Updated: Jan 6
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“I’ve been thinking about getting into yoga. Where do you think I should begin?” This is a question that I receive often when I mention that I teach yoga.
Well, my soon-to-be-yogi-friend, in this article I’m going to share with you some of the most important things you might want to consider in order to choose the right starting point for your yoga journey. If you’ve recently started yoga, or are looking to expand your yogic awareness, you may also find this article useful, and if you’ve tried yoga before and didn’t like it, this may also inspire you to give yoga a second chance.
The first thing you should know about yoga is that there are many vastly different styles out there and on top of that, the yoga you are probably referring to (where there are poses and physical movement), is just one of several different components to the much larger philosophy of what yoga is. The word “yoga” actually means union and we can think of this as a state of spiritual enlightenment or a sense of “oneness” with the universe. The physical postures, called “asana,” along with other practices such as meditation (dhyana), breathwork (pranayama), concentration (Dharana), self-restraint (Yama), observance (Niyama), withdrawal of the senses (Pratyahara), and union (samadhi), are all a part of the “eight-limb” path towards achieving “yoga.”
Aside from the spiritual purpose, however, the practice of yoga offers many benefits from improving mental health to increasing strength and flexibility, promoting healthy internal bodily function, and cultivating self-awareness. So the first thing you may want to ask yourself is what are your reasons for practicing yoga? Keep in mind that these might change as you continue on your journey.
Like most westerners, I personally came to yoga primarily for the physical benefits and it took me some time to embrace the other facets. In typical western yoga classes, the focus tends to be on the physical postures, breathing, and in some cases meditation. However, even within this asana type of yoga, there is a lot of variation and it can be confusing to know which “style” to start with.
If you are looking for a vigorous, practice that will feel more like a workout by getting your body moving, engaging your muscles to build strength and deep stretching you may want to try a vinyasa, ashtanga, power or hot yoga type of class. These styles build heat and resiliency in the body and mind. If you find yourself to be extremely out of shape or inflexible or simply prefer slower movement you may want to look for a gentle vinyasa or hatha yoga class. If you’re looking for a more introspective practice you should look into a yin class. If chanting and spiritual awakening are calling to you, try a kundalini or bhakti class. These are just a few styles to give you an idea of the vast differences.
Within each of these styles, every teacher will also have their particular way of sharing this ancient practice, so it is a good idea not only to try various styles of yoga but to also try out different teachers. A good teacher will be someone who inspires you to connect deeper with yourself regardless of the style they teach.
Ok so now you have an idea of what kind of class to look for, but let’s get practical for a moment and talk about what you’ll need for your first class, whether that’s in person or online. Most people like to wear comfortable, stretchy clothes and while there are tons of yoga clothing brands out there, chances are you probably already have something in your closet that will do.
You will likely want to get a yoga mat, which doesn’t need to be anything fancy, to begin with. You could even get away with a soft surface if you’re on a budget, such as a rug. I mean, hey, I’m pretty sure that yogis 5000 years ago did not have a modern vinyl mat. Yoga is done in bare feet though, so you may want to make sure your surface is clean and free of anything that could injure you.
Additionally, you should consider getting some basic yoga props such as a pair of blocks and a strap. Both of these, however, can be replaced with items you have around your home. If you don’t have blocks, find some heavy books and if you don’t have a strap, a belt or a scarf will do. In some cases, you may also want to have a blanket and a pillow. Most teachers will inform you of what you need before starting the class. If you are practicing at a studio, you should be able to borrow or rent all of these props from the studio, including the yoga mat.
Now that you’ve chosen your first class and have acquired the necessary props, let’s talk about what you should pay attention to once you’re actually on your mat. First and foremost, always use your body as your guide, and if something does not feel right, back off. The teacher’s instructions are meant to offer guidance, but no one is inside your body but you. In the case of online classes, the teacher cannot even see you and therefore isn’t able to tailor their instructions to what they see. In my online classes, for example, I try to offer cues and variations that are informed by my own practice, experience in teaching in-person classes, and conversation with students, but even that may at times not be sufficient to what you are experiencing.
Try to stay open-minded and curious about what you feel, paying close attention to the sensations in your body, rather than trying to force your body into the exact shapes you see on the screen or on other people’s bodies. Yoga can look very different on different bodies and the only thing that matters is that you get acquainted with yours.
On that note, keep in mind that with consistent, mindful practice your body and awareness of it will certainly change. The more often you practice the faster you will see these changes. When you first start yoga, it is common to find it difficult to discern tension from pain. If your muscles are very tight, you will no doubt feel tension when you stretch. Some tension is good for you as it is finding this “limit” in your body that will lead to increased flexibility. However, sharp or shooting pain as well as tingling are sensations that can lead to injury and should be avoided. A good indication that you have gone too far is also if you have to force your breath. Breathing is a big part of yoga as it is considered to facilitate the flow of energy throughout the body. There are many types of breathwork in yoga, which some teachers focus on more than others, but at the very least you will find that conscious breathing is a staple in all yoga classes.
Observing the breath throughout your practice is one of the ways in which you can get into a sort of “moving meditation.” By keeping your attention on your breath, you can maintain your focus on what comes up in the body, and stay in the present moment as much as possible. This is one of the things that leads to that “blissed out” feeling that some people experience after a yoga class.
Beyond the breath, many teachers will offer a variety of options in any given pose so that students can increase or decrease the intensity of their practice according to their experience level or how they feel that day. In the beginning it is not uncommon to be unsure of which option is right for you. As I mentioned earlier, over time you will gain a greater awareness of your body and it’s needs, so for now try to remain curious and attentive to what you feel.
As your body starts to open up you may even begin to experience more than just a physical shift. It is completely normal for the physical awakening to lead to an emotional release or at the very least a greater understanding of your emotional landscape. For me personally, this was one of the most surprising discoveries that came to me earlier on and became one of the reasons that yoga has gotten me through every challenging moment of my life since I started practicing. You may not experience the physical asana practice in this way but it would not be abnormal if you did.
Once you’ve taken your first class you may be wondering how often you should practice or for how long. This is totally a personal decision and depends on your reasons for doing yoga, how much time you have, what kind of lifestyle you have and how much of a priority your wellness is in your life. Remember that with any new and unfamiliar activity there is always a period of time before you feel like you’re “getting the hang of it.”
As I mentioned earlier, yoga is such a multi-faceted practice, and in this article I’ve barely touched on much beyond the physical asana practice, which is what I’m assuming lead you here in the first place. I always like to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with coming to yoga just to get fit if that’s what feels right for you. If you didn’t grow up immersed in a spiritual environment it can be difficult to integrate this aspect of yoga into your practice. (Read my article 3 Steps Towards Self-Discovery to hear my story of how I eventually embraced it). I think, that it is important, however, when you come to such an ancient practice, to educate yourself at least at a basic level on its’ origins, and honor that its’ purpose is much deeper than just a workout. The beautiful thing about that is that when you are ready to explore yoga on all these other levels, it is there for you. Personally, this complexity is what has kept me coming back on to my mat for years and years.
If you’re curious to learn more, listen to the replay of my facebook live where I share more thoughts on this topic in greater depth. Catch it through my facebook page. Also be sure to sign-up for my free beginner vinyasa yoga challenge starting on January 4, 2021. You will receive 15-20 minute classes every day for 7 days which you can do on your own time. Throughout the week I’ll be available to answer questions, offer more tips, and guide you along the way.