If starting a yoga practice is one of your intentions for this New Year, get ready for a life-changing adventure. Fortunately, you won’t have to look far for everything you need to take the first steps on your yogic path. Dedicated yoga teachers offer instruction in private studios, fitness centers, YMCAs, community centers and senior living facilities throughout the country.
The basic equipment—mats, YogaPaws, blocks, and straps—is readily available and affordable. And, every venue has classes specifically designed for students who are new to yoga. That’s the easy part. Then comes the moment when you walk into the studio for the first time. Suddenly, all thoughts about calm and serenity might evaporate as your brain shifts into comparison/assessment mode. No matter how sincerely the instructor reassures you that “it’s all good,” there’s that inner voice worrying about whether you’ll fall down, whether you’ll have the stamina to finish the class and whether those yoga pants make your hips look big. Don’t listen.
Check your fears at the door. No one can “fail” in a yoga class. Other than safety-related alignment adjustments, your mind, body, and spirit working together in the moment determine the full expression of every pose. You will do each pose in a unique way, your way, because that asana comes from within. There will be days when you feel like a world-beater, days when Balasana (child’s pose) will seem like a challenge and lots of days that lie somewhere between. Just keep reminding yourself that it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination.
Think back to when you were a child—to a time before that voice trash-talked your dreams. When you wanted to learn to ride a bike or do a cartwheel, you didn’t think you were a failure because you couldn’t get it the first time. The “trying” was as much fun as the end result. You weren’t embarrassed if you fell because your friends were falling, learning and trying again, too—just like they are in a yoga class (Just ask anyone who’s tried to take off in Virabhadrasana III (warrior III)). Bring that excitement back as you begin your practice or maybe as you begin a new style of yoga or even classes with a new teacher.
Here are some strategies to help you let go of any nervousness and open yourself to the unlimited benefits—and the pure fun—of a vibrant yoga practice.
Before You Go
- Check out the class online. The mission statement, class description, and even the website design will provide some good indicators of what kind of experience you can expect. If the environment matters to you, make that part of your decision. Yoga is a sensual practice. Color, scent, music, and patterns are all part of the yogic path. So, no, it’s not shallow to look for a space that makes it easier for you to detach from your daily world and travel within.
Since there are many different styles of yoga, consider which meets your goals: the slower approach of a Hatha class (the word comes from a combination of the Sanskrit “ha” for sun and “tha” for moon) which invites students to explore ways to find calm as they hold and deepen each asana or the faster flow of a Vinyasa class (breath-synchronized movement) which encourages students to move from pose to pose in order to heat and detoxify the body and achieve stillness in motion. Beyond these two basic styles, there are many options for customizing your practice, from the gentle physical and spiritual message of Anusara to the dynamic flow of Power Yoga, the awakening of Kundalini yoga and the cleanse of Bikram Yoga (practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees). Honoring your body rhythms will help you shorten the learning curve.
- If you have time, visit the studio before your first class. Get your bearings. Even if you come 15 minutes before your first class, the time it takes to register and sign a liability waiver may leave you hurrying to change, find mat space and transition away from your day.
- Make sure you don’t feel like an outsider. You should feel welcome, at home and connected. If you’re not greeted with a smile or if you feel too old, too young, too fat, too skinny or too un-cool, keep shopping for “your” studio. You’ll never be calm on the mat if the other students or the teacher remind you of high school cliques.
- You probably already know a lot more about basic poses than you think. But, to erase the fear factor, take some time to YouTube beginning yoga poses and practice along to get the feel of the asanas. Check out some yoga DVDs from your local library. Take a tour of Yoga-Paws’ pose library and the pose descriptions on Yoga Journal’s site.
On the Mat
Before class begins, find your center. You’ll see students in various poses, from Savasana (corpse pose) to many variations on seated postures. Explore which poses help you calm your thoughts and relax your body. Don’t expect they’ll be the same for every class. Learn to listen to what your mind, body, and spirit require in the moment. Close your eyes. Consciously soften each body part, starting at your feet if you’re lying down or at your head if you’re sitting. Envision your feet, knees, pelvic girdle, back, shoulders and head releasing stress and relaxing into the mat. Let go of your day, your expectations and your fears. Become present.
- Breathe. Once you feel calm, connect with your breath. Take some long inhales through your nose and long exhales. Start with equal inhales and exhales, then begin to make the exhales one to four counts longer. Allow your breath to steady your mind.
- Remember this class is all about you. The instructor is your guide but your body is the teacher. Trust it. In a beginning yoga class, most teachers adjust students only to correct alignment that could be harmful. Otherwise, students are free to find the pose in their own way. Take advantage of that freedom.
- Don’t compare. As Cincinnati yoga teacher Stephanie Herrin tells both beginning and advanced students, “If you’re watching your neighbors and you start feeling like a loser because you’re not doing poses like they’re doing them, close your eyes and they’ll go away.” Yoga’s not an Olympic sport. You don’t get extra points for getting your head to your leg or doing Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand). Don’t pressure yourself to think only extreme poses can be “good” poses. Focus on what’s happening in your body during each instant of the pose and let that determine where your edge—and success—really are.
- Know that you can stop, adjust and start again at any time. Yoga is neither a performance nor a race. It doesn’t have to be “finished.” Especially when you begin, give yourself the okay to rest in Balasana whenever you need to for as long as you need to. In a yoga class, discernment is the goal, not pushing on pointlessly. During a workshop taught by Bryan Kest, the class was working hard to keep flowing—so hard, in fact, that the room was heating up and students were perspiring so much that it was hard not slide on their mats. As most soldiered on, one student dropped to his knees and eased back into child’s pose. Kest stopped the class, pointed to the student and said, “Now, that’s yoga!”
- Yoga is a safe place. So release your anxiety, fears, and nervousness to the universe and step inside a world where everything is possible.