The Beginner's Guide to YogaBy Brittany Risher
Are you looking for a total body workout that is low-impact and requires minimal equipment? We’ve got good news: Yoga checks all the boxes. And don’t worry, yoga isn’t just for ultra-flexible people: This versatile workout can be enjoyed by people of all ages and experience levels, and it can be adjusted to accommodate health concerns and injuries. Maybe that’s why more than 36 million people choose to participate in some form of this ancient practice.1
In addition to being a relaxing activity and a great form of exercise, yoga may also provide a plethora of health benefits. Studies indicate that incorporating yoga into your lifestyle may help reduce anxiety, stress2 and low back pain,3 and may even support your cognitive health.4
Not sure how to get started? Here’s what you need to know before your first yoga class!
6 quick tips for a great yoga class:
- Before booking a class: Call the yoga studio to find out which class is best for you.
- Ask if you'll need any props: The yoga studio should provide any items you may need, such as a block or strap, to help support you and make poses more accessible. Still, it’s a good idea to check ahead of time.
- Show up early: Introduce yourself to the instructor and let him or her know you are new.
- Get in the zone: Avoid distractions and leave your phone in your bag or locker. Take this time for yourself!
- Avoid eating right before class: To avoid discomfort when trying different poses, refrain from eating two to three hours before class.
- Try child’s pose: If you feel tired during class or find a pose doesn't work for you, you can always go into child's pose. We’ll explain what that is below.
Which yoga class should I take?
There are many styles of yoga, and each one can target different areas of your body, emphasize certain movements or encourage a specific mindset. When you're first starting the practice, look for classes labeled as beginner or level 1. These classes move more slowly and your instructor will explain each pose to help you safely transition into them.
These three types of yoga are great for beginners:
Hatha yoga: All physical types of yoga fall under the hatha umbrella.5 This type of yoga is more stationary and moves at a slower pace than others. You’ll focus on holding different poses and taking several breaths while maintaining each pose.
Vinyasa yoga: Unlike with hatha yoga, which involves holding poses for long periods, you’ll “flow,” or move, from pose to pose throughout the class while focusing on your breathing. Vinyasa yoga will help you work on your strength and flexibility.6
Iyengar yoga: This form of yoga is slower and more methodical, and encourages you to maintain different poses. It often incorporates props (such as blocks, a chair or cushions) to help you ease into, and hold, your poses.6 Beginners will learn how to correctly align themselves for each posture.7
What should I wear to a yoga class?
There's no need to go out and buy a new wardrobe to practice yoga (unless you want to, of course!). The key is to wear comfortable clothes to class — you're going to be moving around quite a bit, so choose items that allow you to move freely but won’t get in your way. Tank tops, t-shirts, shorts and leggings are all great options. You’ll be barefoot during your class, so stash your shoes and socks in your bag or locker.
What do I bring?
Ask the studio or gym if they provide mats; many offer them for free or require a small fee. If you prefer to use your own, look for a non-slip mat that’s easy to clean. Consider bringing a small towel and an insulated water bottle, especially if you’re taking a hot yoga class or are exercising outdoors.
Most classes begin with slower, more basic poses to help you connect with your body and let go of distractions. Then, you'll go through a series of sun salutations, which are specific sequences of poses that flow from one to the next and help warm up your body. After more standing poses, you'll come to the floor for seated and prone poses before ending in savasana, or corpse pose, where you lie on your back.
After the class begins, most teachers will let you know if they provide hands-on adjustments. This means they will help you find the best alignment for a pose by gently using their hands to guide your body. If you do not wish to be touched, your instructor will let you know how to decline correction.
Some classes include a short meditation, talk or chanting before or after class. Chanting isn’t mandatory, but it can help participants find a deeper connection to their practice. The instructor may use Sanskrit words, rather than English ones, to name poses or lead chants.
Why is it important to focus on your breath during a yoga class?
Ujjayi breath, which is also known as victorious breath, is encouraged in most yoga classes, as these slow, controlled breaths are meant to help relax your body and mind. Here’s how to do it: Slowly inhale through your nose to fill your lungs with air while slightly contracting your throat. Slowly exhale through your nose while keeping your throat slightly constricted.7 For a more fluid experience, try to match your inhales and exhales with your movements, as your teacher directs. For help with Ujjayi breathing, arrive early to talk to the instructor, or ask for help afterward.
What if I'm not flexible?
You don’t need to be flexible to take a yoga class! To avoid injury, however, always listen to your body to find a comfortable position and avoid pushing yourself deeper into a pose. Simplicity is key: Don’t worry about trying complicated movements when you’re starting out.
Many yoga poses can be modified to fit your flexibility and experience level — be sure to ask your instructor for help so you can find the position that works best for you. And know that with practice, the poses will become easier!
These basic yoga poses are good for beginners and are used in many classes:
Downward dog: Lower yourself onto your hands and knees on the mat, placing your hands and wrists under your shoulders. Position your knees under your hips. Slowly lift your hips and knees as you press your heels back toward the ground. Keep your knees bent slightly and press down through your palms. Tighten your abdominal muscles and draw them in toward your spine. If this feels like a difficult position to hold, gently lift your heels, one foot at a time, to shift your weight back and forth. In time, you may be able to hold this pose with your legs straightened.8
Warrior 1: This pose allows you to work on your strength and endurance while stretching your hips and thighs. Standing in an upright position, take a big step backward with your left foot and turn your toes to the left at a 75-degree angle. Keep your right toes pointed forward and align your right heal with the arch of your back foot. Lift your chest, then lift your arms above your head and press your palms together. Let your back bend slightly backward. Hold this pose for a few breaths before stepping forward and switching to the opposite leg.8
Warrior 2: Beginning in a standing position, step forward with your right leg and point your toes out 90 degrees. Gently bend your right knee so it’s positioned over your ankle. Turn your left foot inward at a 45-degree angle. Keep your back straight and your torso even between your hips. Stretch your arms out on either side and look out over your right hand. Hold for a few breaths before switching to the left side.8
Child’s pose: This relaxing pose allows you to stretch and rest after more challenging movements. Get onto your hands and knees and bring your knees and feet together. Sit back on your heels and stretch your arms in front of you. Slowly move your forehead down to your yoga mat or the floor and relax your body. Breathe, holding this pose to loosen your muscles and rest.8
As with any new activity, some yoga poses may feel a bit awkward, but they should never hurt. And remember: As you progress in your yoga practice, these movements will begin to feel more natural. Don’t want to attend a class alone? Invite a friend and try it together!
Ready to get started? Check out this handy guide for starting a new workout class!
Brittany is a writer, editor and digital strategist specializing in health and lifestyle content. Her clients include Men's Health, Women's Health, SELF and Yoga Journal. Brittany earned her master's and bachelor's degrees from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. To stay sane from working too hard, she turns to yoga, strength training and meditation.
Favorite healthy snack: smoothies
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