No matter what your goals are, whether it’s finding your inner strength, catching zen or losing weight, yoga is the way to go. This comprehensive guide to yoga practice is carefully crafted to make the start of your journey smooth and easy.
Read why you should bother doing yoga in the first place, explore the importance of breathing and learn your first yoga routine that you can practice from the safety of your home, stress- and cost-free.
What Yoga Is
The bookish definition of yoga is short and straightforward. Yoga is a combination of spiritual, mental, and physical practices towards a fulfilling and healthy life.
Reality though is not that simple.
Nearly 40 million Americans are practicing yoga today. Ask those people what yoga means to them, and you’ll probably get as many answers as there are practitioners.
Some call yoga “an investment for old age,” others “a healing mechanism.” For a great many, the ancient practice is an exercise that helps the body stay in shape, but there are those that consider it “one of the few things that consistently brings me joy.” [courtesy of Reddit comments]
Why are all the interpretations of yoga so different?
The explanation is simple.
Yoga has been around for thousands of years. And surely, its ways were not carved in stone.
Since the time yoga practice originated in India, it went through centuries of transformation and evolution. Having started as a meditating ritual to calm the wandering mind and reach the Enlightenment, yoga developed into a body-centered practice and lifestyle and recently became closely intertwined with no-harm life philosophy, nutrition, and wellness.
Thus, for most people, the understanding of yoga roots from their life goals: maintaining overall fitness, coping with trauma, a way to mental clarity, stress-free living, better mobility, or recovery from injury.
Yoga purists might scoff at me, but I dare to say that nowadays there’s no need to cling to all of the aspects of yoga (especially if the fear of not being able to adopt the yoga principles holds back from starting out). It’s okay if you do yoga to get a killer body and engage in just one of the aspects of yoga – physical. Just as it’s fine to practice only to relieve stress or expand consciousness.
The benefits of yoga are countless. But the miraculous thing about it is that any kind of practice will leave you more empowered, stronger, and healthier.
What Yoga Isn’t
When I took up yoga years ago, my deeply religious friend tried to protect me because “it’s a sect, and you’ll get brainwashed.” My female friends were sighing heavily telling how lucky I am to be flexible to do yoga despite me repeating that I live in a tin man body. My relatives were eyeing my food suspiciously, scared that from now on I’ll exist only on the energy of sun and air. And on the way from the yoga studio, an acquaintance of mine advised me to better hit the gym cause “that stretching thing is no good anyway.”
The myths and stereotypes surround the practice like the bad smell that can’t be washed off. So the only way out is to shut yourself off from the gibberish of the world.
Yoga is not a competition. You don’t need to be strong/flexible/young/skinny to get on the mat. The beauty of yoga is that it welcomes everybody (and every body) to make them happier, healthier, and stronger. It will meet you at your level of strength and inflexibility and make you feel secure and confident about yourself.
Yoga is not a religion. No need to repeat mantras or chant if you’re not comfortable with that. No need to change your lifestyle, eating, drinking, and swearing habits.
Yoga is not about pleasing others. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Because yoga is all about you and your yoga is nobody’s business.
If you’re hesitating about starting your practice because of what people say, check the article about the six yoga myths which you should finally stop believing.
Why We Should All Practice Yoga
Yoga is unique because it offers a myriad of benefits that extend far beyond the ability to reach your toes.
Surely, yoga benefits the physical body. It increases
• stamina and strength.
Regular vigorous practice can help you build muscles and stay fit, maintain mobility after the injury, develop a healthy and supple body.
Yoga benefits mental health. It
• reduces stress and anxiety
• offers relaxation
• improves mood
• helps with depression.
Yoga taps into your spiritual side. It
• cultivates wholeness
• promotes self-control
• teaches acceptance, love, and compassion towards yourself and others
Some of the yoga benefits (e.g., detoxification or better heart health) can be hardly supported by hard evidence. However, scientists agree that yoga has an undeniable positive effect on physical and mental state.
Read more about the health benefits of yoga according to science here.
Which Yoga To Try: Different Types Of Yoga Explained
I always somewhat cringe when I hear people saying they tried yoga and didn’t like it because it was too spiritual/mellow/easy/boring [suggest your option here].
Yoga practice has undergone a massive transformation throughout the last decades. Though traditional yoga is closely linked with meditation, chanting and uncanny Sankrit Lingvo, you no longer have to unclog your chakras if you don’t want to. There are yoga styles for every age, fitness goal, mood, and taste.
Here is a short explanation of the five most common yoga styles.
When searching for yoga classes, Hatha is probably the word you’ll encounter most often. That’s because it’s used as an umbrella term for any yoga practice rooted in physical postures (asanas) and breathing techniques (pranayama). Most of the yoga styles nowadays can be classified under Hatha category.
The good news is that Hatha is an excellent place to start for beginners. The class is generally gentle and covers a wide variety of postures and breathing techniques. Having learned the basics, you’ll find it easy to switch to a different/more challenging style of yoga.
The bad news is that there’s absolutely no way to tell how the class will look like. It can be slow or moderately paced while the focus of the practice and postures covered largely depend on the instructor and their approach.
It’s always a good idea to call the studio beforehand and inquire whether the Hatha class offered is suitable for absolute beginners.
Just like Hatha, Vinyasa yoga is a general term used for a flow-style yoga (or a part of the class). The poses smoothly transition from one into another and are synchronized with the breath.
Vinyasa class doesn’t have a rough structure, and the sequence of poses may vary. It is generally more challenging than Hatha, gets your heart pumping, and is excellent for building some heat and energy in your body. Vinyasa can also greatly complement your weight management program as it helps burn more calories than a traditional Hatha yoga session.
Mind that you need to know the foundational poses and the basics of alignment before joining the class. Due to the faster pace, there’s not much time for explanations.
Want to challenge your body and mind? Ashtanga is all you need.
It’s physically demanding, helps build strength, stamina, plus flexibility.
Every class has the same structure and follows the exact same series of postures – even if you change the studio or instructor.
Look for Ashtanga for beginners to get the alignment cues and full explanations to breathing and postures.
Hot yoga is precisely how it sounds like – hot. It is practiced in a heated room with an average temperature of 85 to 100° F and high humidity. Hot yoga is challenging and helps build muscle tone, improve endurance, and take your flexibility to the next level. Prepare to wear as little clothes as possible and sweat buckets.
Traditional hot yoga called Bikram follows a trademarked series of 26 poses in a fast vinyasa-style flow. Its modern counterparts don’t use the strict structure but allow for more creativity in the class.
Hot yoga is perhaps the most controversial style of yoga. While gaining tons of followers each year who swear by its benefits, hot yoga hasn’t actually been studied much. I’ve read more than 40 research studies to learn whether hot yoga can actually deliver what it advertises, whether it’s good for your health and what are the risks for exercising in a heated environment. Read what I’ve found out here.
Yin Yoga is your go-to style if you’re dreaming about splits (check out the results of my 30-day splits challenge), want to release stress, and calm the mind. Most of the poses are practiced seated or supine and are held for as long as 5 minutes – longer holds allow the body to relax and stretch deep connective tissues.
Yin Yoga is beneficial for athletes to help their bodies reach optimum performance as well as for anyone looking for winding down after work or a hard day.
Check the full guide to major yoga types, what to expect when attending the class, and how it will benefit you accompanied by video tutorials for each style below.
Yoga VS Other Fitness Routines
There are no better or worse exercise systems, they are just different. But I’ll blatantly dare to say that yoga can claim to be one of the best fitness routines in the universe. Why, you may ask?
There are three main components you need for a well-rounded exercise program: strength, flexibility, and cardio. Thanks to so many styles of yoga and modern yoga-fitness hybrids, you can easily vary your weekly yoga schedule to hit all of the mentioned cornerstones.
Get your heart rate up with a fast-paced Sun Salutation Flow on Monday, ignite your muscles with Power/Ashtanga yoga (or even add weights in Yoga Fit) on Tuesday, stretch the sore body and gain flexibility in gentle Yin Yoga on Wednesday, and spend the rest day releasing stress and relaxing in Restorative Yoga session.
Another great thing is that you can combine yoga with any other types of exercise. It’s good for runners, weightlifters, swimmers and virtually any kind of sportspersons (or couch potatoes).
Moreover, the benefits of combining exercise routines work both ways. Try squatting at the gym after a gentle yoga practice, and you’ll see a world of difference in your form and alignment. At the same time, you’ll be surprised how easier it is to master inversion once you gain the necessary arm and shoulder strength after lifting weights.
If you’re still not sure whether to go for yoga or other exercise read more about the differences and similarities between yoga and Pilates here or how to choose between yoga and gym here.
Studio VS Home Practice
Neither is better or worse. With consistency and persistence, both self-practice and attending studio classes can be an extremely rewarding experience.
The choice is entirely up to you. In case you need help figuring out what suits you best at the moment, check the list of advantages and disadvantages of studio practice and doing yoga on your own.
- Learn yoga from scratch under the professional guidance
- Get a lesser risk of injuries due to misalignment
- Become a part of the community
- Get motivated and inspired
- Try out various yoga styles that are hard to replicate at home (i.e., hot yoga, aerial yoga, pair yoga)
- Rent yoga props which you’re not ready to invest in yet
- Prepare to spend time commuting to and from the studio
- Class hours don’t always suit your schedule
- Lack of individualized attention in large classes
- Cost-free/cheaper than studio sessions
- Enjoy the freedom to practice at your own pace, whenever and wherever
- Listen to your body and what it needs at each particular yoga session
- Organize your own sacred yoga space
- Develop self-discipline
- Avoid the stress of being around strangers
- Miss out on professional guidance/correction and alignment advice
- Higher chance of mistakes and injuries, especially when starting from scratch
- Lack of support and motivation from the community of like-minded people
- Absence of class structure
Wondering how to start doing yoga: with a studio or at home and which is better? Check the detailed pros and cons of each and why you should care here.
How Often To Practice Yoga
If you’re just starting out, you might be wondering how many times per week you need to practice yoga.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy and short answer. The usual ‘three-times-per-week’ approach just doesn’t work in this case. Why?
Because we all have different goals and do various styles of yoga. So it’s difficult to give any advice without having any background knowledge about your practice.
Absolute beginners can start doing yoga once or twice a week for at least an hour. If you have more time and enthusiasm, then you’re welcome to get on the mat more often. Besides, lots of people agree that fifteen minutes every single day might bring more positive results than a long practice once a week.
No matter what your goals are, keep in mind several things:
Yoga is not a quick fix. You won’t get a ‘killer body’ after two weeks. Even if you practice every day. Even if you sweat on your mat more than one hour a day. In fact, quick fixes never work in the long term and often leave you disillusioned and unmotivated.
Commitment is the key. Consistent yoga practice will bring far more benefits and faster results than sporadic workouts.
Yoga happens off the mat too. Doing physical postures is just a part of the journey. Calming yourself with yogic breath at work, redefining your attitude to food, choosing to be kinder to yourself and the people around you – these things to can practice every day!
Trying to lose weight? Get stronger? Sleep better? Check out these tips that will help you to set up a yoga schedule to reach your goals.
Consistent Yoga Practice: Tips To Stay Motivated
Inspiration has an immense impact on our decisions. And whether it’s forcing yourself to not skip a yoga class at a studio after a hard day or just find time for a short morning stretch in bed, even a little kick of motivation can make a difference.
Here’s what you can do to stay on track and motivate yourself kick ass on the mat:
– Subscribe to yoga Instagram accounts.
What can be more inspiring than browsing through impressive pictures of yogis sharing the results of their daily practice? Let go of the fear, laziness, and invalid thoughts that you’re too old, inflexible, incapable, or your body is different. This can be you!
Here’s the list of my favorite Insta inspiration.
– Take the pictures of your practice.
You don’t have to jump into a handstand or twist into a pretzel. Some basic yoga poses can look pretty awesome with a little bit of creativity. You can also document your before/after progress and give yourself a huge boost.
Check out this gallery of simple yoga postures, grab your camera and prepare to get tons of support and admiration from your Insta followers.
– Find your favorite online instructors that you will admire.
There’s the whole world of free YouTube yoga out there. Choose what practice your body and mind need today and get on that mat. Or stay in your office chair for a quick neck and shoulder stretch. As short as 10 minutes and a soothing voice and guidance from your favorite online yogi will make the day better.
Here are my 15 favorite yoga Youtube channels.
– Get a yoga DVD.
Maybe life’s been hard on you, and you don’t feel like leaving the house for a yoga class. Or perhaps you practice on your own but got bored and lost motivation because of the lack of structure in your workout.
Yoga DVDs bring the best of two worlds – professional guidance and clear instructions from world-renowned yoga trainers and the comfort of your home. With yoga DVD, not even the bad internet connection can serve as an excuse to skip a class.
Check out my list of fantastic yoga DVDs for any level.
The fact that yogi teachers might often use a lot of Sanskrit terms and weird vocabulary during the class surely adds to the already existing anxiety of stepping into the studio for the first time.
“Breathe into your hips” or “engage your bandha” often confuses and sounds like nonsense to the newcomers. So instead of relaxing and focusing on the pose, you may end up looking around the room for physical clues and, alas, find none.
But fret not! Westerners have replaced a lot of concepts with the translated ones. All of the yoga poses, for instance, have an English equivalent, and some yoga instructors use English terms exclusively to aid beginner students.
However, it’s always nice to familiarize yourself with some basic terms and their meanings. Some of them you’ve most probably heard already outside of the yoga class.
The classical language of yoga.
From Sanskrit, yoga means “union” or “yoke.” Yoga is traditionally understood as the set of physical, spiritual, and mental practices to awaken our own consciousness and connect to the higher and eternal Self.
Traditionally translated as a “seat,” the term is now used in the context of class to refer to any physical posture. By the way, in Sanskrit, each individual pose ends with -asana (e.g., Balasana or Trikonasana, etc.)
Translated as the “Corpse Pose,” it is often considered one of the most challenging yoga postures. In Savasana, one lies flat on the back, eyes closed, with legs and hands relaxed. What might seem like a nap or yoga for lazy can actually turn out more difficult than holding an active pose. You’ll be surprised at how much effort it sometimes takes to quiet your mind and lie still.
Prana translates as “life force” and yama as an “extension.” Pranayama means the awareness and control of breath through specific techniques.
In Sanskrit, the word signifies “seal,” “mark,” “gesture.” Mudras are used during breathing practice or meditation to direct the flow of prana (energy). A mudra can involve the use of the whole body or a separate body part (eg., head, or hand). Hand mudras are the most commonly used type in the context of the yoga class.
If you can’t tell a difference between mantra and bandha, check out this short and sweet dictionary of common yoga terms.
There are many things in life we take for granted. Breathing is possibly the least obvious one. We tend to breathe sporadically and uneven throughout our day, missing out on all the benefits of controlled breathing.
What makes yoga different from simple stretching or gymnastics is the focus on the correct breath – breathing and asanas always go hand in hand. Why is it so important?
In yoga, there’s an ancient concept called prana – a vital life force. This subtle energy is the foundation of life and is all around us, permeating all living and non-living objects. It is believed that prana controls our vitality, every physical action and movement as well as the clarity of mind and consciousness.
According to yogic philosophy, prana flows in and out of our body with breath, nurturing every cell. The blockages in our bodies prevent the free circulation of prana and might result in physical diseases and emotional issues.
There’s a way to prevent the disaster though. And it is.. you must have guessed already – yoga!
We can strengthen the energy centers, the channels of prana circulation, by practicing asana – physical postures of yoga. We can purify the energy centers as well as learn to control and direct prana by cultivating conscious breathing – pranayama.
Leaving all the yoga philosophy on the side, maintaining conscious breath is beneficial to your body and mind even if you’re totally not into this mind-body-energy exchange.
On a physical level, correct breath helps control the postures and make you hold them longer as well as prevent over-strain and injury.
On a biological level, controlled breathing sends a signal to our autonomous nervous system. Slow and steady breathing pattern results in the decrease of the stress hormone cortisol, slower heart rate, and even anti-inflammatory effect.
Due to these changes, the calm and conscious breath may help with emotional regulation, such as the symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. That’s why we are asked to breathe slowly and steady in times of distress.
Three-Part Yogic Breath
The easiest technique commonly used in yoga is Dirga (or Deerga) Swasam Pranayama. Also known as the three-part yogic breath, this technique calms the mind, brings awareness to the present, and nourishes the entire body.
The three-part yogic breath involves the abdomen, diaphragm, and chest and engages three lobes of the lungs. You can practice it anywhere whenever you need to release tension and wind down.
1. Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position with your spine long and shoulders relaxed. Soften your face and root both sitting bones into the ground.
If you find it hard to keep a straight spine, you can lie down on your back, extend your legs and relax your body.
2. Focus on your breathing pattern, observing inhales and exhales. Let go of your thoughts. Whenever you get carried away, bring your attention back to the breath.
3. Place your hand on the abdomen. Inhale through the nose and expand your belly like a balloon. Exhale through the nose and draw the navel back to the spine. Repeat for at least five breaths.
4. Move your hand higher to the ribcage. On the next inhale, feel your belly filling up with air and expanding along with the ribcage. Let the air out from the ribcage and belly on the exhale. Repeat for at least five breaths.
5. Place your hand on the upper chest, just below the collarbone. Inhale and feel your belly, ribcage, and chest rise and expand. Breathe out from the upper chest, ribcage, and belly. Repeat for at least five breaths.
The three-part yogic breath is generally safe for everyone. Though be mindful if you experience shortness of breath or suffer from asthma. Stop the practice if you feel dizzy.
Similar to pranayama, yoga mudras are believed to help control the flow of energy into our body. In the traditional Hindu system of medicine, Ayurveda, mudras are used for healing the body by stimulating specific areas of the brain.
There are hundreds of mudras, each carrying a different meaning and benefits. Some help with relaxation and focus, others are believed to release stress and alleviate depression.
Don’t get intimidated though. Probably you already know a few hand gestures without even suspecting it.
Atmanjali (Anjali) Mudra
It is also often referred to as “prayer mudra” and is often accompanied by the Sanskrit word “namaste.” Atmanjali (Anjali) Mudra is believed to bring harmony and balance into our lives, release stress, and improve focus.
Press both of your palms in front of your heart with both thumbs touching the sternum. Leave a little space between the hands. This free space between the hands symbolizes the opening of our heart.
This hand gesture can be practiced both at the beginning and at the end of the class as well as in various yoga postures such as Vriksasana (Tree Pose) or Tadasana (Mountain Pose).
First Yoga Class: Basic Yoga Poses For Beginners
Your first yoga workout doesn’t have to be advanced and complicated. Start with baby steps, listen to your body, and in no time you’ll be able to tell the difference between Tadasana and Savasana.
The following six yoga asanas are the most common poses you’ll probably find in almost any yoga class. They are suitable for beginners, easily modified, and can be practiced either individually or put together into a flow.
Though basic, some of the poses shouldn’t be practiced if you have wrist issues, high or low blood pressure or suffer from an injury.
Balanasa is my personal favorite among the many yoga poses. It feels amazing first thing in the morning (better than morning coffee, believe me) and relaxing after a long day. You can open your practice with Balasana, catch your breath in it during some brutal power yoga flow and wind down if you have no time for Savasana at the end of the class.
Downward Facing Dog Pose/Adho Mukha Svanasana
Downward Facing Dog is the most recognizable yoga poses that you’ll encounter in any classroom. It brings the best of two worlds – strengthening and stretching your whole body. There’s a lot going on in the pose, but don’t get frustrated. After getting the alignment right for a few times, your body will naturally learn to take the correct form.
Kumbhakasana is not unique to yoga. Mostly referred to as Plank Pose, Kumbhakasana is a great strengthening exercise that builds heat, boosts energy and prepares your body for more challenging arm balances.
Standing Forward Bend/Uttanasana
Standing Forward Bend is one of my go-to poses after sitting all day. It stretches the entire backside of the body and muscles along the spine as well as releases tension from the neck, shoulders, and hips. While it sure feels like a stretch, Standing Forward Bend is restorative and relaxing. Dropping your head below the heart increases blood flow to the brain, calming the mind and combating fatigue.
The Mountain pose is the foundation of all the standing asanas. Though it doesn’t look like much on the outside, Tadasana is a dynamic pose. It helps draw attention to your posture and breath, bringing a variety of physical and mental benefits.
Do it in the evening to relax and let go off the passing day. Do it in the morning to invite stillness and peace into your scheduled tasks. Do Savasana anywhere and anytime you like. Because practicing awareness and learning to stay conscious here and now is the key to a healthy life.
Check out the list of poses to avoid during pregnancy here.
First Yoga Class: Short Yoga Routine For Beginners
I have used the most common yoga poses for absolute beginners from the section above to create a sweet and short flow that you can squeeze into your daily routine.
I often practice this sequence in the morning right after rolling off the bed and when I have absolutely no time for a longer practice. The poses in this flow help relieve stiffness after sleep, stretch the entire backside of the body, including hips, hamstrings, lower back, open the shoulders and boost energy before jumping to the daily tasks.
And the best thing is that you only need to know six postures! Sounds doable?
First Yoga Class: Do’s and Don’ts
– Inform your yoga instructor about any injuries, health conditions you have. When practicing on your own, take time to familiarize yourself with the contraindications for each pose you’re planning to practice.
– Listen to your body. Take a break and relax when you need it. There’s nothing wrong with skipping or modifying some postures. Learn to feel the difference between finding the edge of your abilities in order to grow and pushing yourself to dizziness or extreme discomfort and pain.
– As a beginner, do give more focus and effort to breath than alignment. Notice whether you can keep your breathing under control when you get into a full pose. Back out and modify the asana if you can’t.
– If you practice in the studio, arrive early to the class. Give yourself some time to change, stretch, and settle on your mat.
– Keep a water bottle nearby during the yoga practice, especially if you’re attending a hot yoga or vinyasa class. Take small sips during the session to prevent dehydration.
– Avoid eating and drinking large amounts of water right before the yoga practice. Try to eat no later than 1-2 hours before the class.
– Do not compare yourself to others. Bodies are different, and the way you feel can be different from class to class. Remember that pushing too hard can lead to injury.
– If you’re late, avoid making any noise not to disrupt the practice of others. Make sure you’re not violating the studio’s policy. If you do, consider skipping the session and instead practice on your own at home.