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A Beginner's Guide to Yoga

Yoga Styles, Props, and Fitness Plans

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Yoga, which comes from the Sanskrit yuj word meaning "union," originated in India more than 5,000 years ago. There are many forms of yoga, but in general, yoga focuses on breathing techniques (pranayama), postures (asanas), flexibility, and meditation (dhyana). It can be very spiritual, linking the mind, body, and spirit.

But you don't have to be a Birkenstock-wearing vegetarian to enjoy or benefit from a regular yoga practice. Yoga offers all practitioners—whether you do it once a week or twice a day—an increased mind-body connection, greater flexibility and strength, improved balance and coordination, and stress relief. Here's what you need to know to start your own yoga practice today.

Styles of Yoga
If you're new to yoga, you might not be sure which class or video to start with. Here are a few of the most common yoga styles that are popular today:
  • Ashtanga yoga (also referred to as Power yoga) is a fast-paced, intense yoga style. It focuses on constant movement from one pose to the next. However, this system does allow each student to work at her own pace.
     
  • Bikram, or Hot yoga, is practiced in an environment where the temperature is 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat promotes intense sweating that will loosen tight muscles and facilitate cleansing of the body.
     
  • Hatha yoga is a general term. These workouts usually include basic introductory yoga poses, and move at a gentle and slow pace.
     
  • Iyengar yoga may be the most popular style practiced in the United States. With this style, poses are held for a longer duration. The purpose of this is for students to recognize the subtleties of each posture and to pay attention to their musculoskeletal system and body alignment. Using props (blocks, belts, blankets, etc.) to accommodate a variety of fitness levels and special needs is common in Iyengar yoga.
     
  • Vinyasa yoga includes more aggressive stretches. These workouts focus on sun salutations and the connection of breath and movement.
Yoga Props
Even if you don't practice yoga regularly, you can really benefit from using yoga props—especially if you are new to the practice of yoga. Here's an introduction to common props and how they are used:
  • Yoga mats (or "sticky" mats) provide a thinly-cushioned, non-slip surface for yoga practices and work best when used on a smooth floor. Their sticky surface can be easily cleaned, and they roll up for easy storage and toting. Yoga mats are now available in extra-thick varieties as well. A basic yoga mat will run around $20. Extra-thick, as well as "designer" prints and colors will cost more. You can also find eco-friendly yoga mats (made from recycled materials, biodegradable materials, and/or natural and sustainable plant fibers such as hemp and jute) starting around $40.
     
  • Yoga blocks (or bricks) allow you to stay in proper form, even if your strength and flexibility levels don't. Blocks are rectangular-shaped, allowing you to use them at three different heights, depending on your needs. One use for a block, for example, would be during a forward bend. If you can't touch the floor, you can place the block accordingly so that you can remain in proper form, resting your hands on the block itself. Since each pair of sides is a different height, you can slowly progress in your poses until you don't need a block at all.
     
  • Wedges are triangular shaped, like a door stop, but much wider and softer. They provide extra support and prevent overstretching while sitting (underneath the hips), standing and squatting (underneath heels), and when your weight is in your hands (underneath palm/wrist).
     
  • Yoga straps (or belts) are great for beginners or individuals who are less flexible. By holding a strap with both hands, it can help you stay in a pose longer and in better form. They can be used for seated stretches (around the feet in a forward bend) and one-legged standing poses (placing the strap around foot to aid in lifting or reaching your limb). Straps are also great for general flexibility training.
It's easy to incorporate props into your workout in a matter of seconds (when they're within reach). Many yoga studios will have most of these props (and more) available for students to use during classes, but you can also purchase your own to use at home or take with you to the gym.

SparkPeople Yoga Poses
Several of SparkPeople's exercise demonstrations are based on yoga poses. Here are a few that will help you improve your muscular strength, flexibility and coordination:
  • Airplane Pose: Strengthens the lower back and stretches the hamstrings.
  • Camel Stretch (Cow Pose): Stretches abs and chest.
  • Cat Stretch: Stretches back and neck.
  • Child's Pose: Stretches the hips, thighs, and ankles.
  • Dolphin Pose: Strengthens arms and stretches hamstrings and calves.
  • Gluteal & Outer Thigh Stretch (Sage Twist Pose): Stretches the hips and spine.
  • Groin Butterfly Stretch (Bound Angle Pose): Stretches inner thighs, groin and knees.
  • Hamstring Stretch (Standing Forward Bend): Strengthens thighs and knees and stretches hamstrings, calves and hips.
  • Plank Pose: Strengthens abs, arms, wrists and spine
  • Reverse Plank Pose: Strengthens arms, wrists, shoulders, lower back, abs and hamstrings.
  • Seated Forward Bend: Stretches the spine, shoulders, hamstrings.
  • Side Plank Pose: Strengthens arms, abs, legs and wrists and stretches the hamstrings; improves balance and coordination.
  • T-Stand (Standing Splits): Strengthens shoulders, hamstrings and glutes and stretches groin, inner thighs and hamstrings.
  • Triangle Pose: Stretches the thighs, knees, ankles, hips, groin, hamstrings, calves; shoulders, chest, and spine.
  • Upward Dog: Strengthens spine, arms, wrists and stretches chest, shoulders, abs.
Adding Yoga to Your Fitness Program
We often hear questions about where yoga fits into a fitness program. Is it cardio? Strength training? Stretching? Yoga is a unique form of fitness that encompasses some of these principles. A good fitness program includes cardio (at least 20 minutes, three days per week), strength training (for every major muscle group, at least two sessions per week) and flexibility training (ideally every time you exercise or at least three times per week).

Yoga itself cannot provide you with the same benefits as cardio and strength training. However, SparkPeople's experts consider yoga to be a great addition to a well-rounded fitness program. Yoga is great for flexibility (especially if you tend to skip stretching altogether). And while athletic yoga styles (such as Ashtanga) may elevate your heart rate to an aerobic level, the average calorie burn of a yoga class is not comparable to running or other forms of cardio. Consider yoga to be a restorative practice, offering diverse benefits that enhance your overall fitness level and mind-body connection.

The following links will help you begin a yoga practice:
  • www.YogaFinder.com: The world's largest yoga directory. Find classes, studios and private teachers in your area.
  • www.YogaJournal.com: The voice of yoga online. Get step-by-step instructions, workouts, articles and more. 
  • www.Gaiam.com: Retailer of various yoga props, kits, books, videos and DVDs for a variety of fitness levels.
You can practice yoga as often as it fits into your schedule, whether once a week or daily. Each session can be as long or as short as you'd like, whether you choose a few poses that you enjoy or take a 90-minute yoga class. No matter how often you do yoga, you will begin to see positive outcomes with consistent practice. Namaste!

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Member Comments

  • So relaxing. Love yoga.
  • ETHELMERZ
    There must be a dvd out there for people with certain afflictions to do yoga-like moves at home, safely and at their own speed. No cute little class will do this, I can assure you!!
  • Yoga is great! And for those of us with mobility and other challenges, remember there are some terrific chair yoga videos and DVDs. I like the info in this type of blog, but few include any info or references for those who have trouble with balance, standing, etc.

    One thing to keep in mind is that yoga is a gradual process. Folks will need patience, because the improvements will be subtle: more flexibility, better balance, increased strength, and so on. Classes are great, but practicing at home in between classes will provide greater benefits.
  • A.DRAGONFLY
    For some of the comments regarding balance problems or limited movement due to arthritis, you might ask at the YMCA if they have a seniors' yoga class. I saw a lady today who was using it as therapy after a stroke. They modify the poses and use props, including chairs to sit and still be fit.
  • JUNEBUG3333
    l also hope there can be something with yoga for movement that can help someone like me who is afraid of falling and breaking my bones with this arthris so don't get out to work out much , if someone hears of anything please let us know
  • JUNEBUG3333
    hoping this well work for me , a lot of arthrisis and ostio,so need to fine something to help with diet and healthy eating
  • JUNEBUG3333
    hoping this well work for me , a lot of arthrisis and ostio,so need to fine something to help with diet and healthy eating
  • CALLA2056
    I am thinking that the SP articles are all recycled. No matter whether recipes, healthy eating or exercise. Not always aware of it at first but scrolling down through comments will often show them to be from 2009. I find this disappointing and often delete my daily SP emails without opening.
  • I fell over the first time I went to Yoga...I really like it but don't have the money to attend a class..wish there was a group that could get together to just follow a video or something in my area?
  • Yoga has saved my life in more ways then one. As I was reading this article, I had to remind myself that this is a "general" guideline article so as not to cop an attitude toward the author.
  • FRECKLEPUP
    I don't like the author's tone. There's nothing wrong with being "a Birkenstock-weari
    ng vegetarian.
  • BOOTSTRAPBILL13
    I did yoga for a month. I enjoyed it but it didn't seem like it was helping to tone my body. Did I not give it enough time? Should I go back?
  • I disagree that it isn't a good source for strength training. Because the routine I'm currently doing (Vinyasa style) requires me to hold my own weight, plus planks and pushups I am definitely seeing an improved strength and toning to my arms, chest and even legs.
  • ELAINEJOYCE2
    Are the cat and the camel switched around?

About The Author

Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, Nicole loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Nicole was formerly SparkPeople's fitness expert and editor-in-chief, known on the site as "Coach Nicole." Make sure to explore more of her articles and blog posts.