How to Get Started With Yoga

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For the uninitiated, starting a yoga practice can feel overwhelming. Not only do the class names sound unfamiliar (hatha, vinyasa, Iyengar, Forrest), but the pose names are often presented in a different language (tadasana, savasana, uttanasana), and sometimes there's chanting and bowing involved.

It takes guts to take the plunge and sign up for your first class, but if you're thinking seriously about rolling out a mat, here's what you need to know to get started.

Health Benefits

Yoga has been around for thousands of years, and contrary to the Western way of thinking, traditionally, yoga has not been all about the pose.

In fact, yoga's physical element is a relatively recent addition to the ancient practice. "Yoga is about the breath," says Jenay Rose, a 500-hour Registered Yoga Teacher, online fitness coach, and social media influencer. "The hardest part is showing up, so if you can just master breathing, you're practicing."

And simply mastering breathing can pay off dividends when it comes to your health. One 2014 study published in Medical Science Monitor Basic Research found that a single, 25-minute guided protocol of alternate nostril yoga breathing significantly decreased blood pressure and breathing rate in hypertensive and healthy volunteers.

This type of meditative breathing, when combined with physical movement, can help manage stress, depression, and anxiety, improve mood, and enhance quality of sleep. Not to mention, the poses, or asanas, used during physical yoga practices can increase flexibility, improve balance and coordination, and in some cases, increase strength.

Yoga as a whole is an incredibly beneficial practice that is safe and accessible for most people.

Yoga Basics

The best way to learn yoga is by doing it, but if you're nervous about attending a class, don't shy away from doing a little studying before you attend. Consider the following.

Read About Different Types of Yoga

It's a good idea to get a feel for all the different types of yoga before you attend a class. For instance, hatha yoga classes tend to be good for beginners because they're slower-moving. Vinyasa, Ashtanga, and power yoga classes can be more challenging, depending on the level of instruction, although Vinyasa classes are frequently geared to beginners. Iyengar has a strong focus on proper alignment, and often uses props to help students perfect their form.

Hot yoga uses poses that are accessible for most people, but due to the extremely hot environment where classes take place (many studios top 104-degrees), it may not be advisable or enjoyable for some students. For instance, pregnant women or those with a known medical condition may not want to try this style. Kundalini classes often incorporate more meditation, chanting, and spiritual elements, which may feel uncomfortable if you're not familiar with this form of yoga.

Your best bet is to check out the class schedules for local yoga studios to see what types of yoga they offer, then do a little more digging to discern which classes might be a good fit for you.

Familiarize Yourself With Basic Poses

Depending on the studio and instructor, pose names might be referenced in Hindi or English, or a combination thereof. This can be confusing the first few times you attend class.

It's a good idea to review some of the most common poses to familiarize yourself with English and Hindi names, as well as their basic form. Favorites like child's pose (balasana) and downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana) are incorporated into just about every yoga class, so you might as well brush up in advance. Other common poses and sequences include the warrior poses and sun salutations.

Figure Out What You'll Need

Most studios encourage students to bring their own yoga mats with them to class, but if you don't have a mat of your own, they're often available to rent for a small fee. Check with your local studio to see what their protocol is. Otherwise, you're unlikely to need much of anything.

Studios and gyms typically provide all the equipment and props you'll need, including bolsters, blocks, and blankets. If you plan to try a class at home, you may want to buy a few basics or find substitutes around your house before you start. For instance, you can use a towel in place of a mat, or a belt in place of a yoga strap. Finding a replacement for yoga blocks is a little trickier, but in a pinch, a sturdy hard-cover book can do the trick. 

Think About What You'll Wear

Contrary to what the yoga industry would have you believe, yoga class is not a fashion competition. What you wear is just about the least important element of the practice. It's a good idea to wear comfortable, stretchy pants or shorts, and a close-fitting top that won't fly up over your head every time you perform an inversion.

It's also important to realize that yoga is done barefoot. If you can't imagine taking off your shoes in front of strangers, it's a good idea to invest in a pair of yoga socks with grips on the bottom to keep your feet from sliding around on your mat.

Consider Where to Take a Class

Yoga studios are traditionally where aspiring students go to learn the practice. But they're not the only available option for instruction. These days almost all large gyms offer yoga classes, and with the availability of smartphones and streaming video services, you can access online classes from just about anywhere.

There are pros and cons to each option. If you already have a gym membership, you can often access classes at no additional cost. Many of these instructors are highly-qualified, although you might also get some new instructors looking to build their experience and skills.

Yoga studios, on the other hand, are often home to highly-qualified instructors who focus primarily on yoga. Studios also offer a wide range of classes staggered throughout the day. However, yoga studios tend to be more expensive, and for some people, they can feel more intimidating.

Online classes or DVDs are an excellent and affordable option for those who don't have access to in-person instruction, or those who want to ease into the practice before attending a class. While there's nothing wrong with starting an at-home practice, this type of instruction lacks personalized feedback, so it's hard for beginners to know if they're getting poses exactly right. Whenever possible, it's best to attend at least a few classes with a qualified instructor before deciding to go it alone.

Brush Up on Class Etiquette

Yoga etiquette, for the most part, is fairly self-explanatory—respect the teacher, respect your fellow students, and respect yourself and the practice. But little things, like turning your phone's ringer off before class, and staying in class through the end of the final relaxation, make a big difference. Go ahead and brush up on what's expected.

Basic Class Structure

Most yoga classes follow a similar script, although the details change based on the type of yoga you're doing and the level of instruction. From the moment you step foot in the studio to the end of your first class, this is what you can expect.

  1. Check in at the reception desk. Show up a little early so you have time to get set up and find your space. Also, if it's your first time, you may have to fill out paperwork before participating.
  2. Enter the studio and find your space. Take your shoes off before you enter. Lay your mat down so it's facing the same direction as the other students' mats. Ask the instructor if you'll need any additional props for the class. Tell the instructor if it's your first time.
  3. Sit quietly on your mat until the class starts. If you want, do a few of your own warm-up stretches before class begins.
  4. Follow the class flow. Classes typically start with basic breathing exercises and slower, more methodical poses to help you get warm. Some instructors may lead you in a series of "oms," chants, or a guided meditation before starting physical poses. Classes then build in speed and intensity, reaching an apex pose before gradually slowing back down again and doing deeper stretches. Many classes wrap up with seated, then lying poses, finishing with savasana, or "corpse pose," an important relaxation period where your body takes in everything it's learned before you transition back to everyday life.
  1. After savasana, classes often end with more deep breathing and several "oms." Since yoga is about the breath as much as the physical practice, these final breathing exercises are a helpful reminder to stay focused on the breath as you go throughout the rest of your day. Don't be caught off guard if your instructor leads you in a chant. You don't have to participate if you don't feel comfortable.
  2. Ask questions after class. Most instructors stick around to answer any questions you might have. This is a great time to get more information on specific poses or to simply develop a relationship with your instructor.

After class wraps up, take some time to think about the experience. Assess what you liked or didn't like, and think about whether the speed and instruction were appropriate for your ability level. Armed with this information, you can decide whether to continue attending the same class in the future or to switch it up and try something different.

Setting Limits

Yoga is a very personal practice. What's safe and effective for one person may not be safe or effective for another. While most yoga poses are completely safe, it's important to listen to your body and set your own limits as you go.

For instance, if you have low back issues, you may need to ask your teacher for modifications to basic poses like the standing forward fold or plow pose. And if you're starting a home-based yoga practice, it's particularly important to brush up on poses that are riskiest for beginners so you don't try something you're not ready for.

And remember, just because poses like handstands and crows are popular to show off on Instagram, that doesn't mean you're ready to try them. Many yoga poses require substantial strength and balance that it takes time to develop. Start by developing a basic practice and give yourself time to work up from there.

Likewise, if you find you're struggling through longer practices, don't be embarrassed. Many new yogis are surprised by how challenging yoga can be. Take breaks in child's pose whenever you need to, and if you'd like, practice beginner yoga poses designed to help build strength when you have a few minutes on your own. Before you know it, you'll be able to make it through a whole class like a champ.

Common Myths

There are a lot of myths surrounding the practice of yoga. But that's just it—they're myths, not reality. Believe it or not, yoga isn't just for girls. You don't have to be flexible to do yoga. Yoga isn't a religion. Yoga isn't "too hard" or "too easy." Yoga isn't just for vegetarian hippies. Yoga is for everyone at every level, and yoga can fit into every lifestyle. If you're open to trying the practice, you just might discover how inclusive and uplifting yoga can be.

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