Selecting the Yoga Practice That’s Right for You

With so many styles and benefits of yoga available, sorting out the yin from the yang and the power from restorative can be pretty daunting. Looking for a little guidance on finding the right fit for your first class? Here’s an overview of some of the benefits of yoga as well as the styles that will emphasize these benefits, so you can select the yoga practice that’s right for you.

Overall Fitness. For the fitness-minded person who is just looking for a well-rounded approach to cross-training, yoga can offer benefits in the three areas of fitness: cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility. While you need to keep moving to get your heart rate up, recent studies demonstrate that the cardiovascular benefits of yoga can be in keeping with those of brisk walking and exercise, resulting in increased fitness and decreases in LDL Cholesterol and body weight. If this sounds like your type of practice, look into a Power, Flow, Core, or Vinyasa yoga classes. You might also see this type of offering billed as Baptiste or Forrest yoga. These classes are offered in both traditional and heated studios and you can expect to sweat even at room temperature.

Strength and Improved Mobility:  Whether you’re looking to prevent injuries, improve your balance, or increase your functional flexibility, yoga can assist you in becoming stronger and moving in a healthier fashion. A classic Hatha yoga class, such as those provided by Iyengar trained instructors, or a traditional “Hot” yoga class, as made famous by Bikram Choudhury, will likely emphasize alignment and balance. If you’re intimidated by the quick transitions between postures found in the Power and Flow styles of yoga, you’ll find the slower pace and deliberate instruction comforting, while even advanced students will benefit from the precise alignment cues and opportunities for continued progression. You might also benefit from an Ashtanga approach, a demanding athletic practice that combines movement between postures with an emphasis on proper technique.

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Restoration and Improved Flexibility: If you’re primarily looking for a mind-body connection, stress relief, or an introduction to meditation, along with an emphasis on opening the joints and connective tissues of your body, a slower paced class deemed “restorative” is likely to meet your needs. There are many varieties, including Yin Yoga, which includes long holds of supported postures, Kundalini Yoga, which emphasizes connecting to your sacred energy, and even Yoga Nidra, which is directed at improving your meditation and sleep. While the approaches of these classes differ, they will all result in improved awareness of your ability to observe and change the reactions of your body and mind to stress and daily demands.

While there are many more approaches to yoga than can easily be summarized, having an idea of the benefits you’d like to receive from your practice can help you to narrow down the right fit. Many classes combine one or more of the approaches described here and offer practitioners multiple benefits within a single class. Additionally, many yogis draw from different schools of yoga and different approaches when developing their own unique schedule. Whatever approach you choose, yoga offers enormous benefits when combined with your home fitness program for cardiovascular and strength training and can improve your function both in athletic training and daily activity.

Joli

About the writer: Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more on the Meet Our Writers page.


Ask an Expert: Planking Basics

I’ve been hearing a lot about the benefits of planking lately, but it intimidates me. Can you share some tips on how to ease my way into the exercise and different variations to get started? –Nicole

Challenging most of the major muscle groups and requiring no equipment, planking is one exercise that can benefit nearly any body. So how do you know whether you’re doing it correctly and which variation is right for you? Here are a few tips:

The Basics. To come into a plank position, start on all fours with your hands beneath your shoulders and lift your knees while keeping your hips low. For beginners, coming into the position while your head is (gently!) resting against a wall is an effective way to teach the activation of the middle back and abdominal muscles that benefit from this training position. Focus on lifting the portion of your spine that is between your shoulder blades, as well as drawing your belly muscles in towards your spine. You should also keep your hips low to activate the glutes and low abdominal muscles.

Variations. If you have wrist or elbow pain, you can also do plank on your forearms. Altering the hand position by bringing your hands forward slightly can also be used. This will make the position easier, while helping you to eventually strengthen and stabilize the wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints. Another variation is to drop one or both knees for some period of time during the posture, while keeping the activation of the abdominals and glutes.

 

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Advanced options. For a greater challenge, try lifting one leg for half of your hold time followed by the other leg. You can also perform a side plank, with or without one knee down. This position specifically strengthens the quadratus lumborum (a muscle in your lower back), which can be hard to target and may help you avoid lower back pain. You can also lift your upper leg during the side plank, adding an additional challenge to your balance and core stability.

Whichever option you choose, you can start with brief holds of 20 to 30 seconds, working up to as long as two minutes. It is also a great move to include into your workout several times each week, as part of a separate strength training program or during your warm up or cool down after your cardiovascular workout.

Happy planking!

Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. To find out more, visit the Meet Our Writers page.


Simple yoga moves for morning and evening

Nothing beats the energy of a group class coupled with the instruction of a knowledgeable teacher–but attending a daily yoga class is out of the question for most. However, just by investing a short block of time in the morning or evening, you’ll find that fitting in a short practice that will provide you with many of yoga’s benefits is easier than you think.

[If you are new to yoga, click on the highlighted links for a quick video/photo reference]

Morning Yoga. Focus on invigorating postures that increase circulation and support healthy posture and movement. Sun salutations are a classic series of flowing movements that will nourish your mind while building core strength and healthy positioning of the knees and feet. Including two rounds of both the classic A-series and B-series will strengthen your core and upper body, as well as the supporting muscles of your knees and feet. Follow this with a balancing posture (such as Tree Pose or Dancers Pose) to improve concentration and foot health. Finish with a chest/heart opening asana (such as Camel Pose or Bridge) to reinforce healthy posture and energy. This practice can also be a wonderful way to warm up for your favorite cardiovascular or strength training activity.

Evening Yoga. Taking a little time for yourself before bedcan reduce the stress from your day, improve connection with your friends and family, and prepare you for sleep. It can also make you more mindful about the evening habits that we often fall into at the end of a long day. It’s also a perfect way to finish your evening workout. You can start this practice with slower paced sun salutations or begin a more restorative practice by coming into Child’s Pose or Cat and Cow postures, which are especially helpful if you experience soreness in your low back. Hip openers, (such as Pigeon Pose) will counter the constriction of remaining seated at work during your day, as will a gentle counter pose/back bend like Upward Plank Pose. Finish your quick evening practice with a generous dose of forward folding  to support quieting of the mind and a more restful sleep. Seated Forward Bend is a great option.

Just 5-10 minutes in the morning or evening can support strength, body awareness, flexibility, and the balanced mindset that are some of the benefits of a yoga practice. If you find yourself with a little extra time, you can combine or build on the postures above using Yoga Journal’s practice builder or the resources at MyYogaonline. The most important step is giving yourself the time to notice what your body and mind need most and providing that with a few directed postures.

Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor, and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. To find out more, visit the Meet Our Writers page.


Ask an expert: Best morning and evening exercises

 Are there any good exercises to do right before bed to wind down the day or right when I get out of bed in the morning to get my day started? –Samantha

When thinking about exercise before bedtime and as you start your day, it’s wise to focus on the purpose and how it will affect your life performance. For instance, as you head towards bedtime your cortisol levels are dropping in preparation for sleep. If you perform an activity that boosts heart rate and breathing, it works against the natural rhythm of your daily cycle and can effectively keep you awake when you want to sleep.

One way to promote more restful sleep is to perform a nighttime routine that includes light stretching and meditation. Here’s a five minute evening exercise routine that’s easy to remember:

  • Lie on your back in a quiet, peaceful place.
  • Pull your knees into your chest and hold for 30 seconds.
  • With your knees into your chest, bring both knees over to your right side and relax them on the floor.  Stretch your arms straight out from your shoulders and look to the opposite side (left side). Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat this on the other side by bringing your knees over to the left side, stretch your arms out and look right. Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Relax with your legs and arms on the floor.
  • Close your eyes and focus on breathing in and out through your nose.
  • Visualize a beach and hear the sound of the waves hitting the beach.
  • Breath in to the rhythm of the ocean wave flowing up the beach.
  • Breath out as the wave draws back in toward the ocean.
  • Start with 1-2 minutes of this meditation exercise and build up to five minutes.

Now that you know how to bring things down at nighttime, let’s focus on how to pick things up to start your day. Sleep, although restorative, can also leave us feeling tight and stiff in the morning. Here’s a five-minute morning routine you can do anywhere:

  • Stand with your hands at your sides and take a deep breath in reaching your arms up along your sides toward the ceiling.
  • Exhale, bend at your waist and relax the arms down toward your feet, keeping your knees slightly bent. Repeat this sequence five times to wake the body and warm it up.
  • Next, from a standing position, bend at your hips and knees and squat until your legs are parallel to the floor while reaching your arms out in front and hold for 5 seconds. Press through your heels, pull your arms back toward you as if you were pulling something towards you until you’re in standing position again. Repeat 5 times slowly to wake the legs.
  • Lie down in push up position with your hands just beside your chest. Push yourself up into push up position and hold keeping your hips in line with your body. Suck your navel into your spine and draw your right knee into your chest and hold for 2 seconds. Then repeat with the left knee. Alternate bringing the right and left knee slowly into the chest while keeping your body in alignment for 60 seconds. Match your breathing to the rhythm of your movement, exhaling as you draw your knee into the chest and inhaling as you return to starting position.

It’s amazing how impactful a five-minute routine can have on your overall health. It all begins with matching the purpose of the activity with the flow of your life routine.

Happy Trails.
Coach Jenny Hadfield

Coach Jenny Hadfield is a published author, writer, coach, public speaker and endurance athlete. To find out more, visit our Meet Our Writers page or visit Coach Jenny’s website.