Fitness

A Beginner’s Guide To Yoga

There’s no doubt that yoga is everywhere at the moment. Whether it’s a bendy pro showing off a headstand on Instagram, mums on the school run discussing their downward dogs or even athletes on TV proclaiming the benefits of a few asanas, it’s hard to escape from. Keen to get started yourself? With a myriad of health benefits longer than your arm, we don’t blame you!

There’s no doubt that yoga is everywhere at the moment. Whether it’s a bendy pro showing off a headstand on Instagram, mums on the school run discussing their downward dogs or even athletes on TV proclaiming the benefits of a few asanas, it’s hard to escape from. Keen to get started yourself? With a myriad of health benefits longer than your arm, we don’t blame you!

The benefits

We know what you’re wondering – what makes yoga so special? There are plenty of other forms of exercise that can help you get lean and a number of different ways to de-stress after a busy day at work (Netflix and a hot bath anyone?), so why should this be replaced by a yoga session? To answer this, we need to go back to the basics.
“Yoga is a traditionally spiritual discipline that combines breathing exercises with meditation and physical poses,” yoga teacher Julie Montagu, aka the Flexi Foodie (juliemontagu.com), explains. “It is different from other forms of exercise in that it is concerned with both physical and mental health and it’s known to calm the mind, energise the body and strengthen the muscles. It can clear emotional blockages and balance your mind.”
In today’s busy society, this sort of mental release is not to be sniffed at. But, that’s not all yoga can help with. “It’s super beneficial for your health because it can quickly improve strength, flexibility and help to alleviate stress,” Julie adds. “As you become stronger and more flexible you will be less prone to injury. You will also be helping to protect your body from certain health conditions, such as arthritis and localised pain. Furthermore, tackling stress is essential for your all-round wellbeing, and will help to boost both your health and happiness.”
And what about the question on everyone’s lips: can it help shed lbs? “Yoga is an effective weight loss tool for two main reasons,” Julie explains. “First of all, yoga is great for helping to strengthen your muscles. Weight loss goes hand in hand with muscle gain as the more muscle you have, the more fat you will burn each day. Secondly, when you practice yoga you will be strengthening your mind and you will likely notice that you develop greater impulse control. This means that you could be less prone to snacking on junk foods as your resolve to stick to a healthy diet remains strong.
Furthermore, this type of exercise has been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. An increased presence of cortisol is known to have a detrimental effect on blood sugar levels, which can then leave you craving sugary comfort foods.” That sounds good to us!

Getting started

If you’re a yoga newbie, it’s easy to feel intimated by all the deep breathing and contortionist-like poses that are so often associated with the practice, but that needn’t be the case. The great thing about yoga is that it’s open to everyone (whether you can touch your toes or not) and whatever sort of workout you like you’ll find a class to suit your needs. In terms of kit, you don’t need to invest a lot of money to get started, which is great news if you’re still not sure if it’s for you. Just like a good pair of trainers is vital for running, a quality mat and some comfortable kit is key for a good yoga practice – but in most cases your existing sports mat and leggings and bra combo will work fine. Yoga blocks can also be used to help you achieve certain poses but they’re not vital.
While it’s possible to enjoy yoga at home, it may be wise to start with a class, so a teacher can be on hand to help you learn the poses correctly and get the foundations right.
“If you are just starting out with yoga then I would suggest that you take it slow and try a few different classes to find a style and a teacher that suits you,” Julie advises. “Once you have discovered the class for you, then try to complement your practice by learning at home alone too. There are loads of great online yoga classes that you can use to ease yourself into it.” We love the Yoga with Adriene classes on You Tube (youtube.com/user/yogawithadriene) and Yogaia’s online interactive studio offerings (yogaia.com).
The biggest barrier to starting yoga is often fear. But if you’re stressing out that you can’t touch your toes, stop worrying right now. Yoga is useful for everyone – whatever your range of movement.
“One of the many great things about yoga is that it quickly improves your flexibility and range of motion, meaning that you certainly do not have to already be flexible in order to get started,” Julie says.
Speak to your teacher about any injuries or specific concerns you have and they can allay your fears and ensure you steer clear of any poses that can exacerbate your problems. And, before you start thinking that you don’t have time to do 30 minutes of salutations every day, you should know that daily practice is not necessarily obligatory.
“If you are able to squeeze in just one yoga practice a week then you will be starting down the right path to enjoying the benefits of this exercise,” Julie says. “However, to truly feel these benefits in a relatively short time-frame, I would suggest that you partake in at least three sessions a week. These three sessions do not necessarily have to be in a structured yoga class, and you can always practice at home on your own!”

Choosing a class

Struggling to know how to pick a yoga class for you? Paula Ahlberg, who runs Wellbeing Warehouse (wellbeingwarehouse.com) has more than 20 years of experience in the industry and helps coordinate yoga teacher training courses, so is well placed to help you on your way. She says: “In my opinion, the best thing to do is find a studio which specialises in yoga rather than a gym or health club, or, if you can afford it, find an instructor for a couple of one on one sessions.
Check that your teacher has been trained with either Yoga Alliance or The British Wheel of Yoga and has completed at least a 200-hour course. Always inform them of any injuries you have as they should be able to offer you appropriate modifications. Start with a beginner class.
This will teach you all of the basic postures and ensure you learn the correct movements. After a while, you may be ready to progress to a Vinyasa flow yoga class where postures are built into flowing sequences. It is often best to ask your instructor if you are ready and able to move up into the next level of class. Finding a teacher who is right for you is quite personal. At your first class ask yourself: Do you connect with that person and are they attentive to whatever your needs are? A yoga teacher should be able to offer you support and guidance in whatever your chosen path or purpose for practising yoga is.”

Take your pick

There are various yoga classes available, each of which with a different focus. Why not try…

Vinyasa flow:

Participants in these classes are encouraged to flow from one pose to another without stopping.

Hatha yoga:

This is often a gentle class which looks at the physical aspects of the yoga poses, rather than, say, chanting.

Kindalini yoga:

This focuses primarily on awakening energy in your spine. It features nostril breathing and chanting.

Bikram yoga:

These classes feature 26 yoga poses to stretch and strength and are done in a heated room to help release toxins. Get ready to sweat!

Stretch it out

As eager as you may be, it’s important to understand that headstands may not be on the menu for a little while if you’re new to the practice. Instead, start slowly and learn the easy poses first. This beginner-friendly routine from yoga guru Tara Stiles is ideal.
1. Start in child’s pose. Sit your hips to your heels and relax your torso on the ground in front of you. Sway a bit if that feels good to you. Hang here for a few long, big breaths.
2. Staying easy in your body, when you’re ready, bring yourself onto all fours.
3. Roll around your torso how it feels good for you, arching and rounding your spine with your breath. Linger where it feels nice. Move with this for a few long, deep breaths.
4. When you’re ready, tuck your toes, take a big inhale, and lift your hips up and back to down dog.
5. Tuck your chin and roll out to your plank pose. Sway a bit side to side or forward and back if that feels nice.
6. Shift your weight to your right hand, lift your hips up, take a big inhale, and open your body to your left side. Maybe stay here or lift the top leg up or lower your bottom shin down, however feels nice for you. If you want some more stability, soften your right shin to the ground for support. Hang here for a few long, deep breaths. Come back to plank and try the other side.
7. When you’re ready, tuck your chin and roll out into plank. Soften your knees to the ground; sink your hips toward the ground.
Maybe look over one shoulder and then the other to open up a bit. If this doesn’t feel nice on your lower back, soften your elbows even more, opening up your middle and upper back. Take a big inhale and open your chest forward.
8. Soften your hips to your heels and relax in child’s pose. Let everything rest here for a few moments.
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