Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

Yoga For Beginners

Nov 22, 2010 09:49PM ● By Anonymous

Recent surgery on my foot that required two weeks of enforced bed rest propelled me to further explore yoga to see whether it could offer me more than just stretches and relaxation. I’d heard that there was a spiritual side to yoga, and that it could be vigorous and demanding, but so far both these aspects of the discipline had eluded me. Now I was on a quest—to see what it could offer me as my foot healed.

So here I was, massaging my toes and regarding them with new respect.

Vinyasa yoga turned out to be a good place to start. The flow involves moving in rhythm with your breath from one pose—or asana —to another, in time to music. The goal is to eventually memorize the sequence so that your attention can turn inward. I struggled to follow the teacher as she took us through the classic Sun Salutation and other poses with names like Cobra, Warrior 1, and Warrior 2. By the time the class was finished I was starting to enjoy myself.

I decided to try some other types of yoga and related classes.

Iyengar yoga holds a respected place in the world of yoga. Based on the teachings of the yogi B.K.S. Iyengar, this style is primarily concerned with bodily alignment, or the precise way your body should be positioned to obtain the most benefit and avoid injury.

Before class the teacher told me that Iyengar emphasizes the creative use of props—blocks, bolsters, blankets, chairs, and even the wall. Practitioners also hold poses for longer periods than in some other styles of yoga instead of moving quickly from one pose to the next.

During the class the instructor moved among the students and made small adjustments to our poses. I discovered how small shifts in my weight could make a difference in the effectiveness of the pose.

My mood lightened even more when the instructor shared some insight: the longer you work and persist, the less effort is required.

Hmm. I was starting to understand a little bit more of the mystery.


Next, I was ready for something gentle and focused, something more meditative. Kripalu [pronounced kruh-pol-o] yoga was ideal. It’s a style of yoga that incorporates breathing, philosophy, and meditation. The teacher read a short piece about being positive to use as our inspirational focus. At the beginning of the class I noticed how she emphasized the breath, when to breathe in and when to breathe out, but it was hard to keep up with the rhythm.

There are eight limbs to yoga, we were told, and the poses are only one. The others are the yamas and niyyamas (dos and don’ts), the breath, stilling the mind, concentration, and meditation, all of which lead to samadhi, or a state of oneness.

If I was looking for help with stilling my mind, tai chi seemed a logical next step. This ancient Chinese practice teaches mental focus while emphasizing coordination and balance. The goal is to cultivate and transform the chi energy inside us. At its core is the principle of yielding softness on the outside with strength and power on the inside. It’s all done standing up—with no floor work.

Although you move slowly in tai chi you are moving continuously over an extended period of time, explained the instructor at a Friday evening class. There are definite aerobic benefits. You focus on how your body moves, so it becomes a form of moving meditation. This crowds out any distractions, so for people who find meditation difficult, tai chi is a great way to still the mind.

Unlike yoga classes, where the participants are mostly young females, there were equal numbers of men and women at the tai chi class, and a mixture of ages. We gathered, barefoot, on the padded red carpet and were led through some gentle warm-up exercises—shaking our hands and swinging our bodies around. So far, so good. “This is easy,” I thought.

But as we began the movements—with exotic names like White Crane Spreads Its Wings and Cloud Hands (the classic gestures of the hands that you see in the movies)— I soon realized there were not going to be any breaks or rest periods. By now the continuous exertion was beginning to take its toll. My hands began to feel strange, as if they were moving through silky water instead of air. I had to stop a couple of times to rest.

Halfway through the class we divided into advanced and the rest. Naturally, I joined the rest. The advanced group went through a full cycle of movements, 72 in all, moving together in unison—like Chinese line dancing. My group performed a shortened version of 18 movements. We were assured that even though the moves were difficult for beginners, once we had mastered them we would feel an urge to do more and would be eager to move on to “the 72.” This seemed to me as remote a possibility as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro naked.

Now I was ready for something even more challenging: hot power yoga. This vigorous style of yoga is conducted in a room heated to 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Warm muscles can stretch further than cooler ones can. And the high temperature promotes profuse sweating, which supposedly helps to rid your body of toxins. This style of yoga was developed by Bikram Choudhury, an India-born teacher from Beverly Hills, and is so new and different that it’s still somewhat controversial in the yoga world.

I found a local hot power yoga class that turned out to be the most physically challenging of all the classes I had been to so far. I barely managed to keep up with the group as they went through a vigorous routine of advanced poses. The teacher was gently encouraging, even as I flapped around like a fish around the bottom of a boat. Twice I started to feel faint and had to briefly leave the room to cool down.

After the class I sat outside in the relative cool of the midmorning shade with a couple of the other students. The thing was—I felt terrific! Alison, a composed young woman I met there, told me how yoga had changed her life, helped her face personal challenges, and brought her equilibrium. “It worked for me,” she said.

Yes, I thought. It’s working for me, too. I wiggled my toes. They still couldn’t move separately, but I was going to keep trying.