I’ll be the first to admit I am a complete beginner when it comes to yoga (ok, even that’s a stretch—perhaps yoga novice is more apropos). I often have the characteristic stiff walk of someone who just got out of the car after a cross-country drive—a sure tell that I’m not regularly finding my flow on the yoga mat. It’s not that I don’t want to: I gaze in awe at photos of my friends on Instagram balancing on one foot with the other in the air, while I’m so tight that I struggle to bend over and tie my shoes. But, the seemingly endless catalog of yoga classes can be very intimidating, and from goat yoga to laughing yoga, it feels like there are newly-minted types of yoga every year. If you’re anything like me, you might fall prey to paralysis by analysis. It can be hard for us beginners to figure out how to navigate all the choices and actually get started.
Fortunately, with the help of two certified yoga instructors, we’ve compiled all the best, must-know information and tips for beginning yoga. Read on to learn how to find your flow.
Meet the Expert
The Benefits of Yoga
The roots of yoga span back over 5000 years. Today, yoga is practiced and adored all over the world, and with good reason: it has many benefits. Most people immediately think of the improvements in flexibility and balance, but the benefits go far beyond that. Research has demonstrated that a consistent yoga practice can increase muscular strength and both cardiovascular and respiratory function. It can also reduce stress, anxiety, chronic pain, and depression, and can improve sleep quality and overall wellbeing.
It can decrease stress.
Stress in our lives seems almost as inevitable as Monday following Sunday, so finding ways to manage and reduce it can be quite helpful. “Yoga has been shown to influence our serotonin levels that help balance our mood,” shares Howe. “It can help link the brain and nervous system, [and] that feeling of balance helps reduce cortisol—a stress hormone.” Brodie shares that breathing through the poses helps clear the mind. “Mental clarity brings awareness to how we view ourselves, the world, and others."
It can help manage anxiety.
Howe says that the majority of her yoga students initially seek out yoga to help manage their anxiety. She says that the focus on breath work, in particular, makes yoga an effective means to become more present and have some control over your anxiety. “When [students] place focus on their breath and how a particular part of their body holding tension receives that breath, a student most often realizes they have control. They can choose how deep to take that pose, how to regress and be kind to the body, as they learn to listen more to what the body has to say,” explains Howe. “In essence, they’ve taken control back, and often that, in and of itself, helps reduce the feeling of anxiety.”
It increases mobility.
We tend to lose mobility of our joints and muscles as we age. The flexibility work in yoga helps prevent this decline and keeps us feeling more youthful. “Increased mobility increases our range of motion, and has also been shown to reduce inflammation,” says Howe. Our experts note that certain yoga poses can help reduce low back pain and stiffness.
It increases flexibility and balance of the body and mind.
“Flexibility in yoga practice is not just about reaching your toes. It’s about the journey towards your toes—the flexibility to be open minded, and to release the ego and just be,” shares Howe, who adds that balance in yoga should also be considered holistically, rather than just in terms of not toppling over when holding Tree pose. The emphasis on the mind-body connection in yoga helps not only work on developing physical balance, but helps us tune into our emotional needs and honor those needs. With that said, Howe notes not to diminish the power of improving your physical balance. “On those days when balance aligns, and we can stand in Tree pose without wobbling, that rush of adrenaline—the confidence boost—is amazing.”
What Does Yoga Work?
One of the greatest benefits of yoga is that it can provide a low-impact, total-body workout. There are poses that help increase the strength and flexibility of your arms, shoulders, back, abdominals and core, hips, glutes, and legs.
“In yoga, you are using your body weight to build strength, tone muscles, and increase your flexibility,” explains Brodie. “This practice is phenomenal for core strength. With a strong core comes improvement of posture and reduction of injuries.”
”Building core strength by breathing into and out of each pose helps support the spine, which encourages good posture,” adds Howe. “When we stand tall, not only does that have an effect on our joints, it affects our self-esteem. We feel uplifted.”
What to Know Before You Start Yoga
Whether you're going to head to your local Bikram yoga studio, take a Vinyasa class at your gym, or roll out your mat for an at-home Hatha yoga streaming video, there are a few things to know to help make the experience “love at first breath.”
Yoga is for you.
“You don’t need to be ‘in shape.’ You don’t need to have a certain level of flexibility because there is always a modification,” says Brodie. “Literally anyone can do yoga (including my 97 year-old grandmother).” Howe agrees, noting, “Yoga is for everybody and every body.”
It's okay if you can't do a certain pose.
If you're in a class environment, your teacher may suggest modifications to make various poses more or less difficult. If you're following along with a video at home, or if you hit a pose that just doesn't feel good, you can always feel safe to rest in Child’s pose. There's also absolutely no shame in simply resting on your mat and focusing on breathing. Yoga is all about cultivating the mind-body connection, so listen to and honor your body, especially when it needs a break “Let your body guide you on the journey it needs to be on and not where you want it to be,” suggests Howe.
Bring water to class.
You need to hydrate your body with water before, during, and after class.
Eat a healthy snack—like a banana and a few almonds or cottage cheese and berries—before class to give your body enough energy without feeling overly full.
There are many styles of yoga.
If you’re scrolling through what seems like an endless list of classes, all with titles that mean nothing to you (Bikram? Hatha? Ashtanga? Yin? Vinyasa? Iyengar?), Howe has a few tips to ease your selection stress. “Think of the reasons you want to start your practice,” she says. “If you’ve never tried yoga before, maybe avoid the Power/Ashtanga type classes and Bikram (hot temperature). Get to know how your body feels in a regular temperature class,” she suggests. When in doubt, “Try many different styles, many different instructors,” Howe says. “You’ll know what works best for you.” There’s something for everyone, or a style or flavor for every day of the week. After all, there’s even face yoga.
Equipment You’ll Need Before You Get Started
Both our experts agree that yoga doesn’t really require much equipment, and most studios will have everything you need. But, in case you want to practice at home, “If you have access to a towel or a mat, you are good to go,” says Brodie. With that said, if you have the desire and means to purchase a few of your own “props,” Brodie has some advice. “Blocks can help accommodate you, and help you to achieve poses at your flexibility level, by basically bringing the floor up to you,” she says. “Yoga straps help with stretching, alignment, and posture. There are also yoga wheels, which help with backbends, shoulder stretches, and balance.”
Tips and Warnings for Beginners
Both of our experts agree that beginners should different styles of yoga and different class formats to find what resonates most. They also shared a few more nuggets of wisdom to help you get the most out of your first few classes (and beyond).
Wear comfortable clothing.
Howe suggests wearing comfortable clothing that won’t restrict your movement. She notes that you’ll likely remove your socks and shoes because bare feet help you connect to the ground and balance, and help prevent slipping.
Avoid wearing excessively loose clothing and jewelry because they may ride up or bother you during certain inverted poses.
Connect with your teacher.
Especially if it’s your first class, our experts suggest introducing yourself to the teacher before the class. Instructors who are aware of beginners can help point out specific modifications and provide extra assistance to make poses more approachable.
Don’t compare yourself to others.
Your journey and your practice is yours alone. “It’s not about how a particular pose looks, but how it feels. If it feels good, do it; if it doesn’t, stop,” advises Howe.
Don’t push through pain.
“My only warning is that if it causes pain, stop immediately,” urges Brodie. “You know pain when you feel it. Other than that, consult your physician if you have any ailments or issues that you believe would hinder you from practicing.”
“Be open minded, try not to judge yourself, listen to your body, and listen to your thoughts,” Howe suggests. “Negative thoughts can have a strong influence on how your body responds.”
“Just be open and know that it typically takes six to eight classes to get to know how your body feels,” Howe explains.
It may change your life.
Your yoga practice can have profound effects on your body, mind, and life. “Yoga has changed my life and has also changed the lives of others I know and love,” shares Brodie. “It’s not only a physical practice but one that will deepen your understanding of life—if you allow it.”
10 Yoga Poses for Beginners
If you’re eager to get going, and don’t have time to pick a class right now, here are 10 beginner yoga moves you can easily do at home.
Stay in each of the poses for seven breaths. Lengthen with each inhale, and find more depth with each exhale.
As the name suggests, it’s not difficult to get into Easy pose (Sukhasana), and it is used to open the hips and align the spine. This pose is a primer to the more advanced cross-legged Lotus pose.
- Begin in a comfortable, cross-legged seated position.
- Inhale, lifting, and rotating your shoulder blades back and down away from your ears.
- Exhale, placing the tops of your hands on your thighs.
- With each inhale, lengthen your spine, and with each exhale, sink into your sit bones.
Practicing Chair pose (Utkatasana) strengthens the muscles in your legs, back, and abdomen, and increases the flexibility in your ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders.
- Stand at the front of your mat with your feet together and your weight equally distributed on both legs.
- Inhale, bringing your hands to namaste in front of your chest and exhale, raising them above your head.
- With your next breath, slowly bend your knees to a 45-degree angle, stacking them over the tops of the toes.
- Push your hips back while maintaining a straight spine.
- Engage your core as you exhale, and turn your gaze towards your thumbs.
Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend
Forward Bend (Prasarita Padottanasana) improves circulation in the head and helps in treating migraines. In addition to strengthening the leg muscles, it also increases hip flexibility, a common problem for many beginner yogis.
- Begin with your feet widely spaced so their outside edges are along the opposite edges of your yoga mat.
- Inhale, placing your hands on your hips while lifting the spine and chest upward.
- Fold from your hips as you exhale, and place your fingers on the mat, shoulder-width apart, fingertips in line with the toes.
- Inhale, and lift your chest, straighten your arms, and draw your lower back into a concave position.
- Gaze straight ahead before exhaling and folding forward.
- Rest the crown of your head onto the floor, if flexible enough. If not, make use a yoga block to rest your head.
A favorite for loosening up tight hamstrings, Downward Dog is a connective pose that guides a yoga practice from standing poses to seated ones. It works by lengthening the glutes and the back of your legs—hamstrings, calves, ankles—while taking the pressure off the lower back and spine.
- Standing with your feet hips-width apart, inhale and join your hands together above your head.
- Exhale and hinge from the hips, planting your palms shoulder-width apart on the mat.
- Bend your knees as you slowly walk back, pushing your hips upwards.
- Engage your core and actively pull away from the ground with your palms while you push down on the ground with your heels.
- Relax your neck and turn your gaze towards your navel.
Child’s pose (Balasana) is a restorative pose that helps lengthen the spine, relax your neck and shoulders, and reduce stress and anxiety by bringing the focus to your breath.
- Kneel with your two big toes touching each other.
- Push your hips back to your heels as you lower your abdomen onto the tops of your thighs.
- Release your hands in front of you, palms facing downward, with your forehead gently resting on the mat.
- With each breath, focus on melting your shoulders into the ground and keeping your face and jaw relaxed.
Seated Forward Fold
The benefits of a Seated Forward Fold (Pascimottanasana) include massaging the digestive organs and providing relief from menstrual cramps and constipation. This pose also helps improve the flexibility of tight hamstrings.
- Sit on your mat with your legs stretched out in front of you with a slight bend in your knees.
- Inhale, lifting your arms above your head in line with your ears.
- Exhale and bend forward from your hips, placing your abdomen on your thighs and reaching to catch your big toe with your pointer and middle fingers. (If this stretch is too intense, let your hands land on your shins).
- With each breath, focus on lengthening from your hips and spine as you get deeper into the pose.
Sphinx pose (Salamba Bhujangasana) is the perfect introduction into yogic backbends. This pose increases spinal flexibility and tones the glutes.
- Lie on your stomach with your big toes touching each other, your elbows in line with your shoulders, and your forearms firmly planted on the mat.
- Inhale and lift your head, neck, and chest off the ground. Make sure your glutes and core are engaged—this prevents injury to your lower back and activates the upper back and shoulder muscles.
Bridge pose (Setubandhasana) is great for strengthening the legs and glutes. It may improve digestion and stimulate the abdominal organs.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your heels close to your butt.
- Inhale, squeezing your glutes and lifting your pelvis up to the sky.
- Rotate your shoulders blades inward and try to interlock your fingers as you keep your chin pointing away from your chest.
- Hold and breathe.
- Exhale, releasing slowly to the floor, one vertebra at a time.
Reclining Bound Angle Pose
Reclining bound angle pose (Supta Baddha Konasana) helps stretch the inner thighs, open up the hips, and improve digestive functions.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your heels close to your butt.
- Inhale, letting your thighs fall open so the soles of your feet touch.
- Exhale, placing your arms on either side of your body.
- Place your palms on the tops of your knees and gently press down to get a deeper stretch.
If there’s one pose you shouldn’t skip during a yoga practice, it’s Corpse pose (Savasana). This final pose of a yoga session is important in learning how to develop body awareness by relaxing your mind and helping settle all the energy generated from your practice.
- Lie on your back, feet hip-width apart on the mat, and your arms at the sides of your body with your palms facing upwards.
- Bring your awareness to your breath, using each inhale and exhale to relax every part of your body, beginning at your toes and working your way up to your head.
Woodyard C. (2011). Exploring the Therapeutic Effects of Yoga and its Ability to Increase Quality of Life. International Journal of Yoga, 4(2), 49–54.