An ancient practice originating in India, yoga exploded in popularity in the west during the 20th century.1
If you’re new to yoga, you might be wondering what exactly yoga is, how it’s done and what the benefits are.
Don’t worry – we’re here to help.
What is yoga?
Yoga is a form of meditative exercise which aims to bring both the body and mind into balance.
This is achieved through a variety of flowing physical movements designed to stretch and strengthen muscles, promote balance and practice mindfulness.
The breath is also a key element to yoga, with deep, slow breathing the framework for each yoga session. Breathing deeply from the lower belly has a relaxing effect which in many people also helps them to ‘centre’ themselves, concentrate on the moment and reduce outside stress.
Traditionally, yoga was a spiritual practice and it has its roots in both Hinduism and Buddhism. In the modern western practice of yoga, the emphasis is usually more on stress relief and personal meditation.2
Is yoga for me?
Known for its ability to both relax and strengthen those that practice it, yoga is also notable for its devoted followers who believe that yoga is more than just an exercise – it’s a life-long journey.
But whether you want to embrace a yogic lifestyle or do a few easy positions in your own home, the great thing about yoga is you don’t need any special equipment – just an inexpensive foam mat.
Yoga is also suitable for any level of fitness. Yoga is so mainstream in the UK today that the NHS recommends it to help manage certain health conditions such as anxiety and lower back pain.3
What are the benefits of yoga?
There are many health benefits of yoga. These include:4,5,6,7
- Increased strength and flexibility
- Better posture
- Reduced stress, depression and anxiety
- Lower blood pressure
- Better joint health
- Improved sleep
- Improved quality of life for those with other health conditions
There are over 300 yoga exercises recorded, from the incredibly simple to the more advanced.
Here are some of the simplest poses for beginners.
One of the simplest poses, many yoga sessions begin and end with child’s pose.
On both knees, and with your toes together behind you, sink the body down onto your mat so that your knees are either side of your waist, your bottom is touching your heels and your head is resting on the mat. Then, with your bottom still touching your heels, stretch your arms out in front of you. Hold this pose for as long as you feel comfortable – your lower back and shoulders will enjoy a gentle stretch.
Possibly the most famous yoga pose, the downward facing dog is deceptively challenging to beginners as it requires you to concentrate and steady yourself to keep this pose.
To perform this pose, simply stand with your feet hip-width apart and bend over so your palms are on the mat below your shoulders. With your bottom in the air, keeping your hips high, relax your head so you feel a stretch along your spine. Your hips should be the highest point, and your back should be kept straight.
This is really two poses, often performed as part of the same movement. Great for stretching and engaging the spine, you should start off on all fours on your mat with a straight spine (parallel to the floor).
For the cat pose, tuck your tailbone in, suck in your belly and arch your back, with your chin tucked onto your chest.
Then, you can move smoothly into the cow pose. While still on all fours in the cat post, lift your tailbone, drop your belly towards the mat and lift your head high all while keeping your spine more or less parallel to the mat.
This is wonderful for stretching the spine and lower back.
Lie on your belly on your mat, and with your elbow tucked in close to your body, slowly lift your torso off the mat. Keep your head held high, looking upwards, and your hips in contact with the mat.
What are the different types of yoga?
Being such an ancient practice, it stands to reason that over the years people have developed their own interpretations of yoga’s teachings.
- Hatha – this form of yoga focuses on gentle stretches and breath work.
- Ashtanga – more athletic and challenging. Ashtanga classes follow a single sequence.
- Bikram (hot) yoga – held in an artificially heated room. Benefits of hot yoga include more calories burnt per session!
- Restorative – a slow form of yoga using blocks and props. Benefits of restorative yoga include deep relaxation and meditation.
- Children’s yoga – more studios are offering a kid’s yoga class, sometimes at the same time as the adult’s class to make yoga convenient for the busy parent. Some benefits of yoga for children include better balance, discipline and reduced anxiety.8
It’s a good idea to begin yoga practice with an instructor or as part of a yoga class. That way, you’ll be sure that you’re getting proper guidance on poses, which reduces the risk of injury from poses incorrectly held.
Last updated: 15 October 2020