Now that I teach, many family members and friends have expressed an interest in trying out a class for the first time. As a teacher and long-time practitioner, it’s sometimes difficult to recall the days when I felt intimidated by a class or embarrassed to practice in front of others, but I was definitely there once. We all were! So I thought I’d offer some advice to the newbies. I would recommend beginning a Yoga practice in a studio, with a teacher rather than home videos or the internet. Although these things can lift the veil of mystery a bit, it’s best to have a teacher who can correct misalignments before they become habits that can lead to injury.
1. Choosing a Class
When you are a beginner, look for classes that say…beginner. Basic, gentle, slow, restorative, etc. are also green lights for newbies. Words like intermediate, flow, vinyasa, and power suggest a more intense class that is probably not suitable right off the bat. Choosing a class that is appropriate for your current ability level is best for you, your fellow students, and your teacher. You get to learn proper form and alignment at an appropriate pace (reducing the risk of injury to both the body and the ego) and the teacher can pay equal attention to all of the students.
The term “Open Level” can be kind of tricky. Usually this will be a more intermediate/advanced class, and might not be the best idea if it’s your first class or your first class in a long time. However, the name implies that all levels are welcome, and teachers in these classes will generally offer modifications of more advanced poses to suit the needs of the students in the room.
If you have a question about which class is right for you, call the studio and ask! Whoever is working will likely be more than happy to discuss their studio’s offerings and help you choose.
2. Before You Enter the Room
This is something that seems like second nature to me, so I sometimes forget that beginners may not know about studio etiquette. As silly as it sounds, there are general guidelines across the board. Take your shoes off before you enter the practice space. There are usually cubbies or racks where you can leave your personal belongings, use them! Yoga is practiced barefoot, period. Aside from the obvious technicalities, (slipping in your socks or tracking mud across the hardwood floor are generally bad ideas) leaving your shoes at the door is symbolic of leaving your worries there too. It is also saying that you acknowledge the room as sacred space.
Leave other personal belongings outside as well. Car keys, bags, etc. should all be left outside. The only things that need to come into class are you and your mat. Other acceptable items include towels (to cover your mat or wipe your face) and water bottles. That’s about it.
Cell phones deserve a paragraph of their own. There are very, very few circumstances under which cell phones (or any other electronic devices) are acceptable in a Yoga class. If you’re an on-call surgeon or your partner is about to give birth, okay (be sure to let the teacher know this is the case) otherwise, turn it off (or at the very least, silence it) and leave it outside. Many people come to a Yoga class to escape the hustle and bustle of the outside world for 75 minutes, the last thing they want is your “My Humps” ringtone blasting in the middle of Savasana. I’ve had students texting in class, checking the time on their phone, etc. Many teachers will view this as disrespectful. I very often leave my cell in the car. I’m as guilty as anyone of iPhone attachment, but my practice time is my escape.
*Side note for teachers: If you use your phone as your iPod for class, put it on airplane mode! I once heard of a teacher whose mother called during class and the wicked witch of the west song rang out midway. The worst.
3. Once you’re there…before you move
Every studio is different, and this also depends on the style of Yoga being taught, but observe the others in the room before class starts. Many students use the minutes before class to unwind, meditate, warm-up, etc. If no one is talking, resist the urge to strike up a conversation with the person next to you. This ties in with the sacred space concept, respect the process of others and how they use this time.
Set up your mat in the back of the room. Some teachers practice with their students, some don’t. The safest bet is to set up in the back so that you can watch the other students and mimic their movements. Trust me, the words become easier with practice, and it doesn’t take much time at all the learn the language (especially if you continue with one teacher). Once you no longer need to look at other students in the room, the practice can become much more internal and breath-centered, which for me is meditative, it’s where the magic happens. And it no longer matters where you set up.
The teacher will generally start the class with a grounding/centering/dharma talk during which students will be given something to reflect on throughout the course of the class. The only rules are to listen quietly. Sometimes (in some styles) a teacher will begin (or end) with a chant or invocation, depending on their lineage. If you don’t know the words, it is perfectly acceptable just to listen. It is also okay (I’d actually encourage it) to ask the teacher the meaning of their words after class. Contrary to popular belief, chants don’t always have a religious connotation. They are often just a simple offering. One of my favorites is the Jivamukti mantra: “Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu” (May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.) As a beginner, don’t get too wrapped up in the meaning of the Sanskrit words. If they resonate with you somehow, (as they often do bring a mysterious sense of comfort, at least to me) great, if not, simple curiosity is a great thing to ignite.
I get asked a lot about “Om.” Many teachers from many schools of Yoga begin and end their classes with the sound of “Om.” There are lots of definitions of what it means and why we do it. The most accessible definition, for a beginner, I feel, is that it unifies the energy of everyone in the room. It is the simple acknowledgement that we are all connected to one another. There is also the widely-held thought that all life sprung from this one primordial sound and that we are acknowledging that beginning by chanting ‘Om.’ When I practice, I enjoy that ritual of the chant and the familiar, settling feeling that it brings me. If it’s not your cup of tea, it is totally okay to remain quiet here.
4. The Big Show
Any teacher worth their salt will start the class slow and with warm-up poses. Listen carefully to the teacher’s words. They will likely be pretty detailed with what they want you to do. It’s also okay to look around. A good teacher knows how to gauge the students in the room and knows when to pause to demonstrate or give a break.
Some teachers offer physical assists or adjustments. Some ask before they touch you, some don’t. If an assist makes you uncomfortable for ANY reason (physically or otherwise) politely ask not to be touched. We would much rather you tell us up front and will not be offended in the least. I can only speak for myself, but I would never ask a student why they don’t want to be touched. While we’re on the subject, if the teacher does come and touch you, it doesn’t mean you’re doing the pose wrong. They simply want to bring you into better alignment for your safety and comfort. There are also “feel good assists,” which are exactly what they sound like, they’re meant to feel good. Personally, I love assists, it’s one of my favorite parts of a class.
If you get tired, rest, no need to ask! With the exception of Bikram classes, (which is a different animal to be tackled at a later date) it is perfectly okay to hang in child’s pose if you need to. I always tell my students to use this pose to return to their breath when they’ve lost it. When you’re ready, stand up and start again. And don’t be so hard on yourself! I’m a teacher and I will often take a break if I need to. At the end of the day, we do Yoga because it feels good, and being in tune to what’s best for your body is half the battle.
I would like to think that every teacher is totally aware of the abilities and needs of their students but this is obviously not the case. I have good intuition, but I’m not a mind reader. If something is challenging, it’s okay to stick with it, if something hurts, STOP! I used to work in physical therapy and we had a great rule of thumb: “if it hurts, don’t do it.” Know your boundaries and respect them. It’s just a pose, it’s not worth being laid up for. I will admit that pushing myself is something I struggle with. Yesterday I taught 4 classes in a row and then proceeded to take one because I wanted to get my practice in for the day. I once demonstrated sundial pose without warming up and tweaked my back so badly that I had to rest for 2 weeks. Sometimes it’s just a good idea to back off and listen to your body. It will thank you in the long run.
At the end of class, you will always be asked to rest for at least 5 minutes in Savasana or corpse pose. This is the chance for your energy to settle, for the nervous system to calm down, and for your body to soak in all of the great benefits of practice. Some teachers give assists or physical adjustments in Savasana like lengthening the neck or pressing the shoulders into the mat to help you get deeper into relaxation. Some teachers will stimulate acupressure points above the eyebrows or at the temples. Some will even use essential oils/lotions and so on (I once heard of a teacher using icy hot, which I found really odd, but I digress). Not everyone does this, but it’s good to know, just in case you notice someone hovering above you while you’re laying down.
You’ll likely be asked to sit back up in a meditation pose or comfortable seat so that the teacher can close the class. Often, they will revisit what was said in the beginning of class and offer a closing mantra or prayer. The last word to signify the closing of class is almost always ‘Namaste’ pronounced (nah-mah-stay). This has many different translations, my favorite being “I see the Divine in you” or “the Light in me bows to the Light in you.” The teacher will say it first and the students will respond, “Namaste.” If this makes you uncomfortable for any reason, skip it!
5. To sum it up
In the end, Yoga is supposed to feel good physically, mentally, and spiritually. A good class will leave you feeling open, clear, and uplifted. Try not to worry about an end-goal or what a pose is “supposed” to look like. It’s a total cliche, but this is a PRACTICE. “I totally nailed crow pose in my first class!” said no one ever. You will try and you will fail. And then you’ll try and probably fail again. We are all eternal students, shifting and growing all the time. It’s just like life! I love the idea that “your mat is your mirror.” I always say in my classes that I see the postures as a metaphor for our lives. They can tell us all kinds of different things about our character-about our tenacity, dedication, about fear and our willingness to overcome it, and about our capacity for contentment. That’s why I love it, not because I can stand on my head. Once that becomes clear, your anxiety will disappear, and who knows, maybe a new love will be born!