You’ve probably heard that yoga can improve your health—from decreasing stress to strengthening muscles to alleviating symptoms of certain medical conditions—but you may be unsure how to get started. It’s no wonder: Gyms, health centers and studios offer so many types of yoga that figuring out which one is best for you can be a little overwhelming. Whatever has piqued your interest in yoga, rest assured there’s an enjoyable, health-boosting practice that’s just right for you waiting to be discovered.
Health Benefits of Yoga
Yoga is a mind-body practice with origins in ancient Indian philosophy. Each style utilizes a different combination of postures and deep breathing techniques for meditation, relaxation and strength, flexibility and balance. Yoga is a great escape from the stresses of everyday life, helping you feel more peace throughout your day. With its quiet, precise movements and focus, yoga draws your attention away chaos toward calm. Studies have shown that people who do yoga regularly enjoy reduced stress levels compared to those who don’t practice.
Yoga can be a powerful form of medicine, too. The practice of yoga has been associated with lower blood pressure, slower heart rate and reduced cholesterol levels, all of which contribute to decreasing your risk of having a heart attack. It has also been shown to lower glucose levels in diabetics. Other health issues positively influenced by yoga include asthma, menopausal hot flashes, arthritis, insomnia, depression and back pain.
Not all styles of yoga burn lots of calories, but yoga is associated with weight loss. In one study, overweight men and women who did at least 30 minutes of yoga once a week lost about five pounds over five years, while those who had similar diets, were just as active but who did not practice yoga gained about 14 pounds during that time. Researchers suspect that yoga may help by improving body awareness and reducing stress, which can encourage you to make better food choices.
Is Yoga Right For You?
Anybody who wants to feel less stressed and enjoy a stronger, more flexible body can do yoga. For beginners, it’s a great way to ease into doing regular exercise. And for everyone else, any style of yoga can be a respite from the challenges of everyday life—a time to refresh, rejuvenate and focus on you. Avid exercisers and athletes, such as runners and cyclists, will benefit from the cross-training effects. Yoga stretches out overused muscles and strengthens weak areas to reduce your risk of injury.
Remember, you don’t have to do every pose or hold them as long as the instructor or the person on the mat next to you does. You’ll get more out of the practice and reduce your risk of an injury if you work within your personal limits and don’t focus on what others are doing.
If you have balance problems, uncontrolled high blood pressure, glaucoma, severe osteoporosis, artificial joints or are pregnant, talk to your doctor before beginning a yoga practice. If you get your doctor’s OK, discuss your condition with your instructor. You may need to avoid or modify certain types of poses.
How to Get Started
Yoga's popularity has led to a wide range of classes at gyms, health clubs, community centers and studios, plus a huge selection of DVD and online classes.
Most of the styles you’ll see include three components: The physical postures are called asana. The breath work is called pranayama. And dyana is meditation. Each of these fundamentals offers a variety of benefits, and different styles of yoga may emphasize one aspect over another.
You won’t really know what a class is like until you attend it. Even when two teachers use the same name to describe their classes, the experience may be quite different. Each teacher brings his or her unique focus and personality to a class. You should find an instructor you connect with and a class where you feel comfortable.
Most gyms and studios have mats on hand that you can borrow or rent for a small fee, or you can purchase one of your own at a sporting goods store. You may want to bring a small towel and bottle of water to use during class. Wear comfortable clothing—stretchy fabrics that move with you and don’t feel tight work well for yoga.
To narrow your search for the right class, choose a style that’s most appropriate for your goals.
If you’re just getting started, think you’re too inflexible for yoga or have an injury or medical condition, try…
Iyengar, Hatha, Kripalu or Viniyoga
All of these styles feature slow, gentle movements. You’ll hold poses for a long time and focus on proper alignment, which makes them ideal for beginners. Iyengar also uses a variety of props, such as block and straps, to make poses easier if you have limited range of motion. For example, if you’re sitting and reaching for your toes, instead of straining to grasp them, you’ll loop a strap around your feet and hold onto it.
If relaxation is your primary goal, try…
Deep breathing and quiet poses like Legs Up the Wall, where you lie on the floor with your legs extended vertically on a wall, are the mainstay of these types of classes. Blankets, bolsters and blocks are used to support your body so you can fully relax as you do traditional yoga poses such as Child’s Pose. There’s no pushing yourself, and you won’t find any active postures here.
If getting in shape or losing weight is your desire, try…
Ashtanga, Bikram or Power Yoga
These athletic forms of yoga are more vigorous because you’re moving from one pose to another at a brisk pace. The higher intensity will increase your calorie burn, build more strength and enhance your endurance more than other styles. Both Bikram and Ashtanga have a specific series of poses that are done in any class you take. Bikram takes place in a room that’s heated to 100 degrees or more so you’re guaranteed to sweat.
If you’re interested in the spiritual side of yoga, try…
This style includes more meditation than other types of yoga, plus chanting. Its primary focus is the philosophic aspects of yoga.