A Beginner's Guide to Yoga

Yoga, which comes from the Sanskrit yuj word meaning "union," originated in India more than 5,000 years ago. There are many forms of yoga, but in general, yoga focuses on breathing techniques (pranayama), postures (asanas), flexibility and meditation (dhyana). It can be very spiritual, linking the mind, body and spirit.

But you don't have to be a Birkenstock-wearing vegetarian to enjoy or benefit from a regular yoga practice. Yoga offers all practitioners—whether you do it once a week or twice a day—an increased mind-body connection, greater flexibility and strength, improved balance and coordination, and stress relief. Here's what you need to know to start your own yoga practice today.

Styles of Yoga

If you're new to yoga, you might not be sure which class or video to start with. Here are a few of the most common yoga styles that are popular today:
  • Ashtanga yoga (also referred to as power yoga) is a fast-paced, intense yoga style. It focuses on constant movement from one pose to the next. However, this system does allow each student to work at her own pace.
  • Bikram or hot yoga, is practiced in an environment where the temperature is 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat promotes intense sweating that will loosen tight muscles and facilitate cleansing of the body.
  • Hatha yoga is a general term. These workouts usually include basic introductory yoga poses, and move at a gentle and slow pace.
  • Iyengar yoga may be the most popular style practiced in the United States. With this style, poses are held for a longer duration. The purpose of this is for students to recognize the subtleties of each posture and to pay attention to their musculoskeletal system and body alignment. Using props (blocks, belts, blankets, et cetera) to accommodate a variety of fitness levels and special needs is common in Iyengar yoga.
  • Vinyasa yoga includes more aggressive stretches. These workouts focus on sun salutations and the connection of breath and movement.<pagebreak>

Yoga Props

Even if you don't practice yoga regularly, you can benefit from using yoga props—especially if you are new to the practice of yoga. 
  • Yoga mats (or "sticky" mats) provide a thinly-cushioned, non-slip surface for yoga practices and work best when used on a smooth floor. Their sticky surface can be easily cleaned, and they roll up for easy storage and toting. Yoga mats are now available in extra-thick varieties as well. A basic yoga mat will run around $20. Extra-thick, as well as "designer" prints and colors will cost more. You can also find eco-friendly yoga mats (made from recycled materials, biodegradable materials, and/or natural and sustainable plant fibers such as hemp and jute) starting around $40.
  • Yoga blocks (or bricks) allow you to stay in proper form, even if your strength and flexibility levels don't. Blocks are rectangular-shaped, allowing you to use them at three different heights, depending on your needs. One use for a block, for example, would be during a forward bend. If you can't touch the floor, you can place the block accordingly so that you can remain in proper form, resting your hands on the block itself. Since each pair of sides is a different height, you can slowly progress in your poses until you don't need a block at all.
  • Wedges are triangular shaped, like a door stop, but much wider and softer. They provide extra support and prevent over-stretching while sitting (underneath the hips), standing and squatting (underneath heels), and when your weight is in your hands (underneath palm/wrist).
  • Yoga straps (or belts) are great for beginners or individuals who are less flexible. By holding a strap with both hands, it can help you stay in a pose longer and in better form. They can be used for seated stretches (around the feet in a forward bend) and one-legged standing poses (placing the strap around foot to aid in lifting or reaching your limb). Straps are also great for general flexibility training.
It's easy to incorporate props into your workout in a matter of seconds (when they're within reach). Many yoga studios will have most of these props (and more) available for students to use during classes, but you can also purchase your own to use at home or take with you to the gym.

Adding Yoga to Your Fitness Program

We often hear questions about where yoga fits into a fitness program. Is it cardio? Strength training? Stretching? Yoga is a unique form of fitness that encompasses some of these principles. A good fitness program includes cardio (at least 20 minutes, three days per week), strength training (for every major muscle group, at least two sessions per week) and flexibility training (ideally every time you exercise or at least three times per week).

Yoga itself cannot provide you with the same benefits as cardio and strength training. However, most fitness experts agree that yoga is a great addition to a well-rounded fitness program. Yoga is wonderful for improving flexibility (especially if you tend to skip stretching altogether). And while athletic yoga styles (such as Ashtanga) may elevate your heart rate to an aerobic level, the average calorie burn of a yoga class is not comparable to running or other forms of cardio. Consider yoga to be a restorative practice, offering diverse benefits that enhance your overall fitness level and mind-body connection.

The following links will help you begin a yoga practice:
  • www.YogaFinder.com: The world's largest yoga directory. Find classes, studios and private teachers in your area.
  • www.YogaJournal.com: The voice of yoga online. Get step-by-step instructions, workouts, articles and more. 
  • www.Gaiam.com: Retailer of various yoga props, kits, books, videos and DVDs for a variety of fitness levels.
You can practice yoga as often as it fits into your schedule, whether once a week or daily. Each session can be as long or as short as you'd like, whether you choose a few poses that you enjoy or take a 90-minute yoga class. No matter how often you do yoga, you will begin to see positive outcomes with consistent practice. Namaste!