A guide to yoga

All you need to know to get started with yoga, including the health benefits, yoga styles for beginners, and finding a yoga class.

What is yoga?

Yoga is an ancient form of exercise that focuses on strength, flexibility and breathing to boost physical and mental wellbeing. The main components of yoga are postures (a series of movements designed to increase strength and flexibility) and breathing. The practice originated in India about 5,000 years ago, and has been adapted in other countries in a variety of ways. Yoga is now commonplace in leisure centres, health clubs, schools, hospitals and surgeries.

What are the health benefits of yoga?

Dozens of scientific trials of varying quality have been published on yoga. While there's scope for more rigorous studies on its health benefits, most studies suggest yoga is a safe and effective way to increase physical activity, especially strength, flexibility and balance. There's some evidence that regular yoga practice is beneficial for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, aches and pains – including lower back pain – depression and stress.

Does yoga contribute towards my 150 minutes of activity?

Most forms of yoga are not strenuous enough to count towards your 150 minutes of moderate activity, as set out by government guidelines. However, yoga does count as a strengthening exercise, and at least two sessions a week will help you meet the guidelines on muscle-strengthening activities. Activities such as yoga and tai chi are also recommended to older adults at risk of falls to help improve balance and co-ordination.

Can yoga help prevent falls?

Yes. Yoga improves balance by strengthening your lower body, in particular your ankles and knees, thereby reducing your chances of falling. However, falls may sometimes be caused by a health condition, in which case it's a good idea to see your GP or visit a falls clinic at a local hospital.

Can yoga help with arthritis?

Yoga is popular with people with arthritis for its gentle way of promoting flexibility and strength. Some research suggests yoga can reduce pain and mobility problems in people with knee osteoarthritis. However, some yoga moves aren't suitable for people with the condition. Find a teacher who understands arthritis and can adapt movements for individual needs, especially if you have replacement joints. Check with a doctor or physiotherapist to find out if there are any movements to avoid.

Am I too old for yoga?

Definitely not. People often start yoga in their 70s, and many say they wish they had started sooner. There are yoga classes for every age group. Yoga is a form of exercise that can be enjoyed from childhood to your advanced years.

Do I have to be fit to do yoga?

No, you can join a class that's suitable for your fitness level. For example, to join a mixed ability yoga class, you need to be able to get up and down from the floor. Some yoga classes are chair-based.

Don't I need to be flexible to do yoga?

Not necessarily. Yoga will improve your flexibility and help you go beyond your normal range of movement, which may make performing your daily activities easier.

Can I injure myself doing yoga?

Yoga-related injuries are uncommon. Some injuries can be caused by repetitive strain or overstretching. But yoga is the same as any other exercise discipline. It is perfectly safe if taught properly by people who understand it and have experience. Learning from a qualified yoga teacher and choosing a class appropriate for your level will ensure you remain injury-free.

What style of yoga should I do?

There are many different styles of yoga, such as Ashtanga, Iyengar and Sivananda. Some styles are more vigorous than others. Some may have a different area of emphasis, such as posture or breathing. Many yoga teachers develop their own practice by studying more than one style. No style is necessarily better or more authentic than any other. The key is to choose a class appropriate for your fitness level.

What type of class should I look out for?

Classes can vary in duration, but typically last between 45 minutes to 1 hour and 30 minutes. A longer class will give you more time for learning breathing and relaxation techniques, and will give the teacher time to work with your individual ability. It's worth speaking to a teacher about their approach before you sign up for a class.

Where can I find a yoga class?

No specific qualifications are required to teach yoga in the UK. However, it is generally accepted that teachers need to be insured and have a teaching certificate and accreditation from a yoga association.

The main UK yoga associations are:

These associations all list teachers and classes near you on their websites. You can also search for a local class or teacher using the following websites:

Can I use a book or a yoga DVD instead of going to a class?

It's better to start with a class to learn the poses and breathing techniques correctly. With a DVD, there will be nobody to correct your mistakes, which may lead to injury over time. With some experience of being in a class, a DVD can then be helpful for keeping up practice.

Page last reviewed: 11/07/2015

Next review due: 11/07/2017


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The 11 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

spiritfit said on 09 January 2015

Yoga dates back 5000 years. It is with doubt one of the easier ways to keep fit, although to a certain extent, it is as hard as you make it. It is however a pleasure to practice your yoga every day. There are those in the world who can not walk, your health is everything, you do not realise this until it is too late. Practice yoga, indeed anything to keep you fit.

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YogaAddict said on 02 May 2014

I'm a male in my late 40's. I started practising hatha yoga in 1997 at my gym. I liked it but found I could not do many of the postures as many seemed too advanced. I was advised by a friend to try Bikram Yoga, which is done in heated room and is good for beginners. Bikram is a specific sequence of hatha yoga asanas that is designed to work into every muscle, tendon, joint and organ in the body. It is specifically designed with Beginners in mind though lots of highly experienced yogis practise it.

So here's my story, I took my first Bikram class in 1999, and it changed my life. I felt as though every muscle in my body had been engaged, like a very deep tissue massage. As I continued I soon found real improvements in flexibility that I had not experienced in 2 years of 'normal' yoga. Bikram yoga strengthened my lower back and relieved my back spasms. I became stronger, leaner and mentally calmer, happier, detoxed.

I felt it had transformed me so much that years later I attended Bikram's intensive teacher training and am now a part owner/senior teacher. One of my teachers was a lady who is now in her 90's and still extremely fit.

As I now approach 50, I feel I'm in great shape (especially when I practise consistently). My skin feels younger, tighter. Like the guy who climbed Everest at 80, I intend to be in great health and still physically ambitious when I'm that age.

Doing any daily exercise is important, even a daily walk helps. Yoga, as a science, takes it a step further. There are many great hatha styles to choose from, but it’s important to be consistent in the exercises you're doing and practise with an insured, qualified teacher. Wherever you live in the UK I highly recommend finding a Bikram Yoga studio near you as you’ll get that consistency and expertise, especially important if you're a beginner.

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izzybrooks said on 13 June 2013

I have been attending yoga classes for 30 years, on and off. I cant imagine life with out it! The best teacher I've ever had was trained by The British School of Yoga. She's imaginative, thorough and very safe. She is by far the most gifted I've known. Her training is continuous so that she is constantly improving and not stagnating. Yoga had seen me through cancer, stresses if life and having babies. Now its my insurance for the next 40 years! Mentally and physically.

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Shmizzy said on 06 May 2013

I was on medication for 2 years on treatment for Graves Disease or Hyper-Thyroid condition. I had 2 relapses during those years and my condition failed to get stable. Moreover, I had side-effects and allergy caused by the drugs. The doctors recommended me Iodine treatment which meant killing a large portion of my Thyroid gland tissue forever. The best decision of my life was when I refused to go ahead with Iodine treatment.

With the help of an Acupressure Doctor in Bangalore (India) & a Yoga guru, I stopped the medication & started practicing acupressure, pranayam (rhythmic breathing with meditation) & Yoga everyday. Within a month, I started feeling well. My thyroid glands had healed & returned to normal functioning within a few months. I have all my blood reports that showed improvement & perfect balance. It has been 18 months since then. I was healed by the practice of Yoga & without any medicine. I experienced not just an immense boost in my overall health but I found my new potential in other areas of my life too.

The benefits of Yoga I experienced:
1) My hairfall reduced, hair became glossy, thicker & full. I can now enjoy long hair.
2) My face started looking more & more beautiful.
3) My skin improved a great deal.
4) I developed more lean muscle, strength, flexibility, balance.
5) I developed deep inner peace, calm & inner happiness.
6) I developed a lot of patience.
7) As an artist, my creative exploration deepend beautifully.

I owe my health to Yoga practice. I truly recommend Yoga practice for everyone.

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Farida Susanne said on 26 December 2012

Farida Have been teaching Yoga for 40years. One of the early members of the WHEEL OF YOGA founded by the late Wilfred Clark, now The British Wheel of Yoga, .I agree with most w hat has been said about teacher training., with one exception YOGA is NOT a sport. It is NON competitive., where as sport is competitive. YOGA
is a Philosophy, a path which leads to health and contentment, mentally and physically. It is not intended as a quick fix for slimming, nor is it Indian keep fit-as some imagine- with the help of a good dedicated teacher it can be of great benefit, young to elderly.I have taught all ages,blind and disabled, none have been injured .It is possible to modify the postures to suit the students circumstances.A health and progress record should be kept by the teacher.I am still doing yoga every day.

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Eglysilann said on 27 November 2012

Any comments I make can be verified. Much of the information cant be passed on through the internet.
Check the websites for osteoporosis, National osteoporosis foundation, International osteoporosis foundation, osteoporosis canada,osteoporosis australia.

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Eglysilann said on 27 November 2012

Injuries have happened in a yoga class. A person with osteoporosis and had suffered with vertebral fractures. That person had continued to attend yoga classes, while working on a shoulderstand, she lost her balance and fell, she ended up with further verebral fractures.
The British wheel of Yoga provided a handout in 2005, until 2010, clearly stating the precautions. Avoid forward bends if suffering from hypertension, heart conditions, eye or ear conditions, migraine/headaches, etc. avoid passhimotta (seated forward bend ) for asthma.
Dr Frank Chandra clearly stated avoid forward bends if on anti-coags lest a nose bleed happens, which would be hard to stop. A person with osteoporosis must avoid forward bending. dont bend over to touch your your toes.
If a person is taking glucocorticoids, (asthma) etc. they are at risk of osteoporosis. If a person has asthma or any other breathing condition, they must avoid any asana that places pressure on the airways.
I have taught yoga for 36-7 years and hold the British Wheel of Yoga diploma.

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MaraMusso said on 18 July 2012

I am a BWY (British Wheel of Yoga) teacher based in North London. When you look for a yoga teacher in your local area, it is important you look for a qualified yoga teacher. The BWY is the largest yoga organisation in the UK and they provide training, as well as accrediting courses run by other organisations. They are a safe bet when looking for a local class. The BWY national website is: www.bwy.org.uk, but there are also local BWY websites that list classes in your region. All BWY teachers are fully qualified and insured and you know you're in safe hands. Enjoy your yoga journey!

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Avogado said on 28 May 2012

Hi, I am yoga teacher and would like to say all the above info is useful.
But I would like to address one misleading part in "what style of yoga". In fact, any "yoga style" which involves posture workout is called Hatha yoga, so the description of "Hatha and Iyengar are suitable for beginner" is not accurate. "Hahta yoga class" could be very rigorous and tough ! And Iyengar yoga also belongs to Hatha yoga too.
My advice to anyone who want to start yoga, choose a class with qualified teacher, ask questions whether class is suitable for beginner.
- A qualified teacher should be able to show you modification of posture, and how you can use props (i,e the wall, yoga blocks and belt) to perform posture safely for individual.
- Find out the size of class - a bigger class (i.e., over 20 students), you will get less attention. Teacher will be busy for demo, instruction, and managing whole group and it will be more difficult to deal with individual’s issues.
Lastly, once you decide to join the class, tell a teacher brief health history, especially if you have current health problems, including injuries and pregnancy. And continue practice - Yoga is not quick fix. But over the time, you will gain great benefits for both physical and psychological well-being!

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sidmcvicious said on 22 February 2012

Yoga rocks! I was pretty heavy with stress and depression but pushed myself to try it. I am not a new person, I am the person I'm supposed to be. It's as though someone has taken a thick black cloud away from me. I'd tried anti-depressents, but they turned me into a gibbering idiot and after a while I slumped with them. Now I am not on any medication, just a healthy diet and exercise. Some days are a push, I wake up stiff and tired, but I know the only thing that gets rid of that is more yoga, which brings an enormous high, tailed off by calmness and better still I crave it, it's not a chore. And it's all natural. If you want to loose weight as well, keep with the yoga and add a bit of cardio now and again. Flexibility is key.

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Jennifer Cowie said on 03 August 2011

Using a DVD at home is a great way to start. Yes, a teacher may help your alignment in the pose, but it's not always possible to get to a class. The important thing is to move your body every day, and a home practice will allow you to do that. There are some amazing DVDs available for beginners. I started with one by Rodney Yee and after years of home practice became a teacher.

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