With names like Adho Mukha Svanasana and Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, the stretches in yoga seem to require a stretch of the imagination to understand. But don't let the ancient words intimidate you — yoga is a practice that's available to everyone, no matter your level of fitness, health, or flexibility (or familiarity with Indian languages). Starting yoga only requires a willingness to learn and a positive attitude — the rest will come in time!
To help you understand the what, why, and how of beginning yoga, here is some information on the basics of yoga poses.
There's a Yoga Pose for Every Body
Flexibility is a by-product of yoga, not a requirement to practice. The yoga media is saturated with images of advanced yogis twisted into highly contorted poses, which seem to require superhuman strength and flexibility — an image that can discourage inflexible or unfit regular people from trying it out. It's important to remember that the yogis in the ads and on TV often have several years, even decades, of dedicated practice under their belts.
Everybody starts somewhere, and every person's body is different. Some bodies are naturally bendy; some naturally more stiff. A good yoga teacher will be able to work with a broad range of abilities and fitness levels, so it's smart to seek out a beginner class with a knowledgeable instructor.
Some poses definitely require more flexibility than others, but you will not be expected to attempt these in a beginner class! Instead, you'll learn a few introductory poses, perhaps modified with props like blocks and straps, to adapt the poses to your personal level of fitness and strength. When you let go of the media images in your head and remember that your practice is just that — your practice — you will begin to gain all the benefits of yoga.
Start With the Basics
There are some foundational poses that allow you to learn the basics of alignment, posture, and body awareness. Some of these include Mountain Pose (Tadasana), Child's Pose (Balasana), and Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana). Once you understand these, you'll be able to advance your practice into deeper and trickier poses.
Something to keep in mind as you make your way to your first yoga class is that there's nothing to conquer in yoga — there is no goal to attain, except, perhaps, eternal bliss and oneness with the universe. But that's getting ahead of things.
Start where you are, and be honest with yourself. No (good) yoga teacher will judge you if you're inflexible, so remember not to judge yourself, either. If you can't touch your toes or hold certain poses for longer than a split-second, then feeling like you need to will only frustrate and discourage you. It takes practice, modification, and patience. With time, your body will begin to open up and stretch out. So don't worry about making your way into headstand, arm balances, or the splits right now. If you practice, they will all come in time.
Do Your Teacher's Sequence
Do your practice, and all is coming.
In any yoga class, you'll follow a particular sequence of poses. The order, complexity, and variety of poses will differ between yoga traditions and teachers — an Iyengar class, for instance, will use a different sequence than a Kundalini, Ashtanga, or Bikram class – but the sequence you're following has been designed for particular benefits, so it's important to follow along.
Your teacher has created the sequence especially for that class. Although it may seem random and haphazard at first — We're standing! We're seated! We're standing again! — there is a method to the madness. Some of the moves will warm your body; others will cool it down. Some will help prepare your body for more complex poses that are coming up; others will help your body restore symmetry after previous poses.
Most classes will include some combination of standing and seated poses, incorporating appropriate levels of twists, backbends, and strength-building moves. All of these poses will stretch your body in new ways, so it doesn't matter what style of yoga you decide to practice — you'll still be practicing yoga and gaining all of the benefits!
A Pose by Any Other Name is Still a Pose
Ever wondered why yoga teachers refer to poses with such crazy-sounding — to English ears — names? They're using Sanskrit, the traditional language of yoga. Now, no one expects you to know the difference between Upward-Facing Dog and Upward Bow Pose — and certainly no one expects you to keep straight Urdhva Mukha Svanasana and Urdhva Dhanurasana (the Sanskrit terms for those poses).
So why bother with the Sanskrit at all? For one thing, the Sanskrit terms immediately connect your modern yoga practice with its 5,000-year-old roots. Sanskrit is an ancient language of India, still used for sacred purposes such as spiritual texts and rituals. The Sanskrit word for "yoga pose" is "asana," which literally translates as "seat," but has come to mean any of the stretches you practice in yoga class.
But the main reason yoga teachers use the Sanskrit terms is because they are unchanging — whereas translations of the terms may vary. One tradition might call Utkatasana "Chair Pose," while others refer to it as, "Lightening Bolt," "Powerful Pose," or "Fierce Pose." Using Sanskrit levels the playing field.
Now that you know a little bit about Sanskrit terminology, feel free to disregard it if it distracts or confuses you! The last thing you need to add to your yoga practice is pressure to learn an ancient language. However, the more you practice, the more you may notice the Sanskrit terms sticking in your head!
Stretch It Out
Now that you've been prepped with the basics, you can take a deep breath and let it go. You don't need to be worrying about yoga styles and words and sequences. Just come to class, come to your mat, and begin practicing — all else will come to you in time.