Yoga for Beginners - A Complete Guide for Newbies

The ancient practice of yoga is not just another fitness craze — this 5,000-year-old (or older) practice is here to stay, and for good reason.

Over 36 million Americans (1) are investing in this mind-body practice and reaping the widely known health benefits, including decreased stress and anxiety, reduced chronic neck and back pain, improved balance and brain function, and increased flexibility, among others.

Yoga for Beginners

Why Practice Yoga?

Yoga is an all-encompassing mind and body practice, combining physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation.

Contrary to the common belief that yoga is solely a practice to gain flexibility, research has demonstrated monumental emotional and mental benefits (2) associated with the practice of yoga.

With such a strong emphasis on breath, yoga practitioners will experience reduced stress and anxiety, better quality sleep, a heightened awareness of the body, and improved concentration, among many other benefits.

Both controlled and uncontrolled studies evaluating the effects of yoga concluded an improvement in mood (3) among the elderly and people with mental disorders like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression.

If better sleep and improved mood aren’t reasons compelling enough to get you on your mat, then consider the positive impacts of awareness and mindfulness.

With so much of the practice bringing attention to the breath, practitioners develop a strong sense of inner awareness and become innately connected to their bodies.

In fact, one study found that people practicing yoga demonstrated higher levels of satisfaction with their bodies, which supports the idea that yoga promotes positive body image (4) and increased confidence.

Further, the mindfulness component is greatly impactful and transferable in all areas of the practitioner’s life — including eating.

People who practice yoga are often mindful eater (5) — they have an acute awareness of the physical and emotional sensations triggered by food, and they tend to not overeat or make poor food choices when compared to non-practitioners.

With so many studios and variations of yoga, it can be overwhelming trying to determine which style suits you best.

I would highly suggest taking the time to explore each individual style, and you should consider trying different instructors if your first experience isn’t meeting your expectations.

Much of the practice is contingent upon the instructor’s teaching style, so that could be the difference between the most amazing and worst practice of your life.

Types of Yoga

For the beginner looking to find the right fit, below is a breakdown of the different styles and a description of what you can expect from each.

Hatha Yoga

Hatha is the practice of uniting physical yoga postures and breath (6), calming the body and mind.

It encompasses the following styles:

Ashtanga (“eight-limbed yoga”)

What is it: This is a rigorous and physically challenging style of yoga that begins with chanting and follows the same sequence of poses each time.

You can expect to be in a heated room of 80 to 90 degrees, moving quickly and sweating profusely.

Movement and breath are synchronized, and the intention is to build an internal fire, so have a towel and water bottle nearby!

Skill level: All levels.

Ideal for: People interested in building strength and endurance, being physically challenged, and being a part of a community.

Power Vinyasa

What is it: Vinyasa, one of the most popular styles of yoga, is a fast-paced, sequence-oriented style that synchronizes breath with movement.

The word “Vinyasa” specifically refers to the three poses — high plank, low plank, and upward dog — that are used to create flow, serving as a link from one pose to the next.

There is attention to form and alignment, and depending on the instructor, you may experience a vigorous, high-intensity practice.

Skill level: All levels.

Ideal for: People who enjoy movement, freedom of expression, and unpredictability.

Iyengar

What is it: Under the umbrella of Hatha yoga, Iyengar (7) encourages the use of props, like blocks, straps, and bolsters, to attain proper alignment in every pose.

Instructors are generally trained in biomechanics and pay attention to detail, emphasizing modifications to help avoid or alleviate pain due to injury.

This style of yoga differs from Vinyasa and Ashtanga in that it does not get the heart rate high and is often prescribed for people recovering from neck or back problems (8).

Skill level: All levels.

Ideal for: People who are looking for a slower-paced practice or are recovering from injuries and/or chronic conditions.

Bikram Yoga

What is it: The original hot yoga (9), this style involves a series of 26 poses that are done repetitively in 100-degree (or hotter) temperatures.

All classes consist of the same 90-minute sequence, making it easy for the traveling yogi to pop into any Bikram studio and know exactly what they can expect.

Despite the popularity of this yoga style, it’s not for everyone, especially for older adults who might not have the ability to thermoregulate as easily.

Skill level: All levels, but ideal for beginners because the sequence never changes

Ideal for: People who like heat, humidity, and no surprises.

Kundalini Yoga

What is it: Translated from Sanskrit as “coiled snake,” Kundalini yoga is often referred to as “yoga of awareness.”

Classes are 60–90 minutes, honing in on the breath, as well as activation and movement of energy centers and alignment of the chakras.

This style requires a lesser degree of physical exertion but does include chanting, meditating, and holding postures.

Skill level: All levels.

Ideal for: People who are looking for a deeper practice and spiritual connection without a physically challenging practice.

Restorative Yoga

What is it: Like the word suggests, Restorative yoga is a style that promotes restoration.

Unlike the other types of yoga, this form focuses on physical, mental, and emotional relaxation through a series of five to six poses with the use of props.

This is a great all-levels style that works especially well when paired with meditation (10) as you’re winding down for the evening.
Skill level: All levels.

Ideal for: People looking for a healing practice, as well as those recovering from illness, injury, depression, anxiety, or insomnia.

Kripalu

What is it: Kripalu is a three-part practice that focuses on meditation, breathwork, and spiritual awareness.

It begins with exploring how your body responds to different poses, moves through holding those poses for an extended period of time, and ends with meditation.

Skill Level: All levels.

Ideal for: People looking to transform their lives.

Yin Yoga

What is it: This is a slow-paced, passive practice of yoga that targets the deep connective tissues and fascia.

This Daoist style involves a variation of seated and supine postures that are held for three to five minutes with the intention of regulating the body’s flow of energy.

Skill Level: All levels.

Ideal for: People recovering from addictions, trauma, anxiety, or eating disorders.

Acro Yoga

What is it: A combination of yoga, Thai massage, and partner acrobatics, this style of yoga is known as the “yoga of trust.”

Skill Level: All levels.

Ideal for: People wanting to practice the art of trust and become a part of a community.

Which Yoga Style Is Best for You?

With so many variations and hybrids of yoga, how do you choose the practice that will best serve your needs?

Here are some important factors to take into consideration as you start looking.

First, identify why you want to practice.

Are you looking for an intense physical practice or are you recovering from an injury and need something restorative?

Knowing your “why” will help you narrow your options down to specific styles that will match your needs.

There are classes that will have a slower flow with longer holds as opposed to classes that will move you more quickly and offer more intensity.

Some studios will have one or the other, while others will have a combination of styles depending on the instructor.

In addition to identifying your “why”, you should be mindful of what you’re hoping to gain — whether it be flexibility, a spiritual experience, or stress reduction.

Second, recognize what your preferences are — are you looking to become a part of a community or do you want something more personalized and catered specifically to meet your individual goals?

I would highly suggest trying different studios and teachers and journaling your experience — physical, mental, and emotional.

good yoga class will help create a safe and supportive environment where the instructor will respect your limitations while helping you discover your edge and safely pushing you beyond your comfort zone.

There is also a huge emotional component that should not be overlooked.

It’s common to turn to yoga when you’re experiencing challenging life events as a means to gain clarity and become grounded.

Finding an authentic instructor who inspires you, empowers you, and leaves you in your greatness is of utmost importance.

More often than not, students return based on the connection they feel with the instructor.

How to Practice Yoga Safely

When you’re a beginner, yoga can be an intimidating practice.

Some classes move quickly and have more poses than one can count, while others are slower yet more advanced, focusing on aligning breath and movement.

Rather than getting overwhelmed and discouraged, follow these tips to develop a safe and effective practice:

Begin with intro and beginner classes. You have to learn to crawl before you can learn to walk, so ease yourself into classes that will break down each pose and teach you proper alignment and form. Creating a strong foundation is key to any powerful practice.

Become acutely aware of your body in each pose. Awareness is one of the most important elements in any yoga practice, as it not only makes you present but also helps you listen to and honor your body to maintain a safe practice. Listening to your body allows you to respond appropriately. If a pose is causing you a sharp, shooting pain, it’s a good indication that you should back off and consider taking a modification.

Remember that “comparison is the thief of joy.” Don’t worry about the fancy transition your yogi neighbor can do, and keep your focus on your own practice. It’s common to get distracted by what other students are doing when in all reality, it’s none of your business. Yoga is about tuning in with yourself — mind and body. Concerning yourself with what others are doing takes you out of your own practice and may result in more anxiety and less zen.

Don’t be afraid of discomfort. In yoga, we are all about finding our edge — the sweet spot in every pose that physically and mentally challenges us. As cliché as it sounds, growth happens outside of our comfort zone, and embracing that mentality will allow you to break down the mental barriers that you have created for yourself. Be prepared to dig deep and surprise yourself with what you are truly capable of doing. As you work on finding your edge, be careful not to confuse sensation with pain that could result in injury.

Find the right instructor. This could make or break your beginner yoga experience. Not all teachers are created equal as they vary in training, experience, and the style they teach. Some teachers are incredibly inspiring and take you places you never thought you could go. They genuinely care about each student and make the effort to get to know you and your goals. They will invite you to ask questions and explore as they support you along your journey. Other instructors are more concerned with putting on a show and make the class about them. Depending on what you’re looking for, you will connect with the instructor who ultimately feeds your soul and leaves you with new tools to tackle life with.

Accept where you are at. We all have to start somewhere and it’s important to be patient and compassionate with yourself as you embark on this new journey. Don’t rush the process but rather observe and embrace your growth as it is bound to happen if you practice regularly.

The best time to start is NOW.

Explore the various types of yoga, be open to possibility, and watch your life transform before your eyes.

When you find and fall in love with the practice that best suits your needs, you will find yourself on an endless journey of discovery and growth.

When I first started yoga, I never considered practicing on my own until a teacher introduced the concept one day in class. “If you’re scared of coming up into headstand,” she casually mentioned, “you can work on it at home.”

Wait. There’s homework in yoga?! Was this something I had to do? Would I fail if I didn’t? And what exactly would I do on the mat if I were left to my own devices? How could I cook up a practice on my own that would compare with the sequences we did in class? Confused, I ignored the seeds my teacher sprinkled.

If you want to build a consistent home practice, start by choosing four or five poses that feel great, so you'll feel compelled (rather than obligated) to roll out your mat.

My doubts were by no means unique. The biggest misconception people have about a home practice, according to San Francisco–based yoga teacher Jason Crandell, “is they think it should have the same degree of intensity and be as long as a regular class.” Not only is this thinking not true, he says, it can sabotage a person’s efforts to establish a home practice.

“It’s a lot like cooking,” says Crandell. “Sure, you could make restaurant-caliber food for every meal, but a piece of peanut butter toast now and then will also sustain you quite nicely.” In the spirit of creating a peanut-butter-toast practice of your very own, I’ve put together some guidelines to help you overcome the three biggest hurdles we all face: complacency (how to make yourself actually do it); fear (what to do once you commit to start); and busyness (how to find the time).

4 REASONS TO START A HOME PRACTICE

A quick tour through the benefits of establishing a regular (meaning you do it more days than you don’t) home yoga practice should motivate you to get started:

1. SELF-KNOWLEDGE. 

“Practicing on your own helps you learn to self-regulate and self-soothe,” Crandell says. “It’s like driving your own car versus being chauffeured—when you’re driving, you have a greater responsibility to pay attention and to choose where you’re going and to respond to what happens as you travel along.”

2. SELF-HELP. 

The more you practice, the better you’ll get at assessing how you feel, so when you first come to the mat, you can choose a practice that counterbalances whatever’s going on—mentally, physically, and emotionally.

3. SELF-INDULGENCE. 

How many other endeavors allow you to do whatever you darn well please? “Practicing on your own is so indulgent,” Crandell says. “You can take anywhere from 2 to 90 minutes and do whatever you want at whatever pace, tone, and intensity you choose.”

4. EXPONENTIAL GROWTH.

“When you practice regularly, the effects of each session don’t have a chance to wear off before you come back to the mat,” says Cyndi Lee, a New York City–based yoga teacher and founder of OM Yoga Center. “That consistency offers benefits that double and then double again.”

Not bad for something you can do in your living room without spending a dime. Yet even the biggest dose of inspiration won’t make your home practice a reality if you aren’t also armed with a few guidelines to dispel the fear that you won’t be doing it right.

HOW TO DESIGN A HOME YOGA PRACTICE

These six tips can help you chart a course for your home practice and give you the confidence that you do, in fact, know what you’re doing. They also provide the means to keep your practice fresh, so that you don’t have to resort to doing the same handful of poses over and over (unless you want to, of course—it is your home practice, after all).

START WITH QUIET. 

Before you dive into a sun salutation or a specific pose, start in a comfortable seated position or even in corpse pose, suggests Amy Pearce-Hayden, RYT, founder of The YogaScape and Spa in Carmel, New York, and youyoga.me—a website geared toward yogis practicing on their own at home. “When you begin with stillness, you can see how your body and mind feel and then decide what to do based on that,” she says.

PICK A DIRECTION. 

This should depend on how you feel. If you’re tired and pressed for time, choose a short restorative practice. If you’re raring to go, opt for a more vigorous practice. If you need grounding and stability, focus on standing poses. If you need energy, incorporate backbends. “The more you use your practice to take care of your immediate needs, the more strength and energy you’ll have in the long run,” Crandell says.

If you're tired and pressed for time, choose a short restorative practice. If you need grounding and stability, focus on standing poses.

SET AN INTENTION. 

This simple suggestion ensures that you’ll use your time—no matter how short—constructively. Sample intentions Pearce-Hayden suggests include creating a sense of spaciousness in a specific part of the body, working on a specific practice or pose, or noticing (and letting go of) any emotions that arise—without judgment.

CHOOSE POSES YOU LOVE. 

There’s a common perception that you should use a home practice to work on the poses that truly challenge you. Throw that idea out the window, Crandell suggests. “If you want to build a consistent home practice, it has to be more of a carrot than a stick.” Start by choosing four or five poses that feel great, so you’ll feel compelled, rather than obligated, to roll out your mat.

PAY ATTENTION IN CLASS. 

You could start taking mental notes in class: I really like when we do down dog, low lunge, down dog again, and pigeon, I’ll do those three at home. “I would be disappointed if my students weren’t taking some of the things we do on a regular basis and incorporating them into their regular lives,” Crandell says.

MOVE IN ALL DIRECTIONS. 

Lee suggests you choose at least one pose for each direction the body moves—leaning side to side, forward and back, twisting, and turning upside down (which could be as simple as downward dog or a standing forward bend). “If you incorporate all the directions,” she says, “you create a complete practice.”

WHEN (AND WHERE) TO PRACTICE

To build a consistent home practice, you need to carve out space for it—metaphorically as well as literally. Perhaps the biggest challenge is finding the time. In order for Pearce-Hayden to keep her home practice alive, she says, “I can’t allow myself to be swayed by the anxiety that nearly always pops up that I can’t afford to take any time away from getting things done.” Taking even a little bit of time to practice grounds you and inspires you, so that when you return to your to-do list, you are more focused and productive. “I’ve come to realize that when I give myself 10 or 15 minutes, the rest of my day feels more spacious,” she says.

Choosing a dedicated area in your home to practice in can also help create room in your psyche for a practice to take root. And that physical space needn’t be large, pretty, or even particularly Zen. “I’ve been practicing for years on a sliver of floor between the fireplace and the coffee table that’s exactly big enough for a yoga mat,” Lee says. “Even though it’s more of a nonspace, all those practices have imbued it with a feeling that is really attractive to me.” Even when you’re dragging your feet, the aura of your regular practice site will make you more likely to visit it. “When you’re in your special spot, you’ll be fully immersed in your practice after only two breaths,” says Lee. “Just looking at it will be a trigger.”

HOW TO KEEP GOING, NO MATTER WHAT

So, what about those times when you don’t feel well or when life piles up, making even a five-minute downward dog extremely unlikely? Get creative. “At its heart, a yoga practice is an intention to observe your actions and reactions. It doesn’t necessarily have to take a certain form,” Pearce-Hayden says. How do you get better at yoga? Practice. Your practice today could mean watching your reactions at work, or while standing in line at the grocery store. It could also mean deciding to mother with total absorption during the next diaper change, or “washing the dishes to wash the dishes,” as Thich Nhat Hanh famously said in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. 

“If you can breathe, you can do yoga,” well-known Iyengar teacher Patricia Walden once said. Practice gentle pranayama exercises, or meditate, when you’re laid up in bed or when you’re on hold for a conference call. What really matters is your dedication. “Anything that’s a practice takes commitment, patience, and a certain level of generosity to yourself,” Lee says.

Keep in mind that your commitment can take on a life of its own—that a deeper part of yourself yearns for the connection that a regular home practice can provide. I know of this firsthand: those seeds my teacher first planted 16 years ago began sprouting on their own, despite my initial resistance.

A year or two into my practice, I began noodling around on my mat now and again—mostly working on the inversions that unnerved me whenever they came up in class. I’ll never forget the sensation of my feet spontaneously rising up together to lift into my first unsupported headstand in the middle of my living room. Somehow the privacy and familiar surroundings made that once terrifying act effortless.

I'm utterly convinced of the power of home practice--not because it's something I should do, but because it helps me listen to what's happening in my mind and body.

As a teacher trainee, I was required to practice at home several days a week and to journal about it. That indoctrination came in handy a few years later when I had two babies in two years, and regular classes were no longer a possibility. I’ve been practicing on my own now for four years. And while I look forward to the day when I again have time for a regular class with a primary teacher, I’m utterly convinced of the power of a home practice—not because it’s something I should do, but because it helps me listen to what’s happening in my mind and body. And it gives me what my being needs to attain something akin to balance. It helps me notice, process, and release the inevitable physical and emotional kinks that build up during the course of daily living. I can’t imagine what kind of mother, writer, wife, or human I’d be without it.

JASON CRANDELL’S 10-MINUTE HOME YOGA PRACTICE 

Jason Crandell starts his own home practice with this simple series of poses. “It works great by itself, but a lot of times all you have to do is start. After these 10 minutes, your practice can gain a momentum of its own and go in any direction—whether it’s quiet and restorative or physically vigorous.”

SUPTA PADANGUSTHASANA I (RECLINING BIG TOE POSE I)

Lie on your back. Hook a belt around your right foot and raise your foot up toward the ceiling, drawing the shoulder blades onto your back. Hold for 5 breaths and switch legs.

SUPTA PADANGUSTHASANA II (RECLINING BIG TOE POSE II)

Repeat reclining big toe pose on the right leg. This time, as you exhale, open the leg out to the side. Hold for 5 breaths, and then switch to the left leg.

ADHO MUKHA SUKHASANA (SEATED FORWARD FOLD POSE)

From a seated position, fold at the hips and walk your fingertips forward until your arms are fully extended. After 5 breaths, sit up, change the cross of the legs, and repeat.

ADHO MUKHA SVANASANA (DOWNWARD-FACING DOG POSE)

Press up into downward dog. Keep your knees bent—and your heels lifted. As you exhale, lift your sitting bones, press your thighs back, and stretch your heels toward the floor.

ANJANEYASANA (LOW LUNGE POSE)

From downward dog, step your right foot forward between your hands, drop your left knee to the ground, and bring both hands to your right knee. After 3 to 5 breaths, switch legs.

ADHO MUKHA SVANASANA (DOWNWARD-FACING DOG POSE)

Press up into downward dog once again. Bend your knees slightly and lift your sitting bones up toward the ceiling. Exhale, press your thighs back, and stretch your heels toward the floor.

EKA PADA RAJAKAPOTASANA (PIGEON PREP POSE)

Bring your right leg forward into pigeon pose, keeping your left leg extended behind you. Hinging at the hips, rest your forehead on your arms. Hold for a minute, and then switch legs.

BALASANA (CHILD’S POSE)

Kneel on the floor. With big toes touching, open your knees wide and fold forward at the hips. Rest your forehead on the floor and stretch your arms out in front of you.

Dr Rohit Bhaskar, Physio
Dr Rohit Bhaskar, Physio Dr. Rohit Bhaskar, Physio is Founder of Bhaskar Health and Physiotherapy and is also a consulting physiotherapist. He completed his Graduation in Physiotherapy from Uttar Pradesh University of Medical Sciences. His clinical interests are in Chest Physiotherapy, stroke rehab, parkinson’s and head injury rehab. Bhaskar Health is dedicated to readers, doctors, physiotherapists, nurses, paramedics, pharmacists and other healthcare professionals. Bhaskar Health audience is the reason I feel so passionate about this project, so thanks for reading and sharing Bhaskar Health.

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