Don't want to bend in the shape of a pretzel? Think you aren't flexible? Do you fear the downward dog? Don't worry — yoga is about more than contorting your body into strange shapes. And that means anyone can try it.
When I meet new yoga students, they often say something like this:
"Are you going to make me to bend into that pretzel shape? Because that is not happening in this body!"
"I have zero flexibility, so I can't do that dog pose or whatever you call it."
Thinking that you need to be flexible is a common misconception about yoga. The truth is, yoga is an ancient practice that encompasses many different elements beyond the poses you may be familiar with. Most yoga practices also focus on your breath, mindset and overall well-being. That makes yoga a practice that can truly benefit anybody — no matter how old you are, what shape you're in or what physical challenges you have.
Start with the breath
The foundation of yoga is deep, steady breathing. The reason: Your breath connects your mind and body. Here's an example of how it works: Let's say you're sitting in a work meeting, and it's not going well. Maybe deadlines aren't being met or you don't have enough resources. You feel your neck and shoulders tensing up, and that tension may move into your jaw or trigger a headache. This is the perfect moment to practice yoga — just by breathing.
Take a few moments while you're sitting in your meeting to observe your breath. Maybe you're breathing rapidly or holding your breath. Try to gently lengthen the breath on each inhale and exhale. It may help to count silently to four when you inhale and count down from four when you exhale.
Gradually lengthen your breaths to a count of five on the inhale and exhale. This will tell your body, "Hey, everything's OK here — you can relax." Your heart rate will slow, and your neck, shoulders and jaw will start to relax.
Go back to basics
When you see photos and videos of yoga, you're probably seeing the most complicated poses performed by experienced yoga teachers. But the beauty of yoga is in the basics. Establish a strong base of movements that you can do with steadiness and ease. Some basic poses to start with include child's pose, cat and cow pose, mountain pose, warrior two pose, bridge pose and tree pose.
As you try the yoga poses, remember to incorporate your breath practice. It should be easy for you to breathe while you do the poses. If you can breathe well, you know you're in the best position for you. As you challenge yourself, see what benefits you notice — physical, mental or emotional.
Try a class
Working with a teacher can be a great support when you're new to yoga, no matter what your fitness level. A teacher can also be a great resource to help explore other aspects of yoga beyond the poses. Here are tips for finding a class:
- Consider different types of classes. There are many different styles of yoga, including flow style (Vinyasa), prenatal yoga, power yoga and restorative yoga. Read the class descriptions. Some classes indicate the level of experience needed or are designed specifically for beginners. Classes may be offered through studios, fitness clubs, community centers, places of worship and online.
- Connect with the teacher. Have a conversation before the class. Explain what you're looking for and talk about any worries or concerns. Find out about the teacher's training and what components of yoga he or she finds important. For most teachers, the base level of training is 200 hours.
- Preview a class. If you're not sure if the class is a good fit, ask the instructor if you can watch part of the class. With online classes, you can see what the practice is and determine whether you think you'll be comfortable. Classes should include physical movement, breathing techniques and meditation to give you a well-rounded yoga experience. Many yoga classes are available on a drop-in basis.
- Listen to your body. If you leave class feeling down, stressed or low on energy, that class may not be the best fit for you. Keep exploring. Try another style of yoga or another teacher until you leave class feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.
Ease into yoga by trying these experiments.
- Try child's pose, a basic yoga stretch that provides relaxation and helps ease backaches. Starting on your hands and knees on the floor in a "tabletop" position, keep your hands on the floor and move your hips backward so that your buttocks sit down onto your heels.
- Gently lengthen your breath while keeping your inhalation and exhalation consistent. Count to four as you breathe in. Pause, then count to four as you breathe out. As your body relaxes, expand the count to five or six on the inhale and exhale.
- Try out a yoga class. If you're new to yoga, get there early so that you can talk to the teacher about any concerns or questions.