Many traditions of ancient Asia are making a comeback after hundreds or even thousands of years of dormancy. Tai Chi, dozens of martial arts, the drinking of matcha tea in new versions of traditional ceremonies, and so-called “paleo” foods of all types are being rediscovered and cherished by new-age consumers.
Yoga is probably one of the most successful physical trends of the past 50 years. Starting out slowly in the West, the discipline caught on in a big way in the 1990s. Today, most major cities in the world boast dozens of yoga studios, classes and private sessions.
Once the province of traditional Hindu religious practice, the majority of modern adherents opt for yoga for health, flexibility and fun. Unfortunately, too many newbies take their first yoga “class” online, or from a book. That approach almost always leads to pain, pulled muscles or injury.
Properly done, yoga is an effective way to reduce stress and get fit. So if it’s been a long time since you’ve been to a gym, maybe now is the time to look into yoga, an ancient regimen that can literally change your body and your life.
Know where you stand
Many Westerners are physically unable to achieve traditional yoga postures, which is why most classes offer modified versions of some poses. The so-called “Lotus” posture is particularly pain-inducing for most beginners. Here are some guidelines for those who are approaching yoga for the very first time:
- Keep a journal: Write down your experiences and even do some stick drawings of the postures as your teacher explains them.
- Make time in your schedule: The key to a successful yoga practice is habit, much like any other exercise program. By setting aside a certain amount of time each day, and having a specific place to do your at-home yoga practice, you’ll be on your way to yoga bliss.
- Get a good mat: Try out several yoga mats before committing to one. There are a few different kinds that work well for beginners, especially the sticky ones that guarantee stable footing.
- Remember to breathe and meditate: Western students tend to think yoga is all about the postures, achieving the lotus position and twisting their bodies into pretzel-like forms. The postures themselves are a key part of yoga, but so is breathing and meditation (or just concentration). Speak with your instructor if you are not sure how to breathe properly during a specific posture (breathing can be the trickiest part of a yoga lesson, and is often ignored or misunderstood by beginners).
- Be patient: Yoga takes time. A body that is new to yoga or new to exercise in general will adapt eventually. Beginners often want to “see results” in a matter of days and become discouraged when that does not happen. Take the long view and look at yoga as your new lifestyle rather than just another form of exercise.
- Educate yourself: Because so many yoga concepts are not common knowledge in the West, do a good amount of reading and try to learn about the history of the art. Breathing and attitude play a much greater role in yoga than they do in any other type of workout you’re used to. Be ready to practice breathing each day. Learning to inhale and exhale at the proper times and in the right way is essential in yoga. Spend quality time on breathing and you’ll be thankful a few months down the road. Everything will fall together and the postures will seem “logical” and easier to hold.
- Sleep often and well: For all kinds of odd reasons, yoga is best done in the morning. Though some practitioners by necessity do their daily routines in the evening, try to set aside your “yoga time” for the first part of the day. Right after waking up is better than after breakfast. And early in the morning is generally better than later. Doing yoga while your body and mind are fresh but unfed seems to bring much more to the practice. You’ll be more flexible as soon as you awake, your stomach will not be burdened by breakfast, and your brain will be clearer after a good night’s sleep.
Things to know on your first day in yoga class
You’ll hear much talk about “the lotus.” It is neither a car nor a dance, but a very challenging posture. Wait for at least a year before trying it. Supervision and insurance are recommended when you do.
- If you haven’t been around the health club scene for a decade or so, note that LA Fitness is not a French spa. It’s just an international chain of health clubs.
- A few years ago many yoga students took to a fad of doing certain postures while completely naked. If you want to give it a go, be absolutely certain to only do naked yoga AT HOME. Otherwise, you might end up having to face criminal charges.
- Many yoga terms are written in ancient Sanskrit, the pronunciation of which will tie your tongue in more knots than an advanced yoga adept’s arms and legs. So, take a deep breath and learn a little Sanskrit. Your teacher can help you with the words.
- Yoga is often categorized with Tai Chi and other Asian physical arts, both because of its health benefits and its ancient origins. Indeed, early practitioners of Japanese tea ceremony not only ingested green matcha tea, but also were known to be quite physically adept.
Yoga is a smart way to maintain physical health and long-term flexibility. If you are interested in learning this ancient form of fitness and stress reduction, find a good class or teacher in your local area. Online resources are fine for a brief introduction, but teaching should be left to the teachers. In fact, there are several certifying agencies in most European countries as well as the U.S. and Canada. It’s usually a good idea to make sure your instructor has at least the minimum requirements to teach.