Beginners Guide to Yoga
Curious to try yoga, but not sure where to start?
In this article, we will focus on giving you an understanding of the foundations of yoga.
Now before we get started, yoga is more than just some exercise poses that you do in a room with complete strangers.
It’s more holistic than that.
In fact, yoga can help heal your body, mind, and spirit through a unified way of practicing.
We will talk about the poses, also known as asanas, but our aim is to share the essential info so you are prepared to take any yoga path whether it be Iyengar Yoga or Bikram Yoga.
Remember, all paths lead to the same goal.
And real quick…if all you really care about is whether yoga can help you manage stress, chronic pain or bring some peace, quiet and balance to your hectic life.
Yes, yoga will help you achieve all of those things and more!
What You Will Learn
- What is Yoga?
- Yoga for Physical, Mental, and Emotional Health
- What Are the Different Types of Yoga?
- Different Styles of Yoga
- What Yoga Style is Right For Me?
- 12 Basic Yoga Poses
- How to Use Yoga Props
- Yoga vs. Meditation
- What’s the Difference Between Yoga and Meditation?
- Should I Practice Yoga if I Already Meditate?
- What is Moving Meditation?
- Additional Yoga Learning Resources
What is Yoga?
You hear about all the health benefits yoga has to offer, but yoga has become so convoluted with its yoga schools, trendy styles, and gurus.
How does a beginner yogi navigate through all of that?
To better understand yoga and its life-changing benefits, you first need to learn what yoga truly is.
Here we break down what yoga is starting with its basic definition.
Yoga Means to Reach Your Highest Potential
Yoga literally means, “union” or “to merge” deriving from the Sanskrit word yuj, meaning “to attach, join, harness, yoke.”
We find that this literal meaning lacking because it oversimplifies what yoga encompasses and it begs the question of why are we trying to achieve “union” with something?
So let’s define what yoga connotatively means according to its ancient tradition. Yoga is a process, method, or technology one can use to evolve or transcend from their current state of being to “merge with” or “yoke” to a higher nature of ourselves and realize our uniqueness, purpose, and connection to all things.
To translate further in plain English, yoga is to heal the body and mind, so the soul (you) can reach your fullest and highest potential to serve your ultimate purpose in life.
Yoga to Reduce Stress and Cope
It’s hard to be your highest potential, let alone be joyful and happy especially when your body and mind is preoccupied with sickness, family feuds, debt or stress from work.
So these issues that are completely out of our control but are the cause of our deepest suffering is why the ancient sages came up with the system and science of yoga.
Yoga teaches you how to cope with the stresses of life and is why yoga continues to be practiced today.
It is needed now more than ever in our modern age with our high divorce and suicide rates, random acts of terrorism, and devasting environmental disasters.
Though all yogis come from different backgrounds and life circumstances, they all resorted to yoga because of one reason–they were fed up dealing with some form of suffering whether it be sickness, pain, stress, or depression.
The common mantra in dealing with life’s struggles is to “toughen up” or “grow thicker skin,” and how has that been working for you?
That way of living life helps a little, but it does not take away disappointment, grief, or trauma.
So yoga teaches you a different way of living life. The yoga way is to live life with awareness, it’s mantra being to live with your “eyes wide open.”
Yoga Teaches How to Live Consciously
You will hear a lot of yogis refer to their practice as “a journey,” because living life with awareness creates possibilities that you never thought existed or were inaccessible to you.
Such possibilities could be a fulfilling love life and career, loyal friendships, reconnecting with family, overcoming addictions, or true healing from traumatic life events.
To live with awareness, we first need to explore the aspects of ourselves, which yoga refers to as consciousness, or how we perceive reality and how our existence relates to it.
The first step of living life consciously is understanding the yogic meaning of health, which will explore further in the next section.
Yoga for Physical, Mental and Emotional Health
Managing stress, depression, and chronic pain are the primary reasons yoga has gained so much popularity in the U.S.
But how does yoga, which is simply breathing and stretching, bring health to the body and mind?
Yoga teaches you that there is a relationship between the body and mind and that relationship impacts our overall health.
So yogis being conscious of this relationship can then figure out the course of healing whether that’s a treatment or changing lifestyle habits that will improve their health.
They realized that in order to live a healthy, fulfilling and joyful life both body and mind must work together harmoniously or “in union” with each other.
So illness is viewed as dis-ease, that the body and mind are out of ease.
The Body-Mind Relationship According to Science
In Western civilizations, the existence of this body-mind relationship is debated. We believe that our mental habits and emotional patterns are mutually exclusive from the body.
But thanks to recent developments in cognitive science and psychology, the West is now realizing the symbiotic relationship between mental wellbeing and physical health.
Studies conducted have shown relationships between mental health and chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia, endometriosis, and diabetes.
Yoga and Meditation in Healthcare
The evidence is so clear that healthcare experts advocate incorporating techniques of yoga and mindfulness meditation into psychotherapy and preventative medicine.
Yoga and meditation are so powerful, they are being used to treat trauma survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, even war veterans suffering from PTSD.
The true healing of yoga comes when you find an authentic yoga teacher. You won’t reap much healing benefits if you go to a trendy style of yoga, though interesting it may seem.
There are many paths of yoga, but they will all lead you to the same destination of healing yourself.
Later we will walk you through how to choose your style of yoga.
Yoga Book for Beginners
Autobiography of a Yogi is a MUST-READ for all yoga teachers, practitioners, and anyone that is curious about the mysteries of life.
This is the same book that Steve Jobs Gave Away At His Funeral!
It is a beautifully written account of an exceptional life and a profound introduction to the ancient science of Yoga and its time-honored tradition of meditation
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- Written by Paramahansa Yogananda
- Selected as “One of the 100 Best Spiritual Books of the Twentieth Century”
- Great for yoga teachers and trainees
What Are the Different Types of Yoga?
Of all the different yoga schools, styles, and gurus, you will be surprised that they really teach the same branch of yoga.
Most yoga studios, schools or gurus you come across in the West all teach the practice of Hatha Yoga. This branch of yoga teaches mastery or “union” of the physical body and mind.
Hatha Yoga teaches you that optimal health comes when you achieve mastery over the body and mind–not through dominating, but through harmonizing.
This happens through the practice of yoga poses (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation to help harmonize your body functions and mental balance.
If you’re looking for a traditional yoga school or studio experience, then we recommend you research them to see if they are true to authentic yoga discipline and can deliver your wellness needs.
Different Styles of Yoga
Here is our recommended list of Hatha Yoga styles that you can explore. Each style has its own specialty and focus, so choose a style based on your health needs and begin a search for local schools or studios in your area.
Ashtanga Yoga became well known in the U.S. by its founding guru, K. Pattabhi Jois.
This style of yoga stays true to the traditional teachings of Raja yoga. It is a vigorous practice for yogis who really want to learn all aspects of yoga and incorporate it as a lifestyle.
Iyengar Yoga is named after its guru, B.K.S. Iyengar for (at the time) his unusual style of perfecting yoga asanas.
His interesting style focuses primarily on alignment and doing the poses perfectly with the help of yoga props such as yoga blocks, blankets, straps, and bolsters.
If you have posture issues or recovering from an injury, Iyengar Yoga is for you.
Yin and Restorative Yoga
Yin and Restorative Yoga are similar to each other that they use the same seated floor poses and practice at a slower pace than typical yoga practices.
This style of yoga requires that you hold a pose for at least 2 to 4 minutes, so you really get a deep stretch in.
The difference between Yin and Restorative Yoga is that Yin Yoga typically does not use props, whereas, Restorative Yoga you are encouraged to use yoga blankets and yoga bolsters to support you in a pose.
This popular style of yoga is inspired by Ashtanga Yoga but emphasizes on the poses that build strength, endurance, and stamina.
Expect to do a lot of warriors, balancing poses, inversions, and sun-salutes. We call this the aerobic yoga style “boot camp,” typically 90 minutes long and will make you work up a sweat.
Well-known franchises like Yoga Works, Corepower Yoga, Jivamukti, and Anusara Yoga specialize in this style of yoga.
Prenatal Yoga is a style adapted for expecting moms and can be practiced up until term.
The pace is gentle and slow, focusing on alleviating pregnancy complications such as swelling, balance, and back and neck pain. Prenatal Yoga also focuses on breathing techniques reducing stress and anxiety, and longer relaxation poses to connect with baby.
Kundalini Yoga is a style made popular by its guru, Yogi Bhajan, who incorporated the spiritual and sacred sciences of tantra yoga and Sikh spirituality along with the poses.
It is a practice that combines kriya yoga, mantra yoga, and asanas to awaken our latent kundalini energy trapped base the base of our spine.
Expect Kundalini classes to consist of chanting, pranayama, poses, and meditation.
Hot Yoga or Bikram yoga is notoriously known for its 105-degree and 40 percent humidity classes. It is not for the faint-hearted and you should have your doctor’s approval to practice such intense yoga.
Founded by Bikram Choudhury, the intensely hot yoga classes became popular because of it’s basic 26 yoga pose sequence (you can’t really do much in that kind of heat) and students claims of euphoria after practice.
The idea behind hot yoga is to create an extreme environment so the yogi can develop physical and mental strength, overcoming discomfort and pain experienced during class.
Kriya yoga is a meditation practice of pranayama (breath control techniques).
It combines mantra yoga and breathing energization exercises for deep and powerful meditation. This style was introduced to the West by Paramahansa Yogananda in the early 20th century and gained in popularity because his technique brings instant stillness and peace.
Because of its powerful results and strict discipline (it’s hatha yoga x100) kriya is only taught through initiation between guru and disciple.
We recommend only learning kriyas from a true master yogi. You can learn more about kriya through Self Realization Fellowship and Isha Foundation.
What Yoga is Right For Me?
Of all the yoga styles available, which yoga is right for you?
To determine that we suggest that you figure out your needs first and the primary benefit you want to get out of yoga.
As with taking on any new exercise, you want to set a goal for yourself so you do not get discouraged when the practice gets hard.
You can start off by brainstorming your needs based on these categories:
- physical health
- mental health
- personal development
- spiritual development
Decide which category is most important to you, then determine your needs within that category.
Here are some examples to consider:
- Beginner Yogi — Gentle, Restorative, Yin, Iyengar
- Improve Physical Fitness — Ashtanga, Vinyasa
- Recovering from Injury or Surgery — Gentle, Restorative, Yin, Iyengar
- Pregnant – Prenatal Yoga
- Mentally Stimulating — Ashtanga, Hot Yoga
- Develop a Meditation Practice — Ashtanga, Kundalini
- Discover the Mystical and Spiritual Aspects of Yoga — Kundalini, Kriya
How To Safely and Correctly Perform 12 Basic Yoga Poses
This section will point out proper alignment and common mistakes we see newbie yogis do. These mistakes happen because as a new yogi, you are still really stiff and tense. So we will point out how to manage that.
Correctly doing a yoga pose is not about doing it perfectly or pretty. Correct posture is important so you are getting the max impact of health benefit the yoga pose can offer and to prevent injury from happening.
All yoga poses have variations for beginner, intermediate, and advanced. The yoga poses presented below range from beginner to intermediate and includes a gentler variation, some using a yoga prop.
- Do forward bends slowly and gently, do not push beyond your limit.
- Shoulders and relaxed allowing your head to dangle.
- Lower back relaxed and knees slightly bent.
- Hands grab (not touch) ankles, heels, or toes.
Modification using Yoga Prop: use yoga block under hands to leverage pressure on the lower back and hamstrings.
- Look up and lift chin to stretch neck and throat muscles (doing this may itch your throat to cough, so double exhale to relieve it).
- Press hands down so shoulders come down (no hunching), hands are directly under shoulders.
- Feet together and tighten glutes to strengthen lower back.
- Lift hips and thighs off the ground for more intensity.
Easier Variation: Do easy cobra if your lower back hurts. Feet hip width apart.
- Shoulders and neck relaxed, look down to ease pressure in neck.
- Elbows tucked against your rib cage (not bowed out).
- Spread fingers as wide as you can to leverage weight and pressure off your elbows and wrists.
- Engage core and tighten glutes to help lift your body weight.
- Spine flat and parallel to the ground, do not drop belly.
Gentle Pose Variation: Bring knees down on the ground. Keep spine flat and core engaged.
- Shoulders and neck relaxed
- Spread fingers as wide as you can to leverage weight and pressure off your wrists, arms and shoulders.
- Feet hip-width apart or slightly wider if your hips and lower back are tight.
- Lift hips up and back so your spine is flat (do not round back).
Gentler Variation: Extended Puppy Pose, make sure your chest and elbows are off the mat stimulating your arms and core strength.
- Shoulders relaxed, if shoulders are tight, lower arms so they’re straight in front or parallel to the ground.
- Spine upright and perpendicular to the ground (do not hunch forward).
- Feet hip-width apart or slightly wider if hips are tight.
Advanced Variation: Bending knees slightly, the lowering thighs increases intensity.
- Arm is upright, elbow locked (no lazy arm). Both arms should form in a straight line.
- Lift shoulders back so your chest is open.
- Roll hips up and back so your spine is straight (not round).
- Place hand on your shin, ankle or on top of your foot.
Modification using Yoga Prop: Use a yoga block under your hand instead of placing it on your shin to leverage pressure off of your hip and lats muscles.
- Shoulders relaxed, arms shoulder-width apart if shoulders are tight.
- Lift chest to ease pressure off of your hips and legs.
- Front knee bent to a 90-degree angle (never bend knee over the ankle in any pose).
- Back foot at a slight angle, just enough to allow your hips to be squared forward.
- Chest and hips squared forward (not twisted or tweaked).
Strength Building Variation: Slowly bob hips and front knee up and down to slowly build up endurance and strength. Bring feet closer together to ease pressure off hips.
Happy Baby (Hip Opener)
- Shoulders and jaw relaxed, chin down
- Hands grab either inside or outside of ankles or feet.
- Rock back from side-to-side to massage lower back and internal organs.
Yoga Strap Modification: If you cannot grab your ankles or feet, grab the inside of your knees. Or use a yoga strap to gently pull down your feet and spread legs apart opening the hips.
- Place (entire) hands on lower back (not just your fingers) to help ease pressure off your shoulders and neck.
- Engage core muscles to lift your body weight, do not collapse back.
- Clap feet together to stimulate blood flow in legs.
- Do not collapse or fall out of shoulderstand. Use core strength to slowly lower your hips and legs down out of the pose.
- When doing any inversion, lift hips and legs slowly and only extend legs fully if you do not feel any resistance or tension.
- If you are struggling inverting yourself, roll back and forth on your spin using the momentum to hoist your hips up into plow pose. Then lift one leg up at a time, or stay in plow pose.
Blanket Modification: Place yoga blanket under shoulders and neck to ease pressure. If you cannot invert because of a past neck or shoulder injury, roll yoga blanket under your hips, elevating legs. Keep legs upright.
- Hips leveled (not one side higher or lower than the other side).
- If hips are tight, bend knee into a triangle. As your flexibility improves, move knee into a 90-degree angle.
- Instead of extending arms forward, keep arms bent shifting weight onto your elbows to ease pressure and weight off the hips.
Yoga Prop Modification: Place yoga blanket or yoga block beneath front leg (make sure hips are leveled when using a prop).
Gentle Variation: Upside-down pigeon pose (on your back). Grab behind thigh or in front of knee, whichever position feels better.
- Push hips forward, tighten glutes and engage lower back
- Start with placing hands (either positioning fingers up or down) on lower back then slowly ease into a backbend.
- If you can go lower without any discomfort, backbend further till you can reach on heel at a time.
- Keep thighs upright (not leaning backward, happens when grabbing heels).
- Use core strength to lift your body back to center alignment.
Block Modification: Use two yoga blocks to leverage weight off your lower back while backbending into the pose.
Forehead to Knee
- Shoulders are leveled (not one higher than the other).
- Inside elbow lower than the outside elbow.
- Hands grab either calf, ankle or foot. If grabbing foot, clasp hands together.
- Bend knee high enough so your forehead reaches your knee cap (so your head doesn’t hover above knee).
- If hips are tight, bring folded leg closer to center (not extended out.)
Modify with Yoga Strap: Use a yoga strap to wrap around your foot, slowly straighten extended leg.
How to Use Yoga Props
As a beginner yogi, you may want to learn the different yoga props available to you making yoga practice a lot easier and more enjoyable to do.
Also called yoga bricks, yoga blocks can help you bring the floor closer to you for support, increase your balance, and give you the confidence to explore new poses.
A yoga strap is a very useful tool to help you safely leverage the amount of weight and force needed to do a pose without compromising alignment or your safety. Using a yoga strap can help you improve your flexibility and posture.
A yoga bolster or yoga pillow is specifically designed to provide comfort and support in your yoga practice. Used primarily in Restorative Yoga and Iyengar Yoga, a yoga bolster helps you hold a pose for a long period of time, support all the weight so you can enjoy the pose.
As for a yoga blanket, it can be used in place of a yoga bolster or meditation cushion. The yoga blankets we like to use are made of thick wool so they are bulky, sturdy and thick to cushion your body during practice.
A meditation cushion (also known as meditation pillow or meditation seat) is used to provide comfort and support while you sit for long meditations. Meditation cushions come in different shapes and sizes, but we recommend using a cushion that elevates your hips above the level of your knees for lasting comfort.
The yoga wheel is a relatively new yoga prop and it is not as gimmicky as it looks. We recommend the yoga wheel for its sturdiness and comfort to open stiff backs, shoulders, or perfect backbend poses. You can also use it to warm up your spine for meditation.
Yoga vs. Meditation
With the many different styles of yoga and an increase in mindfulness practices, a lot of people think yoga and meditation are two exclusive practices.
Traditionally, meditation, just like yoga poses, is one practice within the umbrella of yoga.
This section explains meditation further and how it relates to yoga.
What’s the Difference Between Yoga and Meditation?
The confusion between yoga and meditation is that in the West yoga is only referred to as the poses (called asanas), so most Americans think that yoga is simply a physical exercise.
Meditation is a practice within the yoga discipline.
Or traditionally explained, meditation is a “limb” or “spoke” within the “wheel” of yoga, so in order to “achieve” yoga or reap its benefits, you must practice the asanas and meditate (along with other yoga practices).
But Americans also misinterpret what meditation really is, which is why they ditch the practice when they cannot feel results.
Meditation is commonly referred to as an act (like practicing yoga poses). But understanding meditation this way will leave the newbie yogi lost and disappointed. You will not gain much if you breathe for 5 minutes with your eyes closed.
Traditionally, meditation is a state of being called dhyana, which means, “beyond the mind” where you are in a state of clarity, peacefulness, and connection or union within yourself.
So the discipline and practice behind meditation are to prolong your meditative state, so much so that you are undeterred by setbacks, life events or circumstances. You are able to remain calm, fully alert, and act wisely under pressure.
Who wouldn’t want that skill?
Should I Practice Yoga If I Already Meditate?
Yes, you should practice yoga if you already meditate.
Practicing yoga poses will help you become a better meditator.
Let’s view both practices this way: you cannot become a better yogi without meditation and you cannot become a better meditator without practicing yoga. Both are needed to achieve the same goal.
This is not to confuse you with other meditation practices like qigong or zen meditation that exist outside of yoga. But those meditation disciplines have their own a practice that yoga would provide.
How Do Meditation and Yoga Work Together?
The reason yoga and meditation cannot be practiced without the other is that meditation calms your mind and yoga poses calms your body.
And bringing the two practices together bring your mind and body into harmony with each other.
In order to sit still for a long period of time to achieve a meditative state you need to get rid of your restlessness, and that’s what the poses do.
When you’re stuck in your head, the yoga poses gently pull your awareness away from those thoughts into your body, feeling grounded, calm, and relaxed.
Once your body and mind are relaxed and peaceful, then it’s easier to slip into meditation using your breath to prolong your inner state of bliss.
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What is Moving Meditation?
As we mentioned in the previous section, meditation is a state of being, not an act.
Ideally, the goal of yoga is to be in that meditative state for a long as you can–better is to always be in a meditative state.
So to practice being in a meditative state, yogis practice Moving Meditation. The aim of Moving Meditation is the practice of being fully present. It is an exercise of concentration to an extent where you completely “lose yourself” while doing the activity.
Technically, any activity that requires intense focus like practicing yoga asanas, rock climbing or mountain biking can be a moving meditation. Especially in those activities that require power and guts to perform, you have to overcome your mind chatter to stay fully present and not injure yourself.
If you want to give Moving Meditation a try, we recommend that you do an activity that inspires you, so at the end of the meditation, you feel joyful, awestruck, and fulfilled. Such activities could be playing an instrument, drawing, painting or dancing.
Block out time for you to really focus on those activities so you are not rushed. After you are finished with your activity, we suggest that you do sit down in stillness to meditate. You will be surprised at how still and deep your meditation will be.
Resources to Learn More About Yoga
Aside from taking yoga classes, we recommend that you read up on yoga so you can better understand its wealth and depth of wisdom and benefits.
Here is our recommended reading list if you wish to learn more about yoga.
Basics of Yoga Science
How to Incorporate Yoga Lifestyle
Autobiographies of Yoga Gurus
Ancient Texts on Yoga