Yoga: The Basics
Yoga is one of the world’s oldest forms of exercise. Founded in India, experts believe that yoga is at least 5,000 years old if not much older. The discipline of yoga evolved over thousands of years in India and other parts of the Eastern world before making its way to Europe and America in the 1800s. From the Sanskrit word meaning union or connection, yoga is centered around bringing the body and breath together into poses that develop physical strength and agility while centering the body and mind.
Today, many different forms of yoga are practiced. They range from the gentle practices of the Iyengar school to the flow-based approach of Ashtanga to the more vigorous, physically challenging Vinyasa school. No matter the type of yoga they practice, students of this physical discipline learn to master poses called asanas. Every asana has a designated Sanskrit name, but English translations such as downward dog and child’s pose are used in many yoga classes too.
In the physical sense, yoga strengthens the body and helps improve flexibility via sequences of poses. Yoga students are coached through alignment and breathing in each pose to ensure optimal flexibility and conditioning. Yoga generally isn’t an aerobic activity, so many practitioners use it in addition to activities such as jogging, swimming or biking to create a complete workout routine. Aspiring and professional athletes also use yoga to improve flexibility and help prevent muscle injuries.
In addition to the asanas that are popular in yoga classes, many practitioners of this ancient exercise form also practice meditation. Taking time to meditate is said to increase overall wellbeing, help control blood pressure and improve focus. Many yogis also practice a form of breathing exercise called pranayama. These special breathing techniques are designed to center the body, mind and spirit while helping practitioners better focus on meditation and the physical practice of yoga too.
Yoga has become incredibly popular in part because it’s a type of exercise that anyone can participate in. Individuals who are older, mobility challenged or suffer from chronic illnesses can find adaptive forms of yoga that meet their needs and help them feel more confident in their own bodies. It’s also a popular practice because it can be done practically anywhere and requires minimal supplies.
Who’s Into Yoga Today?
There’s no doubt that yoga’s current popularity is largely connected to its high-profile practitioners. Musicians, models, professional athletes and actors alike swear by yoga to build strength, increase flexibility, and create a centered mind and body. Many celebrities have also commented that they love yoga because it’s easy to do when they’re on the go. Whether in a hotel room in Paris or getting ready for a game in Green Bay, these celebs and athletes simply need to break out a yoga mat and they can get in a good workout.
High-profile celebrities who practice yoga and praise the exercise form include
• Matthew McConaughey
• Jennifer Aniston
• Kate Hudson
• Gisele Bundchen
• Justin Timberlake
• Adam Levine
• Reese Witherspoon
• Robert Downey Jr.
• Jessica Alba
• Tom Hanks
• Russell Simmons
• Lady Gaga
• Hilaria Baldwin
• Lea Michele
Professional athletes who use yoga as part of their training regimens include
• LeBron James
• Blake Griffin
• Russell Wilson
• David Beckham
• Kevin Love
• Vernon Davis
• Torrey Smith
• Steven Jackson
• Tom Brady
• Kevin Garnett
• Shaquille O’Neal
The list of celebrities who’ve praised yoga doesn’t stop there. Actress Julianne Moore has talked about the positive experience of yoga, saying that “I do Ashtanga yoga three times a week, and I run a couple of times a week, too. I really like yoga; I enjoy the actual doing of it, so it doesn’t feel like the agony of the gym felt like to me.” The fact that yoga is an enjoyable workout that doesn’t cause stress is one of its biggest selling points for everyday practitioners too.
Actress and model Rebecca Romijn shares that yoga has challenged her physically and changed her body. “Within three classes, I noticed less belly fat. My knees and legs are stronger than ever now; my arms have definition for the first time in my life; and my posture is much, much better. I also feel completely energized from all of the deep breathing. I leave class relieved of any anxiety I went in with, and the sweating and detoxifying make my skin feel great,” she says.
For comedienne and TV host Ellen DeGeneres, the practice of yoga offers something different from other physical workouts. She says that “for someone like me, who loves to sweat and push herself, it’s a challenge to slow down, to sit, to breathe and hold poses.” The quieting and spiritual aspects of yoga have been discussed by supermodel Christy Turlington Burns too. In an interview with Oprah, she said that “yoga has brought me to the part of religion I really like — the positive sides of religion, the parts we all share, rather than the things that create separation.”
Of course, many celebs appreciate the multifaceted nature of yoga as well. Among them is supermodel Miranda Kerr, a longtime yoga practitioner. “I have been practicing yoga for over a decade now, and it is a very important part of my life. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I am doing, yoga gives me the opportunity to switch off and focus entirely on my body and my breath. Yoga allows me to meditate and reflect on what’s important in my life. It is also great for core strength and maintaining agility,” says Kerr.
Getting Started with Your Yoga Practice
Yoga is a potent workout, but that doesn’t mean that it’s hard to get a yoga practice off the ground. In fact, you can start practicing yoga no matter where you live or what kind of schedule you keep. That’s because the options for starting a yoga practice are varied. Unlike some types of workouts, you don’t need to make a huge investment in equipment or pay steep gym fees to learn more about yoga.
If you prefer to exercise at home or in another private setting, find a yoga video designed for beginners. You’ll find yoga videos in sporting goods stores, most major discount stores and online at outlets such as YouTube. Videos designed for beginners will lead you through a basic set of poses while stressing correct alignment and breathing. Many videos also feature a meditation or breathing practice to help you get a good sense of everything yoga entails. Once you’ve mastered basic videos, you can find challenging intermediate and expert-level workouts in many different yoga styles.
Starting with a few basic poses is a great way to get into yoga. Consider these three, which are easy to do and offer lots of stretching potential.
Cat-Cow Pose and Child’s Pose
1. Get on your hands and knees, placing your hands beneath your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips.
2. Allow your spine to sit flat and keep your neck in line with your spine. This is called a neutral position.
3. As you inhale, let your belly drop towards the floor and lift your head to look up. This is the “cow” phase of the pose.
4. As you exhale, pull up through your spine to round your back and drop your head to the floor. This is the “cat” phase of the pose.
5. Continue alternating between cow and cat poses as you inhale and exhale for six to eight breaths.
6. Allow your spine to return to neutral, and then come back into a kneeling position.
Downward-Facing Dog Pose
7. Start on your hands and knees, taking several deep breaths.
8. Spread your knees as wide as comfortable, keeping your big toes touching. Allow your bottom to come to your heels.
9. Sit up straight and lengthen your spine all the way from your bottom to the top of your head.
10. Take a deep breath, and then bow forward as you exhale. Let your chest rest on your thighs and your forehead rest on the floor. If you’re uncomfortable with your arms behind you, bring them to the front of your body so that your hands are to the sides of your ears.
11. Take several deep breaths, allowing your body to relax and your back to widen.
12. Take a deep breath. As you exhale, walk your body back up to a kneeling position using your hands.
13. Get down on your hands and knees, placing your hands beneath your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips.
14. Inhale, straighten your legs, place your feet flat on the floor and lift your hips towards the ceiling. If your heels don’t touch the floor all the way, that’s okay. Flexibility comes with practice.
15. Once you’ve straightened your legs, spread your fingers out and allow your head to drop comfortably between your shoulders.
16. Breathe deeply for six to eight breaths.
17. To end the pose, drop back to your hands and knees.
If you enjoy exercising in a group setting, head to your local gym or yoga studio to take a beginner’s yoga class. In a classroom setting, you’ll be coached through a sequence of poses by a trained yoga teacher. The teacher will help you learn the appropriate alignments and will give you tips for yoga breathing too. Most class sessions at yoga studios and gyms end with a brief period of meditation and pranayama practice. Once you’ve mastered the basics of yoga in a class setting, you can move to more advanced classes or try out different workouts such as vinyasa flow or hot yoga.
No matter where you start your yoga practice, you can keep it strong by doing a sequence of asanas at home every day. You can find DVDs and videos to guide you through your home practice or can follow sequences from yoga magazines and websites.
Books & Props to Kick Off Your Yoga Practice
If you’re ready to start a yoga practice, the only supply that you really need is a yoga mat or rug. These can be found at discount stores, sporting goods stores and through online retailers. You may also see these mats listed as sticky mats because they are made from plastics designed to stick to the floor and keep your hands and feet from slipping. Some yoga practitioners also use yoga blocks and straps to help with pose alignment. However, these props are totally optional and aren’t necessary to start a yoga practice.
Books about yoga can also be helpful for new practitioners. The most widely recommended include Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga for Beginners by Cory Martin and Yoga for Dummies by Larry Payne. These books help shed light on the practice of yoga and include practical instruction for a variety of poses too.
Of course, the only thing you really need to begin a yoga practice is an open mind. The more open you are, the more benefits you’ll realize from this dynamic workout that supports the health of the body, mind and spirit.