“It can feel like a club you’re not a member of,” says Chrissy Carter, a star YogaWorks teacher who just released Beginning Yoga, a DVD that teaches basic yoga poses, terms (in English and Sanskrit), breathing, and alignment through three 20-minute practices.
The best way to take some of the fear out of your first class or two, she says, is to show up with a toolkit you can use—whether you’re rolling out a mat at an East Village yoga studio or in your living room.
Carter’s created that kit in the form of five need-to-know yoga poses. Memorize these, and you’ll be Oming in tune with the rest of the class in no time. —Lisa Elaine Held
Photos: Lisa Elaine Held for Well+Good
“This is the bread and butter of yoga asanas [poses],” Carter says. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart, with fingers spread comfortably and the whole palm of your hand on the ground. Feet are hip-width apart, heels reaching towards the ground.
“For a beginner, it’s really hard because most people are really tight in their hamstrings, which pushes all of the weight into the arms,” she explains. “Keep your knees bent to take the hamstrings out of the equation, and focus on getting the length in the spine, feeling the body weight shift from the hands to the feet. Then, work towards straightening the legs while keeping the hips high and length in the spine.”
“The great thing about this pose is that it’s an accessible standing pose that strengthens the legs and builds confidence,” Carter says. Start with your feet wide apart, so that your feet are underneath your hands when you stretch your arms out. Turn one leg out 90 degrees and turn your back toes in just a little. Exhale to bend your front knee as much as you can, but not past your ankle, so the knee is directly above the ankle, tracking with the toes. “Imagine you have a flashlight on your knee; I want you to shine the light over your toes,” Carter explains. Arms are actively reaching away, with your gaze looking out over your front hand.
Stand with your feet together and shift your weight into one foot. Slowly lift the other foot up the other leg, turning the hip out to the side and placing the foot on the inner thigh (or shin or ankle, just not on the knee). Actively press your foot into the thigh, and the thigh back into the foot. Focus on a point straight in front of you that’s not moving. “Arms can be out to the side in the beginning for more balance, then bring them in to prayer, and then up above our head,” Carter explains. “Beginners can also do it against the wall if they’re afraid of falling, leaning back against the wall or standing to the side and placing one hand on the wall.”
“This simple back bend is one of the best poses out there to strengthen the muscles of the upper back and open up the chest,” Carter says. Lay down on your stomach and place your hands right next to the low ribs, elbows bent up towards the ceiling, the crown of the head reaching towards the front of the room. Your shoulders should be lifting up away from the floor. Your legs are hip-width apart, really actively reaching back behind you, and you should be pushing all of your toenails down into the floor.
Lay on your back with your legs splayed out, feet falling towards the floor. Rest your arms out to the side, away from your shoulder blades, palms turned up to the ceiling. Focus on relaxing all tension and letting the floor support your body weight, and try to stay as still as possible. “For a lot of students, Savasana is a challenge, because we don’t practice doing nothing in life, we practice doing everything,” Carter says.