Yoga for Beginners: A Complete Guide to Getting Started With Yoga
Yoga. We’re thinking maybe you’ve heard of it? If you’ve never tried it, however, you may have only the vaguest idea what “doing” yoga actually entails. With that uncertainty comes fear, which can easily lead to yoga lingering down near the bottom of your to-do list. To push yoga up the list, you need information. You need to know things. Things like: what really happens in a yoga class, where does all this yoga stuff come from, and how come everyone’s so into it. Once you have these answers you’ll be better prepared to step onto a yoga mat with confidence. In the service of that step, here are some important things to know about yoga.
The History of Yoga (the Very Short Version)
Yoga originated in India primarily as a philosophy of the universe (meaning, like, everything). For much of yoga’s ancient history, the physical side consisted primarily of just a few seated postures and breath control to support the practice of deep meditation. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, physical postures began to take a more central role. In the 1970s, Westerners travelling in India began bringing the teachings of Indian yoga masters back home and, in some cases, adapting them to fit contemporary lifestyles. That was the beginning of the popular European/American yoga movement as we now know it.
What Happens in a Yoga Class?
Yoga practice today is most commonly comprised of postures (asana), breathing (pranayama), and meditation in varying proportions. It can be done in a group class situation, through private instruction, or at home. In most cases, attending a group class is the most accessible way to get started.
Yoga classes are usually 60-90 minutes long. Remove your shoes and silence (no beeping, no buzzing!) your phone before entering the yoga room. Students generally arrange their mats in rows facing the front of the room. In a beginners’ class, there may be a good bit of demonstration by the teacher so make sure you can see them.
Class will often begin with focusing everyone’s attention on their breathing since this a good way to start to feel present and centred. Warm-up stretches may come next, leading into a series of more strenuous standing poses. Deeper stretching and backbends often follow once the body is warm. Each class ends with lying on your mat in total relaxation for a few minutes. This is known as Savasana (which literally means Corpse Pose, corpses tending to be a good reference point for lying still). This period of stillness helps your body and your brain absorb the benefits of the intense physical experience you’ve just had.
Many styles of yoga follow this basic structure, though there is a lot of room for variation within it. Oftentimes, breath awareness is incorporated with the postures. Sometimes there may be a short seated meditation at the end of practice. Sometimes the sound ‘OM’ (signifying the divine, or Universal) is chanted by the group and often class will end with the spiritual salutation ‘namaste’ to thank the teacher and the group for practising together. Namaste is often described as meaning ‘the light in me honours the light in you’.
Although attending class can be a bit intimidating the first time, it quickly becomes more comfortable. Take a beginners’ class, go in with an open mind, and only do as much as you can. No one expects you to know what’s going on and everyone who does yoga has been where you are.
Yoga Equipment for Beginners
We’ve already mentioned the most important bit of yoga equipment: the mat. But wait, you’re thinking, don’t you just happen to sell mats? I’m a little suspicious of this advice. So let’s clear the air. Yes, it’s true that we sell mats. (The best mats!) But it also happens to be true that all you really need to get going is a mat and your body.
Most yoga studios rent mats to students for class and this is a perfectly fine way to get started. Eventually, you’ll begin to see the benefits of having your own mat (for instance, you control how and when it gets cleaned) and when you do start looking for the ideal combination of grip, support, comfort, alignment assistance, sustainability, and ethical business practices, we’ll be here.
You probably already own something you can wear for yoga. Stretchy workout pants or shorts, a somewhat fitted top (too loose and it will be falling in your face every time you bend over), maybe a sports bra. Yoga is done barefoot.
How Often Should a Beginner do Yoga?
Don’t put off on trying yoga because you don’t think you have enough time to do it adequately. Yoga can be made to fit your schedule, not the other way around. If you can only go to class once a week, start there. What often happens is that once you experience how yoga makes you feel, you’ll want to do more, not less. Two or three classes a week is a pretty good goal, but you can also substitute shorter sessions at home (even 10 minutes in the morning) once you have an idea of what to do.
The Benefits of Yoga
The practice of yoga has numerous physical and mental benefits. Physically, doing yoga postures makes you stronger and more flexible, both of which are key factors in healthy ageing. Greater core strength, in particular, leads to improved balance. Learning about alignment improves body awareness and posture. Mindful movement and strengthening the support muscles helps keep joints healthy. The full-body range of motion encouraged by yoga help counter the effects of too much time spent sitting at work or in cars. Many people who are active in other sports also find that yoga helps them avoid injury and improve performance.
Mentally, yoga asana and the associated practices of breath control and meditation are proven tools for relaxation, helping many people who have trouble sleeping and reducing stress. A healthier body and mind leads to an improved sense of well-being. In short, yoga helps you feel better.
What is Yoga Alignment and Why is it Important?
If you’re new to yoga, alignment might be a word you associate more with your car tyres than with your body. Once you start, however, you’re likely to hear this word a lot. Alignment refers to the precise way that each yoga pose is done to maximise the physical benefits and minimise the risk of injury. Often, this means stacking your joints for the greatest structural support, such as knee over ankle in a lunge or shoulders over pelvis in a standing posture. At first, alignment instruction might seem finicky and random but it pretty quickly becomes more intuitive and follows a logical system of building a strong foundation from the ground up.
Props, such as blocks and straps, are often employed to help students practice safely as their bodies become more open and stronger over time. It’s better to do a pose with good alignment integrity using props than to make alignment compromises that lead to instability and postural habits that are hard to break. Studios provide blocks and straps, so unless you plan to do a lot of yoga at home, there’s no need to get your own at first. A yoga mat with alignment markings is a big help, however. (See Equipment, above.)
Is Yoga Right for You?
Are you a human? Then yes.
Some people worry that they are not flexible enough, young enough, or thin enough to start yoga. But yoga really is for everyone because it’s an infinitely adaptable practice. The only people who can possibly take a pass on yoga are those who already have practices in their lives that give them the same mental and physical benefits. And even they might want to give it a shot.
Basic Yoga Poses for Beginners
We’ve mentioned yoga postures but you still may not know exactly what that means, so here are a few of the poses that you are likely to encounter early in your practice. You may find some of these poses look familiar but you’ll be doing them with a completely different mindset that you have before. And some are going to be completely new shapes to you. Don’t feel like you need to master them ahead of time but having a mental image will help you move your body in their general direction once you do hit the mat.
Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
This is probably yoga’s most ‘famous’ pose with good reason. It works the whole body and is done many times in each yoga class.
Quick tip: Picture Downward Facing Dog as a big inverted V shape with your butt forming the apex. Pressing strongly through your palms helps you move your hips back and take more weight into your legs.
If you’ve ever done push-ups, Plank may seem like familiar ground but you want to make sure you are using yoga alignment in this posture. That means shoulders over your wrists and a straight line from the crown of your head to your heels.
Quick tip: Lowering your knees to the ground is fine, just don’t let it affect the position of your shoulders and hips.
Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Mountain Pose really highlights the difference between just standing and standing with attention to every detail of how your body is aligned.
Quick tip: Build your pose from the feet up.
Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)
Another posture that probably looks familiar but will feel different because you’ll be doing it with a focus on your alignment and breath.
Most people lean their weight too far back in this position. Try to bring your weight forward into the balls of your feet so that your hips come over your ankles.
Quick tip: It’s absolutely fine to bend your knees, just make sure you try to keep your weight equally distributed to all four corners of your feet.
Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I) and Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)
Now we’re coming to a few shapes that are pretty unique to yoga. Just know that these standing postures are considered very challenging even for experienced yogis. They get into balance and body awareness and all the things you are going to develop over time with this practice.
Quick tip: We’ve written extensively about the difference in hip alignment between Warrior I and Warrior II and once you’ve done them both for a little while that’s worth delving into. For now, remember that in Warrior I the hips face forward, while in Warrior II they face the side.
Triangle Pose (Trikonasana)
Triangle is another classic posture that is done in many standing yoga sequences. It often follows Warrior II since they have much the same hip alignment. It’s a pose that benefits a lot from the use of props, particularly a block.
Quick Tip: Take a block under your bottom hand so that you don’t have to bend your front knee in order to reach the floor with your hand. This is an example of how using a prop can help you avoid compromising your alignment.
Tree Pose (Vrksasana)
Although many of yoga’s standing poses involve balance (see Warrior I), Tree Pose is often the first ‘standing on one leg’ balancing posture that beginners tackle. And it may surprise you how difficult it is at first!
Quick tip: Put your lifted foot anywhere on the inside of the standing leg except on the side of the knee since that puts unnecessary pressure on your joint.
Child’s Pose (Balasana)
Ah, finally a place to rest and recover! Child’s Pose is super important to learn early on because it’s the international yoga symbol for ‘I’m taking a personal moment, I’ll be with you shortly.’ Yoga teachers always say to listen to your body and take rest when you need to, whether or not the class goes there. This is the position in which to do that.
Quick tip: Take Child’s Pose whenever you need it!
Knowledge is Power
The more you know, the less there is to fear. In reading up on yoga, you’ve taken the first step. The next step must be experienced in your body because that’s where yoga’s power lies. We hope that you’re now a little further along the path toward getting on a mat so that you can begin to discover for yourself all the ways that doing yoga improves your life.