Yoga 101: An Intro for Beginners
My love affair with yoga started out of curiosity, out of the need to find a ‘workout’ that clicked, and out of vanity—I needed to learn how to do those striking, impossible looking poses. All I knew about the discipline was based on perceptions: “yoga is for skinny people, yoga is for flexible people, yoga is for spiritual people, yoga is putting your leg behind your head.”
Eight years after my first class, I can tell you that I was wrong (oh, so wrong). Which is why I’ll start with what yoga is not.
Years ago, a young woman asked me how I could call myself a catholic and dare (dare…seriously?) to come to mass if I practiced yoga. Had I been drinking water when I heard that, it would have fountained out of my mouth and onto her face (because I would have burst into laughter). In the spirit of removing all doubt: no, yoga is not a religion. Whew! Glad we got that out of the way.
Then, What is Yoga?
Yoga is a practice, a philosophy, a discipline; one that has been around for over two thousand years. In fact, academics believe that yoga existed in India before history was recorded. The Indian sage, Patanjali, compiled the existing information on the practice into the Yoga Sutras – the foundation of most yoga teachings. The word yoga roughly translates from Sanskrit as “unite” or “to unite.” And yoga as a discipline is composed of a series of branches and schools that converge and intertwine to form what we know as modern yoga—the kind people used to sign up for at the local yoga studio (now, probably online).
In my world, yoga translated into many poses I could “never” do; poses strategically engineered for people with flexible bodies, not for the rest of us. Now I understand that flexibility—both physical and mental—is a benefit of the yoga practice, not a requirement to start practicing.
Yoga is more than postures or 'asanas.'
It is the graceful union between movement and breath. A mind-body-soul practice.
It took me several years, and dedicated teachers, to understand that breath awareness is essential in developing a physical practice; maintaining the inhalations and exhalations connected to each movement: “inhale, raise your arms, look up…exhale, gaze forward, arms to the sides of your body”. However, and unfortunately, for many of us the priority is usually getting the pose right vs. getting the breath right. And of course—taking the pictures (thanks, Instagram).
THE FOUR COMPONENTS
One of the reasons the benefits of yoga go beyond the body and extend to the mind, is that it’s made up of four key elements that support an integrated wellbeing:
Postures: what seems challenging.
Breathing Exercises (or Pranayama): what can be slightly challenging.
Deep Relaxation: the gift of yoga (according to me – and the only reason I roll out my mat some days).
Meditation: the real challenge, bestowing the massive benefits.
Apart from the overall feel-good sentiment that takes over oneself after a yoga class, there’s a host of science-backed benefits to keep rolling out the mat. Today I leave you with these four:
Increased sense of happiness through compassion, gratitude and present moment awareness. According to positive psychology researchers, these are among the factors that contribute to a person’s sentiment of happiness and fulfillment. And fortunately, these can improve with yoga and through the resulting mindfulness that tends to develop with consistent practice.
Sharper mind through meditation – this practice strengthens certain parts of the brain that can result in enhanced cognitive abilities linked to memory and learning, ft. attention, thought and language.
Reduced Stress by toning down the fight-or-flight response (caused by the sympathetic nervous system) and activating the body’s calming effects through the rest-and-digest response (caused by the parasympathetic nervous system). Research has shown that one 90-minute yoga session can lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Improved Physical Health by potentially helping, with mobility and balance problems, promoting flexibility and aiding to reduce joint pain. It can also improve body awareness, allowing the practitioner to be more connected to their body and recognize how it's feeling and sensing when it’s tired, stressed, or in pain.
Before Staring Your Yoga Practice
I encourage you to consider these tips for a safer, more enjoyable practice:
First things first – check in with your doctor if you have a pre-existing medical condition (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, glaucoma, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, balance issues, recent medical procedures, and so on).
Keep in mind that yoga is a lifestyle complement, not a replacement treatment for any medical condition.
Go at your own pace. Move slowly, steadily and enjoy your practice, no one is chasing you.
Know your body. Be mindful of the difference between a challenging stretch and a painful posture. Yoga should never hurt.
Don’t force yourself into a posture, simply try to keep a proper alignment overall. There’s always a modification available if you need it, just ask.
Focus on the breath. The coordination of movement and breath regulates your breathing during the practice and can improve that deep relaxation.
Notes to Self
If you’re flirting with the idea of trying out yoga, and starting a consistent practice, here are three simple reminders to take the pressure off:
Just show up on the mat (one, two, three days a week – who’s counting?).
Keep in mind everybody, and every body is unique. Yoga as you can, yoga as you are, and keep it safe.
Enjoy the experience and trust your process.
(Fun fact—“Namaste” translates from Sanskrit as: “The light in me, honors the light in you”)
This piece was written and contributed by:
PR & marketing person trained in journalism, health coaching and yoga—writing about most things wellness. Jit helps entrepreneurs PR the ef out of their superpowers, specializing in content strategy, copy makeovers and spotting PR-able angles.
She finds joy in a cup of coffee, in a nourishing read or an inspiring podcast, and in rediscovering paradise in her native Panama—where she lives with her husband, his son and their Shih Tzu, Valentina.