July 17, 2013

Beginner's Guide to Yoga: How to Get Started without Embarrassing/Injuring Yourself

Yoga seems to be on everyone's mind. Celebrities do it, our coworkers and classmates do it, and a yoga mat might as well be a signature accessory for the ridiculously perfect girl at the gym. The problem is, yoga can be a tad...intimidating.

Source: instagram.com/yoga_girl

Yoga really can be for everyone, but there are some things you should know if you want to start practicing yoga:

1. Pick the type that is right for you

There are many, many types of yoga, but here are the five most common:
  • Hatha: Hatha yoga is gentle on your body, relaxing, and slow-paced. It focuses on breathing and meditation over strength or movement. It's great for those learning the basics of yoga or seeking stress-relief. 
  • Vinyasa: This type of yoga involves basic poses that are synchronized with your breath. Ever heard of a sun salutation? Expect a lot of those. I love Vinyasa yoga for the lean muscle and flexibility gains it provides.
  • Ashtanga: Ashtanga yoga is sometimes referred to as "power yoga." It can be intense, with lots of strength-building moves and a fast pace. My guy friends love this type because they feel like they get a "real" workout in.
  • Iyengar: Say what? The name might not be the only thing you stumble over. Iyengar yoga involves a lot of standing poses that improve your balance. It is designed to strengthen and bring your body into alignment. This type of class can be especially good for people recovering from an injury.  You will work little balance muscles you didn't even know existed.
  • Bikram: Hope you like it hot - Bikram yoga classes take place in rooms kept at 95-100ish degrees. The heat isn't a gimmick, though. It can help you get a deeper stretch and sweat out toxins (disclaimer: don't try it hungover). Bikram yoga has some seriously devoted students who swear by it, and it is certainly an experience. Maybe pass on this type if you feel faint while vacationing anywhere below the Mason-Dixon line in summer, however.

2. Know what to expect:

Studios, classes, and individual instructors can vary greatly. Some yoga studios provide mats, but you may need to bring your own. Just call ahead to ask. If you're serious about starting a yoga practice, owning your own mat is a must. Luckily, they aren't expensive or hard to find. Most studios provide yoga blocks and straps to assist you in various poses. Mats may be placed just a few inches apart in a busy class, so check your personal space hang-ups at the door, show up early to score a spot you love, or choose a less popular class time.

Most students will likely be dressed in fitted tops and pants (either capri or full). No one wants to be known as the class flasher when your shirt inevitably creeps up your body while holding a pose! Your instructor might want to adjust your body while in a pose, and this type of clothing also facilitates adjustments. Most yoga instructors let you provide some kind of feedback if you would prefer not to be touched. If at any point you feel uncomfortable with your instructor's methods, don't hesitate to speak up.

Unlike most other workouts, yoga can have a spiritual element to it. While yoga is not a religion (despite what your crazy uncle might say), some of the instructions might not be what you're used to from spin class. Some possible phrases include "visualizing energy" or "breathing into" a certain part of your body. Be open-minded, but also shop around until you find a class or instructor that fits your style.

3. Lose your self-consciousness

As a beginner, it is normal to feel a little self-conscious. You'll soon learn that people of all ages, body types, and experience levels participate in yoga. Remember that everyone is focused on themselves and the instructor, not on how flexible you aren't or the fact that your breathing sounds weird.

If you really want to advance your yoga abilities, add some at-home practice. There are some great yoga apps out there, and plenty of DVDs. I love Mandy Ingber's book Yogalosophy. It has yoga routines, daily intentions, playlists, and even nutrition plans. Don't completely ditch classes in favor of YouTube tutorials, however. When you are in the early learning phases, it is vital that you get in-person instruction to correct your form and prevent injury. The best way to improve your yoga practice is by attending class with an experienced teacher who can answer your questions. These professionals have likely studied for years and have been trained to assist you.

4. Yoga Etiquette

  • Shoes: Much like that super-clean mom we all know, instructors seriously do not want shoes worn inside the class space. No need to track street grime into a room where people will be hanging out on the floor. Some gyms have cubbies for shoes and socks, while others just leave them by the door. Ask at the front desk, or watch what others do at your particular location.
  • Punctuality: To me, punctuality means showing up 10 minutes early. Some students may come as much as 20-30 minutes early to grab a spot in a popular class. If you find this is the norm, just bring a book or maybe get to know your classmates. Be sure to read the room before speaking loudly. Some classes are extremely quiet, with individuals meditating even before the instructor is present. Maybe reconsider starting a spirited Game of Thrones discussion if this is the case in your class.  If possible, you should introduce yourself to the instructor before your first class starts. This way, you can highlight any injury you might have so he/she can make a note to discuss modifications for certain poses.
  • Distractions: Once class begins, conversations and electronics are major no-nos. Turn off your cell phone (not just to vibrate) and refrain from chatting up your neighbor. During a class, everyone is focused on their own practice and the teacher's instructions.
  • Personal hygiene: In busy classes, yoga mats can be placed quite close together. Wear deodorant. Brush your teeth. Avoid perfume/cologne, which may offend your neighbor (or worse, cause an allergic reaction).
  • Savasana: Most yoga classes end with Savasana, or corpse pose. Yes, it is exactly like it sounds - you lay on your mat like a corpse. It is extremely rude to skip out on this pose and head for the door. If you absolutely have to leave class early, do it before this part. Better yet, try to find a class where you won't be rushed towards the end of the time slot.
  • Ending class: Most teachers end a session by saying "Namaste" (pronounced nah-mas-tay), which is basically Sanskrit for "I honor you." You'll notice that the class repeats it back, and you should join in. I make it a point to personally thank the instructor while everyone is cleaning up their space. This is also a great time to ask questions!

I love yoga and think everyone should give it a shot. I hope this post encourages you to do so.


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