Prepare for your first yoga class with this Complete Guide to Yoga for Beginners.
Yoga Does Not Have To Be Intimidating
Long before I stepped foot in a yoga class, I started making healthy lifestyle choices and told my friend about it. I was eating whole foods. Drinking more water. Getting more sleep. I started meditating. My friend asked “So, are you a yogi?” Embarrassed that she said this strange word in public, I looked around to see if anyone else had heard her. No one looked at us funny so I assumed 1. “being a yogi” was a good thing and involved making healthy lifestyle choices, making positive environmental and social choices and 2. It had something to do with men in loincloths. All these years later, I can say I was definitely right about at least one of those things.
My irrational fear of wearing a loincloth was soon superseded by a new, more rational fear; I would leave my comfort zone of lifting weights and enter that mysterious room at the gym where they do yoga sometimes.
I got home and scoured the internet for anything i should know about starting a yoga practice. The internet in 2008 wasn’t what it is today. I found a couple random youtube clips of yoga and random blog, but i didn’t feel any clearer on what to do next, so I just showed up at the next class on the schedule.
Well, I almost did. I avoided it for a few weeks.. made myself late.. figured i could just stretch at home.. The truth is I felt intimdated. Uncomfortable with doing something in public that I had no experience with. Insecure what other guys walking by the room who see me in there might think.
Eventually, I made it to class, and I realized that those judgments existed solely in my mind. The teacher, the students and the practice of yoga is completely non-judgmental. In fact, it’s all about practicing self compassion and self care. I didn’t know most of the yoga poses, or, really, what i was doing, but that was never the point. It was a space for me to practice self awareness, develop strength, flexibilty and balance in a judgment free, supportive environment. As a side effect, we might eventually do some physically impressive postures, but the real benefit is what happens inside. I overcame that first hurdle of stepping into the room, and I left the room feeling amazing. I hope this guide helps you overcome potential hurdles to starting your practice so you can have similar benefits.
Why This Guide?
I know that having access to a “yoga for beginners guide,” or knowing where to start would have helped me feel more confident, be consistent and see progress in my practice. I didn’t know any of the yoga etiquette, the basic postures, or how to fit yoga into my weekly routine.
I wasn’t able to find that guidance back then, but i was able to get my practice started and after a few years make it a foundational part of my life before becoming a full time yoga teacher. I learned from going to hundreds of classes, reading dozens of books, practicing at home almost every day, completing over 2000 hours of teacher trainings and teaching over 3000 classes.
I made this guide so you don’t have to go through all that training to begin your practice. You don’t have to make the mistakes I made. By following this simple guide you can get answers to the questions that it took me weeks, months and years to learn.
Then, you can focus on the most important part of practicing; showing up to your practice, knowing you have the essentials down. Then, you can begin exploring all the depths of self awareness, flexibility, strength, balance and mental clarity that yoga has to offer.
I like to keep things simple and easy to reference, so I’ve organized all of my experience into the 10 most common yoga questions I had as a beginner and that i have heard from beginners. I hope you find this helpful, inspiring and clarifying.
This is Part ONE of a FIVE part series.
10 FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT YOGA FOR BEGINNERS (Part 1)
1. What is the best type of yoga for beginners?
For my first few years of practice, I didn’t know there were different styles of yoga. I thought it was all just “yoga.” I was surprised to go to a yoga studio and be asked “are you going to Hatha or Kundalini?” —- What? I have to choose? I just want to do some yoga.
It turns out there are many, many types or “styles” of yoga. There are at least 8 main types you’ll see at yoga studios and in online yoga classes. What are the 8 types of yoga? And which is best for beginners?
I’ve given an overview of each style and rated it as
1. BEST for beginners
2. GOOD for beginners
3. MORE EXPERIENCE RECOMMENDED for beginners
1. Hatha Yoga GOOD for Beginners
Hatha is a Sanskrit word, the origin language of Yoga. “Ha” and “Tha” translate to “Sun” and “Moon” - This style of yoga is about balancing opposite qualities of effort and ease, strength and flexibility. Expect to hold postures for several breaths, increase balance and focus your mind. Typically all levels, but some experience of basic postures, breathing and alignment helps.
Hatha is sometimes taught in a set sequence, and sometimes in a heated room, most commonly in the “Bikram Yoga” style, named after it’s founder Bikram Chouderoy. I have met people who have only ever practiced Bikram and were surprised to find that the extreme heat (105 degrees), the choice of pose names and the harsh languaging used by the teachers (“lock the knee!” “throat choked,” “push!” “like I’m pulling you by your hair.”) is unique to Bikram and not found in other yoga classes.
Modern Hatha Yoga gets much of it’s alignment, posture names and principles from B.K.S. Iyengar who wrote “Light on Yoga” and created “Iyengar Yoga,” a form of Hatha Yoga that is very precise in it’s alignment and sequencing. The names and cues Iyengar used for poses are still widely accepted and used by most yoga teachers today.
The primary source texts of Hatha Yoga are The Yoga Sutra (300 B.C.E.) and The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1600 C.E.). As you can see, even within Hatha Yoga, there are many other styles and variations. In general, a class titled “Hatha Yoga” is GOOD for beginners
2. Gentle Yoga BEST for Beginners
A version of Hatha Yoga with modifications to be less strenuous, but still include strength, flexibility and balance. Typically less standing postures than Hatha Yoga, and fewer advanced postures. Great for beginners, people with injuries, and anytime you want something more restful and less strenuous. Suitable to all levels. Gentle Yoga is the BEST place for beginners to start. Why? It’s highly adaptable, the poses are simple, and the pacing is easy to keep up with.
3. Yin Yoga GOOD for Beginners
The second slowest and the deepest stretching form of Yoga. Here you will hold postures 1 to 5 minutes. No standing postures. Little movement between postures. Focus is on increasing flexibility and releasing tension, little to no focus on increasing balance or strength. Equally challenging and rewarding as far as releasing physical tension and settling the mind. You may get halfway through class and realize that you have been exhausted and moving fast for weeks and relish in finally having the time to be still, as I have experienced in Yin Yoga. Some of the poses can be intense if you have limited flexibility, though you can always make modifications, and a good teacher will give you options. Gentle would be a better place to start, but if you have access to Yin class it is definitely a great place to start or include in your beginning practice. GOOD for beginners.
4. Restorative Yoga 2nd BEST for Beginners
What is the easiest yoga? As far as physical effort, that would have to be Restorative Yoga. The slowest form of Yoga, in a Restorative class you will hold postures for 5 to 25 minutes each. Often only practicing 2 to 5 postures during the entire class. This can be difficult if you are brand new to practice and feel a lot of physical tension or mental stress. Trying to be still for that long can be aggravating. On the other hand, having the space to be still for that long can feel incredibly relieving and relaxing. Many people fall asleep during Restorative Yoga and that’s ok, though not required. Expect to use lots of props. No focus on strength, flexibility or balance. Instead the focus is on activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System, or the “rest and digest” mode of the Central Nervous System. This is the opposite of the Sympathetic Nervous System, or the “fight or flight” mode. We are most often in some level of SNS mode throughout the day, and some people go long stretches without ever entering the PNS mode, so Restorative Yoga can be incredibly healing and, well, restorative. Restorative Yoga is SECOND BEST place for beginners to start.
5. Vinyasa / Flow MORE EXPERIENCE RECOMMENDED
A faster paced version of Hatha Yoga that is influenced by the primary sequence of Ashtanga Yoga. The word Flow and Vinyasa are often used interchangeably. Vinyasa means “to place in a way to direct prana (energy),” and can mean many different things, but is most commonly associated with the 3 pose sequence of moving from Chaturanga (low push up) to Upward Facing Dog to Downward Facing Dog. This sequence is challenging and, done safely, builds strength, flexibility and internal heat. For the average beginner, this is very difficult to do safely and repetitively while maintaining a relaxed breath. For these reasons, I recommend building your skill in Hatha Yoga first before trying a Vinyasa class. In the Vinyasa class, whether the teacher says so or not, you can always skip the “Vinyasas” and hold Downdog or Childs Pose instead.
Many beginners I meet have tension in their shoulders and upper back and would not benefit from doing dozens of pushups in a yoga class, so when I teach Vinyasa and Flow classes I often do not include many of these sequences, and instead focus on opening the chest and shoulder area while still making the practice vigorous and challenging. Still, despite not having the repetitive shoulder stress, I recommend building your overall strength, flexibility and balance first in Gentle Yoga, then Hatha Yoga before trying Vinyasa. By all means, you can jump right into Vinyasa, though, if you’re like me, it might leave you intimidated and drenched in sweat your first time. It’s important to note that there are many all-levels Vinyasa classes that are not as strenuous.
6. Ashtanga / Power MORE EXPERIENCE RECOMMENDED
Ashtanga is a specific lineage of yoga created by Krishnamacharya and Patahbi Jois in the early 1900’s. Ashtanga is a taught in set sequences, traditionally in a direct teacher-student relationship where the teacher gives you postures as you are ready for them. You practice 6 days a week and practice the same sequence of sun salutations, standing postures, seated postures and vigorous vinyasas. Ashtanga is the origin of modern Vinyasa yoga - which forgoes the set sequencing to include creative sequencing. Ashtanga is also the origin of modern Power yoga - which is a tern loosely used to mean more challenging, vigorous classes with emphasis on advanced postures, often in a heated room. Can beginners do power yoga? Yes, especially if you have a background in strong physical exercise. If you feel drawn to this style, a Hatha Flow, or Vinyasa class may be a better place to start to get an idea of the fundamentals first.
7. Kundalini GOOD for beginners
Kundalini is a word for the latent potential within all people, said to reside at the base of the spine until stimulated through breath and movement to rise up to the crown of the head, creating a “Kundalini Awakening.” This can be an intense experience if you are brand new to yoga, though many modern Kundalini Yoga classes are sequenced in a way that is accessible to beginners. This style is great if you have any sort of stagnation in your life; emotionally, physically, mentally or spiritually. Kundalini is about overcoming your perceived limitations in “Kriyas” or “acts” that sometimes resemble meditation, pranayama (breathwork), Yoga Asana, Tai Chi and Qi Gong. These movements are often said to have specific benefits for such things as the liver, the kidneys, increasing prosperity in your life, and just about anything else you can think of. There are over 3500 documented kriyas in the 3HO lineage of Yogi Bhajan, and many more in less popular lineages. This style is quite distinct from other Yoga classes and definitely worth exploring to see if it resonates for you. Classes can vary to a wide degree - from doing a single arm movement for 31 minutes - to doing a vigorous fully body sequence.
8. Yoga Nidra GOOD for beginners.
Nidra means “Sleep” and this practice is not about taking a nap, but about accessing the deep, relaxed state of theta brainwaves without actually falling asleep. This is said to have many benefits for the central nervous system - to enter the parasympathetic nervous system mode where the body rests, digests and heals itself. This practice can be difficult for complete beginners because of how much time is spent laying still. Typically, Yoga Nidra includes 45 minutes of laying down and mentally scanning your awareness to all areas of the body. It is encouraged to stay awake, though it is okay if you do fall asleep. If you fear you will feel restless laying down for 45 minutes, that is possible, though you may be surprised at just how relaxing the process is for you. One way to work around this is to arrive early to class and get some movement in so you feel ready to lay still.
Other Styles of Yoga
As you might imagine, there are far more styles than this, and there will likely continue to be new variations of yoga created every year (Doga, Goga, Naked Yoga, Symphonic Black Metal Yoga). That being said, Hatha is widely considered the foundation of yoga, and Gentle Hatha Yoga is a great place to start.
This is all assuming you are looking for asana-based yoga. You may be surprised to learn that none of these are the most popular form of Yoga in India, it’s country of origin. In fact, the most popular form of Yoga in India is “Bhakti Yoga,” which has little do with postures at all, and involves “Bhakti” or “devotion” to ones spiritual beliefs, practices and teachers. Most often through chanting mantra and making offerings. This is not as popular in America, though you can find “Kirtan” chanting events in most major cities and it is a great way to get to experience Bhakti Yoga for yourself. The mantras are often simple and made easy to follow along with handouts. This is a much bigger topic but, in short, you do not need to follow any religious or spiritual belief to chant mantras as part of a Bhakti Yoga practice like a Kirtan.
Your One Next Step
I’m all about making things simple and applicable with One Next Step you can take after reading this. So, in short, seek out a Gentle Yoga practice to start, and you’ll like find a great introduction to the basics. With time you will build confidence with the essentials of alignment, breathing and mindfulness. The more consistently you practice the more benefits you will begin to see.
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