Categories of Yoga Asanas (Part I)

Have you ever wondered why is a yoga class structured the way it is?

If you’re regular at our yoga studio, you might have noticed that there is a certain structure in each yoga class. Particular yoga asanas come at a certain point during the class.

For example, we often start a 90-min class with Sun Salutations, going into standing poses followed by back bends, twists and hip openers and ending with forward bends and Savasana.

For sure, approach to sequencing varies in different yoga styles. It also depends on the season, time of the day, group energy, etc. However, even thought it might not be so obvious on the first glance, most of the time there is a reoccurring structure in the class. I can assure you that your yoga teacher has spent quite some time analyzing what comes where in a yoga class!

So what is the story behind?

Depending on the goal of the practice and what the teacher wants to offer, there are several aspects to consider when structuring a class. To name a few:

  • An early morning class should wake you up and prepare you for the day.
  • A late evening class should soothe you and calm your mind after a stressful day.
  • The level of experience varies. There is not one way that fits all.

A foundation for structuring inspiring yoga classes is the energetic quality of different yoga asanas. A good teacher always considers how they all come together.

To make the preparation easier, yoga asanas are grouped into categories: standing poses, balancing poses, twists, hip openers, back bends, forward bends and inversions. This is not the only way to categorize yoga asanas, but you will find it often in yoga books and journals.

An overview of different categories of yoga asanas.

I hope this will help you to understand better your yoga class. The right understanding is an important step towards deepening the benefits of your yoga practice. In this first part we will look into standing yoga poses and balancing yoga poses.

Standing Yoga Poses

categories of yoga asanas - standing yoga poses

  • General: Standing poses such as Chair or Warrior I and II are a great way to strengthen the muscles especially of the lower body and increase endurance. However, even though the legs and the pelvic area are strongly engaged to form the foundation of the poses, the core and upper body muscles are needed to keep a safe and healthy alignment. As standing asanas are quite easy to modify regarding the needs of a practitioner – for example in- or decreasing the angle between thighs and knees to adjust the intensity of muscle work in the legs –  makes them accessible for many people and different levels. Standing poses can therefore be the foundation to make more advanced asanas possible.
  • Energetic qualities: grounding in slow, strong and smooth transitions, heating  in fast and steady transitions, giving a refreshed and light feeling, harmonizing.
  • Tips: To keep the alignment healthy and safe for all practitioners, it helps to encourage them to really focus on the engagement of their lower foundation and how it gives them freedom to move the upper body in a comfortable, open and relaxed way – it creates space. There is no need to also highly engage the muscles of the upper body, which gives the opportunity to experience the lightness within the upper limbs, maybe with gentle pulsing or rotating motions – a great way to find the balance between effort and ease.

Balancing Yoga Poses

categories of yoga asanas - balancing yoga poses

  • General: Even though many poses where you need to play with gravity are done in standing – like Tree Pose, Warrior III or Eagle Pose – there are some other benefits to find in them. Besides being in an upright alignment, balancing poses can also involve hands, arms or even the head as in headstand. Since it is necessary to find the center of gravity while floating in space and testing the edges, the whole body is involved in various intensities from the little toe up to our neck and head. A different kind of strength and resilience is needed here to not fall off the mat – and even that can teach us something. The body constantly needs to re-align and hold while our mind needs to stay focused: there is not much space for the everyday thoughts jumping around. Therefore, we also find freedom and clarity in asanas where we need to balance in gravity. Besides, bringing the limbs into opposing positions challenges the head and helps to improve the overall coordination.
  • Energetic qualities: calming, grounding, improving concentration and focus, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Tips: practicing balancing asanas can also be a very humble practice, the fear of falling is always involved and therefore the mind is constantly alerted. However, sometimes it is not the fear of falling that makes us tensed and frustrated when we fall off balance (the floor is usually not so far away that a severe injury is likely to happen) but rather the ego which doesn’t like to lose control. Especially if other people around us seem to not struggle at all we get even more annoyed with ourselves and angry with our obvious lack of abilities. It can help to shift the perception and remind ourselves that falling out of balance is an important part of the process – how else did we learn how to walk the very first time we stood up as little kids?

Wondering how twists, hip openers, back and forward bends as well as inversions can be brought in this frame? Stay tuned for the second part of this post that is coming up soon!