How to Start Yoga
Welcome, I am so glad you have found this resource. Yoga has the potential to transform your life physically, mentally, and spiritually. Yoga is proven to reduce stress (1), treat depression (2), improve flexibility (3), Improve VO2 max, or maximal oxygen uptake (4), improve muscular strength and endurance (5), and improve balance (6), amongst a host of other phenomenal benefits that are well documented in the scientific community. More and more studies are coming out every day that are painting yoga in a positive light, because this practice is so wonderful.
If you’re anything like me, I had no idea what yoga was when I was first introduced to it. My mother is a yoga teacher, and had me try the practice when I was ten years old - I hated it! A ten year old boy who liked to play basketball and run around the yard, trying to sit still and hold static poses for an hour? Yeah right. So on the shelf my practice went, until I was eighteen and more open minded. My lower back hurt all the time, I could barely sleep due to numbness down my arms, and I couldn’t even sit on the ground cross legged. Worse yet, I was stressed, anxious, and depressed.
On the advice of my mother, I read a book with some yoga postures and began to practice them every day. I couldn’t bend backwards at all, I couldn’t sit on the ground, and I couldn’t touch my toes. I quickly realized that I needed yoga both physically and mentally. Every body starts somewhere, and for me, that was rock bottom.
Does this sound familiar? Do you have difficulty sleeping? Do you struggle getting through the day because of tight, stiff muscles preventing you from moving the way you want to? Are you stressed about your job, bills, relationships, family, or your purpose in life? Do you struggle with depression or anxiety? Do you want to take control of your health, and get in better shape? If you answered yes to even one of those questions, then yoga is for you.
The science is clear, yoga has the potential to radically transform your life in a positive way. This guide will show you how to begin a yoga practice with absolutely no prior knowledge. So, let’s start yoga.
What You Need
A soft surface: This could be the carpet in your living room, the grass in your yard, or a yoga mat. When just beginning yoga, I would pick up a cheap yoga mat from your local retail store. Make sure you feel the grip of the mat before purchasing, as some mats can be very slippery. Gaiam usually sells great starting mats, for around $20. An example can be found here: https://www.gaiam.com/collections/yoga-mats/products/05-61333
Workout clothes: Until society agrees that we can all be nude again, you’ll need to cover up unless you’re in the privacy of your own home. If you’re in the park on the grass, put on some shorts and a tank top, or yoga pants and a sports bra. Just like the place you practice yoga, your clothes only have to be comfortable and stretchy enough for you to perform the postures. Jeans aren’t the best. $10 baggy basketball shorts from the clearance rack work just as well as $150 yoga pants.
That’s it. Woah now, hold on… That’s all I need? Yes, Yoga is super simple, and much like other minimalist practices such as running, you don’t need much. You just need a desire to learn and do your best.
What To Do
Find a space to practice. When I first began yoga, I practiced on a small area rug, next to my bed and dresser. It wasn’t fancy, and your space doesn’t need to be fancy either. As long as you can comfortably move around without hurting yourself, you are good to go. Make sure the area is clear of legos, cats and dogs (They have a yoga sixth sense, and will lay directly wherever you are trying to practice) and any sharp objects that are nearby if you fall or stumble. If you’re practicing on a hard surface, unroll your yoga mat to provide some cushion. It’s important to know that the softer and more cushiony the surface you practice on, the more challenging balance poses will be. So try to strike a happy medium between a firm and soft surface.
Start with the self-assessment below, which is to be completed before you begin the yoga practices below, and at intervals of two weeks. Checking in with yourself every two weeks is key to successfully notice improvements and track your progress. Take pictures if possible, it will really show you where you are at and provide encouragement as you go to see how your body is changing.
Downward Facing Dog
Place your hands on the ground and walk your feet back until you create an inverted V shape. Drop your chest through the arms towards the earth. Press your heels towards the earth. Measure progress by seeing how close you can get the chest and heels to the earth.
Upward Facing Dog
You can have your arms bent or straight, try to keep your pelvis down on the earth, and lift your chest towards the sky. Lengthen the top of your head up and press the tops of the feet into the ground. Measure progress by seeing how much you can backbend comfortably.
Standing Forward Fold
You can bend your knees as much as you need, see how far forward you can fold from a standing position. Great to test hamstring and back flexibility. Measure progress by seeing how far down you can fold without pain.
Sitting Cross Legged
This pose is designed to see how comfortable you are sitting on the ground. Measure progress by seeing how close your knees get to the ground without force.
Between Shoulder Hand Grasp
Practice this on both sides as there is typically a difference in each side. Bend your elbows and reach behind your back. Try to get your fingertips to touch, and if possible, grasp hands together. You will measure improvement by getting the hands together more easily.
For this pose, sit down and extend both legs straight in front of you. Once there, hug one knee into the chest, and wrap the opposite arm around the shin, or try to get the elbow to the outside of the thigh, and then twist. If your left leg is hugged in, you will twist left. Right leg hugged in, twist right. See how deep you can get in the twist without discomfort. Make sure to do both sides.
Standing Side Bend
Stand up tall, and then stretch over to one side. You can leave both arms down, or raise one arm over and across. Measure progress by the depth of your side bend. Practice both sides.
Single Leg Balance
Stand up, and shift all of your weight into one foot. In the beginning, you might need a wall for balance. Try to lift onto the tippy toes of the foot that doesn't have your weight. If that feels comfortable, try lighting the foot off the ground. Measure progress by your level of comfort in the pose, how wobbly you are, and also how long you can hold the balance. Practice both sides.
Lunging can be very difficult if you have knee pain or problems, so feel free to skip this pose if needed. Make sure there is plenty of padding under your knees to they are not in pain. Get into a lunge position and see how deep you can sink into the hips while keeping the chest up and torso long. Measure progress by how long your lunge becomes.
Sit comfortably, in a chair, or on the ground, and take a deep breath in through your nose. Take a deep exhale. Bring awareness to how full the lungs felt and how easy it was for you to take a deep breath. Measure progress by how much you can breathe in and breathe out.
These 10 poses above will become your benchmark poses. Every two weeks, you can re-assess your progress by testing yourself on these poses. You can go by feel, or better yet, get someone to take a picture of you in each pose. This will be great motivation to see the massive improvements you make. And if you take pictures, in 6 months or a year, you’ll have some pretty incredible before and after photos. Write down in a notebook the date you begin your yoga journey, and make sure you stick to a schedule.
Yoga is most effective if it practiced 3-4x times a week. Don't worry about doing it every day. If you have the time, and want to drastically improve your life, yoga can be practice seven days a week. But make sure you give yourself ample rest, and be compassionate to your body. If you go a week or two without practicing, don't be hard on yourself, simply start again. It is better to begin again, than to never come back to the practice.
IMPORTANT: In yoga, breathing is key to success. Do your best to keep a deep, fluid breath going every time you practice yoga. Some poses are challenging, resist the urge to hold the breath. Traditionally, nose breathing is done, but mouth breathing is okay if you have allergies, a deviated septum or other conditions that prevent nose breathing. Breathe in and out through the nose, at a steady constant rate, throughout your whole practice.
Many people are concerned that they are doing yoga incorrectly. Don't worry about doing the poses wrong, just do your best. If something is painful, stop. If you move gently and in connection to your breath, you will be fine.
After you have completed your initial assessment, you are ready to move onto Phase 1 of your journey.
For your first 3 months, you will be doing the same yoga practice. This practice is thorough, and will only take you 15-30 minutes to complete.
This video can be used in two primary ways. First, you can simply do the practice straight through which will take around 15 minutes. Although this is a great yoga practice. The video is really intended to be used as a guide for you to explore each pose on your own. Pause the video on each pose, and hold each pose for 10-30 seconds depending on how challenging you want the practice to be.
Remember to breathe, don't force anything, stop if you experience pain, and consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program.
Don't worry about doing the poses incorrectly, just make sure to do your best and have fun, there is no wrong way to do yoga.
Do this practice 3-4x weekly
The video above is meant to be practiced for 3 months, or longer if you desire. Once you have practiced this video for 3 months, you are ready to move on to phase 2.
The video below is meant for practitioners with some yoga experience, or those who have completed phase 1 and feel ready to move on.
Like the first video, this video can be done straight through without pausing, although that is not ideal. Ideally, pause the video as you go so you can work on poses and parts of the body that you feel the need to work on. For instance, if your hamstrings are tight, you may spend more time working on them, and less on backbends. This gives you the flexibility to move at your own pace.
Do this practice 3-4x weekly
Remember that patience is a virtue. It takes a long time to become flexible, strong, balanced, and stress free. Practicing yoga has the ability to create powerful positive change in your life, but it is not a magic pill. You have to put in the work. If you stick with this guide, assessing yourself every two weeks and practicing with these videos, you will see a change in your body and mind.
If you’ve made it this far, you have finished a full year of yoga. I am sure the journey has been well worth it. From here, the world is yours! But always remember, never stop learning!
Smith, Caroline, et al. “A Randomised Comparative Trial of Yoga and Relaxation to Reduce Stress and Anxiety.” Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 21 June 2006, pp. 77–83., pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c221/1e6c8bf26b188038aad95df08e5012d07ff6.pdf.
(2) Chris C. Streeter, Patricia L. Gerbarg, Theodore H. Whitfield, Liz Owen, Jennifer Johnston, Marisa M. Silveri, Marysia Gensler, Carol L. Faulkner, Cathy Mann, Mary Wixted, Anne Marie Hernon, Maren B. Nyer, E. Richard P. Brown, John E. Jensen. Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder with Iyengar Yoga and Coherent Breathing: A Randomized Controlled Dosing Study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2017; DOI: 10.1089/acm.2016.0140
Anup Sharma, Marna S. Barrett, Andrew J. Cucchiara, Nalaka S. Gooneratne, Michael E. Thase. A Breathing-Based Meditation Intervention for Patients With Major Depressive Disorder Following Inadequate Response to Antidepressants. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2016; DOI: 10.4088/JCP.16m10819
(3) Polsgrove, M Jay, et al. “Impact of 10-Weeks of Yoga Practice on Flexibility and Balance of College Athletes.” International Journal of Yoga, Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4728955/.
(4) Gomes-Neto, Mansueto, et al. “Effects of Yoga in Patients with Chronic Heart Failure: A Meta-Analysis.” Arquivos Brasileiros De Cardiologia, Sociedade Brasileira De Cardiologia, Nov. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4262105/.
(5) Anders, Mark. “Does Yoga Really Do The Body Good?” ACE Fitnessmatters, Sept. 2005, pp. 7–9., www.acefitness.org/getfit/studies/YogaStudy2005.pdf.
(6) Jeter, Pamela E., et al. “A Systematic Review of Yoga for Balance in a Healthy Population.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., 1 Apr. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3995122/.