Yoga is one of the most popular mind-body connection and health practices around. No surprise there, as traditional yoga practices have been tested and proven to help improve health and mental wellbeing through thousands of years, and the practice has a strong tradition behind it.
Science follows, and there has been interest in studying the benefits of yoga and meditation over recent decades with increasing scientific evidence that these tools are indeed of benefit to us.
Yoga comes in a variety of styles, shapes, and traditions, with each having its own focus and associated goals. Yoga is also a way of life, so while we in this article will mainly focus on the physical practice of yoga, if you are new to the concept it may be worth reading more about other lifestyle aspects many Yogis choose to follow for optimal health and contentment.
The first thing you need to consider when starting a new regular Yoga practice is what your aims with the practice are – and this might just be trying something new and seeing if it works for you. However, if you have more specific goals such as weight loss, improved mental clarity, stress reduction then there may be types of yoga that suit your needs better than others.
The frequency of yoga practice will also depend on a variety of factors, such as your level of physical fitness and experience, how much time you have available, and your goals. Below we will discuss examples of how you can build a healthy yoga practice based on goals and the optimal number of sessions to help you achieve these.
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Yoga Practice for Complete Beginners
If you have never stepped foot on a yoga mat before and have no idea how it works then you will need patience. In addition to holding poses and executing these correctly much of yoga is breath practice and linking the breath with our movements. Although you can choose how you want to start your practice, we would suggest the following program:
Yoga Style: Hatha/slow vinyasa flow for beginners
Frequency: twice a week, three if you’re feeling more confident
Focus your practice on form, and having fun to start, if you have a local yoga studio, they may have a beginner course you can join. If not, or your ability to exercise with others has been limited due to the pandemic, then there are a number of fantastic free resources, especially on YouTube where you can follow teachers such as Adrienne, Kassandra, and Tim, among other fantastic, qualified instructors.
Many of them have courses, and programs you can follow, and one of the fantastic things about doing it over the internet is that you can set the pace, for example, you can follow one of Adrienne’s free 30-day programs but only do a few sessions every other or every third day depending on what your body allows.
You can eventually, if you want, work your way up to a more regular practice 5 times a day or even every day. The key though is taking it slowly and working with your body to allow enough recovery and time to build muscle to be able to maintain more frequent sessions.
Our suggestion: start with two sessions a week then add on an additional one every two weeks.
Yoga for Strength and Weight Loss
You will probably build some muscle whatever type of yoga you choose to practice, especially if you’re a beginner, however, if you want to use yoga as a resistance exercise to build lean flexible musculature then you may benefit more from more physically challenging types. It’s usually a good idea to know the basic poses and how to transition between them before attempting these to ensure you are getting maximal benefit and avoiding injury.
If you already dabble in yoga or have been building your yoga practice as described above, then you can start adding one more challenging session per week and see how you get on. For example, if you have an established practice of three sessions a week, then you can either replace one of your sessions with a more challenging type or add a fourth session depending on your time availability.
The types of yoga that will help you achieve a more muscular frame are usually Ashtanga Yoga, Power Yoga (a more modern version of yoga specifically developed for gym classes), and Hatha Yoga is practiced in a more resistant based manner. You should be able to build muscle at a good pace if you practice 2-3 times a week at a level that is challenging enough that you feel burn during the session.
Yoga can be a healthy part of a weight loss journey in three ways:
- Building strength helps increase the base metabolic rate as muscle requires more energy than fat even at a resting state.
- Increasing relaxation and reducing stress, which helps reduce emotional eating, or at least helps make you aware of emotional eating so you work on it.
- Improves sleep; studies have shown that you are less likely to overeat after a good night’s sleep and amazingly adults on the same calorie deficit who slept better lost more weight than those who slept badly.
Having this in mind you might want to incorporate more than one type of yoga into your routine for weight loss, for example, once you know the basics you can try something like this:
Ashtanga / Power Yoga 2-3 sessions a week and Hatha / relaxation Yoga 2-3 times a week in the evenings, with low resistance and focus on stress management. Consider scheduling these on days you’ve done other exercises to help relax your muscles, stretch and improve sleep.
Yoga for Mental Health and Stress Reduction
Many of us hold stress in our bodies. Mental challenges, arguments, difficulties at school or work translate to tense muscles, often painful and tight. A fantastic resource on this topic is the book The Body Keeps the Score, where the author discusses how he through years of clinical practice have helped people cope with trauma through a combination of talking therapies and therapies that focus on the bodywork. One of the most effective methods according to his work is the practice of yoga.
Relaxing and strengthening the body can help relax the mind and help improve mood and reduce stress. Which one of us doesn’t need that in the fast-paced world we live in with all its madness?
While some people find that hard exercise can help them relax, many prefer more calm types of yoga for this purpose. Yin and Hatha yoga can in particular be helpful. A Hatha practice that has elements of pranayama (an ancient breath control practice where you use a variety of breathing techniques used to for example help calm the nervous system, improve digestion).
Yoga techniques focused on increasing flexibility can help release stress that has built up over many years, as discussed above tension especially in the hips and back can be a sign of pent-up stress. Releasing the body can help release the mind. Our suggestion would be:
Hatha or Yin Yoga 1-2 times a week, you can build up to more if you can and have time
Pranayama as part of hatha or as a solitary practice as often as you can, maybe working on a bedtime or morning meditation routine whether you choose to add bodywork to that or not.
Only do as much as is reasonable for you, and don’t let a strict yoga schedule be an additional source of stress. It’s ok if you miss the occasional session, and totally ok if you have time for an extra one. Experiment with what makes you feel best and if you find a particularly tight muscle group try to incorporate poses that help relax it into your practice.
An Example Schedule for Reaping Optimal Benefits
Assuming that you know the basics and you really love yoga and want to reap maximal benefits then you may want to incorporate different types of yoga into your weekly routine.
Most serious yogis will practice 3-5 times a week. So assuming that you are aiming for five times a week, here is our proposed schedule;
Ashtanga Yoga twice per week – to build strength and flexibility
Hatha Yoga twice per week – to reduce stress and promote general health
Yin or other deep stretch practice once per week to really promote lean muscles and reduce tension
Some people can never do Ashtanga yoga because the pace is uncomfortable for them, don’t worry, you can just work on Hatha and Yin yoga. You will as discussed still build muscles as long as your practice includes enough resistance to make you work.
There is no easy answer to how often you should practice yoga, your life can have some element of yoga in it every single day, but you may only make it to the studio or your mat at home a couple of times a week.
The most important thing is that you benefit from the practice and don’t create additional expectations or stress around it. It is there to benefit your body and mind. Committing stick to a schedule that leaves you refreshed, healthier and stronger is a wonderful thing in itself. For some, this may be yoga every single morning and for some just once a week on Saturday afternoon at a studio where they meet the same group and feel connected as they practice.
The only advice we will impart if not to wear yourself out, start slow, go steady and you’ll find that you have a regular practice that you enjoy in no time.
The required disclaimer: we are not a healthcare service and do not replace speaking to your healthcare provider if you have any concerns about your wellbeing be, the mental or physical. Some people especially those who have not exercised for a long time or those with health issues may benefit from a discussion with their physician before commencing any exercise program.