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What Is Yoga?

Part 1: A Beginner's Guide To Yoga

So, you want to start doing yoga, but you’ve never done it before…

You have a little look online to see what it’s all about and you’re bombarded with information crammed with words like savasana, Patanjali and vinyasa - you’ve got no idea what it all means and you've got no idea what to expect if you actually turned up to a class...

Then, you pop over to Instagram and the algorithm’s sussed that you’re interested in yoga. Now you’re seeing a bunch of bendy people, calling themselves yogis, showing off how they can get both feet behind their head while lifting themselves off the ground (and they're probably also on an exotic beach somewhere - how nice for them!)…

And you’re probably sitting there thinking:

“Well I can’t do that! So yoga’s obviously not for me…”

Don’t worry, it is for you!

Like with all things, social media shows us the beautiful and the extreme, but it’s almost always an unrealistic version of how things really are. And yoga is no exception!

So don’t worry if you can’t get your feet around the back of your head - I can’t either - and I’ve been doing yoga for over 10 years!

I’m here to give you a little bit more information about what yoga actually is and what to expect if you go to a class.

So, What is Yoga?

To start with, yoga is an ancient practice with a rich history and, because of this, answering the question ‘what is yoga?’ becomes a little tricky.

Yoga is a lot of different things, to a lot of different people. But I can share a little bit of what yoga is to me and some of the main ideas you’ll find across many styles of yoga.

The main thing we tend to associate with yoga is asana - the postures. Most classes you go to, or take online, will be based around these postures. You may find you’re already familiar with some, like tree pose (vrksasana) or downward-facing dog (adho mukha svanasana).

You’ll also notice that each pose has an English and a Sanskrit name, and that teachers may use one or both of these to cue the poses during a class.

(And don’t worry, no one knows these names before they start. Like with anything, it takes a little while to get familiar with them but you’ll soon start to remember which name goes with which pose!)

These postures help us to build strength, improve flexibility and become more mobile. They also help us with coordination, balance and propreoception (the awareness of where our body is in space).

Beyond this, they help us reconnect with ourselves.

We learn to listen to how things feel in our bodies as we notice the sensations each posture creates. We may also practice pranayama (breathing techniques), mediation or chanting in a yoga class to help us further connect with ourselves.

In yoga, there’s a big focus on breathing.

You’ll learn how to breathe deeper and keep control of your breath as you move through the postures. If you find yourself straining or holding your breath while in a posture, you might be encouraged to ease out of it a little, back to the point where your breath can remain steady.

To begin with, lots of the postures will be challenging and you may find yourself looking around the room wondering how people seem relaxed?!

But this is the yoga. Not the looking around, but the ability to stay calm while in a challenging situation (i.e. a tricky posture). A big part of this is learning to work with the breath. As it can play a huge part in helping us stay calm when under stress.

So as much as we are learning to get into and hold different postures, or perhaps flow between them, you can start to see that yoga is much more than just a physical movement practice. You’ll be learning to develop mindfulness and self-awareness too.

Teachers will often offer different options of a posture in order to accommodate different bodies. Learning to choose the one that’s best for you (instead of just picking the option the person next to you is doing) will help you develop your self-awareness and your yoga practice further.

The real yoga is learning to listen to what feels the best in your body.

This takes time. Your confidence will grow as you become more familiar with the postures, meaning you’ll find it easier to make decisions that serve you best.

If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend going to a class specifically for beginners or advertised as beginner-friendly. Lots of teachers and studios also run regular beginners courses to help introduce you to the practice. This way you know that you’ll get the chance to become familiar with the postures surrounded by others who are just starting out too. Then you can move on to different classes when you feel ready.

When I started I remember leaving some classes feeling disheartened because I either couldn’t keep up with the class, or the postures were just too difficult. Just remember that if you find yourself in a similar situation, it doesn’t mean you can’t ‘do’ yoga - it just means that wasn’t the right class for you (yet)!

There’s a plethora of styles and teachers out there to choose from but it can be a bit of a minefield trying to find a class that you enjoy.

What to expect in a yoga class

Most classes will have a warm up followed by a main sequence where you’ll work on key postures - you might flow between these or hold the poses for longer. Classes usually finish with some seated and/or reclined (lying down) postures to stretch and relax, then you’ll finish with savasana.

‘What the heck is savasana?!’

Don’t worry - I hear you!

Generally, savasana is where you lie down at the end of the class, arms and legs are extended along the mat, eyes are closed. It’s a chance to let the body rest at the end of the class and is essentially what the whole class is guiding you towards.

Yoga teaches us how to be with ourselves, something that can be pretty challenging for a lot of us. Because of this, some people don’t enjoy savasana and some even get up and leave before it. But please, please don’t skip your savasana - it’s just as important as all the physically demanding postures.

It’s an opportunity to learn how to be with ourselves in stillness, regulate our nervous system, and notice the unconscious tension we hold on to. So even if savasana feels a little uncomfortable or strange, know that it is just as much a part of the work as the rest of the class.

A couple of other tips and things to know.

  • Yoga is generally practised with bare feet.

  • You’re encouraged to keep your breath flowing in and out through your nose.

  • And I’d recommend taking a bottle of water with you.

If you’re new to yoga, you’ll probably be using and stretching muscles that haven’t been used in a while. Toxins that have been building up, will start to get released. Drinking lots of water after the class will help flush them all out.

So, if you're planning to head off to your very first yoga class I hope you feel a little more prepared, and (hopefully) a little less intimated!

Interested to know more?

Check out some of my other posts which dive into the philosophy of yoga, the different styles you'll come across and the effect it can have on your nervous system.

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