Yoga is all the rage for its combined physical and mental benefits, as well as the fact that so many of us look downright sexy in those groovy yoga pants and bare, recently pedicure feet.
Hatha Yoga is the most commonly practiced form, and it's ideal for beginners, focusing as it does on slow stretching and simple poses. Like all fitness trends, more intense forms of Yoga are the ones you hearing people talking about—Iyangar, Vinyasa, Tantric and Hot Yoga are in vogue with the same people who were all about Pilates a couple of years ago. If you're looking to increase your strength, balance and flexibility in a calm atmosphere, look for a generic, beginners' Yoga class instead of going with one of the trendier forms: you'll find it satisfying and you'll be less likely to suffer strains.
Some Yoga classes focus on spiritual work with a lessened emphasis on fitness. There may be meditation and chanting. Yoga at the gym or health club will probably be fitness oriented, but if you study at an ashram or another place dedicated to Yoga, you may find the classes more comprehensive.
If you're looking for a more challenging workout and want to shake things up a bit, you may want to try Iyangar Yoga, which can be fluid and fast paced. Iyangar is not for the out-of-shape: you'd be surprised at the muscles you can pull if you just jump into an already-moving Iyangar class. While Hatha Yoga doesn't generally use props, Iyangar uses some of the same bands and bricks as Pilates.
There are as many types of Yoga as there are people who teach it. Hot Yoga is especially popular because it's fun to do Yoga in a 95 degree room full of sweating students. Okay, that doesn't sound like fun, but people love it because it combines a Yoga workout full of stretching and bending with a room heated to bring waxy flexibility to even fairly stiff muscles and joints. Hot Yoga isn't for everyone—if you have health issues like heart trouble, if you're pregnant or out of shape, you shouldn't attempt Hot Yoga. But if you're in good health and especially if you live in the cold North and want a warm winter workout, Hot Yoga is the way to go.
There are various ways of becoming certified to teach Yoga, so before you join a class, find out about the instructor's educational background. You want a teacher who's been doing Yoga for a long time, and it never hurts if that person also has a degree in something like exercise physiology. Yoga is a specialist sport: your gym shouldn't be training Yoga instructors in 3 or even 6 months: Yoga takes years. And once you've ascertained that your instructor does indeed know her or his stuff, you will still want to look for the hallmarks of a good instructor. Instructors should be happy to answer questions, should provide demonstrations and feedback during class, and should never push you into doing things you aren't ready for. Because Yoga is about stretching and gaining flexibility, people who are in a hurry to get fit may feel impatient. That impatience can lead to injury if you stretch too far, bounce in your stretching or attempt poses that hurt. Don't expect to be able to do it all at first: over time, you'll get stronger and will be able to hold poses longer and take on new challenges in the form of more extreme poses.