How to start practicing yoga

As a yoga teacher I’m often asked for advice on how to start a yoga practice.  Here are a few tips:

Try different styles of yoga.

The variety of yoga styles that exist (Bikram, Ashtanga, Jivamukti, Anusara, power yoga, restorative, yin, Iyengar, etc) can be staggering and difficult to navigate.  Try a variety of styles until you find one that you like. Each style has its own unique quality, but the most important thing is that you find a style that inspires you and motivates you to keep going back.

Try different yoga teachers, several times.

Just as a wide range of yoga styles exists, yoga instructors are all different, each with his/her own personality and qualities. If you take a class with an instructor and find that you don’t like his or her style, keep going to different classes until you find someone that you like.  You should feel a connection with your teacher, and your teacher should be someone that motivates and inspires you.

A good instructor will give students options in class to make their practice more accessible or more challenging, and will cue you so that you have proper alignment and attention to safety.  In my opinion, a good class should be balanced, with an appropriate mix of cardio, strength, flexibility, and agility training, and one that is comprehensive, with attention to core, the spine (moving the spine in all six directions:  forward, backward, twists right and left, and side stretches right and left), the shoulders, the hips, and major muscles (IT band, hamstrings, psoas, hip flexors, thighs, arms).

Also, keep in mind that as you grow your yoga practice, the same teachers that may not have been a fit for you at first may be great for you later.  I’ve experienced firsthand not liking a teacher initially and then that teacher later became my favorite teacher who inspired me to deepen my own yoga practice!

Don’t judge yourself.

When you first start your practice, it’s common to feel discouraged because the poses feel uncomfortable, or because one lacks flexibility or strength to do all the poses as beautifully as others in the class. Keep in mind that this is exactly why you are in class, so you can gain flexibility and strength. Remember that the practice of letting go of one’s own ego is also part of “doing yoga” (and is perhaps one of the biggest lessons to learn!).

Focus on the breath first.

In terms of the physical practice, if you do nothing at all, do this one thing: breathe mindfully. This means cultivating a long, slow, steady breath, and any time you feel stress or challenge, return back to that long slow steady breath. Learning to breathe is one of the greatest gifts yoga gives, along with helping you create more space in the body for more breath.

Consider private instruction.

If you feel really self-conscious about going into a yoga class for the first time, consider hiring a private instructor. Some beginners like having a few private sessions to understand the basics of stretching and fundamental poses. Others have to build up enough core strength in order to sustain a practice in class. Still others have very little “body awareness” and have a hard time moving their body according to verbal instructions, so a slower paced private class can help them get what they need out of a yoga practice.

Or, go online.

If private instruction is too expensive, you can also try some online yoga classes at home. Try any beginner Hatha class to start with.  Here are a few sites that have great videos:

Don’t buy a thing, unless you want to.

You don’t need to buy $100 yoga leggings to start a yoga practice (unless wearing sharp yoga clothes makes you more motivated and excited to go to class, in which case I am all for it).  You can wear a T-shirt and shorts.  You also don’t need a fancy yoga mat or any yoga mat at all; most studios and gyms have mats you can borrow or rent. Props are also usually available so you don’t have to bring them.  Sometimes chairs, sand bags, and bolsters are used as props for restorative and yin practices.

If you have started a yoga practice and want to invest in some gear, here are a few suggestions:

  • Buy a nice sticky mat that will last.  There is a huge difference between practicing on a cheap yoga mat and a nice yoga mat, and that could mean the difference between looking forward to your practice or not.  My personal favorite is the Manduka PROlite because it’s durable, sticky, and lightweight, but there are many others you can try.
  • Get blocks that are made of high density, durable foam.  Blocks that are made of foam that are too light are difficult to manage.  Blocks made of wood are uncomfortable.  I like these blocks from Hugger Mugger.  Blocks are often used in pairs so buy two.
  • Beyond a mat and blocks, other accessories are used depending on your interests and needs for a home practice.  Mexican cotton blankets can be folded and rolled to use as a prop for support.  Yoga straps help you extend your reach and can be used as resistance.  Bolsters and sandbags are nice for restorative practices.

A few related articles I’ve written about getting into yoga:

See you in class sometime?  Namaste!

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