In Sivananda Yoga, the twelve basic yoga poses form the foundation for a complete and balanced practice. These asanas benefit the physical body primarily by strengthening and toning the muscles, improving balance and flexibility, massaging the internal organs and creating suppleness of the spine. With consistent practice, the sequence becomes a flowing meditative exercise that activates the chakras and increases the prana, or vital energy, throughout the entire body.
Each asana is like a sound or letter in an alphabet. Every letter in an alphabet produces a unique sound vibration. Each asana vibrates at a specific frequency. When asanas are performed in sequence, beautiful phrases or sutras result, producing a mystical language.
— Sharon Gannon
Asana practice consists of three parts: correctly coming into the pose in gentle movements; holding the pose while breathing deeply; and coming out of the pose in the safe and proper way. These twelve basic asanas are always performed after the body has been prepared through initial prayers, breathing exercises and the Sun Salutation. Variations and more advanced versions of each posture are incorporated as a yogi progresses in her/his ability.
Most importantly, these poses are always practiced in a particular order that is based on anatomical science. The exact progression of inversions, twists, stretches, compressions, extensions and joint-opening movements ply and open the body into its optimal state of health and alignment.
1. Headstand (Sirsasana)
Known as the King of Asanas, the headstand is one of the most beneficial yogic postures for the human body. In addition to improving the brain’s capacity, releasing any pressure in the lower back and improving circulation, the complete vertical inversion of this pose effortlessly invites blood, oxygen and nutrients to the heart and brain.
2. Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana)
Yogis come out of a Shoulder Stand 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 (Halasana)
Continuing the effects of the Shoulderstand, the Plough pose also activates and massages the internal organs due to the gentle pressure on the abdomen. By promoting flexibility of the spine and stretching the back and shoulders, the entire body is left feeling uplifted and rejuvenated.
4. Fish (Matsyasana)
To counteract the stretch of the neck and spine in the Shoulderstand and Plough pose, the Fish pose now arches them back while expanding the chest and allowing an influx of fresh oxygen into the body. This posture should be practiced directly after the Shoulderstand series in order to reap its full benefits and correct the body’s alignment.
5. Seated Forward bend (Paschimothanasana)
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 and lengthens the spinal column and hamstrings, calms the nervous system, activates the internal organs and keeps the waist and abdomen trim and toned.
6. Cobra (Bhujangasana)
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, activates the internal organs and aids the elimination of wastes from the body.
7. Locust (Shalabhasana)
The leverage and lift of the body in this pose 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 strengthens the legs and the core muscles.
8. Bow (Dhanurasana)
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 Matsyendrasana)
Twisted poses such as the Half Spinal Twist do wonders for the body by gently rotating the spinal column, improving digestion and circulation, encouraging toxins out of the body and restoring the internal organs into their natural positions.
10. Crow (Kakasana)
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 and focus.
11. Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
The standing forward bend, similar to the seated version, improves flexibility and contributes to a more toned mid-section. The gentle and comforting inversion of the upper body calms the central nervous system, relaxes the mind and relieves stress and fatigue.
12. Triangle (Trikonasana)
This standing posture forms the final of the twelve basic yoga poses. In addition to improving balance and making the legs long and strong, the lateral spinal stretch regulates the digestive system and defines the waist.