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You might be wondering:
Can you start a yoga practice even if you can’t touch your toes with your nose, or fold yourself inside out while maintaining a serene state of Zen?
You may also be wondering: Does practicing yoga mean that you’ll soon be wearing Birkenstocks non-ironically while your hair starts to dread from washing it purely with coconut oil as you sign off emails with “Namaste”?
Even though from the outside the yoga community may seem like a wacky cult involving rituals around spandex leggings and vegan iPhone cases – I promise you we’re really nice people.
And the iPhone cases are actually gluten free.
In this article I will hold your hand and take you through the ins and outs of yoga for beginners. By the time you get to the end, you will not only thank me for my gentleness, but also feel fully informed in all things yoga.
What is Yoga Really?
Yoga is more than just a serious of uncomfortable positions.
It’s true that you will get into positions that are uncomfortable – but don’t you see how that’s different?
When you first start taking yoga it’s intimidating. Many of the poses are referred to in their Sanskrit names, and often a teacher will start class chanting words you don’t understand. For all you know you could be singing along to the lyrics of White Snake, but in some ancient tongue.
Look: The main thing for you to know is that you don’t have to know what’s going on when you first start. Like anything in life, it’s a learning process that will take time.
In the beginning your teacher will sound like the grown ups in Charlie Brown, but after a few classes “Womp womp womp womp,” will eventually sound like “bend forward into uttanasana.”
Did I lose you already? Stay with me now!
Think of yoga like this:
You have your mind, your body, and your spirit, and yoga will work all these parts of you.
In many physical activities we can find these moments where we lose ourselves in the flow state.
It’s that place where you’re not thinking, or hearing the dialogue of your ego chatting away endlessly in your brain, but you’re genuinely focused on what’s happening.
The journey of yoga has a lot to do with discovering that state not only during your yoga practice, but also in life.
You will train your mind just as much as your body – and your spirit goes along for the ride.
The benefits of yoga are not just physical, but also mental because it helps your well-being, ability to focus, and stress levels – as long as you don’t get stressed out about headstand because that is not the point!
Benefits of Yoga: What's all the Fuss About?
In our Western sedentary world we often have to make time for movement. We no longer live in those innocent times of the past where we used our muscles throughout the day by hunting for food, harvesting wheat, or running after witches in Salem circa 1692.
Most of us spend hours sitting in front of computers, driving, at work, on the couch, or in line at the grocery… because man I’ve been here FOREVER!
Yet the human body is made for movement. It is crucial to our mental and physical health.
So what can we do with our bodies that is strength building, enjoyable, and doesn’t involve 78 selfies per gym visit?
The West is obsessed with yoga because it fills so many of the existential holes of our modern society. It brings you into your body, reminds you to breathe / de-stress, and it has a spiritual component that appeals to millions.
Our contemporary world has changed so drastically since the industrial revolution and yoga connects us to our ancient human roots in a way that pumping iron in front of a mirror just can’t.
Yoga isn’t just some new age fad, but rather a movement that connects us to our humanity.
Yoga poses all have emotional components.
Heart openers genuinely do make your heart more open in life and hip openers help release emotions we have stored in them for years.
Each and every pose has a purpose of not only strengthening your muscles, but also of cleansing the feelings you have stored inside your body.
If you think I’m a hippy weirdo for saying your emotions are packed in your body like a suitcase from that vacation you took 25 years ago, just think of how many times you’ve been anxious about something and your neck started to hurt, or your stomach ache.
There are many times physical ailments come from our emotional distress and yoga will help release those old feelings like a kraken.
Just in case you’re not convinced yoga will also….
Want to discover more benefits? Check out our BIG list of yoga benefits.
3 Yogis On Why They Practice Yoga
People do yoga for a variety of reasons. Some of which may include one or more of the benefits we just went over.
Whatever has brought you to yoga, once you begin your practice, you will see how the teachings impact your entire life.
Here below, three influential yogi’s share what brings them to their practice, and what keeps them going.
Yogi Jessamyn Stanley
Jessamyn is one of my personal favorites.
In a world where yoga is marketed by skinny white women that ultimately is alienating to everyone else, Jessamyn shatters all expectations. She has a beautiful practice, and I highly recommend you check her out.
In her own words:
Yogi Rachel Sarnoff a.k.a 'Mommy Greenest'
As a CEO, author and blogger and avid yoga practitioner, Rachel has a lot on her plate.
In an honest post over at her blog MommyGreenest.com, she shares the interesting story of how her reasons for practicing yoga have changed as she’s grown older.
Rachel experienced excruciating body image as a young woman. But as she started practicing yoga regularly in her 20s, the physical changes in her body as well as the strength gains she was experiencing helped her start accepting herself.
This was an incredible breakthrough and kept her going on her yoga journey.
In her own words:
“I learned to stop hating my body. I stopped starving and bingeing. I threw away my scale and began to…I wouldn’t say embrace, but definitely accept, my curves. My new affirmation? I may never be skinny, but I can be strong.”
With the negative body image out of the way, here’s what keeps her excited about her practice today:
Yogi Dan Nevins
Dan, a highly decorated soldier, is a double amputee who lost both his legs below the knees in the Iraq war.
Today, Dan is a professional speaker who is inspiring audiences all over the world.
His spirit, attitude, and eventual journey into yoga saved him from suffering from PTSD. Inspired by how yoga helped in his recovery, Dan became a Baptiste yoga teacher in 2015.
A military man may not the person you’d expect to be a yoga teacher, yet that’s exactly why he’s so fascinating.
The Different Types of Yoga – Which is Right for You?
Not all yoga classes are the same.
Just like there are different styles of music, there are many genres of yoga; for example the energetic Katy Perry Vinyasa flow, or a more mellow Bob Dylan yin yoga, or perhaps the somewhat rigid Sting Iyengar yoga.
No matter your personality type, there is a yoga style that suits your needs.
If I were you I would be promiscuous when it comes to yoga. Try some things out, get to know the different types of yoga, see if they have a good relationship with its mother.
At different points of my life different styles have appealed to me.
Maybe you like a style but the teacher makes you want to punch yourself in the face. Don’t let that one teacher put you off. Think of it as a life long expedition into your body and psyche.
Allow for variation, exploration, and vulnerability.
This is one of the more broad terms for yoga classes, but it focuses on holding poses and breath. It tends to be a slower paced class, because you are doing less poses but for a longer period of time.
This is a great class for beginners for it gives you time in each pose to really settle in.
The extra attention paid to the breath is also crucial for beginning yogis because yoga without proper breathing is Guantanamo Bay style torture. Connecting to your breath is crucial when it comes to yoga because it helps you relax into the poses. Stiff poses are much harder to hold than when you are breathing fully and finding a feeling of buoyancy.
Yes yoga can actually make you feel lighter even when you’re working harder!
These tend to be slightly rigorous classes that center on salutations (aka moving through a series of poses).
Vinyasa actually stands for “a methodical progression from one point to another” and the classes are energetic, and flow through poses to build heat throughout your body.
There is also a connection to the breath through movement, and an emphasis on transitioning from one pose to the next with equal importance to the pose itself. Vinyasa is one of the more popular forms of yoga, but I think it is best practiced after a few months of a more slower paced, alignment oriented practice.
Out of the types of yoga I discuss on this page, Iyengar is the on that’s most focused on alignment and subtleties of each pose. It is slow paced, but very detail oriented.
I highly recommend this class for beginners.
It’s not the same “work out vibe” as for example Bikram (read about Bikram further down) but you will learn the fundamentals, which is crucial.
Iyengar yoga often uses props to help each yogi, no matter their flexibility, find proper alignment of each pose.
I cannot stress enough how important this is. When you understand this aspect of yoga, you can go to any class and protect yourself from potential injury.
In America we often think to push harder means better, but in yoga having proper form is much more important than sweating through your eyeballs.
Yin Yoga/Restorative Yoga
These yoga classes are more about relaxation then pushing your body to build strength.
They work well for beginners, and are great for the mind and spirit. Teaching yourself to genuinely relax and open has huge positive repercussions.
However, I do not recommend jumping from restorative to Vinyasa class because you will be slightly lost.
Yin is more challenging than restorative as it applies moderate stress to the connective tissue, tendons, fascia and ligaments – with the aim of increasing circulation in the joints and improving flexibility. Yet yin is still a more passive practice.
These yoga styles are a great tool on your yoga journey, yet I would personally recommend them as a complement to another kind of yoga that you practice on a regular basis.
This yoga form was brought to the West by Yogi Bhajan and is in my opinion pretty hard-core.
On the one hand it is great for beginners because there is lots of repetition, and the poses are less complex. There is a major emphasis on breath synchronization and the practice is designed to awaken the energy at the base of the spine in order to draw it upward through each of the seven chakras.
On the other hand – even though many of the Kriyas (series of movements) seem simple – you are sometimes asked to hold your arms out for 7 minutes. Now that may seem easy to do, but after the first minute your brain will be telling you repeatedly and relentlessly to put your arms down…
… for the entire next 6 minutes.
I think kundalini is endlessly fascinating, but it does attract a certain type of person. If you go to a class and find it’s not for you that doesn’t mean you should not try other yoga classes!
Bikram or 'Hot Yoga'
Bikram was founded by Bikram Chaundry and is the same class every time you go, no matter where you go.
There are two breathing techniques and 26 copy written poses you go through in the same order, and hold each one twice. First for one minute at a time, then 30 seconds.
What most people think about when they hear “Bikram” is heat and sweat. In Bikram the room is heated to exactly 105°F (40.6°C), with a humidity of 40%.
The heat is designed to flush out toxins and help you get into poses more easily.
Being in a very hot room is not for everyone, nor is having zero variation from class to class.
Bikram is one you’re going to have to try, but I do not think it represents all yoga. So don’t let it discourage you if you’re not a fan of creating a slip and slide with your own sweat on the yoga mat.
Many who go feel almost addicted to the rush of it, so it does impact a certain type of person profoundly.
It was brought to the west by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and it is not fucking around.
There are six series in total, increasing in difficulty as you move from the primary series on. In order for you to learn the next series, you have to master the first.
As you work on one series, the class is the same set of poses, in the same order every time. This repetition helps train the mind, as well encourages you to truly understand each pose in a deep way. It is fast pace, and pretty challenging.
It can work great for beginners because it is the same, so you know what to expect. It also makes it so you can see obvious progress. “Oh now I can do the full bind in that pose where before I couldn’t.”
My mom loves this type of yoga because she can track her development and she’s very goal oriented.
Most Ashtanga studios offer what’s called “Mysore”-style classes, which allows students to work at their own pace but to still be assessed by senior instructors.
Ashtanga builds strength and endurance and is well suited for type A personalities.
Yoga Lingo: What's Up with All the Gibberish?
As a beginner yogi you may have a hard time understanding a lot of what the teacher is saying. For some reason, teachers in particular are often very keen on using the original Sanskrit term for almost everything.
Don’t worry though, no one expects you to know a bunch of Sanskrit words when you’re just starting out, and you’ll learn over time.
And in case you’re wondering what the hell Sanskrit is, it’s one of the terms we cover here below:
12 Common Yoga Terms
Asana: Yoga pose
Vinyasa: a series of poses strung together in a sequence
Sanskrit: An ancient language that is used for the poses and many of the chants.
Ashram: a spiritual hermitage or a monastery in Indian religions.
Namaste: a respectful greeting / salutation to you.
Om: a mystic syllable, considered the most sacred mantra in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. It appears at the beginning and end of most Sanskrit recitations, prayers, and texts.
Chakra: (in Indian thought) each of the centers of spiritual power in the human body, usually considered to be seven in number.
Drishti: Drishti comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “gaze” or “view.” Many think of it as describing the position and placement of your eyes during an asana practice
Bandha: any of the three inner knots or locks that hold the pranic energy or psychic energy within certain areas (chakras) of the body. There are three bandhas: Mula Bandha, Uddiyana Bandha and Jhalandara Bandha.
Sacrum: a triangular bone in the lower back formed from fused vertebrae and situated between the two hipbones of the pelvis.
Mantra: (originally in Hinduism and Buddhism) a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation.
Where to Start
Unless you are a SUPER motivated person who is also a super hero in your spare time, I recommend you start by taking classes. I’m sure where ever you live there are multiple options.
If you have the funds, try to get a private lesson every now and again, because often times you won’t get a lot of feedback from teachers if the class is crowded. These private lessons could give you something to work on for a few months. We are always working on something, and having a direct action plan can be very helpful.
Also when starting a new class, tell your that teacher you’re a beginner and would like corrections (either through touch or verbally depending on your comfortability). The more you let your teacher know that you are looking for guidance the more they will give it to you.
If you are feeling shy and maybe intimidated at the thought of going to a class full of strangers, or if you already have a strong physical understanding of your body, then maybe a home practice could work for you!
Yoga Class Etiquette
Much like you wouldn’t go to a fancy restaurant and burp loudly “thank you” as your plate’s being taken away, or fart in your hand and throw it at the waiter; there is a certain etiquette to yoga as well.
The more considerate people are of each other, the better the yoga experience is.
Also, since yoga is more than just a physical experience, being extra aware of your behavior during your practice is also part of the practice!
The main thing is to be mindful, but you’d be surprised how many people are the opposite. There is nothing worse than an asshole yogi, because seriously you’re missing the point!!
Here are some tips to not be a d*ck.
Kind of like your mom, yoga teachers will repeat themselves.
It’s not because they have early onset Alzheimer’s, but rather because they are trying to be the voice in your head that you should hear on your own eventually.
When you get into a yoga pose you don’t want to just say to yourself “this sucks” the whole time, but you want to be thinking about a series of instructions of how to deepen your pose.
Eventually you won’t even have to think these things, it will just come to you naturally.
So listen to your yoga teachers and their suggestions!
Here are some basic themes you will hear them mentioning.
Unless hyperventilating is something you’re exploring in your spare time, learning to control your breath is a crucial part of your yoga practice.
Often times during physical exercise we tend to tense up, forget to breathe, or breathe in shallower manner. Yoga continually encourages us to focus on breath in order to calm the nervous system and oxygenate the blood.
When you breathe through your mouth, it tells your body that it is in a state of stress.
When you breathe through your nose, this signals to your body that you are not in danger.
Yoga will teach you to use your lungs to their full capacity, and breathe deeper into them. This is a HUGE PART of why you are there; so don’t tune out breath work because it’s not building muscle. It’s helping your body to function better, and heals your organs!
This refers to how your joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and bones line up.
Yoga is all about angles, and what angles your body is creating. You want to be HYPER AWARE of this, because when the angles are wrong, the energy can get stuck and you can injure yourself.
This is probably the hardest part of yoga to wrap your head around it the beginning.
I suggest you look at some yoga poses, either drawings, or yogi masters, and observe the angles they are creating with their body. How their knees line up over their ankles during lunges. How the wrist lines up with the shoulder during side plank.
If you think of a telephone wire, you don’t want that bent or twisted because that will obstruct the flow.
Same with your body.
Alignment is MORE important than doing something wrong but touching your toes while grimacing. Does that make sense?
You will hear a LOT of talk about this.
Your Mula Bandha is your root lock, or pelvic core. It is a deep part inside of you that all movement should originate from.
Your core is what connects your upper and lower body, and your limbs to your torso. Core strength is what will help you in almost every pose you do, and in life in general.
When you are in a pose, and your core is not engaged, your alignment will be off and everything will feel very heavy and hard to hold.
When you engage your core, you will be more lifted, and will actually support your limbs. You want to be careful not to splay in the ribs, or allow your rib cage to open in most poses.
You don’t want to tuck your pelvis to engage your core, but actually knit your ribs together and lift in the Mula Bandha. This is best practiced lying on the floor, as it is subtle but crucial movements.
Yoga Equipment and Props
When you walk into a yoga class you may have questions about what the “props” are for:
“Is this strap for some light BDSM during class? And if so, do I have to partner with that extra sweaty guy who still has some burrito in his beard from his trip to Costa Rica during the 2012 Mayan apocalypse?”
Or.. “What do I do with this block? Throw it at the teacher when I don’t like the pose they suggest?”
Not if it’s wooden you don’t!
The props are there to help you with your alignment and deepen your practice.
Don’t fear them! Use them.
As the most essential and basic of all props, the yoga mat provides cushion for your knees and toes and prevents you from slipping around on the floor.
If you’re like most yogis you’ll most likely want to get your own mat because you will be sweating and putting your DNA all over it.
Yoga blocks are great to help find proper alignment when your flexibility is holding you back and are almost an absolute necessity for beginners so always grab them in the beginning of class.
Unless you’re doing a home practice there is no need to purchase your own blocks because practically any good studio will have free access to them.
Interested in getting started with blocks? Check out our Yoga Blocks Beginner’s Guide.
Much like blocks, straps help with creating correct alignment when flexibility is impeding your energetic flow.
Available for free in most classes, straps are of great help to beginners, so always grab a strap in the beginning of class.
Often used in restorative classes, bolsters are pillows that you can lay on that help you slip into deeper relaxation in restorative poses.
Not to be redundant but blocks are also offered for free in almost every class so there’s no need to purchase your own unless you are doing a home practice.
10 Essential Poses for Beginners
Yoga is a series of shapes that you do standing, on the floor, upside down etc.
You will notice the patterns over time, such as:
“Oh… this supine twist is a lot like revolved triangle!”
Yes! It is!
Here are some poses that are great for beginners. Hopefully these will become “staples” that you will continue to practice for the rest of your long yoga life!
This pose strengthens your arms and shoulders and is good release for lower back. It can eventually be a restful pose, and decrease stress.
How to do it
Simply get on all fours and push up and back, bringing your pelvis towards the sky.
Your lower back is the MOST important thing to be aware of this pose. Many will round their lower back to compensate for tight hamstrings or calves.
It is much better to bend your knees and maintain length in the lower back than get your heels to the floor. You want the crease between your upper thigh and abdomen to be tight, or that angle to be sharp. If you need to bend your knees, please make sure to track your knees over your toes. You don’t want your knees to turn in which is a common problem in this pose.
The plank strengthens your arms and core.
How to do it
To perform this posture, get on all fours and extend both legs holding yourself in push-up position.
Remember to line up wrists and shoulders. This pose is just as much about your core as it is your arms. Don’t allow your butt to dip down, or hold it up too high. Keep your core engaged, and don’t let your head to drop either.
Strengthens arms, shoulders, and core.
How to do it
Get in plank or push up position, roll forward on your toes, and lower the body towards the ground.
This one many people do wrong and hurt their rotator cuff in their shoulder. You must lower your body down in one piece – like your arms are an elevator for your body. You must come forward on the toes before going down so as to create a 90-degree angle with your elbow, wrist, and shoulder.
If when you go down and your elbows create and acute angle, you are not far enough forward. This is VERY important.
If you do not have the strength to create the 90-degree angle, simply hold plank and go right to upward dog during a vinyasa. Or do a very small chaturanga and build the strength over time.
Never allow an acute angle with your wrists, elbow, shoulder because your shoulders will dip forward and collapse.
Strengthen legs, opens hips.
How to do it
Stand in wide legged position. Turn front foot out perpendicular to mat and bend that knee. Back foot parallel to mat. Lift in lower abs and extend arms. Make sure your knees are over your ankles and do not allow your knee to go past your toes!
Remember to lift in the lower abs, and not to lean too forward. Lifting in those lower abs will help the torso to not pitch towards the front leg. Don’t allow your shoulders to lift high towards the ears. Keep breathing them down so your shoulder blades are on your back.
Great for balance and focus.
How to do it
Stand at the front of the mat. Raise one leg and place it on thigh (or calf if less flexible). Press hands together in prayer/ Press your foot into your thigh and your thigh into your foot with equal pressure.
Don’t pull the knee to far back, for it will throw you off. Allow the knee to fall within your natural turnout. With the leg that’s up, don’t let the hip hike up with it. Keep the hip bones balanced on the same plane. Use your eyes and focus on one spot to help with balance.
Helps with leg flexibility, releases lower back, hip stretch.
How to do it
Stand with legs apart and hips facing forward. Back foot at 60 degree angle, front foot perpendicular to mat. Bow forward and keep hips aligned by bringing front hip back and back hip forward.
Much like downward dog, don’t allow tightness in the legs to compromise your lower back. You want your lower back long and length through the spine and out the crown or your head. Don’t let your head dip down. If need to, use blocks to maintain straight legs and a long back! A rounded back defeats the purpose.
Seated forward fold (either legs together or straddle)
Good leg and lower-back stretch.
How to do it
Sit on floor and extend legs either together or part.
This is a BIG one to think about:
Most people have their pelvis tilted back, therefore shortening the lower back when doing forward folds.
Imagine your pelvis is a bowl of cereal. When you do a forward bend, you want to pour the cereal out your front, not the back.
If your pelvis can’t tilt forward, put a blanket under your sitting bones for height. This will help you tilt your pelvis forward and lengthen in the lower back. Again don’t allow leg and hip tightness to compromise lower back. You want it LONG, not compressed.
The more you focus on that, the more protected your back will be.
Upward facing dog
Opens the heart and chest area, builds flexibility in back.
How to do it
Lie on tummy, bring hands under your ribs, then push up so you arms are straight and your chest is coming through your arms. You can stay on top of the toes, or curl toes under if you’re less flexible in the back.
This one you really want to make sure your arms are not hyper extended (over bending in elbow) and your shoulders line up with your wrists. Don’t allow the head to fall backwards and compress the neck. Keep length in the back of the neck when allowing the face to tilt up.
Increases blood flow, and brings new perspective.
How to do it
Clasp hands and bring them around head. Bring head to ground and lift your hips. Walk your feet in until you can lift them from the ground.
I would not kicking your legs up in order to get into the headstand. Instead you will want to lift your legs with control by using your core strength.
You have to be able to bring your hips over your shoulders, then lift the legs up together, or one at a time. You can tuck them both in so you’re in an upside down ball, and lift from there as well.
Make sure your elbows don’t splay out. Keep them in line with your shoulders. If your elbows go out, you can hurt your shoulders, and it’s harder to balance. You can use a strap to keep your elbows in line.
Strengthens legs, builds core.
How to do it
Stand with legs apart, back foot parallel to mat and front foot perpendicular. Extend arms and lean forward until you can longer. Bring bottom arm down to floor, shin, or block and extend top arm.
You want to keep your legs straight and your lower ribs long. Many people compress those lower ribs because they want their hand to be on the ground. It’s better to use a block, and really pull those lower ribs underneath you to find length. Don’t allow the top arm to fall back and pull your shoulder out of alignment. Keep that top arm in line with the shoulder.
Yoga has a flow to it. Certain poses stream into others, because the transition from how you get from one pose to another is JUST as important as the pose itself.
Think of it as a dance, and how you move through the poses is part of the expression.
Here is a flow for you to try!
Warrior TwoTriangle Pose
Head to Knee/ Pyramid Pose
Step forward to standing Tree Pose
Step Back to Triangle
Head to Knee/ Pyramid Pose
Downward Dog(repeat on other side)
Seated Forward Bend
Wrap Up, Strap Up, and Get Your Asana ON!
I hope that I’ve opened up your third eye and it’s now bright and shining with the truth that yoga is for you!
No matter what your body type, there is a practice that will suit your needs.
No matter what your emotional struggle, there is a yoga that will benefit you. No matter what your spiritual questions are, there is a yoga that will feed that part of your curiosity.
Yoga isn’t a means to an end. It’s an end in and of itself.
The whole point is that just being on the path is enough; no matter how sweaty, or how many times you fall off a balance.
Just showing up is what matters and I hope this guide has helped guide you through all that you needed guidance on!
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