Breathe In, Breathe Out: Start Reaping the Benefits of Yoga

Are you interested in yoga, but not sure where to begin? Maybe you’ve heard about people finding their inner-zen and you’re wondering if it’s as good as it sounds. International Day of Yoga is an inspirational time to start, and you don’t even need a gym.

In its mission to promote global health, the United Nations picked June 21 to feature the practice of yoga and encourage everyone to give it a try.

The National Institutes of Health classifies yoga as a form of complementary and alternative medicine, and its mental and physical health benefits are well-established. Studies have shown that it can help to ease stress, reduce inflammation, increase strength and flexibility, help with weight loss and even decrease symptoms of periodontal disease.

There are hundreds of yoga postures (asanas) with infinite variations. Don’t let that fact overwhelm you though, as most are rooted in a handful of positions. As you practice, listen to what your body is telling you and modify directions when necessary. Here are five basic moves to help you get started.

Mountain pose

Stand with feet parallel to each other, and imagine a string is pulling you up straight. Press feet together, keep your shoulders down and suck your stomach in and up. When done right, this move uses every muscle in the body, improving posture and balance. This is the foundation for all standing poses, and you can practice it anywhere, even in line at the grocery store. You can advance to tree pose by placing hands on hips or over heart and bringing one foot up to calf or thigh. If your tree is sturdy and balanced, try raising arms above head in the prayer position. It helps to focus on one spot as you look forward.

Cobra pose

Start lying on your belly, face down, palms planted next to shoulders. With elbows tucked in, use back muscles to raise your head and chest off the ground, looking ahead with neck in line with spine (extra credit if you lift hands off the mat). Cobra is a helpful pose if you hunch over a computer all day, as it stretches and strengthens the spine.

Downward dog

Starting on all fours, extend your legs straight behind you and come up onto your toes. Lift tailbone to the sky, relax your head and pull your navel in toward spine. Walk hands back and forth and feel free to bend knees if hamstrings are tight. Keep your heels down. As your flexibility increases, you can increase the difficulty by moving your feet closer together. Downward dog is one of yoga’s most well-known poses, and for good reason — it strengthens arms and legs, improves digestion and can alleviate headaches, insomnia and symptoms of menopause.

Warrior pose

Stand with right leg forward, knee over ankle, and left leg extended behind you. Stretch arms front to back and turn head to the right, hold for eight to 10 breaths, then switch sides. This pose was among 12 in a study that showed yoga can help improve bone density and ward off osteoporosis. Warrior is a good start for other sideways positions.

Child's pose

Start on all fours with knees and legs together, and sit back on your heels. Stretch arms forward as far as you can, palms down, and lower your head. This is a restfully meditative move that’s good at the end of a session, before you go to bed or anytime you want stress relief. It loosens up hips, thighs and ankles, and relieves back and neck pain. It’s a go-to pose if you’re fatigued during a class and need a break.

As with any exercise program, talk with your doctor before you begin.