Yoga has helped people for thousands of years. It has made a massive resurgence as the preferred exercise of the 21st century. In the western world, talk of yoga typically means the kind of practice that focuses on hatha, which exercises the body. However, many different yoga practices have to be investigated to find the best personal fit.
There is no right or wrong choice, nor a superior or inferior style of yoga. Finding the proper yoga style is essential to the practice. One novice laughed as he said, “I don’t know if I want a hot studio, a cold studio or one in between. I’m feeling like I’m the Goldilocks of yoga.” Fortunately, some basics underpin all practices. The cornerstone of most yoga practices begins with conscious, diaphragmatic breathing, performed through the nostrils. Then there’s a set of basic postures found across the many styles; how they are taught varies widely. With much commonality to all practices, plus the addition of real differences, a bit of exploration is necessary to become a thoughtful practicing student of yoga.
The right yoga practice starts by finding a teacher who personally resonates with you. Amber Shadwick, MS, is a master yoga teacher, a member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, and the Director of Program Development at Skyterra Wellness Retreat Center in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina. She speaks with competence, wisdom and compassion for the novice yoga student. She says, “Ask yourself: ‘Why yoga?’ There are so many good reasons to pursue the discipline. Some want a physical exercise while others want a restorative experience. The physical benefits include flexibility, muscle building, increasing balance and a workout that can be challenging, yet low-impact and easy on the joints. Other people use yoga as a spiritual practice or to manage stress, while some want the variety and overall sense of integrative therapeutic effects that yoga can provide.”
“The process of going through the postures and breathing exercises starts to instigate a positive mental transformation,” Shadwick continues, “so knowing and honoring the ‘truths’ about your personal needs makes the pursuit of a successful yoga practice much easier and more effective.” She recommends taking stock of time commitments, physical limitations and financial costs associated with the practice. She also suggests that a novice consider individual coaching or group classes. “A new practitioner will want to take a few classes in order to evaluate the experience. The actual experience of a session or class has everything to do with an appreciation of the teacher, the atmosphere and the style of yoga,” says Shadwick. “Yoga allows tuning into the inner voice and invites you to notice the elements that can be found in a well-taught class. You should feel safe and supported. A good yoga class will allow students to warm up at an appropriate pace. The teacher should have a clear command of the room and will speak in a clear and understandable way. Good teachers will customize instructions to the ability and skill level of the students present, despite the class description or level. Physical limitations will be respected, and a good teacher will help the student move outside of [his or her] initial comfort zone in a safe and beneficial way. A good teacher will be inclusive and address everyone in the class, from the most adept practitioner to the total newbie. When the class is over, the student should leave feeling inspired.”
Shadwick recommends that beginners consider a form of hatha yoga. This overarching form includes traditional postures, careful movements, breathing and mindfulness work designed to facilitate motion at a deliberate pace. The goal of the practice is to order the mind and body to work together in harmony to feel lively and fit. She says, “This taps into therapeutics and body awareness and can give a beginner a foundational understanding of how yoga works.”
Finding your yoga style
The different styles of hatha yoga have different purposes. Eight popular types of yoga that allow a variety of choice.
This is a calorie-burning, muscle-building and generally fast-flowing workout. Attending a vinyasa class will make you sweat while calming your mind, all at the same time. Shadwick says, “Vinyasa focuses on the ‘in-and-out’ way the postures flow into each other.” Typically, this is best for those people who already have been practicing yoga for a while. If you are interested in this form of yoga while just starting out, look for class listings that include words like “gentle” or “beginner.”
“This is a strong, physically demanding type of yoga,” says Shadwick, adding, “It is for a more attuned crowd.” It consists of a few set series of postures that lead into each other. It is good for building core strength and toning the body. Practitioners will find the repetition is designed to help the student move the body to get out of the head.
For mothers-to-be, any class listed as prenatal is oriented to safe poses. Prenatal yoga helps prepare the body for an easier labor and delivery.
This is the original “hot” yoga. Students engage in a set series of postures practiced in a room heated to between 95 and 108 degrees. Obviously, the goal is to sweat. It is a highly challenging practice and not suited for beginners. Bikram is also known as “power yoga.”
This style blends physicality and spirituality. In this practice, students chant and meditate during the poses and breath work. One of the primary goals of this practice is to awaken the spiritual self, so this is a good choice if a student is looking to do a bit of soul-searching during the workout.
“This is beneficial for those who lead high-paced, stressful lifestyles,” Shadwick says. “It focuses on long holds, with relaxing, prop-supported poses that are held while breathing through for several minutes. It is particularly good for beginners who want to take things slowly and easily at first.”
This is another good way for beginners to experience yoga without becoming physically overtaxed, and for experienced practitioners who set aside time to relax in a slow and deliberate way. Shadwick says, “This style seeks to deepen flexibility of tendons and ligaments — the connective tissues between the muscles. Mostly, the postures are performed by lying on the floor.”
The eighth style of hatha practice is yoga master Shadwick’s favorite.“Vihiga is therapeutic, based on the science of normal developmental patterns of movement, bringing greater awareness to the spine and breath. Its postures are modified to allow repetitive movement into and out of particular postures for extended periods of time. Each movement is linked to the breath to create inner awareness and to help the student become more intuitive to how the body responds to movement. It is particularly good for beginners.”
Plan to wear stretchy, comfortable clothes that will allow you to wrap yourself in a knot, upside down, without flashing the room. Most people like to use their own yoga mat, but most studios will have mats to borrow if you don’t own one. Plan to bring water and a towel for hydration and to wipe your brow during classes. Get to the class a few minutes early. Ask about specific props, such as blocks, that you might need. Watch how others enter the room and place their mats. A little observation can save awkward embarrassment. As a general rule, leave about an arm’s length between you and your neighbor on either side. Do not wear strong scents to the class. Leave your bling-bling and electronics at home. Be quiet when the class begins. While many teachers welcome questions, talking and private conversations are not in the spirit of things. Be careful not to step on others’ mats. Remember that you’ll be barefoot in the class, so come with clean feet.
The common greeting in yoga, “namaste” is a gesture that sends a message of peaceful spirituality to the universe in the hopes of receiving a positive message back. You are greeted and will depart with this wish of goodwill.
The entrance and exploration into the practice should be fun. All forms of yoga practice have three things in common: breath, poses and the opportunity to be present. As Shadwick says, “Yoga will help a person connect to life with the intention of always moving forward, consciously, attentively, with curiosity and fluidity.” Remember that yoga is about doing something good for your body and soul. Show up with an open mind, don’t judge yourself too harshly for being a beginner, rest when you need to and remember to breathe.