Allegra Burton, MPH, RD
Santa Monica, CA
Dogs and dolphins, cats and cows?
Sounds strange but we can learn a lot from our animal brethren. Just spend some time on a yoga mat and you can experience the benefits of animal-inspired poses. Animal-inspired poses help you get stronger, more flexible and improve your balance and focus. Read on to learn the basics of these poses and click on the links for in-depth descriptions and instructions.
The benefits. Moving between cat pose and cow pose is a gentle way to warm up your spine and practice an easy vinyasa to gently massage the organs in your torso and prevent back pain.
The pose. Start on your hands and knees, hands directly under shoulders with fingers facing forward, knees under hips, spine straight – so that you are in a tabletop position. Keep your lower abs tight to support your spine. As you inhale, lift your sitting bones and chest towards the ceiling, arching your back. Lift your head and look straight forward and allow your belly to sink towards the floor. This is cow pose. Then, as you exhale, round your spine towards the ceiling while engaging your core. Keep your neck relaxed, head down. This is cat pose. Return to neutral and repeat. Step-by-Step Cow Step-by-Step Cat
The benefits. One of the most basic of all yoga poses, downward dog pose calms the mind and strengthens your arms and legs while stretching the back of your legs through hamstrings, calves and arches. Although it is restorative downward dog can also energize the body in preparation for more vigorous practices.
The pose. Starting on your hands and knees, straighten your arms and then your legs so that you are in an inverted “V” position. Keep arms and legs straight, hips lifted, legs and abdominals engaged, fingers and toes facing forward. Hands should be shoulder distance apart, feet hips distance apart. Keep your head down and relax any tension in your neck and shoulders. Step-by-Step Downward-Facing Dog
The benefits. Part of the backbend family, upward dog is often done as part of a Sun Salutation series. The pose strengthens, stretches and soothes while it helps build lung capacity and energize the organs in your abdomen.
The pose. Start by lying on your stomach, body in a straight line and tops of your feet on the floor. Next, bring your hands next to your waist, elbows bent, palms down and fingers facing forward. Inhale, press your palms firmly into the floor, straighten your arms and lift your upper body up and arched slightly back and legs a few inches off the floor, tops of feet pressing into the floor. Keep legs and arms firm. Gaze slightly up. Step-by-Step Upward-Facing Dog
The benefits. Like downward dog, dolphin pose helps stretch all the muscles through the backs of your legs. Dolphin is an active shoulder-opening pose and can help relieve stress, calm the mind and strengthen your arms and legs.
The pose. Start in downward dog – feet hips distance apart, hands shoulder distance apart and rooted firmly on the floor, fingers facing forward, hips up and body in an inverted “V” position. Engage core muscles and lower down onto your forearms, fingers facing forward and forearms in a straight line parallel to each other. (If this is too difficult, you can clasp your hands together in front of you, keeping elbows shoulder distance apart until you develop more strength and flexibility in your shoulders.) Focus on keeping your abdominal muscles engaged to hold your middle up and walk your feet in a little closer towards your arms. Step-by-Step Dolphin
The benefits. Like its sister pose, regular dolphin, this pose stretches and strengthens similar muscle groups with the added benefits of actively strengthening your core and abdominals.
The pose. From dolphin pose (see above) walk your feet all the way back until your body is in a straight line and you are in plank pose on your forearms. Keep your core muscles engaged, heels pushing backwards and legs engaged. Look down and slightly forward. Hold for 15 seconds and gradually work up to 60 seconds or more.
Variations: Once you can comfortably hold this pose for 60 seconds try lifting one foot off the floor a few inches. Hold, and then change legs. Step-by-Step Dolphin Plank
The benefits. Another member of the backbend family, camel pose stretches the front of your body from your neck all the way down to your ankles while strengthening your back and stretching the hip flexors.
The pose. This pose is a form of backbend. Start by kneeling on the floor with your knees hip width apart and thighs perpendicular to the floor. Press your shins and the tops of your feet firmly into floor. Place your hands on the back of your pelvis with the bases of your palms on the tops of the buttocks, fingers pointing down. Now lean back against the firmness of the tail bone and shoulder blades. Start by keeping your head up, chin slightly tucked, and your hands on your pelvis. You may need to tilt your thighs back a little from the perpendicular and minimally twist to one side to get one hand on the same-side foot. Then press your thighs back to perpendicular, turn your torso back to neutral, and touch the second hand to its foot. If you’re not able to touch your feet without compressing your lower back, turn your toes under and raise your heels. Once in the pose you can drop your head back but do not strain your neck. Step-by-Step Camel
The benefits. First pose massages the organs in your belly and stretches all of the muscles between your hip flexors through your abdomen and ribs, up to your throat. It also strengthens the neck and upper back.
The pose. Fish pose is often done as a counter pose following shoulderstand. Start by lying on your back, body in a straight line. Inhale and come up onto your elbows, hands and forearms rooted to the floor and close to your body and lift your upper torso and head off the floor arching your back and lifting your chest. You can place the top of your head resting lightly on the floor while keeping the upper torso arched and away from the floor. Keep legs firm and heels pushing forward. Hold. Step-by-Step Fish
The benefits. Cobra pose is a less intense backbend that can help reduce stress and fatigue while strengthening the upper body and improving flexibility in your back. Like all backbend variations, cobra can help relieve back pain and improve posture.
The pose. Start by lying on your stomach on the floor. Stretch your legs back, tops of the feet on the floor. Spread your hands on the floor under your shoulders and hug your elbows back into your body. Inhale, and while pressing the tops of your feet, thighs and pubic bone against the floor, slowly straighten your arms and lift your upper body up and slightly back – but only go as far as you can while keeping your body from the waist down firmly rooted into the floor. Step-by-Step Cobra
The benefits. As a balancing pose, eagle helps improve focus and concentration while it stretches the shoulders, upper back, hips and thighs. Eagle also strengthens the lower legs.
The pose. Start standing with your feet together and arms down by your sides. Bend your knees slightly, lift your left foot off the floor and, balancing on your right foot, cross your left thigh over the right. Point your left toes toward the floor, press the foot back, and then hook the top of your left foot behind your lower right calf. Balance on your right foot. Next, hold your arms out straight in front of you, parallel to the floor. Cross your arms in front of you, keeping them straight, so that the left arm is under the right. Bend your elbows, cradling your right elbow in the left, and bring your forearms perpendicular to the floor. Intertwine your forearms so that your palms meet, facing each other and pressing against each other – they may not be even. Lift your elbows up, fingers pointing towards the ceiling so that your arms create a 90 degree angle. Balance and hold. Step-by-Step Eagle
It is important to practice these poses safely and correctly, so consider signing up for a yoga class near you if you haven’t yet experienced the power of animal-inspired yoga poses.