11 Holiday Yoga Poses
by Kat Heagberg
You and your nearest and dearest have a little time off for the holidays this week, so you excitedly implore, “Hey! Who wants to practice some yoga with me?” Crickets. While several rounds of surya namaskar followed by arm balance drills and a nice long cooldown might be your idea of a swingin’ good time, it might not be your loved ones’ cup of chai.
But while your kids, your sister, or your boyfriend might not be willing to tag along for your hot flow class or sit in silence with you for an hour-long meditation, perhaps, in the spirit of the season, they might be willing to give one of these fun winter poses—like “sled pose” or “candy cane stretch”—a whirl.
Or maybe you’re a yoga teacher on the lookout for fun, festive poses to incorporate into a holiday-themed class along with the classic (Christmas) tree pose.
Or maybe you’re a lover of whimsy [*raises hands*] who simply wants to add a little festive fun to your own daily asana practice this time of year.
So, in the spirit of the season, here are 11 of our favorite holiday-themed poses, ranging in difficulty from “beginner” to “intermediate” to “quite challenging” so that there’s a little something for everyone.
Candy Cane Stretch (aka standing crescent)
Begin standing in tadasana (mountain pose) with your feet either together or hip-width apart and parallel. Stand tall, lining up the back of your head with the back of your pelvis.
On an inhale, reach your arms up overhead and hold on to your right wrist with your left hand (your left palm can face up or down, depending on what feels best for you). Bend your elbows to start, and on an exhale, side bend to the left. Keep the back of your head and the back of your pelvis aligned (avoid dropping your head forward or back) as you reach up and over. Once you’re in your side bend, you can let your hips shift to the right a little to enhance the lateral stretch. You can straighten your arms as much as feels comfortable for your shoulders. Breathe into the side and back of your rib cage and keep your face and jaw relaxed. Stay for a few breaths, then return to center on an inhale, and repeat on the second side.
Christmas Tree Star (aka star pose)
Stand with your feet wide apart, turn your toes out slightly, and extend your arms up overhead in a “V” shape, spreading your fingers wide (think “jazz hands!”)—making a five-pointed star that’s fit for the top of the tree.
Elf on the Shelf Pose (aka standing figure four stretch)
Begin in chair pose with your feet slightly apart (about two fists-width is generally a good distance). Glance down to make sure you can see the tips of your toes. If you can’t, shift a little more weight into your heels until you can. Next, bring your hands to your heart and shift your weight onto your right foot, picking your left foot up off of the floor and crossing your left ankle over your thigh. Keep your left foot flexed and active! Sit your hips back evenly (just as you would for a two-legged chair). You can keep your hands resting at your heart or place your elbows on your left shin, even resting your chin on the back of one of your hands, as though you were one of Santa’s diligent helpers, gazing down from your perch. Remain here for a few breaths before repeating on the second side.
Ice Dancer I (aka digasana, or “airplane” pose)
From mountain pose, keep your left leg as it is and bring your right toes to rest on the floor behind you. Turn your palms to face forward. Inhale here, and on an exhale, begin to hinge forward, shifting weight into your left foot, and maybe allowing your right toes to lighten away from the floor. Avoid lifting your right leg higher than hip-height. Aim to keep your hips level (avoid rolling your right hip open). Broaden through your chest and keep all sides of your neck long. Imagine that you’re an ice dancer, gracefully gliding across a frozen pond! Enjoy a few breaths here, then switch sides.
Garland Pose (malasana)
Malasana needs no holiday alias; its name, which literally translates as “garland pose,” is festive enough as it is! (And it’s a great shape to assume when you’re hanging ornaments on the bottom branches of a tree.)
Begin in mountain pose with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and turned out a little bit (try about 45 degrees to start). Bend your knees and sit your hips back and down (as far as you’re comfortably able) to come into a low, deep squat. Bring your elbows inside your knees and your hands into a prayer position. Press your elbows out against your legs and lift your chest up toward your thumbs. To ensure that your knees are pointing in the same direction as your toes, narrow or broaden your stance as necessary (you may need to come up out of the pose to do this) and turn your toes more in or out as needed.
It’s okay if your heels lift up off the floor a little bit, though you may find that by adjusting your stance slightly (making it a little wider and/or turning your toes out a little more—still ensuring that they’re tracking in line with your knees) you can enable your heels to touch down; however, if your heels still don’t reach the floor, you may find it more comfortable to prop them up with a rolled or folded blanket. And if going super-low bugs your knees, you can practice goddess pose with your hips at or above knee-level. Enjoy a few breaths here (and maybe hang a few of those ornaments while you’re at it!).
Ice Dancer II (aka natarajasana, or “dancer pose”)
From mountain pose, bend your right knee so that your knee points toward the ground and your heel moves toward your seat. Reach your right arm back and hold the inside (big-toe side) of your right foot with your right hand.
With your standing and bent-leg knees next to each other, spread your right toes, and press your right hand and foot against each other to create some resistance. Press your right foot against your hand to lift the foot up. Try to lift your foot up faster than your body comes forward. Broaden your collarbones and lift your sternum. Draw the lifted-leg side of your belly toward the standing-leg side of your belly to prevent the hips from significantly rolling open.
You can extend your left arm forward alongside your ear with the palm facing in or even bring your left hand to your heart to encourage your chest to broaden and lift, bringing the backbend more into your middle/upper back. Envision yourself as an ice dancer whirling around in a snowglobe, or even as the Sugar Plum Fairy striking a pose at the end of her waltz. Enjoy several breaths here (or however long you can maintain your best, healthiest alignment and your balance!) and be sure to repeat on the second side.
Sled Pose (aka dhanurasana, or “bow pose”)
Lie on your belly with your arms resting alongside you. Bend your knees and reach back with your hands to grab hold of your feet or ankles. Be sure to reach both hands back together (not one at a time) to avoid twisting your pelvis. If you can't reach your feet or ankles, you can wrap a strap around the fronts of your ankles (or feet) and hold on to the ends of the strap.
Spread your toes to activate the muscles of your legs. Resist your shins in toward each other to avoid splaying your knees. Press your feet (or ankles) back against your hands to lift your thighs away from the floor, and lead with your chest (not your chin) as you rise up into the backbend. Broaden your collarbones, lift your sternum, and allow your head to follow the movement of your chest, lifting it slightly but still maintaining length in the back of your neck. Now your body is a sled, racing down a snowy hill at lightning speed! Stay for a few smooth, even breaths.
Yule Log Pose (aka agnistambhasana, or “fire log pose”/double pigeon)
Curl up close to your fireplace (if you’re without an actual fireplace, Fireplace for Your Home on Netflix makes an excellent substitute) and enjoy this holiday hip opener:
Begin sitting up tall with your legs extended in front of you and spread apart as they would be for a seated wide-legged forward fold and your feet flexed. If your lower back tends to round, sitting on a folded blanket or two can help you to retain the natural curve of your lower back in this pose.
Bend your left knee and place your left shin on the floor or mat in front of you. (If you’re practicing on a yoga mat, your shin will be parallel to the edge of the mat that you’re facing). Keep your foot flexed. Then, bend your right knee and stack your right shin on top of your left. You want your right foot to hang off of your left thigh so that your ankle doesn’t collapse outward—even if bringing your foot off of your thigh causes your right knee to lift a little higher.
Now your shins are stacked like fire logs! If this is uncomfortable, you might prefer to place a yoga block in front of your left knee and place your right foot (still flexed) and lower right shin on the block instead.
Remain upright, or hinge forward, keeping your spine as long as possible, both feet flexed, and both ankles straight. Stay for a few breaths; then repeat on the second side.
The next few poses are a bit more challenging. They’re not going to be appropriate for most yoga newbies, but if you have an arm balance and inversion-heavy home practice (or if you’re a teacher who regularly offers a challenging class and are looking for some seasonal inspiration), they might be just the holiday treat that you’re looking for.
Tilted Tree (aka vasisthasana, or side plank with a vrksasana/tree pose leg)
We think of this pose as “the-cat-tipped-over-the-Christmas-tree pose” (If you’ve ever had a kitten and a Christmas tree at the same time, you probably know exactly what we’re talking about!)
From downward facing dog, shift your weight onto your left hand and the outer edge of your left foot. Either stack your right foot on top of your left, or keep the right foot on the mat in front of the left for more stability. Place your top (right) hand on your hip for now. Keep your left wrist crease parallel to the front of the mat and the hollow of your left elbow pointing in the same direction as the space between your left thumb and index finger. Stack your shoulders and push the floor away with your left hand to lift your hips and avoid collapsing into your bottom shoulder.
Then, see if you can lift your right foot away from your left (or the floor). If that feels stable, bend your right knee and catch hold of your right ankle with your right hand (you’ll have to momentarily round forward a little to do this), and then place your foot onto your thigh (not your knee) as in tree pose. Then reach your right arm straight up, continuing to push the floor away from you with your left hand. Look down, forward, or—if you feel well balanced—up toward your hand. Stay for a few breaths before returning to down dog and repeating on the second side.
Leaping Reindeer (aka stag pose)
If you’re not comfortable handstanding in the middle of the room (or just want a little extra support), practice this one in front of a wall—a little less than a leg-length away from the wall to start so that one foot can touch the wall if needed/desired. (It’s a good idea to err on the side of “too close” to the wall, remembering that you can lower down and move farther away from the wall if you’d like to.)
Begin in a short downward facing dog, and step one foot forward so there’s about 12 inches of space between that foot and your hands. Lift your back leg up, shift onto the ball of your front foot, and bring your shoulders directly over or slightly forward of your wrist creases. For this variation, you’ll keep your hips relatively square (i.e., keep both of your hip points facing down toward the floor) as you hop up in the next step.
Inhale, and on an exhale, bend your standing-leg knee slightly, then straighten the leg again to propel your lower body up, leading with your hips as you hop the foot off the floor and come into a handstand with your legs making an “L” shape.
Instead of bringing your legs together like you might for a more traditional-looking handstand, split your legs apart wider than the “L” shape—but not so much that you flip over! If you’re practicing in front of a wall, you can rest the ball of your foot (the one that you first lifted to come into the pose, which will now be the foot that’s closest to the wall) on the wall. (If the wall feels too close or too far away to do that comfortably, lower down, adjust your starting position, and begin again.)
From here, bend the knee of the foot that’s farthest from and/or not touching the wall into your chest (if you’re not practicing at a wall, this will be the foot that you hopped on to come up into the handstand). Push the floor away from you and keep your toes actively spread. Your legs will resemble those of a reindeer leaping gracefully through the air!
Be sure to practice on both sides
(For tips on finding your balance in handstand, click here.)
(You can also practice these same leg positions in a forearmstand.)
Angel Fallen from the Christmas Tree (aka fallen angel pose)
This unconventional arm balance may seem a little complicated, but it starts with a simple side crow: Begin in a low squat with your feet and legs together, your heels lifted off the floor, and your fingertips on the floor in front of you. Walk your fingertips over to the right, bringing your left upper arm to the outside of your right thigh, coming into a twist. Walk your right hand farther to the right until your hands are shoulder-distance apart or just slightly wider, and then plant your hands on the floor with your fingers spread evenly apart. Your hands won’t be parallel with the long edge of your mat; they’ll be closer to a 45-degree angle to the mat’s edge. Resist your thumbs toward your fingers and your fingers toward your thumbs (like you’re clawing the floor), press into the pads of your fingers and the mounds below your fingers, and press a little more weight into the inner edges of your hands. Start to shift your weight forward, reaching your chest forward as you bend your elbows. Lift your left foot up off of the floor, spreading your toes. Then, see if you can lift your right foot up to meet your left foot, squeezing the inner edges of your feet together. Stay broad through your chest and collarbones, not allowing your shoulders to dip forward.
One you’re in your side crow, gaze toward your knees and toes and, ever so gently, rest your right temple lightly on the ground (remember, this is still an arm balance, not a face balance!).
Extend your left leg straight up toward the sky and point your right toes straight up to follow (your right thigh will remain resting on your left upper arm). Remain here for a few comfortable breaths before returning to side crow and then to your squat before repeating on the second side. As you can see, in this pose, you resemble an angel that took a tumble from the top of the tree.
While the fallen Christmas tree angel probably isn't the pose with which to tempt your non-practicing friends and family into discovering the joys of yoga for themselves, some of these simpler festive poses could be just the ones. After all, when it comes to making yoga inviting, making it fun plays an important role. While your mom may never be as into kirtan as you are and your daughter may have zero interest in standing on her head, they both might get a chuckle out of “elf on the shelf pose”—and maybe, just maybe, remember how nice that outer hip stretch felt and try it again on their own after a long walk or run.
What better gift could you give your loved ones, your students, and, of course, yourself this year than yoga, the gift that keeps on giving?