I had a woman come to my class earlier this week whose hands were shaking as she filled out her new student form. She told me at least three times how nervous she was, and I think this is how many people feel when they arrive for their first yoga class. I felt exactly the same way. I had never taken a group class of any kind before; I was terrified I'd make a fool of myself; and I didn't really even know what yoga was.
The good news is, you only have to take your first-ever yoga class once! And post-class I doubt you'll still feel nervous - in fact, you'll probably feel quite relaxed. After a little while, coming to the studio will start to feel familiar and comfortable. For me, my regular yoga studios feel like home, and my yoga mat feels like the ultimate safe space in my life. It wasn't always like that, but it gradually became that way.
Also, you will not make a fool of yourself. Please take my word on that. Yoga is difficult, and it requires concentration. The people on the yoga mats on either side of you are busy concentrating on their own bodies. Do your best to honor where you are and treat yourself with kindness.
If you're so nervous that you don't think you can take a group class, see if you can find a teacher in your area who offers private yoga lessons. This is more expensive, but after a couple of private classes you will probably feel ready to take a group class. I do recommend that beginners first study yoga in person with an instructor if possible. It can be hard to know if your alignment is safe when you're practicing to video or audio classes at home alone. Also, the energy and community of a group class can be amazing and will add a lot to your practice.
GIVE YOURSELF A LOT OF CREDIT
Doing anything for the first time takes courage, and trying yoga for the first time is no different. It can be intimidating to enter the studio and figure out where to remove your shoes, how to place your mat, etc. But you only have to do this once, and then you'll know this stuff (don't stress about these things - you'll catch on to yoga etiquette very quickly, and most studios have yoga etiquette information posted on their websites).
Even the most advanced yoga practitioner took his or her first-ever yoga class once. And yoga is called a practice for a reason. You will never "conquer" yoga. Every day is different. Your right side will feel different from your left side. Your balance will be different in each moment depending on a wide variety of things. Some days your mind will feel as if it won't turn off no matter what you do. Know that you're getting the benefits of your yoga practice even on those days.
I still get nervous when I try a new style of yoga. That's natural. It's weird when you don't know what to expect, and it's uncomfortable to feel like you're the only one in the room who doesn't know what's going to happen next. Give yourself some well deserved credit for stepping outside your comfort zone, take some deep breaths, and see if you can tune into your body. Try to let go of expectations and focus on the present moment.
I like to remind my students that IT'S JUST YOGA. Really. Sometimes we forget this and feel competitive or say harsh things to ourselves when we struggle with a pose. Try to remember that it's just yoga. And it is truly a practice.
HOW YOGA WORKS
Stephen Cope, a yoga teacher and scholar, wrote something about how yoga works that I love to share with my students. In the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health's catalog some time ago, he explained that:
“…when the teacher directs [the students’] attention over and over again to their bodies, they can have a momentary experience of the mind actually getting focused and gathered and present – and that has some very interesting side effects. Physiologically, for example, the heart rate goes down, brain waves lengthen, cortisol levels go down, and all these great neurotransmitters flood the brain. When the mind actually settles in the moment, even for just a few seconds, these side effects kick in, and we have an experience of well-being that can be profound.”
Of course this is just one aspect of how yoga works, but it's a great start and something I especially like to share with beginner students.
There are many styles of yoga, and they vary widely. I recommend trying several styles and several teachers to see what you like and what feels best for your body. You can visit or call studios ahead of time and ask them what styles and levels of yoga they offer, and you can ask what they recommend for your current fitness level.
You do not have to consider yourself athletic to practice yoga. As you practice yoga, you will begin to develop more body awareness, and you will become more athletic. But please don't be afraid to try yoga if you've never exercised before or you haven't exercised in a long time. And you do not have to be flexible to practice yoga. Yoga will make you more flexible, and that's a very good thing for your health and longevity, but it's not the main point.
Read this Yoga Journal article for more information on the different styles of yoga.
Wear comfortable clothes. Sweatpants are pretty heavy, so I recommend something thinner. Be able to move and also feel good in what you're wearing. To check whether your clothes will work, get on your hands and knees at home and wiggle your hips, raise your arms up towards the ceiling, lift each leg up behind you and out to the side - just see if you feel okay. If you're wearing shorts, make sure no one will be able to see anything you don't want them to see.
Plan to practice barefoot (if this is a real problem for you, you can wear socks, but for safety reasons try to wear yoga socks or other socks with some traction on the bottom). You will likely take your shoes off near the outside door of the studio and go barefoot from there.
Most studios can loan or rent you a yoga mat; call ahead or check online and make sure this is possible. Many studios have towels available for loan or rent as well, or you can easily bring your own. I recommend you bring a towel because you may find that your hands and/or feet slip on your yoga mat. There are lots of solutions to this problem, including specially made yoga towels, but first I suggest trying a regular bath or beach towel.
Bring a bottle of water. And be prepared to leave your personal belongings (aside from your mat, towel, and water) outside the actual yoga room. Some studios have lockers, so you can bring a padlock and lock your stuff up. Others have cubbies, or you may just leave your stuff on the floor outside the studio. Try not to bring your cell phone in at all, or put it on silent if you're leaving it in your bag or locker.
If you have any questions about what to bring, wear, etc., please email me at thutchingsyoga at yahoo dot com.
TALK TO THE INSTRUCTOR
Try to arrive at least 15 minutes before class is scheduled to start, and be sure to introduce yourself to the instructor (even if the instructor is not the one who checks you in at the front desk). Let the instructor know of any injuries that you have, if you're pregnant, or if there's any other relevant information you want to share.
The instructor will likely be able to help you modify poses that aren't healthy for you due to an injury or pregnancy, etc. But it is up to you to talk with your doctor before starting a yoga practice if you have any injuries or health conditions that concern you. Also, some instructors have more experience and training than others. When I was a new yoga teacher, I didn't know as much about modifying poses, but I would reach out to more advanced instructors if I had a student who needed help. I know more now, but I still have a lot to learn. Talk with your instructor about any concerns or challenges you have, and, if necessary, feel free to ask that teacher to recommend more advanced instructors who might be able to help you further.
SEVEN THINGS I WANT TO TELL MY BEGINNER YOGA STUDENTS
Please visit this post I wrote.
FINDING TIME FOR YOUR YOGA PRACTICE
I know it can be hard to find time for yoga, but, once you start practicing, I think you'll find that making time for your yoga practice actually carves out more time for the other things in your life. When you take the time to nourish yourself, you will have more to give the other people and commitments in your life.
GIVE IT A REAL CHANCE
Once you find a style that seems to appeal to you and suits your current fitness level, take a number of classes before you decide yoga is not for you. If you don't care for a particular teacher, try other instructors. Every instructor is unique, and sometimes it will take more than one try to find one (or a few) that you really like.
Click here for more on what namaste means.