What is Yoga and What Does it Do?
Yoga is an ancient practice that focuses on connecting the mind, body and spirit through physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation. If you're new to yoga, you may be wondering - what exactly is yoga and what can it do for me? Keep reading to learn the basics of yoga and how it can benefit your physical and mental health.
- A Brief History of Yoga
- What are the Different Types of Yoga?
- What are the Benefits of Yoga?
- How Often Should You Practice Yoga For Benefits?
- How to Start a Yoga Practice at Home
Common Yoga Poses For Beginners
- Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
- Tree Pose (Vrksasana)
- Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
- Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
- Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
- Child's Pose (Balasana)
- Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
- Triangle Pose (Trikonasana)
- Crescent Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
- Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
- Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
- Beginner Yoga Tips to Prevent Injury
- How to Modify Poses and Use Props
- Beginner Yoga Poses to Avoid
- Partner Yoga Poses to Try
A Brief History of Yoga
Yoga originated in India over 5,000 years ago. The word "yoga" comes from the Sanskrit word "yuj" which means to unite or join together. The goal of yoga is to unite the mind, body and spirit.
Ancient yoga practices focused on spiritual enlightenment and included meditation, breathing techniques, and ascetic practices. Yoga poses or "asanas" were first mentioned around the year 500 BCE as a means to prepare the body for extended meditation.
It wasn't until the 20th century that yoga made its way to the Western world. It quickly gained popularity for its physical benefits of flexibility, strength, and balance. Yoga made its way to the United States in the late 1800s but didn't become widespread until the 1960s and 70s.
Today there are many styles of yoga practiced around the world from the physically intense Power Yoga to the gentle, restorative Yin Yoga. No matter the style, the core components of yoga including physical postures, breathing, and meditation remain the same.
What are the Different Types of Yoga?
There are many different types or "schools" of yoga. While they vary in intensity and focus, they all aim to unite the mind, body and spirit. Some of the most popular styles of yoga in the West include:
Hatha Yoga - This is one of the most popular styles of yoga in the West and great for beginners. Hatha classes focus on basic yoga poses, breathing techniques and meditation.
Vinyasa Yoga - This dynamic style of yoga flows from one pose to the next, synchronized with the breath. It can include challenging poses and sequences.
Power Yoga - An energetic form of Vinyasa yoga, Power yoga focuses on building strength and flexibility. Classes can include cardio bursts and bodyweight exercises set to music.
Yin Yoga - This slow-paced, meditative style of yoga involves holding passive poses for long periods of time to target the connective tissues and increase flexibility
Restorative Yoga - Focuses on relaxation through simple, gentle poses using yoga props like blankets and bolsters to provide deep restorative benefits.
Iyengar Yoga - Uses props like blocks, straps and blankets to help practitioners achieve proper alignment in each yoga posture. Attention is placed on detail and precision.
Hot Yoga - Performed in heated rooms up to 105°F to promote sweating and flexibility. This includes popular styles like Bikram and Forrest Yoga.
Kundalini Yoga - Focuses on awakening energy in the body through specific breathing techniques, chanting mantras, and dynamic movements.
The style that is right for you depends on your fitness level, health needs and personal preferences. Hatha and Restorative yoga are great for beginners while more athletic types may enjoy Power or Vinyasa yoga.
What are the Benefits of Yoga?
The benefits of yoga extend far beyond the mat. Regular yoga practice can improve physical and mental wellbeing in many ways. Here are some of the top benefits of practicing yoga:
Yoga asanas or poses require stretching different muscles and joints through a full range of motion. This leads to improved flexibility over time. Even beginners tend to notice greater flexibility within just a few weeks of starting a regular yoga practice.
Yoga asanas utilize the weight of the body to build strength through different poses. Regular practice can strengthen the entire body through performing poses that engage all the major muscle groups. Core strength is also improved through the concentric contraction of muscles required to stabilize the body in different poses.
Proper form while standing on one foot or balancing in different ways is a key element of yoga. Over time, small stabilizing muscles are strengthened which leads to greater balance and stability. This is especially beneficial for injury prevention and rehabilitation.
The breathing and meditation techniques used in yoga help activate the body's relaxation response. This leads to reduced heart rate, lowered blood pressure and decreased levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Regular yoga practice brings a greater sense of calm and inner peace.
Studies show that yoga may help boost the immune system by lowering inflammation and improving cellular health. The combination of movement, breathwork and meditation also provides a holistic way to enhance wellbeing at a cellular level.
A dedicated yoga practice teaches you to be fully present in the moment and tune into signals from your mind and body. Practicing mindfulness on the mat translates into greater mindfulness in everyday life. Being present helps reduce anxiety, curb impulsive behaviors and promote contentment.
Improves Sleep Quality
Yoga has a calming effect on both the body and mind which can lead to better sleep. Studies show that both afternoon and evening yoga practice can help improve sleep quality and duration for those with and without sleep issues.
The combined mental and physical benefits make yoga an incredibly well-rounded and accessible practice for health and wellness.
How Often Should You Practice Yoga For Benefits?
Consistency is key when it comes to reaping the amazing benefits of yoga. Many studies on the health impacts of yoga evaluate subjects practicing at least 2-3 times per week for at least one hour per session over the course of several months.
Of course, when you are just starting out, aim for what feels comfortable and fits your schedule. Even practicing just 10-20 minutes once or twice a week can provide great benefits. From there, try to increase your practice time and frequency.
Here are some guidelines based on your experience level:
Beginner - Aim for practicing 10-30 minutes, 2-3 times per week. Focus on learning proper alignment in basic yoga poses and getting comfortable.
Intermediate - Work towards 45-60 minutes sessions, 3-4 times per week. Expand your practice by trying new poses and yoga styles.
Advanced - Seasoned yogis can comfortably practice 60-90 minutes, 4-6 times per week, exploring challenging sequences and new techniques.
Keep in mind that yoga is highly personalized. Listen to your body to determine what feels right based on your abilities and time constraints. Consistency with your practice is what matters most.
How to Start a Yoga Practice at Home
One of the great things about yoga is that it can be done almost anywhere. You don't need a fancy studio or expensive equipment to start practicing. Here are some beginner tips for starting a yoga practice at home:
Clear Some Space - Clear out a small space in your living room, bedroom or office to unroll a yoga mat. Make sure pets and kids are out of the area during practice. Against a wall or corner is ideal to orient your poses.
Use Yoga Videos - Online yoga videos are a great learning resource and substitute for in-person classes when you are starting out. Many are free on YouTube or available through paid subscriptions. Look for beginner level classes in Hatha, Vinyasa or Restorative yoga.
Invest in Essentials - A few basic items include a yoga mat for traction and padding, form-fitting clothing that moves with your body, and a yoga block or strap which aids proper alignment. Optional items include soft bricks or a bolster.
Create Ambiance - Set the mood by dimming the lights, lighting candles, burning incense or essential oils, and playing relaxing background music. This fosters an immersive yoga experience.
One Pose At A Time - Don't try to keep up with the instructor. Focus on learning one new pose at a time and get the alignment down before moving on. Proper form prevents injury and frustration.
Tune Into Your Body - Notice how your body feels before, during and after practice. Start slowly and ease up or take breaks as needed. Yoga is non-competitive so listen to your body.
Be Consistent - Schedule your at-home yoga sessions in advance and stick with the routine. Consistent practice leads to faster mind and body benefits on and off the mat.
Yoga does not require expensive equipment or training. With some simple preparation, your home can become a tranquil studio oasis for starting a yoga practice on your own terms.
Common Yoga Poses For Beginners
Ready to get started practicing yoga? Here are 12 essential beginner yoga poses to get you moving on the mat. Learn proper alignment for each pose and work within your abilities:
Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Stand with the feet together and big toes touching. Engage leg muscles and tuck the tailbone slightly to lengthen the spine. Hands rest at the sides or join together at the heart in prayer position. Pull the shoulders down and back. Gaze is forward.
Tree Pose (Vrksasana)
From Mountain, shift weight to the left leg and place the right foot high on the left thigh. Press the foot firmly into the thigh. Bring palms together at the heart or reach them overhead. Gaze at a fixed point for balance. Repeat on the other side.
Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
From Table Top, tuck the toes under and lift the hips up and back to form an inverted V shape. Hands are shoulder-width apart, head between the arms. Press into the full hands and feet. Let the head hang to release the neck.
Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
From standing, hinge forward at the hips and let the torso drape over the legs. Bend the knees to release the lower back. Clasp the elbows and sway side to side massaging the lower back. Bend the knees deeply to come up.
Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
From Downward Dog, step one foot between the hands. Lower the back knee to the floor. Press the front heel down and lift the torso up. Hands can rest on thighs or reach up overhead. Keep the front knee behind the ankle.
From Downward Dog lower onto both hands and extend the legs straight back balancing on the toes. Draw the navel in and keep one long line from head to heels. Breathe steadily holding for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Child's Pose (Balasana)
From all fours, sink the hips back to the heels and bring the chest to rest on the thighs. Stretch the arms forward or rest alongside the legs. Breathe deeply and feel the spine lengthen.
Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
Lying on the belly, place the hands under the shoulders and press through the hands to arch the chest up. Draw the shoulders down and back. Gaze forward and keep hips grounded.
Triangle Pose (Trikonasana)
From standing, step one foot back and the other forward, feet wide and parallel. Hinge forward at the hips over the front leg. Rotate the chest up and reach the front arm forward and top arm back. Stack the hips and lengthen both sides.
Crescent Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
From Low Lunge, press down through the front foot to lift the torso and reach both arms straight up. Tuck the tailbone and lift up through the inner thighs. Gently arch the back and gaze up. Keep the front knee behind the ankle.
Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
From a seated position, extend the legs straight out. Hinge forward at the hips reaching the torso towards the feet. Grab the big toes with two finger hooks if you can. Keep the neck relaxed and breathe.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Lying down, bend the knees and place the feet hip-width apart on the floor. Press down through the feet to lift the hips up. Interlace the fingers beneath and press the shoulders down. Hold at the top then lower slowly.
Master proper form and alignment in these foundational poses before moving on to more challenging postures. Props like blocks and straps can help reduce strain as you build strength and flexibility.
Beginner Yoga Tips to Prevent Injury
As a beginner, you may be eager to quickly advance in your yoga practice. However, improper form and pushing yourself too hard too soon frequently leads to unnecessary strain or injury. Use these tips to progress safely as a yoga beginner:
- Warm up properly before each yoga session with dynamic movements to elevate the heart rate and warm up muscles before passive stretching. Never stretch cold muscles.
- Move slowly and pay close attention to alignment and form. Follow instructions and avoid compromising form to "keep up." Proper alignment prevents injury.
- Engage stabilizing muscles throughout each pose. Avoid passive or overly relaxed stretching which can lead to hyperextending joints.
- Modify poses to your current abilities. Use props like blocks and straps which help you achieve proper form in poses your body isn't ready for yet.
- Never bounce or force yourself into any poses. Ease in and out of poses gently. Know your limits and don't push beyond what feels right.
- Balance strength and flexibility training. Don't overstretch tissues before strengthening the muscles that stabilize the joints.
- Listen to your body and stop or modify any activity that causes pain. Mild discomfort is OK but sharp or persistent pain indicates risk of injury.
- Allow time for rest and recovery between yoga sessions. Muscles need at least 24-48 hours between strength training sessions to recover and repair properly.
Avoiding injury allows you to maintain consistency with your yoga practice and continue making progress safely. When in doubt, always go back to the basics, slow it down and focus on proper form.
How to Modify Poses and Use Props
It's common for yogis of all experience levels to modify poses or use props to accommodate limited mobility or stability. Don't let limitations deter you from trying yoga. Here are some simple ways to start:
Modify Range of Motion - Only move through a partial range of motion within your abilities. For example, bend the knees in a standing forward bend.
Reduce Weight-Bearing - Put more weight in the knees or hands when balancing. In Downward Dog, stick the hips up high to reduce weight on the wrists.
Hold Poses Briefly - Lightly hold a pose for a few breaths then release instead of straining to hold for longer durations.
Rest in Child's Pose - Transition in and out of this resting pose between more difficult postures.
Yoga Blocks - Blocks under the hands in Downward Dog or other poses helps decrease range of motion. Also useful for sitting or standing on to reduce angle of stretching.
Yoga Straps or Towels - Looped around body parts like the ankles or thighs assist with flexibility limitations. Also useful for extending reach.
Bolsters or Blankets - Provide extra support under sensitive joints like the lower back or neck when lying on the back. Help relax and release tension.
Props allow you to ease into poses gently and provide support where needed. Don't be afraid to modify and use props as you build strength. Over time, using fewer props signals improving abilities.
Beginner Yoga Poses to Avoid
Some yoga poses require a level of flexibility, strength or balance that may exceed beginner abilities. Attempting these poses before you are ready often leads to strain. Here are some poses beginners may want to work up to with modifications:
- Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana) - Requires very open shoulders and backbend flexibility. Use caution and modify range of motion to avoid neck strain. Build flexibility gradually.
- Headstand (Sirsasana) or Handstand - Inverting the body puts significant pressure and balance requirements on the neck, shoulders and wrists. Build overhead shoulder mobility first and always use a wall for support.
- Advanced Balancing Poses - Poses like Flying Pigeon and Side Crow require advanced abdominal and glute strength. Stick to foundational standing balances like Tree Pose at first.
- Deep Backbends - Poses like Full King Pigeon, Bridge, and Wheel compress the spine significantly. Start with gentler backbends like Cobra until strength improves.
- Advanced Arm Balances - In poses like Crow Pose and Side Plank, only place as much weight as you can handle in the hands and arms. Modify by lowering knees to the floor.
- Splits - Front and side splits require extreme lower body and hip flexibility. Stick to beginner stretches for the hamstrings, inner thighs and hips. Work up to splits gradually.
Knowing your limits as a beginner prevents pushing the body too far too fast. Feel free to watch advanced classes for inspiration but focus on building proper foundations first.
Partner Yoga Poses to Try
A fun way to start practicing yoga with a friend or loved one is to try partner poses. Supporting each other helps build trust and community while allowing you to safely move deeper into certain postures. Here are some easy partner yoga poses to try:
Back to Back Seated Pose
Sit back to back with straight spines. Link elbows together. On an exhale, use your partner's resistance to twist further opening the chest and shoulders. Switch sides.
Double Tree Pose
Stand side by side holding on to each other at shoulder height for balance. Lift one foot, placing the sole against the inner thigh of the standing leg. Repeat on the other side.
Wide Legged Forward Bend Assist
From Downward Dog, walk hands back to grab partner's wrists. Allow your partner to gently pull your torso towards the ground increasing the stretch. Switch positions.
Double Downward Dog
Start in Downward Dog with hips aligned. Have your partner place their hands on your low back and apply gentle pressure to increase the stretch. Switch positions.
Supported Fish Pose
Lie on your back and have your partner lift the torso up into Fish Pose with the knees bent, placing a block or bolster lengthwise
What should I wear for my yoga practice?
Wear comfortable, stretchy clothing that allows you to move freely. Form-fitting yoga pants, leggings, tank tops or t-shirts that wick away sweat are ideal. Avoid loose, baggy clothing that could get in the way or pants with zippers or buttons that may dig into the skin during certain poses. Yoga is typically practiced barefoot though some people prefer grippy socks.
What yoga accessories or props do I need as a beginner?
The only true necessity is a good yoga mat for traction and padding during floor poses. Other useful props include yoga blocks which help modify poses, straps or towels to extend your reach, and bolsters for support during restorative poses. Avoid buying fancy, expensive props when starting out.
How do I choose the right yoga studio as a beginner?
Read class descriptions to find beginner level classes that will give you a solid foundation. Call the studio or talk to the instructor beforehand to share your experience level and any injuries or limitations. A less crowded studio will allow more personalized attention. Ask about pricing options for new students and any other membership perks. Visit and observe or try out classes before committing.
Is it better to practice yoga in a class or at home?
Classes are great for motivation, community support, and receiving corrections on your form. However, at-home practice is more convenient and you can learn through online classes. Try both to determine what works for your lifestyle, budget and preferences! Having a dedicated home practice gives you flexibility.
How do I stay motivated with my at-home yoga routine?
Create a sacred space in your home devoted just to yoga. Schedule sessions in advance, at the same time each day if possible. Join an online yoga platform with a community component. Enlist a friend or family member to practice with consistently. Note the mental clarity and physical wellbeing yoga brings you and how that motivates you intrinsically.
Can I practice yoga on my period?
Absolutely! Yoga can help alleviate common period discomfort like cramps, headache, fatigue and back pain. Avoid inversions if you have a heavy flow. Use props for support and modify or avoid deep twists if needed. Slower paced classes like Yin or Restorative yoga are great during this time.
Is it safe to practice hot yoga as a beginner?
It's generally recommended to avoid hot yoga at first. The heated environment makes it harder for the body to acclimate and hydration needs increase. Try a few beginner level classes at normal temperature to build your yoga foundation before introducing heat which intensifies the practice.
Can I practice yoga if I am overweight or obese?
Yes! Yoga is for every body. Look for classes marked as beginner, gentle, or all-levels - the instructor will provide options for different abilities. Don't push yourself too hard too soon. Use blocks and straps to aid balance and modify poses as needed. Focus on feeling good vs. how poses look. Ask the instructor for guidance on modifications. Know your limits and work at your own pace.
What should I do if yoga is painfully uncomfortable?
Never force or endure pain. Communicate with your instructor if a certain pose hurts and ask for alternatives. Use props to modify poses at your own comfort level. Try restorative styles like Yin yoga. Increase strength and flexibility gradually to make yoga feel better in time. Discomfort is OK but pain indicates potential injury. Listen to your body and back off or stop anything that concerns you.
How soon can I expect to see results or improvements?
It takes consistency over time for yoga's full benefits to unfold. However, many feel less stressed and more mentally centered after just one class! You will likely notice improved flexibility, muscle tone, balance and mind-body awareness within a few weeks of consistent practice. Allow at least 8-12 weeks for yoga to work its magic. Trust the process, even when progress feels slow. The Results will come.
Yoga is an ancient Indian practice that connects the mind, body and spirit through physical postures, breathing techniques and meditation. Yoga aims to unite the body and mind for greater wellbeing. While yoga originated in India over 5,000 years ago as a spiritual practice, it has evolved to become a popular form of exercise and stress relief in the Western world. There are many different styles of yoga ranging from gentle styles like Hatha and Yin to more vigorous styles like Vinyasa Flow and Power Yoga. No matter the style, yoga provides numerous benefits including improved flexibility, strength, balance, and stress reduction. Regular yoga practice can also boost your immune system, promote better sleep, and foster mindfulness. Typical yoga classes incorporate physical postures known as asanas, breathing exercises called pranayama, and meditation or relaxation. For beginners, Hatha and Restorative yoga are gentle styles focused on learning proper alignment in basic poses using props like blocks and straps. Starting a yoga practice at home is convenient and accessible for most people. All you need is a yoga mat and beginner level yoga videos or online classes to follow along with. It's recommended beginners practice 10-30 minutes 2-3 times per week to start. Consistency over time leads to the greatest mind and body benefits on and off the yoga mat.