This is one of my favorite topics! I love chatting with beginning yoga students because I know how much a yoga practice can positively and powerfully impact one’s body and life. That’s a big claim, right? I know, I know. It’s actually one of those claims that makes people suspect yogis of being a little over the top and out there with their devotion to the practice. Simply said, if you’re not into yoga (yet!), yogis seem weird.
But the potential benefits are real. When I took my first yoga class in 2001, I had no idea what to expect. Well, I actually expected to be bored and never return. I was attending at the urging of a good friend who recommended it to help with my rheumatoid arthritis. I was taking drugs that made me sleepy and impaired my cognitive function – two things that aren’t good when you’re trying to write a dissertation. My friend also said it was a good workout, about which I was very skeptical.
So after my “real” workout one Sunday, I went to my first 90-minute power yoga class at the Baptiste Studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Wowza! I was blown away! It was challenging, yet, I saw these amazing men and women twice my age who were balancing on one leg or their hands; doing pushups (which we call chatarangas in the yoga world); and with flexibility that made me very aware that I could barely touch my calves. I walked out drenched in sweat, exhausted, and hooked 100%.
What do I wish I knew going into my first class? What do I tell people who are thinking of starting yoga? This is what I typically share:
- You don’t need to be able to touch your toes.
People often tell me, “I would do yoga, but I’m too inflexible. I can’t even touch my toes.” I get it. Marketing campaigns and the media lead us to believe that everyone who does yoga is all bendy and stretchy. This is so not true. While there are definitely flexible yogis out there, many of us struggle. But the only way we get better at anything is to do it. Consider it this way: when we are growing up, we practice reading, right? And we do that because we want to become better readers. We know that if we avoid it, then we will stay the same and our reading skills won’t improve and may get worse. The same is true for yoga. If you know that you are inflexible and you want to be more flexible, then just give yourself the gift of at least 10 sessions and you will immediately feel the difference. You’ll become more flexible and also stronger, release stress, improve your balance, and sharpen your focus. That’s a great result!
- Yoga is not just for 20-something, size 2 White women who wear Lululemon.
Wherever I travel, I find a yoga studio and try to attend a class. In fact, sometimes I choose my hotel based on the proximity of a yoga studio. And although I’ve frequently been the only Black woman in the class, it’s becoming less that way. There are an increasing number of men, people of color, and practitioners of all shapes, sizes, ages, and socioeconomic groups. And this creates a much more vibrant and authentic yoga community. Yoga is literally for everybody.
- If you don’t like your first class, don’t quit. Try another style of yoga and another teacher.
There are so many different types of yoga out there, whether you want a more athletic and physically demanding class (such as vinyasa, ashtanga, Forrest, or power) or an easy, relaxing, meditative class (such as yin or restorative). You can sweat it out in temperatures above 100 degrees (Bikram or Baptiste styles) or get your downward dog on with blasting hip hop music (check out my friend Matthew Reyes’ studio YogaHop if you’re in L.A.). There is yoga for pregnant moms (pre-natal) and those recovering from injury who need a slow, focused practice (Iyengar). With each style a bit different from the others, you’ll also find variations depending on the teacher. I recommend giving a few styles and teachers a try before settling on your favorites. Even if you’re a seasoned yogi with a dedicated practice, flexibility and variation with yoga styles could enhance your overall yoga experience and challenge you to break out of your comfort zone.
- Yoga doesn’t have to be expensive.
I’m not going to lie, yoga can get expensive with the average cost for yoga classes at $12, yoga mats that cost $100 and high-end yoga pants that can cost $129. Yoga is supposed to decrease stress, but all these expenses will do the opposite! Here are four ways to save money. First, many yoga studios have volunteers or “karma yogis” who get free or reduced classes in exchange for 1-2 hours a week of cleaning the studio or assisting at the front desk. Second, many studios offer community classes at a significantly reduced rate. These classes may be taught by teachers in training or be offered at times of the day that are less popular, like 3pm on weekdays. Third, save money on your mat and other equipment by shopping at Target, TJ Maxx, or WalMart. All you really need is a decent mat, and studios usually supply blocks, straps, bolsters, and other equipment. Finally, you can bring the studio to your home, thereby saving money and making it convenient for your schedule. BeachBody On Demand has amazing yoga programs, including 3-Week Yoga Retreat. In fact, I’m a little biased because one of the instructors, Vytas, was trained by and teaches at the same Santa Monica-based studio that I practiced and trained!
- Don’t compare and compete with others.
When I first started yoga, I remember being obsessed with one woman in the class. She was so flexible, strong, and graceful. I would set up my mat by hers and be distracted the entire time by how amazing her practice was. And it caused me to be more critical and self conscious of what I was unable to do. One day before class, I was chatting with a friend and I was gushing over the skills of my newfound yoga crush. She looked at me and chuckled saying, “Well, she should be good. She’s a dancer with the Boston Ballet.” Duh.
As with anything in life, comparison and competition can be the thief of joy. There will always be someone who is “-er” than you: better, stronger, faster, smarter, younger, etc. Whether you’re on your mat for the first or 100thtime, you should embrace it as a time to be free of judgment of any form and as a time to love yourself for all your body is rather than what it is not.
- Have an open mind.
If you’ve never done it before, your first yoga session may be a little unfamiliar and even strange. Certainly, the movement will be different, but some other aspects may also be unfamiliar. You may be asked to remove your shoes and socks and leave them at the door. The teacher may speak Sanskrit referring to the poses, breath work, or explaining yoga philosophy. And heads up…when your body relaxes and you twist and turn through the poses, your body may choose to release gas or ladies, you may queef. All of this is part of the experience. Embrace the opportunity to do something new and be a beginner!
- Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
If you go to a class and do nothing but breathe deeply, you have practiced yoga perfectly. Typically, as we move through our days, we are completely unaware of our breath. It is an involuntary and natural action of the body for which we should be grateful. In yoga, however, you are asked to “consciously breathe,” to bring awareness to the inhalations and exhalations and feel the air move through your body. Such breathing affects us physically, mentally and emotionally, which is why many people leave yoga and report feeling in a state of bliss or peace. So get ready to breathe deeply and let go of anything that’s not serving you positively.
So tell me about your first yoga experience. What was it like?