You’re curious about yoga. Why shouldn’t you be? It’s a popular form of exercise with a devoted following. Usually, we associate exercise with moving: we run and walk, push up and pull down, spin and squat. Yoga is about moving, too, but it’s usually slow movement that resembles stretching more than working out. How can this be exercise?
Over the past several decades, we have come to understand that static stretching, like a shoulder stretch where you place your left hand on your right elbow and slowly pull your arm towards your chest, is not the best way to gain flexibility. Dynamic stretching uses one muscle group to stretch another. Yoga uses a type of dynamic stretching that is much better than static.
So what can you expect from taking a yoga class? Beyond stretching, yoga poses also can focus on core strength, balance, alignment and breathing. All of these contribute to physical well-being. If you go to a yoga class, expect a teacher to invite you into a series of poses, or “asanas.” You will consciously think about the way you stand, sit, lie, move and breathe. The teacher will lead your group with words, imagery and demonstration and help you to consider ways to move that are different from your normal habit.
The yoga mat will create friction so that your hands and feet will stick and not slide as you hold the poses. In the beginning, straps, blocks and folded blankets might be used to help you. Sometimes a teacher will help change the way you are moving with his or her hands. Expect to find new ways to move and to place demands on muscles that will leave you feeling more fully aware of your body in all of its weaknesses and strengths.
You will be sore in the same way you are sore when you start a new activity, but if you keep it up, it will become easier. With yoga, you not only feel stronger, you feel more aware of the options you have in moving and aligning yourself.
The focus on breathing is quite unique to this form of exercise. Taking time to improve upon an activity that occurs roughly 12 times a minute, every minute of your life, has a profound effect on the body’s efficiency. When you really think about it, how we can expect to live well if we don’t take some time to consider how we breathe?
There are many different types of yoga and individual teachers have different styles. Talk to a teacher before you make a commitment to a class, and don’t be discouraged if your first encounter doesn’t seem to hit the mark. Try out different classes like you try out different restaurants: they are not all the same, but they can each be enjoyable and nourishing in a different way.
There is no need to quit your running or walking, pushing, pulling, squatting or spinning. Just consider following your curiosity and try out some yoga to compliment your other exercise habits. Enjoy!
Maggie Holt, PT, CEEAA, is a physical therapist at the University of Vermont Medical Center.