With the New Year under way, many people are embracing their resolutions to lose weight in 2013. Yoga is a great place to start. There are countless health benefits to practicing yoga, and the fact that you don’t have to run or use weights makes yoga an attractive option for anyone just starting out on their new health regimen. Of course, as with any new endeavor, it’s normal to feel a little intimidated.
If you’ve ever watched an advanced yoga class, you know that some of the yoga poses can get pretty creative. Seeing seasoned practitioners contort their bodies in seemingly impossible ways or holding gravity-defying poses, may not look like something you can do, but there’s a starting point for everyone. Here’s a breakdown of the history behind yoga, its health benefits and some tips to help get you started on a new healthy you in 2013.
While it seems like every year more and more people are turning to yoga, it’s not a new trend. Yoga has been practiced for more than 5,000 years.
Yoga originated in India and is one of six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy. In today’s society, yoga is a term for physical, mental and spiritual disciplines utilized for obtaining a goal. That goal varies with the type of yoga practiced and its varying doctrines, but for most Western practitioners, its goal is to alleviate health problems, reduce stress and improve flexibility in the spine.
Yoga was introduced to the west in the late 19th century, and it became a popular form of exercise in much of the Western world during the late 1980s. Today, nearly 11 million people in the United States are yoga practitioners.
Most yoga classes in the United States feature a combination of learning physical poses called asanas and engaging in some breathing techniques and meditation. There are different styles of yoga that focus on things like relaxation, stress relief, and weight loss, but for the most part all of them teach you how to move your body in new ways. All of them help your body develop better flexibility, strength and balance.
Yoga helps improve your flexibility, strength and balance, and it’s suitable for people of all ages. Advanced yoga poses require a lot of flexibility, but that’s not necessary for beginners. Don’t think your body is too stiff for yoga. People of all ages can improve their flexibility with practice.
Yoga poses work by safely stretching your muscles. This stretching may help your body release lactic acid that can build up with muscle use and may cause stiffness, tension, pain and fatigue. Releasing this acid can increase your range of motion, increase lubrication in the joints and increase the feeling of fluidity throughout your body.
Some yoga poses also help build strength and create muscle tone. More vigorous styles of yoga, like ashtanga and power yoga, help improve muscle tone. While less vigorous styles, like hatha, focus on less movement and can result in improved strength and endurance.
The increased flexibility that comes from yoga results in better posture. Standing and sitting poses increase core strength, resulting in practitioners being more likely to sit and stand in more aware upright positions.
Stress relief is another benefit from practicing yoga. Certain yoga styles use meditation techniques to help quiet the mind, which in turn relieves stress. Other styles utilize deep breathing techniques that also help calm the mind. There are many biochemical responses that occur from yoga. One of them is a decrease in catecholamines, hormones produced by the body in response to stress. By lowering levels of hormone neurostrasmitters, including dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine, yoga can also create a feeling of calm. With lower stress levels many yoga students also experience better concentration and an improved mood after their classes.
The health benefits to yoga are countless. Along with decreasing stress and improving strength and flexibility, yoga has had positive effects on other health conditions. Yoga has been used as an adjunct treatment for clinical depression, heart disease, symptoms of asthma, back pain and arthritis.
Types of Yoga
There are many different types of yoga. Each one focuses on something a little different and can be better suited to students at different levels. Here’s a list of some of the most popular practices.
Hatha (pronounced Hah-ta): This is great for beginners because it focuses on slow gentle movements. Hatha encompasses almost every type of modern yoga. It features a lot of deep breathing, making it a nice option for unwinding after a long day.
Ashtanga: This yoga practice features six established and strenuous pose sequences that are done in succession as progress is made. This style of yoga moves fast. Poses flow from one to the next with each inhale and exhale. Ashtanga is more vigorous than other styles of yoga and is great for weight loss. To get the most out of this style, it’s important to know the poses before you go. Beginners should start with other slower-paced yoga styles before moving on to this one.
Birkram: This style is practiced in 105 degree F and in 40 percent humidity. It sounds like an extreme environment, but the steamy air helps increase flexibility. This style features a series of 26 basic yoga postures. It’s important to be well hydrated before taking this class and to bring water with you. Since it’s so hot, students typically wear minimal clothing like a sports bra and boy shorts for women and shorts for men.
Power: Both active and athletic, this style of yoga was adapted from a more traditional style to appeal to those seeking a more aerobic workout. This style features isometric movements that engage every muscle in the body and helps fire up your metabolism. This is a more challenging style of yoga and may not be a good fit for beginners.
Kundalini: Classes consist of constantly moving and invigorating poses. The non-stop movements are meant to release the kundalini (serpent) energy in your body. This style features breathing that helps improve your energy and postures and meditation that helps you feel both revitalized and focused. If you’re seeking a good work out and greater spiritual, mind and body awareness, this is a good choice.
Now that you know more about yoga, here are some tips to help you get started.
1. Check out the studio and which classes they off before you go. There’s nothing like showing up somewhere and feeling unprepared and overwhelmed. To avoid this, spend some time looking into the different classes that are offered to find out which one is best suited to your skill level. This is also a good time to talk to the instructors and get their recommendations on which class is the best fit for you.
2. Arrive early. For many people, doing yoga is the one time in their day they devote to finding peace and quiet. The last thing you want to do is come in late and disrupt a class mid meditation. Also, many classes fill up quickly, so arriving early will give you time to find where you want to be situated in the classroom, roll out your mat and get settled before the class starts.
3. Get a yoga mat. Yoga mats vary in price range, but often times you can find one for less than $20 at your local Ross or TJ Max. Don’t try using a towel as it may slide around on the floor, and it won’t offer you the same traction for your poses as a yoga mat. Also, getting the proper equipment for any new activity you try will help you feel better prepared, and it will help set you up for a higher likelihood of success on achieving your fitness goals.
4. Speaking of the proper equipment, wear the right clothes for yoga. Baggy sweat pants and a sweat shirt aren’t the optimal clothing for yoga. You need something that’s somewhat form-fitting and that will bend with your body as you stretch into various poses. If you plan on taking a hot yoga class like Birkram, make sure you’re wearing something that you feel comfortable sweating a lot in. Some fabrics get bigger when they’re wet so plan accordingly. You may not want to wear a white shirt if it’s going to get drenched in sweat and become transparent.
5. Leave your shoes at the door. Yoga is typically done barefoot. Many studios ask students to leave their shoes outside of the classroom. Be prepared. If you have an issue with being barefoot without a pedicure or some other foot phobia be aware that you most likely won’t be wearing shoes in your yoga class.
6. Stay hydrated. Make sure you drink plenty of water throughout the day before your class. Also, bring a bottle of water with you. Again, take into consideration if you’re planning on doing a hot yoga class. The sauna-like temperatures in a Birkram studio mean you’ll be sweating even when you’re just sitting down. Having ample water nearby is a must.
7. Remember your skill level and don’t get frustrated. If you’re a beginner, don’t feel intimidated if you see other people in your class doing hand stands at the blink of an eye. You’re not expected to have Gumby-like flexibility just because you’re in a yoga class. Start slow and do what feels comfortable. Increased flexibility and endurance will come as long as you keep practicing.