How To Start Your Yoga Practice, At Home Or At The Studio
Yoga studios, online yoga practice videos and yoga mobile apps have exploded in the last decade. More than two billion people around the world practice yoga, according to United Nations News. That includes one in three Americans who have tried yoga at least once.
But yoga is not familiar to everyone. Stepping onto a yoga mat for the first time can be daunting. Read on to learn how to get started and enjoy yoga’s health benefits!
Yoga as a physical and mental practice has a plethora of benefits. Through interventional studies and controlled trials, researchers have shown that yoga improves physical mobility, balance and flexibility, pain related to musculoskeletal conditions, sleep quality, subjective well-being, heart health, regulation of the sympathetic nervous, inflammation, stress levels, depression and anxiety. It is an ancient practice that combines movement (asanas or physical postures) with breathing (pranayama) and meditation (bringing full awareness to a single thing, such as breath). Especially when combined with breathing techniques and meditation, yoga can reduce blood pressure and protect against hypertension.
Many yoga practices are also designed to promote mindfulness, insight into our own reactivities and better regulation of our emotions. Yoga also helps us develop the ability to stay with sensations that we might otherwise avoid, by moving us into a place of less judgement toward ourselves and these sensations.
“People who do yoga are 20% more likely to have a positive image of their own physical and mental health, including a stronger sense of mental clarity, physical fitness, flexibility, and strength.” – Harvard Health Blog
What can I expect from a yoga class?
Any standard yoga sequence has an arc structure, based on the “arc of a class.” Most yoga classes begin with a warm-up to prepare the body for movement and to focus awareness on the breath. The middle of the class includes the highest energy of the practice. Sometimes it will include a “peak” pose, the most difficult pose of the class that the previous poses have opened the student up for. The end of class is a cool-down meant to ready the mind for complete relaxation and mindful awareness, or a mini yoga nap, in savasana aka “corpse pose.” While not every class is sequenced like this, a student can find remnants of this in any given postural-based class.
As yoga expands in reach and popularity, it is important to point out that traditional yoga practices are about much more than physical exercise. Many of the benefits of yoga come from its traditional emphasis on breath regulation, mindfulness, emotion regulation, non-judgemental monitoring of thoughts and sensations, and maintenance of postures through many cycles of breath. The latter can promote greater patience, resilience, awareness and focus. In other words, yoga is “a multimodal activity that improves aspects of fitness like strength, balance and flexibility, as well as mental wellbeing.”
The postural yoga mentioned in this blog post is based on the Western adaptations of yoga as a health and wellness practice. Yoga in its most authentic and ancient form is philosophically based, not physically based. While the purpose of this post is to highlight the physical and mental benefits of yoga practice, appreciating and respecting yogic philosophies and traditions is important.
Find what works for your body
“I can’t do yoga. I’m not flexible.” “I don’t like yoga. It’s too slow.”
Starting a new yoga practice, whether by joining your first class in a studio or following an online yoga instructor, can be daunting. It’s natural to find excuses – yoga is only for women, yoga is for people who are flexible, I don’t have a yoga mat, yoga isn’t for me. But yoga is truly for everyone.
You don’t have to have flexibility or prior experience to start a yoga practice. Yoga doesn’t even need to cost you anything. There are thousands of excellent and free yoga practices available online. I recommend Yoga with Adriene, Yoga with Kassandra, Yoga with Tim, Cat Meffan and Alo Yoga series on Youtube. You don’t really need anything to get started other than maybe a phone, computer or another device to watch these videos on. If you do start your yoga practice online, go slow, don’t push beyond pain and try practicing with a friend so that you don’t get hurt.
Many studios and online video series have strayed from using traditional yoga class names to describe their practices, in order to invite beginners. But often somewhere in the description of the class or practice, the traditional and most likely Sanskrit name of the practice will still be there. Examples include Hatha (force or sun & moon) yoga, Nidra (sleep) yoga and Vinyasa (to place in a special way) or breath-synchronized yoga.
Every yoga class involves breath, movement and mindfulness, usually in that order.
Pranayama, or breath work, is central in entering a meditative state whether in movement or stillness. Practicing breathwork at least once a day can increase the flow of oxygen to the blood.
The asanas, or poses, are intended to prepare the body physically and mentally for mindfulness. The asanas vary in complexity of position and rate per class depending on the class type. For example, yin, restorative and most hatha classes include basic stretching and minimal poses. Ashtanga, Bikram, power and Vinyasa classes function at a higher intensity with more poses and deeper stretches. The yoga postures usually come to mind at the mention of yoga, but the postures and breath only lead to physical benefits.
The true mental benefits many people experience with yoga is due to mindfulness practices, such as mindful awareness of the breath, with a gentle letting go of all else. Often referred to as meditation, mindfulness flows throughout your practice in breath and posture.
Tips before you start your first yoga practice
You’ve found your yoga class match. Great! Here are some things to think about before you show up for class or start your first online yoga practice…
You will absolutely need a yoga mat for any studio class. Most studios let you borrow or rent mats if you are not ready to invest yet. My favorite mat is the Manduka PROlite. At home, a rug, carpet or a towel may do just fine.
If you are practicing at home, having a designated area for your yoga practice helps to get you in the right mindset of practice. Try setting up a space, maybe with a standing mirror and a few indoor plants! Keeping a yoga mat laid out will also help remind you to practice.
Props like yoga blocks are helpful but not necessary. They can be used by the amateur and the advanced to assist or go deeper into stretches. Access to props, like straps and blocks, is one benefit of going to a studio.
Your attire will depend on the type of class you go to. For slower flows, you may opt for loose, comfortable clothing. For faster paced flows, tight-fit clothing works best for moving into poses such as downdog. Sweat-wicking clothing items are suggested for the warmer or hot classes.
Make sure to bring a water bottle to stay hydrated in the heated and high intensity classes. Try not to eat right before class.
Get started with your yoga journey today! Learn more about the different styles of yoga below. We’ve also included some links to online classes for each yoga style!
Nidra: Meditation-based class that prepares the mind for settling in the place between sleep and consciousness. This practice cultivates mindfulness.
Restorative: Restorative is a slow form of Hatha yoga. Each sequence is aimed toward realigning and restoring the body to maximize the experience of mindfulness. Gain more awareness of your body and breath and promote relaxation with relatively simple poses.
Yin: Stretch your body to the limit by releasing fascia in this form of yoga. Postures are held for 2-3 minutes in order to receive their full benefit.
Aerial Yoga: Learn how to fly while decompressing the spine and experiencing a new side of yourself. Each class is based on the traditional arc of a yoga class with the hammock used as a prop.
Hatha / Slow Flow: The key word here is balance, or the balance between sun and moon. This practice is based on student’s abilities to learn their “edge.” You might also find this form of yoga called “slow flow” yoga. Benefits of Hatha practice include improved flexibility and reduced stress reactivity.
Bhakti: This is known as the practice of devotion. The focus of this practice is on gratitude and understanding. Postures can be minimal to moderate in quantity based on the teacher. Similar practices may combine loving-kindness meditation with movement.
Bikram: A set series of 26 postures performed in a room that is set to 105 degrees. Expect to build strength with traditional poses, and stretch, with a focus on the breath. Be careful with this style of yoga, as well as hot power yoga, if you are pregnant, have a history of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, have a history of cardiovascular disease or diabetes. And don’t worry if you just aren’t into hot yoga – studies have shown that yoga has health benefits regardless of the temperature at which it is practiced.
Power yoga / Hot power: Sweat sweat sweat! Sometimes performed in a heated room, power yoga is geared toward the high-intensity, cardio-seeking yogis.
Vinyasa: Flow between postures to feel every muscle and every inch of your body. The arc is used in this practice to mirror the ups and downs of life and training the student to ease through it. Vinyasa flow yoga practices are great if you like to mix it up with your yoga poses – you can find all different sorts of Vinyasa practice variations online and in yoga studios, from practices that focus on standing balances to ones that move through headstands and hand balance poses.
Ashtanga: This practice is type-A’s best friend, with the same sequence of poses repeated in every class. The name is based on the eight-limb yogic philosophies of Patanjali’s yoga sutras. It builds strength and flexibility in a very structured yoga environment, with repeated sequences and a focus on the breath.
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