Looking to improve your physical AND mental health? The answer is yoga! Yoga and yogic practices have a wide range of benefits for both your mind and body. This form of exercise gives you the option to work-out pretty much anywhere you’d like, as long as you have the best yoga accessories by your side! This guide for beginners will introduce the benefits of doing yoga, improving flexibility, and practicing strength training exercises. Remember, the best yogic masters had to start somewhere!
Yoga’s Origin & Purpose
The Sanskrit word for ‘union’, Yoga, originated in India thousands of years ago. The history of Yoga is generally described in four large categories: Vedic Yoga, Pre-classical Yoga, Classical Yoga, and Postclassical Yoga. Over the centuries, the purpose and practice of yoga has been modified to suit the times. Yoga began as a ritualistic practice, focusing on sacrifice as a way of connecting the physical and spiritual worlds. As we see today, Yoga may still use ideas of the mind, body, and spirit, but has moved towards a more health-conscious and fitness goal. Yoga uses a unique combination of breathing exercises, strength and training exercises, stretching, and meditation to improve people’s mental and physical states.
Benefits of Yoga & The Exercises Needed to Achieve Them
Improving flexibility. One of the main goals of yoga is to stretch the body in a way that helps joint and muscle function. Each muscle and joint is connected to another, so loosening one at a time will help to loosen the others simultaneously. This helps with aches and pains, and prevents injuries from occurring. For example, if your hips are tight, you may experience pain in your knees. Working to stretch the hips will help to realign your legs, taking strain off of the knees. Flexibility also improves posture, strength, and balance. These three factors will then work together to improve your overall performance during exercise.
Yoga Poses to Improve Flexibility
These four yogic poses are perfect for beginners who are looking to improve their flexibility. Follow this easy guide that explains how to do each pose and the best yoga accessories for completing them!
**Reminder—for any of these exercises, be sure you are in good health when performing them. If any of these poses or exercise sets feel a bit off, stop immediately.
- Seated Forward Bend/Paschimottanasana—This stretch works to make your hamstrings and back more flexible and open. How to do it: Start in a seated position with your legs flat in front of you, toes pointed upwards. Sit up straight and extend your spine enough that you are still comfortable. Walk your hands down the length of your legs as far as you can go (remember, don’t push it!). As you continue deep breathing, remain in this pose for up to three minutes.
What you’ll need: This pose can be done on any type of yoga mat. You can even do this stretch on the floor, as long as it is comfortable enough for you. This is good for those who need a mid-day stretch at work, but forgot their yoga mat bag at home!
2. Balasana/Child’s Pose – This pose is generally used as a resting technique between more advanced poses. However, this is great for beginners who are just learning how to gently stretch the spine and loosen up the hips and thighs. This is a stress-relieving pose that brings attention to breathing. Slow, long, and steady breaths are advised for this pose. How to do it: Start on your knees and hands, focusing on your breath. Bring your feet together so that your big toes meet, and open your knees wide so they angle outwards. Then, bring your tailbone down to your heels. Sit with a straight spine to open your upper body and back. Raise your arms above your head, and exhale as you bring your torso down between your legs. Place your forehead gently against the floor as you keep your arms extended in front of you. Relax your entire back as you continue breathing.
What you’ll need: For child’s pose, use a thick yoga mat for added comfort. Since this is also considered a relaxation pose between other stretches, you’ll want a bit more cushion underneath you.
3.Warrior I/Virabhadrasana—Warrior yoga poses are a series of standing stretches that embody focus, steadiness, and power. Warrior I is perfect for beginners who are just starting to learn how to loosen up the front of the body and build strength in the thighs and ankles. How to do it: Standing long and tall, place your feet about a hip-distance apart, keeping your arms relaxed at your sides. Step outwards, so that your feet are now about three or four feet apart. Angle your right foot outwards about 90 degrees. Gently angle your left foot 45 degrees towards the right foot. Extend your arms up above your head, opening the chest, and turn your torso to align with the right foot. Finally, bend your right leg forward so that your shin is perpendicular to your mat.
What you’ll need: Many of the Warrior stretches are best achieved with an extra-long yoga mat. Since these require about four feet of distance between your feet, this type of mat allows for additional space and less slipping!
4. Downward Dog/Adho Mukha Svanasana—This famous yoga position is a great way to strengthen and stretch several parts of the body at once. Working with the hamstrings, calves, and shoulders, Downward Dog builds strength in both the upper and lower body. How to do it: Start on your hands and knees, making sure your knees align with your hips and your hands align with your shoulders. Slide your hands about six inches up on the mat, moving past your shoulders. Slowly lift your knees off of the ground, pushing up from your hands. Extend your legs and back so that your tailbone reaches towards the ceiling. Keep your head parallel to your extended arms, as you maintain a straight spine. Practice this pose until you can touch your heels to the mat, so that the back of your legs are fully stretched and extended.
What you’ll need: Downward dog can also be done on any yoga mat of your choice. High-density foam blocks can be used for those who have trouble getting their heels to the ground!
A superior circulatory system. Yoga, like any form of exercise, will surely get your blood flowing and heart pumping—in all the best ways. Specific poses are designed to direct blood flow to certain parts of the body, encouraging better circulation overall. The aerobic exercises offered by yoga practice will boost your heart rate, giving your circulatory system its very own work-out. Yoga can also lower high blood pressure and help those with hypertension. These benefits are especially important for those with high risk of heart attack or heart disease.
Mental health. Yogic breathing exercises, known as Pranayama, are simple breathing techniques that can help with a wide range of mental health problems. Several of these exercises can help decrease stress, subside anxieties, and lower depression. Unlike the aerobic or flexibility poses that may require a thick yoga mat or high-density foam blocks, these Pranayama exercises can be done anywhere at any time. If you’re feeling stressed at work, sit in your car and focus on your breathing to give yourself a mental health break!
Building muscle. Too many people assume that yoga is only meditation and stretching. But, we know there is much more! Strength training exercises help to build up your strength and tone your muscles. Good muscle strength helps to prevent arthritis and body aches. Unlike regular exercise that may focus solely on weight-lifting, yoga successfully combines flexibility and strength training practices to give the body an overall balanced and pain-free advantage.
Yogic Training Exercises to Build Strength
While stretching and flexibility is vital to becoming a master yogi, building strength may be just as important. Many of the poses in yoga require muscle strength to complete, especially some of the more advanced positions. Using strength training exercises can reinforce the basic yogic stretches, giving your body the perfect balance of flexibility and muscle ability. These training exercises can be done with low weights for beginners, and you can add weight as you feel more comfortable. Here are three strength building exercises for beginners!
- Chest press. This exercise works the chest muscles, while loosening the upper body. Line up three or four high-density foam blocks, about an inch apart from each other. You can use large foam blocks for more elevation. Lay on your back on the blocks, making sure your head and buttocks are completely supported. Bend your legs so that your feet lay flat on the floor, knees slightly outward. Holding your weights, start with your arms straight above you. Then, bend your elbows, bringing the weights all the way down to line up next to the sides of your chest. Repeat this ten times, for three full sets.
- Weighted lunges. Lunges are a great way to build muscle while simultaneously improving flexibility. This builds the quad muscles which will be especially helpful for the Warrior poses. Start by stepping the right foot forward so that you form a 90-degree angle at the knee. At the same time, your left knee should just reach the ground. Push off of your right heel to return to your starting position. Alternate sides for ten repetitions each, up to four full sets.
- One-legged deadlifts. For beginners, this exercise can be done without a weight. Once you feel ready, add a kettlebell in for adding muscle build. The one leg deadlift strengthens the hamstrings, while repeatedly stretching the muscles for more flexibility. Stand on one leg, slightly bending at the knee. With a neutral back/spine, start to bend forward past the hip. Extend the opposite leg back and upwards as you bend forward. Keep bending until your leg and torso form a straight parallel line to the floor. Return to your starting position and alternate legs. You can do fifteen repetitions for three full sets.
Importance of hydration during yoga practice
As for any form of exercise, it’s extremely important to stay hydrated! Hydration maintains proper body temperatures, helps give your body nutrients for more energy, loosens up your joints for smoother exercise, and increases performance levels. Especially for yoga, make sure you are hydrating before, during, and after practice.
About an hour or two before yoga, be sure to drink one full water bottle. When you’re packing your yoga mat bag for a class, make sure to throw in a few water bottles! Having the best yoga accessories also means having a yoga water bottle handy. Be sure to keep hydrating through your practice. Aim for five ounces or so every fifteen to twenty minutes. This will keep your energy levels up, your joints loosened, and your muscle fatigue low. Drinking water during exercise will also keep your body cooler, since it helps with blood flow. This also helps to improve your heart’s health. Once your yoga session is over, keep on drinking! You don’t want to shock your body after a long practice, so continue hydrating to maintain stable levels.
Anyone who does yoga should also try to maintain hydration strategies throughout the day, even when they aren’t necessarily prepping for or doing yoga. Eating more water based fruits, like watermelon and peaches, replacing other drinks with water, limiting caffeine and alcohol, and drinking a full glass of water before bed/when you wake up can seriously improve your body and its ability to perform during exercise.
Essential Accessories to Have
When you are ready to start practicing yoga, be sure to have the essential tools! Keep a water bottle in your yoga mat bag, have large foam blocks handy, and invest in a thick yoga mat for added comfort!