There are literally thousands of different yoga poses ranging from very basic to ridiculously complicated. However, most styles of yoga focus on teaching and practicing no more than one hundred poses. Of these, only a couple dozen are typically practiced by beginner or even intermediate level yoga students.
Honestly, you could get by just fine with learning just a handful of poses, but I’m going to present 21 asanas (“seat” or postures) that I consider “the basics” of a solid foundation for your practice.
Once you learn and are able to practice these poses, you will have all you need to safely and successfully practice Sun Salutations as well as variety of basic flows, or sequences.
The poses are organized into two basic categories:
- Grounded Postures – In these asanas, the majority of the body is in touch with or “grounded” to the floor. They’re perfect for warming up, cooling down, or gentle floor sequences.
- Standing Postures – In these asanas, relatively little of the body is in touch with the floor, typically only the hands and/or feet. They’re excellent for building strength, toning the body, stimulating the internal organs, and improving balance, coordination, and focus.
A few important pointers:
- In either category, the poses can be practiced statically, in which they are held for a longer duration of time, or dynamically, in which you flow through the poses with the rhythm of the breath. Additionally, each pose can be practiced alone or linked with others to create a basic flow.
- As you try each pose, remember to practice on both sides to maintain balance in the body. When you switch sides, notice any differences you might feel in the openness of the shoulders, hips, and other parts of your body. Because we tend to favor one arm or leg over the other, it’s common for one side to be tighter than the other. Just take notice, without judgement or any intention to change what you are experiencing.
- The most important thing is that you listen to the wisdom of your own body. The cueing I give you in the descriptions and videos is to help you find the proper alignment to practice yoga safely. However, keep in mind that we are all built differently, and that regardless of our levels of fitness or flexibility, we are not going to look exactly the same in these poses.
So, please, do not try to push your body further than it wants to go. Respect your personal anatomy and boundaries, and you will reap the rewards of yoga. Push yourself too far, and you risk injury. (I’ve been there, and it’s no fun!)
Just listen to your body and enjoy the process!
21 Basic Poses for Setting a Strong Foundation : Grounded Postures (Part 1)
1. Easy Pose or Happy Seat
- Begin seated in a comfortable cross-legged position.
- If it is comfortable (no pain or torquing of the knees), bring each foot to rest under the opposite knee.
- Walk your sitz bones* back slightly to create a triangular space between the legs.
- Use your hands to lift and pull back the “fleshy” parts of the bum so you are sitting more directly on the sitz bones. This allows for more mobility and comfort in your back.
- Strive to maintain a “neutral pelvis” so that your torso is not tipping either backward or forward.
- Relax the shoulders, rolling them slightly down and back to open across the chest. Imagine lifting the heart towards the sky.
- Ground through the sitz bones, allowing the tailbone to descend slightly as the navel draws in and up.
- Imagine there is a string coming straight out through the top of your head. Now visualize gently pulling the string upward to lengthen your spine from tailbone to crown.
- Bring the palms to rest on the knees, either facing up (for an energizing effect) or down (for a grounding effect), or bring the thumb and forefinger to touch to create “the wisdom seal,” and place them slightly to the outside of the knees to lightly hug them closer together.
- Relax the muscles of the jaw and allow the eyes to close as you begin to turn your attention inward.
- Breathe through the nose slowly and with intention, gradually deepening the breath.
- You may hold this pose as long as it is comfortable. Start for one minute and build from there.
Good to Know
The goal in this pose is steadiness and ease. Eventually, we want to be able to maintain this pose for long periods of time, such as sitting in meditation. If you practice this pose often, alternate which leg you have in front on different days, or you can even divide the time in half, with the right leg in front the first half, then switching to the left. We do this in order to maintain even balance and flexibility on each side of the body.
If you find your knees higher than your hips (further from the ground), it’s likely that you are less flexible in the hips. This can cause more weight to tip backwards, putting extra pressure in the middle of your back and sacrum. If your knees dip lower than the hips (closer to or touching the ground) it means that you are more flexible in the hips. While this is a good thing, it can also cause weight to tip more forwards, putting added pressure on your neck and low back.
Remember, our goal in this pose is a neutral pelvis, not tipping to far forward or backward. It can take some time, practice, and adjustment to find the position most suitable for your particular anatomy. Either way, don’t stress about it! Getting to know our bodies and what feels best for us is half the fun of yoga.
- If you find sitting cross-legged on the floor too challenging or painful, this pose can be done using a prop such as a meditation cushion, or with a blanket or two folded to a suitable height. This is mainly for comfort, but also to elevate the hips above the knees. For extra support, the blankets or prop can be placed against a wall.
- If sitting on the floor is too uncomfortable in general, this pose may also be done sitting in a chair that allows you to place both feet flat on the floor with your knees at a 90 degree angle. It’s still a good idea to pull back the fleshy parts of your buttocks in order to sit more directly on the sitz bones and support the low back.
This pose helps to open the hips, strengthen the back muscles, and stretch the knees. It can also promote stress relief, a calm mind, and a sense of inner peace.
If you have a knee injury, chronic knee pain, a hip injury, or hip arthritis, you will most likely want to perform this pose while sitting in a chair. Remember, this is called “Easy Pose.” If it’s not easy for you, don’t push it! Find a position that is more comfortable while still promoting proper alignment.
My Two Cents
When I first started my yoga teacher training, I wasn’t used to sitting on the floor or cushions, especially for long periods of time. Sure, this might look and feel easy for the first few minutes, but after hours and days of only sitting on the floor–whew! At first, my knees and back constantly ached and my feet continuously fell asleep. After a couple days, we started to get smart and began sitting on stacks of blankets and piling yoga blocks and cushions all around us.
Eventually, after several weeks, my muscles and joints were sufficiently strengthened to allow me to sit comfortably in this position for up to an hour. However, now that I’m no longer sitting on the floor for hours at a time, 15 minutes can be a struggle. But that’s okay, because yoga is an ever-evolving process. Remember, yoga is always supposed to be helpful and not harmful! I encourage you to always start slow and allow your muscles to gradually increase in strength and flexibility.
2. Child’s Pose
- Begin on your hands and knees with the knees directly under the hips and hands under the shoulders (Table Top position).
- Gently pressing down through the palms, shift your weight back onto your heels, bringing your big toes to touch.
- You can keep your knees close together, or if it’s more comfortable, separate the knees to hips-width apart.
- Slowly lower your chest towards your knees and bring the forehead to rest on the floor (or your forearms if it’s more comfortable).
- Slide the palms forward until the arms are outstretched with the forearms lightly pressing into the mat and elbows slightly bent.
- Alternatively, bring the palms back alongside the knees, then flip the palms face up and slide them down towards the feet, allowing the shoulder blades to relax and widen across the back.
- Lengthen the tailbone down towards the heels. (Imagine someone standing behind you and gently pressing your lower back towards your heels.)
- Slightly tuck the chin to lengthen the back of the neck and continue to rest the forehead on the ground.
- Breathe through the nose–slowly, deeply, and with intention.
- You may rest in this pose for several breaths or several minutes, as long as it’s comfortable.
To exit the pose, bring the hands alongside the knees, spread the fingers, press down through the knuckles and fingertips, and extend through the crown of the head to bring the torso upright.
Good to Know
Child’s pose is considered a resting pose. It’s wonderful at the beginning or end of a practice, as a transition between poses (especially after inversions), or any time a break is needed during a strenuous practice. Allow gravity to draw the body deeper into the position rather than forcing it.
- Traditionally the knees are kept closer together, but many find it more comfortable to widen the knees, allowing the belly to rest between the knees rather than on them. (Definitely go for this variation if you are pregnant!) If you choose to widen the knees, you may also try bringing the arms to rest between the legs and turning one cheek and temple to rest on the floor.
- If being down on the floor is too much for you, this pose can be done with two chairs. Sitting in one chair with feet firmly grounded, slowly round forward to bring the forehead to the second chair. You may use your forearms or a blanket as padding for the forehead. Or for the extended version, place the second chair slightly further away and extending arms overhead, press the palms into the chair to get more stretch and opening through the shoulders, back, and pelvis.
This is a calming and stress-relieving pose. It’s a great pose to come into if you are experiencing dizziness or fatigue during your practice. It stretches the lower back, hips, thighs, and ankles.
If you experience knee problems, there are several ways to modify this pose to make it more comfortable. You can decrease the amount of flexion in the knees by placing a cushion or folded blanket between your seat and heels. If you are feeling too much flexion or any pain in your ankles, you can also place a rolled up blanket under the ankles for better support. If you have a yoga bolster handy, another option is to place the bolster long-ways between the knees and lay the torso along the bolster with the head turned to one side.
My Two Cents
This pose is supposed to be calming and restful, so do whatever it takes to make it that way. It might not always be the same thing–switch it up and see what works best for you in the moment.
3. Cat-Cow Sequence
Marjaryasana-Bitilasana (mahr-jahr-ee-AHS-anna bih-tih-LAHS-anna)
- Begin on your hands and knees in table top position. Align the knees directly under the hips and hands directly under the shoulders.
- With your middle fingers pointing forward, spread your fingers and press the palms flat into your mat.
- Gaze down at the floor between the hands to keep the neck in line with the spine.
- On an inhale, lift the tailbone, lower the belly toward the floor, lift the chest, and gaze toward the ceiling. (Cow Pose)
- Draw the shoulder blades down the back.
- On an exhale, press down through the palms, tuck the tailbone, round the spine, lower the head, and gaze towards your knees. (Cat Pose)
- Repeat several times, matching the movements with the rhythm of your own breath (Inhaling into Cow Pose, Exhaling into Cat Pose).
- When you are ready to finish the sequence, finish one last exhale, rounding into cat pose.
- On your next inhale, come back to a neutral spine.
Good to Know
Cat-Cow is actually a “mini-sequence” composed of two separate poses–cat and cow. You could certainly practice each of these poses separately, but I have always seen them (and prefer to practice them) together as a breath-synchronized flow, or vinyasa, from one into the other. This sequence is excellent at the beginning of a practice to warm up the spine.
- If you experience any pain in the wrists, you can modify by coming down onto your forearms. If you do this, you should place your forearms on a bolster or stack of folded blankets to bring your torso upright and to maintain a neutral spine. If this pose irritates your knees, you can either fold your mat underneath them or use a thinly folded blanket for a bit of extra cushion.
- If you are unable to come down to the floor on hands and knees, you can also perform this pose while sitting in a chair with a wall or table in front of you. With your feet planted firmly on the floor and knees bent to a 90 degree angle, press your hands against the table or wall and perform the same motions as described for the traditional pose.
This pose stretches the muscles of the neck and back and provides a gentle massage for the internal organs, including the kidneys and adrenal glands. It’s wonderful for increasing flexibility in the spine. For females, it also tones the uterus and may actually help soothe menstrual cramps.
If you have any neck injuries, take extra care in maintaining a neutral position of the neck throughout the movements. Keep the head in line with the torso rather than moving it forward or backward. Those who have spinal injuries should only practice Cat Pose and return to a neutral spine in between rather than allowing the belly to drop into Cow Pose, as this could put too much strain on the lower back.
My Two Cents
I consider this gentle flow to be one of the “basics of the basics.” I include it as a warm-up in every practice. This one is especially great on it’s own, whether you’re in your car stopped at a red-light or taking a much needed mini-break while sitting at your desk at work.
4. Cobra Pose
- Begin lying on your stomach with the tops of the feet and forehead to the floor.
- Place your hands directly underneath the shoulders, spread the fingers, press the palms into the floor, and hug the elbows into the body.
- Roll the shoulder blades down the back, relaxing them away from the ears.
- Ground down through the lower body, pressing the pelvis and tops of the feet into the floor.
- Inhale as you extend the crown of the head forward and engage the back muscles to slowly lift the torso away from the floor.
- Lightly press through the palms to extend the arms.
- Allow your sternum to guide you into a graceful arch, stretching evenly along the spine.
- Only lift to the point where you can maintain the connection between the pelvis and the floor.
- Hold and breathe slowly and deeply through the nose for up to five breaths.
To exit the pose, exhale as you slowly lower your torso back to the floor.
Good to Know
It’s better to maintain length through the back of the neck rather than tilting the head too far back, compressing the cervical spine and risking injury. Maintain a slight bend in the elbows while in the full expression of the pose, or a larger bend if straightening the arms creates too much compression in the lower back.
- If the full expression of the pose is too much on your low back, shoulders, or wrists, you can modify by bringing your forearms to the floor with your elbows under your shoulders (Sphinx Pose).
This is a great pose for stretching the shoulders, chest, and abs. It builds strength in the arms and shoulders and even helps tone your bum! It also helps stimulate internal organs such as the kidneys and improves blood flow through the spinal and pelvic areas. Interestingly, scientific studies have also revealed that frequent practice of this pose leads to increases in testosterone and decreases in cortisol (“the stress hormone”).
If you suffer from a recent or chronic back injury, you might try the Sphinx Pose variation, although it may be best to avoid this pose altogether. Also, those who have had recent abdominal surgery and pregnant women (in the 2nd or 3rd trimester) should also avoid this pose.
My Two Cents
Too often in my yoga classes, I see people overstraining themselves in this particular pose. They seem to think that the proper form is to arch the back and crank the head back as much as possible. In reality, this provides less benefit and is more cause for injury. The point is not to look good in any particular pose, it’s to feel good.
When practicing any pose for the first time, start slow and allow your body to adjust to these new movements and stretches. Over time, your body will develop muscles memory in each of these poses and you will have a much better sense of what feels right for you.
5. Bound Angle Pose
Baddah Konasana (BAH-dah cone-AHS-anna)
- Begin seated with your legs extended in front of you.
- Allow the feet to roll away from each other.
- Grasping the inner thighs or shins, slowly draw the heels towards the pelvis, bringing the soles of the feet to touch.
- Place your palms on the floor behind you and press down through the fingertips to scoot your seat back. This helps remove the fleshier parts of the buttocks to be more directly seated on the sitz bones*
- Without force, allow the knees to extend out to the sides and down towards the floor.
- Either grasp the ankles or shins, or interlace the hands around the outer edges of the feet.
- Ground down through the sitz bones as you extend the spine upward.
- Gaze forward with your chin slightly tucked to maintain openness and length through the back of the neck.
- Rather than forcing the knees down, relax the inner groin muscles to allow the knees to open.
- If it feels comfortable, you can begin to hinge forward at the hips. Maintain a neutral spine until the point where you cannot comfortably bend forward any further.
- Breathe slowly and deeply through the nose, and rest in this pose for up to five minutes.
Good to Know
The closer your feet are to your pelvis, the deeper you will feel the stretch. If you would like to go a little bit deeper and get a bit more opening through the inner thighs and bring the knees closer to the floor, slightly squeeze the glutes, but do so without sacrificing alignment in the spine.
- To alleviate strain or pain in the knees or groin, move the feet further away from the pelvis. You may also place blocks or rolled up blankets under the knees. Just be careful not to overcompensate and raise the knees too high, as this can also cause strain in the low back.
- If you are experiencing tightness in the hips or rounding of the lower back, sit on the edge of a folded blanket, block, or bolster to help elevate the hips.
- Another option is to bring the feet together and allow the knees to open as much as is comfortable. Rather than sitting upright and grasping the ankles, bring the palms to the floor behind your hips and lean slightly back. You will be able to achieve the same stretch through the hips and groin by gently pressing down through the palms.
This hip-opening pose stretches the inner thighs, groin, and knees. It’s also known to aid in digestion and soothe menstrual cramps.
If you have a knee or groin injury or experience arthritis in the knees or hips, only perform this pose with the support of a rolled up blanket underneath the upper thighs. You may also find it more comfortable to try the leaning back variation or lay completely on your back, in Reclined Bound Angle Pose, or Supta Baddah Konasana.
My Two Cents
I have been doing this pose since I was a kid–warming up for karate, stretching for soccer, etc. and I’ve always been shown to grab the ankles and use the elbows to press the knees further down. However, I have since learned that pressing the hands or elbows on the knees can actually put a lot of torque on the knees and can be more harmful than beneficial. My recommendation is to let gravity do it’s thing. Eventually, as you gain more openness and flexibility in the hips and groin, your knees will naturally come closer to the floor.
A few final thoughts…
*Sitz bones – The bones under the flesh of your buttocks that you literally sit on.
Take your time, play around, and start getting comfortable in each of these poses. Let me know if you have any specific questions.
Keep an eye out for the next post…we’ll explore five more grounded poses before eventually getting into the standing poses. Until then, happy practicing!