A Beginner's Guide To Yoga: Benefits, Poses & More
Over the past few decades, interest in modern versions of the ancient practice of yoga has skyrocketed. Studios have popped up everywhere, and form-fitting "yoga pants" or leggings have become as popular as jeans. But even so, many Americans haven't tried the practice yet. If you're one of them, here's what you need to know to get started.
What is yoga?
Yoga means different things to different people. For some, it's exercise. For others, it's a way to connect to something beyond their physicality. And for many, it's both.
Again, it's important to note that yoga is an ancient practice that dates back thousands of years, possibly to 2700 B.C. In fact, "yoga" is mentioned in the oldest known Indian scripts, the Vedas.
Most American yoga schools today place most emphasis on just the physical component of the practice rather than other areas that focus on mind, breath, and inner self. Susanna Barkataki, the founder of Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute who runs Honor Yoga Trainings, says she believes that this incomplete version of yoga waters down its power. "A practice that is meant to be liberating is reduced in its capacity to be so," she says.
What are some of the benefits of yoga?
The power of yoga in the West isn't totally diminished, though. In fact, yogis keep coming back to their mats because of the practice's many benefits. Studies show that yoga can improve physical health by lowering blood pressure, reducing the risk of heart disease, and aiding digestion. It may also help practitioners sleep better and manage stress. Not to mention, recent research indicates the mind-body practice supports mental health, specifically; one study found regular yoga may help ease depressive symptoms.
Dianne Bondy, yoga teacher and author of Yoga for Everyone: 50 Poses for Every Type of Body, has seen yoga's positive impact firsthand. Thanks to the practice, her students are able to excel under pressure. Yoga teaches that "when there's chaos going on around us, we can focus on something singular and bring a sense of peace to ourselves," Bondy says. "The practice of concentration helps students to be more successful at whatever they do."
What is the best type of yoga for beginners?
There are many styles of yoga, like fast-paced vinyasa flow classes, slower restorative practices, and even quirky options like goat yoga. But don't let all of the choices overwhelm you. According to Bondy, the right class is about the level, not the type. "It doesn't matter what the style is," she advises newbies. "Taking a beginner class in whatever yoga [style] you're interested in is where to start."
What are some basic yoga postures to know?
Going to your first yoga class can be intimidating. One way to feel more prepared is to get familiar with a few of the main poses beforehand. Here are the essentials:
Cat and Cow Poses
These two poses are usually combined as part of a warm-up. To do them, start off on hands and knees. For cow pose, arch your back, articulating through your spine as you do so, and look up. To do cat pose, move your back in the opposite direction, round it, and look down.
The starting point for yoga sun salutations is tadasana, mountain pose. To do it, stand tall with your feet together, arms by your sides, abdominal muscles engaged, and gaze straight ahead.
Adho mukha svanasana, downward-facing dog, is common in many yoga sequences. To get into it, start off on hands and knees, and then pull your hips and knees up, so your body forms an upside-down "V" shape, similar to the one that dogs make when they're stretching. Harding advises not to worry about "mastering" this posture before your first class, as it's one "teachers should help their students with."
What do you do if you get to your first yoga class and you're exhausted during the flow? There's a pose for that. Child's pose, balasana, is a resting posture that you can take at any point during class if you need it. To do it, start on hands and knees, then pull your seat back toward your heels, stretch your arms forward or along your sides, and allow your head to rest on the ground.
Deep breathing isn't a pose, but it's crucial to executing any posture. "Learning how to breathe would be the first place to start," Bondy says. Many yoga styles use ujjayi, a deep, slow, audible breathing through the nose.
What kind of gear do you need?
It's not necessary to buy anything to start a yoga practice. "Early yogis practiced on kusha grass and in nature," Barkataki says. "You don't need certain props, clothes, mats, or a certain body type to practice yoga," she adds. "These are misunderstandings that can be a distraction from yoga's true aims."
While you can practice in the grass or on a carpet, a quality yoga mat is a good investment if you're practicing on a hard surface, plus it's required at many studios.
Harding says that two cork yoga blocks, like these from Manduka, can be helpful to find more stability and proper alignment. But if you don't have blocks, no worries, you can always use books as a stand-in.
What is the connection between yoga, meditation, and breathwork?
Pranayama, breath control, is a key component of yoga. Some breathing techniques, like kapalabhati, cleanse the body, while others build heat. And the more common ujjayi breath keeps us present. "Yoga teaches us to be here now, and what's happening in the present moment is always the breath," Bondy says.
Harding believes the breath serves as a "barometer." She says, "If we're struggling to breathe in a pose, then that's the body telling us that we've gone too far."
The state that deep, conscious breathing cultivates is enhanced by meditation, dhyana, another integral part of yoga.
In fact, the whole point of the physical practice was to "make the body supple enough to be able to sit upright in a meditation seat for hours on end," Harding says.
Is yoga right for you?
While putting your body into an Instagram-worthy pretzel shape isn't for everyone, true yoga is. There are many variations on the physical practice for all levels of fitness and flexibility, and there's much more to yoga than just movement, anyway.
The combination of breathwork, meditation, and movement can improve yogis' physical and mental health. No matter our limitations, all of us can use these practices in one form or another. According to Harding, "If you can breathe, you can do yoga."
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Colette Coleman is a writer passionate about health, wellness and plant-based eating. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and studied yoga and meditation with Sri Dharma Mittra in New York.