The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga

8 Weeks to Strength, Awareness, and Flexibility


By Marlynn Wei, MD

By James E. Groves, MD

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An Easy, Accessible Yoga Program for Health & Wellness

Are you looking for a new health practice to enhance your day-to-day routines? Have you been interested in trying out yoga, but are too intimidated by the seemingly fancy and challenging poses? The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga is your guide to the true healing heart of yoga, sharing the techniques that Marlynn Wei and James Groves have used to tremendous success with their clients. In this simple, science-based eight-week program, you’ll learn about the countless benefits of this proven practice, including:

  • Increased flexibility and balance
  • Greater muscle and bone strength
  • Improved sleep
  • Better stress management and resilience
  • Strengthened immune system
  • Enriched brain health
  • And much more!

Complete with illustrations, dozens of yoga breathing and meditation techniques, adaptable sequences, and principles of yoga safety, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga will guide you to health and wellness.



While the authors of this book have taken great care in presenting the material you will find in this book, the book is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. The medical information is provided as an information resource only and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-physician relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. If you have any health concerns or conditions that warrant special attention, please seek the advice of a health professional before beginning a yoga practice or attempting any of the practices or poses described in this book. If you experience pain or other side effects when trying the poses presented here, please seek appropriate medical attention.

Cautions on Rapid or Forceful Yoga Breathing

For beginners, rapid and forceful breathing exercises, such as the Breath of Fire (see here), should be done only with the guidance and supervision of a certified yoga teacher. Rigorous, forceful breathing should also be avoided during pregnancy. People with medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, such respiratory issues as asthma, seizure disorders, panic or anxiety disorders, or bipolar disorder should check with their doctor first before doing such yoga breathing because it can lead to high blood pressure and hyperventilation, which can then trigger such medical issues as seizures, panic attacks, or asthma episodes.

It's important to remember that yoga breathing exercises should never be painful. If you experience sudden pain or difficulty breathing during or after intense yoga breathing, you should stop immediately and seek medical attention. The risk of yoga breathing is unclear since it is not yet studied on a large scale, so it's important to discuss it with your own doctor before trying these techniques.

Cautions on Hot Yoga

Hot yoga is a version of yoga done in a heated and humidified room. Since overheating can occur around 104 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and some forms of hot yoga have been shown to raise the core body temperature to 103 to 104 degrees, we recommend that heated yoga should be done with caution. Hot yoga has a greater risk of musculoskeletal injury because of the increased laxity of ligaments and tendons in heated conditions, so people may unknowingly overstretch their muscles or joints. Pregnant women should be cautious of hot yoga, given the risk of overheating and dehydration to both mother-to-be and baby, and should speak with their doctor first. If you have any medical conditions, speak to your doctor first to determine whether hot yoga is safe for you.

Reference List

Historical Frameworks of Yoga

Figure 2.1 Eight Paths of Yoga
Table 2.1 The Chakra System
Figure 2.2 Chakras and Nerve Plexuses
Figure 2.3 Yin and Yang Principles
Table 2.2 Traditional Chinese Medicine Meridian System

Basic Principles

Table 1.1 Traditions and Styles of Yoga Common in the United States
Table 5.1 Yoga Safety Guidelines
Table 7.1 Core Principles of Yoga Poses

Breathing Techniques

Figure 6.1 Easy Pose for Breathing Exercises
Figure 6.2 Hero Pose modified with Block for Breathing Exercises
Figure 6.3 Alternate Nostril Breath (front view)
Figure 6.4 Alternate Nostril Breath (side view)
Figure 6.5 Lion's Breath
Figure 6.6 Tongue Hissing Breath
Table 6.1 Parts of the Breath
Table 6.2 Yoga Breathing (Pranayama) Techniques
Table 6.3 Simple Breath Awareness
Table 6.4 Three-Part Breath
Table 6.5 Rhythmic (Savitri) or Ratio (Vrtti) Breathing Exercises
Table 6.6 Victorious (Ocean) Breath (Ujjayi)
Table 6.7 Humming Bee Breath (Bhramari)
Table 6.8 Alternate Nostril Breath (Nadi shodhana)
Table 6.9 Left Nostril Breath (Chandra Nadi)
Table 6.10 Lion's Breath (Simhasana)
Table 6.11 Tongue Hissing Breath (Sitali)
Table 6.12 Teeth Hissing Breath (Sitkari)
Table 6.13 Breath of Fire (Kapalabhati)
Table 6.14 Bellows Breath (Bhastrika)


Figure 7.1 Easy Pose
Figure 7.2 Hero Pose
Figure 7.3 Child's Pose
Figure 7.4 Child's Pose Arms Back
Figure 7.5 Puppy Pose
Figure 7.6 Mountain Pose
Figure 7.7 Tabletop
Figure 7.8 Cat
Figure 7.9 Cow
Figure 7.10 Thread the Needle
Figure 7.11 Upward Salute
Figure 7.12 Sidebending Mountain Pose
Figure 7.13 Downward Facing Dog Pose
Figure 7.14 Half Dog against the wall
Figure 7.15 Dolphin Pose
Figure 7.16 High Plank
Figure 7.17 Low Plank
Figure 7.18 Low Plank Pose modification with knees down
Figure 7.19 Standing Forward Bend
Figure 7.20 Standing Forward Bend Ragdoll variation
Figure 7.21 Standing Forward Bend Ragdoll variation with knees bent
Figure 7.22 Standing Forward Bend variation with shoulder stretch
Figure 7.23 Standing Half Forward Bend
Figure 7.24 Standing Half Forward Bend modification with hands supported on shins
Figure 7.25 Standing Half Forward Bend modification with hands supported on blocks
Figure 7.26 Big Toe Pose
Figure 7.27 Wide-Legged Forward Bend
Figure 7.28 Wide-Legged Forward Bend modification with blocks
Figure 7.29 Wide-Legged Forward Bend modification with shoulder stretch
Figure 7.30 Pyramid Pose
Figure 7.31 Pyramid Pose modification with blocks
Figure 7.32 Fierce Pose
Figure 7.33 Warrior I Pose
Figure 7.34 Warrior II Pose
Figure 7.35 Reverse Warrior Pose
Figure 7.36 Low Lunge Pose
Figure 7.37 Runner's Lunge Pose
Figure 7.38 Runner's Lunge Pose modification with blocks
Figure 7.39 High Lunge Pose
Figure 7.40 Extended Side Angle Pose (Supported)
Figure 7.41 Extended Side Angle modification with block
Figure 7.42 Extended Triangle Pose
Figure 7.43 Extended Triangle Pose modification with block
Figure 7.44 Revolved Fierce Pose
Figure 7.45 Revolved High Lunge Pose
Figure 7.46 Revolved Low Lunge Pose
Figure 7.47 Revolved Lunge modification
Figure 7.48 Revolved Triangle
Figure 7.49 Revolved Triangle modification with block
Figure 7.50 Seated Spinal Twist
Figure 7.51 Seated Spinal Twist modification with lower leg straight
Figure 7.52 Warrior III Pose
Figure 7.53 Supported Warrior III Pose
Figure 7.54 Half Moon Pose
Figure 7.55 Half Moon modification with block
Figure 7.56 Tree Pose
Figure 7.57 Tree Pose with modified kickstand
Figure 7.58 Eagle Pose
Figure 7.59 Side Plank Pose
Figure 7.60 Side Plank Pose modification with knee down
Figure 7.61 Side Plank Pose modification with foot down
Figure 7.62 Crocodile Pose
Figure 7.63 Cobra Pose
Figure 7.64 Baby Cobra Pose: gentler version of Cobra Pose
Figure 7.65 Upward Facing Dog
Figure 7.66 Locust Pose
Figure 7.67 Bow Pose
Figure 7.68 Camel Pose
Figure 7.69 Gentle Camel Pose
Figure 7.70 Reverse Tabletop
Figure 7.71 Fish Pose
Figure 7.72 Supported Fish Pose
Figure 7.73 Bridge Pose
Figure 7.74 Supported Bridge Pose
Figure 7.75 Yogi Squat
Figure 7.76 Goddess Pose
Figure 7.77 Bound Angle Pose
Figure 7.78 Reclining Bound Angle Pose
Figure 7.79 Lizard Pose
Figure 7.80 Lizard Pose: deeper stretch with forearms down
Figure 7.81 Reclining Pigeon or Figure Four Pose on your back
Figure 7.82 Half Pigeon with torso upright
Figure 7.83 Sleeping Half Pigeon
Figure 7.84 Reclining Hand to Big Toe Pose
Figure 7.85 Staff Pose
Figure 7.86 Seated Forward Bend
Figure 7.87 Forward Bend modification: seated on block with strap
Figure 7.88 Seated Head to Knee Pose
Figure 7.89 Head to Knee Pose modification: seated on block with strap
Figure 7.90 Knee to Chest Pose
Figure 7.91 Happy Baby Pose
Figure 7.92 Reclining Spinal Twist
Figure 7.93 Supported Shoulder Stand
Figure 7.94 Legs up the Wall Pose
Figure 7.95 Corpse Pose

Pose by Category

Table 7.1 Core Principles of Yoga Poses
Table 7.2 Gazes (Drishti)
Table 7.3 Starting Poses
Table 7.4 Warm-up Yoga Poses
Table 7.5 Arm Support Poses
Table 7.6 Forward Bend Poses
Table 7.7 Standing Poses
Table 7.8 Twisting Poses
Table 7.9 Balance Poses
Table 7.10 Backbend Poses
Table 7.11 Hip Opener Poses
Table 7.12 Cool-Down Poses
Figure 10.2 Sun Salutation A
Figure 10.3 Sun Salutation B

Yoga Precautions

Table 5.2 Areas of Injury with Associated Poses
Figure 5.1 Plow Pose
Figure 5.2 Shoulder Stand Pose
Figure 5.3 Headstand Pose
Figure 5.4 Lotus
Figure 5.5 Double Pigeon
Figure AppA.1 Wheel

Muscle Locks and Hand Expressions

Table 8.1 Muscle Locks (Bandhas)
Table 8.2 Hand Expressions (Hasta Mudras)
Figure 8.1 Wisdom Mudra
Figure 8.2 Consciousness Mudra
Figure 8.3 Life Mudra
Figure 8.4 Energy Mudra
Figure 8.5 Beak Mudra
Figure 8.6 Meditation Mudra
Figure 8.7 Salutation Seal Mudra
Figure 8.8 Heart Embrace Mudra
Figure 8.9 Connected Mind Mudra
Figure 8.10 Refreshing Mudra
Figure 8.11 Overcoming Mudra
Figure 8.12 Releasing Mudra
Figure 8.13 Heart Lotus Mudra
Figure 8.14 Lotus Mudra
Figure 8.15 Love Mudra
Figure 8.16 Enlightenment Mudra
Figure 8.17 Confidence Mudra


Table 9.1 General Categories of Meditation
Table 9.2 Forms of Meditation
Table 9.3 Breath Meditation
Table 9.4 Mindfulness Body and Sound Meditation
Table 9.5 Walking Meditation
Table 9.6 Gazing Candle Meditation
Table 9.7 Compassion Meditation
Table 9.8 Sa-Ta-Na-Ma Mantra Meditation
Table 9.9 Body Scan Meditation
Table 9.10 Visualization Meditation
Table 9.11 Om Meditation
Table 9.12 Sending and Receiving Meditation
Table 9.13 Ego Eradicator Meditation
Table 9.14 Pressure Mudra Meditation
Table 9.15 Pulsing Pressure Mudra Meditation

Putting It All Together

Table 10.1 Order of Yoga Pose Sequence
Table 10.2 Our 8-Week Yoga Program
Figure 10.1 Sun Salutation A Modified
Figure 10.2 Sun Salutation A
Figure 10.3 Sun Salutation B


The Art and Science of Yoga


Why Do Yoga?

Yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees.


Welcome to the practice of yoga. You may have come to yoga to feel stronger, get more flexible, or relieve stress. You are part of a growing community interested in yoga, a modern practice rooted in thousands of years of ancient Indian texts and traditions. Yoga encompasses physical postures, breathing techniques, meditation, and ethical principles. Archaeologists have found soapstone seals from over five thousand years ago that have yoga postures engraved on them. Yoga is first mentioned in the Vedic texts of Indian literature from 1700 to 500 BCE. The word itself comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means to yoke, to join, or to unite. While the practice continues to be taught (for hundreds of generations now) and continues to evolve, the fundamental idea that yoga unites our body, mind, and being remains.

Yoga is fast becoming a well-known practice in the American household. A 2016 survey conducted by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal found that the number of Americans doing yoga has grown by over 50 percent in the last four years to over 36 million as of 2016, up from 20.4 million in 2012. Nine out of ten Americans have heard of yoga, and one in three Americans has already tried yoga at least once. More than a third of Americans say they are very likely to try yoga in the next year. While yoga is currently more popular with women, more and more men are doing yoga, too. More older adults are trying yoga. Yoga is also gaining popularity with children and in schools.

When you do yoga, you will notice many benefits, ranging from stress relief and physical fitness to better flexibility and strength. Yoga builds your capacity to handle mental and physical stress and provides you with the flexibility and confidence to get through what you are experiencing—no matter where you are. People who do yoga are 20 percent more likely to have a positive image of their own physical and mental health, including a stronger sense of mental clarity, physical fitness, flexibility, and strength. The physical and psychological health benefits are real.

Over 90 percent of all current research on yoga has found that yoga has a positive impact on health.1 Our book is different from many other yoga books in that it provides you with a scientific and researched-based understanding of yoga. We also share our perspective as medical professionals who both practice yoga and use yoga in our clinical practice to treat stress, anxiety, depression, addictions, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Benefits of Yoga

Yoga has many scientifically proven benefits for the mind and body.

Yoga builds strength and endurance. Many styles of yoga provide low-impact aerobic exercise and are good for your heart. One study found that 24 rounds of sun salutations 6 times a week significantly improved upper-body strength over 6 months. Another study found that an hour of rigorous yoga twice a week for 8 months increases leg strength.

Yoga improves balance and flexibility. Your sense of knowing where your body is in space and being able to balance will improve and have the potential to improve your overall athletic or fitness performance. A twice-weekly yoga program helped improved flexibility and balance in college athletes in just 10 weeks.2

Yoga builds your awareness of and connection to your body. The more that you can tune into your body, the more that you are able to listen to it and protect it from injury.

Yoga builds the mind-body connection. Your body and mind are powerfully connected to each other. Stress and emotions can have a major impact on your body and health. Building your mind-body connection helps you feel more whole and empowered to improve your health.

Yoga helps people who are already healthy. Yoga has been shown to improve the performance, wellness, and fitness of people who are already healthy, including athletes. Many professional athletes in football, basketball, baseball, tennis, and golf do yoga to help with their athletic performance.

Yoga encourages you to pursue a healthier lifestyle. Yoga motivates nearly two thirds of people to exercise more and 40% to eat healthier.3 Yoga practitioners are more likely to live green and eat sustainable food. Yoga may also inspire you to pursue many other physical or self-care activities.

Yoga gives you stronger "body-responsiveness." Body-responsiveness refers to our relationship with our own body, and, like any other relationship, listening and trust are essential for a strong relationship. A strong relationship with your body means: "I am confident that my body lets me know what is good for me" or "I am able to 'listen' to my body and what it needs."

Yoga improves your sleep. Yoga, including poses, breathing techniques, and meditation, are useful research-backed methods to help improve quality of sleep and treat insomnia. Sixty percent report that yoga helps them get better sleep.4

Yoga improves your immune system. At the biochemical level, yoga boosts your immune system so you're better able to fight off illnesses and heal faster.

Yoga is beneficial during healthy pregnancies. Prenatal yoga reduces stress and anxiety and helps women feel connected with their changing body during pregnancy.

Yoga is adaptable and useful to help with medical conditions. The most common health problems that lead people to try yoga are back pain, stress, and arthritis—all conditions that research has shown improve with practicing yoga regularly. Yoga has been shown to be helpful as part of treatment for a variety of medical conditions, including chronic lower back or neck pain, fatigue, obesity, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, Parkinson's disease, migraines, diabetes mellitus, kidney disease, multiple sclerosis, and for cancer survivors.

Yoga helps you cope with health problems. Yoga not only can be integrated into the treatment of many different health issues, but it can ease coping with health problems. Yoga is adaptable and focuses on the individual's needs, so it be tailored to people who are frail or bedbound or not used to being physically active.

Yoga relieves stress. More than 80% of people who do yoga report that it reduces stress.5 You'll feel more calm and grounded with yoga. You don't have to escape your inner thoughts and feelings. You aren't encouraged to push your body too far. The original purpose of yoga and its poses is to calm the mind and prepare you for meditation, which is considered an important part of yoga. Stress is the leading cause for visits to the doctor and wreaks havoc on your physical body, so being able to relax is essential for your physical health as well.


  • "The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga is a wonderful addition to the yoga library that helps bridge the gap between East and West. The yoga world has to clean up its act in order to find its deserved place in the world of medicine, and this manual is a necessary step. The practices and research are sound."
    Rodney Yee, internationally renowned yoga instructor
  • "Every so often a manual emerges from the sea of 'how-to' yoga books and startles by virtue of its eminent accessibility, its breathtaking comprehensiveness, its scientific underpinnings, its remarkable clarity, and its immediate applicability. Dr. Marlynn Wei and Dr. James Groves's The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga is just such a manual. Inspired and inspirational, this book includes a treasure trove of easy-to-follow illustrations of numerous yoga poses; it will be an invaluable resource for all students of yoga interested not only in toning their body and reducing their stress but also, more generally, in evolving their health to ever-higher levels of mental, physical, and spiritual well-being."
    Martha Stark, MD, author of Relentless Hope: Refusal to Grieve and six other award-winning integrative psychiatry books
  • "Wei and Groves are reaching out to you, inspiring, coaxing, and above all informing about the path you can take for health and wellness of your inseparable body, mind, and soul. The lessons contained herein are encyclopedic in scope, but the message is of a journey that lies ahead for you, within you, accessible and transformative. Whether needed to enhance well-being and facilitate recovery for those who suffer or are ill or just make this one life at once more peaceful, reflective, calm and energetic, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga can be your itinerary."
    Jerrold F. Rosenbaum, MD, chief of psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital; Stanley Cobb Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
  • "Marlynn Wei and James Groves have done the public a great service. They are physicians who've learned by acquaintance how yoga can be a powerful aid to health. Consequently, they have produced a thorough and very accessible guide replete with tables and summaries and simple drawings, which leaves the reader with an excellent grasp of this particular pathway to wellness."
    Gregory L. Fricchione, MD, director, Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Harvard Medical School
  • "It is amazing to me that yoga has become popular enough that professors at Harvard Medical School would publish a book on the subject. Giving people more information and helping them find their way is what I see as being the great purpose of a book on the subject of yoga. Blessings to Marlynn Wei and James E. Groves for helping make this Divine Knowledge available to you, and may all achieve success in yoga."
    Sri Dharma Mittra, creator of the Master Yoga Chart of 908 Postures

On Sale
Jun 27, 2017
Page Count
336 pages

Marlynn Wei, MD

About the Author

Marlynn Wei, MD, JD, is a board-certified psychiatrist, certified yoga teacher, and writer. She began practicing yoga in 2008 during her residency training at Harvard Medical School and completed her 200-hour Yoga Alliance teacher certification. Dr. Wei integrates principles of yoga into her work with clients with anxiety and depression, using a holistic approach of psychotherapy, meditation, yoga, and mindfulness.

James E. Groves, MD, is a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. A psychotherapist for more than four decades, he practices psychotherapy, supervises psychiatry and psychology trainees, and offers tutorials in literature and psychiatry.

Learn more about this author