It’s paradoxical to call something literally thousands of years old “a modern fitness phenomenon,” but yoga has ascended to that very status. If you’re intrigued enough to try it, but are unsure of where to begin, we can help.
Here are some things to know about yoga before you get started:
The Yoga Workout
Yoga truly develops both the body and the mind. Regular practice can improve flexibility, balance, strength and stamina, while also developing mindfulness and concentration. You'll likely notice improvement in your general fitness, and you might even see performance gains in other physical activities that you do. And yoga’s enhanced mental focus and control will be beneficial whether it’s your body or your mind doing the heavy lifting.
The mental dimension of yoga is what sets it apart from purely physical training. You’ll do plenty of strengthening and stretching exercises, but your yoga teacher will often encourage you to shift your thinking as you challenge your body. This unique aspect of yoga is one reason why it resonates so deeply with longtime practitioners.
What if I’m not flexible? It’s a common fallacy that you need to be flexible to do yoga. Greater flexibility will come with continued lessons and practice. It’s not a prerequisite to the activity.
How long and how often do I need to practice yoga? As with any training regimen, longer sessions and more repetitions will more quickly develop both your body and your mind. A good starting point is a one-hour weekly class. Studies have also shown that home practice of as little as 10 minutes daily can provide health benefits. Combining a weekly class with short sessions at home between classes is even better.
Classes are a great way to get into yoga, and it’s the way most people choose to regularly practice. The majority of classes are taught at independent yoga studios, though there are also many national brands of yoga studios. Other options include places like health clubs, community centers and spas. These can be good places to find introductory or gentle yoga classes, but they’re less likely to offer the full spectrum of yoga classes you’ll want as you progress.
Some REI stores also offer yoga classes:
Find a Yoga Class at REI Outdoor School
A typical yoga class
Most classes are an hour or an hour-and-a-half long and involve mental focus, breathing technique and a series of poses. To become a proficient practitioner, you need all three components—mind, breath and body—to work together. There are different styles of yoga and different instructors have differing approaches. If you struggle in a class, don’t give up: Consider trying a different instructor or style of yoga until you find a good fit.
What if I can’t keep up with the rest of the class? One of the beauties of yoga is that it is utterly noncompetitive. Your instructor will encourage you to challenge yourself, but also to listen to your own body and only do what you feel is right for you. And remember, you never want to push your body to the point of pain. That’s an indicator that you need to back off the activity and seek guidance from your instructor.
The diversity of yoga styles can be daunting. And prominent styles can have multiple names, often promoted by different brands of yoga studios. To confuse things further, style variations and new yoga styles are emerging all the time. The good news is that you can ignore styles at the outset: Any beginning yoga class can introduce you to different styles.
It’s also perfectly fine to seek out a class that teaches a style that matches your workout preferences. Here’s a primer on just a few of the prominent yoga styles:
Hatha: Because some use it as a general term for a yoga practice, it’s often associated with beginning classes. Hatha yoga emphasizes proper breathing and posture. Poses are held at length, so you’re not likely to feel particularly winded during a session. (That said, sometimes holding poses is more challenging than flowing through them.)
Gentle/restorative: This type of class is perfect for those who want a more relaxed experience that typically includes more stretching than strength exercises; it’s also a good option for those with physical limitations because of an injury or disability.
Prenatal: Aimed at helping women prepare for the experience of childbirth, prenatal classes usually focus on breath work and poses that will support the body leading up to birth and through recovery. Many prenatal classes also aim to foster a sense of community and mental support.
Vinyassa: Also called “flow” because you move fluidly through poses rather than holding them like you do in hatha. Vinyassa sessions often incorporate music.
Hot yoga: If you enjoy getting sweaty, this style’s for you. Literally done in a studio where the temperature is cranked up high, hot yoga’s popularity stems from how easy it is to warm up your muscles. Certain yoga studios combine a hot environment with a very specific workout routine.
Ashtanga: One of the more physically demanding styles of yoga, Ashtanga emphasizes a particular set of poses.
Anusara: While all yoga styles include some level of concentration and focus, Anusara places a particular emphasis on mindfulness and meditation.
Iyengar: This style is intensely focused on proper body alignment. Often props like blocks or belts are used to ensure correct posture during poses. Because of this, it’s good for new practitioners or people who need to avoid aggravating an injury.
Yoga Gear and Clothing
The bare essentials are a flat, comfortable space (indoors or out) and some water for hydration. You don’t even have to get a mat, although many people do and will become quite particular about the type of mat they use. You might also decide you want some simple accessories to enhance your home practice, although that can wait until after you’ve talked to your instructor about recommendations and class needs.
Shop Yoga Gear
Most types of fitness clothing work just fine for yoga, especially when you’re getting started, but certain styles are preferable—especially those that offer ample stretch. Look also for styles with few seams, no pockets and minimal bulk.
Shop Yoga Clothing
For more advice, read our article on
how to choose a mat and other basic yoga gear.
Yoga’s rich vocabulary, much of which is Sanskrit names for poses, is derived from its origin in India. Learning so many new words can be confusing at first, but ultimately they’re part of yoga’s powerful mystique. As a beginner, learning the lingo is part of the fun—and part of your development process.
Below are a just a handful of yoga terms you might encounter early on:
Asanas: physical poses or postures; these are the foundation of a yoga session.
Pranayama: breathing technique; one of the key components of yoga.
Om: an elemental chant that helps to center and focus your mind.
Child’s pose: a basic asana you’ll learn in a beginner class; it can serve as kind of a “safe place” whenever you feel the need to pause, rest and breathe during a workout.
Savasana: The “corpse pose,” where one lies still in a state of relaxation, is often the final pose in a class.
Namaste: an honorable salutation, typically said at the end of class.