The Twelve Basic Yoga Poses
In Sivananda Yoga, the twelve basic yoga poses form the foundation for a complete and balanced practice. These asanas benefit the physical body by strengthening the muscles, improving balance, increasing flexibility, massaging the internal organs and creating suppleness of the spine. Mentally, they optimize the functioning of the brain and enhance the powers of concentration. With consistent practice, the sequence becomes a flowing meditative exercise that activates the chakras and increases the flow of prana (vital energy) throughout the entire body.
Theses asanas are always practiced after the body has been prepared through initial prayers, breathing exercises (Kapalabhati and Anuloma Viloma) and the Sun Salutation. Each posture consists of three parts: correctly coming into the pose; holding the pose while breathing properly; and coming out of the pose in a safe way. Variations and more advanced versions are incorporated as a yogi progresses in her/his ability.
Remember that the twelve basic yoga poses are always performed in order for a reason. Based on anatomical science, the exact progression of inversions, compressions, extensions, stretches, twists and joint-opening movements encourage the body into its optimal state of health and alignment.
1. Headstand (Sīrsāsana)
Known as the King of Asanas, the headstand is the first of the twelve basic yoga poses. It is easily one of the most beneficial postures for the human body. The complete vertical inversion of this pose effortlessly invites fresh blood, oxygen and nutrients to the heart and brain. Moreover, it improves mental capacity, releases any pressure in the lower back and encourages circulation.
2. Shoulderstand (Sarvāngāsana)
Yogis come out of a shoulderstand feeling incredibly renewed and refreshed! Providing similar benefits to those of the Headstand, this posture also stretches the neck, activates the thyroid glands, detoxifies the body and allows deep breathing by restricting the use of the top of the lungs.
3. Plough (Halāsana)
Continuing the effects of the Shoulderstand, the Plough pose activates and massages the internal organs by putting gentle pressure on the abdomen. It also promotes flexibility of the spine and stretches the back and shoulders, leaving the entire body feeling uplifted and rejuvenated.
4. Fish (Matsyāsana)
To counteract the stretch of the neck and spine in the previous two poses, the Fish now arches them back while expanding the chest. This allows an influx of fresh oxygen to enter the body. It should always be practiced directly after the Shoulderstand series in order to reap its full benefits and correct the body’s alignment.
5. Sitting Forward Bend (Paschimottānāsana)
Together with the Headstand and the Shoulderstand, the Seated Forward Bend is said by Swami Sivananda to be one of the three poses required for perfect health. This posture stretches the hamstrings, lengthens the spinal column, calms the nervous system, activates the internal organs and keeps the waist and abdomen trim and toned.
6. Cobra (Bhujangāsana)
“You’re only as young as your spine is flexible!” The Cobra pose is a dynamic backward stretch for the upper body and spine. In addition to being incredibly empowering, this posture strengthens the back muscles, tones the abdominals, activates the internal organs and aids in the elimination of wastes from the body.
7. Locust (Śalabhāsana)
The leverage and lift of the body in the Locust requires a higher degree of lower body strength than other asanas. Being a backward bend, it improves the functioning of the entire digestive system and tones the core. It also strengthens the muscles of the back and the legs.
8. Bow (Dhanurāsana)
The Cobra and the Locust together become the Bow Pose, a powerfully effective posture for a supple spine and a strong back. The weight of the body on the abdomen reduces excess fat, keeps the internal organs healthy and is a boon for the reproductive system.
9. Half Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrāsana)
Named after the yogic sage Matsyendra, this posture does wonders for the body by laterally rotating the spinal column and lubricating each vertebra. As with all twisted poses, toxins are encouraged out of the body, digestion is improved and the internal organs are gently massaged into their natural positions.
10. Crow (Kakāsana)
The Crow is the first of many arm balancing postures in Yoga. It not only strengthens the shoulders, arms and wrists, but also invites deep breathing and substantially improves the powers of concentration. Mental focus and attention is the key to achieving this pose, even more so than physical strength.
11. Standing Forward Bend (Pāda Hastāsana)
The standing forward bend, similar to the seated version, improves flexibility and contributes to a more toned mid-section. Moreover, the gentle and comforting inversion of the upper body calms the central nervous system, relaxes the mind, relieves stress and eliminates fatigue.
12. Triangle (Trikonāsana)
This standing posture forms the final of the twelve basic yoga poses. Like the half spinal twist, it is a lateral spinal stretch that regulates the digestive system and tones the waist. Furthermore, it improves balance, augments the powers of concentration and makes the legs long, strong and defined.
“Yoga is about clearing away whatever is in us that prevents our living in the most full and whole way. With yoga, we become aware of how and where we are restricted — in body, mind, and heart — and how gradually to open and release these blockages. As these blockages are cleared, our energy is freed. We start to feel more harmonious, more at one with ourselves. Our lives begin to flow — or we begin to flow more in our lives.”