Tips for Beginners
Downward-Facing Dog, Eagle Pose, Garland Pose, Half Moon Pose and Lotus Pose – just to name a few. This is the empowering language of yoga that can leave even a beginner wanting more. More flexibility, more strength, a stronger core, better muscle tone and even more focus. Can one practice really deliver all of this? Yoga Instructor RJ Lisander offered a resounding Yes! when I went to her to find the answers that many women who are curious about yoga want to know. As RJ makes clear in this Q&A, getting started with yoga doesn’t have to be intimidating and it doesn’t have to be scary. Everyone who tries this ancient practice is a beginner at some point, but as most find fairly quickly, yoga is not only good for your body, it’s great for your mind as well. I think RJ put it best when she said, “It helps you find balance between the extremes of everyday life on and off the mat.”
Peppermint Tea & Me: What is yoga?
RJ Lisander: For me personally, it’s been a practice of contrasts – learning how to be strong but vulnerable in different poses, in different styles of yoga and different practices. It has taught me how to understand when I can take a leap of faith and push myself into a pose versus when I just need to relax and let the pose come to me. When I work with clients, I see that yoga really is a way for them to come back into their bodies. They do that through my classes through breath and just practicing poses in a really safe environment, and that gives them a lot of confidence.
PTM: What are some of the different types of yoga?
RJ: In practice, there are lots of types of yoga. We have more vigorous styles of yoga that you would find in the Vinyasa, Hot Yoga or Ashtanga styles. But then you also have more restorative yoga, such as Yin Yoga, that’s really designed more to help the body stretch and slow down. Then there’s kind of everything in between. If you’re looking for a physical workout, you’re probably going to want to go to the more Vinyasa style of yoga. If you’re in pretty good shape and you’re looking to yoga for stress management, you’re probably going to want to find more of a connection with an individual teacher.
PTM: What are the physical benefits of yoga?
RJ: Yoga can help the body relax, so it can lower blood pressure. It can relieve stress and anxiety, it can help people sleep, it can strengthen the body, it can tone the body, it can help with digestion and digestive issues and it can help with anxiety disorders. It all really depends on what you want to bring to the practice.
It can also help you reconnect with your body, and what I mean by that is that when we go through traumas, for example women with breast cancer, and they’ve had a mastectomy, they’ve lost a part of their physical being. The body has to learn how to work with that, and yoga is one of the modalities that can help. That comes more in a private setting.
Yoga just overall helps people to better understand what’s going on with their bodies, and they can really start to make better decisions about what their needs are.
PTM: Where does the strengthening and toning part happen?
RJ: In any pose, you can bring awareness to the muscles and really work and engage them. You can focus on drawing the belly in toward the spine, extending the arms out like they’re pulling away from the body in two different directions. You can focus on standing really firmly on the ground with the legs. That can transform one pose into another that’s a little bit more work.
In the more vigorous styles, such as Vinyasa, Hot Yoga and Power Core yoga, you’re working a little bit more to support the pose, your heart rate is going to raise a little higher because you’re moving a little bit more constantly. There are long holds in some of those classes and some of those poses, so to stay in a pose, you really have to engage. Even in gentle flow classes, you’ll experience that engagement as well. So, the toning isn’t necessarily what you would find in someone who is lifting weights or in a cycling class or doing some kind of CrossFit, or TRX, but the toning is one that can be very subtle but also builds strength within the body.
PTM: What are the mental benefits of yoga?
RJ: Awareness and focus are two of the biggest mental benefits that people experience in a yoga practice. Focus comes from really having to engage the entire body in order to get into a lot of the poses and to go through the movements. From one movement to another, you have to be aware of what your body is doing, and that also creates focus because you’re working on sitting in those poses and bringing awareness to the breath. In some of the more restorative practices, you might sit in a pose for seven minutes. Your mind can start to wander, so you have to focus on your breath and the sensations that you’re feeling in that pose in order to stay present in that moment.
Other benefits include better sleep and just better general body awareness. It helps people to understand that they may have an ache in their shoulder, but it may actually be coming from something that’s happening in the hip. You become better aware of where you hold tension and that allows you to have a better sense of overall wellbeing and provides kind of a space for dialogue where you can start thinking about what’s actually going on with you.
A lot of times, people who practice yoga regularly will experience shifts off the mat – they’re calmer in general when they encounter stressful situations, they’re more aware of the language that they use, so they become more self-aware. Those are some of the biggest benefits of Yoga.
PTM: Who is yoga good for?
RJ: Yoga is good for everybody. It’s really more about understanding what your body needs and the right style of yoga for you. That might change and evolve over time, so it’s a matter of finding the right place to start and letting the practice grow and develop and adapt as your needs change.
Note: As with any new exercise regimen, check with your doctor before beginning yoga – especially if you’ve had an injury or any type of health issue.
PTM: What type of class should beginners look for?
RJ: I would say that for very beginners, looking for a workshop or a series on yoga foundations or basics would be the best place to start. They’re offered pretty much at the beginning of every season at all yoga studios and are generally going to be smaller classes with experienced teachers who are going to walk through the nuances of the poses to really help you understand them. While seasons vary from studio to studio, the beginning is usually August/September, January/February and April/May.
If you’re in really good shape and you have good body awareness, take any class that interests you. If you’re not sure, call the studio and ask for a recommendation or ask a teacher if you can observe to see if a class will work for you.
For people who are older and have a little less movement in their day to day life for whatever reason, going to a slower restorative class would be a really good way to get into a practice. But make sure that the instructor knows if there is a risk of low blood pressure or high blood pressure. The instructor can help set up breath patterns in the class that are good for you and for the whole class.
If going to a class seems scary or intimidating, start with a smaller or private setting so that you can figure out what’s right for you.
PTM: What are the best clothes to wear for yoga?
RJ: Wear what you’re comfortable with. If you’re a beginner, something that’s a little bit more tailored to the body is helpful to the instructor as they’re watching your movements to help with alignment. Be sure your clothing will be out of your way while you practice, so a super baggy t-shirt that falls over your face when you bend forward into downward-facing dog is maybe not the best choice. But something that’s loose enough that you’re comfortable with it that you can tuck in or tie on the side that stays flat is perfectly acceptable. They also have these really cute tapered yoga pants out now in different fabrics that allow the instructor to see the movements but also provide you with some modesty.
If you have your hair pulled back, make sure that it’s pulled high so that when you lay down, you don’t have a barrette, or bun or ponytail or something that’s preventing your neck from going into the right position. You want to wear as few jewelry accessories as possible and try not to wear heavy perfumes because if you sweat, that can be very distracting to others.
PTM: How many times a week would you recommend that yoga be done to get the maximum benefits?
RJ: It depends on your health goals and other things that you’re doing. If you’re doing it three times a week, you’re doing fabulous and you’re going to get maximum benefits from that. If you can get yoga in once a week or 15 minutes a day in a home practice, you’re also going to be ahead of the curve as far as the benefits.
RJ says that the main thing to remember when you’re starting a yoga practice is not to compare yourself with others. The poses will develop as your practice develops, so don’t worry about where you are versus where someone else is. Simply show up on the mat for yourself and do what you can do.
Related article: To find out more about different ways to exercise, read Strengthening Your Core and Your Life with Pilates.