Where to Start?
With the help of modern day technology, the yogis you see today in the media can look intimidating with their impressively contorted poses. Then there's the the fitness craze versus the traditional style of yoga where teachers make you meditate. Which one is right for you?
Let's narrow it down for you:
Traditionally, when the Sage's of ancient India created yoga it was to help them sit in meditation for longer periods of time. It was believed that an austere, hermetic lifestyle combined with a constant dedication to meditation was the key to enlightenment. Ultimately the physical goal of the Asana or postures in yoga is to achieve and sustain Full Lotus pose where you sit "Indian Style" and place your feet on the top of your thighs; and the ultimate spiritual goal is to control the mind in order to align with our higher self or true spirit, otherwise known as pure consciousness.
Fast forward to the modern day era, and yoga is a billion dollar industry that flaunts countless benefits such as: physical fitness, stress management, addiction recovery, mental health improvement, rehabilitation, and so much more. It's no wonder that it is so popular. The novelty of spiritual enlightenment may have taken a backseat to a super comfortable fashion statement, but you still reap the benefits of increased mindfulness and a closer connection to source through it's continuous practice (even if you aren't aware of it).
Many people are scared to try yoga because they are "too out of shape", "too inflexible", or too shy to attend a class. But I assure you, yoga is for everyBODY. There is a style of yoga for everyone, and an appropriate, supportive community can make you feel welcome, where real yogis would never judge you. So once you get past the excuses, you have to ask yourself: what is your ultimate goal? What do you want to achieve? Then you can discern what style of yoga will align with that purpose.
I would also encourage any beginner to find a Yoga Teacher that they like and invest in Private Instruction. This one-on-one guidance can be invaluable when you are just starting out. Breath and proper Alignment are so incredibly crucial to a safe and enjoyable practice, so find a qualified teacher that knows what they are doing. Sometimes large classes can be too fast paced for the novice yogi, which can result in injury and frustration. Smaller classes are also ideal when you are just getting your toes wet, so I would suggest visiting a small business, boutique type of studio before heading to a busy gym or popular yoga chain.
There are Schools of yoga that are representative of different yogic traditions, and then there are Styles of yoga that developed from those schools. The schools of yoga are: Karma Yoga (the yoga of action and service), Bhakti Yoga (the path of devotion or divine love), Jnana Yoga (the yoga of self-inquiry, the path of knowing oneself on all levels), Raja Yoga (the science of controlling and transforming physical and mental energy into spiritual energy), and then there's Hatha Yoga. This is the main lineage of Raja Yoga and the most common type of practice today. Hatha Yoga is different from Raja Yoga in that it also incorporates movement (asana) as a critical component to achieving divine ecstasy (samadhi), along with pranayama (breathing exercises) and meditation. The styles of yoga we know today are considered branches of Hatha Yoga.
Here is a list of different branches of the Yoga Tradition, and the common language that most studios use to describe or categorize them:
Styles of Yoga
Also known as Flow, or other variations.
This is the most common format in studios today, and is usually advertised in progressive levels (beginner to advanced), or as an "all-levels" flow. This style was derived from the Ashtanga system (see below). Generally this class is synchronized with breath where poses flow from one to the next, but classes vary heavily depending on the instructor. Classes are usually designed according to Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskars) to build heat in the body, then culminate in Savasana (Corpse Pose) to relax the mind.
Is a more advanced movement style that integrates the eight principles of the Yoga Sutras. It is fast-paced, vigorous, and challenging asana controlled by deep breathing. It was originally developed for teenage boys to teach them self-control. Practitioners move through six asana sequences as they advance.
Can also be used to describe Vinyasa and Ashtanga classes.
Originally derived from Ashtanga, this is a vigorous fitness-based style that allows instructors the freedom to sequence the structure of the class to their choosing. Emphasis is typically on strength building, stamina, and stress management.
Also described as Gentle, Restorative or Restore Yoga.
This style was created by B.K.S. Iyengar with emphasis on bringing stillness into the practice to calm the mind. Many props are used to fully support the body while poses are held for longer periods (usually 8-10 minutes), so that the entire body can completely relax. This form of yoga is incredibly nourishing to the Nervous System, switching our "fight or flight" response to "rest and restore." It is also beneficial for hormone balancing.
Founded by a martial arts and Taoist teacher, this slow-paced asana also holds poses for longer periods (typically a minimum of 5 minutes) but usually without the use of props. The intention is to create sensation and cultivate body awareness, without creating any stress on the body. This style is incredibly beneficial for structural rehabilitation and releasing tension. The opposite of more yang styles of yoga, this practice is more cooling, energetically feminine, and calming in nature. Advanced teachers will design their classes according to the Traditional Chinese Medical system of meridians.
Bikram or Hot Yoga
Originally introduced by Bikram Choudhury, whose style uses the same 26 poses and 2 breathing techniques in the same order for 90 minutes. Rooms are heated to 105 degrees with a humidity of 40%. The evolution of Hot Yoga derived from Bikram but allows the teacher more freedom to sequence their classes in the heated room.
Founded by Yogi Bhajan, this style has become more of a specialized sect of practitioners where repeated movements with breathing techniques, chanting, meditation, and mantras (affirmations) are used to "awaken the full potential of human awareness in each individual." Traditionally practitioners wear white and are dutifully dedicated to their practice. It is said that this type of yoga should not be practiced without the guidance of a qualified guru or teacher, because unintentional or inappropriate awakening of kundalini energy can result in dangerous consequences.
Other styles of yoga that are not as common in most studios include: Prenatal, Sivananda, Kripalu, Forrest, Parayoga, Anusara, Jivamukti, and Viniyoga.
What to Expect...
There is no need to invest in fancy clothes or supplies just yet, most studios will provide mats and props for you, and you just have to wear comfortable clothing that doesn't restrict movement. When choosing a studio, look at their class offerings and read teacher bios to determine the best fit for you. Most studios will offer a free first class or even a free week to start, but if not then you can usually find other free offerings or events outside of studios within your community. If you are uncomfortable with jumping right into a class, then you can also invest in a private class to work one-on-one with an instructor. This will not only give you the basics of proper alignment and breathing techniques, but will also give you the confidence to try a group class.
Every studio should have a general liability waiver that you will have to sign, but it is imperative that you always inform your teacher of any medical condition, physical limitations, or other health concerns before class begins. This way the teacher can make adjustments and offer you modifications if necessary, and some conditions may even be contraindicated for yoga and require Doctor's permission to practice.
Try to arrive early to your class, preferably 5-10 minutes before it starts. This way you can find a good spot, grab all of your props, fill your water bottle, use the restroom, and settle in without being rushed or interrupting other students.. Keep in mind that it is not advised to follow other students in the class, and always pay attention to your own body. Your teacher's instruction is just a guided suggestion for your practice, so if something is uncomfortable or doesn't feel right in your body, then immediately stop what you are doing or make any necessary adjustments. It is always ok to pause and relax into Child's Pose if you need a short break.
As with anything, there are some standards of etiquette involved in group settings:
Any and all feedback should always be welcomed and appreciated on behalf the teacher. Please feel free to share your experience and make personal requests for your practice in the appropriate time and place.
I hope this covers all of the bases for you, please feel free to leave me any questions in the comments!