The Definitive Guide to Yoga

Medically reviewed by Daniel Bubnis, MS, NASM-CPT, NASE Level II-CSS on November 29, 2017Written by Tiffany Cruikshank from Yoga Medicine

guide to yoga

Get your yoga start with Tiffany Cruikshank, founder of Yoga Medicine

Tiffany Cruikshank

Known as a teacher’s teacher, international yogi, author, and health and wellness expert Tiffany Cruikshank founded Yoga Medicine as a platform to connect people and doctors with experienced yoga teachers. Yoga Medicine’s ever-expanding community of teachers are trained to understand body anatomy, biomechanics, physiology, and the traditional practice of yoga.

And with this fortitude of knowledge, they’re able to create individualized, effective yoga programs for each student. Ready to channel your inner yogi? Get your start with this comprehensive guide, crafted by Tiffany and her team of accomplished Yoga Medicine teachers, trainers, and contributors.

The history of yoga and how its developed into the practice you know today

By Dana Diament, a Yoga Medicine instructor based in Byron Bay, Australia. You can follow her journey at danadiament.com.

Ask any yoga practitioner to define yoga, and you’re likely to get a myriad of answers. For some, it’s a way to feel good in their bodies. For others, it’s a spiritual practice, and for many, a way of life. But regardless of your approach, yoga can help reshape and unravel your habitual or unconscious patterns.

Practicing yoga helps provide a foundation and tools to building good habits, such as discipline, self-inquiry, and nonattachment. This exercise is also a pathway to empower you to make conscious choices to live a healthy and fulfilling life. Today, many agree that the word yuj — which yoga derives from — refers to greater internal states, such as clarity, peace, and happiness.

One prevalent definition comes from “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,” compiled before 400 A.D. In the second verse of the first book, yoga is defined as the “cessation of mind wandering.” The sutras also provide an eight-limb system that guides the practitioner to transcend beyond the mind and attain yogic freedom.

definitive guide: yoga

The eight-limb system is an integral and highly regarded part of yoga. Today, we practice asana, the physical postures, the most. These were developed in the early 20th century by Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Then, three of his most well-known students further developed particular styles of yoga, each with something different and beneficial to offer.

Many styles practiced today have evolved from these three students, including Vinyasa yoga, where poses are linked with breathing to create a flowing, dynamic, and creative sequence.

  • B. K. S. Iyengar: creator of Iyengar yoga
  • K. Pattabhi Jois: creator of Ashtanga yoga
  • T. K. V. Desikachar: creator of Viniyoga

Today, we’re in an unparalleled position to engage with yoga through a multitude of channels. There are countless ways to practice: from studios, gyms, community centers, schools, and outdoor venues, to online videos and social media channels. You can also fully immerse yourself by attending conferences, trainings, and retreats all over the globe.

With so many ways to engage with yoga, you’re in an optimal position to begin or enhance your practice and tailor it to best support your health and well-being.

Takeaway Yoga is a practice with a long history rooted in teaching you the tools and foundation to empower yourself. And with accessibility — from teachers to information — at its peak, anyone can start practicing yoga.

Why you should practice yoga (or become an expert)

By Kaitlyn Hochart, a Yoga Medicine instructor based in San Diego, California. You can follow her journey at kaitlynhochart.com.

We live in a culture where our minds and nervous systems are stimulated constantly. Yoga offers the space to slow your mind down and restore a sense of balance. In 2016, Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance conducted a study called Yoga in America. They found that 36.7 million people were practicing yoga. That’s a 50 percent increase from 2012!

It’s unclear what the direct cause is for this booming growth and rise in the popularity of yoga, but such interest may be attributed to the promising benefits that yoga and mindful practices offer.

Yoga helps your physical body

The most obvious benefit is, of course, physical. Yoga postures can help increase:

  • flexibility
  • strength
  • mobility
  • balance

These benefits are also why athletes practice yoga as part of an effective cross-training regimen.

During yoga, your body goes through a full range and variety of motion that can counteract aches and pains associated with tension or poor postural habits. Not only does yoga help you — and many athletes — become more aware of your body, it also allows you to fix these imbalances and improve overall athleticism.

Yoga helps with stress and relaxation

Another key benefit of yoga is that it helps with stress. Accumulation of stress can cause your nervous system to be constantly in overdrive, making it difficult to unwind, focus, and sleep. The breathing exercises you practice during yoga can help lower your heart rate and shift your nervous system into a more relaxed state. It also promotes better sleep and increased focus.

For people with a more spiritual background, the effects of practice start to be felt beyond the physical body and off the mat. Yoga can help connect you more deeply to your sense of purpose and awareness of living in the present. As you start your journey, what you get out of the practice can also change based on your needs.

Takeaway Practicing yoga can help with body awareness, flexibility, strength, mobility, and balance. It also requires you to shift into a more relaxed state, which can help decrease stress, increase focus, and promote a stronger connection with yourself.

Getting started with yoga

By Alice Louise Blunden, a Yoga Medicine instructor based in London. You can follow her journey at alicelouiseyoga.com.

Yoga isn’t one-size-fits-all, but it’s one of the few exercises that actually offers different “sizes” for people to try. If you’re new, it’s worth trying different styles to find which best resonates with you. Here’s a summary of the main types of yoga:

Iyengar - This type is a combination of standing and seated postures using props for people who want to focus on alignment, posture, and gain increased muscular power and range of motion.

Viniyoga - A class that’s focused on breathing and meditation for people with limited mobility or who want to work from the inside out, to experience relaxation, body awareness, and better posture.

Jivanmukti - A set sequence that incorporates meditation, compassion, chanting, and deep listening, for people who want to incorporate spiritual elements and ancient teachings of yoga in their practice while gaining body awareness, learning Sanskrit, and improving relationships.

Hatha - This type uses yoga poses and breathing techniques to align and calm the body, mind, and spirit in preparation for meditation. Classes are slower paced, but holding the poses can be more physically demanding.

Vinyasa - This dynamic type synchronizes movement with breath and may be referred to as a “flow class.” Expect to move faster than in a traditional Hatha class.

Ashtanga - Ashtanga goes through a fast-paced and physically challenging sequence of poses practiced in the same order with a strong emphasis on the breath. In traditional classes, you aren’t meant to drink water and can only move onto the next pose or series after you’ve achieved the last.

Bikram - Bikram consists of two breathing techniques and 26 poses repeated in the same order for 90 minutes. It’s often practiced in a room heated to 105°F (40.6°C) to help sweat out toxins.

Kundalini - This type incorporates repeated movements (referred to as a “kriya”), dynamic breathing, mantras, chanting, and meditation. It’s believed to awaken the energy at the base of the spine and draw it upward through the chakras.

Yin - Poses are held for 3-5 minutes, mainly in a lying down or seated position. The longer stretches aim to release tension and restore range of motion to muscles and connective tissue. It’s helpful for people who have tight muscles, stress, or chronic pain.

Restorative - Very gentle poses are held for 10 minutes or more. Includes plenty of props for support and relaxation, such as blankets, bolsters, and straps. Similar to Yin yoga, this is a helpful practice for people living with chronic pain or anyone feeling stressed.

definitive guide: yoga

Through different styles of yoga, you’ll notice a common, consistent theme: self-healing. Whether you choose to practice Yin or prefer Vinyasa, practicing any style of yoga gives you the opportunity to turn inward and learn more about yourself so that you can be of greater service to the people and the world around you.

A guide to foundational poses

It can be helpful to familiarize yourself with some of the main foundational poses that most physical practices use. Check out this list of poses with alignment cues that you can practice in the comfort of your own home.

Downward-Facing Dog

  1. Come onto your hands and knees.
  2. Straighten your arms and relax your upper back between the shoulder blades.
  3. Keeping your knees bent, lengthen your knees and lift your hips high. Your aim here is to form the shape of an upside-down “V.”
  4. If you have the flexibility in your hamstring muscles, straighten your legs and let your heels drop down toward the floor while maintaining the length in your spine.
  5. If you notice your spine start to curve as you straighten your legs, bend your knees enough so that you can keep the spine long.
  6. Hold for 5 breaths.

Cobra

  1. Lie on your stomach with your legs straight.
  2. Firm up the muscles in your legs and have your feet hip-width apart and your toes pointing behind you.
  3. Push down through your pubic bone to avoid collapsing into the lower portion of the spine.
  4. Place your weight onto your forearms as you lift your chest away from the ground.
  5. Make sure that your neck is long as you look straight ahead.
  6. Hold for 5 breaths.

Warrior I

  1. Stand up straight and step your right foot back.
  2. Keep your front foot pointing straight forward and position your back foot at approximately a 45-degree angle.
  3. Position your feet hip-width apart so you’re able to square your hips to the front of the mat.
  4. Bend into your front knee. Make sure your knee is directly above your ankle, or behind it.
  5. Keep your back leg strong.
  6. Raise your arms up straight above your head and relax your shoulders.
  7. Hold for 5 breaths before switching to the other side.

Warrior II

  1. Stand up straight. Step your right foot back.
  2. Keep your front foot pointing straight forward. Position your back foot at a little less than a 90-degree angle.
  3. Align your front heel with the arch of your back foot.
  4. Have your hips turned toward the side of the mat.
  5. Bend into your front knee so your knee is directly above your ankle, or behind it, ensuring the kneecap is tracking over the middle toe.
  6. Keep your back leg strong.
  7. Raise your arms up parallel with the ground.
  8. Relax your shoulders.
  9. Hold for 5 breaths before coming to the other side.

Tree Pose

  1. Stand up straight. Shift your weight onto the left foot, keeping the inner part of your left foot firmly on the floor, and bend your right knee.
  2. Draw your right foot up and place the sole against your inner left thigh, inner calf muscle, or inner ankle with your toes touching the floor.
  3. Place your hands on the top rim of your pelvis to make sure that it’s parallel to the floor.
  4. Lengthen your tailbone toward the floor.
  5. Firmly press the sole of the right foot against the inner thigh, calf, or ankle, and resist with the outer left leg.
  6. Raise your arms straight above your head. Ensure that you keep your shoulders relaxed.
  7. Hold for 5 breaths before changing to the other side.

Seated Forward Fold

  1. Sit on the ground with your legs straight out in front of you. If you have tight hamstrings, bend your knees.
  2. Keep your feet flexed with your toes pointing toward the ceiling.
  3. Sit up tall, lengthening through your spine.
  4. Leading with your chest, keep your spine long as you fold forward.
  5. Place your hands in a comfortable position on your legs.
  6. Hold for 5 breaths.

Bridge Pose

  1. Lie on your back.
  2. Bend both knees and position your feet hip-width apart with your knees stacked over your ankles.
  3. Place your arms on either side of your body with the palms of your hands turned down to the ground. Spread your fingers wide.
  4. Lengthen the skin of your tailbone toward the front of your mat.
  5. Lift your hips up and hold the pose for 5 breaths.

Supine Twist

  1. Lie on your back.
  2. Hug both knees in toward yourself with your feet off the ground.
  3. Place your arms in a “T” position, with the palms of your hands turned up toward the ceiling.
  4. Let both knees drop down toward the right side of your mat.
  5. Keep your gaze looking toward the ceiling, or turn to face the opposite direction of your knees.
  6. Hold for 5 breaths before coming to the other side.

Cat-Cow

  1. Get on your hands and knees. Your wrists should be underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips.
  2. Balance your weight evenly on all fours.
  3. Inhale and look up, letting your stomach point down towards the mat.
  4. Then exhale and tuck your chin into your chest, curving your spin up towards the ceiling.
  5. Be awareness of your body and your breath as repeat these movements.
  6. Continue this fluid movement for 5 breaths.

Breathing exercises, or pranayama

Controlling your breath is an integral part of yoga. The formal name for this practice is pranayama. “Prana” can be explained as life force, energy, or qi, while “ayama” is the Sanskrit word for extension.

Here are some of the basic pranayama practices to start you off in your yoga journey:

Ujjayi pranayama

Ujjayi pranayama is most commonly used in Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga. An ocean sound is created with this breathing technique by contracting the epiglottis, the leaf-shaped flap of cartilage located behind the tongue at the top of the voice box. This sound aims to anchor the mind during your practice.

Ujjayi technique:

  1. Breath in and out through your nose.
  2. Breathe in for 4 counts and breathe out for 4 counts. Complete 4 rounds of this.
  3. On your fifth breath, slowly breathe in through your mouth, as if you were sipping through a straw but with your mouth closed.
  4. As you breathe out, see if you can slowly exhale, as if you were steaming up a mirror but with your mouth closed.
  5. Continue this breathing all the way through your yoga practice.

Nadi Shodhanam pranayama

Nadi Shodhanam refers to alternate nostril breathing to slow down inhalation and the exhalation. This technique balances the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system to cultivate a state of internal tranquility, stability, and peace of mind, while balancing and regulating energy through the left and right side of the body.

Nadi Shodhanam technique:

  1. Find a comfortable seat on the ground or on a chair. You can also be standing still or lying down.
  2. Close your eyes and take a couple of deep breaths in and out through your nose.
  3. Using your thumb on your right hand, close your right nostril.
  4. Inhale through your left nostril for 5 counts, then remove your thumb. Using a different finger on your right hand, close your left nostril and exhale through your right nostril for 5 counts.
  5. Now switch, inhaling through your right nostril for 5 counts and exhaling through your left.
  6. Repeat for 3 to 9 rounds.

Viloma pranayama

This breathing technique aims to calm the brain and your nervous system. It can be practiced at the start or end of your yoga practice, or on its own.

Viloma technique:

  1. Lie down, or sit comfortably.
  2. Place one hand on your belly and the other hand on your heart.
  3. Close your eyes. Take a couple of deep breaths in and out through your nose.
  4. On your next inhalation, sip in a third of the breath through your lips, like you’re drinking from a straw, into your belly and pause for a moment.
  5. Sip a third more into your side ribs and pause for another moment.
  6. Sip the final third of your breath into your chest.
  7. Exhale slowly through your nose.
  8. Repeat for 3 to 9 rounds.

Mindfulness and meditation exercises

Both mindfulness and meditation are integral parts of the yoga practice. As mentioned earlier, physical yoga practices aim to prepare the body and mind for meditation.

There are two simple elements that define mindfulness:

  1. Become aware of the physical sensations in your body.
  2. Notice these sensations without judgment.

Below is a simple, mindful counting meditation that you can practice at home:

Meditation technique

  1. Find a comfortable seat.
  2. Set a timer for how long you’d like to meditate for, somewhere between 5 to 10 minutes.
  3. Close your eyes.
  4. Notice the sounds around you. Listen as they come and go.
  5. Bring your awareness to your physical body. Can you notice the temperature of your skin? Can you notice what’s touching your skin?
  6. Focus the awareness from your head and move down to your feet. Which parts of your body are harder to notice? Which parts of your body are easier?
  7. Bring your awareness to your breath. Notice the cool air as you breathe in and the warm air as you breathe out.
  8. Start to count your breath. Inhale on 1 and exhale on 2.
  9. Continue counting all the way up to 10. Repeat until the end of your meditation.

Figure out if you should start on your own or with a studio class

Studio classes

Benefits Disadvantages
have support and guidance provided from a teachercan be costly
meet and interact with like-minded peopletravel to and from the studio can be time-consuming and stressful
advance your learningmay not be ideal for people who need individualized attention
get inspired by different teachers and fellow studentsdepending on the size of the group, you might not be corrected by the teacher when necessary

Self-practice

BenefitsDisadvantages
convenientmiss out on the support and guidance from a teacher
learn to listen deeply to your own body and what it needsmiss out on the energy that comes from a group class
personalize your practice depending on the day and how you’re feelingmay develop poor habits, which could inhibit your practice
free, or more cost effective, even if you subscribe to classes onlinemay lose motivation without class structure
definitive guide: yoga

What to expect as a beginner

By Kaitlyn Hochart, a Yoga Medicine instructor based in San Diego, California. You can follow her journey at kaitlynhochart.com.

The start of any new activity can be met with a combination of excitement and nervousness, and starting yoga practice anew is no different. To help you feel more at ease, this section will cover options of where to begin practicing yoga, what to expect in class, and suggestions for progressing your practice to the next level.

Where to begin

Just as there are a wide variety of yoga styles, there are numerous options where yoga classes are offered. Find a practice space that’s easy to get to and offers classes that fit your schedule. Common settings include:

  • neighborhood yoga studios
  • gyms and athletic clubs
  • integrative health practices, like physical therapy offices, chiropractic offices, etc.
  • workplace and corporate yoga
  • online yoga programs and websites
  • private yoga instructors
  • seasonal, donation-based outdoor yoga events

Set a goal to make one to two classes per week for the first few months of your practice. With this consistency, the poses and flow of the class will become more familiar. You’ll start to notice the physical and mental benefits of the practice.

How to approach classes as a new student

Many studios have beginner classes and fundamental workshops. These offerings are wonderful for beginner and advanced students alike. They’re often slower paced, and focus more attention on alignment and how to safely get into the poses.

Bring your yoga mat and water. For warmer classes, you might want to bring a towel, too. Most studios are usually well-equipped with yoga props such as blocks, blankets, straps, and bolsters, but you may want to call ahead or check online to be sure.

A common reservation for beginners is working with injuries and a lack of familiarity with the poses. If this is a concern, you can work privately with an instructor before entering group classes. Just a few individual sessions can provide the foundation and confidence you need to modify poses or work around your injury.

What to expect from a yoga class or routine

The typical length of a group class is 60, 75, or 90 minutes. The teacher will guide you through breathing and moving your body into the poses. Some teachers may even demonstrate the poses, although larger classes tend to rely on verbal cues.

Yoga classes end with several minutes of lying down on your back with your eyes closed in a pose called Savasana. It’s a time to let your body and breathing completely relax. Savasana is an opportunity to feel the physical effects of the practice integrate into your body.

After Savasana, the word “namaste” is said by the teacher, and the students repeat. Namaste is a word of gratitude and a gesture of thanking the teacher and students for coming to practice.

Always feel free to talk with your teacher after class if you have specific questions about certain poses and how you can make them more accessible for your body.

definitive guide: yoga

How to improve after starting

Repetition and consistency are the keys to moving forward. After you’ve found a style, teacher, and location that works for you, try these tips:

Improvement tips

  • Begin a home practice once you feel comfortable in the foundational yoga poses.
  • Attend local workshops where teachers can break down certain aspects of the yoga practice in more detail.
  • Notice the effects a consistent yoga practice has on you by observing how your body feels, and how interactions and relationships outside of your yoga practice feel.
  • Take note on how you feel during times away from practice. This can help you recognize yoga’s benefits more.

The positive effects will highlight the value of the practice and serve as motivation to keep returning to your mat.

Takeaway If you’re a newcomer to yoga, it’d be ideal to take a few classes before starting at home. A teacher can help make sure you’re not doing yoga incorrectly and building bad form. Once you feel comfortable, you can then transition to working out at home.

Moving on to the intermediate stage

By Rachel Land, a Yoga Medicine instructor based in Queenstown, New Zealand. You can follow her journey at rachelland.yoga.

By now, things that may have seemed impossible in your first class might now be within your grasp. You’ve heard about the benefits of yoga, and experienced moments of calm and clarity that make them feel a little more believable. To advance further, here are some qualities to continue building that’ll help you advance your yoga journey.

Dedication

One of the qualities that separates a serious yogi from a beginner is consistent and dedicated practice. Two of the core concepts of yoga philosophy reinforce this:

  • Tapas, or burning enthusiasm. Tapas means to heat, shine, or purify. Yogis believe that the fiery effort of tapas, stoked through disciplined yoga practice, burns off lethargy and impurity, transforming you into your best and highest self.
  • Abhyāsa, or regular and diligent practice over the long haul. In the same way athletes train to meet the challenges of their sport, yogis continue to show up on their mats.
To do Now that you know what style you enjoy, commit to regular practice. A yoga studio membership, online subscription, or even making regular yoga dates with a friend will help. Aim to practice three times a week.

Subtlety

It’s time to look beyond the basics of the pose and into nuanced cues, like:

  • “Lift the arches of the feet.”
  • “Lengthen the skin over the sacrum.”
  • “Engage mula bandha.”

Instructions that didn’t make sense to you as a beginner are now ready to be explored.

To progress in your practice, cultivate more body awareness. Instead of copying your teacher, develop a rich internal sense of how and where your body is positioned in space. Study the details, from meditation method and pranayama (breath work) to mudra (hand gestures) and mantra (sacred sounds).

To do Look beyond a purely physical experience of yoga to explore its mental, emotional, and energetic effects. Notice the details and practice the subtle cues to build strength.

Focus

As aspects of practice become more familiar, you can begin to develop what yogis call “drishti,” or focus and concentrated intention. With continued focus, more and more time will pass between periods of distraction. Your practice will start to generate a feeling of clarity and calm.

To do Lose yourself in the fine details of the practice. Try to string postures along the ribbon of your breath, like pearls on a string.

The next steps of committing to yoga

As you continue to practice, see if you can find a difference between yoga days and non-yoga days. Focus on the positive, such as feeling calmer or a boost in energy and mood. Each positive experience you associate with being on your mat will make it easier to commit to coming back again.

You want the benefits you’ve noticed to last, for every day to feel like a yoga day. If you feel confident in your practice, it may also be the time to initiate a home yoga practice.

No matter how short or simple, a regular — even daily — home practice is the stepping-stone to making the physical and mental changes you’ve noticed more permanent.

If you’re short on inspiration, consider a private yoga session with a respected teacher, delve into yoga history and literature, or attend a workshop on a topic that intrigues you. The ancient practice of yoga offers countless pathways to real and concrete benefits. Now it’s up to you to find your way.

Takeaway Build a foundation of good habits, such as diligence and consistency, to help bring your beginner mindset into the next stage. In the intermediate stage, you can focus on building strength and more nuanced moves.

Entering the pro — or advanced — stage of yoga

By Dana Diament, a Yoga Medicine instructor based in Byron Bay, Australia. You can follow her journey at www.danadiament.com.

Being an advanced practitioner is less about doing advanced poses — although your body may certainly be ready for those — and more about deepening your commitment to practice on and off the mat.

Furthering good practice habits for yoga

Advanced practitioners usually practice four to six times per week. At this stage, we also recommend expanding the range of your practice to include both active and restorative asana, pranayama, and meditation. If it appeals to you, mudra and mantra can also be a way to add richness to your practice.

The style and duration of practice will vary depending on what you feel you need the most that day. At this stage, your ability to maintain focus on your breathing and internal states throughout practice allows you to quickly tap into the depth of your practice. This means a shorter practice can be just as potent.

You can still enjoy practicing regularly with a teacher or with a class. But you’ll also want to commit to practicing at home in a dedicated space, such as a corner of your living room or bedroom.

Benefits of a personal practice

  • less distractions
  • moving with your breath
  • tailoring the practice to what you need that day
  • lingering on the parts of the practice that you personally find challenging
  • incorporating poses that are most useful for your well-being
  • connecting to your intuition

Some advanced yogis practice at home a majority of the time. Others maintain a more even balance between home practice and public group classes. As you progress, this will become a matter of your personal preference.

Awareness

At the advanced stage, it’s important to develop a richly nuanced internal experience through self-inquiry and interoception. The practice of self-inquiry is known as swadhyaya, and is one of the niyamas, or moral practices, from Patanjali’s eight-limbs. This can help you uncover a deeper understanding of your mind, habits, and reactions.

Interoception is the ability to sense what’s happening within your body and paying close attention to what you feel without trying to fix anything or judge what’s happening. With this heightened awareness, you’ll be able to extract tremendous benefit from the simplest of sequences and poses.

To do Focus on yourself and be introspective as you practice. This way you can build the ability to sense what’s happening in and to your body.

Benefits off the mat

Transition what you learn from yoga “off the mat.” Off the mat is a term yogis use to mean your everyday life. Some ways to take your yoga off the mat include:

  • Incorporate the yamas and niyamas. For example, be content with results (santosha), be truthful with your words (satya), maintain orderliness in your surroundings (saucha), and be generous with your time or money (aparigraha).
  • Summon the focus you’ve developed in your practice throughout your day. Do this at work, at home, with loved ones, or in other hobbies and sports.
  • Notice what disturbs your calmness during your day, as well as your habitual reactions to these triggers. Apply this awareness to help you make more suitable choices.
  • Use your improved interoception to take better care of your health. This also allows for you to communicate more clearly with your healthcare providers.

One of the more rewarding signs of being an advanced practitioner is the staying power of the benefits. After you’ve accumulated practice hours under your belt and found ways to connect the practice into your life, you’ll feel your yoga practice’s positive influence — even on days when you have a short practice or no practice at all.

Takeaway Advanced yoga is about bringing what you’ve learned off the mat and into your everyday life. Many yoga practitioners at this stage also immerse themselves even further and attend week or monthlong retreats or teacher trainings.

What do the experts say about yoga?

By Alice Louise Blunden, a Yoga Medicine instructor based in London. You can follow her journey at alicelouiseyoga.com.

In this next section, we interviewed eight experts (four internationally renowned yoga teachers and four medical professionals) to find out how practicing yoga has:

  • affected their lives
  • introduced benefits
  • changed since they started as beginners

They also included any advice you might need to know as a new student or someone with any potential medical concerns or injuries.

Interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q:

Why do you choose to practice yoga?

A:

Yoga is a game-changer for me. Some days it allows me to show up efficiently and with clarity, some days it helps me to be a better person, some days it allows me to just be and not worry about all the chaos around me. Yoga used to be more of a physical practice for me — and some days it still is — but most of all, it helps me show up better in my life. My practice is my tool to create what I need, whether that’s exercise, therapy, or peace of mind.

Tiffany Cruikshank, international yoga teacher and founder of Yoga MedicineAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

What’s your greatest piece of advice for people new to yoga?

A:

Keep taking classes until you find a teacher who lights you up, who moves you to be a better human off the mat. That’s your teacher.

Elena Brower, international yoga teacherAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

Why do you choose to practice yoga?

A:

My reason to practice yoga has morphed throughout the years — because it’s fun, I love to sweat, I adore the challenge, I need to reset, I have to calm down — to the current need to move stagnant energy and emotions out of my body. That’s such a huge slice of why yoga is so amazing. It is the ultimate reinventress and open to all of our whims.

Kathryn Budig, international yoga teacherAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

Which type of yoga practice is the least helpful for someone’s health?

A:

Anything that hurts! If it causes physical pain or mental anguish, back off a bit or back away completely. I’m always a little hesitant to recommend Ashtanga yoga because it requires a lot of flexibility and many poses put a lot of weight on the shoulders. A heated practice to anyone with heat sensitivity or multiple sclerosis can worsen these conditions and put people at risk of injury. If you have anxiety, avoid any pranayama techniques involving breath retention or short breaths that could trigger somatic sensations that feel like anxiety or even a panic attack.

Ashley R. Bouzis, MD, psychiatristAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

Is there harm in practicing yoga?

A:

People experiencing acute injury or trauma should switch to a restorative yoga practice. Poses that involve inverting the body or part of the body carry the most potential harm when practicing yoga asana. If you have untreated hypertension, migraine headaches, glaucoma, a detached retina or other eye problems, cardiac problems, vertigo, and are menstruating, you should avoid inversion poses. Prone positions and twisting poses strongly contract or put pressure on the abdomen or pelvis, which may be harmful during menstruation.

Christina Le-Short, MD, assistant professor at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TexasAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

As a doctor, which type of yoga practice could be most helpful for someone’s health?

A:

I believe that Yin and restorative yoga would be of most benefit for those who are starting out and for those who are physically weaker. For those that are physically fit, I would recommend Hatha or Vinyasa. For someone who is new to yoga, Ashtanga or Bikram may cause unintended, harmful side effects.

Dorothea Baumgard, DO, anesthesiologistAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

In your opinion, how is yoga perceived in the medical world?

A:

In the medical world, yoga is primarily thought of as a safe, healthy form of physical fitness. The mental and emotional resilience that yoga practice builds is usually overlooked. The immense spiritual benefit of yoga is rarely considered in the medical world, which primarily has a secular focus.

Cheryl Hurst, PsyD, health psychologist and yoga therapistAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

What you need to get started

By Cristina M. Kuhn, a Yoga Medicine instructor who splits her time between Washington, D.C., and Barbados.

The great thing about yoga is that you don’t need much in terms of “gear” to get started. Willingness to take that first step is really the first tool. You must make the choice to attend to your own health and well-being, and then once you’ve done so, you can begin to add additional layers as you need them. You may never need or even want a full yoga wardrobe or prop closet — and that’s just fine!

What you need to buy to start practicing yoga (and how much things can cost)

What you wear is really important. You’ll need comfortable clothing that you can move in, whether it’s yoga pants or running shorts. You may already own something, or you may need to buy new clothes. New clothes can range from $5 to $100 or more, so choose an option that fits into your budget and that you feel most comfortable in.

Yoga mat: Many people choose to purchase their own mat rather than borrow or rent at a local studio, which can range from $2 to $10. Prices for your own mat can range from $15 to $200. And you get what you pay for, so we suggest aiming for a quality mat that’s in the $40 to $60 range. (For example, people with sensitive knees or backs may want a thicker mat.)

Props and other gear: Most yoga studios will supply all of the other props you may need, like yoga blocks, straps, and blankets. Some may even provide bolsters, sandbags, and eye pillows. If you’re practicing at home, you don’t have to buy these props, either. Owning a mat, a set of blocks, and a strap can help support and ease you into your practice, but you can use the carpet as your mat, household items as blocks, and towels as straps, too.

What do you need to know about classes and cost?

Here’s a breakdown for average class costs:

  • Studio package or membership. Approximately $100 to $200 per month.
  • Gym membership. Approximately $58 to $100 per month.
  • Online yoga membership. Approximately $60 to $150 per year.
  • Private session(s). Varies based on the instructor.

While it’s certainly less expensive to practice yoga at home, new yogis may find it beneficial to begin with a group class or by scheduling a private yoga session. The guidance and feedback a teacher provides on the spot is invaluable. You just can’t get that same experience from an online video or book.

Many yoga studios offer session and class packages. The cost ranges depending on where you live and what package you’re looking for. The initial investment is a lot more than paying per class, but often these packages give you a discount on the per-session or per-class investment.

Packages are a good idea if you want to try a new studio, or if you want to commit to attending class regularly. Some studio memberships can provide extra perks, as well as reduce your per-class investment.

If your local yoga studio’s rates are out of your price range, check gyms and community centers. They often offer budget-friendly options. Some gyms may also allow you to attend classes for no additional cost.

There’s plenty of resources for home practice, too. Try an online yoga website with experienced teachers like YogaGlo or Yoga International. These sites are a great option if you feel more comfortable working at home, are limited by time, or want to be able to choose exactly the kind of class you need that day.

A private session may be more expensive, but it also has the benefit of providing focused attention and addressing specific needs or injuries. For group classes, you can contact the studio, gym, or teacher to ask which classes they recommend for you.

Takeaway Contact your local yoga studios to see if they offer sessions, class packages, or discounted deals for new yogis. If the studios are still out of your price range, you can also look at community centers and gyms.

Your budget for practicing yoga

Low budget:

It’s possible to do yoga entirely for free! Follow online videos and use household items as props. Wear comfortable clothing you already own and that you can move easily in.

But remember, for every great yoga video on YouTube, there are hundreds or thousands that aren’t so great. Choose wisely by looking at reviews, views, and into the background of the trainer featured in the video. Check out our top picks for yoga videos to get you started.

Moderate budget:

Purchase a yoga mat and attend classes at your gym, community center, or through an online yoga subscription site. If your cash flow allows it, you can purchase a multi-class package or a membership at a yoga studio to maximize the bang for your buck. Consider making a purchase of two or three pieces of clothing designated for yoga practice.

Large budget:

Purchase a yoga mat, two blocks, a strap, and a bolster for your home practice. Schedule private sessions with a highly recommended teacher (or check out Yoga Medicine’s “Find a Teacher” resource for guidance), then begin to layer on group classes. Consider becoming a member at your favorite studio. Invest in a yoga wardrobe that moves with you and brings you joy!

Don’t feel like you need to rush out and purchase everything you can find related to yoga all at once. Some items may be marketed as important to a yoga practice, when in reality they may not be helpful at all. For example, “yoga pants” don’t have to be only yoga pants. Allow your practice to develop and pay attention to what inspires you and how you feel in your body — then you’ll have a better idea of what you may need.

How to check in with your body, follow up on progress, and measure success

By Amanda B. Cunningham, a Yoga Medicine instructor based in Charleston, South Carolina. You can follow her journey at amandabyoga.com.

The definition of progression is “the process of developing or moving gradually toward a more advanced state.” To measure progression within yoga practice, you must first define what “a more advanced state” means, and this is personal to each practitioner.

So, what would success mean to you? Is it to tone up or de-stress? A balanced approach to checking in will include an overall look at your well-being.

When 30-something athlete Alysia experienced a severe concussion, yoga played a huge role in her recovery. She notes that, “Yoga was the foundation that helped me be more mentally stable in a very emotionally up and down rehabilitation.”

Alysia’s progression was documented over one and half years and focused on physical aspects such as balance, mindful transitions to avoid triggering headaches or dizziness, and strength building to counter muscle atrophy. Yoga allowed her to be more compassionate with herself as well as her recovery.

To measure physical improvements, look for:

  1. Improved range of motion or ease of movement.
  2. A reduction in pain or discomfort and physical symptoms.
  3. An increase in physical strength and endurance.
  4. Less weight fluctuations.
  5. Changes in the ways your clothes fit.
  6. Better quality sleeping habits and increased or stable energy levels.

No matter what your goals are, it’s important to remember that yoga is bringing together your body and mind. Dedicated practice will affect all aspects of your life, internally and externally, physically and mentally. And patience will play a role in this, too. It may take months or years to realize the deepest benefits of a personal practice.

To measure mental improvements, look for:

  1. A drop in stress levels or mood swings.
  2. Growth in emotional awareness or equilibrium in emotional situations.
  3. Changes in personal, romantic, and professional relationships.
  4. An increased sense of self, or ability to live more presently.
  5. An increase in mental clarity and resilience.
  6. A deeper awareness of sensations in the body or reactions of the ego.
  7. The ability to control quality of breath.

Ways to measure progression

For 27-year-old Christy, yoga was a helping hand in kicking a pain killer addiction that left her insecure, emotional, overweight, and anxious. Through three months of journaling and private yoga practices, Christy found it easier to make choices that were good for her. She combined high-vigor Vinyasa classes and calming meditation practices, resulting in weight loss, self-confidence, and an overall sense of control.

Here are some ways to measure progression:

1. Journal

Write daily or weekly following the measurements above to chart your progress. Include events or situations that may have occurred. Document your experience, reaction, or emotions throughout. As time passes, it’ll be insightful to look back and review your past entries.

2. Group or 1:1 classes or therapy

This can be group classes, 1:1 private yoga sessions, or therapy of any kind. When we involve professionals or nonbiased third parties, we allow for a second set of eyes to help us see our own progression.

3. Ask for feedback

It can feel intimidating to ask loved ones or coworkers to comment on your progress, but it can also lead to many insights. Maybe someone’s noticed you’re less stressed and smile more often. Sometimes it’s easier for others to see us before we can truly see ourselves.

4. Set target dates

Get your calendar out and set target dates. For example, set a goal to practice yoga once every day or to master the splits in 30 days. Include check-in dates to help you reach your goal. For some, seeing a visual on a calendar makes them feel more accountable.

5. Look at the scale or create before and after photos

The physical body may change throughout your practice, so use the scale or images of yourself to track progression. Don’t focus on the numbers as much as the feeling. Notice if your muscles are stronger and your clothes are fitting better.

This is a practice of overall well-being, so be kind to yourself and repeat this mantra: Practice makes progression!

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