What Is Yoga? A Guide for Beginners
Since gaining popularity in the 1970’s yoga has become one UK’s favourite fitness classes, with fans ranging from supermodels to rugby players. Why all the excitement about a bit of bending and stretching?
Fancy giving yoga a go but don’t know your asana from your elbow? Simply take a deep, slow breath. That’s it. Breathe right down into your tummy. And exhale. There you go – you’ve performed your first yoga exercise.
Of course, there’s a bit more to yoga than just breathing, but you really don’t need to be able to do much more to get started. Scrap those images of sprite-like creatures, chanting their way to higher planes, legs twisted into seemingly impossible knots. Today, yoga is practiced by people of shapes, sizes, fitness and flexibility levels, with classes widely available in health clubs and community spaces across the country.
People do yoga for a huge variety of reasons, but some of the main benefits cited by yoga fans include tightening and toning the whole body, better posture, feelings of wellbeing, stress release, and reduced risk of injury from other forms of exercise. Not bad for an hour or so on mat. But is it for you?
“I’d recommend yoga to anyone,” says Barbara Currie, one of the UK’s best known yoga instructors. “I was 29 when I took my first yoga class, and I was stiff as a board,” she admits, “luckily though I was really inspired by my teacher. She was in her sixties, but had the body of an eighteen year old.”
Balancing the Body
From elite athletes to those wanting to slim down and shape up, Barbara says yoga has something to offer everyone. “Sports tend to work one side of the body more than the other,” she says, “or even if you don’t do sport, a lot of people favour one side without realising it. Yoga helps balance this out.”
You might be surprised to learn that sports stars like Wayne Rooney, boxer Evander Holyfield, and even the Welsh rugby team regularly practice yoga moves. And soccer player Ryan Giggs recently released an exercise video inspired by yoga.
If you’re more interested in shedding pounds than performing on the sports field, Barbara Currie says yoga still has a lot to offer. “I always encourage people who want to lose weight to try yoga,” she says, “and they are usually surprised at how quickly their bodies firm up.”
As you’ve probably noticed, there are a fair few celebrities who’ll attest to yoga’s body sculpting benefits, Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Meg Ryan, and Geri Halliwell to name a few.
Mellowing the Mind
But it’s not all about the physical. Many people, celebs included, turn to yoga to help them through tough times. Jennifer Aniston spoke about how she discovered yoga when going through her high-profile split with Brad Pitt, saying, “Yoga calms me down. It’s a therapy session, a workout, and meditation all at the same time.”
While Gwyneth gushes, “Yoga has completely changed me. I try to do it every day, and the effect is amazing. It’s not just during the hours that I’m practicing. It’s about how it filters through into the rest of my life. It makes all the other bullshit dissipate. Who I am has emerged, and everything else has gone by the wayside.”
Although no one can now say for sure, Yoga is said to have originated in India around 3000 BC. Archaeologists have even found images carved in stone that resemble some of the yoga poses (asanas) still practiced today. The word “yoga” essentially means “union” and it’s all about taking a holistic approach to fitness. The aims are balancing, strengthening and relaxing the body using gentle movements, stretches, and controlled breathing.
“On a deeper level, yoga is something which makes us feel great,” explains yoga instructor Sally Lovett. “By practicing and reinforcing the connection between our bodies, minds and hearts, we feel more in tune with ourselves, others and the world around us.”
“Finding a Plumber”
Barbara Currie advises asking around friends and family to find a good yoga class. “It’s a bit like finding a plumber,” she says, “a recommendation from someone you know is worth a lot. But if you don’t like the first class you go to, don’t give up. Yoga teachers all have their own styles of teaching, so you might still enjoy someone else’s classes.”
Yoganearby.com has a searchable database of classes, where you can even specify the day and time of class you’d like.
If you can’t get to a class or would feel more comfortable trying it out at home first you’ll find a wealth of books and DVDs to help you get started available to buy online.
Yoga for You
Different types of yoga are more difficult and more energetic than others, so think about that before choosing which one to go for, but yoga instructors will usually demonstrate variations of the positions to suit all levels.
“Some Yoga practice can be strenuous,” says Sally, “but yoga teaches us to be non-competitive and respect and honour our bodies. So you work within your own capabilities and accept where you are, rather than pushing yourself.”
Like Barbara, Sally says no one should be put off by a lack of flexibility, “Many other beginners in the class will be echoing the same concerns,” she says. “Yoga will address tightness within your body, lengthening out your muscles and improving flexibility and strength.”
Taking things at your own pace is key, especially at first. “Remember that yoga is there for you, you aren’t there for yoga,” says Barbara Currie. “It’s a time for you, so don’t worry if you can’t do some of the poses at first, just enjoy it, keep practicing, and eventually you’ll be able to perfect them.”