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Q&A: Can You Recommend a Yoga Lesson Plan for Beginners?

Iyengar Yoga instructor Lisa Walford offers advice for how beginning yoga students can get started.

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As a rank beginner in his late forties—ok, 49—who has been relatively sedentary for far too long, I’ve been searching for a lesson-plan or series of poses that would comprise a good “workout” for me to get started.
—Jon Cutler

Lisa Walford’s reply:

No matter what your age, it takes a skillful, diligent practice and a playful attitude to integrate any new task into your life. With time, what begins as a discipline can become a passion.

Let’s say that a good workout is one that promotes health. Let’s define good health as being at ease in one’s body, able to move freely, and feeling composed and alert. In yoga, we often think of a “posture” as something static, but good alignment is far from that. Good structural alignment consists of coordinating strength to support the body’s weight in many different relationships to gravity; flexibility to allow us to reach and to grasp, to leap and to bend; and agility to move with poise.

This sequence offers you that. The first four standing poses use the large muscles of the back (latissimus dorsi) and thighs (quadriceps) while assisting you to elongate the spine and open the shoulders and chest. They are also an effective and safe way to increase the circulation around your hip and shoulder joints. Next, Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) and Prasarita Padottanasana (Intense Spread Leg Stretch) release those wonderfully important and nagging hamstrings. Weak backs can be the result of tight hamstrings pulling the back pelvis under the body and reducing the lumbar curve. Practice slow, methodical, and deep actions rather than pulling or bouncing ones to best release the hamstrings.

Adho Muka Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) is perhaps the consummate yoga asana. It builds both strength and flexibility in the shoulders, stretches the hamstrings, and has many of the benefits of the inverted postures. After you’ve lengthened the spine in Downward-Facing Dog, what follows are poses to strengthen the back muscles in mild backbends. Dynamically alternating between the Downward- and the Upward-Facing Dog poses prompts the front body to expand while the spine elongates. Salabhasana (Locust Pose) strengthens the back while it massages the abdominal organs. Emphasize the length of the spine in this pose rather than how high you can lift off the floor by stretching the legs back while you extend forward through the chest.

Supta Padangusthsasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose), like Downward-Facing Dog, weighs in as a daily vitamin. Because the torso is supported by the floor you can stretch the hamstrings with minimal effort and hence hold the posture longer. Longer time in these poses offers a big pay-off!

Depending on how long you hold each posture, this sequence will take you 40 minutes to an hour. If you have more time, add Prasarita Padottanasana or Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) between the standing poses.

Urdhva Hastasana in Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Utkatasana (Chair Pose)

Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose)
Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)
Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)
Prasarita Padottanasana (Intense Spread Leg Stretch)
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose), alternate Adho and Urdhva three times, legs stiff
Lie face down, Salabhasana (Locust Pose)
Urdhva Muka Svanasana, (variation, if stiff) hands on blocks
Supta Padanagusthasana 1 & 2 (Reclining Big Toe Pose)
Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (Leg Lifts)
Halasana (Plow Pose), feet on the wall or a chair
Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand) (optional, depending on how tight the shoulders are)
Jathara Parivartanasana, bent legs
Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
Upavistha Konasana (Seated Wide Angle Pose)
Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)
Bharadvajasana (Bharadvajasana’s Pose)
Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana with cross bolsters

Lisa Walford is a senior intermediate Iyengar Yoga instructor and has been
teaching for more than twenty years. She is one of the directors of the Teacher Training
Program at Yoga Works, in Los Angeles. She has served on the faculty of the
1990 and 1993 National Iyengar Yoga Conventions and studies regularly with
the Iyengars.