A Beginner's Guide to Yoga

While fitness fads come and go, gym memberships expire, and running the block grows tedious, there’s one fitness regimen that’s endured for 5,000 years: yoga. Introduced to this country in the 60s, yoga is a worldwide workout foundation that now claims more followers than ever before. Why? It’s relaxing while vigorous, toning while soothing, and mentally and spiritually dynamic.

What is it? In its simplest terms, yoga is an exercise system that consists of a series of poses, postures and positions. It was developed in India about 5,000 years ago to promote union of the mind, body and spirit. For that reason, yoga classes have a different feel than most traditional Western-type workouts. The typical yoga workout is a blend of strength, flexibility and body awareness exercises. Besides the physical aspects of the workout, most yoga classes also include a spiritual element; it's not unusual for a class to include some chanting, prayer, candles or incense.

There are many forms of yoga, but Hatha is the most common. Hatha yoga includes all of the basic yoga moves and breathing exercises  but doesn't include the religious or spiritual aspects of some other forms. All yoga forms aim to increase your physical fitness as well as your ability to maintain positive thoughts and feelings.

Why we love it: Yoga offers an active time-out to energize your body and calm your mind. Most people begin to see and feel improvements in their flexibility, strength and stress levels  after only a few classes. Yoga is also portable—take it on the road; no equipment is necessary. It is also affordable in that it is often available at many health clubs

Drawbacks: There are as many as six main branches of yoga, and then those branch out even more. Once you pick a yoga style, it may take time to get used to the terminology and the moves. If flexibility isn't your strong suit, you need yoga, but trying to get into and out of some of the moves may leave you feeling like a frustrated, discouraged pretzel. Yoga also has its own terminology and jargon, so you may feel as if you're trying to learn a foreign language as well as get your body into shape.

Insider information: Know yourself. Yoga classes range from moderately taxing to extremely challenging, so choose one that suits your abilities and fitness level. A good yoga instructor should appear calm and in control. Note whether the instructor explains the movements before doing them. She should also describe which muscles are being exercised. She should move around the room making corrections to your form as necessary. Choose a class that suits the level of spirituality you're looking for from your workout as well. If you're not into all that golden-ball-of-light stuff, then candles and prayers will just annoy you.

Sample Move: The Cobra

  1. Lie face down with your arms at your sides, palms up, with your forehead on your mat or padded surface. Place your hands underneath your shoulders, palms down, with your finger-tips facing inward.
  2. Tilt your head backward and begin raising your head, chest, and stomach off the floor. Push upward with your hands and slowly straighten your arms. Do not push this pose past point of moderate tension in your lower back, neck, shoulders or elbows. Hold position for 10 seconds.
  3. Slowly tilt your head forward and lower back to the start. Relax, concentrating especially on your legs, back and stomach.

Focus: Removes tension from the spine and back, strengthens and firms the abdomen and buttocks.

Comments: Do not force movement. Keep your arms slightly bent if necessary. Keep the spine loose and flexible without strain on the lower back.

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