Yoga Basics for Beginners
Have you been hesitant about trying yoga? What's holding you back? You may be confused by all the different styles of yoga and unsure where to begin. You may be intimidated by the unfamiliar language and poses. Maybe you aren't sure whether you'll get enough of a workout to make yoga part of your routine. Maybe it just seems a little too, well, weird to you.
Whatever your reasons for not trying yoga, you've come to the right place. This guide for yoga beginners will demystify the practice of yoga and give you all the information you need to get started. Learn about the health benefits of yoga, the different types of yoga, what you need for equipment, and where to look for yoga classes. Watch a demonstration of some beginner yoga poses. With all of your questions answered, you can start enjoying the benefits and pleasures of yoga today.
What is yoga?
Yoga is a meditative practice originating in ancient India. "Yoga" means "union" in Sanskrit, and the practice of yoga is thought to create a union of mind, body and spirit.
In Western culture, the term "yoga" is most often associated with a form of exercise that involves moving through a series of specific poses (or "asanas") while controlling one's breathing. For true practitioners, exercise is just one component of the yoga lifestyle, which also includes proper diet, relaxation, and meditation.
What are the benefits of yoga?
A regular yoga practice benefits both the body and the mind. While yoga won't give you the heart-pumping effects of a cardio workout, a yoga workout involves much more than just stretching. If you make yoga a part of your fitness routine, you can expect these benefits:
- Improved flexibility: Moving through the yoga poses will stretch muscles and increase the range of motion in your joints to improve overall flexibility. You should see significant improvements, especially in your shoulders and trunk.
- Increased strength: Yoga requires you to use your own body weight to support yourself in different ways, which leads to increased strength. The areas that benefit the most will be your core, upper body, legs, and lower back. You also will see overall improved muscle tone.
- Improved posture: A stronger core provides more support for your spine so you will be able to stand taller and straighter. Yoga also increases your body awareness so you'll be more likely to sense when you are slouching and make necessary adjustments.
- Improved balance: Increased strength and body awareness will lead to better balance.
- Improved lung capacity: Yoga focuses on deep, mindful breathing. You will find yourself taking deeper and longer breaths, which will increase your lung capacity and send more oxygen to your entire body.
- Decreased stress: Yoga's focus on deep breathing and use of other meditative techniques calms the mind, thereby reducing stress. Additionally, yoga produces certain biochemical responses in the body that have a calming effect.
- Other mental benefits: Yoga practitioners report improved mood, concentration, memory and learning. This may be a result of increased oxygen levels, as well as the body's biochemical responses to yoga.
- Heart health: Practicing yoga may boost heart health. Some studies have shown a connection between yoga and lower blood pressure, cholesterol and heart rate.
- Other medical benefits: Yoga may relieve symptoms of some medical conditions and reduce pain.
What are the different styles of yoga?
When looking for a yoga class, you may be confused by the many different styles of yoga that are taught. With unfamiliar terminology used to describe the classes, you may not know which is right for you. Here is a run-down of some of the most popular styles of yoga practiced today:
- Hatha: This is a generic term used to describe the style of yoga predominantly practiced in the West. If a class is described as "Hatha" yoga, you can expect a basic practice combining a variety of poses and breathing exercises. It likely will move at a slow, gentle pace and be ideal for a beginner.
- Vinyasa: This is another generic term used to describe one of the most popular styles of yoga. "Vinyasa" means "flow," and Vinyasa practitioners move through a variety of poses in a flowing series that matches movement to breath. Each class will be different, depending on the instructor, but most will begin with a series of "sun salutations" as a warm-up. A Vinyasa class will move at a faster pace than a Hatha class, so it may be helpful to have some familiarity with basic yoga poses in advance.
- Iyengar: This is a purist form of yoga which focuses on the fundamentals of the poses and achieving proper alignment. Poses are held for longer periods and props like wooden blocks and straps are used to help bring the body into the correct alignment. This is a good class for beginners who seek to perfect the poses.
- Ashtanga: This describes a more intense, athletic style of yoga where participants progress through a series of physically-demanding poses in a specific order. A class described as "power" yoga will be similar to Ashtanga but will not follow a strict sequence of poses. A beginner may want to obtain a good, basic knowledge of the various yoga poses before attempting a vigorous Ashtanga or power yoga class.
- Bikram: This method, also known as "hot" yoga, is practiced in a sauna-like room with a temperature up to 105°F and 40% humidity. The practice involves a flowing sequence of 26 poses performed twice during a 90-minute class. The profuse sweating is believed to release toxins from the body. This is a physically demanding style of yoga that may be best reserved for more experienced yoga practitioners.
- Kundalini: This style of yoga is focused on tapping the energy found at the base of the spine (the root chakra) and moving it upward in the body to awaken all seven of the body's chakras (energy centers). This is accomplished through a specific sequence of poses done in conjunction with controlled breathing techniques (pranayamas) to intensify the effect of the poses. Kundalini is a more spiritual form of yoga and typically involves chanting and singing. If chanting isn't your thing, this may not be the yoga practice for you.
What equipment will I need?
One of the advantages of yoga is it requires very little in the way of equipment. The only thing you need is a yoga mat, and even that isn't a necessity if you're practicing on a non-slick surface.
It's easy to find a yoga mat for less than $20. Look for one in your favorite color or an inspiring design so you will be more inclined to use it. Spend a little more to get an environmentally-friendly mat made from recycled materials and free of phthalates.
Some yoga mats have a strong odor when first unwrapped. If that is the case, lay your mat flat for several days to air out.
Yoga does not require special clothes or shoes. Yoga typically is practiced barefoot. Wear loose fitting or stretchable clothes that allow for free movement. If you want to spend a little money, there are a lot of pants, tanks, and tops made especially for yoga, but a pair of sweatpants and t-shirt will work just fine.
As a beginner, you may want to invest in a yoga DVD to learn the poses at home before venturing out to a class.
A good option that has stood the test of time is the Crunch Perfect Yoga Workout DVD, which includes two yoga workouts by laid-back and accessible instructor Sara Ivanhoe. In "The Joy of Yoga," Ivanhoe takes you through classic yoga poses at a slow pace suitable for beginners while emphasizing enjoyment of the practice over perfection. "Fat-Burning Yoga" is a more athletic workout, but Ivanhoe provides detailed cues and modifications to make it easy enough for a beginner to follow.
Where can I practice yoga?
Another advantage of yoga is you can practice it anywhere – indoors, outside, at home, at the gym, in a hotel room. Try to find a quiet, peaceful place so you are able to focus on your movement and your breath without distractions.
When you are ready to join a class, you have a number of options. You can take a class at a studio that specializes in yoga or in a particular style of yoga.
Many health clubs and gyms also offer yoga classes, which are likely to be less expensive than a specialized yoga studio. Also check your local YMCA and community center for reasonably-priced classes. Many community colleges have yoga classes as a part of their adult education offerings.
When you are vacationing, look for resorts that offer yoga classes to guests (usually for an extra charge). Experiencing yoga in a beautiful outdoor setting – by the side of a tropical pool or in an open-air mountain studio – is a great way to enhance the mind-body connections of the practice.
What else do beginners need to know?
Here are a few tips to make your yoga experience an enjoyable one:
- Don't eat for a couple of hours before you practice and drink plenty of water afterwards.
- If you are taking a class, introduce yourself to the instructor beforehand and let him or her know you are a beginner. Don't hesitate to ask for help if you need it.
- Yoga is not a competitive sport. Go slowly, warm up, and move into the poses at your own pace. Never try to force a pose.
- Remember to breathe.
- Many instructors will move around the room during the class and help students make small adjustments. Don't be startled if the instructor touches you to help correct your alignment.
- Stay to the end of the class and don't skip Savasana, the final relaxation pose. This is an important part of yoga practice because it gives the body time to rest and recharge.
Are you ready to get started?
The following series of videos demonstrate several basic yoga poses, including forward fold, plank, cobra and downward dog, and show how to combine these poses into a flowing series known as the sun salutation. Many yoga classes begin by completing several repetitions of the sun salutation as a warm-up.
Watch the demonstration first in its entirety and then give it a try. You will feel stretched and invigorated and eager to make yoga a part of your routine.
© 2012 Deborah Neyens