First yoga class? Fool-proof rules for the absolute yoga beginner. By Meg Jackson
This is it. The moment has arrived. Your family listened to your requests and bought you that swanky new kit bag for Christmas (which is a shame because you were actually hoping for perfume).
The gift vouchers are enough to get you some new leggings that don’t go transparent when you bend over, and to replace your current sports bra that you think you had probably around the same time they first invented Lycra.
Even Auntie Jane’s slightly odd present of a water bottle covered in unicorns will prove useful, as you’re fairly sure that you’re going to need to take a drink with you.
Or are you? What if drinking isn’t allowed? And should you wear man-made fibres or something, well, more ‘hempy’? Perhaps you should take the kit bag back to the shop and swap it for a sticky mat. But the last one you saw in that intimidating shop almost cost more than your first car….
Fear not, you wonderful wide-eyed and tight-hipped yoga beginner. We’ve all had the first-time jitters, so allow me to walk you through some of the things I wish I’d known before I went to my first yoga class.
1 It doesn’t matter if you’re not bendy
Yep – I’ve started off with the big one. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again in a slightly shouty way: you do not need to be bendy to do yoga! Would you say “Ooh I’d better not go to that Spanish class because I can’t speak Spanish,”? No. Would you think: “Hmm. I really am too dirty to take a shower. Guess I’d best live with this filth and wave goodbye to personal relationships”? No, you wouldn’t.
And this is no different.
An asana practice (asana is the bendy stuff we do on a yoga mat) will help you find the limitations in your body so that you can start working on them in a measured, effective, informed way. You should be coming to yoga to address this stuff, not seeing it as a reason to stay away. It just makes no sense whatsoever. So there.
2 It’s probably going to feel really hard. And weird
The first yoga class I went to was an ashtanga class. You don’t need to know what that is, but you do need to know I thought I was going to die. Everything was shaking. My downward facing dog looked like it should’ve been put to sleep a long time ago. Standing on one leg was the equivalent of asking me to stand on the ceiling. But at the end I felt good. Weirdly good.
Of course, it will depend on what sort of class you go to but it’s highly likely that your first class is going to feel challenging. It may be hard for your body, or it could be hard for your mind, or if you’re really lucky it will feel hard for both.
Recognise that you’re going to be moving your body in ways it has probably never been moved before. You will be supporting your bodyweight with bits of you that are perhaps not used to having that as a job. You’ll have so much to think about you’ll probably forget to breathe at least half a dozen times within the first five minutes. But you’ll feel good. Weirdly good. I promise.
3 No one cares if you can do every pose, some of them, or hardly any of them
I hate to be the one to burst your “Pffft - how hard can this yoga malarkey be?” bubble, but it’s highly likely that there is going to be some stuff that you can’t do. (See previous point.) It’s also highly likely that unless you’re used to learning things from scratch as an adult, you’re going to find this a crushing blow to your ego.
Here’s the thing – the person who is going to be bothered by this fact the most is you.
As a teacher, all I care about is that every student is giving it their best shot. I don’t care if their pose is immediately Instagram-worthy (in fact, I hope that it isn’t) because it’s in the learning to do this stuff that the real magic of yoga happens. Someone much wiser than me once said that yoga isn’t about touching your toes, it’s what you learn on your way down.
4 Yoga is about way more than being bendy (but only if you want it to be)
I went to yoga classes for a long time without understanding anything about what ‘namaste’ meant, why people went on about how it changed their life (could being bendy really do that?), or how it was ever going to make me a nicer human to be around.
But the more I did it, the more I couldn’t help but get curious about why it made me feel a whole new type of awesome than, for example, going to the gym did. And it wasn’t too long before I started noticing patterns in my yoga practice (for example, avoiding things I thought I’d find hard) in my life off the mat too.
Yes, yoga is about more than how open your hips are, or how stable your handstand is, but if you’re not quite ready to face the deepest darkest questions about how you can live a butt-kicking life as the perfect, luminous being you have been designed to be…then that’s totally fine.
5 You can (and should) ask questions
Yoga teachers are people too (I’m definitely getting that printed onto a t-shirt!). If you’ve got worries, or concerns, or just want us to know that this is your first yoga class and you’re feeling a bit freaked out about the whole thing, come talk to us. We were beginners too once (and if we’re honest whenever we go to a new class we feel like one all over again) so will know how you’re feeling.
Admittedly it can be tricky to ask questions during a class, and often the teacher won’t have time to give you a proper answer, but that doesn’t mean you should blindly follow whatever the teacher tells you to do. If something doesn’t feel good in your body, don’t do it.
Take responsibility for your own practice and your own wellbeing, but do have a chat with the teacher after class. Tell them what you felt, and they’ll be able to explain where you may have been going wrong (if they didn’t have a chance at the time) or offer you some modifications to make a tricky pose more pleasant.
6 Don’t be scared of your fellow students
Walking into a group where everyone knows each other is always a bit disconcerting, but even more so when there seems to be some secret understanding about what blocks to get, whether you need a strap, and even what angle to put your mat at.
But just like your teacher, they were once new to this class too. So smile, take a deep breath, and don’t be afraid to ask what props the teacher usually suggests having. You may even find a new yoga buddy as a result. (And if they’re a bit of an idiot about it or don’t help you? You know they’re not a real yogi so feel free to internally judge them accordingly!)
7 Think of this as a marathon, not a sprint
One yoga class can definitely do amazing things for you. You can walk out feeling a foot taller than when you went in. You may feel like you’ve left all of your worries squished into that sticky mat. You skip back into your day determined that this is your new go-to frame of mind.
And then real life happens.
You wake up the next morning and your hamstrings feel shorter than they’ve ever done. Someone pushes past you on the train for the last seat and you want to beat them to death with your free newspaper. You have crisps and wine for dinner.
Sadly, undoing all our old patterns – whether they’re physical ones, mental ones, or emotional ones – is going to take a while. There’s a reason why it’s called a yoga practice. And of course, if you want real life-changing stuff you’ve got to give it time. But if you want to see results faster, practice more often with the best of intention and you may start seeing changes which stick.
8 The other people in the class are not judging you
If I was in any way sensitive about my personal hygiene I would have convinced myself by now that I have the aroma of a bag of meat left out in the sun for a week – so keen are students to retreat to the back of every studio, so that they’re not in front of the other people in the room.
I find this odd for many reasons. They must know that the last thing on their mind when they’re trying to keep their warrior strong with thighs that feel like they’re on fire, is what the person in front of them is doing. And when they’re trying to keep composed on one leg, they’re definitely not thinking that the person next to them is a lesser human because they’ve wobbled 17 more times than them.
Trust me, in any yoga class the people around you are way more concerned with what’s going on in their own body and mind than what’s going on with yours.
9 Not every kind of yoga class suits every kind of person
It may take you a bit of time to find your yoga tribe. I was lucky: when I went to my first yoga class, I loved the teacher and how he worked, I felt at home with the people, and even if my body wasn’t entirely delighted with the scenario, my heart felt happy.
Of course, the sooner you commit to a regular practice, and find a type of yoga that suits you, the more you’ll feel that you’re progressing and getting a deeper understanding of what this yoga malarkey is all about.
But don’t be afraid to try a few before you settle: flirt a little with hot yoga; go on a couple of dates with Iyengar yoga; maybe have a little fling with ashtanga. Then you’ll know that the one you commit to stands a good chance of lasting a long time.
10 It doesn’t matter if you fall asleep during savasana
Truth be told, savasana (the lying down bit at the end of class when you get to do nothing, a.k.a the best bit!) is not about getting so relaxed that you fall asleep. Its literal translation can be ‘corpse pose’ and is meant to replicate the final letting go of any attachment you have to all your ‘stuff’ (even thoughts) so that you are able to be entirely at peace.
But for most of us, it’s time for feeling a massive sense of relief that we got to the end of a class, reassurance that the teacher can no longer sneak any more poses in, and letting ourselves drift away…
…until you’re no longer drifting and are absolutely fairly sure that you just woke yourself up with a massive snort.
It’s fine. It happens. And if anyone says anything, just say that it proves that you were working hard.
Meg Jackson is the founder of Real Life Yoga, a movement to help real people bring a little (or a lot) of yoga into their real lives. Visit reallifeyoga.net for details of her classes and workshops in London, and dates of her national and international retreats.
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