These days with the abundance of yoga studios and classes, and yogis on social media, I’m sure it feels funny to even ask the question.
It’s like we should already know, with the abundance of information out there. But for those of us just beginning our yoga journey, it’s where we start. We all begin here, with this very inquiry. Yoga is healing in so many ways that I don’t want to hesitate with explaining how to get started. So let’s get right to it!
First, what is yoga?
Yoga as most of us know it in the West is mostly asana, Sanskrit (ancient Indian language) for yoga poses. Yoga poses come from Indian philosophy, that include other methods of physical, mental, and spiritual practices. They originate from the Rigveda, which was written around 500-600 BC. Hatha yoga, or yoga poses, came about around the year 1000. The Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali explains a lot about ancient yoga, and it's one of my favorite and most inspirational reads. I think this book is a good place to start to understand more about yoga and what it means. A bonus when you read it is the peace it conjures within; it truly feels like a holy book. I personally think rooting your yoga practice in something greater than just the physical is super important in understanding why we do yoga, so you’ll keep wanting to practice for years to come.
Indian yoga today is still deeply spiritual and meditative. Yoga poses are done for the sole purpose of being more comfortable while meditating and sitting for extended periods of time. Since the 1980s, yoga here in the West has been mostly the physical practice. The physical practice is meant to be linked, or yoked (yoga means ‘to yoke’ in Sanskrit), with the spiritual practice through our breath. This is what makes yoga different than say, aerobics, stretching, or cardio. It’s not just another exercise fad. It’s rooted in something much bigger than weight loss, flexibility, or pretty poses. It’s a full being experience, combining meditation with movement.
I just read that yoga was listed in 2016 as intangible cultural heritage. This means it’s something that’s basically evolved to become its own thing, and no one can claim ownership to it or pin down exactly what it is, or where it came from. I find this so interesting! If you look at it from this perspective, yoga can be yours and it can be personalized to you. You can create the yoga practice that works for you, to better your life in a multitude of ways. And there are so many styles of yoga to choose from that you’re guaranteed to find the practice suited for you!
Why should I do yoga?
In my opinion, the greatest benefit of doing yoga is its ability to lower stress, lengthening and enriching our lives in the process. This study shows that a regular yoga and meditation practice is proven to lower cortisol, the stress hormone produced by the body in times of fight or flight. Cortisol has its place in our biology and is useful for actual emergencies. But unfortunately, in our fast-paced lives today, it is released all too often, like in traffic jams or confrontations with others at work or bill paying. Too much cortisol weakens the immune system, slows metabolism, and causes depression and anxiety. We don’t have to change the circumstances of our lives as much as we need to change how we react to them.
This is where yoga comes into play. Having a habitual yoga practice, whether it’s an hour and a half session or just 10 minutes of deep breathing and gentle movements, trains your mind to notice how your body responds. Instead of always going on autopilot and reacting the way you usually do, you find yourself having a choice in how you react. The choice has always been there, but without awareness of the body and mind, it’s very difficult to step outside the experience and witness if your reaction is useful or not. Yoga is the ultimate tool to tune into yourself and be more present with your thoughts and actions. With the presence comes the release of feel good chemicals, serotonin and endorphins, and the decrease in cortisol. Your life will be happier and more purposeful with your daily yoga benefits.
Beyond stress relief and a better life, yoga provides increased flexibility, better muscle tone and strength, a balanced metabolism, protection from injuries, prevention of osteoporosis, and cardio and circulatory health. Basically, you can’t afford NOT to do yoga. There’s a reason yoga is one of the fastest growing industries. We need it now more than ever, as long as you practice safely, there are no downsides. It’s the perfect practice for the health of both the body and the mind.
How do I start yoga?
I think the best way to start yoga by yourself is a combination of study and practice. A lot of yoga classes today are meant for all levels, and there’s a wide variety of teachers with various levels of experience. So you might get thrown into something that’s a bit much for a beginner with a teacher that doesn’t cater or doesn’t notice you’re new to yoga. Or you could get lucky with an awesome teacher that wants to meet you where you are. I’ve found in my experience it’s best to have a home practice in addition to classes. Not having a home practice is like taking music lessons once a week, going home and never practicing your music, and then showing up to class next week expecting to make progress. You just won’t.
Light on Yoga- This book gives the history and explanations of yoga spirituality and practice, it's like the yoga bible.
To practice yoga:
To first practice yoga, you should attend a beginners yoga class at your local studio or gym of choice. Google ‘yoga studio near me’ and take a look at the studios with the best reviews, or ask around to see where yogi friends like to practice. Expect to pay around $15-$25 a class, sometimes your first class can be free. If you sign up for a series class pack you can often pay less per class. Make sure to show up to class around 10-15 minutes early, so you can comfortably find a spot, maybe introduce yourself to the teacher, and not begin your session in a ball of stress because you’ve rushed around late. Notice when you walk in where others are taking off their shoes and putting their valuables, or ask the person at the desk where these things go. Shoes in the studio yoga room itself are a no-no!
Try your best to have an open mind during your first class. It’ll be like nothing you’ve ever experienced before, and that’s a good thing! I remember my first class, I felt very uncomfortable in the poses. They hurt, I felt like I shouldn’t be there, I was exhausted, and I found it super challenging to not hold my breath. I was frustrated a lot. This is all completely normal. Trying anything new is just... not comfortable. I’m sure you’ve heard by now the quote, ‘Everything you’ve ever wanted is one step outside your comfort zone.’ Let that be your mantra as a new yoga student, and you’ll grow and learn by leaps and bounds before you know it.
I strongly recommend a beginners class to understand the basics. Without the basics, you are trying to build a yoga foundation on shaky ground. Not knowing how to breathe, and how to safely and correctly do poses sets you up for a series of habits in your practice that is harder to undo than it is to just start the right way. Not to mention you might also get injured and be out of practice for a long time! There is no need to rush your yoga journey, it’s meant to last a lifetime and adapt to you in whatever phase of life you’re in. Enjoy the early honeymoon phase of yoga! You’ll only be a beginner once, and it’s such a short time. Doing yoga the right way for the right reasons will increase the likelihood that you’ll want to continue this love affair for years to come!
Supplement your beginners class by practicing at home. Which leads me to...
How do I practice yoga at home?
This is a really important question, and an easy one to overlook when yoga studios and gyms make going to class very easy and appealing. But are you going to yoga class seven days a week? I doubt it. For yoga to do its magic it has to be consistent, not once or twice a week. It needs to be a part of your daily life in some form. My simplest advice for cultivating your best yoga at home is to make sure you do ANY yoga every day. It can literally be breathing and sitting for three minutes. But it has to be non-negotiable, you don’t skip yoga. It’s funny, you find yourself resisting the routine (as we all do with discipline I think!); but once you say ok, I’m sitting on the mat for three minutes, you drop right in. You’ll find it hard to only stay there for three minutes. Before you know it, you’re moving through sun salutations (an awesome beginner yoga sequence) and an hour has passed.
‘But I don’t have time for yoga.’ Change this phrase to ‘Yoga is not a priority.’ This is the reality when you say you don’t have time. It's just not true, you’ve only decided this thing is not worthy of your time. There is always a few extra minutes in a day to reconnect to yourself. And the more you practice, the more you realize this actually might be the most important time in your day.
At home for beginners has never been easier! If you’re finding it hard to get started, or want sort of a hybrid studio/home practice, there are so many great online yoga subscriptions! My favorite is glo.com because it’s only $18/month (the cost of one yoga class!), and some of the world's best and most renowned teachers are on there. Kathryn Budig, Elena Brower, and Jo Tastula are my go-to teachers. You basically get the highest quality yoga studio experience in your own home and on your schedule, and you can search the class for your current needs and for how much time you have that day. Having an online yoga subscription makes it really hard to have excuses for why you don’t practice yoga, and you literally will never take the same class twice (unless you want to!). I enjoy having the option to self-guide my practice and listen to my own body, or completely surrender myself to a class so I don’t have to think or plan. Each has its benefits, and it’s wonderful to have choices to keep your practice fresh.
What should I wear and what accessories do I need for my yoga practice?
This is definitely a personal preference, but I’d like to give a general guideline of the basics, the beyond basics, and the extras.
A yoga mat of course. Practicing without one is very challenging. I like Jade. They're made from recycled rubber and are super grippy so you don't slip.
Pants you can move in comfortably. These are my favorites. They're moisture wicking and stay in place while you move.
A top that won’t slip down. My favorite moon shirt.
A small towel for wiping sweat.
All of the above plus:
A yoga strap. This helps you get more comfortable if particular poses aren't accessable to you. I use mine everyday!
Yoga blocks. These help to bring the floor up to you, if you're not able to reach a pose without straining. I love using blocks in triangle pose.
A yoga blanket keeps you warm and comfortable in relaxing yoga poses.
A yoga layer to wear before and after yoga practice.
All of the above plus:
An eye pillow is nice to put over your eyes when laying in savasana, the final relaxation pose, aka heaven. It really helps to tune out the world and tune in to you.
A bolster. These are the best for laying on to open the back and relax the shoulders. I still don't own one, but really should! They feel like a little luxury.
A Tibetan bowl is really nice to listen to while meditating. The sound is just diving into bliss.
My yoga accessories of choice are just my yoga mat, cotton leggings, and a t-shirt. I’m definitely a basics kind of yogi, but I don’t judge those extra yogis! Whatever assists your practice is great, and it’s nothing to worry about if it doesn’t look like someone else’s set up.
My last bit of yoga wisdom is this:
Let your yoga evolve as you like, try different styles, keep your mind open. Yoga has become my life! If you want to make it your life, check out how here. I think yoga only becomes stereotypical and judgey once we start to label what’s yoga and what isn’t. I believe whatever speaks to your spirit, and unites the body and mind is yoga! It doesn’t have to be so serious, it doesn’t have to look like someone else’s yoga, and it certainly doesn’t have to be pretty and photographable. Yoga is for you, it’s the call to return to your true essence, to what makes you the uniquely perfect puzzle piece that’s needed to complete our universe. It’s never too late or early to dive into the journey of self knowledge, and reap the benefits of a healthy body and mind in the process. Your yoga mat awaits, and your practice is calling you to come home.
By Hayley Elliott, 200 hr RYT (200 hour registered yoga teacher), 14-year yoga practitioner, and owner of purushapeople.com.