Yoga is a fun and increasingly popular activity, but it is an area of fitness that is shrouded in a lot of mystery and misunderstanding. Some people love it, some do not, yet I find even more people are curious about it, but are unfamiliar with how or why to begin. This article will seek to help those who are interested in starting with yoga do so in a way that is motivating and realistic in their life.
Though I used to dread the idea of yoga practice, I have found renewed interest in it during the past 6-8 months and would love to share with you some of the tips I have picked up having been attending class consistently and gaining a clearer perspective. I assure you that yoga can be enjoyable, beneficial, and maybe even fun! Let’s begin.
Brief History of Yoga
First and foremost, understand that yoga is an ancient practice that has been around for millennia. Its origin is most closely associated with schools of Indian philosophy where it was used to promote body awareness and a search for personal meaning. Ideas surrounding yoga are found in the ancient Vedic texts of the Bhagavad Gita and others (written in the classical language of Sanskrit) which give insight into early yoga tradition.
While the deep origins and wisdom of the first yogis may likely remain a mystery to the average person, the basic idea of body, mind, and spirit can be applied to the modern yoga student to benefit their well-being in a practical way. Today yoga is one of the Western world’s favorite hobbies and only continues to grow as people become more health conscious and interested in personal growth.
Types of Yoga
It is important to note that not all yoga is the same. There are many different types to choose from, depending on what you are looking for out of your practice. While all yoga shares some common characteristics, there are also significant differences in pace, intensity, environment, and overall set-up depending on which type you choose. Each class you attend will be a little bit different, which helps to keep things interesting and varied for your body.
Here are some of the most common types of yoga that I am familiar with:
Vinyasa or flow yoga involves swift motions from one pose to the next, but varies based on teacher and experience level. This is the most common type of yoga class in America.
Power yoga is also known as ashtanga yoga and is sort of like a faster-paced flow yoga that is most physically demanding and suited as a workout or for athlete recovery.
Hatha yoga is more likely slower-paced and focuses on gentle movement and stretching. Hatha is a great start for beginners who want to learn poses and modifications.
Bikram yoga is also known as hot yoga and is marked by a warm, humid practice environment (100+ degrees and 40%+ humidity) with an emphasis on body alignment.
Kundalini yoga is designed to engage your lower spine and core area (your “root chakra”) with intense dance-like motion and rhythm. My friend Chris Kendall is an expert at this.
Restorative yoga may be almost a combination of meditation and yoga to gear towards relaxation and stress reduction, especially intended for those with busy work lives.
Prenatal yoga is especially intended for expectant mothers, and uses breathing and gentle core work as a good source of exercise and help for alleviating pregnancy aches and pains.
Which type is the best? Again, it is really up to you. As far as most people are concerned, classic vinyasa, power, or hatha yoga classes are the most fitting choice, but you may be interested to get creative and try out a new style of yoga class. I am looking to try kundalini and bikram yoga at some point in the future.
Where to Sign Up for Yoga
To get started with yoga, do a quick search online to seek out yoga studios or other exercise venue nearby to you. Just as there are many types of yoga, there are many types of studios you can look into as well, which may coincide with a particular style. Yoga tends to be most popular in metropolitan areas, but even smaller cities and towns have more and more resources for those interested in yoga.
Most likely you will find either standalone yoga studios or fitness locations such as gyms and YMCAs (this is where I go). If you are already a member of a gym, yoga classes may already be included in your program, which is optimal. If you are new to fitness, a yoga studio may be the best place to begin. Sometimes places such as spas, health clubs, or schools may also offer yoga classes to the public or through a simple membership also.
What to Bring to Yoga Class
To make any yoga class more pleasant and productive, you will need to bring a few items along with you. This is especially important if you are entirely new to yoga or are checking out a new studio or class. It is better to bring too much and only use what you need, than to rely on the presence of extra items at your studio. Yoga is such a simple activity anyway that even the most complicated set of gear is very minimalistic!
Here is what you will need for a solid practice:
Comfortable clothing is most important. No special garb or materials are required, a simple t-shirt and sweatpants will do the trick. You will want to make sure if you come from work, school, or another event that you have clothing that you can easily stretch and move in. You may want to consider a more loose size to avoid the concern of wardrobe malfunction when doing downward or seated poses.
Proper yoga is done barefoot, not only to connect with your mat more easily, but also to avoid slipping and sweating as much throughout your time there. Some people choose to bring a pair of warm socks or a sweatshirt if they tend to get chilly especially during relaxation poses, while others may bring items such as sweatbands and hair ties if they are prone to overheating.
A yoga mat is the only other absolutely essential item for your practice. This is where you will spend your time stretching and moving and also relaxing into your restorative poses towards the end of class. Any type of generously-sized fitness mat will do. Look for mats that do not crumple or slide, as most yoga studios have hardwood flooring.
If your knees or wrists are sensitive sometimes like mine, a thicker mat will help add extra padding and make your yoga practice more comfortable and hence more engaging. I also recommend bringing a bath or swim towel for additional knee support as well as for reclined poses (to protect your face and head), or for use as a sweat wipe should you need it.
Last but not least is your water bottle, which is strongly encouraged by myself and most yoga teachers or any health and fitness professional. Especially if you are involved in yoga classes in hot environments, you may be sweating and moving your body around extensively, and it is necessary to stay hydrated to be focused with what you are doing.
Optional yoga tools include block seats and boosters for various activities, as well as different stretching aides (such as a belt or rope) that your instructor may recommend if you have sensitive joints and so on. More specific varieties of yoga may call for other items that you will be able to easily find at any sports store.
What should you not bring? Here’s one thing you will not need for the duration of class: your cell phone! While I have been guilty in the past of letting my addiction to Facebook or texting slip through, I realize this is a mistake and is likely against the policy of your gym or yoga studio. Not only is it distracting to your own practice, it also degrades the flow of the entire class and makes you look inexperienced.
Anatomy of a Standard Yoga Class
Like I mentioned, everyone’s yoga experience is different, and this is part of the beauty of yoga at its most essential core. However, because this article is written with the beginner in mind, I would like to run through some of the key aspects of a standard power or vinyasa flow yoga class that come into play in approaching yoga for the first time.
The environment where you practice yoga will be very telling as to the energy and structure of the class. When your environment is comfortable, welcoming, and relaxing, the yoga class will flow smoothly, just a poor studio setup will take a negative toll. Fortunately, many features which contribute to this environment can be easily changed.
The main variables that are involved with a yoga studio are:
- The lighting: Too bright and fluorescent hurts, but very dark rooms make you sleepy.
- The spacing: You will want to make sure you have enough room to move freely.
- The temperature: Usually warm to allow for stretching, may be very hot for bikram.
- The music: Calm vocal or instrument flow is my favorite. No music = poor rhythm.
The teacher or leader of your class truly makes or breaks the experience like no other factor. Bad music or a sweaty classroom is no fun, but a teacher who does not know what they are doing will completely ruin your yoga experience and is hardly in your hands to control. That being said, there are a couple things you can keep an eye out for in determining a good yoga teacher.
A good yoga teacher will have several or all of the following characteristics:
- They have experience with yoga in the past and continue practicing.
- Their speaking voice is clear, calm, and easy to listen to (important!).
- Their class has rhythm and balance, it is not stagnant or hard to get through.
- They know how to modify yoga poses for different levels and body needs.
- They do not show off or rush, but also are not too slow and boring.
- They gauge how the class is doing and offer suggestions or encouragement.
- They are grounded in what they do and show knowledge in yoga overall.
In a large group of yoga students, it is easy for our competitive instincts to come out and take control of where our mind, eyes, and body go in the course of a yoga class. However, I highly caution against concerning yourself with others’ practice when you are doing yoga. Yoga practice is your practice. When you start to worry too much about what others do, focus and motivation tend to fail.
It only takes a few times at a yoga class to get a feel for who is where with yoga. Very often, the teacher will be the most experienced in the room, but sometimes there are students whose posture and strength are truly impressive. A large majority of the class will be intermediate-level yoga students who return consistently and know their way around standard poses (I fall into this category).
You will also find a lot of beginners, which is great too, because everyone has to start somewhere. Enjoy the class dynamics but leave this as a low priority. If there is one most common mistake I witness and personally have struggled with too, it is getting disappointed by what others are doing. Accept yourself and instead get excited to improve.
Poses vary very greatly by the type of yoga you are practicing, which you may be able to glean, given a basic understanding of how yoga works now. Many poses are integral to all types of yoga, however, so it is good to familiarize yourself with them, but any yoga teacher will help you streamline your posture when you are at class.
To save time and cut to the chase, a good image search helps. Here is a start:
Wikipedia actually has a great article here with a list of poses and their Sanskrit names.
How to Make Yoga Yours
Yoga is most often done in groups, but it is actually a very individual thing. My understanding is that the original yogis of India conducted yoga practice on their own or in very small groups as a way to stretch, awaken, or contemplate. While your yoga may be more rigorous and group-oriented, aim to apply that same idea in your personal journey.
On the New Age Qualities of Yoga
Yoga has become an emblem of many “new age” holistic health movements which celebrate its expressive and deeply personal quality of moving the body and breath more consciously. In this way, I am very proud to be a part of a greater community of healthy choices. However, sometimes I find that this aspect of yoga can become a bit unappealing when taken the wrong way or drive to a very far extreme.
Familiar cantations of “namaste”, “aum”, or other related speaking practices that come along with many yoga classes can no doubt be a fun way to tie in spirituality to end or begin a class. But I recommend that the beginner, particularly someone who may be turned off to this sort of thing, does truly not worry (or, simply tune out) these parts of a yoga scene.
I understand why yoga does have some stereotypes about its cult-like quality or strange, almost esoteric air surrounding it. If you don’t like this (like I don’t either), just ignore it. It is rare that any yoga group would force you to do anything you don’t want to, and if they do, this is a sign to reconsider your participation there. Remember, make yoga yours!
Benefits of Yoga
Having run through some introductory information on what to do, many readers may still wonder, why do it? Why should you apply what you learn? What benefits can yoga bring to your life? Here are a couple reasons I came up with. Try it out for yourself so you can discover your own to add to this list, and be sure to let me know what you think.
Flexibility: The many stretches and poses in yoga are excellent for developing flexibility, even if you do not consider yourself a flexible person. You may surprise yourself!
Strength: Yoga creates greater strength throughout your entire body without any intervention from outside sources. It’s the ultimate economical strength exercise.
Balance: A significant focus of many yoga classes is working on improving your balance. Balance is a funny thing, it really takes practice to train your brain, but it can be done.
Muscle tone: Your core, legs, and arms among others will thank you! Better tone means looking better with or without clothes. Reap benefits from your consistency in yoga.
Healing: Many people may choose to incorporate yoga practices into a health or healing regimen to accelerate recovery from illness or injury, particularly in physical therapy.
Breathing: Any experienced yogi will tell you that breathing may be the most essential part of any yoga practice. Do not worry too much about it in the beginning, it will fall into place.
Relaxation: The end of any good yoga class will include several minutes of restorative time, as well as relaxation poses that are interspersed throughout more intense poses.
Body awareness: When you do yoga, you cannot help but become more in tune with your amazing human body. Yoga helps you get in the habit of body scans and awareness.
Stress management: Yoga is said to have benefits on AND off the mat. The more you gain mastery of yoga, the more you exercise tools you can use anywhere to reduce stress.
Domino effect: Doing good creates more good in your life because you are sending out and attracting healthy energy. Yoga just might be the first step for a healthier you!
How to Stay Motivated with Yoga
It is easy to start off with your first few classes and become very gung-ho about yoga. While I appreciate this enthusiasm, remember that yoga practice takes literally that: practice. No one becomes an expert yogi overnight, and many people may face challenges as they move past the first few practices and start to move into the real work.
With this in mind, here are three ways you can maximize your yoga potential:
#1: Get into it. Some people quickly fall in love with yoga, but others need a good push and schedule to truly get past the initial hump and see how great yoga can be. Let go of old negativity you may have for yoga. Take out a nice mat, and do a downward dog now!
#2: Focus on benefits. Focusing awareness on how your time spent doing yoga helps you in your daily life or with long-term fitness goals is very instrumental and maintaining motive. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing the fruits of your labor.
#3: Find yoga buddies. Share your ideas (or feel free to send this article!) with your friends and family to attract interest in yoga, or perhaps start going alone and meet new people at your studio. A good friend keeps you on your feet, that’s what friends are for.
My Personal Experience
My personal experience thus far with yoga has been marked mainly by my time attending a twice-weekly power yoga class at my local YMCA. Before I started practicing regularly, I had participated in sporadic yoga classes at different branches of my Y or through swimming or P.E. class in school, but I had never really gotten in the habit of doing yoga mainly out of laziness or an unfavorable attitude based on what I thought yoga would be like.
Speaking of P.E. class, what initially motivated me to begin with power yoga on a consistent weekly basis was the option at my high school to use outside fitness activities to fulfill P.E. graduation requirements. Through what’s called “extended experience”, we are able to conduct a self-directed schedule and get it approved by our instructor and school so we can incorporate outside interest.
Because I was never much of a gym class person, and like to be independent anyway, I was very grateful for this opportunity and chose to capitalize on it. I am really pleased with the success of this decision so far and look forward to continuing with yoga not only throughout high school, but as a life skill to help keep my fitness and relaxation fresh in my life.
As I write this in mid May 2012, I’ve been going to yoga regularly for at least over half a year and can say that on reflecting on my time up to this point, I am really loving it. When I first started, I went more for the gym requirement itself, and it was wintertime and I was generally less motivated. But now I look forward each Monday and Wednesday to my 5:30-6:30 class at the Great Valley YMCA just a 2 mile walk from my house. If you are in the Philadelphia or PA area and are interested in getting started, I’d love for you to join me at class sometime!
Thanks for reading, I hope this has inspired you to start yoga today! See you out there.