I love this fun snarky post by Rob Pollak: What to really expect at your first yoga class. Accurate in many ways, especially “you will have no idea what is happening” , and I love the ending. Because no matter how confusing, weird, and embarrassing yoga may seem the first time you try it, it’s totally worth sticking with it.
So You Want to Try Yoga, Part 5: How Often Should I Do Yoga? August 23, 2011
As an addendum to my series on tips for new yoga students (see the full series here), I thought I’d comment on not just the technical aspects of finding a yoga class and what to bring to it, but how often to practice. Last week in my teacher training session, J mentioned that this question, “How often should I do yoga?”, is one of the most frequent questions he gets. The answer, of course, is different for every person (much to the dismay of J’s questioners, who all wanted a specific answer!).
How often should you practice yoga? It mostly depends on what you hope to get from your yoga practice, and on your other commitments and responsibilities as well. If you want to make real changes in your physical health or in your spirituality, you should practice as often as possible. Physically, yoga can have real benefits on the body, such as increased strength, flexibility, and stamina, but you have to practice regularly to reap those benefits. Similarly, if you’re using yoga as a part of your spiritual practice, perhaps with meditation, you should also try to practice as often as possible – you’re training your mind to be calmer and more focused, the same way you’re training your body to be more flexible, and the results will only come with continued practice and work.
If you really want to make progress with yoga, you’ll find a way to practice yoga every day – with daily practice you’ll see results much more quickly. For those of us with busy schedules (for example, me, and pretty much everyone else), this can be really hard to do. If you want to make yoga a part of your life, it’s important to make room in your day to do it; on the flip side, practicing yoga all the time and letting your other obligations slide is no good either. Personally, I don’t try to force myself into a full hour-long yoga practice every day (although it would be wonderful if I could – when I do practice yoga more frequently, I feel stronger and more energetic). Instead, I try to balance my yoga practice with the rest of my life. Some days I can fit in a big practice, some days I manage 25 minutes, some days I do a few quick sun salutations, and other days I’m proud I can squeeze in a five-minute meditation. What’s important is deciding to stick with it and then making some room for yoga somewhere!
In the past, when I was practicing yoga more casually, I attended vinyasa yoga classes twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for a good two years. During that time I definitely did notice that my flexibility and strength were improving, as was my technical ability to do the physical poses. Twice or three times a week seems like it could probably be a good compromise for beginning yoga students. Then, later on, you might choose to deepen your practice.
If you’re truly busy (and I’ve been there this year!), you want to try to get to yoga class once a week. Say to yourself, “Monday! Monday is yoga night!”, and then build a little wall around Mondays in your schedule. Make it a big defensive wall with a moat, even. If you’re that swamped, you need that little sliver of time to yourself, and if you don’t defend it, nobody will and you’ll lose it. Set your alarm to remind you to practice, schedule the time in Outlook and set up email reminders so you’ll leave the house on time – whatever you need to do to make it happen. Remember that this is for yourself, to keep you healthy so you can keep on giving to all the people you love. At this point, maybe yoga becomes less a fitness thing than a sanity thing, or a social “the one night I see my friends” thing, and that’s okay. Just keep it going, and keep it regular. If you have that sliver of regular practice in your life, it will be easier to expand that into a larger practice later on when things calm down.
The last answer, the answer that people don’t want to hear, is that if you don’t keep a regular practice, you won’t make progress with yoga. Period. It’s just like lifting weights or kicking soccer balls or practicing ballet dancing or even going to Bible study: if you want to make progress, to deepen your skill and knowledge, you have to practice. Maybe right now your life is so hectic that you can’t think about a regular yoga practice; maybe you’re moving to a new city and now isn’t the time for you. Heck, since starting to practice yoga eight years ago, I’ve moved six times, and three of those moves were interstate. I feel you. But if it’s important to you, find the time. Make the time for yourself. The longer you let your practice go, the harder it will be to pick it back up and get back into a regular rhythm.
When you ask, “How often should I do yoga?”, the answer should be, “As often as is practical for you.” Think through your commitments and your schedule and find a time that you can dedicate to your yoga practice, and then stick with it!
So You Want to Try Yoga, Part 4: Making the Most of it! August 16, 2011
Inspired by this article on how to find the right yoga instructor, I started writing some tips for those new to yoga. Parts 1, 2, and 3 covered deciding what you’re looking for in a yoga class, how to find a class in your area, and tips for a successful first yoga class. Now we’ll move on to making the most of your yoga class.
- Speak up.
Don’t be afraid to talk to the instructor! When you arrive early for your first class, let the teacher know of any concerns you might have. Tell her about your lower back pain or your bad knee. This will help the instructor a lot! If the yoga teacher knows that there’s a brand-new student in the room, she may teach differently, choose different poses to teach, or describe the poses in different ways. She may keep an eye on you to make sure that your alignment is right, so you don’t do anything that will hurt that bad knee. Good communication with your yoga teacher will reassure you, help her plan her class better, help her help you better!, and make the class a better experience all the way around.
- In any yoga pose, try to be comfortable and steady.
In all of the Yoga Sutras, this is pretty much the one thing that the sage Patanjali had to say about physical poses: be comfortable and steady. And yet this is something that most yoga instructors don’t think to mention. If you are unsteady, wobbling all over the place in a yoga posture, you’re not going to be doing anything valuable for your body, and you’re more likely to cause yourself an injury. Yoga is about finding the middle path: not doing too much, and not doing too little. In any pose, you want to find the spot where you are steady but still working hard. If a pose makes you wobbly, it’s okay to take an easier variation of the pose, drop a hand or knee to the ground, or just sit down and rest.
- Pay attention to your breath.
Your breathing is a key indicator of how you’re doing in a pose. Nice steady deep even breaths? You’re doing fine and could maybe push a little harder. Quick shallow panting breaths? Something may not be right – you may be doing too much in a pose, or you might need a rest. You should strive to keep your breath steady and even. Focusing on your breath gives you a barometer of sorts of how you’re doing in your practice, and it gives your mind something to focus on. Of course, in a more athletic style of yoga class, you may end up breathing harder, but continue to be aware of your breath, and know what the difference is for you between hard working breathing and needing a rest.
- Understand the difference between discomfort versus pain.
It’s normal to feel discomfort during yoga class, especially as you bend in ways you might not have bent in years, and as you discover muscles you never knew you had! Stretching it out can be uncomfortable. However, there’s a difference between discomfort and pain. Yoga should never hurt you. If something genuinely hurts, then stop doing it and take a step back: maybe your body isn’t ready for that pose or that variation, or maybe you just need a rest. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s your yoga practice – take care of yourself!
- Adjustments: okay or no-go?
The yoga instructor may ask if she can touch or adjust you during the class. Be honest about how you feel about this. Being adjusted by the yoga instructor can be really helpful in understanding the correct alignment of a pose; however, it’s okay to say no if you don’t want to be touched, and the teacher should just give you verbal instructions instead. If the instructor adjusts you in a way that hurts at all, tell her right away! This can be scary, but don’t be afraid to speak up. In general, a teacher’s adjustment should be helpful, such that when she gets you in the right spot, you go “Oh!” and things click into place.
- Try lots of classes – and don’t give up.
If you go to one yoga class and you don’t like it, try another class. This is the #1 most important thing I want to say in this post, so I’ll say it again: If you try one yoga class and don’t like it, try another yoga class. If you have a bad or uncomfortable experience, that’s a shame, but it doesn’t mean that yoga isn’t for you – it just means that that one class or that one teacher isn’t for you.
Maybe you were looking for a beginners class but the vinyasa class fit your schedule better – then you find out that, yup, you should be learning basics just like you thought! So try to make time for the beginners class. Or maybe you went to the beginners class but the teacher moved too fast. Try another class with a different teacher, or try another yoga studio. Remember that yoga studios are independently owned small businesses, so the style of yoga taught, the schedule, and the pricing scale will vary greatly from one studio to another – what you can’t find at one studio might be present in abundance on the other side of town.
There have been plenty of times when I’ve talked to someone about yoga and the person says, “Yoga? Oh, I tried that once. It wasn’t for me.” Or “That yoga class was okay, but we kept falling asleep, so I don’t think we’ll go back.” (Yes, seriously.) Remember that one yoga class does not represent all the variety that’s available. If you have a genuine interest in yoga, try lots of different classes so you can get a sense of what’s out there!
I truly believe that yoga can be beneficial for everybody. That’s why I’m training to become a yoga teacher! I hope that this series of yoga tips for beginners has been helpful for you. (Anything I didn’t cover? Just ask!)
So You Want to Try Yoga, Part 3: Tips for Your First Class August 9, 2011
Inspired by this article on how to find the right yoga instructor, I started writing some tips for those new to yoga. Parts 1 and 2 covered deciding what you’re looking for in a yoga class and how to find a class in your area. Now we’ll talk about some tips for your first yoga class.
It’s hard to know what to expect when you’re doing something new for the first time. Once you’ve identified a yoga class you’d like to attend, it’s a good idea to find out as much as you can in advance – this will help you to feel more comfortable on the day of the class. Do you have friends or colleagues who go to classes at this gym or studio? Pump them for information. Does the yoga studio, gym, or yoga teacher have a website? Check it out. Find the phone number and call for more info.
Here are some frequently asked questions about yoga classes. In general, the answers to these questions are applicable to most yoga classes, but it’s always good to confirm with your particular instructor! If the info isn’t on the website, call to double-check.
- Do I need to bring my own yoga mat?
You don’t need a yoga mat – often the gym or studio will have mats you can borrow or rent for a small fee, and if they don’t, you can use a towel or try practicing right on the floor. Some studios may require that you use a mat, for both cleanliness and liability reasons (i.e., it’s easier to slip and fall on a hard wood floor if you don’t have a mat), so check your location’s policy.
When thinking about the mat question, consider whether you have knee or joint problems that make sitting on a hard floor difficult for you, or if you sweat a lot, or if you have cleanliness concerns (“Put my feet on a mat that other people’s feet have been on? Ew!”). If you want your own mat, you can get one very affordably. Target and Walmart carry yoga mats, and I’ve even seen them at stores like Five Below or the “under ten dollars” store. Extra-tall, extra-wide, and extra-thick mats are available to be ordered online if something like that appeals to you, but you don’t need a fancy mat when you’re just starting out – you can find something serviceable for under $20, no problem. But if you want to wait until you try the class before investing in any equipment, check with the studio to see if you can borrow or rent one there.
- Do I need to bring anything else?
A bottle of water is always a good idea! Also, not a bad plan to bring a small towel, especially if you’re trying a hot room or athletic-style class, or if you know you sweat a lot. If you’re renting or borrowing a mat, you may want to consider bringing a full-size towel for cleanliness reasons – you can lay the towel over the mat so that the mat will cushion and support you without you actually putting your feet right on it. Also consider: ponytail holders, headbands, and bandannas, to keep your hair out of your face. Some people don’t seem to have an issue with this, but having hair in my eyes drives me nuts.
- What sort of clothes do I need to wear?
For clothing, wear something comfortable that you can move around in. Some people prefer baggy shirts and shorts; I tend to prefer close-fitting and stretchy. Keep in mind that you may be upside down sometimes, so tuck your shirt in and make sure whatever’s under your shorts covers you adequately so none of your bits fall out. Pants or sweatpants are usually fine, but you probably want shorts for a hot room type class. Also, you don’t want to be overly distracted by your clothing – this isn’t the time to wear that one sports bra you have to adjust fourteen times throughout your workout (or the sports bra you fall out of!). Use your common sense and be comfortable.
Clothing to avoid: anything itchy, and anything restrictive that limits your movement. Jeans are a bad idea for yoga class (trust me, I know!). You may also want to avoid wearing clunky jewelry – that necklace won’t seem so pretty when it smacks you in the face during downward dog, and big rings can cut into your hands. I usually just wear stud earrings and my wedding band.
Be aware too that yoga is typically done barefoot. Many first-timers don’t know this and get upset when they’re asked to remove their sneakers. Remember that this isn’t aerobics class or a treadmill – in yoga class, you need to be able to move, bend, and flex your feet. Also, the etiquette is different here than at a gym: many yoga studios ask you to leave your shoes at the door to help keep their floors clean. If you are truly uncomfortable having your feet out and proud, you can try practicing in socks, but bare feet will stick better to your yoga mat than socked feet will, and if you don’t have a mat, you will slide around a lot more on a hardwood floor in socks. It can be a big distraction. Be aware in advance that you’ll be asked to bare your toesies, and get used to the idea so you won’t be blindsided with it at your first class. (Really, no one cares what your feet look like, but if it’ll make you feel better, give yourself a little pedicure before class!)
- How early should I arrive?
You probably want to show up to your first yoga class about 10-15 minutes early. Even just for practical reasons this is a good idea – if you’ve never been to the place before, you could get lost! Arriving early also gives you the opportunity to meet the instructor, sign a release form, pay for the class, and talk over any concerns you might have. If you’re nervous about starting a new thing, give yourself this time – rushing to get there and running in at the last minute will make you even more nervous and worked up. You will feel so much more comfortable if you have plenty of time to get to the studio, look around, check things out, talk to the instructor, and settle in.
Next time: making the most of your yoga class!
Last time, I gave you some pointers on identifying what you want out of a yoga class. Now let’s figure out how to find the right class!
- Try different search methods to find an appropriate yoga class in your area.
Once you know what you’re looking for in a yoga class, it’s time to go find one! Yoga classes are held in a variety of places: there are independent yoga studios, of course, but you can also find yoga at a gym or YMCA, or at an unlikely spot like a dance studio, a church, a garden, someone’s home, or even your own workplace!
Gyms and YMCAs are often good, affordable options when you’re just starting out with yoga. These places usually offer yoga classes to their members along with other exercise classes as a part of your monthly membership. Joining a gym can be more cost effective than taking yoga classes at a studio, but you’re likely to get less variety and more emphasis on the physical workout at a gym. Many gyms will offer a trial membership, so you can check it out for a week and see if you like it. Call and ask if this is an option, and if it is, take full advantage!
If you want to try yoga at a yoga studio, there are several ways to find one in your area. Yogajournal.com maintains a directory of yoga studios, which is a good way to get ideas, but not every studio is registered there (I just looked at Pennsylvania, and while there are 101 listings in PA, the two studios where I practice most often aren’t listed). You can also look at local resources like yelp.com, where you can see ratings from other yoga students in your area (and both my favorite studios do show up on yelp). You could even just go to googlemaps and search for “yoga near” your zip code. If you don’t see what you’re looking for under one search, try again on a different site!
Another option is to look for an individual yoga teacher. Yoga Alliance, the national education and support organization for yoga in the United States, maintains a directory of registered yoga teachers (RYTs) who have completed the training requirements (i.e., what I’m doing right now). There may be a yoga teacher in your area who doesn’t teach at a studio or gym but who does private lessons or small home classes. Looking for a teacher might be good for you if you have an irregular schedule and can’t make it to a regular class, or if you have physical problems that make it hard to leave home: bring the yoga to you!
Finally, word of mouth is a great way to find yoga classes. Maybe there’s a yoga class that meets weekly in the basement of the church up the street from you, or maybe your daughter’s dance teacher rents her studio out to a yoga teacher on Sunday mornings. Yoga can crop up in the unlikeliest of places. Look on bulletin boards at the grocery store!
Or maybe some of your colleagues have been wanting to try yoga too – go together to your HR department to see if you could get a class started at your office! Yoga at the workplace can be a nice thing for an employer to do, since it boosts morale and improves fitness (which means fewer injuries and lower health costs!). And sometimes, if enough employees are interested, the employer may subsidize the cost of the classes, leading to cheaper yoga for you. It doesn’t hurt to ask! (And if your employer is willing but you need to find a teacher, check out the Yoga Alliance yoga teacher directory!) If you tell people you want to try yoga, you might be surprised at where it leads you.
Next time: making the most of your first yoga class!