Yoga: A Beginner’s Guide to Practice, Meditation, and the Sutras
New to yoga? We’ve got answers for you. These 10 common questions for yoga beginners should get you on your way to a deeper practice and mindful meditation.
What Is Yoga?
The word yoga, from the Sanskrit word yuj, means to yoke or bind, and is often interpreted as “union” or a method of discipline. A male who practices yoga is called a yogi, a female practitioner, a yogini.
The Indian sage Patanjali is believed to have collated the practice of yoga into the Yoga Sutra an estimated 2,000 years ago. The Sutra is a collection of 195 statements that serves as a philosophical guidebook for most of the yoga that is practiced today. It also outlines eight limbs of yoga: the yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). As we explore these eight limbs, we begin by refining our behavior in the outer world, and then we focus inwardly until we reach samadhi (liberation, enlightenment).
Today, most people practicing yoga are engaged in the third limb, asana, which is a program of physical postures designed to purify the body and provide the physical strength and stamina required for long periods of meditation.
What Does Hatha Mean?
The word hatha means willful or forceful. Hatha yoga refers to a set of physical exercises (known as asanas or postures), and sequences of asanas, designed to align your skin, muscles, and bones. The postures are also designed to open the many channels of the body—especially the main channel, the spine—so that energy can flow freely.
Hatha is also translated as ha meaning “sun” and tha meaning “moon.” This refers to the balance of masculine aspects—active, hot, sun—and feminine aspects—receptive, cool, moon—within all of us. Hatha yoga is a path toward creating balance and uniting opposites. In our physical bodies we develop a balance of strength and flexibility. We also learn to balance our effort and surrender in each pose.
Hatha yoga is a powerful tool for self-transformation. It asks us to bring our attention to our breath, which helps us to still the fluctuations of the mind and be more present in the unfolding of each moment.
What Does Om Mean?
Om is a mantra, or vibration, that is traditionally chanted at the beginning and end of yoga sessions. It is said to be the sound of the universe. What does that mean?
Somehow the ancient yogis knew what scientists today are telling us—that the entire universe is moving. Nothing is ever solid or still. Everything that exists pulsates, creating a rhythmic vibration that the ancient yogis acknowledged with the sound of Om. We may not always be aware of this sound in our daily lives, but we can hear it in the rustling of the autumn leaves, the waves on the shore, the inside of a seashell.
Chanting Om allows us to recognize our experience as a reflection of how the whole universe moves—the setting sun, the rising moon, the ebb and flow of the tides, the beating of our hearts. As we chant Om, it takes us for a ride on this universal movement, through our breath, our awareness, and our physical energy, and we begin to sense a bigger connection that is both uplifting and soothing.
Do I Have to Be Vegetarian to Practice Yoga?
The first principle of yoga philosophy is ahimsa, which means non-harming to self and others. Some people interpret this to include not eating animal products. There is debate about this in the yoga community—I believe that it is a personal decision that everyone has to make for themselves. If you are considering becoming a vegetarian, be sure to take into account your personal health issues as well how your choices will affect those with whom you live. Being a vegetarian should not be something that you impose on others—that kind of aggressive action in itself is not an expression of ahimsa.
How Many Times Per Week Should I Practice?
Yoga is amazing—even if you only practice for one hour a week, you will experience the benefits of the practice. If you can do more than that, you will certainly experience more benefits. I suggest starting with two or three times a week, for an hour or an hour and a half each time. If you can only do 20 minutes per session, that’s fine too. Don’t let time constraints or unrealistic goals be an obstacle—do what you can and don’t worry about it. You will likely find that after a while your desire to practice expands naturally and you will find yourself doing more and more.
How Is Yoga Different From Stretching or Other Kinds of Fitness?
Unlike stretching or fitness, yoga is more than just physical postures. Patanjali’s eight-fold path illustrates how the physical practice is just one aspect of yoga. Even within the physical practice, yoga is unique because we connect the movement of the body and the fluctuations of the mind to the rhythm of our breath. Connecting the mind, body, and breath helps us to direct our attention inward. Through this process of inward attention, we learn to recognize our habitual thought patterns without labeling them, judging them, or trying to change them. We become more aware of our experiences from moment to moment. The awareness that we cultivate is what makes yoga a practice, rather than a task or a goal to be completed. Your body will most likely become much more flexible by doing yoga, and so will your mind.
Is Yoga a Religion?
Yoga is not a religion. It is a philosophy that began in India an estimated 5,000 years ago. The father of classical ashtanga yoga (the eight-limbed path, not to be confused with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga yoga) is said to be Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutra. These scriptures provide a framework for spiritual growth and mastery over the physical and mental body. Yoga sometimes interweaves other philosophies such as Hinduism or Buddhism, but it is not necessary to study those paths in order to practice or study yoga.
It is also not necessary to surrender your own religious beliefs to practice yoga.
I’m Not Flexible—Can I Do Yoga?
Yes! You are a perfect candidate for yoga. Many people think that they need to be flexible to begin yoga, but that’s a little bit like thinking that you need to be able to play tennis in order to take tennis lessons. Come as you are and you will find that yoga practice will help you become more flexible.
This newfound agility will be balanced by strength, coordination, and enhanced cardiovascular health, as well as a sense of physical confidence and overall well-being.
What Do I Need to Begin?
All you really need to begin practicing yoga is your body, your mind, and a bit of curiosity. But it is also helpful to have a pair of yoga leggings, or shorts, and a t-shirt that’s not too baggy. No special footgear is required because you will be barefoot. It’s nice to bring a towel to class with you. As your practice develops you might want to buy your own yoga mat, but most studios will have mats and other props available for you.
Why Are You Supposed to Refrain From Eating 2–3 Hours Before Class?
In yoga practice we twist from side to side, turn upside down, and bend forward and backward. If you have not fully digested your last meal, it will make itself known to you in ways that are not comfortable. If you are a person with a fast-acting digestive system and are afraid you might get hungry or feel weak during yoga class, experiment with a light snack such as yogurt, a few nuts, or juice about 30 minutes to an hour before class.
Top Tips For Yoga Beginners
If you are a yoga beginner or thinking about having a go at yoga then here are some tips to get you started; some helpful advice for any yoga beginner.
- Find a good yoga teacher
It is much easier and more enjoyable, to learn yoga, with all its detailed and subtle physical and mental aspects, from an experienced, qualified, teacher. You can find plenty of free videos on YouTube, or apps which will guide you through the beginner poses.
- Respect your body’s inner wisdom and limitations
Don’t push yourself to do anything that feels dangerous or wrong for you. This is ‘Ahimsa’, the practice of non-harm, which is essential to skilful and beneficial practice of yoga. Be aware of contraindications relevant to your specific circumstances: for example some poses are not to be practiced during early pregnancy, with certain injuries, or during menstruation, whereas other poses may be very helpful.
Yoga is all about finding a healthier, deeper harmony between our body and mind, and our breathing is central to this. Breathe into your whole body in the poses, and relax. There is a lot to learn about healthy breathing in yoga.
- Don’t compare yourself with others
Look inwards to your own progress; there will always be people who are more experienced than you. Yoga may be fashionable, but it is not a spectator sport or a competition. Appreciate the subtle progress of your own practice, the best part of it is on the inside, in the healing awareness and unity of your own body, mind and spirit.
- Have a sense of humor
Yoga is a quiet, focused activity, but we need not to take ourselves too seriously. We may feel ungainly and stiff as a board as we try to navigate ourselves into new poses. Humility, an inner smile and a bit of gentleness can save us from pushing ourselves to the point of strain and injury.
- Eating and drinking and yoga
It is advisable not to eat for one or two hours before yoga practice, and to drink only small amounts of water beforehand and do not drink during practice. Avoid alcohol, sugar or caffeine before yoga.
- Wear loose comfortable clothing (that stays on)
You will stretch your body in all directions and so you don’t want to wear anything that will dig in or restrict your movement. At some point you are likely to bend your body right over and also turn upside down, so it saves wriggling about or exposing more that you wish to if you wear stretch fit gear.
- Make practice frequent
Little and often is more effective than occasional long sessions of yoga. Even 15 minutes a day of a few well-chosen poses can have a very positive effect on your physical, emotional and mental well-being. A regular discipline will reap more benefits, as that way the body begins to feel comfortable and familiar with the process and gradually becomes more flexible and subtly aware of the sensations, rather than ‘starting from cold’ again once in a while.
- Modify postures for your body
The perfect pose we may see in a book or see a teacher demonstrate may be a long way from what our own body can currently achieve. A good yoga teacher will show you how to ease your own body carefully towards the ideal posture, perhaps with use of yoga props like extra blocks, bolsters, a belt etc., bringing attention to the principle of the inner stretch or direction of energy that the pose is aiming to evoke in us.
- Relax! End your yoga practice with Shavasana
Finish your practice with Shavasana, ‘Corpse pose’, lying flat on the floor, resting and consciously relaxing your body for five to 15 minutes. Don’t rush out of it; get up very gently, rolling onto your right side and coming up to a sitting position in your own time.
If you are a yoga beginner you don’t really have to buy a great deal at all to do yoga, but these yoga ‘props’ can be very useful. A yoga mat especially is pretty essential to avoid slipping on floors.
Five bits of yoga kit and equipment to get you started:
- Yoga mat: Provides cushioning on a hard floor and a non-slip surface for standing.
- Yoga block: helps stabilize standing poses when you can’t reach the floor easily.
- Yoga strap: Helps when you can’t reach to hold a leg, foot or hand.
- Yoga bolster: Supports your spine, legs or abdomen in certain poses.
- Blanket: Extra floor padding and keeps you warm and comfortable at the end of a session in ‘shavasana’.
Experts Agree: Yoga Can Help You Lose Weight, Especially If You Do This Type of Practice
Losing weight through yoga sounds almost too good to be true. On the surface, yoga seems like the polar opposite of a fast-paced high-intensity interval training (HIIT) circuit or a weightlifting workout, the two kinds of exercise usually recommended for weight loss. A yoga class leaves your body feeling totally different: refreshed instead of wiped out, loose instead of tight, flexible instead of sore. It’s even good for your mental health, helping you deal with stress and anxiety.
HIIT, weightlifting, and cardio are fun and effective for weight loss, but they’re also not for everyone. If yoga sounds more appealing and weight loss is your goal, it’s natural to wonder if your daily practice can help you shed pounds.
Yes, You Can Lose Weight With Yoga
“Yoga can be a good source of exercise,” said Jorianne Numbers, MS, an exercise physiologist with Northwestern Medicine. At the most basic level, she said, yoga is a form of movement that helps you burn calories, which is a major part of losing weight (though your exact amount burned will depend on your height, weight, and gender).
But there’s more behind yoga’s relationship with weight loss than first meets the eye. An effective practice also fosters a mind-body connection that makes you more mindful in every facet of your life. “Yoga brings you into a heightened state of awareness,” explained Lara Heimann, physical therapist, yoga instructor, and founder of LYT Method, a yoga certification program. Moving through different poses and holds increases your awareness of your body, and that can translate to other effective weight loss habits, like eating healthy, which is key for losing weight no matter what exercise you’re doing. (Try this two-week clean eating plan to get started.) “The congruency between mindfulness on and off of the mat is what can make yoga more effective for weight loss than other forms of exercise,” Lara told POPSUGAR.
Yoga has long been regarded as an effective way to relieve stress, and that on its own can be a weight-loss tool. “Having a less stressful life, and fewer stress hormones such as cortisol, can help anyone lead a healthier lifestyle,” explained Liza Janda, a certified yoga instructor at Yoga Janda. Cortisol is an appetite stimulant, hence why we tend to eat (and overeat) when we’re stressed out and to crave unhealthy foods in particular. A relaxing yoga practice can help you deal with stress in a healthier way and even avoid it, and the related weight gain, altogether. (Try this relaxing yoga sequence or one of these stress-busting yoga videos to see for yourself.)
Which Practices Are Best For Weight Loss?
If you’re looking for pure calorie burn, our experts agreed that fast-paced Vinyasa yoga is the practice to choose. “A good Vinyasa class will take you through a variety of movements, with a focus on integrating your core and weight-bearing on your hands and feet,” Lara explained. Imagine a classic flow from plank to tricep pushup to upward facing dog — you’re getting a core burn, working your triceps, then using your arms to hold up your bodyweight as you stretch. This kind of weight-bearing move “increases heart rate and builds muscle,” Liza told POPSUGAR. The more muscle you build, the more calories you’ll burn even after you’re done exercising.
Power yoga is another good choice, Jorianne told POPSUGAR, though it’s more intense and better suited for people who are already in good shape. “In power yoga, there is less meditation and more of a focus on standing poses and faster-paced movement,” she explained. Your heart will pump even harder than in a Vinyasa class, which is good news for losing weight; Liza recommended aiming for a heart rate that’s 55 to 85 percent of your maximum to get the most calorie burn out of a class. (Use this guide to calculate your max heart rate and find your target zones.)
And what about hot yoga? “Vinyasa classes burn more calories than the hot yoga,” Lara told POPSUGAR. “Hot yoga makes you feel like you’re working harder than you actually are because your body is just trying to thermoregulate.” Basically, sweating more doesn’t mean you’re burning more calories. “The sweat you produce should come simply from physical exertion,” Liza said, not from temperature.
A much gentle yoga class, such as Hatha, won’t burn as many calories. But it can be benefit your mental health and stress levels and while helping you be more mindful, all of which have weight-loss benefits as well.
How Often Should I Do Yoga to Lose Weight?
For the best weight-loss results, Liza recommended doing yoga three times a week. Continue to stay active and get your heart rate on the other three to four days as well, whether through cardio, weightlifting, or HIIT workouts of 45 minutes to an hour. (We recommend this dance workout for cardio, this Nike weightlifting workout and this belly-targeting HIIT circuit, all 45 minutes in length.) And keep your nutrition in mind too. “Exercise alone without dieting makes losing weight hard,” Jorianne said. “Weight loss occurs when you burn more calories than you consume.”
If you eat clean and burn calories, though, the results will come, and yoga has a place in the process. Start with this 30-minute power flow to relax, rejuvenate, and work up a sweat.
Yoga more dangerous than previously thought, scientists say
Yoga is more dangerous than previously thought and causes as many injuries as other sports, a study has found.
The 5,000 year-old Indian discipline is said to boost physical and mental wellbeing, and celebrity fans include Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen – as well as David and Victoria Beckham.
However, in a recent study yoga caused musculoskeletal pain – mostly in the arms – in more than one in ten participants.
The scientists behind the research, which was published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, also found that the practice worsened over a fifth of existing injuries.
Professor Evangelos Pappas, of Sydney University, the study’s lead researcher said: “Yoga may be a bit more dangerous than previously thought.
“Our study found the incidence of pain caused by yoga is more than 10 percent per year – which is comparable to the rate of all sports injuries combined among the physically active population.
“However, people consider it to be a very safe activity. This injury rate is up to 10 times higher than has previously been reported.”
His team assessed more than 350 people who attended yoga classes at two studios in New York.
Yoga is an increasingly popular complementary or alternative therapy for musculoskeletal disorders, with millions of people practising worldwide.
Prof Pappas said: “While yoga can be beneficial for musculoskeletal pain, like any form of exercise, it can also result in musculoskeletal pain.”
He added: “We also found yoga can exacerbate existing pain, with 21 per cent of existing injuries made worse by doing yoga, particularly pre-existing musculoskeletal pain in the upper limbs.
“In terms of severity, more than one-third of cases of pain caused by yoga were serious enough to prevent yoga participation and lasted more than 3 months.
“The study found that most ‘new’ yoga pain was in the upper extremities – shoulder, elbow, wrist, hand – possibly due to downward dog and similar postures that put weight on the upper limbs.”
The study conducted with Prof Marc Campo from Mercy College, New York, asked participants to complete an electronic questionnaire at the start of the project and again one year later.
Outcomes included incidence and impact of pain caused by yoga and prevalence of pain caused, exacerbated, unaffected, and improved by the ancient practice.
“We recommend that yoga teachers also discuss with their students the risks for injury if not practised conscientiously, and the potential for yoga to exacerbate some injuries.
“Yoga participants are encouraged to discuss the risks of injury and any pre-existing pain, especially in the upper limbs, with yoga teachers and physiotherapists to explore posture modifications that may results in safer practice.”
The main components of yoga are postures, a series of movements designed to increase strength, flexibility and breathing.
It’s now commonplace in leisure centres, health clubs, schools, hospitals and surgeries.
There’s some evidence that regular yoga practice is beneficial for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, aches and pains – including lower back pain – depression and stress.
The NHS says most forms of yoga are not strenuous enough to count towards your 150 minutes of moderate activity, as set out by government guidelines.
However, yoga does count as a strengthening exercise, and at least two sessions a week will help you meet the guidelines on muscle-strengthening activities.
Activities such as yoga and tai chi are also recommended to older adults at risk of falls to help improve balance and co-ordination.