“A workout, meditation, and a therapy session all in an hour”—that’s what a friend calls her favorite yoga class. Indeed, current research suggests that yoga’s myriad benefits range from decreasing stress and improving mood to enhancing glucose tolerance and reducing blood pressure, says Kim Innes, associate clinical professor at the University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Alternative and Complementary Therapies. What’s more, you can reap these bonuses at home, at your convenience and next to no cost.
Try out a few local classes to find a style and an instructor you like. (Most gyms now offer yoga, as does the YMCA and other community groups.) Classes are inspiring, and it’s best to learn the poses, or asanas, under the guidance of a teacher who can make hands-on corrections before you take the practice home. Here’s a rundown of three popular styles:
• Ashtanga (also called Hatha or Vinyasa): This traditional style links together a vigorous series of movements called sun salutations (plus standing and sitting stretches) into a flowing practice. A good match if you’re looking for a rigorous, often fast-paced workout.
• Iyengar:Pioneered by 91-year-old B.K.S. Iyengar, this style can also be rigorous, but it’s ideal for anyone who has been injured because it emphasizes proper technique. As such teachers tend to spend more time helping with adjustments and supportive props such as chairs and blocks, which ensures you’re fixing rather than stressing problem areas.
• Restorative:A set of mostly reclining poses often supported by folded blankets and other props, this is a quieting practice that focuses on the breath, allows gentle stretching, and leads to deep relaxation. The classic time for yoga is sunrise, but this style is great for unwinding in the evening before bed. Because it’s not strenuous, it’s a good way to ease into a home practice.
Start with a DVD, or notes from a class you like. It’s easier to follow the instructions of an established teacher initially. Try different DVDs; you can borrow them from the library or order them from an online rental service.
Find a time that works.Most yoga styles are ideally practiced first thing in the morning—and accomplished students and teachers tend to practice one to two hours daily. “But if you’ve got two kids and you’ve got to get to school and work, forget it!” says Benagh. “You might be able to find 15 minutes before bed, or while dinner is cooking.”
Create a sanctuary, , even if it’s just a corner of a small home, recommends Little. It should be clean, uncluttered, and with a bit of fresh air but still a warm, comfortable temperature (in the mid-70s). Common candidates include little-used dining rooms, living rooms, bedrooms, or a home office. Look for enough bare floor to roll out a mat; an area of bare wall (if you need support for inversions like headstand); and a TV/DVD player if you’re using a DVD. Little likes to create a simple sort of altar with a small candle and a flower. “It should be a place for you and no one else,” she says. “A place to let go and reflect.”
Create quiet.Unplug the phone. Shut the door against curious pets. And if you’re in charge of young children, consider allowing them to watch a wee bit of children’s TV or a video. “I used to stick my kid in front of Sesame Street,” says Benagh. “I’d get one hour.”
Start with a simple, more restful practice. First, lie down for a few minutes, tuning into your body and breath. Then do one slow sun salutation, and a couple more to warm up and get your energy or prana flowing. Move to a basic standing posture, such as triangle pose, followed by gentle forward bends, twists, and a back arch like bridge pose, says Surya Little, co-founder of Prajna Yoga in Santa Fe, New Mexico. End with a few moments in savasana, or corpse pose, where you lie on your back and just let everything go. “It’s the place where you can completely absorb the benefits of the exercise on your nervous and circulatory systems,” says Little. “Plus, it’s very calming.”
Be flexible.If playing your favorite iTunes mix keeps you moving, go ahead and plug it in. One of Benagh’s students confessed that she does yoga while watching the Red Sox on TV with her husband. “It’s not as deep a practice, but you’re keeping your hand in,” Benagh says.