Once Barbie and GI Joe started doing yoga, we could pretty much call it: Yoga is officially everywhere these days. But all that stretching and balancing is just for bendy people who can flop over their legs effortlessly—the rest of us non-bendy people who already exercise plenty don’t really need it, right?
Not so fast: While being fit and being flexible don’t always go hand-in-hand, being injured and being inflexible often does. But there are ways to get the full benefit from yoga—even if you can’t touch your toes—and without the special studios and the special pants. These 10 starter poses are for people at all flexibility levels, plus you don’t even need a mat!
What you do need: a kitchen counter or a chair; a towel; a milk crate, stool, or a small trashcan; an open doorway; and a blank expanse of wall.
With the following poses, keep these five general principles in mind.
1. You should always be able to breathe evenly, so find your edge but don’t go past it! Allow your body to open up and adjust over the space of about five or six breaths in each pose.
2. Keep your core muscles active but not to the point of holding your breath.
3. Keep a neutral spine; no “swayback donkeys” or sunken chests.
4. Twisting happens at the waist, not at the shoulders.
5. When bending forward, hinge from the hips, not the middle of your back.
Chest, Shoulders, and Upper Back
1. Upper Chest and Back Opener
Do this move anywhere, standing or sitting. And definitely bust it out at the end of a long flight to release that “cabin pressure” in your upper body.
With bent elbows, raise arms to shoulder height. Make hands into loose fists facing each other. Open chest by drawing elbows back like they’re going to meet behind your back.
As you return to the starting position, continue the motion, wrapping hands around opposite shoulders and stacking elbows on top of one another. To get a nice stretch along upper back and the back of your neck, tuck your face into the triangular space created by your elbows. Repeat the motion a second time, switching which elbow is on top. Do at least 2 to 3 sets.
2. Chest and Shoulder Opener
Here’s a move to get those chest and shoulders to open up. It’s the antidote to long stints hunched over a desk. Do this standing or sitting.
Hold a towel in front of you with one end in each hand. Raise arms up in a wide V overhead to locate the edge of the stretch. (You should feel an expansion in upper chest and the front of shoulders. If you aren’t finding that sweet spot, try moving hands farther apart or closer together on the towel.) Also try this snazzy variation: Hold the towel in both hands behind you. Spread feet out a bit wider than hip distance, toes pointing forward. Bend forward from the hips, dropping torso over legs. Raise arms with the towel overhead from behind.
3. Seated Spinal Twist
Keep this spinal twist handy as you work toward that corner office. It’s great for de-stressing and undoing the damage of a full afternoon of slouchy sitting. Remember: The twist happens at the waistline; resist using the chair’s back to wrench your body around further into the twist.
Seated on a chair, swing legs to the left side. Twist to the left so torso is facing the chair back and grasp it with hands. If neck will permit it, complete the full spinal twist by looking over left shoulder. (Don’t force it. Just look ahead if neck twinges in protest.) Swing round to the right and repeat.
4. Standing Twist
Let’s invite more of your body to this yoga party. As with the seated version, the twisting should come at the waist and your hands should help hold you in the pose, rather than cranking your spine past the limit.
With hips squared to the front of the chair, place right foot on the seat (thigh should be parallel with the floor). Put right hand on hip and left hand on right knee, and twist to the right. For a nice counter twist, come back to center and continue twisting to the left, placing left hand on hip and right hand on right knee. Repeat the twist and counter twist with left foot on the chair.
5. Standing Wall Twist
C’mon baby, let’s do more twists! To get deeper in this pose, bring the wall into action.
Place a chair next to a wall. Bend the leg closest to the wall and place it on the chair. This time when you twist, place hands on the wall to hold yourself in a deeper position—but walk them back toward center if your back starts to protest! Repeat on the opposite side.
Hamstrings and Calves
6. Half Dog
Let’s put a few more smudges on that wall! If you’ve ever tried a downward dog pose but couldn’t straighten your legs, a “half dog” against the wall is a great gateway pose that’ll help to open up the entire backside of your body.
Stand a few feet in front of a wall and place hands flat against it a bit above waist height. As you bend forward from the hips, walk feet back and continue to straighten out arms. Try not to let an arch creep into lower back; keep tailbone neutral. Also, keep eyes gazing down, dawg! If that 90-degree angle is too much, start a little closer to the wall and place hands higher up. (Ain’t no shame in keeping things more vertical.)
7. Chair-Assisted Half Dog
Cluttered wall? Here’s your workaround: the chair version of that forward bend.
Stand a few feet from a chair, wrapping hands around the back of it. Bend forward from the hips, keeping back in a neutral position. Tip: You can also do this stretch while holding on to a kitchen counter. Consider it the ultimate in microwave multitasking and do it while waiting for food to heat up.
If you’re getting in a forward-bend groove and feel yourself opening up, try flipping the chair round and using the seat for balance. It’ll deepen the stretch and get you closer to toe-touching distance. Likewise, you can sub in an old milk crate or flip over your bathroom garbage can to limbo a little lower. (But as always, don’t push it to the point of pain!)
8. Seated Forward Bend Variation
This pose is the tried-and-true way to gain flexibility in your lower body. That said, it can be discouraging to watch others rest their heads on their knees while you go red in the face trying to graze your toes with a fingertip. Towels to the rescue! Lasso your foot with one, and you’ll increase your reach and do the pose in good form.
Loop a towel around left foot and sit up straight. Bend right knee and rest right foot as far up left leg as right knee will allow. Bend forward from the hips. If your hamstring is tight, hold the pose sitting upright.
Not enough of a stretch? Try bending elbows a bit to go a bit deeper into the bend. Repeat on the right leg.
9. Reclining One Legged Stretch
If stretching is an ongoing strugglefest, this pose will be a welcome way to make peace with your hamstrings. A doorframe provides solid support here. The corner of a wall works, too.
Lie faceup on the floor, positioning body in a doorframe so right leg is on the ground through the doorway and left heel is positioned on the wall. Relax, breathe normally, and let the wall do all the work! The closer your butt is to the wall, the more intense the stretch—so if you’re stiff, move your butt farther away from the wall and position left heel lower on the wall. Scoot over to the opposite side of the doorframe to repeat on the right leg.
10. Easy Balance Sequence
Yoga isn’t just a stretch-a-palooza. It also involves strength and balance. These simple standing poses are great for people who want to improve their balancing skills. Try them first with one or both hands on the chair back for support, and if you’re feeling like a boss, ditch the chair and hold your arms loosely out to either side for balance. If you start to topple, tap your raised foot down to the ground and try again: Your joints and muscles still have the challenge of keeping you upright and balanced, but you can bail out of the pose any time.
Standing with a chair on left side, do a posture check: Eyes on the horizon? Ears positioned over relaxed shoulders? Shoulders over hips? Core engaged? Weight evenly distributed on both feet? Good. Now, with one or both hands resting on the chair back, raise right foot in front of you a few inches off the ground and hold it for three to five breaths (not shown). Bring foot back in to center, then send it out to the side for three to five breaths. Bring foot back in to center, then send it back behind you for three to five breaths. Repeat on the left leg.