Beginners Corner – Demystifying Yoga

Beginners Corner is our place in the Yoga Community for you to learn about Yoga. Running, Walking, Cycling, Rowing, Tennis, Golf, Soccer, or any other activity we humans endeavor to use for fun, fitness and entertainment have very specific meanings to people. In any crowd you could ask what is Running, or Weight training, Tennis and you would get very similar descriptions of the specific activity, from just about everyone you ask. But ask that same crowd to describe Yoga and you will likely get all sorts of descriptions. Some right, some wrong and some other very interesting misconceptions are likely to be included as well. This guide is meant to dispel the mystery of Yoga and hopefully convince you to give this amazing activity a try.

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Let’s start with “What is Yoga?”

This is a great question and oddly we are not often asked this question… Why? Well, it seems many people have a well formulated idea about Yoga that has been nurtured by perception, misperception, and anecdotal accounts. Frankly, when we ask the question to those who have never tried Yoga we get wildly varying descriptions. More often or not it is quickly followed by some refrain as to how they could never do Yoga because [insert excuse].

That’s exactly why we created Beginners Corner. So, let’s try to define Yoga. Yoga comes from the sanskrit word yuj which translated means “unite”. There are several interpretations of this but I take it as uniting the mind, body, soul. While it is true that Yoga is based on hindu philosophy (note, I did not say religion; more on that later…), there is plenty more to the rest of that definition – “…inner peace and controlling the body and mind.” This is the heart of yoga. It is this phrase that defines Yoga, its benefit, and its purpose. You will often hear Yoga described as a Journey or a Practice, and you will also frequently hear the word intention. When in the company of experienced practitioners you will hear these words quite a bit. But, a Journey to where? Practicing and intending to do what?

The literal definition of “yoga”:
Yoga: a Hindu philosophy that teaches a person to experience inner peace by controlling the body and mind.
Merriam Webster

Your class ROCKED! I had such a great time and am so glad that I finally did something like that for myself! I know I have a LONG WAY to go, but I loved it! I can’t stop talking about it to whoever will listen and have already talked another friend into coming with me next time. Your studio is beautiful and has an inviting, friendly atmosphere. I loved the way that you teach — your voice is so relaxing and encouraging at the same time. I was a little nervous that I would feel intimidated, but the whole experience was just incredible! I can’t wait for next time! 

K.R.

Pink Lotus Yoga Client

The Journey

This is the best part about yoga – the journey is yours – it’s yours to set and mold and follow. Everyone’s journey with yoga is unique to them. Each person has a unique and different relationship with their mind and their body. No two people are alike, I have found yoga to be the single most self-regulating activity I do.
You are not governed by rules, expectations of times, or number of reps and distances, heart rates, etc.You are free to discover. That’s because you set your own intentions; this is the guidepost to your journey. I am reminded of the Talking Head’s song from the 80’s titled “Road to Nowhere”. This adequately describes the Journey of yoga. You are on a road that you define, it goes where you want it to go, for as long and as far as you’d like it go and only you can change your journey. There is no end to your journey. Your journey is not about style, or equipment, or first place finishes like other activities – it’s about a combination of fitness, spirituality, inner-thinking, and reaching for the intention of your practice.
Your journey, like any journey in life, will present you with unique challenges, discoveries, surprises along the way. It’s this journey of yoga that is the collective of intentions, and your growth over time through practice reaching these intentions.
You may have heard of several different types of Yoga. There are several different types of yoga. Beginners Corner will touch on a few here. You may have heard terms like Ashtanga, Kundalini, Bikhram, Hot Yoga, Power Yoga these are flavors of yoga, each with different tools to aid you in your journey. You may find one type of Yoga is all you need or you may find several different kinds of Yoga are necessary to satisfy your journey. The key is there are many tools at your disposal through the various styles of Yoga. Your journey will help you bring your Mind, Body, and Spirit into focus in ways you never imagined, you will have an awareness you never thought possible.

The Practice

The Practice of yoga is simply how you will seek to meet your intention. The Practice of Yoga is similar to many activities, in that there is some guidance, and structure, and knowledge required. This is why instructors should be certified. That way you know that you are in the hands of someone capable of leading your practice and guiding you to modify poses and flows.
If you’ve ever watched late night TV and the latest fitness infomercials, there is often a DVD or a quick video to include Yoga in their regimen. However, they are only incorporating a fraction of what is Yoga. Yoga has gained popularity and generally only included in their regimen to serve a specific purpose. Perhaps that’s to stretch the muscles they have stressed in the first 5 DVD’s of their path to quick fitness. Or, perhaps its simply marketing to say they’ve included yoga in their fitness approach. Either way, they are using features of yoga without realizing the overall benefit of yoga. There is much much more to the practice of yoga.
There are poses (known individually as asanas). Many have colorful names. Monikers given to each asana as a way to help you remember their name and purpose. Tree Pose for instance as you would probably surmise, is tall standing pose. These asanas are often put together into flows. Several poses done in specific sequences. There are well known flows like the Sun Salutation, then there are flows that your instructor will put together as part of their teaching and guidance for you. Each of these poses and flows have very specific purposes. Understanding the purpose of the asanas and flows is part of your journey, and helping you achieve maximum benefit from them is the job of your instructor.
Learning to breathe, learning to listen to your body, learning to calm your mind, through the flows and asanas, all done as part of your practice. Wait – Learning to breathe? Yes, I did say learning to breathe. Learning to breathe, while biologically obvious, it is both an involuntary and voluntary response. For most of our days it is an involuntary activity that we do without much thought. It’s only when we exert ourselves or are denied access to air that it becomes voluntary and brings breathing to our awareness. Yoga helps to retrain you how to breathe properly, how to bring awareness to your breathing and how to use that as a tool to calm your mind and body. This is the practice of Yoga versus just doing some yoga poses in some randomized order.

I feel like I have found the missing piece in my life. Yoga has helped me learn to relax which I haven’t been able to do in years. There have been so many positive changes in my life since I joined your yoga class. Even my husband has noticed a change both physically and emotionally. Thanks for that…” 

Crystal Z

Pink Lotus Yoga Client

Let’s dispel a few myths about Yoga

5 Things Yoga Isn’t

1) First and foremost yoga is NOT a competition.

You compare yourself to you, and only you. There is no score card. Your intentions are the only guide to your achievement. You accomplish the depth of a stretch in a pose to the extent you’re able with no judgement from anyone. Your instructors may encourage you to push deeper, reach further, or hold a pose longer but, remember Yoga is completely self regulating. You decide how far, how long, how deep or even your ability to try the asana or flow in the first place. It’s quite common, and we encourage you, to ask your instructors for modifications to poses and flows. Often times, instructors will see where you need guidance and suggest the modifications for you. This only serves to allow you to get the most benefit and enjoyment from the asana and to prevent injury.
The goal is participation, not frustration. Unlike typical sports where there is some performance metric you are trying to achieve, like a faster time, lift heavier weight, lower score, Yoga is different in that the poses are the means to an end not the end itself. There is no one judging how accurately you do a pose. There is guidance in how to benefit from a particular asana or flow and how you can benefit more but its not a chart on a wall where you are compared to others.
Beginner Corner Yoga No Scorecard

2) Yoga is NOT a religion.

Never discuss religion or politics at a dinner party, we’ve all heard this life-rule. As such, similarly,  this is often a topic passionately discussed among potential yogi’s as another reason why not to do Yoga. As you recall from the definition of Yoga, it is rooted in ancient hindu philosophy. Arguably one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years. Yes, there is a spirituality to Yoga. However, there is not a religion to yoga. Religion and spirituality are often confused. Yoga embraces YOUR spirituality, it embraces whatever faith you follow. The spiritual aspects of your journey, again —  are defined by you. If you choose as your intention for a practice to get closer to your religious beliefs – awesome. If you choose to adopt a belief system where none existed in you before – great. If you choose just to explore your faith using the tools of yoga to guide you – welcome. If you have no religious intention whatsoever, you will find great benefit tapping into the powers of your mind and body through yoga. Yoga has no intention of changing your god(s), belief system, or religion. But it does have the intention of changing your life.
While you will meet some very spiritual people in your journey, it is not about religious beliefs. Plain and simply, come as you are and practice with religious anonymity.  You will hear words like ‘Ohm’ and ‘Namaste’ that are rooted in ancient sanskrit and still used in several religions but they are used in the context of the meaning that they impart to the philosophy of Yoga not the religion they may most be known.

Marianne Wells

Marianne Wells Yoga School

“Religion is how you worship. Spirituality is how you live.”

3) Yoga does not require any equipment whatsoever.

In this day and age, it seems there is no activity that doesn’t require special shoes and a car load of expensive equipment – yoga is truly the exception. I know there are entire stores dedicated to yoga clothing and equipment at the mall. True, there are plenty of things you can buy; mats, blocks, straps, clothing, bags, shoes, gloves and on and on. However, NONE of them are required and all of them are for enhancing the comfort of doing yoga.
That being said, I would recommend some sort of comfortable clothes that allow you to move freely — they don’t have to be dedicated yoga clothes. Next, a yoga mat, or blanket. This is simply because it provides a barrier between you and the hard floor, and its rubbery texture give you a bit of traction. You may see some folks using blocks and straps and bolsters in class, and your instructor may actually hand these to you in class.  Your instructor may encourage you to use them, and by all means do so. These pieces of equipment do have a purpose. For instance; for those of us that aren’t as bendy as others, a block is a great way to add stabilization to a pose when you can’t quite reach the floor. A strap is an aid to pull you just that much deeper into a stretch you otherwise might not be able to do. These allow you to get greater benefit from a particular asana without having to concentrate too much on the asana itself. Most studios, including ours, will provide this equipment. Many studios will also have a selection of these items to use, rent, or buy, but none are truly necessary.
Beginner Corder advanced yogi pose image
beginner corner yoga class image

4) Yoga is not about twisting yourself into a pretzel. 

I’m not that flexible!

This by far is the most commonly mentioned roadblock that people put in front themselves. It is my favorite declaration of no yoga for me. You have likely seen some seemingly impossible feats of strength and flexibility in a magazine or on TV and said “No-way?” Yes, there are some very challenging yoga asanas. Yes, some require great flexibility, even strength, however, these are advanced and not required in your practice.   Would you say to your swim instructor on your first day “Oh, well, I can’t swim so I can’t participate…”? No, of course not. Everyone starts their journey somewhere. You do the poses to the best of your ability. Do what your body will allow, and like any journey, don’t start with the hard stuff first. As impressive as some of those asanas look, ease into it, building your practice along the way. Only adding the more advanced asanas that yoga provides as you see fit.
The predominance of yoga poses are easily accomplished with minimal guidance. Some of the more seasoned practitioners may look considerably different than you doing the same pose. This simply means they have a level of strength, flexibility, or simply confidence in that particular asana. You may have flexibilities and strengths in other asanas that they don’t – every mind and body is different, and remember it’s not a competition. Over time your body will allow you to deepen a stretch, your confidence will improve, and your strength will increase. Eventually allowing you to attempt what you recently thought impossible. If you are just starting out make sure you seek out classes that are aimed at beginners. The pace and guidance will be considerably different in a beginner class than a more advanced class. At the very least tip off your instructor so they can provide guidance or give you modifications to the pose.
If there isn’t a beginner class available, look for classes suitable for all-levels.

5) Yoga doesn’t look like much of a workout.

Another favorite of mine. These are usually the first people to come to me at the end of their first class — wiping copious amounts of sweat from their brow — surprised to tell me how hard they worked and how complete they feel physically. Remember self-regulation is a core tenant to yoga. You make it as hard or easy as you’d like.  But, rest assured, if fitness is your intention — you WILL feel the work thats been done in your Yoga class! That being said Yoga can be part of a fitness regimen as a compliment to your training. Every form of exercise uses your body’s muscles, joints, and structure. Control of your body and mind is key to fitness and performance success no matter what favorite method of training suits you, be it running, walking, weight training etc. Each type of exercise takes its toll on your body in some way.
Yoga allows you to learn to breathe, control your mind and control your body allowing you to take your training performance to levels you never thought you would achieve. How many times has your inner voice fought with you over one more rep, one more mile, one more step? You fight to quiet that voice. Think breathing properly isn’t important?  Try this… run up a flight of stairs while holding your breath and tell me how effective you are at the top. Breathe properly and it’s a far different result at the top. Use yoga as part of your overall wellness efforts and you will be amazed at how much you can accomplish. Perhaps you’re a golfer; can’t quite get those hips to turn, Yoga is a great way to build those muscles and free your structure to enable that backswing you’ve long strived for, plus proper breath control will give you more confidence on that must make shot. Possessing that control, that strength, that you’ve gained from Yoga will allow you to accomplish that one more rep, that one more mile, that one more step. You will be much more in control of what your mind and body are capable.

Frequently Asked Questions About Yoga

We get all kinds of questions – We have collected the most common questions here in Beginners Corner.

Why go to a Yoga Studio? My gym offers free yoga...
I can just take a class at my gym, or it’s offered for free at work… a common refrain heard from fitness enthusiasts already part of a gym membership. You are correct. You may have yoga available to you in many places, and by all means use them. However, studios like Pink Lotus Yoga offer much more. First of all, a good studio is about establishing a proper environment conducive to practicing Yoga. This requires a place that is calm, generally quiet, and with energy level that matches the intention of Yoga. Clanking dumb-bells, creaking treadmills and loud pop music is generally contrary to that is expected of a Yoga studio.
Yoga Studios, will offer several different types of classes at several times a day, taught by several different instructors, each with different backgrounds and interests. Each of these personalities translate into their teaching and ultimately your practice. Finding an instructor you connect with is just as important as asanas and flows. Adding variety to your practice will only serve to help you along your journey discovering new things that each type has to offer. Pink Lotus Yoga, as an example, also holds several workshops each year. These workshops bring in authors, gurus of other disciplines of yoga, thought leaders in Yoga and wellness to help expand and add to your journey.
Yoga studios also strive to impart a sense of community bringing like minded practitioners together to learn from one another and enhance each others journeys. This, frankly, is one of the most endearing things we hear about our studio. People practicing together bring their experience, sharing their practice, sharing their moments of discovery with each other and ultimately connecting and creating new experiences for themselves.
     “Thank goodness a great yoga studio is finally in our town. The flexibility and calm I feel when leaving class gets me energized for my day. Thanks for being here” ~Darlene G
What do they mean by Ashtanga,Vinyasa, and Bikram Yoga?
These are styles of Yoga. You can introduce variety into your practice and journey by incorporating different styles of Yoga. Attending classes with different teachers is another way to introduce variety into your practice. There are different styles of Yoga. Much like Karate, Jiu-Jitsu, and Judo are styles of Martial Arts, Yoga has several different styles as well. You will hear names like Vinyasa, Bikram, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Kundalini. These are all different styles of yoga. For a good list and a simple explanation of these and more go to www.mindbodygreen.com
Basically, its a different approach (intention) and methods to add to your practice. Pink Lotus Yoga focuses on Vinyasa, Iyengar and Ashtanga, but we will mix things up a bit from time to time. In a recent Yoga Journal reader poll Vinyasa was the most popular followed by Iyengar and Ashtanga.
What’s the difference between Hot Yoga and Bikram Yoga?

Sometimes, and erroneously, these two terms are often used in place of one another. When in fact there are some significant differences. Bikram Yoga, created by Bikram Choudhury, is a very specific 26 poses practiced in a studio thats been heated to sauna like conditions (105 degrees Farentheit and 40% humidity). While Hot Yoga is similar, it is not restricted to the same 26 poses and the level of heat and humidity is at the discretion of the studio. While the difference is subtle, it does explain why you will see Hot Yoga offered at some studios and Bikram at others.

What does Namaste mean?
Pronounced nah-məs-tay. (Listen)
The modern definition is simply a traditional Indian greeting or gesture of respect. However, in the context of Yoga and the translation from sanskrit is “I bow to you”. The intent is to check your ego in the presence of another. It can even be turned inwardly to yourself showing respect for yourself. Rooted in spirituality it is not in and of itself a prayer to any other god.
Om — What’s the chanting all about?
Pronounced “Oh-m”
Om has a couple of meanings.
In the context of chanting and Yoga, it is a sacred sound. It is a mantra that creates a vibration with in your body. Its been called the sound of the universe. Your instructor may ask you to chant Om usually near the beginning or end of a practice. The intention of the mantra is to turn your awareness on to you and feel the movements and vibrations with in your body. Creating a better awareness of You! Chanting is not part of every practice or session. Even if it’s part of the days class, like everything else in Yoga, YOU decide if you want to participate. There are no requirements in Yoga!
Om is also a symbol. See the image below. As a symbol it represents the “soul within our self”. 
Who Practices Yoga? - Some Yoga Facts
In the US there are approximately 15,275,000 practicing yoga.  Thats roughly 8% of the US adult population (18-65 yrs old)
Its roughly a 72%/28% split between women and men. So clearly there are more woman but the number of men practicing has been steadily increasing, as they learn the benefits and put aside their assumptions. 
Some people have even said –  “…most of them live on the west coast…” — that’s not true either! Yoga is actually practiced with a fairly even distribution throughout the US. Only 20% live on the west coast while the Northeast is at 30% and the Midwest is also at 30% and the rest is listed as Other accounting for the remaining 20%.
Where do people Practice Yoga?
As you can see the vast majority practice in a Yoga Studio and at home.
Yoga Practice Locations
source:Yoga Journal Readers Poll

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