I taught my third group yoga class last week, and boy do I have a lot to learn about teaching. At one point a dude in class asked loudly, in frustration, “What leg should I use?” A few minutes later he said again, “I don’t understand what to do!” I guess I wasn’t providing clear enough instructions. At the same time, an older, overweight woman who was taking yoga for the first time started to walk around fanning herself and saying, “Wooh, I need to rest.”
The rest of the class proceeded without interruption, but I realized how much I take for granted as a seasoned yoga class goer, how much I better I could communicate as a teacher, and how strange the yoga world must seem to an outsider. This is the advice I’d give to a yoga newbie:
1) Find a basics or beginners class. Even if you are an athletic person, and can do demanding things with your body, you don’t know the alignment, or the sequence, or the poses. Find a class for beginners. You’ll benefit so much more, because the teacher will slow the sequence down, explain things more, and create an environment in which you’re less likely to injure yourself. You’d be cocky to go to an advanced level flute class having never played the instrument before even if you were already a maestro on the piano. You’d probably pick up the flute quickly, if you tried, but you still need to learn the basics: how to purse your lips, regulate your breath, and the physical configuration of the notes on the flute itself. Yoga asanas need time and space for learning. Basics doesn’t have to mean “easy” though. Basics classes can be physically challenging, and can even be more so than an “advanced” class–because when you hold poses for a while and with proper alignment, you are using muscles you normally don’t use. This is hard. Which brings me to my next point.
2) Find an experienced teacher. Yoga is this big immense body of knowledge, and it’s best to learn from someone who’s been doing this for a while. How to find a teacher? Go to the studio’s website and look at the teacher’s bio online. Ideally they’ve been studying and teaching for a few years or more. Or ask a buddy that does yoga for their advice on who they’d recommend in your area. The best teachers can make the most simple of poses challenging while simultaneously making the pose feel better (“more accessible” in yoga lingo) and teaching you how to be a better person.
3) Find a comfortable environment. If the local yoga studio intimidates you, then go to your local gym, community center, or YMCA. Yoga asanas have great benefits, whatever the venue. If you are a dude, find a yoga class for men. If you are cerebral and like to really learn the details, go to an Iyengar class. If you are athletic and like to push yourself, find an Ashtanga class. If you are spiritual, learn to meditate. These are generalities. I’m only advising: set yourself up to succeed. Find a yoga style that suits your personality–this will make a big difference in how much you enjoy it. Then when you feel comfortable, branch out to less “friendly” styles or venues.
4) When in doubt, child’s pose! Or savasana. If things in class are getting overwhelming, the pose seems CRAZY, or you are tired: chill out! These two poses below are safe, happy places that your yoga teacher will be happy to see you take, even if he or she doesn’t say so explicitly.
5) Use props/modify the pose. If your hands can’t touch the floor–no problem. Rest your hand on your shin or a block. If you can’t hold your toe while standing up–no problem. Bend your knee and hug it into your chest. Any yoga pose can be modified. Another way to say this is: focus on feeling length in the spine, regardless of the pose. Worry less about where your arms and legs are and the outward form of the pose–the spine should feel long and strong and good. Like young Daniel-san in Karate Kid who was frustrated with ‘Wax on, wax off,” you will learn that unglamorous preparation has its rewards.
6) Who cares if you’re not flexible [or anything else]. “I’m not flexible” is the one thing people say to me when they learn I study yoga and explain why they don’t do it. That’s the ego talking. Yoga asanas will build flexibility. I was like a piece of peanut brittle when I started–stiff from years of running and cycling. My hamstrings and hips felt glued shut. After 10 years, I’m no contortionist and still can’t do the splits. Truly, yoga is not about the shapes. There are some poses that demand extreme flexibility, but as one of my teachers says, putting your foot behind your head is a lifestyle choice. One famous yoga teacher, Sri K Pattabhi Jois, said, “…yoga is for all people — old people, young people, fat people, skinny people — only, not lazy people.” If you don’t like it, if it feels like hell, that’s cool; find another physical activity that feels good, but being worried about not being able to touch your toes is an excuse for your pride. Which brings me to my next point.
7) Be prepared to feel like a beginner. When asked to stretch, your muscles will feel like steel cords. When trying to balance, you’ll wobble like a drunken sailor. When giving alignment cues, the yoga teacher will say things that will make you go “Huh?” In time you will understand, young Jedi. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
8.) Let go of your expectations. Of the teacher, of yourself, of the practice.