Yoga is designed to train the body in its entirety, and most poses demand a combination of strength, flexibility, and balance. There are some poses, however, that train certain aspects more than others and depending on what level you're currently at; different poses will work on different parts of your fitness.
If you're struggling with upper body strength, looking to master the highest level of flexibility, or just want to be able hold a position without falling over, check out these tips on which poses to practice.
Upper Body Strength
Beginner - Plank: If you lack a lot of upper body strength, start slow and be safe. Plank pose is a great way to begin, as it not only improves your upper body strength, but also helps you maintain proper spinal alignment when you shift weight onto your arms.
Simply holding a proper plank pose will greatly improve the strength in your arms and upper back, which in turn prepares you for more advanced positions.
Intermediate - Dolphin Pose: If plank pose is no longer challenging, but you're not quite ready to go into handstands, you can build upper body strength quickly through dolphin pose. It is a transitional pose between plank and supported handstands, allowing the student to place the weight on their arms while providing a safety net through the placement of the legs.
Advanced - Handstand: Once you've mastered the dolphin pose, you can move onto more challenging asanas to build upper body strength. Handstands are quick strength builders and simply holding a handstand either against a wall or without support will eventually lead to stronger arms and a more balanced spine.
Make sure to keep your spine straight and hips lifted in handstands to avoid stressing your lumbar spine.
Beginner – Boat Pose: Boat pose is a great and simple way to begin building core strength. Practice by going into the pose, holding for three cycles of breath, then coming out of it slowly and with control. The pose itself will tighten core muscles, while the transition in and out will give those same muscles the strength to endure through active movement.
Intermediate – Shoulder Stand: After getting a tummy that's able to hold you up in boat pose, you can move on to shoulder stands to keep training your core. Though your weight falls on your shoulder blades and upper back in a shoulder stand, the muscles working hardest are your core muscles. Focus on sustaining the pose and lifting your hips up toward the ceiling, keeping the lower back supported with firm and actively contracted core muscles.
Better indeed is knowledge than mechanical practice. Better than knowledge is meditation. But better still is the surrender of attachment to results, because there follows immediate peace.
Advanced – Scorpion Pose: If you're looking for a real challenge for your core, scorpion pose can be the ultimate in strength building. One of the most difficult poses in yoga, scorpion requires absolute control and perfect stability in the spine. By simply sustaining this pose for as long as you can, your core muscles will be pushed to the limit—great for strengthening even the strongest powerhouse muscles.
Beginner – Locust Pose: You can start building strength in your legs fast through locust pose, whose prone positioning allows for safe and slow strengthening. Try going into the pose, holding it for five cycles of breath, then coming down. Your legs should be kept straight and the muscles active, strengthening from hamstring to quad and downward.
Intermediate – King Dancer: Once your legs are feeling stronger and you need a bigger challenge than what locust offers, give king dancer pose a try. While the working leg will be improving the flexibility of your back, your standing leg will be working overtime to keep your balance. This will give greater strength and muscle tone all over the leg, as every muscle works to keep you balanced and supported.
Advanced - Handstand: Once you've gotten strong arms and a stable back, you can move onto more challenging poses to build upper body strength. Handstands are super fast strength builders, and simply holding a handstand either against a wall or without support will give you strong arms and a balanced spine. Make sure to keep your spine straight and hips lifted in handstands to avoid stressing your lumbar spine.
Beginner – Tree Pose: With computers being the tool of choice for work, sitting down all day at your desk can give you really tight hips. To start to gently loosen them up, try tree pose. Leaning your working leg against your standing leg will take the pressure off your hips, while pushing it gently open will allow them to slowly open up and get loose.
Intermediate – Happy Baby: If tree pose isn't providing enough of a stretch in your hips, happy baby pose can push you into the next level. Ease deeper into the pose, keeping your spine flat on the floor as you pull your feet toward the ground. You'll feel your hips getting a nice, deep opening stretch.
Advanced – Lotus Pose: After removing all traces of tightness in your hips, you can move into practicing lotus pose. With the legs folded in a turned out position, your hip rotation will be pushed, maximizing the stretch in your hips. For an added bonus benefit, you can try moving into lotus while doing a shoulder stand.
Beginner – Warrior I: The muscle on the backs of your thighs can become tight easily, as it's not usually stretched in every day activity. To start to ease into things move into warrior I pose. The lunge you take will gently pull both ends of your hamstring on the back leg. Gradually ease deeper into the lunge to increase the stretch.
Intermediate – Standing Forward Bend: After you feel comfortable stretching and lengthening your hamstrings in warrior I pose, move into doing standing forward bends. By keeping your legs straight and pulling your upper body down toward your mat, your hamstrings will feel the most stretch of any muscle. Work toward being able to rest your chest on your knees and head on the floor for super long hamstrings.
Advanced – Monkey Pose: If you're feeling loose and limber in your hamstrings, try moving into monkey pose. Sustaining what is essentially a split will give your hamstrings a nice, deep stretch, while your hips will also get a workout. Extend your arms upward and move into a small backbend while in monkey pose to feel stretched all over.
Beginner – Fish Pose: A great pose for those suffering from nasal congestion, fish pose is also the perfect way to start gaining upper back flexibility. Sustaining the pose and gradually moving your hands into Namaste on your chest will allow your upper back to really open up.
Intermediate – Bridge Pose: After you feel your upper back starting to open up, try moving into gently stretching the whole spine with bridge pose. Lift your hips up as high as you can, letting your spine arch from top to bottom. Hold the pose, moving deeper into it as you feel your spine loosening up.
Advanced – Wheel Pose: If your back is feeling super open and you want a challenge, move into practicing wheel pose. Move into the pose slowly and carefully, sustaining it to gain the stretch in your spine. If you're already comfortable in wheel pose, try lowering yourself onto your elbows and forearms to increase the degree of arch in your spine.
One Legged Balances
Beginner – Balancing Stick: Find your balance in the beginning by going into balancing stick. Sustain the pose as long as you can, focusing your gaze down and out to help keep your spine stable as your standing leg works overtime to keep you in the position.
Intermediate – Half Moon Pose: Go to the floor to increase your balance in a dynamic way with half moon pose. Sustain the pose and let your gaze be directed up toward the sky as you balance. This pose will give you the ability to balance in a non-standing position, making everything else seem easy in comparison.
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built.
Advanced – Eagle Pose: To find the best balance in your body, go into eagle pose. Not only will the twisted working leg give you a challenge, but your gaze will be challenged to stay focused as you maintain the pose.
Beginner – Camel Pose: Going upside down can be scary, but remember that the definition of an inversion is merely a position in which the hips are above the level of the head. Start slow with camel pose, supporting your lower back with your hands as you get used to the feel of being upside down. Try and focus your gaze as you're inverted to keep the spine stable.
Intermediate – Plow Pose: Move forward in your inversions by going into plow pose. Start by holding your hands on your lower back, near your sacrum. Once you're feeling strong and comfortable, place your palms down on the floor with your arms straight at your sides. This pose will get you comfortable with more advanced inversions while slowly building the strength to support them.
Advanced - Headstand: If you're feeling strong and daring, a headstand can give you the inversion challenge you crave. Start slow and safe, using a wall for support and a folded towel to keep your head cushioned. Sustaining this pose will give you strength all over your body while working up your ability to balance upside down.
Go for it!
No matter what aspects of your fitness you want to improve, yoga can help you in every way. Stay safe and ask your instructor about poses you're unsure about. With practice and persistence, you'll be well on your way to a perfect yoga body!