Woman doing yoga to benefit whole body and mind health

Ten Yoga Poses to Increase Flexibility

Talk about longevity: yoga has been around for thousands of years. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned yogi, getting on your mat even for just 10 minutes a day of mindful stretching can benefit your mind, body and spirit. Say "Namaste" to healthy joints, lean muscle mass, flexibility, mobility, posture and balance with these 10 poses.

What is yoga?

Couple doing child’s pose during yoga

Yoga is a mind-body practice that helps stretch your major muscles and joints while quieting your thoughts. This ancient exercise originated in India, but thankfully you don't have to fly halfway around the world to reap all the benefits yoga has to offer.

Regularly hitting your mat for as little as 10 minutes a day, day after day, has been shown to help promote endurance, strength, calmness, flexibility and overall well-being. Best of all, you won't be going at your new yoga journey alone: yoga is so popular that one in seven adults go to yoga class or practice at home!

Can anyone do yoga?

Older woman doing yoga

No matter what your age or skill level might be, there is a yoga pose for you. There are exactly 84 unique postures and poses (or "asanas," to be technical) that target all the major muscles and joints of your body. Each posture can be done as prescribed, on the floor, or altered by sitting in a chair.

Yoga is beneficial whether you're a beginner, intermediate or advanced, and unlike other types of fitness, there's no pressure to advance from one level to the next. Don't expect to do a headstand at first—although, feel free to set that as your goal! Not feeling that ambitious? Even the most gentle yoga stretches offer your body, mind and spirit plenty of benefits.

Make sure to speak with a doctor before beginning any new exercise routine, since everyone has unique health needs. Your doctor also may be able to assist you in picking out which types of yoga suit your level of mobility.

What are the benefits of yoga?

Man sitting on a cliff watching the sunset

Twisting and contorting your body into shapes and animal-like postures sure look cool, and with enough time and practice, the benefits are even cooler!

Yoga is a great way to build muscle strength and increase flexibility. By holding each posture for 30 seconds to a minute, you are giving your body quite a workout! Even those poses that look easy can be challenging to hold for a prolonged period of time—you will definitely feel your body working as you fight to stabilize those muscle groups.

In addition to benefiting muscle tone and flexibility, there are emotional and psychological benefits to the practice as well. Yoga offers helpful breathing techniques that you can take off your mat as well and incorporate into everyday life. By promoting overall mind and body relaxation, yoga has been shown to help alleviate stress and help improve your overall mood.

You may even notice that you fall asleep faster—or stay asleep longer—after a sweat session. Namaste! Once you start to realize how much yoga enhances your well-being, you might wonder why you didn't start sooner.

Preparing for yoga: What should I eat?

Having a healthy snack after doing yoga

Simply put, yoga is exercise. Just as you would for any fitness routine, it is important to fuel your body before and after with essential nutrients to maintain, build strength and help in your post-workout recovery.

You should be consuming enough calories throughout the day for your age, height, weight and gender. Even if you're trying to lose a few pounds, it's important to have adequate calories to ensure you have the energy to perform your yoga postures… and tackle the rest of your day.

Make sure you are filling your plate with healthy foods that are part of a Mediterranean based diet. Fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats are all building blocks of a healthy diet—and yoga practice!

You need to nom on healthy foods so you can namaste when you hit your yoga mat.

Top 10 yoga poses for increased flexibility

1. Standing forward bend

Woman in standing forward bend yoga pose

This stretch is simple, yet powerful, when it comes to releasing tension in the back of your legs (aka, your hamstrings).

Stand tall on your toes and keep your hips over your ankles. Slightly bend your knees and fold your upper body forward over your lower body until your arms touch the ground. Grab your toes or feet if you can, and feel a slight pull in the back of your legs. To take this pose even further, let your upper body hang and grab hold of opposite elbows.

2. Triangle pose

Man in triangle posture yoga pose

This geometric pose might sound intimidating, but with a little practice you will be a pro in no time. Done properly, the triangle pose should help stretch your hip joints while strengthening and toning your core muscles.

To start, stand parallel on your mat, take a wide step out, and then straighten your front leg while your back leg is at a 90-degree angle. Straighten your arms out to the side and slowly bend your body down towards the foot that is in front of you. Your hand should touch your foot—but if not, grab a block or support to rest your hand on. Point your other hand to the sky and look up.

3. Cat-cow pose

Two women in cat and cow yoga pose

You do not have to make any animal sounds to enjoy the benefits of this barnyard-inspired pose, which helps strengthen and stretch your spine forwards and backwards.

For the "cat" portion of this stretch, start off on your hands and knees with palms flat on the mat. Exhale and round your spine towards the sky. Pull your stomach in and bring your chin towards your chest. Inhale and return to your hands and knees with a flat, neutral back.

To get in "cow" pose, inhale and lift your chest towards the ceiling and let your belly drop. Lift your head and look straight forward. Exhale and return to a neutral position.

Once you have mastered each position, you can fluidly go from cat pose into cow pose and back again.

4. Warrior I

Woman in warrior I yoga position

You are a warrior no matter what yoga pose you do, but this iconic power pose does offer a particularly fierce way to stretch and build muscle in your legs, stomach and back.

Start by standing on your mat, then step your right foot out about 3-4 feet in front of you. Keep your foot parallel and toes towards the top of the mat. Next, take a slight bend in your front leg until you are in a lunge position. Keep your left leg straight behind you and turn your back foot to a 45-degree angle. Bring your arms above your head and press your shoulders down. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and bring your hands together towards the sky. Lift your chin and look up towards the sky.

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5. Downward dog

Woman in downward dog yoga pose

No bones about it: downward dog is the quintessential yoga pose and one that you can master with a little practice. This position is the building block of all other poses and allows you to "flow" more easily into other positions. Done correctly, this yoga pose should give your shoulders, stomach and legs a good, deep stretch.

Start off in a tabletop position on your mat. Your hands should be supporting you and directly under your shoulders while you are on your knees with a flat, table-like back. Lift your hips up towards the sky so your knees and legs come off the ground and you are being supported by your hands and feet. From the side you should look like an upside-down letter "V." Spread your hands wide on the mat with your arms out in front. Make sure your feet are hip-distance apart. Tuck your chin into your chest, lift your hips and look towards your toes. Make sure to keep your legs straight and your heels on the mat the entire time. Walk out the feet to deepen the stretch.

6. Cobra pose

Woman in cobra yoga pose

Cobra pose adds a little bit of heat to your yoga routine by warming up the entire body while stretching your shoulders, back and triceps to prepare you for more advanced postures.

While on your stomach, place your palms next to your body at your chest with your elbows bent and at your side. Take a deep inhale and press your hands into the mat while you lift your chest up towards the sky. Lift your body as far as you can with your hip bone resting on the ground. Release this pose by slowly lowering down and keeping your elbows tucked in at your sides.

7. Child's pose

Woman in child's yoga pose

Child's pose helps open the thighs, hips and ankles while giving your total body a little bit of rest and relaxation. People of any experience level can benefit from this pose, or use it as a resting pose between more difficult positions.

Take a seat on your mat with your glutes on the back of your legs and your heels facing up. Place your arms on the top of your thighs. Inhale and bring your arms to the sky and slowly lower your upper body towards the floor and release your hands out in front. Relax your shoulders as you sink your body into the ground. You can rest in this position as long as you feel comfortable.

8. Head to knee

Woman performing head to knee yoga pose

Get down on your mat for a twist, forward bend, and side stretch—all in one! This easy-to-do yoga pose helps strengthen and stretch the hamstrings, the lower back and calves.

Bring one leg out in front and the other bent at 90-degree angle so it touches in the inside of your straightened-out leg. Bring your arms over head and bend your body downwards until your hands meet your toes (or at least try to meet them) and relax your shoulders so they are away from your ears. If you are unable to touch your toes, grab ahold of your ankle or shin. If you need support, sit on a blanket under the knee that is bent.

9. Chair pose

Woman performing chair yoga pose

Don't be fooled by the name—this posture tones and engages your entire body (sans chair). In fact, you become the chair. In this posture, you will feel a deep stretch in your thighs while strengthening your core muscles.

Stand up straight on your mat with your feet at hip-width distance and your arms at your sides. Inhale and bring your arms to the sky, next to your ears. Make sure your shoulders are relaxed, and exhale as you bend at your knees. Bring your upper body slightly forward to create a right angle. Keep your head and neck relaxed while looking straight ahead.

10. Pigeon pose

Woman stretching in pigeon yoga pose

This pose is the most advanced on our list. It's a great way to get a deep stretch in your hips, legs and lower back.

Start off in downward dog with your feet together and your arms at the top of the mat. Your body should look like an upside-down "V." Raise your left leg off the ground and bring it towards your chest, then bring it to the opposite side on the floor. Lower your entire body on the mat, with the majority of your weight on your left leg. Your right leg should be straightened out directly behind you. Lower your torso towards the floor so your arms are stretched out directly in front of you while your nose touches the mat. For a modified version, don't fold your body forward, but keep your weight on your leg and your arms by your side supporting your upper body.

So there you have it—the top poses to jump into yoga with both feet forward! Prefer a live demonstration? Take a virtual yoga class with Wellness Specialist Nakia Smith, and Life Extension's very own Dr. Crystal Gossard, DCN. Or, grab a friend and see what's available at a yoga studio near you.

About the Author: Andrew Davis is a graduate of Pace University NYC with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. He has more than a decade's worth of experience in content and social media in the health and wellness space. An avid traveler, Andrew also has volunteered as an English teacher and humanitarian in countries throughout Asia.