How To

The Beginner’s Guide to Yoga

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Students get a deep stretch for Yoga in the Streets.

The first yoga class. You’ve psyched yourself up, bought a brand new mat and water bottle, decided the masses have to be onto something, and you decide to try your hands, and feet, at yoga.

But it’s not as easy as they make it look, not at first at least, and it’s intimidating to be the throes of a class when the instructor lets you do your first full sun-salutation set by yourself. A good yoga studio will give a little bit of information to first-time students, but for everything else that there isn’t time to cover, new students can be left in the dark. Enter the definitive guide to beginning a yoga practice, a beneficial activity for your mind, body, and soul.

The first step is overcoming the intimidation factor. We’ve all been there, marveling at the yogis who practice headstands before and after class, the photos of delicately-balanced bodies, strongly planted upside down on a beautiful beach somewhere in Bali. Those yogis started somewhere, too. For the rest of your practice, there will always be someone more flexible than you, and that’s okay. Yoga isn’t a competition, it’s not a race, and it has no ego. It’s a teacher, a healer, and a way to link up your brain and your body. As soon as you let go of the fear and the intimidation, the practice becomes much more enjoyable.

Even the most poised yogis fall out of handstands, lose their balance, and have off days. Know that every practice will benefit you in some way, and keep in mind to focus on your breath during your first practice. If you feel overwhelmed in any way, drop back into child’s pose, or a resting position of your choice. During the practice, try to keep your mind quiet and focused on where your body is, and how it feels, at that moment. After, think about how you feel as opposed to before the class.

If diving into a studio class with no previous experience is too much all at once, consider the wealth of videos available online. There are hundred of free videos that serve a wonderful purpose. Many are shorter, but can be combined with others for a longer practice.

  • Gaiam has a large quantity of shorter, free videos with the option to buy a membership for longer videos.

  • Rodney Yee has wonderful videos for beginners, is extremely clear in his explanations, and has many available on his YouTube channel.

  • Grokker is a sort of miracle website that offers hundreds of free videos by certified yoga teachers, as well as an abundance of cooking and workout videos. It’s free to sign up, and has a wide range of longer videos.

Choosing a yoga studio is also a tedious practice. If there are more than one in the area, try a class at each studio. See what space makes you feel most comfortable, and what schedules fit best with yours. If a particular instructor rubs you the wrong way, try a different one. Classes differ according to who is leading them, and sometimes one instructor’s teaching styles just aren’t for you.

Most studios have introductory deals, with either free or discounted first classes, so if you go and end up really, really disliking it, there’s not much lost.

Deanna Staton doing a back bend in the snow.

Deanna Staton doing a back bend in the snow.

Some studios stick to one version of yoga, like bikram, for example, and the classes will be fairly similar each time. Others will offer a variety of class styles, and the names alone can be overwhelming.

There are many different types of yoga, but the most common are ashtanga, vinyasa, yin, bikram, and iyengar, although there are many more. Most of the words stem from Sanskrit language, which is the primary language of Hinduism. Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means “yoking together,” and has come to represent the yoking together of the body and the mind. When navigating a studio’s schedule, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into and the difference between a vinyasa flow, and a yin class.

  • Ashtanga is a higher intensity practice, focused on moving the body and getting a sweat going—it can incorporate flow-like sequences similar to vinyasa. It’s more intense than a yin practice, but less intense than bikram. It has a heavy emphasis on aerobics, and yields a good workout.

  • Vinyasa is very fluid, and can be also called vinyasa flow. Its focus is keeping movements in sync with the breath. It’s similar to the intensity of ashtanga, depending on the teacher. Poses flow together, and are usually done in a sequence.

  • Bikram is 26 postures, with two breathing exercises, in a room heated to about 105 degrees Fahrenheit, for 90 minutes, every time. For those who love schedule and routine, this is perfect, but for those who wish to try different poses, this will not be a favorite. It’s necessary to try, though. The heat adds an element of difficulty that isn’t suited for everyone, and the practice itself is rigorous in speed.

  • Hot yoga studios have also been popping up that, like bikram, are heated studios to about 105 degrees, but vary in classes and styles.

  • Yin is also known as restorative yoga. This class is typically much slower, and focuses on holding poses for longer in order to get a better stretch. It’s usually low-impact, and adds more emphasis to stretching than anything else. This practice is great for beginners, as most poses can be taken to any difficulty level.

  • Iyengar yoga was founded by B.K.S. Iyengar and takes a big responsibility for bringing yoga to the U.S. Its focus is posture and ensuring that the proper alignment is found. It often uses props such as blocks, straps, or blankets in order to minimize the chance of injury, and to help make poses that are otherwise impossible without a prop for some.

In addition to the lingo that comes with different types of yoga, there is lingo within the practice itself that can often be confusing to a first-timer. Most words will be explained, but for those that are not, they need some backstory.

  • Chinmudra is a position that many take while meditating. Hands will often be sitting on knees, and the thumb and pointer finger are touching. The other three fingers are pointed away from the body. Chin means consciousness in Sanskrit, and a mudra is similar to a mantra, a reminder.

  • Pranayama breathing is a technique that is said to release the energy within the body and create clarity. It incorporates long, steady breath, with an emphasis on making sure the diaphragm is expanding during the inhale.

  • Chakras, defined in the most simple way, is seven energy centers in the body. Many teachers will mention the heart chakra, and without getting too deep, it can be translated into love for yourself, and others, in your heart.

  • Namaste is the seal of yoga, the finishing word. It shows respect for yourself, and for all others.

Yoga is called a practice for a reason. It’s something to work at every day, or every available day—it’s a practice to become more comfortable with ourselves, to be more in tune with our minds, to strengthen our bodies, and to quiet our thoughts, if only for a few minutes. There are available options for every body, every physical ability, whether it’s chair yoga or aerial yoga, there are ways to get yourself onto a mat and feel confident doing so.

Images courtesy of Deanna Staton/Mount Pleasant Hot Yoga

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of ActionHub. Comments on this article reflect the sole opinions of their writers.
  • Lori

    Yin Yoga and Restorative Yoga are not the same. Yin stretches connective tissues, holding poses for 3-5 minutes, and can be intense when learning to quiet the mind. Restorative does not stretch but deeply relaxes, supported with bolsters and blankets, for 15-20 minutes per pose. Though both are gentle enough physically for the beginner, they are really advanced, meditative practices.

    • Ysmay

      Thanks for mentioning that, Lori. I was about to do the same.

      • Chelsea Hohn

        Lori and Ysmay-
        Thanks for noting that. In the research I did for this story, and my own experiences, often the two words go side by side. Thanks for mentioning the differences, though.

        I also agree that an ashtanga practice can transform a lifestyle, but for a beginners guide I chose to keep the descriptions short and as physically descriptive as possible without overwhelming. I appreciate the input from you both.

  • Ysmay

    It’s also worth noting that Ashtanga isn’t just a “good workout.” Someone who’s just looking for a good
    workout might get what they need from Vinyasa flow, while someone who is
    interested in a more transformational lifestyle change
    can often find what they’re looking for in Ashtanga. Vinyasa is
    purely the practice of asanas while Ashtanga is an eight-limb yoga practice. Only
    one of those limbs is practicing asanas. The other limbs are about
    meditation, kindness, and breath work. A comprehensive Ashtanga practice can help one lead a more yogic life on and off the mat.

  • Great introduction about Bikram Yoga although I wouldn’t mind more details about where and how to get started with Hot Yoga…maybe a coming next blog post? 🙂
    I started practicing a couple of months ago and it really helped me to feel much better.Takes time and effort but when you get used to it, it feels good.

    • Chelsea Hohn

      Carlos-

      Glad you enjoyed it. For now, I would recommend drinking lots of water before and after a hot yoga practice. Even if you find the practice too challenging, try to at least stay in the room through the class – even if that means you lay in savasana the entire time.