With origins hailing from India, yoga has become a mainstay in Western culture, with roughly 80 million people practicing yoga in the United States alone. Due to its accessibility, approachability and modifiability, it’s easy to see why it continues to attract first-timers.
Yoga comes in many forms. The variety of styles and the minimalist requirements for practicing yoga make it perfect for beginners. Combining breath, meditation and movement with physical postures, yoga offers an opportunity for physical and emotional healing and growth. And with so many proven health benefits, it truly is good for just about everyone.
Not sure where to begin? This article will guide you through the basics.
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What Is Yoga?
Yoga is “a system of physical postures, breathing techniques and sometimes meditation” often practiced in Western cultures to promote physical and emotional well-being, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. A goal of modern yoga is to achieve ease and relaxation, says Juan Gamboa, a registered yoga teacher and mindful movement instructor at THE WELL New York.
While the exact origins of yoga are unknown, it’s thought to have been first introduced by Shiva, believed to be the first yoga guru, at the “dawn of civilization ” in the 3rd century B.C.E. It was later brought to the West by yoga gurus from India in the late 19th century, and its mind-body benefits quickly caught on.
Yoga is a journey of self-discovery, says Lindsay Grobman, a doctor of physical therapy, registered yoga teacher and holistic health coach. “The yoga practice helps us to increase our awareness of ourselves and everything around us.” She attributes much of yoga’s popularity to an increased interest in self-care and wellness.
Types of Yoga
Due to the variety of styles and modifications of yoga, there truly is a yoga practice for everyone. However, it’s okay to not know which style is right for you. When you’re starting out, you may want to try a few different classes to get a sense for the best fit.
Here are some good places to start:
Hatha is one of the foundational forms of yoga and considered the most basic version by many teachers. It’s beginner-friendly because it’s the most general type of yoga, according to Lisa Blum, a doctor of physical therapy, certified yoga teacher and physical therapist at Shift Wellness in New York City. “Hatha yoga will give the new yoga student a good understanding of the basics of yoga,” she says. Those basics include pranayama (breathing), meditation and asana (yoga poses).
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. “Hatha joins the vigor and relaxation of the practice,” says Gamboa. “This harmonious balance offers a playful edge for a new student.”
Iyengar yoga, named after its creator B. K. S. Iyengar, includes clear demonstrations of each pose, allowing for props to support the body more comfortably when needed.
Gamboa describes Iyengar as slower and more form-based than other types of yoga. “It builds enough heat so the body feels worked and the mind can anchor itself to the breath,” he says. “This is valuable for the beginner student. “
If sitting still in a pose isn’t your thing, consider giving Ashtanga a try. Ashtanga yoga follows a sequence of poses connected by smooth transitions. The sequence is always the same, and practicing the sequence enables you to master the transitions gradually, allowing your body to develop strength and mobility as you learn to control your breath and mind.
Gamboa describes Ashtanga as more vigorous than Iyengar or Hatha. “It can build a good amount of heat and hone the mind,” he says. “It is an excellent way to have a disciplined and energizing practice.”
Like Ashtanga, Vinyasa keeps you moving, or flowing—it means “place in a special way,” according to Grobman. It incorporates a sequence of poses, emphasizing fluidity of movement and breath with the goal of “internal cleansing.” This continuous flow of movement from one pose to another helps calm the body and mind even though you’re moving. It can also be energizing. Modifications of poses allows for an all-levels-welcome practice that can be as challenging as you want it to be.
Health Benefits of Yoga
The National Institute of Health considers yoga a form of holistic and alternative medicine due to its many proven health benefits. But keep in mind it will take more than one session to reap the rewards.
Here are just a few of the many health benefits of yoga:
Stress is one of the leading drivers of chronic illness and disease. Unfortunately, it’s also inescapable. Yoga reduces stress by decreasing the secretion of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. One study demonstrated that 24 women who perceived themselves as emotionally distressed had significantly lower levels of cortisol after a three-month yoga program. They also exhibited lower levels of anxiety, fatigue and depression.
Improves Overall Fitness
Studies link yoga to improved strength, mobility, cardiovascular health and overall fitness for people who practice twice a week (or for at least 180 minutes) over the course of eight weeks.
Inflammation can cause chronic pain and plenty of other health conditions. A 2015 study divided 218 participants into two groups: those who practiced yoga and those who didn’t. Both groups performed moderate to strenuous exercises to induce stress. The ones who practiced yoga had lower levels of inflammatory markers than those who didn’t.
Another study found that a three-month yoga and meditation retreat reduced inflammatory markers and positively altered psychological functioning, leading to “enhanced stress resilience and well-being.”
Enhances Overall Quality of Life
When you combine improved overall fitness with reduced stress and anxiety, you end up with better overall quality of life, making yoga good for your mind and body.
According to a 2011 study in the International Journal of Yoga, yoga can encourage one to relax and promote activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. This means that, in effect, yoga “slows the breathing and heart rate, decreases blood pressure, lowers cortisol levels and increases blood flow to the intestines and vital organs.” It may even boost self-confidence, improve one’s ability to focus and create a more optimistic outlook on life.
How to Practice Yoga
In order to begin a yoga practice, you’re going to need a few basics, such as:
- A yoga mat
- Props for modifications and comfort (these may include a blanket, two yoga blocks, pillows and a yoga strap)
- A quiet space that allows for free movement and relaxation
- Clothes that allow you to move comfortably
Experts agree that having the right teacher is one of the best investments for a yoga beginner. Gamboa recommends finding a teacher who encourages you to grow and explore your practice while motivating you and others.
When starting out, Grobman reminds beginners you don’t have to be perfect or committed to long sessions to practice yoga. “Yoga is for everyone,” she says. “Start where you are. Find a good teacher who you connect with and commit. Get on your mat everyday, even if it’s just for savasana (also known as corpse pose) or to sit and breathe.”
While a single session of yoga can be beneficial, Grobnman encourages consistent engagement. “Yoga is a lifelong practice,” she adds. “It’s also a very individual practice; you can go at your own pace without judgment.” What you spend, where you choose to practice and whether you do it alone or in a group is also entirely up to you.
Where to Practice Yoga
Thanks to the increasing popularity of virtual classes, you can begin your yoga practice anywhere. Whether you choose to do it in your own home, in your community yoga center, in a boutique studio or with a private instructor, make sure you’re comfortable and receive proper guidance on the positioning and modification options for each pose.
Risks of Yoga
Grobman emphasizes that your practice can always be modified if you have a specific medical condition. Though, it’s suggested that pregnant women not practice poses on their stomachs or perform deep twists. Anyone with a history of musculoskeletal, neurological or cardiovascular issues should also be cleared by their doctor prior to beginning their practice.
How Much Does Yoga Cost?
The price of yoga can vary greatly. There are many free resources available, but as a beginner, it’s best to invest in a skilled and knowledgeable instructor. The cost of private classes can range greatly based on the instructor, but small group classes—such as the $35 Empower Yoga class taught by Gamboa at THE WELL New York—usually cost around $20 to $40 an hour.
Pricier classes tend to be those that involve a heated room (such as Bikram yoga), which occasionally comes with towels and sometimes even chilled, perfumed towels, or any type of yoga that involves additional props and other equipment (aerial yoga, for example).
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Yoga Poses for Beginners
Ready to give yoga a try? Here are five yoga poses that can form a great foundation for a beginner yoga practice:
1. Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Why it’s good for beginners: Mountain pose forms the basis for all standing poses. It grounds your feet into the mat. While activating your feet and legs and connecting with the earth underneath you, it draws your attention to lengthening the spine and opening the shoulders, helping improve your posture.
How to do it: Stand on your mat with your feet hip-width apart. Allow your feet to feel grounded in the mat as you lengthen your spine and stand tall with arms by your sides.
2 . Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Shvanasana)
Why it’s good for beginners: This pose strengthens and stretches multiple muscles. It strengthens the arms, releases tension in the neck and low back, and stretches and lengthens the hamstrings and calves. Learning how to do a proper downward dog is important, as you will find this pose in most yoga classes.
How to do it: Begin on your hands and knees with your hands shoulder-width apart and fingers spread and your toes tucked under. Press your hands into the mat, inhale and lift your hips into the air, reaching your sit bones up and back toward the ceiling while lengthening your arms, pushing the floor away through your shoulders and sinking your heels towards the ground.
3. Child’s Pose (Balasana)
Why it’s good for beginners: Child’s pose is a great resting pose for all levels. It’s a great position for resting, breathing and feeling grounded on the floor. It’s also a great way to help release your hips and lower back, as well as reduce anxiety.
How to do it: Sit on your shins with your hips resting on your feet. Fold forward, rounding your lower back and reaching your hands in front of you so your arms are outstretched forward, resting on the ground. Release your head so it rests on the ground or a blanket or pillow as you breathe gently into a deeper stretch.
4. Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Why it’s good for beginners: Corpse pose involves lying on your back in stillness. For many, it’s one of the hardest poses. While it’s challenging for some to be still and relax, it’s one of the most important things to be able to do in yoga.
How to do it: Lie on the floor with your arms straight by your sides, your palms facing up and your eyes shut. Position your feet about hip-width apart and lengthen your spine from neck to tailbone, stretching your legs away from you as you let your head and body sink into the earth. Soften the muscles in your face, release your jaw and tongue, and allow your eyes to close or your gaze to soften. Inhale, then melt into the ground as you exhale. Relax. Allow the earth to hold you there.
5. Cobra (Bhujangasana)
Why it’s good for beginners: This pose stretches your shoulders, abdomen and chest while improving spinal mobility and strength. It can feel quite invigorating. It’s also a precursor to more advanced poses, such as backbends and bow pose. This is a great pose to reverse forward, rounded shoulder postures.
How to do it: Begin on your stomach. Place your palms on the floor. Press up to your hands, rolling your shoulder blades down and back, extending through your back while lengthening your neck. Lift your chest and turn your gaze upward while resting your weight on the tops of your feet.
Yoga: Its origin, history and development. Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. Accessed 05/10/2021.
What is Iyengar yoga? Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States. Accessed May 05/10/2021.
Ashtanga yoga background. Ashtanga Yoga. Accessed 05/10/2021.
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