From the simplest to the most complex, yoga poses encompass almost every possible permutation of bodily movement. While the actual number of yoga poses is not agreed upon, yoga teacher Dharma Mittra has suggested "there are an infinite number of asanas", and compiled the Master Yoga Chart of 908 Postures. Some yoga poses – usually referred to as asanas (the emphasis is on the first syllable) – are named after Hindu deities, some are taken from the ancient yogis observing the way animals move. All have the ability to stretch and strengthen the body and, when combined with the breath, to calm the mind.
It all starts with tadasana – usually translated as mountain pose, and sometimes referred to as samasthiti – the basic standing pose from which all others begin.
Tadasana guides us towards correct alignment in our day-to-day lives, as well as in all of the standing poses. It encourages us to lengthen the spine, root our feet in the earth and reach the crown of the head towards the sky. It works the thighs, arches of the feet and calf muscles.
In the traditional sequence of the Surya Namaskar – the sun salutation – you will find many of the most common and easily accessible yoga poses.
From tadasana you will move to urdhva hastasana (upward hand pose), sweeping the arms out in a wide circle to bring the palms overhead. This pose gives the same benefits as tadasana but with the added benefit of working the shoulders, and drawing your attention to any tension held there. Make sure you relax the shoulders and don’t draw them up towards the ears.
From here, swoop down into uttanasana, a forward bend, where you stretch the hamstrings and lower back and fold your body into itself.
Plank Pose and Chaturanga Dandasana
The next pose is plank pose, leading into chaturanga dandasana (four-limbed staff pose), which is like a push up and challenges your arm and core strength. This is great for toning the arms and abdomen. You need to keep your body in strict alignment here and don’t let your hips drop.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana
Urdhva mukha svanasana, upward facing dog pose, strengthens the thighs and arms and opens up the chest and heart. This pose also gives you a nice back bend, but don’t overdo it – the emphasis should be on opening up the chest, rather than crunching the lower back.
Ardho Mukha Svanasana
Ardho mukha svanasana is a pose so many are familiar with. The downward facing dog pose is a fantastic all-rounder, strengthening the arms and legs and stretching the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, back and hands. It is energising but also calms the mind and releases tension held in the shoulders, relieves headaches and stiff necks and is generally your go-to yoga pose!
To complete the sun salutation, step the feet back to the hands into uttanasana, then sweep the arms out to the sides as you stand up into urdhva hastasana, then draw the hands together into prayer position and stand in tadasana with the hands at the heart.
While obviously this is nowhere near a comprehensive list of yoga poses, it will certainly get you started. Being comfortable with the basics will help you with even the most complicated of poses, so if you have a yearning to do something like eka pada galavasana (flying crow pose) or durvasana, you still need to begin with tadasana.
It’s also good to remember that almost every pose can be modified to suit anyone’s body or physical ability, so if your hamstrings are tight and you haven’t seen your toes for years, don’t worry, all you need are your breath, your body and an open mind.
Develop your yoga practice by consulting a yoga practitioner in your local area.