As you may already know, the practice of yoga has been around for a very long time. In fact, it's believed to have evolved over several thousand years, most likely originating in ancient Indian scriptures composed in Sanskrit during the Vedic or pre-Vedic period. According to scholar David Gordon White, around the third-century B.C.E., textual references to yoga began to proliferate in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain texts. By the eleventh century, Hatha yoga began to incorporate breath control techniques (pranayama) and body postures (asanas) in addition to meditation techniques similar to those used in Buddhism and Hinduism. According to White, yoga gurus, most notably Swami Vivekananda, were responsible for introducing the practice of yoga to the West during the late 19th century. Throughout the 20th century, various gurus, swamis and yogis have founded their own schools. Modern yoga, as it's primarily known in contemporary Western culture, is largely associated with Hatha yoga.
As reported by the American Osteopathic Association, there are many potential benefits to yoga, including increased flexibility and strength, improved cardiovascular health and increased energy. Because many forms of yoga incorporate forms of breath control similar to meditation, many people find yoga reduces stress and helps them relax. Also, unlike other popular workout activities like weight lifting and running, most forms of yoga put very little impact on the body. People of nearly all ages and fitness levels can take a beginner yoga class, although people with certain health conditions should always consult with their doctor first.
"In this fast-paced, constantly moving world, practicing yoga allows me time to stop and just be aware of where I am and how I feel. It's a time to be one with my body, and let go of all the distractions and worries of the outside world."
In his book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards, senior writer from the New York Times and long-time yoga practitioner William J. Broad tells us that the health benefits of yoga are significant. "For example," he explains, "recent studies indicate that yoga releases natural substances in the brain that act as strong antidepressants, suggesting great promise in the enhancement of personal health." According to Broad, a woman he once met actually told him that yoga saved her life by helping her cope with severe depression. Later in his book, however, the author goes on to explain that there are some risks involved and that it's important for beginners to be aware of them.
In addition to a myriad of possible benefits, William J. Broad explains that yoga has produced a fair number of injuries, including lower back, shoulder, knee and neck injuries. "To me," he explains, "the benefits unquestioningly outweigh the risks. Still, yoga makes sense only if done intelligently, so as to limit the degree of personal danger."
To put things in perspective, the risks of yoga vary widely depending on the physical condition of the practitioner, the knowledge of the yoga instructor, the type of poses being practiced, the frequency and intensity of practicing, and other factors. It’s also important to note that, unlike many sports, there is no governing body or universal set of rules for all of yoga. This means that different schools and individual instructors essentially have complete freedom to determine what poses and techniques should and shouldn’t be used.
According to Broad, the non-profit Yoga Alliance has determined that a person should have participated in a minimum of 200 hours of yoga training in order to be considered a qualified insructor. Of course, this is a pretty short period of time compared to the education and experience required to teach school children or to coach most sports teams. "Bikram is more demanding," explains Broad. "It trains its instructors for nine weeks. Compare that to Iyengar, [which] requires candidates for teacher training to have studied the style for a minimum of three years, and then trains them for a minimum of two years and administers two examinations to ensure the requisite progress."
If you're concerned about the risks associated with specific yoga poses, check out The Most Common Yoga Injuries and How to Avoid Them by the Greatist.
Yoga Tips for Beginners
- Don’t be afraid to talk with a potential yoga instructor about their qualifications. Find out if there is a convenient time to chat about your expectations and any concerns. If an instructor is evasive, ambiguous or simply won’t make time to chat with you, look for one who will. Yoga instructors are teachers, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to know a teacher’s credentials before you enroll in a class.
- Before your first class, get as much info as you can about it and the poses you’ll be performing. If it makes you feel more comfortable, spend a little time researching poses you’ll be performing. Generally, beginner classes feature the safest and least challenging poses, but it still doesn’t hurt to be prepared.
- If you have any health or safety concerns, discuss them with your yoga instructor before your first class. Of course, if you have any health issues, you should always talk with your doctor before enrolling in a yoga class.
- Warm up before each session with some basic stretching excerises. Warming up is one way to avoid potential injuries or strains. Many classes include a light warmup session. If not, you can always do your warmup at home before you leave for class.
- Never do anything you don’t feel comfortable with, and stop a pose if you ever feel pain or too much discomfort. Depending on your fitness level and flexibility, very light discomfort is possible with some poses, but yoga should never be painful. As you progress, beginner poses will become easier and more natural, eventually allowing you to move on to intermediate poses.
- If a certain pose was too challenging or uncomfortable, don’t be shy about asking your yoga instructor if you’re doing anything incorrectly or if there is a prop you can use to help achieve the pose without discomfort. It’s the yoga instructor’s job to help students learn new asanas safely and comfortably.
Unlike the casual duds you might wear out on a weekend, yoga clothing is designed to offer an ideal combination of lightweight breathability and stretch for mobility. Yoga apparel is also frequently made using natural materials, such as organic cotton and hemp, or performance fabrics.
Yoga Pants and Shorts
In the studio or at home, it’s important to choose a pair of shorts, tights or stretchy yoga pants that will allow you to move freely in between different poses. As an alternative, yoga capris are a good compromise between shorts and pants for a mix of comfort and coverage. For most yoga practitioners, the intensity and/or difficulty level will determine the best apparel for the job. In other words, anyone practicing Ashtanga, Bikram or power yoga will likely be most comfortable in shorts. For less-intense workouts, yoga tights, pants or capris are a fine choice.
Just like the bottoms you choose, it’s a good idea to select a yoga top that will keep you comfortable and moving freely. For most men and women, a short-sleeved T-shirt, sleeveless yoga top, tank top or camisole is ideal. For rigorous yoga workouts like power yoga, some women may prefer a top that offers built-in support, eliminating the need to wear a sports bra underneath. Of course, some women may prefer to wear only a sports bra as a top, especially for Bikram (hot yoga).
Not surprisingly, most yoga studios don’t allow shoes, sandals and other footwear to be worn during class. Practicing asanas barefoot allows for the best possible connection between your body and the ground for maximum stability. However, some brands do make yoga socks that offer traction pads on the bottom. Toe socks with non-slip features are a popular example. If you find that your feet get too cold or you have a foot condition that requires coverage, consider investing in a pair of yoga socks.
Aside from comfortable clothing, the only other piece of equipment all yoga practitioners should own is a yoga mat. Typically, most studios and classes require you to bring your own, and let’s be honest: Practicing yoga can get sweaty. You’ll certainly feel more comfortable knowing that you’ve been the only one using your mat! Most yoga mats are made of PVC or closed-cell foam that provides a non-slip surface to perform poses on. Mats also provide a small amount of padding between you and the hard floor.
Yoga mat thickness can range from about 2mm to 12mm or more. Thinner mats provide less cushioning, but offer more stability. A thicker mat will give your body more cushioning, but can also make it a little more difficult to feel a solid connection between your body and the ground. In other words, some people find that thicker mats feel too spongy and make it harder to maintain firm footing. You should also keep in mind the type of yoga you’ll be performing when choosing yoga mat thickness. For many beginners, an average thickness of 3-6mm is usually a good starting point.
Finally, weight is also a factor, especially if you’ll be carrying your mat with you across town on your bike or on a subway. Obviously, a thicker mat will be much heavier and bulkier compared to a thinner mat. In the end, though, comfort is the most important factor for many people. If you find sitting or kneeling on the floor particularly uncomfortable, consider choosing a mat of at least 6mm or thicker.
Yoga Blocks and Props
To help students learn more challenging poses without too much strain, a yoga prop may be used. Examples of props include yoga blocks, bolsters, cushions and straps. Although some schools of yoga discourage the use of props, schools like Iyengar yoga actually encourage or require them for certain poses. That being said, it’s also unlikely that any yoga instructor would object to a student using a prop in class. Yoga blocks are usually made of stiff foam wrapped in a soft material. Bolsters and cushions are essentially semi-firm pillows used to relieve pressure. They may be tube-shaped or rectangular, and vary in size. Yoga straps are usually made of wide webbing with metal D-rings or a plastic buckle, allowing them to be adjusted for different poses. Talk to your yoga instructor before starting a new class to find out if you’ll need any yoga props or if props are provided.
Sweating is a natural part of any yoga class, although some classes will cause more sweating than others. For this reason, most practitioners consider a yoga towel to be absolutely essential, especially for Bikram and power yoga.
Bags and Totes
Finally, having a bag to store and transport your yoga gear can really come in handy. Yoga bags and totes vary in size, depending on how many accessories you’ll be carrying. Just remember to include enough room to carry a water bottle, phone and any other personal items. For carrying your mat and storing it, a yoga mat sling is another handy item. Alternatively, you can make your own simple sling with a length of rope or satin ribbon.
Asanas are a vareity of yoga poses or positions, ranging from basic to advanced. Various schools of yoga incorporate different asanas, although some yoga poses are used by more than one school. Downward Dog is an example of a popular yoga asana.
Mantra is a word, phrase or sound that is repeated or chanted to help maintain focus during an asana or meditation. Some schools of yoga incorporate mantras in addition to breathing techniques.
Prana is a Sanskrit word for life energy or lifeforce.
Pranayama is a form of breath control or the various breathing techniques used in several schools of yoga. Pranayama and asana can be practiced simultaneously or separately.
Yogi and Yogini are sometimes used to denote male and female yoga practitioners, respectively. However, depending on the region or context, yogi may also be a special designation reserved only for a master yoga practitioner, spiritual leader or guru.
This school of yoga, according to Ananda Yoga Portland, is a variation of Hatha created by Swami Kriyananda. The goal of Ananda is to help individuals transcend the limitations of the physical body as mind, spirit and body are brought into greater harmony. In addition to practicing multiple asanas (poses), Ananda yoga utilizes mental affirmations, similar to mantras, to enhance awareness and create longer-lasting positive effects on wellbeing. Pranayama (breath control) is also incorporated. Ananda is generally not as physically rigorous as some other forms of yoga, making it a good choice for most beginners.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
Described in detail by the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, this form of yoga was originally taught by Vamana Rishi and later passed down to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who popularized the form. Combining both pranayama and asanas, Ashtanga yoga is intended to help cleanse the body. In a class, vinyasas are performed by combining sequences of poses, movements and breathing techniques. Participants will usually move from one vinyasa directly into another without resting. Because this school is more physically rigorous and faster-paced, Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga classes are best suited for people with some yoga experience or who already have a moderate to high fitness level.
Created by Bikram Choudhury, the school of Bikram yoga is a moderately rigorous variation of Hatha yoga that consists of 26 specific postures performed in sequence. Born in Calcutta, Choudhury won the National India Yoga Championship at the age of thirteen, a title he would defend for three more years. As a young man, Choudhury immigrated to the United States to open his own studio and has since become one of the most widely known modern yogis in North America. Bikram yoga studios maintain a temperature of 105°F, leading many people to refer to Bikram as “hot yoga.” According to Choudhury, a hot environment helps participants achieve poses more optimally, as heat helps enhance flexibility. Bikram yoga is ideal for people who want to burn calories, increase stamina and gain flexibility. Be sure to bring a large water bottle and a towel!
As one of the oldest forms of Indian yoga, Hatha generally refers to the practice of asanas in a variety of sequences. According to Yoga Journal, the primary goal of Hatha yoga is to create a path toward balance (outer and inner) by developing strength and flexibility. Hatha yoga usually incorporates breathing techniques in order to calm the mind and maintain focus. Unlike more rigorous yoga schools like Ashtanga and Bikram, a traditional Hatha class tends to be slower paced and less physically demanding, making it a good choice for most beginners.
Iyengar yoga is a variation of Hatha established by Yogacharya B.K.S.Iyengar (also known as Guruji) in the mid-1970s. Iyengar yoga utilizes more than 30 different poses, including standing, sitting, bending, twisting, inverted and supine poses. Unlike some other variations of yoga, practitioners of this school are encouraged to use pads and props to optimally and safely achieve certain asanas. According to the official website, Iyengar yoga also incorporates eight specific principles:
- Yama: Universal disciplines
- Niyama: Personal disciplines
- Asanas: Poses
- Pranayama: Breathing
- Pratyahara: Internalization of the senses
- Dharana: Concentration
- Dhyana: Meditation
- Samadhi: Self-realization or personal tranquility
Known for incorporating a variety of poses, breathing techniques, meditation and mantras, Kundalini yoga was brought to North America in the late 1960s by Yogi Bhajan (born Harbhajan Singh Puri). As described by the Kundalini Research Institute, this variety of Raj Yoga encompasses the eight limbs of traditional Indian yoga and is practiced with the primary goal of awakening the full potential of individual awareness. A typical Kundalini yoga class will last from one hour to 90 minutes and consists of six parts. First, participants “tune-in” with a mantra, followed by a breathing exercise or warmup. Next, the class will perform a selection of kriyas, which are a set of poses performed in sequence. The complexity and challenge of each kriya is usually customized to accommodate the ability level of the students. After 30-45 minutes of kriya, students participate in a relaxation exercise followed by a period of guided meditation. Finally, a yoga session will typically close with a short blessing.
Designed for people seeking a full-body workout and calorie burn, power yoga is a modern variation of yoga similar to Ashtanga. Most power yoga classes are divided into beginner, intermediate and advanced classes. Although beginner classes are intended for people who have little or no yoga experience, a typical power yoga class is still geared toward individuals with a moderate level of physical fitness.
Developed specifically for expecting moms, prenatal yoga is a low-impact variation intended to help women exercise safely during all stages of pregnancy. According to the Mayo Clinic, practicing prenatal yoga can help pregnant women reduce stress, maintain strength and flexibility, sleep better and possibly even reduce the risk of early labor. Of course, as with any type of physical exercise, it’s very important to talk with your doctor or midwife before enrolling in a yoga class.
Unlike more rigorous forms like Ashtanga, Bikram and power yoga, the practice of restorative yoga is geared specifically toward eliminating stress. The slower pace and gentle flow of restorative yoga is designed to help calm the mind and relax the body. Poses are intended to loosen tensed muscles, promote blood flow and gently improve flexibility. Props like yoga blocks, pads and straps are often used to help achieve certain poses more comfortably. The atmosphere inside a restorative yoga class is frequently customized to create a gentle, relaxing ambiance, such as dimming the lights and providing ambient music.
Inspired by his tutelage under Swami Sivananda during the 1940s and 50s, a young man named Swamiji (Swami Vishnudevananda) would eventually go on to create the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres, which now includes more than fifty yoga centers and ashrams (monasteries) throughout the world. The primary mission of these centers is to spread peace, health and joy through the practice of yoga. The first Sivananda yoga center in North America was established by Swami Vishnudevananda in Montreal in the late 1950s. People with an interest in learning traditional yoga techniques and spirituality with a focus on health and wellbeing may find Sivananda yoga to be a good fit. This variation of yoga can be characterized by five points:
- Poses and exercise (asanas)
- Breathing techniques (pranayama)
- Relaxation (savasana)
- Positive thinking and mediation (dhyana and vedanta)
- A healthy diet
According to the American Viniyoga Institute, the comprehensive school of Viniyoga focuses on eight primary elements: poses (asanas), breathing (pranayama), bandha (body locks), sound, chanting, meditation, personal ritual and the study of texts. Unlike some schools that use a prescribed set of poses, Viniyoga is intended to be a personalized form of yoga that can be adapted to fit the needs of different individuals or groups with the help of a yoga teacher. Different pose combinations, sequences, bandhas and intensity levels can be used in order to create an optimal experience. For this reason, Viniyoga is sometimes considered to be a form of yoga therapy or restorative yoga.