Yoga for beginners

Yoga for beginners is, in principle at least, the same as yoga for anyone/everyone. This page summarises a few essentials and "good to knows", for when you are just getting started, and points you to further information and other resources. It covers:

  • Going at your own pace and level

  • Learning in a class and/or on your own

  • Keeping it simple

  • Breathing

  • Grounding, allowing and stretching

  • Creating the right space for yoga – in your home and in your head

  • Using props

  • Relaxing

Your own pace and level


All yoga, including yoga for beginners, is about where you are at. It is a welcoming and adaptable discipline that brings your focus to yourself, your body and mind, and what it needs and wants in the moment.

From this point of view wherever you are at, including being a total beginner, it completely perfect.

Having its roots in a holistic and spiritual eastern tradition means the emphasis of yoga is on integrating aspects of the self, including the physical, the breath, the energetic self (in the sense of subtle energies) as well as the emotional and spiritual aspects of ourselves. It isn't (or it shouldn't be) about competition whether with the self or others. In the west we tend to emphasise the physical side of yoga more, but it's good to know that there is scope and space within yoga traditions for all those other aspects as well.

Whatever stage you are at in your yoga practice, whether a committed yogi with decades of daily practice or a relative beginner like myself, because the focus is on you in the here and now, the “right level” is always available to you – in that sense, yoga for beginners is no different from yoga for everyone.

In a class, on your own, or both


Having said that, you will probably want to seek out a class or classes to underpin your practice. There is really no substitute for learning from/with an experienced and sensitive teacher.

To really get started with yoga and to build your personal practice and integrate it into your life, it's a good idea to do it every day if possible. This is going to mean doing at least some of it on your own, at home. There are literally thousands of yoga DVDs and online videos, audios and podcasts, and many free internet resources, to help you with this.

Keep it simple


Yoga for beginners can focus on several of the different aspects from the thousands of years old tradition, but usually focus primarily on the physical body and the breath, at least in the west. It can help to have a little understanding of the traditions but it is not essential to get started; in fact, in the spirit of “being where you are”, it may be best to keep it simple. Start with a beginners class and/or video (preferably both) and spend some time just learning the basic asanas.




Asana is Sanskrit for pose, or posture. The names for individual poses add a prefix to that, such as this one on the right, known as sukhasana or "easy pose", and so on.

Image (c) Jerry Bunkers, gratefully reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution licence.


The basics poses of yoga may at first glance seem deceptively simple, and just like the basic poses of life – sitting, standing, lying down, the child pose. And of course they are; but when approached through yoga these poses become much more profound and form the basis for awareness and releasing.

Breathe


Awareness of the breath is one of the underpinning principles of yoga; learning the basics of this practice (“Pranayama”, breath awareness) will harmonise your mind with your physical and energetic body and multiply the benefits of your practice. Good deep breathing with awareness will enable you to move deeper into all postures, and to accept shifts as they take place.

(At least that's what a yoga teacher once told me, I think
what she was really saying was "it helps with the pain").

Yoga should not be about pain and pushing yourself too far. There is a sweet spot, which yogi's sometimes call your "edge", where you are just beyond what you are used to, but not so far that you are straining, or creating tension. Good focus on your breath helps you to find and focus on this point and allow what will happen, to happen.

Grounding, allowing and stretching


Yoga for beginners as for everyone builds on the basic poses, which enable you to get really grounded in your body. We spend so much of our time charging about from one thing to another (both physically and mentally), that unless we make time for it, simply being, in a still and mindful way, our energies are scattered and off-kilter.

“Allowing” is one of my yoga teacher's favourite words, and an important concept in yoga. You don't “make” your body do something new or differently, as you may do in mainstream western exercise approaches, instead you find ways to allow and encourage your body to release, to stretch, to ease into new and healthier ways of being. Good awareness of your breathing is integral to this.


image (c) Stephen DePolo, gratefully reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution Licence.


(On the morning I wrote this article, I found myself unusually stiff indeed while doing my yoga practice. I was momentarily baffled by this until I remembered that I'd spent a lot of the previous day hunched over a sewing machine – using my body in unfamiliar ways that created a LOT of tension all over my body. So I really needed to stre-e-e-etch lots of the muscles.)


I love this. Some people like to “go for the burn” - I prefer to go for the “aaaaaaahh!” (with smile on face), - the point of release at your "edge" where the tension begins to release, and your body sinks naturally into where you are leading it, by the pose you are holding.

The right space – in your home, and in your head


You can do yoga pretty much anywhere, out of doors on grass is great if you have that (and the weather for it!) but most of this time when not in a class, you'll probably be doing it indoors in your home.

You will need enough space to spread out a yoga mat, ideally with a couple of feet more around each side. I've also found that I like to have a wall handy, for the wobbly bits in the standing poses, and to have a chair handy for leaning forward on to, resting hands or legs on and so on.


I often do my yoga in my sons bedroom, which looks nothing like this:

However it is a relatively large space, with the bonus of under-floor heating in the winter - and I find his desk comes in quite handy at times too.


You need to find the space not just in your home but in your mind, for your yoga practice. The one affects the other – if you are able to set aside a special space for your yoga practice that is calming and uplifting, warm enough and well ventilated, this will encourage you to maintain your practice every day.

Treat your physical yoga space nicely – keep it clean and uncluttered and however you need it to be to access a relaxed state of mind. Add sounds or scents if that helps. Make it part of your yoga practice to maintain your yoga space well.

Not everyone can make space in their small busy homes exclusively for yoga, and instead have to grab a corner as and when they can. This just makes it all the more important that you make the space in your head. If you can squeeze in a mat (not into your head, silly, into your life), then do – it's perfectly possible to do a full hours practice within the confines of a mat. Or do some seated twists on a chair; some breathing exercises in the bath – however you do it, carve out that space and make it precious.

Make time


Likewise with time – you may be snorting at the screen right now saying “huh! I don't know quite when she thinks I'm going to be doing all this yoga every day, what with the kids and work and my partner and the dog and my mum and and and....”

Yes I know, I really do.

It's easy for me to say, because right now I do have enough space in my life to relatively easily dedicate some time to my personal growth, much of which is yoga at the moment. But how I wish I had made space for it over the past decade particularly, the full-on child-rearing years. I would have been calmer, more present and lighter of heart.

Making time doesn't have to be an hour at a time – it can be twenty minutes, or ten, or two. The important thing is to create and maintain the right habits. This takes some discipline, and you can learn that; discipline is learning. Set yourself up to succeed, choose times and ways of approaching your yoga practice that are going to work for you.

What to wear.

I was relieved and delighted to find that in yoga classes none of that gear-fetishising happens, that I remember from my far-distant days of going to a gym. People just wear what feels comfortable, and that they can move in freely. Phew.

Make sure you have enough layers to adapt to changing temperatures, in the room and in your body.

Note: If you find yourself obsessing about what to wear to your yoga class that might be a clue you need o tune into the spiritual aspects a little more.

One tip though – I've found that some of my yoga pants (which aren't yoga pants at all, they're just stretchy trousers I already owned) are too slippery to get a good grip on, in some poses where you need to hold onto your legs. I suspect closer fittings leggings may be better and will report back in due course.

Props


Most yoga studios will have all the props you will need in a class (phone them to check if you need to bring anything before your first class if you're not sure), such as:

  • Mats
  • Blocks
  • Blankets
  • Belts
  • Chairs

Some of these things you'll have at home to use there, and some you won't. It's really worth getting a good yoga mat – I started out using a camping mat and although it gave support, I was not quite wide enough, and was too slippery.

A yoga mat needs to be a bit sticky. Sticky enough to – for example – hold your feet securely when they are widely spread.

Having a good mat also serves an important psychological function by increasing your focus, and supporting you to create the space for yoga in your head. Once you have your mat, then wherever you unroll it is your yoga space. Mats are light enough to take with you to other places, and as you get to know its dimensions you will feel at home with it wherever you are.

For blocks you can use books, and a webbed belt or something similar will be fine for when you need to hold a foot or a leg in place. I'm assuming you have chairs – but make sure you choose a sturdy one that will stay where you put it if it's taking some of your weight.

A blanket is useful for padding under knees, beneath twist poses etc., and when rolled as a support under the back, ankles, etc., depending on the pose. You can also spread it over yourself when relaxing in shavasana at the end of your session.

Relax


Yoga is meant to relax you, not add to your stress - so don't sweat the details. Do set yourself up for success, and act in ways that value yourself, your yoga practice and space.

Keep the cat off your mat and don't let your partner chuck their discarded clothes in your yoga corner, or the kids pinch your candles.

Take it easy, take your time, tune into yourself and you, like me, will soon find yoga essential to your sense of well being.

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