• Do: Feel the front of the body lengthening — and the sides too, from waistline to armpits and from lower back to skull as you breathe in. Breathing is like pouring water into a glass; the body is a container, and the breath goes into that cylinder. In some exercise classes, the abdominal muscles are strengthened by doing a crunching motion. But in yoga, the abdominal muscles are strengthened by lengthening them. This also takes pressure off the back muscles, helping prevent back pain caused by a weak center.
Standing forward bend (also called a standing forward fold): Feet are together as the torso and head bend forward toward the legs.
• Don't: Hyperextend the knees. That puts pressure on the hamstrings (the muscles at the back of the thigh) and the Achilles tendon. There's a connection from the Achilles all the way up to the spine, so hypertextending almost puts a lock on the energy flow. This can lead to more tightness in the lower back and strain on the knee joints.
• Do: Bend the knees a little bit. This helps draw the hips forward over the ankles. Sometimes that will make people feel as if they're falling forward, but it also engages the muscles in the front of the thigh, in turn lengthening the front of the thigh muscle (the quadriceps) and then the hamstrings. This creates more of a balance.
Warrior III: While standing on one leg, the torso and arms extend forward while the other leg elevates and extends backward.
• Don't: Forget about the rear of the pose. People often only think of what's ahead of them, so they tend to reach and drop their chest forward and forget to extend strongly through that back leg. Also, sometimes people will twist their hip up as they lift the leg.
• Do: Flex the back foot, which engages the muscles of the back leg. Imagine pressing a foot against a wall, with energy going in both directions. To keep the hips square, use the inner thigh muscles in the lifted leg. Otherwise, when the hip is turned up or twisted, the inner thigh might not be used, putting pressure on the standing leg and hip.
This is a hard pose for people sometimes because it requires balance, so hold on to a chair or the wall if necessary.
Upward-facing dog: From a prone position, the chest and pelvis rise off the floor while the tops of the feet stay on the floor. Arms support the raised torso and are perpendicular to the ground.
• Don't: Tense the neck or the muscles in the upper back and shoulders, such as the deltoids and upper trapezius. Some people do this when they carry heavy bags, so they do it in yoga out of habit. Over time that can lead to a sore neck and may cause shoulder or rotator cuff injuries.
• Do: Bend the elbows a little bit and use the back muscles (rhomboids, lower and middle trapezius) and the supraspinatus (one of four rotator cuff muscles) to lift, instead of the neck and shoulder muscles. Also, keeping the hips on the ground instead of slightly raising them will shift focus to the upper body, keeping the shoulders relaxed and drawing them up and back. Keep the chest open as the body is lowered — the shoulders shouldn't feel a lot of pressure, rather they should feel as if they're easing into a hammock.
Founder of City Yoga, West Hollywood
Chaturanga: The torso and legs are parallel to the ground and are supported by the feet and hands. Arms are bent and hands are tucked under the chest.
• Don't: Let the shoulders dip past the elbows when you bend your elbows and lower down in this pose. Letting the shoulders go lower than the elbows can cause the back to round. It also puts the arms out of alignment and forces weight onto the wrists. That can immediately cause shoulder and wrist pain.
• Do: Engage the back muscles, keeping the shoulders at the same height as the elbows. The shoulders should be back, the hands strong and the chest lifted. While on the floor, the hands should be relaxed and as strong as any other part of the body that touches the ground. Engage the fingers and use the hand and forearm muscles.
Cobra: With the body lying on the floor, the legs are stretched back with thighs and feet touching the floor. Back is arched and chest is lifted, supported by the hands, which are underneath the shoulders.
• Don't: Let the upper and lower body move toward each other. The cobra is a backbend, but the upper and lower body should be moving in different directions. Otherwise, the lower back will compress, causing immediate pain.
• Do: Root the legs on the ground and move the chest away from the pelvis. Backbends are supposed to be extending, so the hips shouldn't be pushed toward the chest; instead, the legs should be extended away from the chest, toward the knees. The shoulders should be back, with the backbend felt in the middle and upper back.
Downward-facing dog: The body bends at the hips in an upside-down "V," with arms straight and hands on the floor and heels pressing toward the floor. The head is aligned with the spine.
• Don't: Focus too much on pressing the heels toward the floor. This rounds the back and can create a strain in the lower back. Similarly, resting too much on the heels of the hands can strain the wrists.
• Do: Make sure the bend comes from the hips, not the back. The weight should be shared in the entire hand, with the arms straight and strong and the shoulders back. Most of the weight is centered in the upper body, but it's also shared with the legs. The head doesn't need to go all the way to the floor.