By: Anastasia Hamurari, Yoga Instructor
The Complete Lowdown on Yoga:
What You Need to Know
Gyms, wellness centers, and yoga studios are popping up all around you.
As more people adopt active lifestyles and embrace the healthy-mind-healthy-body culture, you’re wondering about yoga.
What is it exactly?
Great question! In this article, we’re going to tell you all you need to know about the practice of yoga.
In the modern fast-paced world, everyone, young and old, is working hard in pursuit of some worthy title, to the point of exhaustion. This leads us to forget how to slow down and live in the moment – the very thing that yoga has the power to reverse.
Read through our guide that has every piece of information you’ll need to start doing yoga on a regular basis, and perhaps even acquire a professional yogi certification. Once you educate yourself on the topic, you’ll have what it takes to not only excel at the practice but also influence your friends to join you.
What is Yoga?
First of all, let’s not confuse yoga with religion, philosophy, or a lifestyle. Let’s think of it as a combination of physical movements that are accompanied by meditative breathing. These movements are perceived as a series of postures created to improve your balance, increase your flexibility, and make you physically and mentally stronger.
Although yoga is now a westernized term, it wasn’t always known to the western population. The concept of yoga took off in the late 19th century when monks in India started sharing their knowledge about spiritual practice with westerners. Tourists arriving in India were curious enough to learn a few ins and outs of the practice and adopt the findings in their own lives. As time passed, television networks along with ayurvedic and holistic teachers spread the word about yoga, and by the 1970s everyone and their uncle knew about yoga.
The yoga of today drastically differs from the yoga of the past – it has since acquired many forms to accommodate everyone, including those with physical disabilities and the elderly. This, however, didn’t change the fundamental premise of yoga that fosters the connection between the mind and the body.
With regular practice, people start seeing progress in how mentally stable and physically advanced they feel. Avid yoga enthusiasts note that their stress levels drop, they acquire emotional awareness, and they are better able to control the quality of their breathing. They also state that their physical endurance rises dramatically and they are able to alleviate some chronic conditions.
What are the benefits of yoga?
The ancient practice most certainly has more benefits than we can list. This prompts people to feel motivated and carry on with their yoga routine even when it gets challenging. With scientific researchers becoming interested in the advantages of doing yoga, you can rest assured that you’re not wasting your time executing at first, seemingly impossible to achieve poses.
Perhaps the most common benefit of yoga is improved flexibility. Contrary to the popular belief that you have to be flexible to start practicing yoga, the plasticity of your body develops as you dive deeper into the practice. There are no physical prerequisites for improving the existing level of flexibility – it is all about working with what you have got. You will soon observe how you ‘all of a sudden’ are able to touch your toes, hold the perfect posture, and even do a backbend.
The more you experiment with yoga poses and learn the new ones, the healthier your bones become and the better your blood circulates. Researchers from California State University came to the conclusion that yoga’s tendency to lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the body is closely linked to the increased bone density. Since you are moving your body in every direction and stretching every muscle, you are receiving more oxygen in your cells, which results in healthier blood flow.
An exemplary posture is another benefit you get from adopting yoga into your lifestyle. In spite of our lives being so much more technologically advanced in the new century, we continue to struggle with poor posture more than ever before. Yoga helps to release the unnecessary tension imposed on the spine and keeps your inward neck and back curves in the healthy, non-flat state.
Another great benefit associated with regular yoga sessions is the improved nervous system that results in relaxed body muscles and better focus. With daily stress becoming an inevitable part of our lives, we need to find ways to get rid of the tightness in our bodies and maintain a healthy nervous system. This is where yoga helps yet again – it encourages a slow breath, that shifts the focus from the infinite ‘to-do’ list to the present moment.
A boosted immunity is also a direct outcome of a systematic yoga practice. When combined with some form of meditation, it does wonders for your body, starting with fighting off the common cold, to mitigating the immune system’s improperly belligerent function towards autoimmune diseases. Who wouldn’t give their all to have a perfectly well-functioning immune system that doesn’t fail at the sign of illness?
Don’t forget about the basic benefit of increased happiness. You have heard it right – yoga has the power to make you a happier person as your cortisol levels decrease and serotonin levels increase. It’s been proven that consistent yoga practice can help those dealing with depression, and potentially eliminate the need for drug intake. This fact alone is sufficient to turn sceptics into believers and consequently practitioners of yoga.
Getting Started: Yoga Styles
You might be surprised to find there are several styles of yoga that meet different needs. One person stretching in a child’s pose is doing a completely different yoga type to someone chanting in a lotus pose. To find what style resonates with you the best, read through the descriptions we’ve created for each of them.
Yin Yoga: Helps increase flexibility
Combining relaxation and just the right amount of intensity, Yin yoga incorporates 3-5 minute poses that are usually performed in seated and lying down positions. Its aim is to release tension through prolonged stretches and promote flexibility in the spine, hips, and pelvis area. People who suffer from constant stress and chronic illnesses will find this style of yoga to be particularly helpful in the long run.
Hatha Yoga: Helps promote strength
During Hatha classes, you will be holding somewhat challenging poses that are intertwined with appropriate breathing techniques. This practice focuses on the alignment between mind, body, and spirit and is usually executed in a slow-paced manner. The best part is that you can do it at 10 and at 80 years old – there is no age limit. As a result of consistent exercise, your entire body will be toned and strengthened.
Vinyasa Yoga: Helps breathe correctly
While Hatha yoga implies poses with resting sessions in between, Vinyasa yoga sets out to create a sequence, or a so-called flow of movements that are synchronized with the breath. It is the breath that helps you move from one pose to another without needing a break. Beginners find this style of yoga a great starting point when getting acquainted with the more spiritual practice, as it offers flexibility, strength, breathing techniques, and meditation all in one cycle.
Kundalini Yoga: Helps develop spirituality
If we dive deep into the essence of yoga, we will observe that this discipline is fundamentally spiritual. Its main purpose is to develop harmony between ourselves and our surroundings, which is where Kundalini yoga comes into play. This yoga style involves repetitive movements that are accompanied by mantras, chanting, and meditating. Yogis recommend practicing Kundalini to awaken inner power through opening the chakras.
Ashtanga Yoga: Helps perfect skills
Recognized as a modern-day type of classical Indian yoga, Ashtanga is a step up from the other yoga styles, from both the poses and breathwork perspective. It represents a series of physically demanding poses performed at a fast pace that is complemented with the right type of breathing. The movement sequences are repeated one after another and are not to be interrupted with water breaks.
Bikram Yoga: Helps lose weight
You might be more familiar with the term ‘Hot yoga’ than you are with ‘Bikram yoga’, although, in essence, they are the same thing. This yoga style is differentiated by the 26 poses and 2 types of breathwork that are repeatedly performed for 90 minutes in a room heated to 105°F. The heat stimulates profuse sweating that helps to get rid of the accumulated toxins. Bikram yoga is a pleasant alternative to cardio – it makes you lose weight while also building muscle strength, improving flexibility, and increasing concentration.
Iyengar Yoga: Helps recover physically
Being the opposite of the flow-type of yoga, Iyengar has a strong emphasis on holding poses for long periods of time to achieve the best results. You are provided with yoga straps, blankets, and blocks that assist with the proper alignment and the development of flexibility. Since your yoga teacher is well educated on the topic of common injuries, you can gradually get back into practice with minimum discomfort.
Restorative Yoga: Helps relieve stress
If stress relief is your biggest priority, Restorative yoga might just be the right style of yoga for you. During this practice, you will use yoga equipment to destress your body and mind from day-to-day anxiety. Gentle backbends, twists, and relaxed forward bends are some of the poses you will be doing, each for 10 minutes at a time. Expect to experience some soft stretching and, inevitably, an overall relaxed state and alleviation of chronic pains.
Getting Started: 10 Basic Yoga Poses
For a beginner, the number of yoga styles and poses that come with them might seem overwhelming. How do you choose what to start with and what direction to take? As your practices become more regular and your body more resilient, you will want to take on more challenging poses. For starters, however, let’s stick to these 10 basic poses:
Downward-Facing Dog Pose
This pose is present in almost every yoga sequence. It helps you stretch your arm and leg muscles and acquire strength. You should use it as a bridge that connects one movement with the other.
- Start on all fours and lift your hips off the mat while your hands are spread shoulder-wide on the floor.
- As your butt is facing the ceiling, straighten your legs to the best of your ability and press the heels firmly onto the mat.
- With your head between your shoulders, engage your core and hold the position for 6-8 breaths.
You can modify the pose by bending the knees if your hamstrings are too tight. To relieve the pressure on your wrists, spread your fingers as wide as you can, or change the pose to balancing on your elbows.
Warrior I Pose
To build strength and endurance, make sure to include Warrior I into your yoga flow. It targets the muscles of your entire body while also stretching your hips and thighs.
- Take a big step back as you would for a lunge and turn the back heel 75-degrees forward.
- Bend your front leg 90-degrees at the knee and keep your back leg straight.
- Lift your chest, bend your back, and reach arms overhead.
Note that for this pose your hips have to be facing forward – they should be parallel to the front of the mat. If you find this hard to achieve, you might want to increase the distance between your front and back leg.
Warrior II Pose
This pose is the sequel of the Warrior I and is the perfect starting point for the triangle and similar side poses. It opens up the hips and facilitates a deep inner thigh stretch.
- Take a big step back as you would for a lunge while keeping the toes of your front foot 90-degrees straight, and toes of the back foot in a perpendicular 45-degree angle.
- Bend your front knee so that it is right above your ankle and keep your back leg straight. You should be able to draw a straight line between the two heels.
- Twist your torso in between hips, extend your arms straight to your sides,with your head facing forward.
Typically, warrior poses are held for 5-10 breaths and are repeated on both sides for better results. Also, don’t let your bending knee move past your ankle. If this happens, decrease the depth of your lunge.
An all-around toning pose like this should be on everyone’s ‘to-do’ list. It opens up your chest, stretches the sides of your torso, and strengthens your legs muscles at the same time.
- Resuming from Warrior II, straighten the leg in front of you and extend your arm of the same side, fingers toward the mat.
- Lean your torso forward and open it up to the back leg’s side.
- Raise your other arm up towards the ceiling and hold the position for up to 8 breaths.
If it is too challenging for you to touch the ground with your fingers, consider resting your arm on your knee. Alternatively, you can use a yoga block to place your bottom hand onto for additional stability.
To develop balance, gain focus and clarity, and learn breathing techniques, practice tree pose. This seemingly easy pose religiously startles beginners who underestimate the power of stillness in yoga.
- Beginning with your feet standing firmly on the ground, place your right foot on the inner thigh of your left leg.
- With your knee bending at a 45-degree angle, lift your hands to either a prayer position or overhead.
- Find an object in front of you and fix your gaze while you hold and breathe for 5-8 breaths.
To get the most out of a tree pose, try not leaning onto the leg you are standing on and keep your core engaged. If you find it hard to maintain the balance, switch legs, or find a better point to fix your gaze.
Not foreign to other forms of physical activity, this pose teaches you to keep balance while building your core and upper body muscles. There’s a certain element of challenge to it, but it proves to be rewardful.
- Begin by standing on all fours and slowly reposition your body – lift your knees and extend the legs in a straight line behind you.
- Ensure your palms are firmly attached to the mat and are shoulder-distance apart from each other.
- Keep your spine in a straight line position while engaging your core and looking at the mat.
You can hold this position for as many breaths as you find possible to handle. While you do so, don’t let your shoulders rise to your ears so that they gain muscle strength too.
Low Plank Pose
No doubt, this pose is one of the toughest postures in yoga that beginners can brush up on as they gain more strength in arms, shoulders, and core. Also known as the Four-Limbed Staff Pose, it works as a preparation for the more difficult arm-balance poses.
- From holding the plank pose, shift forward, and lower your body until it’s hovering a little above the mat.
- Keep your body in a straight line and your arms bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Hold the pose for 2 breaths.
Remember that your shoulders and elbows have to be at the same height when going into a low plank. If this seems too hard at first, try doing the pose from your knees before you feel strong enough to move over to all fours.
This powerful backbend is worth incorporating into your yoga sequence as it builds your back strength without too much effort. You can also stretch your chest and shoulder muscles by doing it after a series of challenging moves.
- Start by laying down on your stomach and placing your palms flat under your shoulders while bending elbows.
- Lift your chest off the mat and create a half-moon upward line with your spine.
- Pull back your shoulders as much as you can and hold the pose for a couple of breaths.
When doing the Cobra Pose, you can either lift your chest up fully and gaze at the ceiling or lift it halfway up and stare at the mat. The more flexible you get, the higher you will be able to lift your chest, and the deeper the bend will be.
Seated Forward Bend Pose
You can do this pose at the beginning and at the end of your yoga practice to stretch your hamstrings and your back. It helps to release the accumulated tension and increase your flexibility.
- Sit with your back straight and your legs extended out in front of you.
- Bend forward and either grab the outer sides of your feet or place your hands on the mat.
- Once you start feeling the tension, hold the pose for 6-8 breaths and release.
The aim of this pose is to stretch your body and encourage flexibility. For this reason, don’t shy away from bending your knees so that your back is aligned with your spine.
Hands down everyone’s favorite part of a yoga sequence is when they get to lie down in a Child’s Pose. It can be done in between the grueling movements when your energy levels start decreasing and at the end of your yoga practice for a few moments of total relaxation.
- From standing on your all fours, sit your butt on your heels and extend your arms in front of you.
- Rest your head on the mat and allow your body to replenish.
- Hold the pose for a few slow breaths until you are ready to carry on with your practice (or stay put for longer if you are done with your daily practice).
By learning how to do this pose, you can use it every time you need a break from a stressful day. It has the power to calm down your nervous system and prevent you from a mental breakdown.
To reap the benefits of consistent yoga practice, learn to breathe into the pose, and listen to your body when it needs a break. Once you remember to breathe into the tensed areas, you will find yoga poses less challenging and start enjoying the practice.
Getting Started: Equipment & Attire
It can get overwhelming trying to decide what yoga equipment to invest in and what clothing items to choose when just starting out. The yoga industry has grown dramatically over the past several decades, and so did the number of manufacturers. This shouldn’t be an issue, however, as you hardly need anything to start practicing yoga. Don’t make the mistake of spending hundreds of dollars on purchasing every piece of equipment you can find – stick to basics and you will do just fine.
The rule of thumb is for your yoga attire to be comfortable, breathable, and of good quality. A typical yoga outfit consists of a pair of yoga pants (or shorts), a sports bra, and a top. Your yoga pants should be stretchy and form-fitting so that no fabric interferes with your movements. If tight bottoms are not your cup of tea, go for joggers or harem pants that have an elasticized hem. When doing hot yoga, shorts with spandex lining underneath work the best.
Yoga is not as intense as some other forms of workout are, which means you don’t have to wear a tight sports bra that restricts your movements. Pick a bralette you feel the most comfortable in and put a figure-hugging top over it. We wouldn’t recommend going for a loose top as it will most definitely fly over your head during yoga flows. If you are feeling fancy or simply can’t bear the thought of doing yoga barefoot, slip on a pair of grippy socks and you are all set.
Depending on whether you will be doing yoga at home or at the gym, you might not even need to purchase a yoga mat. If you do, however, decide to invest in your own mat that will meet your personal needs, stick to the following criteria. When choosing what yoga mat to get, make sure it has good traction, a medium level of thickness, and an easy-to-clean surface. Consider scrolling through Amazon for budget-friendly models or checking with your local yoga studio for premium-quality yoga mats.
As you acquire more confidence and find out what yoga style you prefer the most, you can think about investing in yoga blocks, straps, wheels, and other gear. They are helpful for achieving the body twists and bends that would otherwise be more difficult or even dangerous to achieve. These tools, however, are not essential and are merely a supplement to your yoga practice.
Getting Started: Studio Class vs. At-home Practice
One of the most frequently asked questions beginner yogis have, is whether they should enroll in the classes offered by their local yoga studio or practice yoga at home. Truth to be told, there is no one universal answer to this question. Some might prefer leaving their house a few times per week and socialize with friends while doing yoga, while others might find themselves more productive staying at home and following a YouTube tutorial. To learn what tribe of yogis you belong to, evaluate the perks of both scenarios.
Studio Class Pros
The main difference between a yoga practice at a studio and yoga practice at home is that the former provides you with hands-on guidance. Newbies who tend to have a theoretical knowledge of yoga, will greatly benefit from real-life instructions and proper feedback. Yoga teachers do their best when explaining the yoga sequences the class follows and fixing your posture when needed, which cannot be said about the at-home practices.
There is nothing more empowering than seeing people bonding over a shared hobby. This is perfectly applicable to offline yoga classes where you can meet like minded people and even make friends. It can be a nice excuse to get out of the house and socialize, all while immersing yourself in a newfound recreational activity. On top of that, when you finally connect with someone, you can keep each other accountable and work towards your common goals together.
In comparison with the at-home yoga practice, you get access to a much wider stock of yoga equipment when exercising at the studio. Public spaces tend to acquire all the necessary gear so that you wouldn’t have to pay for anything except for the membership. As a result, you can incorporate more diverse poses to your practice and consult with yoga teachers when using yoga equipment.
Following up on the previous perk, yoga studios are distinguished by their vast range of yoga classes including hot (Bikram) yoga, aerial yoga, and even prenatal yoga. Depending on the class, you will get to learn from yoga instructors specializing in different types of yoga. This fact raises the credibility of teachers and your stimulus to explore the new yoga variation you would never try otherwise.
At-Home Practice Pros
Those who are on a tight budget, without doubt, will be the first candidates for at-home yoga practice. Apart from a yoga mat and an internet connection, you don’t have to pay for anything. Surely, there are apps that offer their services for a fee, but there are also plenty of free-of-charge guides and videos you can use for your at-home yoga session. Some of those are Find What Feels Good, Asana Rebel, Pocket Yoga, Glo, and Yoga International.
In contrast with the yoga studio classes, you can go at your own pace when practicing yoga from home. There is zero peer pressure and an infinite amount of time you can spend on perfecting a yoga pose without feeling like you’re holding up your classmates. Besides, you can pause and rewind the yoga tutorial as many times as you want until you get the gist of the crow pose or the one-handed tree pose.
You would be surprised by how many of those exercising away from their home claim that they feel self-conscious when surrounded by other people. Whether it is because of the lack of their expertise or the continuous comparison to others, the effectiveness of those workouts is far from optimal. The at-home practice, on the other hand, allows you to rehearse the same yoga poses many times and not worry about anyone judging you (although this is very unlikely).
The skill of juggling work, leisure, and relationships doesn’t come easy, and long commutes combined with the less-than-convenient timetable of yoga classes can take a real toll on you. With at-home practice, you don’t have to think about where to park your car, how much traffic you will encounter on the road, and how much meal prep you have to do for your kids before you leave the house. You can squeeze in a yoga practice as early as 6 AM before everyone is awake or as late as 10 PM before going to bed and not depend on anyone else’s agenda.
As you can tell, there are advantages to each of the scenarios. Your choice will merely depend on the lifestyle you have and the sacrifices you are willing or not willing to make in favor of yoga. Generally speaking, social butterflies who crave personal interactions with a yoga teacher and their peers will be motivated to enroll in the yoga studio classes. Alternatively, those who prefer creating their own schedules and not adhering to the already established by yoga studios timetables will lean towards at-home yoga practice. If you are flexible with your time, you can even attempt to combine at-studio and online classes to get the best of both worlds.
How To Become A Yoga Instructor
Once you have fallen in love with yoga and want to inspire others to incorporate the spiritual practice into their lives, you might start brainstorming about how to become a yoga instructor. A career in yoga can indeed be rewarding – you can do what you are passionate about and help others sync their bodies with their minds.
To turn this goal into a reality, you can choose the certification program that easily fits into your schedule and gain the required knowledge in a matter of months. Review these 5 steps to becoming a certified yoga instructor and see what you can start doing today:
1. Determine what style of yoga you would like to specialize in
As we have already discussed, there are several yoga styles you can dive deeper into depending on your personal preference. From Vinyasa and Bikram to Ashtanga and Hatha and beyond, you have to recognize what style of yoga speaks to you the most. Keep in mind that your chosen style has to be in alignment with the demographic audience you are going to be teaching, so choose wisely.
2. Enroll in the 200-hours+ yoga teacher training course (TTC)
To start teaching yoga, you have to undertake a Yoga Alliance-approved course that will enable you to become a registered yoga teacher (RYT). The most popular 200-hour courses are extensive enough to train you on the yoga peculiarities like human physiology, correct breathing techniques, and the philosophy of yoga.
You will learn how to get the most from yoga poses, how to create a connection between the body and the mind through the practice, and how to align this knowledge with day-to-day life in order to give it more meaning. The more hours the yoga teaching course has, the more theoretical and practical information you will get. Some of the most well-recognized yoga courses are Yoga Dicha in Tulum, Mexico; Samasti Yoga in Bali, Indonesia; Sri Yoga Ashram in Rishikesh, India; One Yoga in Koh Phangan, Thailand.
3. Apply for your RYT certification
Consider yourself (almost) all set – you have completed the TTC that now enables you to register with Yoga Alliance and receive your certification. Although not every employer requires you to have an RYT certification, the majority of yoga retreats and studios would prefer for you to have it so that your expertise and rules-abidance is not doubted. Moreover, once you have your certification, you get access to the community benefits like free online workshops, invitations to events hosted by the organization, and discounts for yoga apparel, insurance, and software.
4. Get an insurance
It is crucial to have insurance before you start teaching yoga to others. No matter if the yoga studio you will be teaching at is able to cover you or not, you have to take full responsibility for yourself and get both general liability and professional liability policy coverages. Only if you are covered, can you safely teach yoga and not worry about someone getting injured under your guidance and suing you as a result. Accidents do happen even to the most experienced yogis, so it is better to be safe than sorry.
5. Network and start teaching yoga
Your yoga teaching experience will highly depend on the connections you make with others. So, make an effort to put yourself out there, join communities of like minded people, and know your market inside out.. Once you do your part, you will find it easier to get work gigs and acquire the much-needed yoga teaching experience. And, don’t forget to always keep learning and advancing your skills in this craft to bring new opportunities into your life.
Now that you know what it takes to become good at yoga, it is time to apply the theoretical knowledge into practice. Start with creating a schedule for your practices and committing to sticking with it. It is easy to get off the track and think to yourself that you will get to it later, but the truth is – you won’t. To not stall and actually reap the benefits of regular yoga practice, pick the style of yoga you are most interested in, wear your most comfortable clothes, and maybe even find a workout buddy to keep each other accountable.
Becoming ‘good’ at yoga has nothing to do with your flexibility skills or any other outside factors. It has, however, everything to do with your goal-oriented mindset and persistence that will help you get on the mat. Focus and strive for that body-mind connection. Do challenging poses while inhaling into the tensed moments, shut your mind off during practices, and remember your ‘why’. Namasté.