Monday, March 28, 2011

How To: Yoga

Step One: Don't be a donut, obviously.

So, you’ve been thinking lately about yoga? “Fraudulent fad or fabulous fitness?” you ask yourself when you walk past a ‘studio’ and see the rows of grunting, sweating and yet beautifully limber people stretching and sliding and slipping around on coloured mats. It looks simple, but you’ve been told it is a painfully difficult discipline, and you’re not sure where to even begin with finding the right class for you. Well, you’ve come to the right place, my little yogi, let me answer some of your questions. 

What is Yoga?

Yoga Australia gives this definition of yoga: 

“[Yoga] is recognised as an ancient system of belief (a practical philosophy or darsana) derived from the Vedic tradition of India and the Himalayas, more than 2500 years ago. It is a system of belief that recognises the multi-dimensional nature of the human person, and primarily relates to the nature and workings of the mind, based on experiential practice and self-enquiry.”
From a ‘lay person’s’ (meaning not a yoga practitioner) point of view, I would define yoga as a form of exercise that focuses on building your physical fitness by exercising your mental fitness. Confused? In a yoga* class, you move through a series of postures (poses/stretches) that strengthen and stretch your body. Yoga allows and expects the practiser to completely connect their mind with their body, the more you can focus on the pose you are holding and the more you can tune in to your body, the better you become. It teaches you to focus solely on one thing at a time and so trains both body and mind simultaneously. Think of it as a moving meditation. 

Are There Different Types of Yoga?

There are many different types of yoga, too many for me to detail, so I’ll take you through the types I’ve tried myself. 

Hatha Yoga

The term Hatha Yoga actually can be used to describe all yoga, but if you’re looking at taking a Hatha class it will likely be quite a basic form of yoga that takes you through slow, meditative poses. In my experience, Hatha Yoga is lovely and gentle. If you want to feel flexible and relaxed after a class, try Hatha. It’s usually a great type of yoga to try if you’re a beginner as it’s not too physically strenuous or demanding. Don’t think you won’t get a workout with Hatha though, you’ll still be holding poses, stretching and moving.

Bikram Yoga or Hot Yoga

You probably can’t get further away from the description I just gave about Hatha Yoga than Bikram. Bikram Yoga involves completing twenty-six poses, a mixture of standing and floor, and two breathing exercises in a highly structured ninety minute class…all in a 37 degree Celsius room (that’s about 98 in Fahrenheit). Bikram is intense and, so says the people who teach it, intensely good for you. If the instructor is doing their job properly, every Bikram class should be exactly the same, which has its pros and cons. If you’re thinking that the twenty-six poses (you can see them all here) seem deceptively easy looking, you’d be right. Nothing is easy in a room that super heated. That said, when warmed at that level, your muscles become amazingly flexible, and in a Bikram class you’ll find yourself doing things you never thought possible (and sweating more than you’d ever thought possible. We’re talking serious perspiration people!). 

I tried Bikram last year and loved it; I can honestly say I’ve never felt so good during exercise than when I was doing the floor series, especially when I was expecting to feel so bad. It is pretty hardcore stuff, but after growing up as a gymnast that’s the kind of exercise I’m used to. It’s purportedly great for everything from your cardiovascular health to your immune system to stopping junk food cravings, and after going I can see how it might be. If that’s not enough, can I just add that everybody, and I mean every body, looked simply amazing at my Bikram class? There are some ‘rules’ that it’s best to stick to, such as not eating in the two hours before class, so make sure you do your research before heading along. Bikram classes can be expensive, and sadly it isn’t exactly in my current price range, so I have given it up (for now) in lieu of cheaper options. I highly recommend giving Bikram a try if you’re looking for a challenge, but keep in mind it’s not for the faint of heart! 

Vinyasa Yoga

Vinyasa Yoga is the yoga type I currently practice. Like Hatha, Vinyasa Yoga classes can vary a lot depending on the instructor you have. Essentially, Vinyasa focuses heavily on connecting breathing to movement. It can be a bit more aerobically stimulating than a Hatha class, and you should really find yourself stretching, strengthening and sweating. Expect to have some sore muscles after this one, and if you’re looking for a visible (but not Bikram extreme) physical difference, then Vinyasa is the place to start. 

How Do I Go? What Do I Do?

First step to becoming a yoga-god? Do some googling. You need to start by finding out what types of yoga classes are offered in your area, where, for how much and when. Some classes have a ‘first time’ or introductory offer, so you can give it a go at a cheaper rate or without having to buy a whole month or term pass. You might find a class that suits you right away, or you may have to try a few, but the important thing is to give it a solid try.

If you have your own, it’s always a good idea to take your yoga mat with you, if you don’t you might be able to borrow or hire one when you do your class. Wear comfortable exercise clothing, I always find tighter is better than looser because you’re less likely to get entangled with all the twisting going on. As with any exercise, take a water bottle with you and make sure you’re eating correctly to have enough energy to make it through.

Will I Look Stupid?

No. You might feel stupid, you might fall or wobble or twist the wrong direction or let out an accidental yoga fart, but everyone in the class was a beginner once and they’ve all been there. Trust me, if they’re doing their practice correctly, no one should be noticing anyone other than themselves. If you go regularly, I find that improvement in yoga is amazingly rapid and pretty soon you’ll feel like a pro (pro-ish. There’ll always be that crazy yoga lady up the front who has been practicing for fifty years and looks like an upsized Praying Mantis to remind you that you’re not a pro yet). 

Every yoga class I’ve been to, even Bikram, has levels within each pose that allow for you to either stop and concentrate on perfecting a basic posture or continue on into a harder pose. You should never feel pressure to work past the level that you feel comfortable with or to do something that’s badly painful or just not right for your body. 

Why Yoga?

Exercise is, generally speaking, something a lot of us need to do more of. Yoga offers a very beneficial and mostly more gentle and relaxing way to do this. Because it’s also so meditative, it is a great treat for your mind as well as your body. Lastly, most yoga is conducted using Sanskrit, which is a beautiful language, and words like asasana and chaturanga dandasana will become part of your vocabulary, for which there are no negatives! 

Yoga might not be right for everyone, but it seems to work for a huge variety of people. If you’re interested then I suggest you get up off the computer and try it out.


*To be clear, we’re really talking about a Westernized version of yoga here. The term yoga originally was used to describe a religious practice much more heavily centred on meditation and not so much on physical exercise as it is today. There’s widely acknowledge to have been a marriage between more modern and Western exercise and the traditional yoga practiced by Buddhists in what it is we practice now, but hey, why not combine all the good bits of everything, right? 

**Too corny? Probably. Will I change it? Nope.


  1. If you love Yoga so much why don't you just MARRY it!? Hm?
    Between your attempts to make me jealous and this distance between us, i'm beginning to feel like you don't even need me anymore :/
    PS. If i tried this 'Yoga'...would you like me more?

  2. **definitely too corny.

    Thanks for the ideas, I've been thinking about getting back into yoga (I say it like I did it all my life up until this year... I didn't. I stuck with it for a few months 4 years ago). It's the only kind of 'exercise' that I really enjoy the challenge of. Everything else sucks at some point in doing it. Which is why I have the ability at to make small objects disappear through use of the fatty folds of skin around my gut at the moment. Too much? Probably.


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