Physical yoga is most beneficial
when practiced as meditation in motion, developing the skills of remaining calm, focused, and aware in challenging situations. In addition, there are practical benefits for our bodies from a physical practice. Here are some tips on how to maximize those benefits.
The physical practice of yoga is primarily about creating inner space. Gravity naturally compresses us which contributes to wear and tear on our joints. Our muscles and ligaments shrink and our range of motion decreases.
The actions we take in any yoga pose are designed to do two things—create space throughout our bodies, and strengthen our muscles so that we can maintain the space that we have created.
Creating inner space happens on many levels. These levels range from the gross— space between our arms, legs, and torso; to the more subtle—space between our joints and muscles; down to the fine—the subtle space between our cells.
One pose I often use to explain this principle is spinal balancing, though the principles apply to all poses.
The spinal balancing pose starts in the crawling position on your hands and knees. Extend your right arm out in front of you and your left leg behind you. Mentally go into your back and try to extend your spine as long as possible, literally creating space between the vertebra. The extended arm and leg, plus the back muscles are used to pull the spine into traction to create space.
After the space is created, with the arm and leg extended as long as possible, the back muscles are engaged to lift the arm and leg higher. This lifting from the back muscles strengthens the muscles around the spine, which becomes strength maintaining length.
Hold the pose with the arms lifted for 3-5 breaths. Release the arm and leg down, switch sides and repeat. Once you get the hang of it, you should be able to feel that your spine is literally longer than it was before the pose.
These space creating principles can be used in any yoga pose. I often ask myself in a pose – how can I get longer here, how can I occupy more space, can I feel as if I am expanding everywhere? Some muscles will have to be relaxed to create space, while others will need to be tensed and strengthened.
The way to know what needs to be done in any pose is to experiment, always keeping in mind the goal of maximizing space.
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It’s your first class. It’s natural to be nervous, but it will be fun!
Many years ago, my doctor recommended I try yoga to help with my back, which was chronically sore from sitting at the computer all day. I wanted to take a class, but I was so nervous and intimidated that I bought a video and practiced for about 6 months before I got up the courage to go to a class! Even then I was nervous but looking back, there was no need to worry. If was actually fun!
Now that I am a yoga instructor, I realize mine was one of the main reasons why new people show up for yoga classes. The two biggest reasons people find their way to yoga classes are injuries and stress reduction. Increasingly, people show up based on doctor recommendations (my doctor was an early adopter), how great is that?! Another reason people show up is on the recommendation of a friend or partner.
All of these people have one thing in common, they came to yoga class, not completely on their own, because someone else encouraged them to show up. The great thing about this is you come with low expectations. Or if coming for stress reduction, you may be nervous about the crowd and what is going to happen. Again, no need to worry, I promise it will be fun!
The first thing I can say for my class, and for just about any other yoga class you could possibly take- even though you may be nervous or scared, please still go! Every yoga teacher I know goes out of their way to make class a safe, accepting environment for those new to yoga. And the people who practice yoga are generally the most accepting bunch of people you could possibly find. I wasn’t nervous about my first class for long, the kind woman who welcomed me at the front desk immediately put me at ease. All those months of my worrying were put at ease at the front desk, I wished I had gone sooner!
Don’t let the pictures in the yoga magazines scare you! Most people in yoga classes look a lot more like average people than those air-brushed magazine images. Sure some people in the class will be more flexible than you, but most of the flexible ones started where you did. They probably even miss that beginner feeling, when there was so much opportunity to make quick and meaningful progress.
What is this yoga thing?
As a first description of yoga, I like to say – yoga is a simple set of tools developed over many years by people experimenting on themselves to figure out what made them feel good long term. The tools have developed into three main categories – promoting healing, maintaining physical health, and reducing stress. It’s nothing more exotic than that.
What the heck is Vinyasa?
Vinyasa is a term from India, the place where yoga originated. The term is from the Sanskrit language and means “connection” and in the case of a yoga class usually means linking one breath to one movement or pose. Don’t worry, it took me over a year before I could get the hang of what seemed to be impossibly long breaths. Just breathe comfortably and deeply. In the beginning, you can think of vinyasa as any flowing class – the name may be ashtanga, power, flow, anusara, jivamukti, etc – but they are all variations on the same theme – moves that will probably seem like a slow motion dance. The idea is to follow along with the movements as best as you can, don’t expect to look like everyone else, and its fine to look around in the beginning to see what is going on. One of the great benefits of the practice that you may notice first time out is that even though there are no high impact movements, or quick movements, you will find you get a great cardiovascular workout.
You may hear some Sanskrit Names, no big deal.
Don’t be scared or turned off by Sanskrit names, they are simply the original Indian names for the poses. As an instructor, I sometimes throw in a Sanskrit name or two to show I know what I’m talking about 🙂 and some teachers use the names out of respect for tradition, but I generally use the American names. I’m always trying to make yoga as simple and accessible as possible and I figure using the Sanskrit names doesn’t contribute to these goals.
Having said that, as I describe the most common flow sequence, the sun salutation, I’ll include the Sanskrit names, so if you hear them in a class, they won’t be completely foreign. The most common Sanskrit word you will hear is asana, which is added to the end of most pose names. The word means pose, and its root, asan, means seat. So you can think of this as each pose should have at least a short moment where you “sit” in the pose or hold it.
The Sun Salutation, your basic exercise.
Common to most vinyasa flow classes is some sort of sun salutation (Sanskrit name Surya Namaskara, which means salute to the sun). You can think of the sun salutation as a way to wake up your body. It’s what you might do in the morning if you wanted to stretch out, limber up and wake up the whole front and the whole back of your body. The movements involve bending backwards and forwards from a standing position, and bending backwards and forwards from a prone, or lying position. Again, pretty simple. The basic sun salutation is as follows:
The image at the beginning of the post shows what these moves look like…
Begin in Standing Pose (Sanskrit name Tadasana, tada= mountain, asana=pose )
Raise Hands above Head (Sanskrit name Urdhva Hastasana, urdhva=raised, hasta=hand, asana=pose)
Standing Forward Bend (Sanskrit name Uttanasana, uttana=intense, asana=pose)
Half forward fold (Sanskrit name Ardha-uttanasana, ardha=half, uttana=intense, asana=pose)
Plank (Sanskrit name uttihita chaturanga dandasana, uttihita=extended, chaturanga=four limbed, danda=staff, asana=pose
Lower Pushup (Sanskrit name chaturanga dandasana, chaturanga=four limbed, danda=staff, asana=pose
Upward facing dog (Sanskrit name Urdhva mukha svanasana, urdhva=upward, mukha=facing, svana=dog, asana=pose)
Downward facing dog (Sanskrit Adho mukha svanasana, adho=downward, mukha=facing, svana=dog, asana=pose)
End in Standing Pose (Sanskrit name Tadasana, tada= mountain, asana=pose)
The sun salutation has specific inhales and exhales tied to each movement, but as a beginner, I would concentrate on the movements and calm breathing. Learning the specific breaths can come later.
Don’t worry if there is chanting.
There may be a bit of chanting, don’t worry about it. When I first started yoga, I was relieved that my teacher did not do any chanting. If she did, I might have even thought it weird and not gone back. But many teachers do begin and/or end their classes with a bit of chanting. The most common chant is to have the class make the “ohm” sound three times. Why do they do this? The sound represents the universal, and helps connect everyone in the class with each other and the universe. Lots of times, I don’t feel like participating so I just listen, and that’s fine. However, if you try it, focus less on the meaning and more how it feels – the vibrations you feel in your vocal chords and in your chest can have a nice calming effect.
Feel free to try multiple teachers.
The umbrella term, vinyasa yoga, allows for a multitude of variations. Wonderful if you click with the first class you attend. But if it wasn’t an amazing experience for you, I recommend trying out a few different teachers and styles until something resonates with you. Yoga truly has amazing benefits if you stick with it, so I hope you do.
Namaste is a Sanskrit term that I do use in all my classes and that almost all teacher use to signify the end of a class. The term is commonly used in India as a greeting or goodbye, with a slight bow, and its literal definition is “I salute your form”. The more descriptive definition of the term is, “the light in me sees the light in you, and when we truly see each other, we are one.” I love this descriptive definition, and it’s what I feel inside every time I say it. So it is a great pleasure for me to say it to the whole class, and a pleasure to say it to you now…
Now go enjoy a yoga class…