Yoga is a practice that originated in ancient India, and the word comes from Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language, and means to join together. It focuses on the joining together of mind, body, and spirit through physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation.
While yoga is associated with cultural and spiritual traditions, the health benefits are even more widely known today. Everyone, from celebrities to footballers, are getting involved in yoga classes to improve their flexibility, recovery time, and mental well-being, regardless of beliefs or lifestyle.
We’ve created a list of benefits to show you why more people than ever are giving yoga a go and how you can reap the benefits for yourself as a beginner.
- What is yoga?
- The benefits of yoga
- Yoga poses for beginners
What is yoga?
Yoga is a mind-body practice that has been around for thousands of years and originated in ancient India. It combines physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to help improve flexibility, strength, and relaxation.
It's not just a physical exercise but a holistic practice that can benefit both the body and the mind. And there are so many different types of yoga to choose from, from gentle and restorative to more intense and challenging styles that can really make you sweat!
The benefits of yoga
From basics for beginners to moves for masters, there are literally hundreds of yoga positions to practise. Each pose is held in position for several seconds when performed, which helps to stretch out your muscles and joints to improve your flexibility.
By incorporating yoga into your regular workout, you'll start to notice a much greater range of motion when performing other exercises. Whether lifting weights or hitting the bike in a spin class, increasing your range of movement through flexibility allows you to make sure your form is always flawless and reduces the risk of injury.
The great thing about yoga is that it's a full-body workout. It may not seem as intense as other exercises like HIIT, but holding those poses can be challenging — especially the advanced positions like headstands.
By starting with simple poses and working your way up, you'll build your strength up in your arms, legs and core. This is an excellent way to integrate strength training into your fitness routine without relying on weights — instead, yoga focuses on body weight to improve strength levels.
Plus, as you improve and begin to try more difficult poses, you'll be training your body harder and improving your strength even more.
Reduces recovery time
It doesn't matter if you’re into HIIT classes or training for a marathon; giving your muscles time to recover is crucial for development. And restorative yoga can be a game-changer; the gentle stretching of the muscles allows the fibres to repair and recover after exercise. Practising slow and gentle yoga poses can boost your post-workout recovery compared to just taking a rest day.
Whether it’s work, being stuck in traffic, or an impending deadline on the horizon, we all feel stressed every now and then. Yoga’s combination of stretching, deep breathing and meditation helps to put your mind and body into a deep state of relaxation. And recent studies have shown that yoga can lower cortisol — the body’s stress hormone — reducing feelings of anxiety and stress.
Yoga postures and breathing exercises can also release muscle tension and increase blood circulation, alleviating physical symptoms of stress like headaches and back pain.
Improved mental well-being
Yoga is an amazing way to improve not only your physical health but also your mental well-being! According to the NHS, regular yoga practice could effectively reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety by promoting relaxation and mindfulness.
It helps to boost the levels of endorphins — feel-good chemicals in the brain — potentially lowering feelings of sadness. Yoga can also balance the levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which play an important role in regulating mood.
While exercise can be beneficial for improving mental well-being, it’s important to remember that it shouldn’t be a substitute for professional treatment. If you’re struggling with your mental health, you should always see a doctor.
People with breathing difficulties often struggle to exercise because it triggers symptoms like wheezing or shortness of breath. But yoga may be the solution.
Unlike other exercises that can be strenuous, yoga offers a low-impact, gentle approach that can be adapted to various physical abilities and fitness levels.
And it can even help manage conditions like asthma, which causes the airways to become narrow during an attack. Yoga emphasises deep, mindful breathing techniques, which can help to strengthen the respiratory muscles and increase lung capacity. Certain yoga poses can also help open up the chest and improve posture, further enhancing breathing function.
Improved quality of sleep
The importance of sleep is undeniable; it’s essential for the body to repair and restore itself, improve brain function, support the immune system, and regulate hormones.
Regular yoga practice can be a powerful tool in improving the quality and quantity of sleep. Poses that include gentle twists and forward folds can help alleviate physical tension in the body. When combined with calming breathing techniques and meditation, this can promote relaxation and lead to better sleep.
Yoga can also reduce stress and anxiety — some common causes of sleep disturbance!
Yoga poses for beginners
Attending a class is the best way to get started with yoga; experienced instructors can advise you on form and adapt certain poses for any injuries you may have. However, it can be daunting when you’ve never tried it before, so learning a few basic moves at home can be a great way to get into the swing of things. Just remember to draw your curtains, turn off the TV, and play some quiet, relaxing music to recreate the mindful atmosphere of a yoga class.
Here’s a sequence of simple postures to get you started.
To begin, sit on the floor cross-legged, ensuring your back is straight and your hands are loose in your lap. Then shut your eyes and breathe deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth. Do this for two minutes and then slowly sway the top of your body side to side for 30 seconds.
The cat-cow is a common yoga pose that involves moving through two different positions. It's excellent for improving spinal mobility and releasing tension in the back and neck.
- To begin, start with the 'cow', coming onto your hands and knees on a yoga mat, with your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
- From there, inhale and arch your back, bringing your head and tailbone toward the ceiling while dropping your stomach towards the floor.
- Then, for the 'cat', exhale and round your spine, tucking your chin to your chest and drawing your belly button towards your spine.
- Repeat this sequence, flowing back and forth between Cow and Cat pose three times, syncing your movements with your breath.
3. Downward dog
The downward dog can help strengthen your arms and legs, stretch your shoulders and hands, and improve flexibility in your hamstrings.
- From the cat pose, slowly raise your hips towards the ceiling, straightening out your legs. Your body should form an inverted V-shape.
- Keep your hands and feet firmly planted on the ground and engage your core muscles to maintain the position.
- Relax your shoulders and drop your head to gaze towards your feet.
As a beginner, you can start by holding the pose for about 30 seconds to a minute, gradually increasing the duration as you become more comfortable. Just remember to listen to your body and modify the pose as needed to avoid any discomfort or strain!
If you can’t hold the pose for that long, try pedalling your legs for a little bit of relief while still in the pose!
4. Side stretch with parallel arm
This move stretches the calves, thighs, arms and back and helps to strengthen the knees and spine. To do a side stretch with parallel arm, follow these steps:
- From downward dog, step into a low lunge with your right leg.
- Drop your left heel to the ground and turn your foot so it’s facing outwards.
- Then, drop your right forearm down to the knee and reach your left arm over your head so that your left hand is parallel to your right foot. You’re aiming to create a straight, diagonal line along your body from your right foot up to your left hand.
- Again, try holding this position for 30 seconds to one minute.
5. Locust pose
The locust pose — also known as Salabhasana — is a back-bending position in yoga that strengthens the back muscles and improves posture. To do it:
- Lie on your stomach with your hands beside your body, palms facing upwards, and your forehead resting on the ground.
- As you inhale, slowly lift your legs, chest, and arms off the ground simultaneously, keeping them straight.
- Reach your arms backwards towards your feet, keeping your palms facing downwards. Your weight should then be on your chest, hips and thighs.
- Hold the pose for a few breaths, then release and lower your body back to the ground.
- Repeat this five times.
You can modify the pose by lifting only one leg at a time or keeping your hands alongside your body instead of reaching them backwards. As with any yoga pose, listening to your body and not pushing yourself beyond your limits is important!
Experience the health benefits of yoga with classes at Fitness First
If you’re interested in seeing how yoga can benefit your workout, we have several classes available for you to try at Fitness First. Our expert instructors teach a wide range of yoga styles like Hatha, Vinyasa, and Hot Yoga. Just check our timetable to see when a class is available at your local Fitness First gym.
Or, take a look at The Inside Track to read up on the latest fitness and nutrition advice from experienced personal trainers.