You probably know that yoga can help make you more flexible, but did you know that it can also make you stronger? Whether yoga is your only exercise or you are looking to complement your other workouts, yoga will improve your flexibility, alignment, and core strength. This makes you less likely to get injured and can improve your performance in other activities. Improving alignment and emphasizing the use of breath in initiating movement can also increase your body awareness and focus. Yoga can reduce your stress level and improve your overall mood, while also helping with everything from joint pain to digestion. So how do you get started?
Beginner yoga is best practiced under the guidance of an experienced teacher, but many students are intimidated by yoga studios and have difficulty picking the right class and teacher. If you’ve been thinking about giving yoga a try and haven’t known where to begin, here are some basics to get you started.
You can expect to keep learning new yoga poses constantly during your first years of practice, but developing familiarity with basic yoga poses can help to make beginner yoga classes a lot less intimidating.
Standing yoga poses are very beginner friendly. They do not require movement up and down from the floor and they help to build strength and balance. These poses also assist with healthy alignment and movement patterns of the knees and hips, and provide functional flexibility. While it’s easy to emphasize flexibility and range of motion, a healthy beginner yoga practice will focus on positioning of joints and engagement of core muscles. You can include yoga props such as yoga blocks and straps to make poses more attainable as you build flexibility and strength. Here are a few essential standing poses you are likely to encounter during your beginner yoga classes.
Feet are wide, with the front foot perpendicular to the front of your yoga mat and your back foot angled in slightly. Turn your back hip towards the front of the yoga mat and align your front knee over the center of your front foot.
Foot position is similar to Warrior 1, but hips face the side of your yoga mat rather than the front. The knee should continue to track over the center of your front foot and shoulders should align over the hips.
Activate your core by drawing your tummy in and gazing in front of your yoga mat. The knee of the lifted leg should roll in towards the midline of your body and hips should remain level.
Feet are wide, as in Warrior 1 and 2. Press strongly through both legs to bring your top hip over the bottom. Engage through the core to emphasize lengthening the underside of your torso and place your hand on your shin, a yoga block, or the floor.
Your hips and core will be engaged as in Triangle. Push strongly into the standing leg to assist in lifting the top hip and engaging the core. Your bottom hand can rest on a yoga block if reaching the floor is difficult.
Sun Salutations are very popular in many yoga practices. This series of movements provides cardiovascular benefits (ranging from modest to vigorous depending on the pace), teaches linkage of movement with breath, and trains muscles and nerves to hold joints in healthy positions as we enter and exit postures. If you’ve never done a sun salutation, this practice can be intimidating, but after a few rounds the movements will become second nature.
The most difficult areas of the sun salutation for beginners tend to be holding Down Dog, transitioning in and out of plank, and stepping forward and back on the mat. Using options and slowing movements down is one way to make this accessible as you grow more comfortable with the transitions.
How to do the Sun Salutation Pose
Although Down Dog will commonly show up beginner yoga classes, the demand that it places on the shoulders, as well as the flexibility of the calves and hamstrings can make repeated Down Dogs during class an unhealthy option. It’s easy to substitute other postures for Down Dog, whether you choose to do this each time the pose shows up in class, or just to take a break during some of the transitions. My favorite substitutions for Down Dog are table top (with or without additional cushioning under the knees), Child’s Pose, and Happy Puppy.
How to do Downward Dog and Variations
Moving in and out of chautaranga (low plank) and coming to a forward position on the mat is also sometimes difficult for beginners. In moving from high plank to chautaranga, it’s important to remember that keeping the shoulders lifted and engaging the core is far more important than lifting the knees from the mat. Many of my experienced students continue to practice this transition on their knees because it helps them to build better core and leg strength. As you move in and out of a standing position, remember that you always have the option of simply stepping or of using your hand to assist you in making that transition.
How to do a Chaturanga Transition
It’s easy to get started on yoga without investing in a lot of equipment. Yoga Journal offers a helpful guide to poses and practice builder. You’ve already seen how using a yoga block can make poses more stable and accessible. Yoga blocks are also helpful in seated and reclined postures, reducing knee strain in seated positions, and to support the shoulder(s) in reclined postures. A yoga mat will increase your stability and provide you with a dedicated space for your yoga practice. Lastly, you may want to consider adding a Core Ball to your yoga equipment. The ball can be used as support in standing postures and to build core strength and stability that will enhance your yoga practice.
About the writer: Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more about Joli.