According to a recent survey, 56% of American adults are interested in practicing yoga but do not currently. What is to account for this disparity? A lot of us know that yoga can help promote a sense of well-being and comfort in the body, but I think a ton of folks are intimidated by the first step: walking into that first yoga class.
The public face of yoga is young, white, female, slender and VERY bendy. So, it is no wonder that those of us who do not belong to that tiny minority are weirded out by the whole idea of rolling out a mat and fumbling our way through an hour of unfamiliar exercise. And then there is the lingo: downward dogs, upward dogs, cobras… What does any of that actually mean? Who wants to try a new workout that requires mastering an entirely new vocabulary?!
Well, allow me to assure you that none of it is as intimidating as it seems. Fortunately, most studios offer a Beginner’s Yoga, Level 1, or Introduction to Yoga classes that can make your first experience a gentle one. Some studios even offer a series of classes for newbies that act as a basic introduction to the world of yoga, creating a comfortable space to ask the “dumb questions” and fall out of Tree Pose freely. I have also assembled a brief list of the 6 things you should know before attending your first class to help demystify the process a bit.
1. Pick the Right Class for You, There is a Right Class for You.
Level 1 Forrest Yoga? Level 2/3 Ashtanga? Sometimes reading through a studio schedule is enough to turn a new practitioner off completely. There is no universal standard for what a ‘Level 1’ or ‘Beginner’ yoga class actually looks like, but you should be safe starting here. If you have a serious physical limitation you may want to look for ‘Chair’ and ‘Gentle Yoga’ classes. My recommendation? Reach out to the studio, give a call or craft an email and ask which class they recommend for someone trying yoga for the first time. Make sure to mention if you have a physical limitation or specific concerns. Very often a yoga teacher will answer the studio phone or email and we love to talk yoga, so don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for guidance. And, if you give a holler and the person who picks up the phone is rude or brusque? Well, you just saved yourself $15! Keep looking for a studio that feels right for you.
2. You Don’t Need to Own a Mat or Shop at Lululemon
Many new yogis are concerned that they don’t own the right equipment to try yoga for the first time, but all you really need to practice yoga is your body and some comfortable clothes. Most studios will rent you a mat for a nominal price (usually between $1-3) and some even provide mats for free. There are no extra points for looking like a Yoga Journal cover model, just wear whatever you would throw on to head to the gym: comfortable clothing you can move freely in. As you practice more frequently you might want to stock up on some specialized pieces, but don’t invest until you’re hooked.
3. The Early Bird Gets the Elbow Room
Arrive at least 15 minutes before your first class. You may need to fill out a waiver or other studio paperwork, rent your mat, find a space in the room you like, etc. Level 1 and Beginner classes are often super popular, so the earlier you get there the more likely it is that you can hide in the back row. Once you get into the yoga studio, it should be pretty clear how the teacher has oriented the class, students’ mats are generally perpendicular to the teacher’s. If you get there early enough you can claim your spot by unrolling your mat. Having a few moments to chill out on your mat is a great way to start your practice, this extra time will also give you an opportunity to introduce yourself to the teacher as a beginner. Teachers like to know if there are new students in the class and will generally go out of their way to help you get set up before class begins.
4. Everyone’s Had a First Class
So you’ve found your studio, your class, you’ve shelled out a few extra bucks for a loaner mat, and you dug the sweats out of the back of the closet, then you show up a little early to get set up walk in and BAM! there is someone practicing handstands?!?!!? I thought this was a beginner class! Well, in the immortal words of the wonderful yogi Bryan Kest “we bring our shit to yoga.” Some people’s shit is highly competitive, or a little show-offy, and some people just really love handstands (I know it’s hard to believe now, but one day you might be one of them.) Just remember that every single person in that room, including the teacher, had a first yoga class. No one was born mid sun salutation, and everyone practicing yoga (no matter how long) is still learning. Yoga practice is about moving inward, unifying the breath, mind, and movement, so don’t worry about making the right shapes, going deeper, or touching your forehead to your toes. Just use the time you have in class to explore your body a little, be curious and consumed with that exploration and pretty soon the rest of the room, even the most intimidating aspects, will melt away. Also, when in doubt about what a locust means, take a peek at your neighbor, its okay to cheat off someone else’s mat.
5. Don’t Hold Your Breath!
Practicing yoga is about finding a way to move the body and the breath together, it is amazing how unusual it is to take really full deep breaths. So unusual and unnatural that it becomes difficult to think about much else, helping to focus your mind. Think about surrounding the movements with your breath, not huffing and puffing, but really allowing the breath to move the body. This will help slow down your movements and intensify the benefits (and challenge!) of your experience. The breath is truly central to the practice of yoga, so breathe fully throughout, if you lose your deep and full breath take a break and wait for it to return before resuming movement.
6. Listen to Your Body, Hear the Teacher
Yoga allows you the space to tune into the subtle messages your body is sending you. We all experience and hold emotion in our bodies, causing knots and tension in places we didn’t even know we owned. Be patient and feel your way through each movement, always following your breath. The teacher will be filled with suggestions, some of which are important cues to alignment to prevent injury, but many of which may take you to a place of overwhelming sensation- don’t go too far! Remember that the teacher is guiding the entire room, filled with a variety of bodies; some folks have to go a lot farther than others to experience a sweet stretch- your job is to find yours. Your watchword should be moderation, find that Goldilocks spot between too intense and not much of anything. Only you know where ‘just right’ is, and you can only find it if you quiet the mind and tune into the body. So, breathe deeply and fully and feel your way gently through the movements, let the practice come to you.
So, there you go, those are the 6 things I think anyone starting this journey should know. If it is affordable to you, private yoga classes can also be a great way to get your practice started. Working one on one with a yoga teacher can help you to build a home practice or just gain the confidence to jump into a group class. I will be offering private yoga classes and yoga therapy sessions in Brooklyn, NY starting in late August 2015, but there are lots of other great teachers worldwide. Feel free to reach out to me through the comments and I may be able to help connect you with a great private teacher in your area!