So you probably heard about yoga and it caught your attention, and now you wish to know all there is to the practice. Right?
Well, in this comprehensive beginner’s guide to yoga, we will be looking at the key aspects of it including what it really is, where it came from, how it works, types of yoga, benefits, side effects and risks, and the frequently asked questions about it.
Without any delays, let’s dive right in and get to know the practice better.
What is Yoga?
When the word “Yoga” is mentioned, many things such as relaxation, weird body movements, flexibility, and others ring people’s minds, and many definitions have been brought forward to explain what the practice is all about.
However, going by the explanation provided by the National Center For Complementary And Integrative Health, yoga is defined as a practice that helps unite the body and the mind to promote mental and physical well-being (1).
It works with breathing techniques (which are referred to as pranayama), physical postures (which are referred to as asanas), and meditation or deep breathing (known as dhyana) which help to improve our flexibility, endurance, calmness, and overall well-being.
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word “Yuj”, which when translated means union.
The union here is between ourselves and existence.
It is believed that we, human beings, are a small fraction of the greater existence, the universal consciousness, and what we experience is also experienced by other aspects of existence like our environment.
If you think about how we interact with oxygen and carbon dioxide, and how trees interact with them as well, we see that, to some extent, the trees and us move in the same existence.
By practicing yoga, we get to unite our minds, bodies, and spirits and also our individual self with the universal consciousness, which then allows us to experience reality just as it is.
Yoga helps us to know and understand the union of existence through experience.
Yoga, Qigong, and Tai Chi are all practices classified as “meditation in motion” practices as they work with mindful and meditative body movements to enhance our minds and bodies.
Yoga is among the most popular self-improvement practice in the whole world and millions of people are getting into it every year to enjoy its benefits.
According to Statista, about 37 million people practiced yoga in 2012 in the United States alone. And since this figure has been growing every year, it is estimated that the population could have grown up to 55 million yoga practitioners in 2020 (2).
History of Yoga
Yoga has been around for many thousand years. The documented writings of yoga that prove that the practice of yoga was being done in old age are the yoga sutras from Patanjali. Yoga sutras are writings that contain the principles, techniques, and philosophy of yoga.
However, it is widely believed that yoga was still being practiced even before Patanjali. Some yoga experts suggest that Shiva, the yogic lore has always been the father of yoga. It all began when Shiva was in the Himalayas, specifically on the shores of Lake Kantisarovar.
He was found by people of the neighborhood making some weird dance-like moves and poses and at times he would be in quiet stillness, and people were curious about what the dances were and what they represented.
He kept on his periods of movements and silence, unbothered by the people who had gathered around him, until the people left him alone and went back home, except for 7 men who persisted in their wait for Shiva to speak to them and explain what he was doing and how they could learn the same.
He dismissed them and wouldn’t talk to them for years.
Soon enough, after their persistence and effort to learn the ways of Shiva, the seven men, who are now referred to as the Seven Sages or “saptarishis” had their wish granted. Shiva taught each of them a unique form of yoga and then sent them off in different directions and encouraged them to spread the knowledge and practice to other people.
The sages went to different contents including South America, Asia, Northern Africa, and the Middle East spreading the “gospel” of yoga.
Patanjali and Agatsya are believed to have been among the 7 sages to whom the knowledge of yoga was given and who went on to make the practice known in India and establish a culture around the practice. Other figures who were heavily involved with the teaching of yoga and increased its popularity are the Buddha and Mahavir (3).
Yoga was introduced to the West in the period between the late 1800s, with the most notable events being the speech of Swami Vivekananda in Chicago at the World Parliament of Religions and the publication of the book called Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda in 1893 and 1946 respectively.
From there, yoga teachers traveled to different states in the United States, encouraging and teaching people how to take up the practice of yoga. The practice had since evolved and the different types of it that were taught to the Seven Sages by Shiva have been further developed by different yoga experts to help with various areas of our lives.
How Yoga Works
As earlier mentioned, the essence of yoga is to bring unity to the mind, body, and spirit. To achieve that goal, the one who practices yoga, also called the yogi, engages in a series of breathing techniques, poses, gestures, and actions to help them calm down, and increase their focus and awareness which makes way for the union.
To create a strong union between the body, spirit, and the mind, we have to follow the Eight Limbs of yoga as highlighted in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, where the foundational instructions of yoga were written.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are:
1. Yama – This involves the restraints, morals vows, and discipline which include truthfulness, non-greed, non-violence, non-stealing, and proper use of energy.
2. Niyama – This involves the observances and positive attributes which include cleanliness, surrender to a higher power, contentment, self-study and study of spiritual books, and killing desire.
3. Asana – This involves the physical postures included in the practice.
4. Pranayama – This involves the controlled breathing techniques to enhance the flow of energy
5. Pratyahara – This involves withdrawing the senses
6. Dharana – This involves focused attention
7. Dhyana – This involves absorption in meditation
8. Samadhi – This is enlightenment or blissful union with the divine or spiritual awakening
Forming the union of the mind and body
When it comes to the mind, yoga helps to sharpen our mental focus by training us to direct and maintain our attention on different parts of our body like the spine or various body-based actions like allowing our bodies to be fully immersed in the floor we are laying on as is the case for a pose called Savasana or the corpse pose.
When we concentrate on these instructions, our focus is gathered and directed towards the experience of our sessions and therefore reduces the mind’s tendency to drift off into distracting thoughts.
Our mental focus on different body parts helps to bring the union of the mind with the body.
Forming the union of the spirit and body
The postures and poses used in yoga help to bring about different positive effects on the body and also increase the flow of energy in our spiritual lives, which make for a healthy body and an empowered spirit.
There are 3 aspects that help to make this union possible, which are Bandhas, Mudras, and Kriya.
Bandha is a Sanskrit word for “lock” and its main purpose is to lock the flow of energy in and to a given body part for a limited duration. After letting go of the lock, there is a seamless flow of energy through the body which brings about the benefit of vitality and good health.
Mudras are simply the hand gestures used while practicing yoga that are used together with controlled breathing exercises, which help to stimulate various body parts associated with breathing and to influence energy flow in the body.
Kriya involves a set of controlled breathing practices, physical poses, and chanting sounds which increase spiritual growth and help the practitioner become awakened or enlightened.
Forming the union of the mind, spirit, and body
Yoga uses controlled breathing to help merge the mind, body, and spirit. Pranayama, which involves a set of breathing techniques that help to get rid of the emotional and physical barriers in our bodies is used.
Pranayama helps to smoothen the flow of energy in our bodies which translate to more peace, power, calmness, and health. Pranayama comes from two words, “Prana” which means life force or energy, and “Yama” which means to take control, and thus express the full meaning, controlled breathing.
Yoga is a practice that is focused on energy or life force and aims to increase the flow of energy in the body and also balance the energy wheels in the body known as Chakras that become imbalanced from time to time.
There are 7 main chakras that are located in different parts of the body, which include the root chakra (also called Muladhara), the sacral chakra (also called Svadhisthana), the solar plexus chakra (also called Manipuri), the heart chakra (also called Vishuddha), the third eye chakra (also called Ajna), the crown chakra (also called Sahasrara).
Our complete beginner’s guide to chakra meditation gives a detailed explanation of what each chakra represents and where specifically it is located in the body.
Types of Yoga
There are many types of yoga that exist which are used for different goals. Some of the most common yoga types are:
1. Kundalini Yoga – This style of yoga focuses on helping the practitioner let go of tension and built-up energy. It works with chanting, poses, meditation controlled breathing exercises, and singing.
2. Viniyoga – This is a type of yoga that works with controlled breathing exercises, chanting, studying of the texts, meditation, and poses that are specific to an individual depending on various factors like health, age, and goals. This is a flexible and highly adaptable yoga technique.
3. Vinyasa yoga – This is a more intense yoga technique that involves doing certain advanced poses in a given sequence while some music is playing in the background. The poses include headstands, handstands, arm balancing, and even shoulder stands.
4. Yoga Nidra – This is a relaxation-based yoga technique that encourages the practitioner to get into total relaxation, rest, and calmness by laying on the floor on their backs. Blankets or other forms of cover can be used to lay on the ground. From there, a yoga teacher guides the practitioner through a state of relaxation. This style offers as much value as restful sleep.
5. Hot yoga – Also called Bikram yoga, this is a yoga style that is practiced in rooms that are artificially heated to a temperature of around 40 degrees Celsius as well as 40% humidity. The practitioner engages in a sequence of 2 breathing techniques and 26 poses.
6. Hatha yoga – This is a style of yoga that mostly serves as an introduction to yoga, as it works with gentle and simple yoga physical poses that almost anyone can do without struggling.
7. Prenatal yoga – As the name suggests, this is a style of yoga that was crafted specifically for pregnant women to ensure they remain healthy and regain their beautiful shape after they give birth.
8. Power yoga – This is a style that works with fast-paced exercises that incorporates many poses from vinyasa yoga which also have some similarities with ashtanga yoga in terms of sequencing. The purpose of this style is to build strength and increase flexibility.
9. Kripalu yoga – This is described as more of an inward approach to yoga where the practitioner directs their attention inwards to learn from themselves. It works with relaxation, individual poses, gentle stretches, and breathing exercises.
10. Restorative yoga – This is a yoga practice that helps the practitioner rest and restores their energy. It uses gentle stretches that open and relaxes the body. This style has quite some similarities with yoga Nidra.
11. Iyengar yoga – This is a yoga technique that is based on 3 key aspects, sequencing, timing, and alignment, and uses blankets and chairs to increase effectiveness.
12. Ashtanga yoga – This is a modern yoga style that uses advanced postures and sequencing and which also encourages linking breath to the movements used by the practice.
13. Yin yoga – This is a quiet and slow-paced yoga style that involves poses that are held for a much longer period than in other styles. This practice is aimed at tissues such as bones, ligaments, meridians, fascia, and joints in our bodies.
14. Sivananda yoga – This is a style of yoga that uses 5 main principles for optimal levels of health. These principles are proper relaxation, breathing, exercise, diet, positive thinking, and meditation. It also involves 12 poses such as headstands, standing forward bend, seated forward bend, shoulder stands, fish, bow, crow or peacock, cobra, triangle, seated spinal twist, plow, and locust.
Benefits of Yoga
The advantages of practicing yoga are the following:
* Treating depression – More than 20 scientific studies have shown that yoga is an effective intervention for dealing with depressive symptoms and is much better than aerobic exercises, relaxation techniques, and usual care (4) (5).
* Increasing flexibility – Yoga works with different poses and movements that vary in intensity. All yoga styles including the low-intensity ones have been found to help with increasing flexibility, even for adults aged 65 and above (6) (7) (8).
* Boosting immunity – The long-term practice of yoga can help deal with diseases that have some element of inflammation in them and therefore improve our overall health. On top of that, the practice enhances mucosal and cell-mediated immunity (9).
* Bringing down inflammation – Many life-threatening diseases tend to have some inflammatory aspect about them which can be handled by practicing yoga. A review of several studies on the impact of yoga on inflammation showed that yoga helps to reduce inflammation in various illnesses (10) (11).
* Relieving stress – All the elements in yoga which include the physical poses, meditation, sound baths, controlled breathing, and chanting help to bring down high levels of stress, depression, and tension, and instead bring about relaxation and a sense of peace and spiritual well being (12) (13).
* Bringing down high levels of anxiety – Yoga, especially yoga Nidra, is among the few interventions that have shown effectiveness in handling both the physiological and cognitive anxiety symptoms. And when combined with seated meditation, the two techniques can help combat stress and anxiety (14) (15).
* Promoting balance – Generally, yoga has shown great abilities in enhancing balance in healthy people and athletes. Also, specific forms of yoga such as adaptive yoga and yoga asana can help increase balance in older people and people struggling with brain injuries and physical injuries (16) (17) (18).
* Enhancing quality of sleep – The physical exercises, poses, and calming meditative practices have been found to help increase relaxation in the body which helps a person fall asleep quicker than they normally do, and remain asleep for a long period (19)(20) (21).
* Bettering cardiovascular health – The controlled breathing technique (pranayama) used in yoga has positive effects on metabolic, neurocognitive, respiratory, biochemical, and psychophysiological functions in our bodies (22).
* Increasing self-esteem – Yoga has been found to improve body image and body satisfaction in young adults who previously had bad perceptions of their bodies along with negative body image (23).
* Improving cognitive function – Consistent practice of yoga has been found to increase the gray matter in the brain, especially in the hippocampus and insula. It also makes the prefrontal cortical region more active and brings about functional changes in connectivity specifically in the default mode network. These changes are linked to improved executive functioning, neuroplasticity, motivation, and attention (24).
* Increasing body awareness and good posture – The practice of yoga that includes the body movements and poses is able to relax tense muscles and increase spine flexibility, which are two factors that contribute to good posture (25).
* Reducing effects of burnout – The ability to be aware of our body’s signals to exhaustion and respond accordingly can be cultivated through practicing yoga and can massively help with reducing burnout effects (26).
* Improving bone health – Various aspects of yoga like the isometric exercises and yoga poses help to increase bone density (although still in research), reverse bone loss, and improve overall bone health (27)(28).
* Increasing strength – Yoga, apart from increasing flexibility, can also improve muscular strength. Various styles of yoga include sessions, poses, and exercises that make a good combination for building strength (29).
* May help with quitting smoking – Yoga can increase the chances of abstaining from smoking mostly for people who don’t smoke a lot and may make a good complementary intervention in therapy for quitting smoking (32).
* May reduce menopause symptoms – A study investigating how yoga affects menopause symptoms involved two groups. One group had women with symptoms of menopause that practiced yoga and the other group acted as the control group. After 90 days, the yoga group showed a reduction in menopause symptoms (33).
* Promoting restfulness and relaxation – Yoga helps to bring about a state of restfulness and relaxation that makes it possible to sleep well. Some styles like yoga Nidra provide restful effects as powerful as a few hours of sleep (34).
* Reducing pain – A meta-analysis of ten studies that was done in 2019 found that yoga can deal with pain-related function disability, and reduce the intensity of neck pain among other benefits (35).
Side Effects of Yoga
In the grand scheme of things, yoga is safe to practice. There are very few side effects and risks associated with the practice. When you work with a trained, qualified and experienced instructor, there are extremely low chances you will experience any negative effects from the practice.
However, when you choose to do it by yourself without any supervision or guidance from a trained instructor, you may end up getting injuries, strains, and sprains.
Pregnant women, older people (from 65 years and above), and people with any health conditions especially sciatica, bone loss, a herniated disc, extreme balance problems, glaucoma, blood clot risks, and severe osteoporosis are strongly encouraged to visit a health care professional before beginning their yoga practice for professional medical guidance.
For beginners, it is good practice to start off your practice with gentle stretches and simple poses that don’t put pressure or demand a lot from you as that may increase the risk of injuries. Start small and gradually build the strength and flexibility to take on the advanced poses and exercises.
Those who intend to do hot yoga should be on the lookout for dehydration and overheating.
How to Do Yoga
For someone who is considering beginning the practice of yoga and making it a lifestyle, it is important to invest in quality training for the practice and be well-prepared to take it as a lifelong commitment.
It is good to begin by looking for a local yoga studio, fitness center, or yoga organization that provides yoga classes. You can also search for online classes from reputable organizations or get a personal yoga instructor for private lessons.
Make sure you do your due diligence and ensure that the instructor you settle for is well-trained, qualified, and experienced, and is someone you get along with. If you go for an organization, ensure the organization where you will be getting your group yoga classes works with the best practices and it is up to standards.
To determine which yoga style is best for you, it is helpful to talk to the instructor and share with them your desires and goals for the practice as well as any health issues you may have so that you are well-advised on the right direction to take.
The instructor will also know which modifications to make to your yoga lessons to see that your classes are smooth and not strenuous based on your condition. Yoga instructors are trained on making the right modifications for every student.
During your yoga class, you should carry your yoga mat, and a bottle of water, wear comfortable clothing you can stretch in, and avoid eating heavy meals before your sessions. Each yoga class takes about 40 to 90 minutes and may include some stretches to relax your muscles and prepare them for the poses you will be doing.
It helps to practice yoga in a quiet place with minimal disturbance and use a non-slip mat to avoid sliding and falling during your practice.
Also, it is good to commit to the practice and attend every class there is. Depending on your schedule, you can plan for a few classes per week. Ideally, do it as often as you can because the benefits come with long-term practice.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Yoga
Question: Is yoga good for children?
Answer: Yes. Yoga can go a long way in children’s lives as it can help them manage stress and anxiety, lose weight, and improve the psychological functioning of children who struggle with mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.
Question: How much does it cost to practice yoga?
Answer: The price varies on different factors including where you choose to get your classes, the instructor, and the style of yoga you want to do among others. There are studios that charge up to $40 per hour, on the minimum while others charge more or less than that. It all depends on what resources the place (studio or fitness center or yoga organization) you decide to do yoga offers in terms of packages and the resources they provide you.
Question: Which are the most common poses for newbies?
Answer: Some of the most popular yoga poses for beginners include child’s pose, mountain pose, downward dog, cobra, cat and cow poses, and corpse pose.
Question: Is yoga good for me?
Answer: Ideally, yoga is good for everyone. However, if you have a health condition, it is highly recommended that you visit your doctor to determine if you are fit enough to do it and then talk to your instructor about the condition so that they can give you the best and good-to-work-with exercises that won’t strain you.