Yoga is an ancient exercise system involving deep breathing, intense movements and stretches, and some meditation to bring physical strength and emotional calm. Yoga is a Sanskrit word essentially meaning "union", which describes its holistic approach to balancing and bringing strength to your mind, body and spirit through a series of physical exercises.
When you think of yoga, you might think of people doing head stands, or bent into bizarre contortions. But, don't be intimidated; yoga offers lots of different movements and sequences to suit every age, body shape, and ability. It can be done by people with physical disabilities, as well as people who are extremely fit and flexible. In its pure form, yoga is an eight-stage path to "the liberation of the spirit" and is linked with ancient belief systems. In the West it is generally practised to combat stress and improve flexibility.
Whilst it does contain some meditation, yoga is a discipline rather than a religion, and so can be practised by people of any faith.
Practised properly, yoga can have measurable benefits for your physical and emotional health. It can:
improve your physical fitness
give you greater flexibility and strength
improve your muscle tone and definition
help with muscle pain and stiffness
improve your posture
help your digestive system
improve your sleep and ability to relax
help you feel calm and boost your mood
improve your concentration
Of course, you won't see all these benefits immediately. Yoga is a discipline that needs to be practised regularly.
Finding the right yoga class for you
You can find yoga classes in dedicated yoga centres and institutes, leisure centres, in spas and village halls. When it comes to yoga, our best advice is to choose your class and teacher carefully. It's important that you do a class appropriate to your level and one where you feel comfortable. Speak to the teacher in advance if you can.
Some teachers offer private yoga classes but this is less common and more expensive. Group sizes vary but it's unlikely that there'll be more than 15 people, as the teacher needs to be aware of what everyone is doing, and available to help you with your positions. Most classes are mixed-sex but you can find single-sex classes quite easily as well.
Wear light, comfortable clothes that allow plenty of movement. As with any exercise, a big meal is not a good idea before your class, but remember to drink enough water to keep yourself hydrated. You should make sure your teacher knows if you have any medical conditions or are taking medication. If you are, or think you might be, pregnant, ask your teacher if the class is suitable before you book.
What happens during a yoga class?
A yoga class usually lasts around an hour. A beginners' class should introduce you to the basic theory of yoga, and guide you gently through some basic positions and circular breathing techniques. A yoga class has various stages which flow together; the flow of the movements, the breathing and the relaxation/meditation exercises is all-important. You will warm up with deep breathing and gentle movements, then move through to a series of poses, which you have to hold for a few seconds to build your strength and balance.
A class will usually end with a guided meditation where you sit or lie comfortably and clear your mind. To help with this, your teacher may tell you to imagine yourself, for example, in a garden, or focus on every part of your body in turn. The teacher may lightly ring a bell or hum to let you know when to end your meditation.
At the end of the class, take some time to ease yourself back into your day.