Yoga has been a pretty hot topic for the last ten years or so. But yoga isn’t just a fad, and it’s not going out of style any time soon. That’s because yoga has been well documented to be one of the best forms of exercise for your body. It strengthens muscles, joints, and tendons, and produces greater mental clarity and awareness. Yoga can even help repair spinal injuries and reverse chronic physical problems.
It really sounds too good to be true. And to a lot of western minded athletes, it gets written off as nonsense or a hoax. I can’t tell you how many men I’ve met that think yoga is for women and won’t make you strong. The fact of the matter is, they’re wrong.
So if you’re new to yoga and are looking to start practicing on your own, you’ll need to know the basics. Watching videos is helpful and can get you going in the right direction. But the truth is, you need more detail than a video can give you. Even in yoga class, teachers often pass through important details in order to not pause class.
So today we’ll cover all of the most basic yoga poses you’re likely to encounter in any beginner class. We’ll talk about why they’re good for you, how to do them correctly, and what to avoid. We’ll also cover some of the big ideas of yoga like how to breathe, what to focus on, and how it should feel. By the end, you’ll feel much more confident in your practice, whether that’s in class or at home.
It’s no secret that yoga focuses heavily on your breath. Every yoga teacher you’ve ever had talks about it for basically their entire class. However, not many of them ever actually talk about why that is. Why is breathing so important? And why are there a thousand special breathing techniques in yoga?
Well, there are a number of reasons, but it primarily has to do with pumping your blood and pumping your muscles. You see, your heart responds to your lungs. If your breathing is erratic, your heart will follow suit. Your muscles are all powered by oxygen carried to them by your blood. When you get down to it, your whole body is. That’s why you need to be mindful of how you’re making the pumps work.
You’ve probably also heard a yoga instructor tell you to breathe into your discomfort or into the stretch. What does that mean? Well first and foremost, it’s a reminder to not hold your breath. The only time you should hold your breath is under water. Second, when your lungs expand, it expands your entire torso. If you’re mindful, you can use this physical expansion to pump your stretch.
Hip stretches are a great example. When you inhale in a hip stretch, you can probably feel the stretch hurt more as your torso expands. Try breathing into your belly to amplify the effect. As you feel this increased stretch, try to sink a little deeper when you exhale. The stretch will naturally ease up a bit as your torso contracts. With this pumping technique, you can slowly work deeper and deeper into all of your stretches. Keyword ‘slowly’.
The right type of stretch
Now, before we get too far into this, we should cover what a stretch should feel like. Equally important is what it should not feel like. After all, yoga, and all forms of stretching are about pushing into discomfort and expanding your range of motion. However, if done recklessly or in the wrong ways, you can really hurt yourself.
Your stretches should feel most intense in the body of your muscles, not at the ends of them. The best stretch usually hits your whole muscle, not just the tendons at the end. Tendons need to be stretched slowly and carefully. So you should never feel intense sharp stretches or pains in your joints or tendons.
Your stretches should hurt in an uncomfortable burning type of way. If you don’t feel some pain, you’re not actually stretching hard enough. However, it should never feel sharp, or like shooting pains, if you make small motions. That means you’re stretching dangerously and should ease off. Many stretches of yoga are active stretches and will become more challenging as you hold them. So never rush into the deepest stretch possible. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.
How to start a yoga practice
Now, your own style of practice is up to you, and it’s good to switch it up a bit from time to time. However, there are some basic principles that should guide the progression of every practice. You should start slow and warm up first. Before moving into energetic or challenging poses, you should do easier ones. The peak of your workout should be between half and three-quarters of the way through your practice. Then you should do some cool down stretches before you finish.
So at the start, all yoga practices take one of three positions, laying, sitting, or standing. You can choose where you want to start each day. Think about how you’re feeling and what kind of practice you’re trying to have today. If you’re really tired, sore, or stiff, start laying down and be gentle to yourself. If you’re awake but looking for a long grounding practice, start sitting up straight cross-legged. Or if you’re looking to have a faster or more aerobic practice then start standing up.
From any of these three positions, you should start slow. Most practices start with several minutes of breathing, intention setting, and settling into an awareness of your body. It’s good to thank yourself for getting out your mat and practicing as well. Then start with light spinal twists, spinal extensions, and some gentle forwards folds. We’ll go into more detail for each of those.
Stretch straight up towards the sky. Inhale as you reach your arms upwards. Feel every single muscle expand up and out. You should feel your ribs pull upwards and away from one another as your chest expands. You can either exhale and remain extended upwards, or drop down slowly into a forwards fold as you push the air out of your lungs.
At the start of my practice, I like to hold an upwards extension for several breaths before moving into folds. It helps to strengthen your spine and expand your torso. Your arms can be straight up overhead, out at an angle, or folded down behind your head.
Some people like to do side or back bends at the start of their practice as well. If you do, you should be very gentle and careful. Don’t overdo it. Stretch upwards with your breath. Then, as you exhale, slowly and gently lean left. Just an inch or two is enough at first. Keep your core strong to protect your spine. Don’t sag into these stretches. Then inhale back up and do the other side. Be careful that this doesn’t feel sharp or painful. The stretch should be all the way up your side body.
Basic forwards folds
After you stretch upwards, release your breath and fold downwards. This will help you balance and ground the start of your practice. One common mistake beginners make in forwards fold is they lock their knees. After all, if your knees are locked, it feels like you’re getting a much better stretch. However, it’s the wrong kind of stretch. Remember how we said you should feel it in your muscles more than your joints?
Instead, especially at the start of your practice, bend your knees slightly and fold down with a straight back. You should feel the stretch first in your lower back, buttocks, and thighs. Only once you’ve hung loosely for a moment in your forwards fold should you feel it in your knees.
Even as you extend further downwards with each exhale, you should never straighten your knees completely. Instead, keep a micro-bend in them to help keep them activated. This will protect them from injury and spread the stretch out along the length of your legs.
Light twists are a great way to warm your spine up and get your blood flowing. They are excellent for digestion and for letting go of stress as well. You want to be sure never to overdo it though. Don’t pull yourself into a twist and don’t strain against your spine.
Be sure to breathe and move slowly and gently. Keep your spine straight, and reach your head up towards the sky if you’re sitting or standing. If you’re lying down, ease into the twist and use props if need be.
Child’s pose is a great resting position for any time during a yoga practice. It is usually the best way to take a break when a class is a little too intense for you. Most yoga teachers mention this at the start of their class. However, a lot of beginners think they’re supposed to tough it out and hold every pose. But that’s just not the case.
Yoga is all about practicing well, not practicing hard. If you’re straining your body to hold a pose, the chances are that your breathing is erratic, you’re mind is unfocused, and your body would be better served by a quick break in child’s pose. It’s not shameful, it actually indicates that you’re in touch with your body and know how to listen to it. Once your breathing is back under control, return to practice.
Child’s pose can be done in a number of ways, but the bottom line is it should feel comfortable. It should be relaxing. It is not an intense stretch, nor is it meant to be. If you do want to feel a stretch in child’s pose, you can spread your knees wide while keeping your feet together. This allows an easy groin stretch. Reaching your hands farther forwards will make for a light stretch in your lower back.
How to end a yoga practice
Most people agree that the best part of any yoga practice is the end. After a full hour or more of yoga, your mind and body are likely to feel an incredible high. You are often more focused than normal and exceptionally ready to relax your muscles in a way you just can’t normally.
That’s why almost every yoga practice in the world ends with savasana pose. Basically, by lying down on your back, closing your eyes, and relaxing every muscle in your body. It feels incredible.
Usually, you will prepare for savasana by doing a couple of light ground poses such as hugging your knees into your chest. Doing some light twists, or doing a couple of back bends like a half bridge or fish pose. If you feel any pain in your lower back as you enter savasana, you may have pushed it a little too hard in your practice.
Bring your feet close to your bottom and let your knees extend upwards. This should relieve the tension on your back. If that’s not enough, ask your teacher for advice. Often, adding a pillow or block under your shoulders and head can help. As you relax, the pain should subside, and you can stretch your legs back out.
The important part of savasana is to relax every muscle in your body intentionally. Start at your toes and focus your awareness on relaxing every single part of your body until you reach the crown of your head. Even relax things like your fingertips, your mouth, your scalp, and your tongue. Then, just let your mind wander, let your breathing take its own course. Fall asleep if it comes naturally. Savasana usually lasts five to ten minutes and are likely to be the most relaxing minutes of your entire day.
So enjoy the feeling and carry it along with you into everything you do. You’ll feel happier, lighter, and stronger. Tomorrow, return, refocus, and repeat.
When you’re ready, check out part two of this series where we check out sun salutations and explore more beginner yoga poses. Find that here.
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