New to yoga? Don’t panic if you’re in information overload and overwhelm. There are a lot of yoga poses, many unfamiliar Sanskrit words, and not a ton of classes designed specifically for beginners where you’ll get individual attention.
If you’re looking for the CliffsNotes versions, the bare essentials for this yoga journey, here are my three crucial alignment cues. Follow these cues and you’ll stay safe, make real progress in strength, stability and confidence in the studio.
1. Knee Over Ankle
Virtually all yoga poses are based on 90-degree angles in standing poses.
For the most common standing postures (High Lunge, Low Lunge, Warrior I, Warrior II), aim to have your bent, front knee directly over your ankle. Bending your knee too much (so it’s forward of your ankle) can result in injury. A partial bend of the front knee doesn’t engage your musculature the way the science of yoga intended.
Try doing Lunge, Warrior II or Warrior II at home in front of a mirror, making a 90-degree bend with your front leg (knee directly over the ankle) so you can learn what the correct alignment feels like.
Bonus points if you can work on tracking your knee directly over your second toe. Think of your knee yearning to see the pinkie toe side of your foot. This will help you begin to find an exterior rotation of your front leg.
2. Shoulders Down and Back
In many poses, you’ll lift your arms up above your head. But this is not as easy as it sounds. Yoga calls for a specific, healthy way to do this. With hours spent slumped over a keyboard, in front of a TV or steering wheel, our shoulders tend to rise toward our ears when we lift our arms. Your challenge as a beginner is to glide your shoulders down at all times, even when your arms are raised. This oppositional stretch will lengthen and strengthen you.
My tips to get your shoulders down:
Keeping the shoulders down and back is more important than your arms being straight, so feel free to bend the elbows often. Ultimately, this will release shoulder tension, not just in class, but in your day to day life.
3. Inhale Up, Exhale Back
There are exceptions to every rule, but in virtually all Vinyasa-style yoga classes, you’re moving your body up or forward on an inhale, and down or back on an exhale.
Keeping this in mind can help you find your rhythm in a flow style class, especially if the teacher picks up the pace.
Let’s look at this concept in the practical example of a Sun Salutation, which you will do in practically every yoga class and have likely experienced already:
Inhale, standing at the top of the mat, you lift your arms above your head (your arms are traveling up, away from your body)
Exhale, fold over your legs (arms and torso are moving down, toward your legs)
Inhale, create a flat black (your torso moves away from your legs as you lengthen your spine forward)
Exhale, step back to plank and lower your body to the floor (body is moving down)
Exhale into Downward Dog (your whole body moves back)
Training yourself to think in terms of one breath per movement, and knowing that inhales generally move you forward and exhales move you back, is super helpful when taking your first few yoga classes. As you become more experienced, this breathing technique will put you into a delicious flow state as you glide from pose to pose.
Finally, remember to have a sense of humor about your practice. Know that refining your yogic alignment is never something that’s ever done. Even as a teacher, I’m constantly tweaking my poses and finding new ways I can improve. This is one of the big gifts of the yoga practice. It meets you wherever you are in your life, and goes as deep as you chose to take it.
New to Yoga?
Check out author Brett Larkin’s YouTube channel, where thousands of students study with her for more than 2 million minutes each month. Start with her free, beginner yoga playlist, and free yoga/meditation classes at BrettLarkin.com.
Top Photo: Charlotte Dodson Yoga
Other Photos: Brett Larkin