Yoga for Newbies
Now that I am well into my fifties, I find that I can’t exercise the way I used to. Running is hard on my knees; walking aggravates the plantar fasciitis in my heel and forget trying to make it through an intense hour of cross-fit. Looking for something “gentler,” I thought I would give yoga a go. It seems like everyone is doing yoga — my co-worker sweats through sessions of hot yoga; my daughter’s mother-in-law swears yoga keeps her sane; even celebrities are doing yoga — it’s the new Zumba! And if 71-year-old Cher can do a five minute plank, surely I can handle a session of this stuff.
So I peruse websites for yoga studios trying to find a class and my eyes immediately glaze over. There’s restorative yoga, hatha yoga, gentle yoga, vinyasa yoga, hot yoga, yoga with wine, naked yoga…you get the idea. So, in the interest of determining which is class would be right for me and helping others start their practice, here is a primer.
Often referred to as “gentle yoga,” hatha is the most widely practiced form of yoga in the United States. Hatha utilizes bodily poses (asamas), combined with breathing techniques (pranayama’s) and meditation (dyana) to develop a healthy body, mind and well-being. In hatha yoga, the practitioner holds each pose for a few breathes. Because the pace is slower and more relaxed, hatha is good for those just starting a yoga practice. Since the emphasis is on each pose, it is easy to make modifications and to focus on getting better at holding each one.
A variation of hatha, yin yoga focuses on relaxation and consciousness. Poses are held for a longer period of time, often several minutes, allowing the mind to become calm and focused. Because of the emphasis on relaxing the mind, yin yoga is often combined with mediation. The longer poses work deeply on the connective tissues, improving flexibility and joint mobility. Individuals looking at yoga to relax, stretch and improve flexibility and balance, may want to consider Yin.
An extreme version of yin, restorative yoga involves only five or six poses, often held for five minutes or more. Restorative poses can include light twists, seated forward folds or gentle bends and props are often used for support. The longer holds give the body a chance tap into the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing for deeper relaxation. Restorative yoga is great for those suffering from stress and anxiety or needing to slow down as well as for those recovering from an injury or illness.
Iyengar yoga is a variation of yin yoga and somewhat similar to restorative yoga as it involves slowly moving the body into a pose, holding it for a period of time, resting for a few breathes and then stretching into another pose. As with restorative yoga, props such as blankets or blocks are used to help the less flexible. With iyengar yoga, the emphasis is on your body’s precise alignment while holding each pose. It is great for beginners, older yogis and those recovering from injury.
Also referred to a “vinyasa flow.” If hatha is “yin yoga”, vinyasa is “yang yoga”. Rather than relaxation, the emphasis is on working the muscles to build stamina, strength and flexibility. Rather than the static poses of hatha; vinyasa poses, or asanas, are strung together in a dynamic short or longer flow. In fact, the term vinyasa refers to “a specific series of movements that are frequently done between each asana in a series.” The mind stays present and focused on breathing with the length of one inhale or one exhale dictating the length of time transitioning between asanas. Unlike hatha yoga, vinyasa is less concerned about perfect alignment and more concerned about the movement between poses. Because you are moving quickly, heart rates tend to increase, making vinyasa a good fit for those wanting more of a workout.
Often referred to as “power yoga,” ashtanga is a more intense form of vinyasa. In ashtanga, you’ll flow and breathe through a series if six specifically sequenced yoga poses, synchronizing your breathing. The poses are performed in the exact same order in each class and involve calisthenic moves such as push-ups and handstands, toe touches and side bends. Because of the continual movement, your body often produces internal heat and a purifying sweat that detoxifies muscles and organs. The result is improved circulation, flexibility and stamina. Because of the physical demands, ashtanga is great for those wanting to “up their workout” and is not a great style for beginners.
Combining the predictability of ashtanga with heat, bikram yoga is a 90 minute workout of a specific series of 26 poses and two breathing exercises practiced in a room heated to approximately 105 degrees and 40 percent humidity. The intensity of the workout helps increase muscular strength and endurance and the heat can make help the body move more deeply into a pose. Bikram is good for those seeking a total workout or looking to lose weight through yoga.
If you like the heat of bikram but dislike the rigid routines, hot yoga may be for you. While the room is still heated, there is much more flexibility in the poses used. Still, the workout can be intense and leave you drenched in sweat.
A variation of hatha or restorative yoga designed for expectant mothers. The emphasis is on breathing, stamina, pelvic floor work, restorative poses, and core strength for moms-to-be who want to stay fit during pregnancy.
After trying several different classes, I finally found a wonderful Hatha class. While this, in my instructor’s words, “slow, stretchy-bendy kind of yoga” is the perfect fit for my middle aged body, it isn’t for everyone. But, with the many yoga options available, it should be easy to find the practice that is right for you.