Yoga is a meditative and spiritual practice as much as it is a physical one. The popularity of yoga has grown immensely in the West over the past several decades, but its roots are in ancient India, where yoga was more of a religion than an hour-long exercise class. Many Western practitioners try to incorporate the historical, philosophical, and spiritual principals of yoga into their classes to create a healthy mind-body connection. When you’re new to any sort of practice, it’s always good to keep a few basics in mind. For all of you new Green Monster yogis out there, here are some steps to help you attain all of the benefits of a yoga practice:
1. Start basic.
If you’re not accustomed to the postures of yoga, or to a yoga class setting, it is best for your body (and your confidence) to start with a basic class; that’s what they’re for. Jumping into advanced classes without a proper grounding can cause injury and frustration.
2. Prepare for noises.
If you’re new to yoga, you might hear a variety of sounds in a class that are unusual or unexpected: chanting, Ujayi breathing, and musical instruments, to name a few. You’ll likely be asked to join in the chanting (which may range from repeating the word “Om” three times at the end of class to reciting the Ashtanga yoga invocations) or breathing, but it’s perfectly acceptable if you just listen at first and take in the experience.
3. Don’t strain your body to achieve a pose.
Yoga is a forever-practice. The term “practice” is apt here because there’s no end test or peak performance. You will always find ways to challenge yourself in different poses, series, and mentalities. So you have permission to let go of the need to be perfect; the concept doesn’t exist in yoga. Push yourself to your edge, but do not try to surpass it; it won’t be worth the pain or injury you induce as a result. Take your time — you have plenty of it.
4. Don’t compare yourself to others.
Remember, yoga is a non-competitive practice. There are no yoga championships, no national titles. You have no reason to be better than the person next to you. And in fact, if you’re spending a lot of time looking at others in the room, you’re not focusing on your own practice. The only reason you should be striving for improvement is because it’s right for you and your body at a given time.
5. Don’t seek praise.
This was difficult for me when I first began practicing. I’ve always wanted to impress my teachers, since elementary school days. But the yoga classroom is, ideally, a space without ego. Find reward within yourself in knowing that you showed up and you were faithful to your own needs for that particular practice. And let that be fulfilling.
6. Try a variety of classes.
There are so many different classes to take these days. If you tried a class and didn’t like it, try another. As an endurance athlete, I was drawn to power yoga classes for a while. But what I eventually realized is that, while I occasionally enjoy that challenge, what I often seek in yoga is a slow and quiet practice, such as yin — one that complements the high-intensity training I’m accustomed to and helps balance me out. On this same note, know what you’re getting into: some classes are led by instruction and demonstration, and others — such as Ashtanga and Bikram — are set series that are just led by the instructor calling out Sanskrit names of poses; if you don’t know the poses, you can get lost very quickly.
7. Know that you CAN practice yoga without expensive clothing.
This may seem hard to believe. Go to any studio yoga class and you’ll see women (and men) dressed in the most beautiful — and pricey — clothing designed specifically for yoga “workouts.” But before athletic wear became its own niche fashion market, people effectively practiced yoga in comfortable, inexpensive clothing. After all, these are clothes you’re intentionally going to sweat in. Yoga should not be high-maintenance, nor should it create pressure to meet fashion standards. Let’s stay grounded.
8. Be mindful of fellow practitioners.
Timeliness is important in all aspects of life, even in the very open-minded practice of yoga. Plan ahead so you can arrive at least five minutes prior to the start of class. Sometimes, classes get very full, and you don’t want to walk in late during an opening meditation, causing everyone to have to stop and adjust their spacing for you. And speaking of space, don’t be a hog. In an ideal setting, you’d have lots of room to spread your arms and kick your legs wherever, but this is often not the reality. Be kind to others in the class and make room for them. You’ll be grateful you did when you need the same kindness extended to you one day. And if you happen to be in class with a friend, save the gab for afterward. Nothing is more obnoxious to others who are trying to concentrate than whispering and giggling neighbors.
9. Listen to your instructor.
She or he is talking to you throughout the whole class for a reason. Often, it’s to help you achieve a pose properly; sometimes it’s to guide you through meditation. Also, welcome the instructor’s adjustments — you may have issues with strangers manually tweaking your body after only a rough introduction, but these adjustments can help prevent pain or awkwardness in a pose. But all of this said, if you’re not comfortable with a direction the instructor is leading you in — either verbally or physically — do quietly speak up and let the instructor know.
10. Always return to your breath.
When things start to feel tough and you’re resisting a certain posture, focus on your breath. Listen to the sound of your breath and count them. This will help you regain your focus and get grounded. The very worst thing you can do is get angry and frustrated at the pose, the instructor, or the practice itself. Remember why you came in the first place, and honor that reason.
Namaste, and enjoy your new practice!
Image source: Local Fitness.Au / Creative Commons