Demystifying the principles of today’s hottest fitness
Maybe you’ve always coveted the sleek muscle tone, amazing flexibility and serene demeanor of its practitioners.
Perhaps your doctor recommended it as a way to manage your high blood pressure. Or maybe it was a friend who raved about it and begged you to take a class with her. Whatever the case—and with New Year’s resolutions in the air—you’re now thinking of starting yoga. If only you knew where to begin.
Once a secretive discipline known only to yogis in India, yoga is now the fitness routine of choice for 12 million Americans who want to stay healthy, relaxed and spiritually connected to life. To the uninitiated, yoga can present a challenge unknown in other forms of exercise that don’t have its 5,000 years of spiritual tradition behind them.
Any beginners wonder if taking yoga requires contemplating the divine—or simply doing it to get those buns of steel and six-pack abs. The good news is that, with nearly two dozen yoga styles thriving in America today, options abound to suit every taste. With a little groundwork, you can find exactly the style that satisfies your needs.
Yoga, from the Sanskrit word meaning “to yoke,” aims to bring about “the true union of our will with the will of God,” according to yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar in his classic text Light on Yoga (Schocken Books, 1966). At their origin, yoga postures helped ready the body for sitting meditation. But what began as a spiritual pursuit has become a more corporal matter in its American incarnation.
Today’s yoga enthusiasts tend to seek proper posture, heart health, stress reduction, even weight loss, although the spiritual benefits still permeate the discipline and generate interest. In practicing the hundreds of physical poses, or asanas—forward bends, backbends, twists, inversions—21st century yoga enthusiasts can still strengthen and join body and mind in a way that benefits overall well-being.
All styles of yoga focus on healing body, mind and spirit, but the emphasis placed on each of these aspects will vary by teacher, yoga style and class location. One class might emphasize chanting and meditation with gentle postures, while another might seem as sweaty as a step class and equally as secular, at least at first blush. Still other classes incorporate intense spirituality and heavy physical practice—or take a lighter approach to both.
Because of this, your intention is key in determining the best approach. “Before signing up for that first class, you need to think about what you hope to gain from yoga,” says Beryl Bender Birch, founder and director of The Hard & The Soft Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Manhattan and East Hampton, N. Y., and author of Power Yoga and Beyond Power Yoga (Simon and Schuster, 1995 and 2000). “If your goal is fitness,” she says, “look for a teacher that emphasizes this aspect.” Yoga styles like Ashtanga or Bikram can be more vigorous, and therefore a good choice if you’re looking for a strong physical practice. Other schools, like Ananda, will emphasize relaxation, focusing on a more gentle path to spiritual growth. (See “What’s In A Name,” for definitions of popular yoga styles.)
Once you’ve narrowed the field, it’s time to put on some comfortable exercise clothes, gather up a sticky mat or towel and try a class. “Go to a school or gym that has an intro class,” says Seane Corn, a teacher at Yogaworks in Santa Monica, Calif. “I recommend that people start out with an Iyengar class, as this is the most technical and intelligent form of practice on a physical level. Certified Iyengar teachers are really trained well in this regard.” Once you have the basic breathing techniques and postures under your belt, she says, explore other styles—like the Vinyasa flow variation she teaches.
Traditionally, yoga revolved around a close guru-student relationship. Today, some teachers still work with this dynamic, but the vast majority simply teach the poses and introduce yogic principles. Still, finding the right teacher can influence how much you get out of the practice. “Don’t be shy to ask a teacher about his or her experience and credentials,” says John Schumacher, an Iyengar instructor and director of Unity Woods Yoga Centers in Bethesda, Md., Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Va. “They should be glad to tell you.” Then take a class with that teacher, and see if you respond favorably to him or her on a personal level. “If you don’t have a good rapport with your instructor, you won’t hear what he or she has to say, and your practice will suffer,” he says.
When you find your place in yoga, you’ll likely experience profound changes in your health, your eating patterns, your posture, your outlook. From here, the temptation is to do too much too quickly—a common mistake that can lead to injury. “Some beginners sign up for classes that are too advanced, and their egos make them stick it out,” says Corn. Indeed, pain begets no gain in this discipline. “It’s partly the teacher’s job to observe the students and keep them from injury,” says Schumacher. “But the student needs to pay careful attention as well. All pain is something to be avoided if you’re just starting out. Inform your teacher if something hurts."
As your practice grows, you’ll find that, like anything, you get out of it what you put into it. “We would never go to a piano lesson once a week without practicing and expect to play well,” says Schumacher. “The same goes for yoga.” Try establishing a home practice of as little as 10 minutes a day to supplement your class attendance. You might also sample one of the many home videos on yoga now available for all disciplines and levels.
Birch suggests looking at the practice as a process rather than as an attainable skill—one that will change as your needs and abilities change. “Unfortunately, the people who need yoga the most tend to find it uncomfortable, as it challenges their extreme tightness and misalignment,” he says. “They sometimes give up. If you are one of these people, I say keep trying, because it gets much easier with practice."
But before thinking you might eventually outgrow yoga, take note. “Some people actually find it too easy at the beginning, and they’re bored,” muses Birch. “Stay with it, though, because if you choose to challenge yourself, it can get a lot harder."
Practice Poses: Take Five
No matter what yoga style you choose, your teacher will most likely include some of these common poses, which make a great mini home practice.
Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Stand tall with your feet together, arms at your sides and toes spread wide. With an inhalation, lift the crown of your head, lengthening your spine. Exhaling, root your feet more firmly into the ground, distributing your weight evenly on all parts of both feet. Lift your chest, drop your shoulders and draw the tailbone down. Lift your kneecaps. Maintaining a soft gaze, continue breathing fully for several cycles, “scanning” your body for places of discomfort.
Benefits: Fosters postural awareness and counteracts the ill effects of poor sitting and standing habits.
Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Come into a table position on the floor, with knees hip-width apart. With an exhalation, curl your toes under and lift your tailbone up into the air. Straighten your legs, trying to drop your heels to the floor. If your back starts to round, keep your knees bent and your heels lifted. With each inhalation, lengthen and straighten your spine; with each exhalation, raise your tailbone, pull in your stomach muscles and try to straighten your legs a bit more. Breathe deeply for as long as is comfortable, then rest.
Benefits: Targets stiffness in the shoulders, strengthens the leg muscles and relieves fatigue.
Start in Mountain Pose. Step your feet apart about a yard, then turn your right foot out 90 degrees. Turn your left foot slightly in and, with arms outstretched, lean to the right, as if reaching over a countertop. Drop your right hand down to your ankle, and raise your left arm up towards the ceiling. If you can’t keep your legs straight in this posture, or your back starts to round, rest your right hand higher up on your leg, just below your knee. With each inhalation, rotate your left shoulder back to allow your front chest to open and your spine to lengthen. Come up slowly, and repeat on other side.
Benefits: Facilitates digestion, opens the hips, stretches the hamstrings and lengthens muscles that support the spine.
Lie on the floor belly-down, resting your forehead on the ground. Place your palms on the floor, just below your shoulders. Inhale, straightening your legs and pointing your toes. With an exhale, slowly lift your upper torso, pushing your hands into the floor. Keep your arms close to your body, shoulders down, buttocks tightened. Lift your chest, maintaining the pose using the muscles of your back, not just your hands. After a few breaths, rest, then repeat.
Benefits: Counteracts effects of poor posture while strengthenimg and relieving back muscles.
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Lie on your back with your arms to the sides. Let your legs and feet fall naturally to the sides; close your eyes.
Soften your facial muscles, tongue and jaw. Take several deep breaths, releasing any places of tension in your body.
Focus only on your breath, bringing your mind back to this when it wanders. Rest for 10 minutes or longer.
Benefits: Promotes total relaxation of body and mind, engenders awareness and releases tension and stress harbored in the muscles.