The beginner’s guide to yoga
Want to know your pigeon from your downward dog? Here’s everything you need to know
It might seem like a modern fitness trend, but yoga has been practised in India for about 5,000 years. Yoga classes combine mindful breathing with physical poses called asanas – you’ll move or ‘flow’ through a series of postures while focusing on your breath, or do simple breathing exercises to relax the nervous system and calm the mind.
Yoga is an effective way to boost strength, balance, flexibility and mobility, and it’s never too late to start. ‘Yoga can balance both our bodies and our lives,’ says London yoga expert Mollie McClelland Morris. Studies suggest yoga can improve bone density, help with back pain, heart disease and high blood pressure, ease symptoms of stress and depression and even enhance memory.
Choose your style
Don’t worry – you don’t need to be super-fit or able to tie yourself up in knots. You just need to pick a class and style that suits your level. You can find a yoga class in your area on the British Yoga Wheel website.
If you’re a beginner, hatha is a great place to start – classes vary in difficulty but focus on asana or physical poses; think tree pose, forward folds and good old downward-facing dog. Ashtanga is a dynamic class based on a set order of postures, where you move up to the next set or ‘series’ once you’ve mastered the first. Vinyasa or ‘flow’ classes are energetic and allow the teacher to choose the blend of postures, meaning you work up a sweat but get a different class every time.
Looking for a gentler start? Iyengar yoga focuses on getting the basics right, using props like straps, blocks and bolsters to correct your alignment. Yin yoga is a slower style designed to improve flexibility and cultivate a mindful state of being. It targets the connective tissues in the hips, pelvis and lower spine – areas that tend to stiffen up when we run, play sports or spend too much time sitting down. Restorative classes are even more relaxing, using props to help you hold restful poses for up to 20 minutes at a time.
You can look for classes aimed at mums and babies, mums-to-be, or specific issues such as anxiety or insomnia. ‘Once you’ve tried your first class, or done a beginner’s course, try a few others,’ says Mollie. ‘Like anything, your personal chemistry with a teacher makes a difference. If you don’t love the first one, try a few others to see who inspires you.’
The right kit
Leggings or yoga pants with a sports T-shirt or vest top will work for most yoga classes. ‘Tops that are too loose can fall in front of your face when you fold forward, so it’s best to choose something more fitted,’ Mollie recommends. ‘When you try something on, bend forwards and backwards to make sure nothing pops out that shouldn’t!’
Mats and props are usually provided, but you can also choose to bring your own. ‘Mats that look glossy are usually very slippery,’ Mollie warns. ‘I generally prefer a tough, thick mat. If you are concerned about the ecological impact, you can get mats made from cork or tree rubber, rather than plastic.’
For hot yoga, you’ll need an absorbent non-slip yoga towel to lay on top of your mat. And don’t forget to rehydrate – Gaiam’s Easy Grip Water Bottle has a wide opening designed for ice cubes and is BPA-free.
Do it your way
It can be hard to fit a 90-minute yoga class into a busy schedule. But that needn’t mean missing out. ‘One of my first teachers said doing 10 minutes of yoga every day is more valuable than an hour once a week,’ says Mollie. ‘Try to do something every day, even if it’s just taking three quiet minutes to breathe.’
With a mat, a screen and internet access, it’s perfectly possible to do yoga in your bedroom or living room. ‘Online classes are great for beginners who want to try yoga at home,’ says Mollie. ‘But it’s best to combine them with studio classes, so a teacher can correct you.’
Mollie teaches online classes on Movement for Modern Life. Classes range from two to 90 minutes long, so you’re bound to find one to squeeze into your day. Alternatively, you could try an app like Find What Feels Good by Yoga with Adriene, which gives you access to hundreds of videos.
A helping hand
You only need a mat to get started, but yoga props will help you take your practice to the next level. Blocks, straps and resistance bands are great if you’re less flexible. ‘If you can’t touch your toes, stand up two yoga bricks and reach down to them instead,’ Mollie suggests. ‘For a longer reach when you are lying down, wrap a band or strap around your foot and hold that instead of struggling to reach your leg.’
Blocks, straps and bands also provide support. ‘Some people find sitting cross legged uncomfortable, so a block under each knee puts less pressure on the knees and hips,’ says Mollie. ‘In restorative yoga poses, straps help hold the legs in position so the muscles can relax. They can also help with bone alignment.’
You can also use a blanket for extra support and cushioning. ‘You can fold it under your knees for hands and knees poses, sit on it during seated poses and use it to cover up during relaxation,’ says Mollie. A yoga wheel will ease you into your first backbends and inversions by providing extra back support while improving hip flexor mobility and relieving tension in the back, chest and spine.
On the go
Going on holiday needn’t mean letting your new hobby slide. With a decent internet connection, you can use an app or online platform to do a full class wherever you are in the world. Save space in your suitcase by using a yoga towel as a non-slip travel mat, or packing a pair of non-slip yoga socks so you can practise without a mat. If you’re travelling by car, bus or train, simply pop your mat in a mat bag or carrier, or use a carry strap.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you could even try a local class. ‘If you are familiar with yoga poses, you can follow a class in a different language,’ Mollie says. ‘I’ve had great experiences in classes I only partially understood, because it challenges other ways of learning and observing.’
We recommend you consult your doctor before beginning a new exercise program.
Image: Getty Images