What Every Beginning Yogi Needs to Know
A go-to guide for before, during and after your first yoga class.
What Yoga Style to Choose
First things first, always look for classes labeled beginner. Intermediate classes and above will have less guidance because they assume you know the poses and terms. In a beginner level class, the instructor will take more time explaining each instruction to you. Don’t assume because you’re fit and active you can skip ahead; that isn’t what this is about.
Next, you must decide what style of yoga is best for you. There are several types offered in most studios, so how do you choose? When getting started, look for styles that are restorative and relaxing. Yin yoga is a good option for this. Also called passive yoga, Yin is all about relaxing and lengthening the muscles. They often skip music in this style, allowing you to better hear and focus on the teacher’s voice. Another great option for those just starting out are classes that use props to help you modify and achieve poses you’re not quite ready for yet. Both Yin and Iyengar share the use of props. Iyengar is more detail-oriented than Yin and involves taking time to focus on getting in to each pose correctly, sometimes going deeper than other styles because of this. Similar classes with slower paces that fit both yoga and fitness beginners are Restorative yoga and Slow Flow yoga. Both share many of the same traits as Yin and Iyengar.
Another factor to consider is the length of the class. The average yoga class is an hour, and that’s just fine for a beginner. Most classes won’t be any shorter, and by the time you include introductions and closing meditations, you’re only putting in 40-45 minutes of work. If you’re doing a video or online session, why not start with 30 minutes? Whatever you do, don’t dive headfirst into a 90 minute yoga session. Your muscles will hate you and you’ll never want to go back.
Physical fitness levels are the last piece in choosing the right yoga. Viniyoga emphasizes long, deep stretches and breathing through your body, making it a good fit if you’re not currently active or very flexible. Know that whatever type you go with, you don’t need to be flexible to start; that’s one benefit of yoga - increased flexibility. Sivananda yoga combines a limited number of poses, and participants lie down between each one; perfect for anyone recovering from injury, differently abled or with low endurance. For the already in shape but novice yogi, a lower level Vinyasa class will be easy enough to follow along with its flow and smooth transitions, but challenging enough for your body.
Whichever class you choose, you’ll reap the benefits of yoga. Even in a slower, easier class where you barely break a sweat, your muscles and mind are getting a workout. While you likely won’t experience weight loss from these slower paced classes, they can ease you in to classes that will help you shed pounds.
What to Expect in Class
If you’re attending a class in a boutique studio, expect calming colors, soothing sounds, fresh aromatherapy scents and dim lighting. Sounds like heaven, right? If you’re visiting your local gym, you won’t get the same serene environment as most use their regular group fitness rooms. They will still create a darker, quiet (as possible) environment when class starts, just do your best to block out the outside world.
Most likely, it will be a bit hippie. The instructor, the music, the patchouli, the overall vibe. Yoga is a very spiritual practice, with beliefs rooted in love and kindness to all. It’s a very similar philosophy to the hippie culture. One goal of yoga is enlightenment, so it draws a similar new-age, spiritual crowd.
Be prepared for a warm room. If you’re daring and trying Bikram, aka Hot yoga, practiced in a steaming hot room, you’ll be enduring 90-108 degree temperatures, or what I like to call Waco in August. The average room temperature for yoga practice runs between 70-76 degrees. With multiple warm bodies in a tight space with closed doors, even that feels a bit warm to me.
Most of the attendees will be women, at least in the classes I’ve been to. There may be a guy or two sprinkled in. For instance, sometimes my husband comes with me; he’s usually the only man in the room. Age, however, will vary from high school seniors to senior citizens.
Bear with me on this one. Gas. You might pass gas. You’re body is relaxed and in strange positions. It’s not unusual for someone, including you or me, to pass gas in the middle of their yoga practice. Don’t panic. Don’t make a scene. No one is likely to indicate they noticed a thing because they’ve been there, done that. Now, on to more fun stuff, like yoga clothes!
What to Wear to Class
If you’re like me, the right workout wear can motivate you to get moving and give you a much-needed confidence boost. Cute isn’t necessarily the main goal. Function is important too; the ability to move and stretch comfortably without exposing yourself is the balance you want to strike.
Let’s start with undergarments. A sports bra is a preferred option, hopefully without lace and wires to stab you as you bend and contort. Any comfortable bra will do as yoga is low impact on “the girls.” For panties, I prefer a mid or high rise panty that won’t ride low or inch up with bending. Cotton is a must in case there’s sweating involved. Organic, breathable and moisture-wicking are all nice options for your bottom layer. I prefer a mid or high rise panty that won’t ride low or inch up with bending.
Bottoms are the same. Shorts, pants or capris all work depending on the season and your preference. Again, stick with high or mid-rise waist band to keep your booty covered in folded poses. For shorts especially, choose a tighter leg opening so they don’t flip up and cause an indecent exposure you’re not aware of. Pants and capris are flexible, but I prefer fitted, legging style pants with a wide waistband. Cotton or any performance blend will do the trick, as long as it’s stretchy.
A fitted top keeps your shirt from riding up and flashing everyone. If you’re uber-confident, stick with your sports bra or a cropped top. A fitted tank with a built-in bra works wonders for almost everyone and comes in a ton of cute strappy styles, fun patterns, serene colors and racer back cuts. If you’re sensitive about your tummy area, you can layer a looser t-shirt on top or look for a fitted shirt with ruching to camouflage the midsection. I advise against wrapping a sweatshirt around your waist; it will only get in the way.
Accessories are almost as key as the clothing you wear. It’s best to keep your hair in a bun or ponytail, keeping it off your face. You can also use styling tricks to create better post-workout hair with the right bun. An elastic headband is a good add-on. It keeps all the hair back so nothing is tickling your nose while you’re upside down.
At first I laughed at yoga socks, but after a couple of slips I ignored the hospital-sock feeling and found low-cut, lightweight ones in cute colors. Some have open tops, others ankle straps, while others leave toes out completely or cover each toe individually. Try them out to see which feels best to you, style is a personal preference. The important part is that they have a rubber grip on the soles, while cotton or mesh are nice features.
Don’t spend a lot on specially marketed yoga shoes. You will take them off as soon as you get settled in class. Slip on sneakers, UGG style boots, even Birkenstocks with socks will fit right in.
What to Bring to Class
The essential everyone knows is the yoga mat. The thicker the mat, the better. Kneeling on the hardwood gym floor can get painful pretty quickly with a thin mat. This is one area it’s worth spending the money. Don’t be embarrassed to bring two mats and lay them in an overlapped cross - one vertical and one horizontal. I picked up this trick from an experienced yogi.
A yoga towel can serve the same function as socks if you want to stay barefoot and natural. It’s about the size of your mat but absorbs water and dries quickly. That will be greatly appreciated when you’re not slipping and sliding over a damp mat. Like the socks, they can feature grips to help both you and your mat stay put. Microfiber is a practical, affordable fabric.
A water bottle is a good thing to have. Like any physical activity, you need to stay hydrated. Drink up to hydrate before and sip more slowly after class. Most yoga fans say you don’t need to drink during class since you won’t be sweating profusely. Follow the yoga mentality and look for non-toxic, recycled BPA-free plastic or stainless steel, preferably leak free with a sealed lid. Bonus - hydration helps give your skin that yoga glow.
Many studios will have any needed yoga props, but if they don’t or you have a thing about germs, bring your own yoga blocks and straps. Blocks look like a large foam brick and can support body parts instead of the floor, lengthening your reach in poses. Straps are like thick, woven backpack straps - the bottom piece that adjusts the whole strap. They come in several lengths and help you touch your toes or reach behind your back. You can use a small towel in the same way, but I find straps much easier. Most facilities will offer pillows and blankets that serve a similar purpose to the blocks. These are too bulky to carry around town, so I never bring my own.
How to Get Maximum Benefits
Set your intention.
Before class begins, set a goal for the practice. It can be related to your yoga or your life. It’s something to come back to if your mind wanders. This tradition is driven by the belief that when our minds are clear and focused, we can better manifest our desires. Choose something simple and easy like peace, focus, breathe or healing. You can even use a mantra, a positive, short affirmation you can easily repeat to support your intentions. The instruction will likely remind the class to do this before starting practice.
Try to clear your mind before you start.
Arrive a few minutes early to shed the outside world. Listen to calming music or sounds on your drive to class. Breath out the dysfunction of your day and breathe in positive energy. Try to meditate or just be present. Respect that other students around you are doing the same, so don’t be a distraction or rush in late. I aim to arrive 10-15 minutes before a class starts, even if I’ll spend some of that time in the hallway.
Really listen to the instructor.
They will give you tips and hints in between general instruction and may even offer 1-on-1 guidance for a specific pose. Don’t let the music or classmates distract you or try to predict where the flow is going to jump ahead.
Sit in the front of the class.
Yes, be that girl. You can see much better from the front, and you want to make sure you’re following the instructor, not your classmates, since they’re most likely the one doing it correctly. Sit near a mirror, too, if you can. Seeing yourself will let you test the feel and look of your position, comparing it to what the teacher demonstrated. Don’t get caught up in perceived physical flaws. Focus on the big picture instead. Is your back straight? Are your knees at the right angle? The mirror is your guidance system.
Start where you are.
Be satisfied with pose modifications if you need to. Rather than doing nothing during a pose too challenging for you, modify the pose to accommodate your struggle. Use props if you have them. If the teacher hasn’t shown a modified pose or positioning of props, raise your hand and ask. If all else fails, at least move into a stretch or pose you can do. Don’t just sit there.
What Yoga Terms to Know
- Namaste - loosely defined, the light in me recognizes the light in you. It’s how most instructors end a class.
- Chakra - the line of energy centers down your body, each one tied to different emotions, issues and ailments. Picture them as wheels of different colors.
- Ujjayi - a type of breathing; it is hard to describe. It’s like a growling breath, humming combination from deep in the back of your throat. It should be long, slow, deep and easily heard.
- Mudra - gestures involving the whole body or just the hand, they each signify something different. Jnana mudra is one most will recognize, with your pointer finger and thumb touching together to form a circle. Typically used in meditations ending the class as it symbolizes knowledge.
- Mantra - positive words or phrases repeated during your practice. There are predefined ones or you can create your own.
- Corpse pose - no, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Also called Savasana, it’s the position you finish most classes in, lying on your back on the floor with your arms at your sides, resembling, you guessed it, a dead body. Some days it’s the best part of your practice.
- Drishti - your focused yogi gaze or stare
- Asana - the actual poses and postures you do during a yoga practice.
- Pranayama - breath work or technique. Literally, Prana is "life force” and Yama is "control”. Broken down, breath is our life force and we must learn to harness it.
Bring warm clothes or wrap up in a blanket; it’s recommended you stay warm following yoga. Do this while practicing Savasana and clearing your mind.
Wait 15 minutes or so to eat, then have a balanced snack with protein, fat and carbs after giving your body time to settle. Start drinking water at this time too.
Avoid baths for about 30 minutes. I like to wipe down with a natural deodorant body wipe and facial cleansing cloth until then. When you do take a bath, try adding Epsom salts to ease muscles.
Take time to feel any emotions that came up during class. Ride them like a wave, breathe through them or talk to the instructor about them. Take this chance to ask the instructor about any difficult poses you encountered.
Kick back and reap the rewards of your yoga session; benefits include:
- increased blood flow and immunity
- release of physical tension and mental stress
- improved focus and overall mood
- better posture and breathing
- deeper sleep, flexibility and pain relief
- stronger mind-body-soul connection and self-awareness, plus self-confidence and mindfulness