What to Know & Do When You're New to Yoga

Whether you've never tried yoga before or you've simply never attended an official class, for some reason, yoga can be intimidating.  Despite the fact that there are very few required essentials, yoga can seem as exclusive a club to get into as tennis or running.  These, too, I'm sure, are welcoming, if you know what to do when you're new.

Today's post, therefore, is to help in the "I'm new, what's next?" aspect of yoga.  Getting past the first class is the first step to gaining flexibility, challenging your balance, body, and mind, and feeling comfortable.

1. Yoga is not a religion. 
There are spiritual aspects to yoga, which you are free to explore or ignore, but yoga is not a religious sect.  Sometimes, students are nervous to attend, because they feel yogis are on the prowl for new members.  It's not a cult.  There are no recruiting quotas.  Your yoga instructor likely seems excited that you came, because s/he wants you to feel your very best.

2. You practice barefoot. 
Or in socks.  Or in those toe socks with the grippy bottoms.  But usually barefoot.  If you haven't spent much time in bare feet since childhood, kick your shoes off and feel it out.  It's marvelously comfortable and quite good for you.  See this MindBodyGreen article for more on health benefits.  Before you go to class, spend a day or week with as much time without shoes as you can. 

3. You use a yoga mat...
Many yoga students feel comfortable using a mat.  It helps you carve out a spot before the start of class, prevents slips, and cushions your knees in certain poses.  Mats range in price from about $10-100.  Places like Target sell mats for about $15-20.  If you don't have one, or want to wait until you know you love the practice, yoga studios and gyms normally supply mats for student use, though you may or may not feel comfortable using a community mat in that way. 

3.5 ...or you don't. 
Some studios, however, have moved away from yoga mats, opting for bare wood or carpet floors instead.  This New York Times article discusses this trend.  The studio in which I received my training, Glenmore Yoga & Wellness Center, in Richmond, VA, has carpet throughout (with a triple layer of padding beneath); it's pretty, calming, and clean.  For outdoor classes, most students utilize mats, but a few adventure-seekers opt for a foot-on-earth experience.

4. You do not have to be flexible to do yoga. 
If you've ever said (or thought) "I'm not flexible enough to do yoga," then please pay attention.  I've heard this exact sentiment from a number or friends and family as to why they are unable to try yoga.  Saying you aren't flexible enough to try yoga is like saying you aren't good enough at driving to attend driver's ed.  You've got to start somewhere.  Exciting news: Flexibility is not a prerequisite for practicing yoga.  Sure, the people on Yoga Journal have insane flexibility, but most people have limited or underdeveloped flexibility when they begin.  The beauty of yoga is it actually builds flexibility (as well as strength, proper posture, muscle memory...).

5. You should wear comfortable clothing. 
Like many other aspects of American life, the clothing industry has pushed specific yoga clothing to consumers to sell more stuff.  If you feel great/ confident/ beautiful/ flexible in that, you should wear it.  If you don't or it doesn't really make a difference for you, just find comfortable workout clothing.  The key is to have something you can move, breathe, and sweat in--preferably something able to be tucked in at the waist.  Yoga pants have gained in popularity, because they cut down on excess bulk in certain poses, but they are not essential to a successful and productive practice.  If you think you need to go shopping before your first class, sporting stores, department stores, discount chains, as well as thrift shops have options for yoga gear.  Find what works best for you.

6. Yoga is for every fitness level.
Whether you have been sedentary for most of your adult life, an avid gym-goer, or play organized sports, yoga is for you.  As the point is to get you moving, breathing, and slowing down for mindfulness and reflection, the physical poses can be modified to fit you and your needs.  Props like blocks, straps, and bolsters help yoga students modify moves and gain flexibility.  If you have specific limitations or concerns (past injuries, current aches or medical conditions), talk to your instructor privately and inform him/ her.  They'll appreciate the information and address your specific concerns during class.

7. Yoga is not a competition.
This is a tough one to address.  Some people are competitive by nature.  I've been in classes with people more concerned with how far/ deep/ long other students completed poses than their own practice.  If this is your personality, it might be hard to hear, but yoga isn't like that.  It doesn't matter who is most flexible, more experienced, has the deepest backbend... the purpose of yoga is to get you in tune with your own body.  To challenge yourself to become better than you were previously.  The only competition is with yourself and even that is determined by the limitations and concerns of each day.  Don't feel ashamed if you decide to modify a pose (or all of them!).  Knowing your body, listening to its needs and your limitations is a strength worth developing.

8. Yoga poses have English and Sanskrit names. 
If it's your first class, your instructor may not utilize the Sanskrit names for the poses (called asana), but it is a possibility of which you should be aware.  Some teachers alternate between the two languages, some use both each time they move, some use only one exclusively.  The Sanskrit words are beautiful, so if you hear them in your class, don't be intimidated.  Your teacher is not attempting to make you feel like an outsider.  If you are confused about what a pose is called, see your instructor after class or check this Sanskrit Glossary by Yoga Journal for common yoga terms.

9. Practice on an empty stomach and bladder.
Avoid eating food and drinking water before yoga class.  According to most literature, ideally, you should not eat for 3-4 hours prior to class and should discontinue water about 30 minutes prior to the start of class.  This helps your energy move freely and focused in your flexibility and strength, rather than digestion.  Plus, the need to go to the restroom at the conclusion of yoga class, when you're in your final relaxation (corpse pose or shavasana), can distract your mind entirely from the practice of relaxation.

10. Approach yoga with a quiet, calm demeanor. 
This is not kickboxing or Zumba.  Even if your workout will be intense in the physical sense, it is not a time to get hype.  Sometimes, when people feel uncomfortable, they get boisterous or talkative.  Coming into class with a pleasant attitude and countenance is excellent, even quietly catching up with people you know, but loudly addressing others or yelling down the hall isn't cool.  Many people use yoga as their means to relaxation, so please respect that aspect of the practice by being (relatively) quiet before and after class.

11. Have fun.
Even though #10 suggests being quiet, that does not mean you should avoid fun.  Enjoying yourself is essential to developing and continuing any physical exercise.  Feel free to smile, laugh at yourself, and be yourself in class.  If you find yourself struggling in a pose or with the speed of a flow, slow down, breathe, and smile.  You've decided to practice yoga, because you're worth it. 

Be present and be thankful.

Good luck and namaste.

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