Beginner Yoga Tips: How to Survive your First Yoga Class

Curious about yoga but intimidated to try a class? You’re not alone. Online articles and images sometimes create the wrong impression that yoga is only for young people who are fit and flexible. Rest assured that yoga is for everybody – EVERY BODY. There is a right style, class, and teacher for everyone. I’ve been teaching for 6 years and I’ve seen a lot of brand new yoga students in my classes. Here are my suggestions to help beginners have the best experience possible. Read on for my tips on surviving (and enjoying!) your first yoga class.

  •  Do your research. Visit the websites of yoga studios in your area and read the class descriptions. It’s okay to call the studio to ask which classes they recommend for you. If possible, go to a class that is designed specifically for beginners. This way, you can learn the poses in a non-intimidating way. Feel free to ask the teacher questions before or after class. It is their job to help you and make sure you practice safely and effectively.
  • Don’t hide in the back! I often see new students sheepishly make their way to the farthest corners of the room, as if that makes them invisible. Hey, we won’t bite. 🙂 It’s much better to position yourself where you can see and hear the teacher clearly. You’re paying for the class so you might as well get the most out of it. When you buy movie tickets, you want to get the best seats, right? I understand beginners often feel self-conscious and try to be as inconspicuous as possible by placing their mats in the back row. Believe me, other students are too busy with their own practice to spy on you. 🙂
  •  Arrive early. Don’t underestimate the importance of having an extra 10-15 minutes to settle into a new place. If it’s your first time at the studio, they will need you to fill out some forms and perhaps give you a short tour or orientation. This will help you feel more comfortable in the space and give you an opportunity to ask questions and relax before class starts.
  • Come prepared. Wear comfortable clothing you can move and stretch in. Yoga is done barefoot so don’t worry about shoes. Bring your own yoga mat, towel, and water. If you’re not sure what items you need, call the studio ahead of time to find out if they rent or sell yoga items. I am of the opinion that your yoga mat can make or break your first yoga class experience! Please do your research on the types of mats out there. Choose a mat with good traction to help prevent or minimize slipping in poses. If you’re like me and you tend to sweat a lot, a yoga towel might be necessary even if your mat has good grip. You can check out my reviews of some yoga mats and towels if you need more information. Trust me, knowing these seemingly unimportant details will save you from unnecessary suffering. 🙂
  • Have a BEGINNER’S MIND – This is my most important tip. Be open to learning. Be okay with making mistakes. You need a positive attitude and a sense of adventure as you step into your first yoga class. A sense of humor helps too! Remember that you are not there to perform, achieve, or compete. You’re there to discover the practice and nurture yourself.

Sometimes, no matter how prepared you are, things don’t work out. Maybe you stumble into an advanced power yoga class and are unable to keep up. Perhaps the teacher’s style or the class vibe simply doesn’t resonate with you. I encourage you to continue trying other classes and instructors until you find a good fit. This is all part of the process. Eventually you will have a yoga community of teachers and fellow students who will support you in your journey.

Debunking 3 Common Yoga Myths

“I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible!” is like saying, “I can’t drink water because I’m not hydrated!” As a yoga teacher, I’ve heard this excuse many times from people hesitant to try the practice. It’s time to shed light on three of the most common misconceptions about yoga and debunk those yoga myths.

Yoga Myth #1: I have to be an acrobat/gymnast/contortionist to do yoga.                

Magazine covers and social media are rife with images of bendy yogis in fancy poses. Let me assure you that this is not what happens in a regular yoga class. You are there to move and stretch your body safely. Your instructor will help you adapt yoga poses to suit your needs and will not force you into shapes that are not suitable for your physique and level of experience. If you are a beginner, start with basic or gentle classes to learn the foundational poses.      

Yoga Myth #2: Yoga is boring. You just sit around doing nothing.  

Not all yoga classes have the same intensity level. Restorative and Yin yoga are more passive practices. Certain yoga styles like Ashtanga and Power Vinyasa, to name a couple, are physically challenging. In these classes, you will work up a sweat and increase your heart rate as you flow through a sequence of poses at a moderate to fast pace. I’ve had new students say after practice that the class was much harder than they thought it would be! A well-rounded yoga flow practice improves your strength, flexibility, balance and mental focus.

Yoga Myth #3: Yoga is a religion.  

I’ve been asked about the spiritual component of yoga by students who are worried that the practice might be in conflict with their faith. Every yoga teacher will have a different approach when it comes to this. A few classes will delve into spirituality and yogic texts, others will emphasize the mind-body connection, and some will focus mostly on the physical aspect. Some yoga styles incorporate chanting and yoga philosophy in their teachings. The good news is you will not be forced to do anything you are not comfortable with. The yoga classes I teach are filled with students who have different beliefs, backgrounds, and religious affiliations. You are free to absorb what you like about the practice and set aside what doesn’t serve you at the moment.

The important thing is to do your research. Talk to yoga teachers about the style they teach. Ask other yoga students about their experience. Read the descriptions of yoga classes at gyms or studios. Take classes from different instructors to find a good fit. With some trial and error, plus a sense of adventure, you will eventually discover the teachers and classes that are just right for you.

 

*I wrote this article for the Front Door Fitness website where it was first published. FDF is a wonderful personal training company in Kansas City; and I am proud to be part of the team. Check out the FDF blog for more free articles on fitness, nutrition, and healthy living.

The Four Styles of Yoga

What are the different styles of yoga and how do you know which one is right for you? Over the years, I’ve practiced and dabbled in various types and “brands” of yoga. Some are more traditional and lineage-based (e.g. Ashtanga, Iyengar, Viniyoga) while others are newer creations of master teachers and yoga celebrities (e.g. Baptiste’s Power Yoga, Sadie Nardini’s Core Strength Vinyasa, Bikram Yoga, Jivamukti Yoga). Every now and then, I will read about some trending yoga combo such as: Doga (dog yoga), Broga (yoga for bros?), and now that recreational marijuana is legal in some states – even Pot Yoga!

The dizzying array of yoga offerings in modern culture is enough to make a beginner either just give up or simply walk into any random class and hope it works out. Here, I’ll talk about just FOUR of the most common styles you will encounter in yoga studios or online videos. This list will give you an idea of the differences between the styles and help you decide which one might best suit your needs.

HATHA YOGA

Hatha is a general term that refers to the PHYSICAL practice of yoga. It’s different from the other aspects of yoga such as meditation and yoga philosophy. Hatha Yoga refers to the physical discipline – the practice of “asanas” or yoga postures. 

Sometimes in yoga studios and online yoga classes you’ll see “Hatha Yoga” as one of the styles. The word can also be used to describe either gentle yoga or a more static yoga practice where poses are held longer (there is no “flowing” movement unlike in Vinyasa).

Who is it for? Hatha style classes can be very beneficial for you if you’re just starting out with your yoga practice. Because poses are held for a long time, students learn proper alignment. There’s enough time spent in the pose for the student to feel subtle sensations in the body. A Hatha class may also include challenging yoga poses but you still come in and out of the pose slowly.

VINYASA YOGA or VINYASA FLOW YOGA

Vinyasa is a SANSKRIT term that has several meanings. The word Vinyasa is loosely translated as “to place in a special way.” In the context of modern yoga and yoga studio classes, Vinyasa refers to the flowing style of yoga practice. In a Vinyasa class, we coordinate breath with movement and we link the poses together to create a flowing sequence that is almost like a dance. Vinyasa is also the term used to describe a specific sequence of poses which are: plank to low plank/chaturanga to upward facing dog to downward facing dog. It’s sometimes referred to as a transition sequence.

Who is it for? Vinyasa is appropriate for those who have some yoga experience and for strong beginners with no major injuries. The style flows from pose to pose so you don’t always have enough time to learn alignment details. You’ll benefit most if you already have a basic understanding of common yoga poses.

Vinyasa has a wonderful dance-like quality and can be a great physical workout. In most classes – you will work up a sweat, generate heat with the ujjayi breathing and dynamic movement, and get your heart rate up. You can increase strength and improve flexibility with consistent practice. It also enhances your concentration and mental focus as you connect the breath with the movement and as you work to transition gracefully in and out of poses.

YIN YOGA or DEEP STRETCH YOGA

I’m sure you’re familiar with the Taoist concepts of “yin and yang.” These are opposite and complementary principles. Yang is the masculine or active energy and Yin is

the feminine or passive counterpart. This is an oversimplification, of course, and there is more to these concepts than can be explained here.

In a Yin class, you’re passive in the sense that you’re on the floor the whole time. You do seated and supine poses (supported by props when necessary) and you hold these for much longer than you would in a Vinyasa class (usually 3-5 minutes). In Yin, we gently and safely stretch the connective tissue that surrounds the joints. When we moderately “stress” or stretch the connective tissue by holding a yin pose for a long time, the body will respond by making it longer and stronger.

If you’re looking at someone in a yin pose, they might look like they’re not doing much. However, yin poses can feel intense. There will be some strong sensations and possibly discomfort (not sharp pain – we never want that in any practice!). The intention is to gradually improve flexibility and mobility. All levels of yoga students can benefit from a yin yoga practice. The meditative quality of  yin can also help with relaxation and tension relief.

RESTORATIVE YOGA

Restorative Yoga is a great antidote to chronic stress. In a class, you might just do a few poses (5 or 6) and you hold these poses for at least 5 minutes. Some supine poses are held even longer, up to 10 minutes. These long holds allow the body to gradually release into the pose and relax deeply and completely.

The body is supported by props. The various props are there to adapt the pose to fit the student’s body so long holds are possible. There is hardly any movement in the pose and this style requires much less effort than Yin Yoga. There is some passive stretching that happens as you stay in the pose for long periods of time but actively stretching is not the intention.

Restorative yoga can be a healing practice. It allows you to slow down and quiet down. It is an opportunity to alleviate adrenal fatigue that results from not giving the body enough time to rest and restore itself. It can be challenging and uncomfortable for the mind that is not used to stillness and silence. This is all part of the discipline of this style.

All levels of yoga students can benefit from this practice. It can also be used when one is recovering from injury, struggling with personal issues, or chronically fatigued.

Which style is right for you?

In the first few months or years of your yoga practice, it’s natural to be drawn to the style that is compatible with your personality. If you’re a goal-oriented and self-motivated type A individual, you may find challenging and sweaty Vinyasa classes appealing. You enjoy the constant movement, the intensity of the poses, and the upbeat music (with some teachers). If you’re more introverted or inner-directed, you may prefer the silence and stillness of Yin and Restorative. You appreciate the quiet approach, minimal stimulation, and less activity of the more passive practices.

This is all well and good. However, remember that yoga is also about bringing balance into our lives. I suggest you explore the practices that don’t initially appeal to you. Get out of your comfort zone and try the class that’s unfamiliar. Cultivate the opposite of your habitual patterns and tendencies. Yoga is about facing the discomfort and finding ease within that discomfort. And believe me, you will be mentally and emotionally uncomfortable whenever you try something new. The go-getter types might be bored and frustrated with just “sitting around doing nothing” in Yin or Restorative. The passive types might resist pushing themselves physically in strong flow classes. This is all part of the process as we continue exploring yoga and deepening our practice. You will probably always gravitate to the classes that are most familiar and comfortable for you;  but it is worth exploring the other styles to bring balance into your practice.