Yoga

Yoga: A Beginner's Guide

By: Dr Lauren Macdonald

Whether you want to relax, have a workout, or calm your mind, there is sure to be a yoga class to suit you. The good thing about yoga is that it’s suitable for most people due to it being a relatively non-strenuous, but highly effective form of exercise. Remember, you do not need to be flexible to practice yoga! Suppleness is a result of years spent practicing yoga, and not a prerequisite.

If you’d like to give it a try but don’t know where to start, read on for a guide to the basics.

Why give yoga a try?

These days, yoga classes are more popular than ever. The practice is popping up in gyms, schools, online, not to mention actual yoga studios. But what is yoga? The best way to describe yoga is a practice that connects the body, breathing and the mind. The health benefits of yoga are numerous. Positions like downward dog and plank pose work your core and upper body, whilst the standing poses build strength in your quadriceps, hamstrings, and abdominal muscles. Most of what you do every day - working at a desk, watching TV, even running and cycling - shorten and tighten your muscles. Yoga lengthens and loosens them. Yoga also helps improve posture and balance, and it helps lower stress and focus your mind.

What is the history of yoga?

Yoga is an ancient practice originating from India that dates back over 5,000 years. The word yoga comes from the Sankrit word yuj meaning 'to yoke' or 'to bind' and yoga is often interpreted as a union.

Choose a style

There are many different styles of yoga. Because of this, it can be hard to decide on which style to choose. To get started, it’s helpful to begin with a list that clearly prioritises what needs you want to fulfill. Are you looking to sweat your way towards a slim, lean physique, or does a gentler, more meditative approach sound more appealing?

Hatha yoga - Hatha yoga refers to any form of yoga that's gentle and slow-paced, usually well suited for beginners. Traditionally, hatha yoga is seen as a practice to prepare the body for deeper meditation.

Yin yoga - Yin yoga focuses on connective tissues (ligaments and tendons) rather than muscles. It does not focus on warming the muscles or moving quickly; rather it encourages long-held poses that foster relaxation. Yin poses are very passive and often done with props.

Restorative yoga - Restorative yoga is all about healing the mind and body through simple poses often held for as long as 20 minutes, with the help of props such as bolsters, pillows and straps. It is similar to yin yoga, but with less emphasis on flexibility and more on relaxing.

Ashtanga yoga - The practice of Ashtanga that is getting mainstream attention today is a fast-paced series of sequential postures. It is a more vigorous style of yoga. It offers a series of poses, each held for only five breaths and punctuated by a half sun salutation to keep up the pace.

Vinyasa flow yoga - Vinyasa yoga is the general term used for faster-paced "flow" classes. These classes can cross various schools of yoga, and they will move faster than a hatha class.

Iyengar yoga - In an Iyengar class, poses (especially standing postures) are typically held much longer, so that the teacher can pay close attention to the precise muscular and skeletal alignment of students. Also specific to Iyengar is the use of props, including belts, chairs, blocks, and blankets, to help accommodate any special needs such as injuries or structural imbalances.

Bikram yoga - Performed in a hot, humid room - when you take a Bikram yoga class, expect to sweat. Classes last 90-minutes and consist of 26 poses.

If you're already doing lots of strength training, a yoga style that focuses more on flexibility, such as yin or hatha, may be the best choice for you. Individuals with sports injuries or chronic medical conditions might want to try Iyengar yoga, or one-to-one sessions with a teacher where you will be able to focus on your unique needs. For those who are physically fit and want a challenge, ashtanga vinyasa or vinyasa flow might be a good choice.

Yoga

Find the right teacher

Many gyms and studios offer a free first class, so ideally try out several different teachers and yoga styles to find the combination that is right for you. It is important to find a teacher you like and connect with. A good teacher will be patient with your lack of experience and open to your body’s limitations. They should adjust and correct your posture if required, and provide alternatives to people who cannot do the full pose or have an injury.

Dress comfortably

To practice yoga you'll need some comfortable, stretchy, reasonably tightly fitting clothing, which will stay in place while allowing you the freedom to move.

What to expect

Most classes will last 60-90 minutes. The order, complexity, and variety of poses will vary based on the style of yoga you’ve chosen. Most yoga studios will supply a mat, however, you may wish to purchase your own (you can usually buy one for under £20) and take it along to class with you. Remember to turn your phone off, and go barefoot.

During the class expect to hear terms and descriptions that you may not have heard before. Sanskrit is the oldest language known to man and it is the classical literary language of India, the birthplace of yoga. It is felt that maintaining yogic terms in their original language keeps the authenticity of their meanings. For example, instead of the teacher referring to your ‘yoga pose’, you may hear them say ‘asana’. Don't be put off if you can only make out half of what your yoga teacher is saying; the more you practice, the more comfortable you'll get with the new terminology.

Will there be chanting?

Depending on the type of yoga class you have attended, you may be suprised when everyone in the class chants several “Om” sounds before and/or after class. In ancient times yoga practitioners recognised that the Universe - everything in existence, is always moving, and never still, thus creating a rhythmic vibration. This was acknowledged with the sound of Om. Om is considered the root of the universe and therefore the root of everything that exists. It is an external vibration of awareness. When “Om” is chanted it is a reminder that we are all connected to each other. It might seem a little strange to begin with, but like all new experiences, with time you will likely begin to enjoy the Om!

Build up your practice

It may be intimidating at first to try something new, but in order to experience rewarding changes, we must take on a few challenges. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it! Have fun and enjoy the challenges, but at the same time respect your body's limits. With a consistent practice you'll notice subtle improvements in your flexibility, which translate into improvements to your health and wellbeing. A common occurrence with repetitive yoga practice is the gradual change from “needing” to go to yoga class to “wanting” to go to yoga class. Because yoga makes you feel so good during and after practice, people become somewhat addicted to everything that yoga does for them. The more you practice yoga the more it becomes a pleasure rather than a chore.

How often should I practice yoga?

Like with most things, the more you practice the better you become. Having a consistent yoga practice will give you more results than if you were to go to class only once a week. When you practice yoga regularly your body will start to open up, your range of motion and flexibility will improve and your overall stress and anxiety levels will likely reduce. Increased metabolism and weight loss are also promoted with regular yoga practice. So, for the best results, both mental and physical, a consistent yoga practice of three classes a week is best.

Are there any cheaper options?

There are plenty of sites online that you can sign up for via the internet to make practicing yoga online convenient and flexible. Yoga classes offered online are generally going to be cheaper and more affordable than attending any in-person class. There are also a growing number of classes that can be found on YouTube.

Ideally, do the yoga poses in front of the mirror and compare yourself to the online poses at the same time. This will help ensure that you are completing the pose correctly.

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I have really enjoyed trying the wide variety of classes available online at Yoogaia. If you have a webcam it is great because you can get feedback from the yoga teacher as if you were in their class - but instead you are in the comfort of your own home.

Sign up online at Yoogaia for a free 30 day trial of online yoga - just use the code "YOOGAIAFRIENDS".

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Lauren