Fitness: Yoga 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Hitting the Mat

These days, there’s a national holiday for everything—National Pizza Day in February, National Pet Day in April, National Talk Like a Pirate Day in September. But if there’s one thing in the fitness world that actually deserves a day of its own, it’s the millenniums-old, mind-body exercise known as yoga. Whether you’ve taken a class or two or have yet to set foot on a yoga mat (but have always wanted to), we’re celebrating National Yoga Day on June 21 with a beginners’ guide to the meditative practice. Namaste!

A (brief) history of yoga:

Though the exact history of yoga is unclear, what most scholars and yoga fanatics can agree on is that the practice is more than 5,000 years old, with some evidence that it’s up to 10,000 years old. It was developed in Northern India, with the word yoga first appearing in sacred texts known as the Rig Veda. Vedic yoga, as it was called in this era, involved rituals and ceremonies meant to teach followers how to live in divine harmony.

Over the centuries, Vedic yoga transformed into many schools of yoga with varying techniques for achieving profound meditation—all in the hopes of transcending the body and mind to discover one’s true nature. Yoga quickly became a practice associated with both Hinduism and Buddhism. Buddha, for example, stressed the importance of meditation and physical postures—in essence, the practice of yoga—to reach enlightenment.

In the second century, a Sanskrit text called the Yoga Sutra laid out the eight “limbs” of yoga that offer guidelines and guidance for living a more meaningful life. After the Yoga Sutra was written, yoga began to transform into a meditative practice that not only focused deeply on the mind—and transcending reality—but also on rejuvenating the body. This form of yoga is known as Hatha Yoga.

In the early nineteenth century, yoga was introduced to the Western world and became a major health movement in the 1930s, as well as a spiritual movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Now, yoga is one of the most popular forms of meditative exercise in the United States, with more than 36 million people practicing in 2016 and more than $16 billion spent on classes, clothing, equipment, and accessories.

The advantages of yoga (just to name a few):

-Improves flexibility, balance, and posture

-Prevents cartilage and joint erosion

-Strengthens muscles and bones

-Boosts blood flow and immunity

-Increases heart rate and lowers blood pressure

-Releases tension and promotes happiness

-Eases digestion and reduces pain

What you need to get started:

If you aren’t one of the 36 million people already practicing yoga—or you’ve practiced before but are ready to take it more seriously—all you’ll need is a few accessories to get the most out of your experience.

Fitted clothing: Leggings and a close-fitting top or sports bra are recommended for yoga (after all, no one wants to flash the entire class when they go into downward-facing dog).

Hint: Order a Fitness Edit today, and tell your personal stylist you’re looking for yoga-ready styles.

Yoga mat: A cushy mat with good grip is the best way to go if you want to feel comfy on your hands and knees and avoid any slipping and sliding. (If you’re planning on giving hot yoga a spin down the line, grab a mat towel while you’re at it to absorb sweat and other moisture.)

Yoga blocks: These handy tools help ensure proper alignment during poses.

Yoga straps: If you’re not so flexible (yet), these straps are perfect for poses where your arms or legs aren’t quite long enough to perform a pose correctly.

5 poses to know before you go:

1. Child’s Pose: Sit on your legs, so that your heels touch your butt and your shins are parallel to the floor. Reach arms out toward the floor, lower your chest as close to your knees as possible, and breathe deeply to relax.

2. Mountain: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your arms at your side, breathing slowly and deeply. Bring hands in a prayer position to center yourself, or reach them toward the sky for a gentle stretch.

3. Downward Dog: Start in a plank position, then pull your hips back and toward the ceiling, creating an inverted-V shape with your body. Spread fingers wide, press palms into your mat, and keep feet hip-width apart to stay grounded.

4. Warrior: Stand with your legs wide (about 3 to 4 feet, if possible), then turn your right foot out 90 degrees and the left slightly inward. Lunge toward the front foot, keeping your knee in line with your toes. Finally, raise arms to shoulder height, with your right arm in front and your left in back. When you’re done, switch sides.

5. Cobra: Lie facedown on the floor, with hands under your shoulders and the tops of the feet touching the floor. Pressing your shoulders down and away from your ears, raise your chest up and straighten arms, keeping elbows slightly bent.