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A Beginner’s Guide to Yoga

Yoga can take many forms, from balancing poses with intricate twists to meditative chanting and breathing exercises. And while it’s easy to feel intimidated by fancy studios with shiny equipment or classmates who can stand on their heads for minutes on end, the truth is, yoga is for everyone. At its heart, it’s all about the connection between mind and body.

Most forms of yoga follow a series of poses, known as a flow, focusing on different areas and then melding that with breathing and focus. Routines typically end with shavasana, a corpse-like relaxation pose, to seal in the benefits of the session.

Yoga is thousands of years old, but recent decades have seen a rise in its popularity among Americans. A study from the Yoga Alliance in 2016 showed that 36 million people in the U.S. practice, with the vast majority saying that they’ve been doing so for five years or less. But tenure is unimportant, as a core principle is that it is completely inclusive.

Spiritual Indian Roots

Shiva statue in Rishikesh, India.
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The term “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, meaning “to join or unite.” The goal is to reach self-realization, which leads to freedom of living without suffering.

The Ministry of External Affairs of India says that yoga started with “the dawn of civilization,” and that the word was first seen more than 5,000 years ago in one of four sacred ancient Indian texts called the Rig Veda. In it, Hindu author and philosopher Patanjali describes eight different components of yoga. The first two are rooted in ethical preparation: the social ethics, called “yama,” and the personal ethics, called “niyama.” Then come the physical elements of postures, known as “asana,” and breathing exercises called “pranayama.” From there is “pratyahara,” where the senses are all turned inward. The final three components are “dharana,” where the focus is honed in on a single point, “dhyana,” where meditation is used to avoid outside distraction, and “samadhi,” when the yogi merges with the practice itself.

The lore of yoga looks to the god Shiva as the first yogi or guru. It’s said that Shiva passed along the knowledge to seven sages who took the practice around the world, documenting their experiences through more than 200 scriptures in the Upanishads. But it was in India where yoga struck a chord through the sage Agastya. While not a religion in or of itself, yoga is one of the six philosophical pillars of Hinduism and a core principle of Buddhist meditations.

Yoga started to spread to the West through Indian monks in the 1890s and is often credited to Swami Vivekananda, who called the practice “science of the minds”; he even demonstrated the practice at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Yoga Is a Practice, Not a Skill

Group of women practicing yoga lesson, doing Easy Seat exercise, Sukhasana pose
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Most physical activities come down to the idea of practice making perfect. But with yoga, the experience is in the practice itself. Yoga helps us recognize that how our bodies react to a pose one day might not be the same the next, or that one side of our body might feel differently about a stretch than the other. By putting the focus on how the body is reacting to the moves in the moment, the mind directs its thoughts to the present, learning to sink into a moment rather than worry about the past or future.

The integrated breathing techniques also help by honing one's focus, so that outside distractions and thoughts melt away. This helps relax both the brain and body, creating a holistic exercise that’s focused on purpose instead of skill.

The practice should be led by an instructor who will guide you through the process as well as offer various modifications and alternatives for the poses, so that it truly is accessible to everybody.

Yoga Comes in Many Forms

A vinyasa yoga class with people in downward facing dog pose.
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There are many varying forms of yoga, ranging from vigorous adrenaline-pumping workouts to healing practices focused more on relaxation.

Perhaps the most common is hatha yoga. Hatha yoga is any kind of yoga that includes poses and breathing. It’s a welcoming practice for all levels since it sticks to basic poses and tends to be gentle. The goal is simply to feel good, both mentally and physically, by the final “om.”

Also popular is vinyasa yoga, which is focused on the flow, so that the breath and poses are constantly in movement, often in repetitive routines. Depending on the class, the pace can range from calm and steady to heart-racing. Within vinyasa yoga is another form called ashtanga that follows six patterns of flow and coordinated breaths, creating an intense routine.

Another favorite form is Bikram, also known as hot yoga, which is a set of 26 postures through breathing exercises in a room set to 104 degrees Fahrenheit and 40% humidity to mimic the climate in India. Founded in 1971 by Bikram Choudhury, an Indian-born American, this form rose in popularity in the 1990s, with the belief that the heat loosens the muscles and the sweat cleanses the system.

Kundalini yoga, believed to originate as far back as 1000 BCE, is a different experience, as it starts with a chant, can include more free-form flows with energetic motions, and may even end in song.

Among the more popular slower forms of yoga is yin yoga, developed in the 1970s by American martial arts expert Paulie Zink. In yin yoga, poses are held for longer and the speed of the flow is cranked down to allow you to sink into every pose. Restorative yoga goes one step beyond, using yoga equipment to create postures that are held for upward of 15 minutes to enable deep relaxation.

The Benefits of Yoga

Close-up of young woman folding blue yoga on ground.
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With its integrated health approach, the benefits of yoga can be impactful. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, research has shown that yoga can ease back and neck pain, help regulate chronic disease and anxiety, and even assist with weight loss. Yoga also plays a large part in overall wellness by relieving stress, which can be beneficial across the board. That said, the agency points out that the studies have been limited and yoga may not have the same impact on everyone.

Other experts highlight different benefits. Johns Hopkins Medicine, for one, says that yogacan improve flexibility, strength, and balance, and also help ease arthritis, promote better sleep habits, and even make its practitioners more energetic. And Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Publishing says it can create more mindful eating habits and boost cardiovascular health.

Basic Yoga Poses

While there are 84 yoga poses, here are some basic ones to help ease you into the practice.Downward dog: This upside-down "V" formation with your hands and feet on the mat may be one of the most popular — and effective — poses, because it stretches the hamstring, calves, and arches while strengthening the arms, shoulders, and back.

Child’s pose: This is an active recovery position with your arms outstretched while you sit back on your feet. This position gives just the right amount of stretch through the back.

Bridge: This pose is a basic backbend, which can be done with your head and neck resting on the ground as you raise your hips. This position helps open the upper chest, as well as strengthen the back and hamstrings.

Tree pose: This is a standing position with the bottom of one foot resting against the inside of the other leg. This poses teaches stability and balance.

Warrior I: To achieve this power stance, with your body facing forward, bring both hands up to the sky and place your left leg back with your heel at a 45-degree angle. This pose offers a full-body stretch.

Warrior II: This pose is the same concept as Warrior I but turned sideways with one arm forward and the other back.

Practices can start in any way but often include an opening “om,” chanted in sync to establish the bond of the class. Sessions tend to end with the final relaxation savasana before you sit up cross-legged to share a final “om” to seal the practice, lowering your head in a salute while uttering “namaste,” which means “greetings to you.”