If you’ve never done yoga, or are just starting out, you probably have loads of questions about the practice that maybe you’re too shy to ask your teacher, or maybe you don’t yet have a teacher to ask? I’ve put together my top frequently asked questions for those new to yoga, hopefully you’ll find the answer you’ve been looking for!
Is yoga a good form of exercise? Isn’t it just stretching?
Before we look at yoga as a form of exercise, let’s break it down as a practice. Yoga is so much more than the physical postures which make up a traditional class at your local gym or studio. It is a way of life, an ancient philosophy, a practice which enables you to connect your mind, body and soul, to create harmony and balance in your life.
Patanjali was the father of the classical eight-limbed-path of yoga and wrote the Yoga Sutra, which provide a framework for spiritual growth and mastery over the physical and mental body. He laid out 8 steps to achieving this mastery, and asanas (the physical postures) are just one of the 8 steps. The others include social and personal codes to live by, pranayama (breath work) and meditation.
The practice of yoga, as a full, all-encompassing practice, is incredibly good for your physical and mental health and wellbeing, and practicing asanas is a perfect way to get started. Yoga in the western world has deviated somewhat from its traditional origins and now there are several different styles of yoga you can practice in order to get the workout you require. Yes, there is a lot of stretching, but this is incredibly beneficial for your body and mind, and is usually built into a sequence along with more challenging strengthening postures.
Do I have to be flexible to practice yoga?
No!!! Three years ago, when I started practising yoga I couldn’t touch my toes, my back and shoulders were incredibly sore and my hips were tight and painful from sitting at desks most of my life. Yoga helps improve flexibility, gives you back mobility in your joints and reverses the negative effects a normal western office-bound life has on your general physical and mental health. Grab a mat, get an online yoga class up on YouTube and just give it a try. You might surprise yourself as to how flexible you actually are!
Granted, to achieve some more advanced postures you’ll need flexibility, and strength, but those both come with practice; all those bendy yogis you see on Instagram were all beginners once.
My favourite quote about yoga sums it up:
How do I know which type of yoga I should try?
It’s confusing, right? Every studio now has their own versions of yoga which they’ve created to cater to as many people as possible. Hatha, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Iyengar, Restorative, Yin, Power, Rocket, Bikram…the list goes on! Hatha is the oldest form of yoga, and all other yogas stem from this so most styles of yoga use the same postures; it’s just the speed and sequencing which might change.
To be honest, you might need to try them all until you find one which really resonates with your intentions, but if you’re a complete beginner I’ve tried to sum up the most common below:
Hatha: in a traditional hatha yoga class you’ll be doing fewer postures, but holding each of them for a longer period of time. Deep breathing and connecting with your breath helps you to hold trickier positions, creating a challenge for both body and mind. This practice tends to be slow, but with huge benefits, particularly if you’re feeling disconnected from your body and/or sense of self.
Vinyasa (also named power, or flow): ‘vinyasa’ is defined as movement between poses, typically accompanied by regulated breathing. You’ll often see vinyasa described as ‘vinyasa flow’ or just ‘flow’ and this is because the postures you practice will be linked together using fluid movements, matching the movement with the breath. If you’ve never done yoga before, this could be a nice place to start as it will get your blood pumping and will awaken your muscles, respiratory and circulatory system.
Ashtanga: Ashtanga is made up of six series (primary, secondary and four advanced series) each of which has a set order of poses. Each class follows the same poses, in the same order. The sequences tend to require more power and flexibility as they encompass all types of postures; including standing, seated, balances, deep stretching, arm balances and inversions.
Iyengar: this style of yoga was adapted by B.K.S. Iyengar and focusses on slow, perfectly aligned movements, often using props such as blocks and straps in order for you to achieve the perfect positioning. This style of yoga is perfect for those recovering from injury, or looking to get a deeper understanding of the postures.
Restorative/Yin: yin refers to the cool, moon or feminine energy, in contrast to the hot, solar or masculine energy of the yang. Both these styles of yoga are very slow, often involving a lot of seated, or prone/supine (laying down) positions, using props to help you remain in a comfortable position. Positions are held for a long time, with the focus on the breath, in order to slow down the body, release pent-up tension or energy blockages and leave you feeling relaxed and blissful. Try this style of yoga as a form of relaxation, in addition to more active styles to get an all-round experience.
Bikram: like Ashtanga, Bikram yoga follows the same set poses, in the same order, every class, but practiced in a room heated to 40%. I would not recommend this to complete beginner yogis; this practice is a lot more ‘mind over matter’ in my opinion and until you’ve connected to your breath this really can be challenging!
I don’t have a mat or fancy yoga pants, do I have to invest in these types of things to start?
Not at all. Most yoga studios provide mats as standard (check this with them before you arrive for class) and yoga can be practised in loose, light and comfortable clothing; you don’t need to have a brand-new pair of Lululemons to achieve a decent downward dog!
If you’re starting out at home using YouTube or an online class try laying a towel down on carpet to start with. If you have a hard floor at home you can practice most postures comfortably, but have a blanket or cushion nearby to pad your knees or elbows if needed. Always practice bare-foot.
What can I expect in my first studio class?
Most studios will ask you to arrive 10-15 minutes prior to the class starting. Head to the studio, grab a mat, a couple of blocks, a strap and a blanket and set yourself up wherever you feel comfortable. Most studios will have a shrine with a statue and candles set up at the front of the room, so look for this so you know which direction to face your mat in.
Make sure you have your water bottle nearby, and always practice bare foot. If you like, you can take a pair of socks to put on at the end of the class before you take savasana position (you’ll be laying on the floor not moving for about 5 minutes so might get cold tootsies).
Often students will take the few minutes before class to do a few of their own stretches, centre themselves on their mat and connect with their breath. Take a few minutes to close your eyes and just notice yourself breathing. You can do this in a comfortable seated position (use the blanket or a block under your bum to ensure your hips are higher than your knees), or laying on your back.
The teacher should ask if there are any injuries or health concerns they should know about. Be honest! If you suffer with a bit of lower back pain, or have a dodgy ankle, or have high blood pressure, for example, they should know about it so they can offer you modifications for poses which might place a strain on you. If they don’t ask at the start of class and you have something they should know about, just attract their attention at some point at the beginning of class and quietly let them know.
The teacher will then guide you through the class, usually demonstrating poses at the front of the room, or describing them to you. Focus on yourself, and your breathing, and don’t worry about anyone else in class!! Everyone is made differently, and has different strengths and weaknesses, so don’t start looking around at what everyone else is doing; this is going to ruin your flow, and you’ll lose connection with yourself.
Make sure you use blocks, straps, blankets and other props to suit your needs; yoga is about you feeling the benefit of the position in your own body, so allow yourself to get into the right position and reap the rewards.
All classes will end with savasana (corpse pose); don’t run out of the class thinking it’s finished! This pose is so important; there’s a reason it appears in every single class. Allow yourself to completely relax and surrender in this pose, calm your mind, focus on your breath and enjoy.
I’m worried I won’t know what posture is coming next and I’ll get left behind in class…
If you learn one pose of yoga; make it child’s pose. You can use this pose any time in a class, and as much as you want. If you feel lost, or you need a break, or you’ve accidentally looked over at the pretzel-like girl next to you and now you’re all flustered, simply take child’s pose, come back to your breath and refocus.
It takes time to learn the poses, and get used to what pose might come next, but that’s why they call it a practice, and any good teacher should be able to help you to modify a position to suit your needs; just ask.
I want to try yoga but I’m not in to meditation or chanting, is there a type of yoga I can do which doesn’t involve that?
As mentioned before, meditation and mantras (chanting) are a hugely important part of the practice of yoga. In fact, according to yogic philosophy, the reason you practice asanas is to create the balance and strength in the body to allow you to comfortably sit and meditate for long periods of time. Meditation is an incredibly powerful tool for reducing stress, tension, anxiety and depression and I urge you to give it a go!
However, you might think that meditation and chanting aren’t for you, and that’s fine. Most western yoga classes won’t involve any mediation, and will probably include a small amount of chanting (usually one or two Om’s at the beginning & end) or a specific mantra which the teacher feels is appropriate to the theme of the class. Please practice these with an open mind and heart. Chanting mantras can be incredibly cathartic and will help relax your mind and body; allowing you to see more benefits in the rest of your practice.