Everything You Need to Know About Yoga
What Is Yoga?
While it’s totally possible (and pretty likely) that you’ll work up a sweat during a session, the practice of yoga is more than just a workout — much more.
The word Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word “Yuj,” meaning “to join” or “to unite.”
It combines postures with breathing and relaxation techniques that promote a connection between the mind and body. The origins of yoga date back to the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India over 5,000 years ago, but no one person is credited with creating it.
Indian sage Patanjali was the first to write down the teachings of yoga in a guidebook known as the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. It provides the framework for yoga as we know it today.
Ancient yogis (male) and yoginis (female) passed yoga down to others for several thousand years as a method of honing their spiritual energy before anything was written down.
Difference branches of yoga evolved during these years into multiple different variations. The six most well-known branches, or limbs of yoga, are:
- Raja yoga
- Karma yoga
- Jnana yoga
- Bhakti yoga
- Tantra yoga
- Hatha yoga
Of these, only one branch of yoga focuses on the physical being and resembles what we call yoga today: hatha yoga.
Despite its ancient roots on the subcontinent, yoga wasn’t widely practiced in India until the 1920s and 1930s — and it didn’t expand to western countries like the United States until the 1940s when Indra Devi opened a yoga studio in Hollywood.
Health Benefits of Yoga
Like all forms of activity, yoga offers several health benefits to both mental and physical health — many of them backed by scientific research.
Feeling the weight of a stressful work or school day? Studies show yoga can help by lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body.
Improves Anxiety and Depression Symptoms
Improves Heart Health
When combined with a healthy lifestyle, yoga may help the risk for developing heart disease by decreasing risk factors like high blood pressure.
Several scientific studies show that yoga can help you sleep better and feel more awake and alert the day after.
Multiple studies on yoga found that regular practice — either alone or in conjunction with other physical activity — helped improve strength and flexibility, especially in the upper body.
Yoga is also shown to help increase balance, especially in older adults.
How to Start a Yoga Practice
Deciding to start is probably the most challenging part of beginning a yoga practice. The good news? By reading this, you’ve already taken that step!
The next part is to commit. Yoga — like all workouts and positive habits — requires regular practice to see results. You can’t do yoga once a year and expect to make progress.
What to Look for in a Yoga Class
Let’s face it: starting yoga as a beginner can be pretty intimidating, even if you kinda know what to expect.
While you can start a practice on your own, you’ll likely get more out of a yoga session if you take at least a few courses with a certified yoga instructor who has a 200-hour teaching certificate. This means she or he has logged plenty of time on the mat and knows what they’re talking about.
Even better: A good instructor can help correct your form, which is essential to not only help you master the pose but prevent potential injuries.
Types of Yoga
OK, so you found a local yoga studio you want to try out. Now what?
Look at any studio schedule, and you’ll likely be bombarded with tons of different types of classes — and unfortunately, none of them are just called yoga.
There’s a reason for that: There are many different types of yoga — some that are more challenging on your muscles, some that challenge your focus, and others that are pretty relaxed and laid back.
Here’s a brief rundown of the different types of yoga you’ll likely encounter:
Beginners beware! Ashtanga yoga is a highly structured and challenging yoga class that follows a set sequence of poses that tax your body physically and mentally.
Like to sweat? A Bikram yoga class is for you. These classes consist of a fixed sequence of 26 yoga postures completed in 90 minutes in a room heated to 105 degrees with a humidity of 40 percent.
Created by Bikram Choudhury in the 1970s, many of these classes are now called hot yoga to distance the practice from the yogi’s controversial and criminal actions. The major difference? Hot yoga isn’t as hot as Bikram: typically anywhere from 80 to 100 degrees.
As we already mentioned, hatha yoga refers to the physical branch of yoga.
Hatha yoga focuses on combining poses with breathing exercises, but the class’s difficulty will depend on the studio and the teacher.
Vinyasa yoga is an energetic class that focuses on flow: You move through a series of asanas seamlessly, so it looks like you’re doing one complete movement. Many yoga teachers set vinyasa classes to music.
B.K.S created Iyengar yoga and described it in his 1996 book Light on Yoga.
Iyengar yoga puts a greater emphasis on the details. It’s all about breath control and posture, making it great if you want to improve your strength and flexibility.
Sometimes referred to as the “yoga of awareness,” Kundalini yoga is a physical practice that incorporates chanting and singing along with repetitive yoga poses. The purpose is the help you get more in touch with your life force and activate your energy.
One of the more modern types of yoga, aerial yoga, was developed in the early 2000s by Michelle Dortignac and incorporates silk hammocks suspended from a ceiling.
These hammocks allow you to practice yoga poses while suspended in the air and are good for beginners and experienced yogis alike.
If you’re yearning for some deep stretching, look into yin yoga. This class focuses on stretching connective tissues in your lower body to help promote flexibility. But be prepared: The challenging part is that you’ll have to hold each pose quietly for anywhere from three to five minutes.
Power yoga is exactly what it sounds like: energetic Vinyasa-style yoga that works up a sweat and increases your heart rate.
As you might guess, prenatal yoga is focused on pregnant women. These classes are a gentler form of yoga that uses props and breathing techniques to help moms-to-be through their pregnancies and prepare for childbirth.
Looking for a relaxing, low-pressure yoga class? Restorative yoga might be for you. A restorative class consists of gentle poses with plenty of yoga props to help you comfortably — and safely — get into position.
That said, you don’t have to do yoga every day. Even once or twice a week is enough to make progress and experience the effects of yoga.
Basic Yoga Poses to Know
Once you’ve decided to start yoga, it’s helpful to get familiar with the most common poses, or asanas, that you’ll perform during your yoga practice.
Chair Pose (Utkatasana)
How to do the Chair Pose:
- Stand straight with your feet slightly wider than hip-width. Keep your arms straight at your sides.
- Inhale and stretch your arms straight in the air with your arms parallel. Keep your wrists straight and your hands open with fingers spread.
- Exhale while bending your knees. Keep your thighs parallel and lean forward to create a 90-degree angle with your upper body. Hold for 15-20 seconds.
Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
How to do the Standing Forward Pose:
How to Do a Plank:
- From a standing position, inhale and move into a downward-facing dog pose. Move your upper body forward until your arms are perpendicular to the ground with your wrists directly under your shoulders.
- Press your hands firmly and evenly on the mat while your pull your shoulder blades down your back. Engage your glutes and core downward to try and get your torso parallel with the floor.
- Keep your gaze toward the floor.
- Hold for up to one minute.
Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana)
Cat and Cow Pose
How to Do the Cat and Cow Pose:
- Get down on your hands and knees and place your wrists directly under your shoulders. Make sure your legs are hip-width apart and keep your head in a neutral position with a downward gaze.
- Begin the transition into the cat pose by exhaling as you draw your stomach to your spine while rounding your back toward the ceiling. Gently lower the top of your head until it points to the floor. Hold for 5-10 seconds.
- Transition into the cow pose by slowly inhaling as you drop your stomach toward your yoga mat. At the same time, lift your chin and chest and direct your gaze toward the ceiling. Hold for 5-10 seconds.
- Inhale and slowly come back into the cow pose.
- Repeat the flow for 5-20 repetitions.
How to do the bridge pose:
- Lie on your back on a yoga mat with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle and your feet flat on the floor. Extend your arms on the yoga mat with palms facing downward.
- Begin to exhale as your lift your hips toward the ceiling, pressing your feet and arms firmly on the ground.
- With your butt off the ground, pull your tailbone upward toward your pubic bone. Do not squeeze or flex your glutes.
- Roll your shoulders back and down. Move your arms closer together and clasp your hands together under your pelvis.
- Keep your knees and legs parallel and stay firmly on the center of your feet.
- Hold for up to one minute.
- To release from the pose, unclasp your hands and extend them to your sides with palms down. Exhale as you slowly roll your spine to the mat.
So, you just don’t have time to go to a yoga class in person — or you just don’t want to. No problem!
There are many, many, many different ways to get your “om” online. From free YouTube videos to paid apps, chances are pretty good that you’ll find the perfect online yoga class for you.
Yoga with Adriene
Yoga by Adriene is a free YouTube channel that aims to “connect as many people as possible” through free yoga videos. Her videos are doable for everyone, no matter their abilities, fitness level, or age.
Glo — formerly YogaGlo — is an online yoga, meditation, and Pilates platform that features expert instructors.
The best part of Glo is the interactive quiz that guides you to the right type of classes for your abilities and interests. There is a membership fee, but Glo also offers a seven-day free trial to help you figure out if it’s right for you.
Available on most mobile and streaming devices, CurvyYoga is a body-positive yoga platform that “helps you feel good in your body, but also about your body.”
The platform offers a wide variety of classes for people of all body shapes, sizes, and abilities for $25 a month or $250 for a year.
Yoga Gear: What Equipment Do You Need to Do Yoga?
Despite what social media might tell you, you don’t need fancy Lululemon leggings or strappy tank tops to do yoga.
In reality, all you need is a body to do yoga (check!). You don’t even need socks, though sometimes it’s helpful to invest in grippy socks to keep from sliding on a slippery floor.
A yoga mat is another way to stay balanced while practicing your poses.
Mats vary in thickness, style, and material, so it’s best to try out a few to find the best yoga mat for your favorite class. Just be sure to clean it after every use since floors can be full of dirt and dust (not to mention sweat!). Be sure to bring your yoga mat cleaner or antibacterial wipes if you rent a yoga mat from your gym or studio.
Other types of equipment, often called props, can also be helpful as you progress in your yoga journey:
Typically made of foam or cork, yoga blocks act as an extension of the arm to help increase range of motion if you don’t quite have enough flexibility yet. Yoga blocks are also helpful for the head, hips, and back with certain poses.
Like blocks, yoga straps can extend your arm to help you achieve yoga poses. They can also help with stretching to improve the range of motion.
Always cold? Yoga blankets can keep you warm during relaxation poses, but they’re also used to help support and align you in certain poses you haven’t quite mastered yet.
Often used in restorative yoga, yoga bolsters are a firm-yet-comfy prop that you can put under your back, knees, or other body parts to promote total relaxation during a pose.
Chairs — either specialized for yoga or not — are intended to provide added support and security for more advanced moves like backbends.
Need to improve your spin flexibility for backbends and wheel poses? You need a yoga wheel. These circle-shaped yoga props can help you stretch, improve flexibility, and provide extra security while practicing advanced moves.
As for what you should wear to yoga? As we said, you don’t have to have a coordinated outfit to practice yoga. Any workout clothes can work, as can looser-fitting pants (like sweats). However, try to steer clear of baggy t-shirts and pants because they can get in the way when you start practicing more advanced poses, like a handstand.
One more thing: Bring a towel if you’re headed to a hot yoga class — you’ll need it, and it’s kinda tricky to keep up with the poses if you’re slipping and sliding everywhere.
Frequently Asked Questions About Yoga
Is yoga good for weight loss?
Practicing yoga regularly can help you lose weight in a sustainable way, in addition to relieving stress and anxiety.
In recent studies, researchers found that yoga has the potential to help maintain or lower body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure. Yoga also helps with weight loss by strengthening muscles and reducing stress levels which are both contributors to weight gain.
How many calories does yoga burn?
There is no set number of calories that you can expect to burn during yoga because it varies depending on the level of intensity you are at, the duration of your practice as well as other factors such as age, weight, and gender.
That said, yoga practitioners typically do about 30-60 minutes of dynamic practice per session. This equates to between 150-300 calories burned per hour for an average person weighing around 155 pounds.
How often should I do yoga?
Yoga has many benefits but the frequency of your yoga routine depends on your personal goals. If you want to get the most out of your yoga routine, you should do it at least 3 times a week — and stay as consistent as possible.
However, if you are a beginner and want to introduce yourself to the practice, start slow and increase the frequency as you progress in your practice. If you are feeling stiff and sore after practicing, then this might be a sign that your body needs more time to recover from the workout. And if you find yourself feeling drained after yoga practice, then more than likely it’s time to take a break or switch up your routine.
Is it safe to do yoga every day?
Yoga can be done every day without any significant negative effects on your physical or mental health if you take the time to do it in moderation.
However, if you are a beginner, do not try to do too much too soon. Start out slow and build up your stamina gradually.
How long should you hold yoga poses?
The duration of your poses is not set in stone. It all depends on your level of experience, what you are trying to achieve, and how flexible you are.
The best way to figure out the duration is to work your way up from short holds, to longer ones. You should also try different variations of poses.
Remember: It is better to focus on the quality of the pose and not worry about how long you are in it.
When should you not do yoga?
Yoga is good for your health, but there are certain situations when you should not do yoga. For example, if you have an injury or illness that affects your stability, balance, or range of movement. Always listen to your body.
Does yoga change your body?
It is important to remember that yoga will not give you an instant body transformation overnight. It also won’t cause you to lose weight in an hour or two. But with consistency and dedication, yoga can eventually help change your body for the better.
Who should not do yoga?
Yoga is for everyone who wants to get in touch with their body and mind. From the person at the office who wants to stretch after a long day of sitting, to the athlete who needs to recover from a game, yoga is for you if you are looking for a way to balance your life.
However, you should first check with your doctor if you have any injuries or chronic conditions that are exacerbated by exercise.
Is yoga alone enough exercise?
Yoga is an excellent form of exercise that involves stretching and flexibility and can be a great complement to other exercises that builds your cardiovascular strength and muscle mass. Yoga will work your muscles, but it won’t be as effective as other forms of exercise because you’re not using them the entire time.
That said, certain types of yoga are more intense than others so you should try different styles to find the right intensity level for your preferences.