Yoga has so many different forms and passionate devotees that it can be intimidating if you’re just getting started.
To access the benefits yoga has to offer, it’s important to figure out which type – vinyasa, hatha, heated – is the right match for you. You’ll also need to find the right level of class to fit your skills so that you avoid injury and still get a challenge.
Here’s what I wish I’d known when I got started.
I love yoga because it quiets my mind, makes me feel strong, and challenges me to do things I’d never thought physically possible.
- Erin Brodwin / Business Insider
Research shows these benefits aren’t all in my head.
One of the reasons yoga is so good for you is because it can be a form of aerobic exercise, or “cardio.”
A wealth of recent research suggests that any type of exercise that raises your heart rate and gets you moving and sweating for a sustained period – known as aerobic exercise – has a significant, beneficial effect on the brain and body.
“Aerobic exercise is key for your head, just as it is for your heart,” says an article in a Harvard Medical School blog.
To reap the health benefits of aerobic exercise, you should feel challenged for at least 30-45 minutes at a time.
Research suggests that the magic of cardio happens somewhere in the window of about 30-45 minutes at minimum. That means that an hour-long yoga class with a significant meditation or cool-down period may not cut it. If you’re not feeling like you got a workout in at the end of class, you might want to try a longer class instead. Try that before jumping into a harder class, as you could injure yourself.
Some people claim that yoga’s health benefits are enhanced when it’s practiced in a hot room, but recent research suggests that may not be the case.
- Mario Tama / Staff / Getty Images
For a recent study published this month in the journal Experimental Physiology, scientists compared three groups of people aged 40-60: some practiced Bikram yoga in a heated (105-degree-Fahrenheit) room, others did the same yoga class in a regular-temperature room, and the last group did no exercise at all. Compared to the non-exercisers, both groups of yogis saw similar benefits on their heart – meaning the extra heat may not have provided much of a benefit.
“This is the first publication to date to show a beneficial effect of the practice [of yoga] in the absence of the heat,” Stacy D. Hunter, the lead author on the study and a professor of exercise and sports science at Texas State University, said in a statement.
Some people believe hot yoga enhances the calorie-burning effects of yoga, but that may not be true either.
- Strelka Institute/Flickr
For a small study presented at the 2014 American College of Sports Medicine’s national meeting, Brian Tracy, a health and exercise science professor at Colorado State University, had 19 people aged 18-40 practice hot Bikram yoga while he measured their metabolic rate. Rather than the “thousands” of calories that practitioners often boast of burning in a 1.5-hour Bikram class, Tracy’s participants typically burned about 400 – roughly the equivalent of walking briskly for the same amount of time.
Simply adding heat to yoga, in other words, may not ramp up its calorie-burning power. What’s likely more important are the poses, the dynamic nature of the class, and the length of time students are holding the postures.
If you’re looking for a challenge but you’re new to yoga, an “open level” class is a good bet.
Open level classes are designed to bring together a mix of practitioners with varied skill levels, from beginners to more advanced yogis. If you’re new, grab a spot near the middle or back of class so you can keep an eye on the more advanced students if you need guidance.
Many “vinyasa,” or flow, classes are open level, meaning that both beginning and advanced practitioners can participate.
- Dave Rosenblum/Flickr
Most of these types of classes are structured in a way that lets you choose the version of a pose you’re most comfortable with. Teachers will typically introduce a basic-level pose, then build on that. If you’ve never done a given pose before, stick with the first version.
There are also several different types of yoga aside from vinyasa.
In a hatha or Bikram class, instead of flowing into each pose like a dance, you may be instructed to go into a pose, then come out of it, then go into another pose.
If you’re in doubt about how to do a pose in any type of class, go slow.
Moving more slowly is actually more challenging and less likely to get you injured, so it’s generally a good way to go, especially if you’re new to the practice.
If anyone in your class looks like they’re “naturally good,” don’t be intimidated; they’ve likely just been practicing for a long time.
- Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
No matter which type of yoga class you try, it’ll take a couple of times for you to find your groove. And learning which types of yoga you dislike can be just as valuable as finding what you love.