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How to Get Started With Yoga

...and Practice It Safely

What Is Yoga?
Yoga, which means "to join together," fuses body and mind through breathing, meditation, and movement, performed in a series of poses, or asanas.

There are many different forms of this ancient practice, which began in India. Among the most popular in the United States is hatha yoga, which focuses on breathing and physical movements that improve balance and stretch and strengthen the body. Some forms, such as ashtanga yoga, are much more physically demanding, while others, such as raja yoga, have a more spiritual focus.

Curious enough to give it a try? One of the nice things about yoga is that you don't need a lot of time to do it, says Millicent Kennedy, who has been practicing and teaching yoga for more than 30 years and is spokesperson for the American Yoga Association. But to reap the benefits, you need to practice every day.

Just 15 minutes a day will bring tremendous results, Kennedy promises, including:

Better balance and flexibility

Increased strength

Better concentration

Stress relief

More energy

An ability to relax at wil

Getting Started
A yoga class teaches you to perform movements safely and correctly, if you have a good teacher. Once you learn the basics, you can practice at home on your own.

Yoga guides and videos can support what you learn in class. But some experts caution against using videos and books without first taking a class with an experienced teacher. A qualified teacher watches that you're using the right form for all the poses, according to Hansa Knox, a yoga instructor who also trains teachers. "You need proper alignment to protect yourself from injury."

Lots of different yoga classes are offered in many places, including yoga centers and schools, health clubs, YMCAs, community centers, and senior centers. Most classes are 60 to 90 minutes long.

Choosing the right class can be tricky. A good approach is to try different classes and teachers to see what you like best. Beginners might want to start out with one of the gentler forms of yoga, like integral, Kripalu, or anusara, suggests Knox. Later, if you want, you can jump into "power yoga" or a "hot yoga" class. Hot yoga involves performing 26 different postures in a room heated to 100 degrees or more. The theory is that the heat loosens up your muscles and ligaments and makes it easier to stretch and reduces the risk of injury.

Yoga Safety
Experts say most adults can do yoga. Because it's so adaptable, even people with serious physical limitations can practice some forms, such as breathing or meditation exercises.

The key to doing yoga safely is going slowly, knowing your limits, and having a good instructor. A good teacher can help you adapt poses to your physical ability and fitness level. You should never continue a posture or move if it hurts, despite what a teacher says.

Teachers can get certified in a weekend to teach a yoga class. But the Yoga Alliance, which registers yoga teachers and schools, considers 200 hours of training the acceptable minimum. Besides the length of training teachers have, it's also good to find out:

How long they've been practicing yoga themselves

How much teaching experience they have

Whether they practice yoga daily

Whether they continue to study under a teacher or take classes

Before you take your first yoga class:

Talk to your doctor if you have an injury or health condition that causes you concern.

Don't eat a big meal before taking a class. Yoga is best done with little or no food in your stomach.

Arrive early so you can ask questions and stake out a good spot where you can see the teacher well.

Tell the teacher about injuries or other physical limitations so you can learn modified movements if needed.

To reduce slipping and sliding, use a yoga mat, go barefoot, or do both. You might want to find out in advance if mats are available so you can bring one if they aren't.

Stop if you feel pain or become dizzy, lightheaded, or nauseous.

Whether you're doing yoga at home or in a class, remember to set your own pace. "Yoga is extremely powerful, but very gentle," says Kennedy, who swears she'd be dead from heart disease were it not for yoga. "It doesn't have to be strenuous. Each day you go a little bit further."

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