A Beginner's Guide to Yoga

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To most gym rats, a yoga class is the equivalent of a gaggle of flower children sitting in a field, ohm-ing while they fold in half like Cirque du Soleil acrobats. While there is probably a sect that does exactly that, most yoga classes are much more user-friendly — and more beneficial to mind and muscle. In fact, yoga could be the secret ingredient that will bust you off that training plateau and improve your results in the gym.
No, seriously.

The Scoop

What most people don’t know about yoga could fill Dodger Stadium, so here’s the skinny: Yoga was developed in India about 5,000 years ago, around the same time as writing was invented and slightly before Joan Rivers was born. The word “yoga” means “union” in Sanskrit and likely refers to the union of the body, the breath and the mind. “Think of yoga as a practice, like martial arts,” says Juliet Kaska, yoga instructor and founder of JK Zen Fitness in Los Angeles. “It’s a similar discipline — physical but also mental and spiritual at the same time.”

Despite its spiritual connection, yoga is not a religion. “A rock climber might say that a mountain is their church, or a cyclist might see their God when riding at sunset along the beach,” Kaska says. “The bottom line is that if you’re going for spirituality when doing a physical activity, you’re going to find it, either with yoga or with other sports.”

Along those lines, yoga is also about being in the here and now. “These days, everything is so fast-paced and hectic that it’s important to be able to slow down and be present, with nothing on your mind other than breathing and holding a pose,” Kaska says. “That capability to empty your head and be in the moment helps reduce blood pressure and relieve stress while enabling you to connect to your body on a different level.”

Strike a Pose

So what should you expect when you take a class? There are many different types of yoga, so a lot of it depends on which class you take (see “Class Act” for some suggestions), but all yoga classes have one thing in common: posing. The poses, or asanas, work multiple muscle groups at once, challenging the mind, balance and flexibility all at the same time. They are also designed to rejuvenate the spine, brain, glands and internal organs, and each asana has a different purpose in that respect. Most asanas have several tiers of difficulty, so anyone of any ability can participate. “That’s why it’s called a practice,” Kaska explains.

“With all the levels and modifications, even the most seasoned yogis are continually challenged and have room to grow.”

Once you get into a pose, the idea is to hold it and focus on your breath and balance. Breathing deeply can distract you from the difficulty of a move while also delivering oxygen to your body and brain, supplying nutrients to your muscles and organs, eliminating toxins and even giving you an internal workout. “Your diaphragm is just another muscle that needs to be trained,” Kaska says. “Working on breathing and control can help you inhale deeper, taking in more oxygen, and expel more forcefully, ridding your body of carbon dioxide more efficiently.”

Deep breathing also helps you relax, so as you hold the pose, you will slowly and gently stretch out and release tension and decrease pain. Though flexibility is a benefit of yoga, it is not a prerequisite for it, and no one expects you to be Gumby right out of the gate. Over time, you’ll improve range of motion in all your major joints, including the spine, shoulders, back, neck, wrists, hips, knees and ankles.

Yoga and You

Now that you’ve got the idea, it’s time to talk about what you’re really interested in: how yoga can improve your results in the gym.

ROM Com “The more you can move a joint through its complete range of motion, the more muscle fibers will fire and the better your results will be,” Kaska says. “Regular yoga practice can greatly improve flexibility and will mean better gains sooner.” Increasing your range of motion also decreases tightness and therefore your chance for injury, which obviously can inhibit you from getting your lift on.

Digestion Question Healthy eating and a high protein intake often come with some negative olfactory side effects. Practicing yoga can improve digestion, enhance nutrient uptake and keep your internal gears running smoothly.

Staying Power Holding yoga poses for several minutes at a time can boost stamina. This means you’ll be able to squeeze in a few more reps with each set you do and really push yourself to the limit when you lift.

Side Out Because yoga works both sides of the body equally, it can help correct muscle imbalances caused by one-side-dominant sports like golf, rowing, boxing and tennis, to name a few.

Stress Less When you’re relaxed and calm, your body produces less cortisol. When your body produce less cortisol, it’s less likely to become catabolic. Translation: Doing yoga can help you keep that hard-earned muscle instead of using it for fuel.

Fat Fighter When you’re relaxed and calm after a yoga session, you’ll also sleep better at night. A ton of recent research has linked getting a sound night of sleep with an enhanced ability to burn body fat.

So there you have it. Yoga really is for you after all. Go ahead, try a class. You have nothing to lose — except your back pain, cortisol, body fat, inflexibility, stress and imbalances.

Ohm at Home
Not everyone is going to make it to the gym or yoga studio to do a class, but you can satisfy your inner yogi with this mini-workout designed by Juliet Kaska. “Do these poses in any order you like up to five days a week,” she says. “Together, they will help improve balance, coordination, flexibility and focus.”

Guidelines

  • Set aside some time when you will not be disturbed or rushed.
  • Clear a space and turn off all electronics to minimize distractions.
  • Take off your shoes and socks; yoga is done in bare feet.
  • Warm up by walking around or swinging your arms and legs for several minutes.
  • Get into each pose to the best of your ability, then hold and breathe deeply.
  • Try to further your stretch and increase your range of motion with each breath.
  • Do each pose a few times, and try to increase your range of motion a little more each time.
  • Clear your mind and focus on your breathing to release tension and stress.

Cobra pose
(30 seconds x 3)
Benefits: Relieves back and neck pain, and reduces stress, anxiety and depression

Lie facedown with your legs together and your hands flat on the floor underneath your shoulders. Inhale and straighten your arms halfway, lifting your chest off the floor and keeping your elbows in close to your sides. Your hipbones should remain in contact with the floor at all times. Lower slowly back to the start position and rest several seconds before repeating. Try to come up a little higher with each repetition.

Tip: Don’t let your shoulders shrug up around your ears. Actively contract your scapulae and keep them down.

Muscle and Performance Hero Pose

Hero Pose
(60 seconds x 3)
Benefits: Improves mental acuity and increases knee and hip flexibility

Kneel on the floor (or on a folded blanket) with your knees touching and your thighs perpendicular to the floor. Slide your feet wide apart while keeping your knees together, and press the tops of your feet into the floor. Slowly sit down between your feet, keeping your back straight and your shoulders relaxed. Rest your hands, palms open to the sky, on your thighs and close your eyes. After a minute, rise out of the pose slowly and rest before repeating.

Tip: If you’re not flexible enough to sit onto the floor, use a yoga block: Place it evenly between your feet and sit squarely on it.

Tree Pose
(60 seconds each side)
Benefits: Improves balance and core stability and strength

Stand with your arms at your sides, feet shoulder-width apart. Shift your weight onto your left foot and bend your right knee. Use your right hand to bring your right foot up, placing the sole of your foot against your left inner thigh and opening your right knee out to the side. Your hips should remain level and your back should be straight. Press the palms of your hands together in front of your chest or reach them overhead toward the sky like a tree.

Tip: Having trouble balancing? Focus on a point or object about four or five feet in front of you on the floor.

Tools of the Trade
You don’t need much to do yoga, and many studios even have the essentials available at no cost. Still, there are benefits to owning your own equipment, so here’s a list of material needs for your practice:

  • A non-slip yoga mat. There are no shoes used in yoga, and feet do sweat. To avoid sliding into your fellow yogi, invest in a mat.
  • A strap (optional): A heavy-duty canvas strap that you wrap around arms or legs and use to help you stretch.
  • Comfortable clothing that is not too loose. You don’t want to breathe in a mouthful of T-shirt when you bend forward.
  • A block: A rectangle of hard foam that allows you to achieve proper form even if you’re not flexible enough to achieve the posture.

Downward-Facing Dog
(1-3 minutes x 1)
Benefits: Energizes, builds bone density and boosts circulation

Get on your hands and knees with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips. Spread your fingers and turn your toes under. Exhale and lift your knees off the floor, then press your tailbone to the sky, driving your heels toward the floor and dropping your head between your arms. Press your hands actively into the floor and straighten your legs. Your body should make an inverted V.

Tip: Consciously check in with all your parts during this move: your ankles, hamstrings, glutes, back, shoulders and neck. As you check in with each one, actively stretch that area and try to perfect the down-dog pose.

Class Act

Though yoga began as a singular art form, it has evolved over thousands of years and split into different factions, so there is definitely one out there for you. Here are a few of the most popular kinds of classes. Most run between 60 and 90 minutes, depending on the purpose and level of the participants.

Ashtanga (power yoga): This is a fast-paced, intense style that focuses on constant movement from one pose to the next.
Good for: Those who want a “workout” when they do yoga

Bikram (hot yoga): This is a series of poses done in a room that is heated to 95 to 105 degrees. The intense sweating is thought to loosen muscles and facilitate cleansing.
Good for: Those who like to sweat and who want to get really stretchy

Hatha: This is a gentle style that includes basic poses and moves at a slow, deliberate pace.
Good for: Beginners and those rehabbing injuries

Iyengar: In this practice, poses are held for long durations. Focus is on body alignment, awareness, concentration, flexibility and balance.
Good for: Athletes who need to correct imbalances

Kundalini: This style emphasizes movement, chanting and the “breath of fire,” a breathing technique powered by abdominal contractions.
Good for: More advanced participants who want to try something edgier

Boat Pose
(30 seconds x 3)
Benefits: Strengthens core and hips and improves balance

Sit on the floor with your legs extended straight in front of you. Place your hands on either side of your hips and sit up tall. Lean back slightly, keeping your back straight, then lift your legs off the floor, bending your knees so your shins are parallel to the ground. Once you’ve found your balance, extend your arms straight out alongside your legs and hold.

Tip: Want a bigger challenge? Straighten your legs and reach your toes to the ceiling.

Say What?
A Little
Yoga Jargon
Asana = pose
Prana = life force
Pranayamas = breathing techniques
Dhyana = meditation
Namaste: the yogi aloha — an expression of both greeting and farewell. It means “The Divine in me salutes the Divine in you.”
Om (or ohm): Often repeated during meditation, it’s a word that is representative of oneness with the universe.

Revolved Side-Angle Pose
(60 seconds each side)
Benefits: Stretches the spine and hips and stimulates digestion

Kneel on the floor and step your right foot forward, keeping both knees bent to 90 degrees. Bring your left elbow to the outside of your right knee and place your right hand on your hip. Look over your right shoulder and twist, opening to the right side and pressing into your knee with your elbow to increase the stretch.

Tip: To challenge your balance, extend your rear leg and look up toward the ceiling.