A set of specific exercises, called poses, combined with specific breathing techniques and meditation principles are the building blocks of a yoga class. If a pose causes pain or proves too difficult, there are variations and modifications that can be made to help students. Props like blocks, blankets and straps — even chairs — can be used to help you get the most benefit from the poses. Yoga is not one-size-fits-all: The best yoga workout for you will depend on your individual needs and goals.
The benefits of a regular yoga practice are wide-ranging. In general, a complete yoga workout can help keep your back and joints healthy, improve your overall posture, stretch and strengthen muscles and improve your balance, says Roger Cole, Ph.D., a psychobiologist and certified Iyengar yoga teacher. Yoga also has “a restorative side that is deeply relaxing and rejuvenating,” Dr. Cole says. “Relaxation is built into every yoga session.”
In addition, yoga’s focus on the breath can calm you and help you learn to be more mindful of your body, says Dr. Timothy McCall, the author of “Yoga as Medicine,” and that can help you to move with greater ease.
In recent years, more and more research is demonstrating the wide-ranging health benefits of yoga.
Studies show that yoga can help:
- Reduce back pain: Weekly yoga classes relieve symptoms of low back pain about as well as intense, regular stretching sessions.
- Strengthen bones: In one small study, yoga practitioners were shown to have increased bone density in their spine and hips, compared to people in a control group.
- Improve balance: Male athletes in one study displayed better balance after 10 weeks of yoga classes than a control group of athletes who did not change their routines.
- Stave off mental decline: In one study, participants who did a combination of yoga and meditation as opposed to a brain-training exercise performed much better on a test of visuospatial memory, a type of remembering that is important for balance, depth perception and the ability to recognize objects and navigate the world.
- Reduce stress: A study of 72 women found that Iyengar yoga helped reduce mental distress and the related psychological and physical symptoms of stress.
- Relieve depression: In a study of coal miners with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or C.O.P.D., yoga was shown to alleviate depression and anxiety.
Yoga is tied to ancient Indian philosophy, so yoga poses have both Sanskrit and English names — adho mukha svanasana is more commonly known as downward-facing dog, for example — and you may hear both in a class.
But even if you have never tried a yoga class, you may already be familiar with some yoga poses. Ever tried a plank? You’ve done yoga.
Trainers and fitness classes around the world, not to mention college and professional sports teams, are including yoga into more traditional workouts as a potent form of mind-body conditioning, helping athletes to breathe better and increase their focus.
The Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Clippers, for example, practice yoga in a team setting, and many top sports professionals, including the basketball star LeBron James and the tennis champion Novak Djokovic have incorporated yoga into their training programs.
“The attention-focusing and alignment-honing potential of a yoga practice is a solid complement to more athletic, explosive and calisthenic endeavors,” says Derek Cook, a former personal trainer who teaches yoga.
Yoga and Meditation
MINDFULNESS WITH YOGA
In a yoga class, as you learn to do yoga poses, you will be instructed to notice your breath and the way your body moves during the exercises. The is the foundation of a mind-body connection.
A well-balanced series of yoga exercises gives you the opportunity to scan your entire body, noting how you feel as you move through the poses. You may begin to realize, for example, that one side of your body feels different than the other during a stretch, or that it’s easier to balance on your right leg, or that certain poses helps ease tension in your neck.
This is how yoga turns physical exercises into tools to help students become more mindful and even learn to meditate.
Stephen Cope, who teaches yoga and mindfulness at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts has written that learning to focus in this way can help us outside of yoga class, too. “As we train our attention, we’ll begin to notice our postures throughout the day, not just on the yoga mat,” Mr.Cope writes in his book “Yoga and the Quest for the True Self.”
Learning to be aware of your posture at your desk or when you walk, for example, can be the first step to making improvements that will make you move more easily and feel better all the time.
Breathing techniques are an essential part of yoga — not only do they help you to stay focused while practicing yoga, they can also help reduce stress and relax the nervous system and calm the mind.
Yoga breathing techniques also offer a “ way into meditation,” says Elena Brower, a yoga and meditation teacher and the author of “Art of Attention.” Ms. Brower says that more people who have in recent years focused on the physical aspects of yoga are moving toward meditation, as they find “they have an increasing need to have time to reflect, release and recalibrate.”
Here are a few types of breathing techniques that may be included in a yoga class:
Abdominal Breathing: Also called diaphragmatic or belly breathing, this is the most common breathing technique you’ll find in basic yoga. It helps foster healthy, efficient breathing in general.
- Inflate your abdomen as you inhale.
- Exhale, trying to empty your abdomen of as much air as you can.
Ujjayi or “victorious” breath: This type of deep breathing allows you to slow and smooth the flow of breath. It is often used in flow classes to help students regulate their breathing as they move through the poses.
- Constrict the muscles in the back of your throat and breathe in and out with your mouth closed.
- Some say this breathing technique sounds like Darth Vader; others say it sounds like the ocean. In any case, the sound should be audible to you only; your neighbor doesn’t necessarily need to hear it.
Interval or interrupted breathing: In this type of breathing, the student is instructed to pauses and hold the breath during the inhalation or exhalation, or both. It is a good way to begin to learn to control the breath, especially if you are looking to try more advance yoga breathing techniques.
- Inhale fully.
- Release one-third of the breath.
- Release another third of the breath.
- Exhale the rest of the breath.
- If you like, you can then do a couple rounds of interrupted breathing during exhalation.
Alternate nostril breathing: This technique is said to be effective in balancing the nervous system and is a good idea to try before meditation
- Hold one nostril closed and inhale through the open nostril.
- Exhale through the open nostril.
- Switch your hands and block the open nostril, releasing the closed nostril.
- Inhale through the open nostril and exhale.
- Repeat several times.
To handle stress and adversity more effectively, we should probably pay closer attention to what is happening inside our bodies.
Get Your Gear
NO SOCKS, NO SHOES, NO PROBLEM
Yoga is generally practiced in bare feet on a mat. Socks are slippery, which is why wearing them is not recommended. If you really want to wear socks, look for sports socks that have rubber grips on the soles.
Most yoga studios and gyms offer mats, but many yoga students prefer to buy a mat, for hygiene and because mats differ in material, density and stickiness. You may find you develop a strong preference for a certain type of mat.
Choose a mat that prevents you from slipping and sliding, as that will give you a stable base for transitioning from one pose to the next. Clean your mat regularly with antibacterial wipes. If you plan to rent mats at your studio or gym, it would be a good idea to carry around a small packet of antibacterial wipes to clean your rental mat.
If you are looking to buy your own yoga mat, The Wirecutter, a website owned by The New York Times Company, has done a complete review of your options.
Comfortable clothing is recommended. Any workout clothes would generally work well for a yoga class. However, clothing that is too loose-fitting may get in the way if you progress into headstand and handstand poses.
“Whatever you put in your mind materializes. Within yourself, there’s an energy, but unless you use it, it dissipates. And that’s when you get old.”—Tao Porchon-Lynch, 98, is a yoga instructor at the JCC of Mid-Westchester in Scarsdale, N.Y., where even after three hip replacement surgeries, she combines elements of Iyengar, meditation and vinyasa yoga for a dozen or so regular students.
Beginning a Yoga Practice
CREATING A HABIT
The most important thing to remember when starting a yoga practice (or any new health habit) is that the key to success is doing it routinely. Start small and manageable, says Dr. McCall. Ten or 15 minutes a day of yoga may be more valuable than going to one class a week. “I would rather have a student succeed at doing a one-minute-a-day practice, than fail at doing a five-minute-a-day practice,” says Dr. McCall.
Hopefully, as you begin to see the benefits of your daily practice, however short, chances are you will be convinced to do more.
Yoga can be done at home, but — especially for the beginner — it is important to try a class or two that is taught by a seasoned instructor, in a private or group setting, to be sure you are doing the yoga exercises safely.
Look for an experienced yoga instructor who has at least a 200-hour teaching certificate from a teacher-training program accredited with the Yoga Alliance. Those programs include training on injury prevention. If you have any specific medical concerns, check with a doctor before beginning to see what types of yoga might be best for you.
Look for yoga studios or gyms that provide good slip-resistant mats (if you are planning on renting a mat) and sturdy, clean blocks for support. If you do rent a mat, make sure there is antibacterial spray or cloths available for you to wipe down your mat before and after use.
There are many styles of yoga classes taught today. Some are very physically challenging and will leave you sweating; others are gentle and restorative. Some teachers play music in class; others don’t. Some classes include references to yoga philosophy and spirituality; others don’t.
Here are a few types of classes your yoga studio or gym may offer:
Hatha: Most yoga styles being taught in America today are a form of hatha yoga, which is a general term that refers to the physical part of yoga, rather than yoga philosophy or meditation. A Hatha yoga class is likely to be a combination of poses and breathing exercises, but it’s hard to know whether it will be challenging or gentle. Check with the school or the teacher to find more about the level of classes that are described only as Hatha yoga.
Ashtanga Yoga: This is a challenging style of yoga that is centered around a progressive series of yoga sequences that, traditionally, students practice on their own under the guidance of a teacher. If you think that yoga is not a workout, you haven’t tried an Ashtanga class. Classes include advanced poses such as arm balances and inversions including headstands and shoulder stands. Beginner students are strongly advised to study with an experienced teacher. Ashtanga classes will also often include teachings in yoga philosophy.
Power Yoga: As its name suggests, power yoga is a challenging style of yoga aimed at strength-building. These classes will include advanced poses and inversions like headstands and handstands that require a lot of strength.
Vinyasa or Flow: These classes usually consist of a fairly energetic flowing sequence of yoga poses that will include — depending on the level — advanced poses, such as arm balances, headstands, shoulder stands and handstands. Many vinyasa classes have musical accompaniment of the teacher’s choosing.
Iyengar: Love learning about how your muscles and joints work together? This is the yoga for you. Iyengar yoga focuses on the precision of your yoga poses. Iyengar classes are known for their use of props, including blankets, blocks, straps and bolsters, to help students do poses that they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. Classes can also include ropes that are anchored to the walls to do inversions and other poses. They also tend to include breathing exercises and references to yoga philosophy.
Bikram or Hot Yoga: Like the heat? Bikram yoga is a set series of 26 poses performed in a room heated to 105 degrees, which is said to allow for deeper stretching and provide for a better cardiovascular workout. Unlike most yoga classes, Bikram classes are always done in rooms with mirrors. Hot yoga refers to any yoga class that is done in a heated room — generally from 80 to 100 degrees.
Restorative Yoga: If you are looking for a little more relaxation from your yoga class, restorative yoga is for you. This yoga style usually involves a few restful poses that are held for long periods of time. Restorative poses include light twists, seated forward folds and gentle back-bends, usually done with the assistance of many props, including blankets, blocks and bolsters.
Yin Yoga: Looking for a new kind of stretching experience? Yin yoga is aimed at stretching the connective tissue around the pelvis, sacrum, spine and knees to promote flexibility. Poses are held for a longer amount of time in yin yoga classes, generally from three to five minutes. It is a quiet style of yoga, and will quickly show you how good you are at sitting still.
Note: It’s a good idea to try several yoga classes. How much you enjoy any class will come down to how much you like the teacher, not how it’s labeled.
Yoga students are expected to be on time to class and respectful of one another. Crowded classes can mean that students will be aligned mat-to-mat, so don’t assume that you will have a lot of room around you for personal belongings. Most yoga classrooms have shelves for your valuables, drinks and other personal items. Remember to turn your cellphone off before class.
For Bikram or hot yoga classes, bring a towel. You are going to sweat, and it will help prevent slipping.
Classes usually begin with a brief introduction by the teacher that may include a focus or theme for the day, such as backbends or particular poses, and then the teacher often will instruct the class to chant the word “Om” together. (Om is a Sanskrit term that connotes the connectivity of all things in the universe.)
To “Om” or not to “Om”? There is no obligation to chant, but you should at least remain quiet during that time.
Some breathing techniques taught in yoga classes are meant to be loud and others are not. Students should take cues from the teacher,
If you have to leave early, try to tell the teacher ahead of time, and, if you can, position yourself near the back of the room and leave before the relaxation period at the end of class.
A note to the over-achiever: Trying too hard often leads to injury. Being aware of your physical limitations and when you need to modify a pose will be more beneficial to your body than reaching to be the most flexible or strongest in the class.