Whether you're new to yoga or more advanced, you'll want to master these 3 breakthrough poses. Our tips will help you get there - By Nora Isaacs
Are you still figuring out which way to align your mat in yoga class? Or maybe you've got more experience-you know your Vinyasa from your Bikram. No matter which level you're at right now, there's a pivotal pose that you' ll need to master in order to step up in s~ill and get even more of the delicious benefits of yoga. Here, we break down the breakthrough poses step by step, so you can take your yoga to the next level.
Seane Corn, who teaches at the Exhale Center for Sacred Movement in Venice, CA, and around the world, has identified the essential moves for beginning, intermediate, and advanced students: Tree, Downward-Facing Dog, and Handstand. These babies aren 't just crucial, they're catalysts as well. "Each of these poses will teach you about the next, " says Corn, who models the poses in this chapter. "If you really understand how Down Dog works, for example, that will translate into the next level of practice." Start practicing the breakthrough pose for your level daily. If you think you've mastered them all, go back and relearn the essentials anyway. If you 're a newbie or an intermediate type, do your homework for a while and then go for that next posethe one that seems slightly beyond your reach. "Even if you can't accomplish it yet," Corn says, "you'll get a taste of that pose-and that's very inspiring."
BREAKTHROUGH 1 * FOR BEGINNERS
Yoga begins with stability and balance, and no pose teaches them better than the one-legged balancing Tree. Patience, please: Trees take hundreds of years to become strong, rooted, and stable, so it will take you some time to get grounded, too.
Stand tall with your feet hip width apart and your arms at sides (A). Shift your weight onto the left foot. Bend your right knee and, reaching down, use your right hand to place your right foot on the inside of the left thigh, just above the knee (B). Open the right knee out to the side. Be the tree: Imagine that your left foot has roots growing out the bottom of it that anchor you, and visualize your torso as the stable trunk. Make sure your pelvis faces forward. Bring your hands together in front of your chest. Fix your gaze to a spot on the wall in front of you to help your balance. Stay here for a full minute, or as long as you can. Slowly lower your arms, then come back to standing. Repeat on the other side. Do the pose on the first side again. This time bring your arms overhead with hands separated shoulder-width apart and palms facing one another (C). Visualize your arms as a tree's branches, strong and steady. Repeat the pose, with your arms overhead, on the other side.
To keep from toppling over, Corn suggests two things. First, do the pose either leaning with your back against the wall or with your hand against the wall so you can steady yourself. Second, coax tight hips open by pressing the bone under your big toe of your standing foot firmly into the floor.
Who Knew? Tight hips are often to blame for knocking you off-kilter in this posture. Practicing helps you develop external rotation in the hips, which you'll use over and over again. And since Tree "teaches you how to open up the hip without being weight-bearing, there is less pressure on the joints and the lower back," Corn says. "As you get more flexibility in the hip, you can gradually begin to bring the right foot up higher on your thigh."
BREAKTHROUGH 2 * FOR INTERMEDIATE STUDENTS
Downward-Facing Dog is one of the most frequently used postures-it often links others together in a flow class. But just because it's common doesn't mean it's simple. "Down Dog encompasses a lot of different body parts. It strengthens the arms and helps with shoulder, back, and hamstring flexibility," Corn says. Done correctly, DownwardFacing Dog also gives intermediate students the benefit of an inversion-having hips higher than the heart-before moving on to more challenging poses like Headstand, Handstand, or Forearm Balance. And because it's used so often, it's extraimportant to get it right.
Start on all fours with your wrists about 6 to 12 inches in front of your shoulders. Separate your knees hip-width apart and curl your toes under. Pushing evenly into your palms, lift your knees off the floor
(A) . Lift your sit bones toward the ceiling and push the top of your thighs back so that your body looks like an upside-down V
(B). At first, keep knees bent and heels lifted off the floor. Slowly start to straighten your knees-but don't lock them. Gently begin to move your chest back toward your thighs until your ears are even with your upper arms-but don't let your head dangle. Keep lifting your hips and push strongly into your hands. Lengthen your spine, spread your fingers apart, and breathe for 10 deep breaths. To come out of the pose, lower your knees to the floor, come onto all fours, and then bring your butt to your heels and forehead to the floor. Practice the pose 5 times, increasing the number of breaths each time.
One common eager-beaver mistake that's made here is sticking your chest too close to the floor and your butt toward the ceiling in an attempt to nail the pose. That just results in an overarched back. To avoid getting into this risky position, focus on moving your tailbone toward the floor.
If your heels don't go all the way down to the floor, don't stress. In fact, it's probably better for people with tight hamstrings not to try to reach that ideal. "For them, it's better to have their knees slightly bent, or the pose puts too much strain on the wrists," Corn says.
Straighten your legs, reach out through the balls of the feet, engage your abdominals, and breathe. Your head should hang between your shoulder blades with your gaze resting toward the center of the room. Lengthen the sides of your body and roll your thighs toward each other. Stay here for 10 seconds-that's enough. To come down, slowly lower one leg and then the other until you are hanging in a forward bend. Stay here for a few breaths and relax, then sit up, head high, to avoid feeling light-headed.
BREAKTHROUGH 3 * FOR ADVANCED STUDENTS
Turning completely upside down 1n an 1nvers1on bnngs you to new levels of concentration, balance, courage, and focus-while also taking pressure off the heart and allowing blood to flow straight to the brain. Handstand also strengthens abs, arms, wrists, and shoulders. Nailing it for the first time will get you psyched and coming back for more.
Facing a wall, come into Downward-Facing Dog, with your middle fingers about 4 inches away from the wall and hands shoulder-width apart (A) . As you [A] press strongly into your palms, firm your shoulder blades against your back, rotate your upper arms out, and get ready to fly. Start by practicing a few hops: Bend and slightly step one foot forward and hop as you kick the opposite leg up toward the wall
(B). Do this a few times, hopping a bit higher each time. Think about bringing your hips directly over your shoulders. When you feel ready to be airborne, take a great big hop and kick the opposite leg up high so that your heel swings forward to touch the wall, then the other leg follows. Now you are balancing against the wall upside down with both heels touching the wall
(C) . Straighten your legs, reach out through the balls of the feet, engage your abdominals, and breathe. Your head should hang between your shoulder blades with your gaze resting toward the center of the room. Lengthen the sides of your body and roll your thighs toward each other. Stay here for 10 seconds-that's enough. To come down, slowly lower one leg and then the other until you are hanging in a forward bend. Stay here for a few breaths and relax, then sit up, head high, to avoid feeling light-headed.
Practice your pre-Handstand hops every time you do yoga. Eventually, you will build the strength and confidence to go all the way. When you do, work your way up to staying inverted for a minute or more.
A poor Handstand can wreak havoc on your wrists. The problem: not pushing down on the hands enough. "If you cup the hands, you take the weight to the outside of the wrists," Corn says. Once you're in position, make sure the bone on the bottom of your index finger presses into the floor. This fix also helps the shoulders and back. "If you aren't pushing into the floor with your hands, then the shoulders aren't rolling open."