesity and osteoporosis, among others, but it also is a significant contributor to that nagging lower back ache that you’ve been complaining about. But it’s not actually your back that’s the issue: It’s your hip flexors.
So what’s a yogi to do? Yoga, of course. You can use your practice to offset the effects of all that sitting, stretch the hip flexors, relieve associated back pain, and set the stage for a safe practice of intermediate poses like backbends.
If there is one thing I have learned again and again in the last year and a half, it is how quickly the nervous system can settle down simply by lying on the floor.
The entire last year, my home practice, which has always included lots of backbends and inversions, has shifted to floor work, core stabilizing, and anything else I can think of to ground, strengthen, and quiet me. These poses still open the shoulders and strengthen the core as well as the lower back. My practice remains slow and close to the mat and comprises only poses that I can do while lying on the floor. Getting on my mat is often the hardest part.