If you’ve never done yoga, it looks intimidating. People are flexible, fit, trendily dressed — wait, I might be thinking of gym ads rather than actual yoga classes. It turns out you can have a great experience at a yoga class even when you’re brand new and we asked yoga instructors how.
Photo by Eli Christman.
You don’t need to be great at yoga to start trying to do yoga. Makes sense when you say it like that, right? There will be a learning curve and that’s OK.
I always encourage the beginners to set the intention of ‘have some fun and don’t take yourself too seriously’ at the beginning of class. Bringing a friend along always helps, everything is better when shared, right! Everyone is in the same boat, so there is no need to be embarrassed. There is a saying that goes something like this — saying you’re not flexible enough for yoga is like saying you’re too dirty to take a bath. — Megan, YogaLife
Try It Out at Home
An easy way to know what you’re getting into is to check out yoga videos online. There are some great yoga sessions on our list of the best YouTube workout channels, for example.
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By watching, and by reading up as needed (the Yoga 101 section on Yoga Journal is great) you can become more familiar with the terms instructors use, and common poses and how to do them. For example:
- Namaste is a greeting that instructors will often use at the beginning and end of class. It means “I bow to you” but you can also translate it poetically as something like “the divine light in me recognises the divine light in you.” My kid watches yoga videos that just describe Namaste as the “secret yoga code word.” Close enough.
- Downward dog and child’s pose are good poses (sorry, asanas) to know. They’re super common — you might do dozens of both in a single class — but they’re also meant to be resting poses. If everybody is doing some challenging pose and you can’t hang, just do one of these instead. Your instructor will understand.
- Sun salutation is a sequence of poses that flow into one another. Here’s one version that you can practice at home. It’s fine to just do this sequence a few times, pausing in each pose while you take a few deep breaths, and call that your yoga workout for the day. In a class, there’s a good chance you’ll see sun salutations, or something very much like them, as a warmup or in between other poses.
Several of the yoga instructors we talked to suggested trying videos at home first, but one, Chris Lucas, points out that you can hurt yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing. He runs a video coaching service, so he would say that, but it’s a good point: if anything hurts or feels wrong, stop. You can ask an instructor about it when you see one in person.
Find a Beginner-Friendly Class
Yoga classes are everywhere: yoga studios, of course, but gyms also hold yoga classes and it’s not hard to find community events like a “yoga in the park” day. But if you want the most welcoming experience, take the time to do your homework rather than tagging along with whatever your yoga expert friend wants to do.
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That’s because even if classes say they’re for all levels, or no experience necessary, that doesn’t mean they’re beginner friendly. (Some are, but it depends.) I went to an “all levels” yoga class at a brewery once, thinking we’d do some half-assed yoga and then all go get a beer, but the instructor quickly talked us through a 75-minute flow of moves that she only described with their Sanskrit names.
By the end I really felt like I deserved that beer. But if I hadn’t been practising yoga for years, I would have been lost.
Take an actual beginner or basic class — not open level. Beginner classes go over the fundamentals of yoga and the basic poses that eventually lead into more complex movements. —
Rebecca Weible, YoYoga
Call up the yoga studio (or email the instructor) and ask whether they’d recommend their class for a total beginner. If you’re still feeling nervous, and have a few bucks to spare, ask about a private session. With one-on-one coaching, you can ask all the embarrassing questions you want, and you’ll leave with a better understanding of what you should actually be doing when you come to class.
Jodi Gonzales of ArtYogaWellness suggests looking for a Hatha yoga class; these tend to be gentle and beginner-friendly. She also points out that hospitals and clinics sometimes offer “adaptive” yoga that is good for people with disabilities or health concerns.
If you do have yoga-practising friends, ask where they go and what they like about their studio or instructor. This isn’t really to suss out the level, but more to get the vibe of the place. Some instructors are very serious and others are more laid-back. Some like to walk around the room and reposition your body if you’re not quite getting the right posture; others will stay on their mat and leave you alone.
If you don’t have a friend to give insider info, it’s fine to ask the instructor these questions, too.
“Go to your first class with a friend, call the studio ahead of time, and ask the questions that have kept you from trying a class in the past. Fear of the unknown is the first hurdle to jump over so the more you understand ahead of time, the less intimidated you’ll feel in the moment.” — Dr. Jodi Ashbrook
Prepare and Go
A yoga studio will have all the mats and accessories you’ll need; just bring a water bottle. If it’s an event outdoors or in an unconventional space, you may need to bring your own mat. (Even if you’re going to a studio, it’s always acceptable to bring your own mat if you want. They won’t be offended.)
You don’t have to dress in all spandex, but you’ll want to be comfortable. Regular workout clothes are fine. If you wear a loose-fitting t-shirt, it may fall down around your shoulders when you do downward dog. Just be aware of that. Don’t worry about shoes; you’ll take them off as soon as you get to the studio.
Get there early. Yoga classes tend to have a structured beginning, and it’s not cool to waltz in partway through. (I was late to a class once and the instructor had locked the front door of the studio. I had to turn around and go home.)
Since you’re there early, you’ll have time to introduce yourself to the instructor. Explain that you’re totally new to this, and let them know if you have any questions or concerns or if you have a nagging injury that you need to work around. Yoga teachers’ brains tend to be encyclopedias of pose modifications (“sure, if your wrist hurts in downward dog you could do this or this or this…“) and they’re happy to share. I also just like explaining any issues to the teacher so that if they see me taking extra breaks, they know why.
“As a teacher, I absolutely love when students ask questions about their practice – it’s a way for us to get to know each other, and a way for you to enhance your progress. Whether it’s about mind-body connection or injury modifications or breathing or simply class “etiquette”, trust that there are no silly questions.”- Erika Lee Sperl
Once you’ve done that, set up your mat in a good spot. If you’re in the back, you can look at other students any time you feel lost. But since you might end up turning to face the back of the room at times, the middle might be a better bet.
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Ask if you need any accessories for the day’s class, like a strap or a block. Gather them by your mat. Then, just sit there until class starts. Or use the bathroom. For extra credit, sit up tall and practice deep breathing.
“Breathe. Even if you were to just sit on your mat and breathe for the entire class, that’s yoga. In fact, that’s an awesome yoga practice! Most of us are drawn to yoga vs. other forms of fitness because it is a moving meditation, so no matter what is challenging or confusing in that moment, if you focus on your breathe and breathing through it, you’re doing it right.” — Kelly Carnes
Enjoy the Class
Every class is different, but this is one common structure:
- You’ll start in a seated pose (there are fancy ways to sit, but plain old criss cross applesauce is fine). The teacher may say “Namaste” and bow to you; say it and bow right back.
- The teacher may ask you to “set an intention”. That just means take a second to think about what you hope to get out of the class. Nobody will ask what your intention is, but here’s a good beginner one anyway: Silently tell yourself “I want to have fun and maybe learn something.”
- You’ll do a bunch of poses, and maybe breathing exercises, or whatever the teacher has in mind. Most classes don’t have a lot of raising your hand to ask questions, so instead, watch the instructor and other students to try to figure out what’s going on. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just slip into a downward dog or a child’s pose to give yourself a break.
- The last thing is often a relaxation done in savasana, or corpse pose. Basically, you lie down on the floor and chill out for a while. Don’t be surprised if you’re doing this for five minutes or more, maybe with some changes in position.
The whole time, just listen to the instructor and don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. “The person doing some crazy stretch/twist/whatever is just trying to reach the same kind of deep sensation [they] had in their early days,” says Chris Lucas. Go at your own pace and work within your own capabilities.
“If something the instructor is asking you to do doesn’t feel right, don’t push yourself out of peer pressure, wait until further instruction, it’s not worth an injury. I ended up with an injury in 2003 when an instructor pushed too hard on my back trying to deepen my stretch and have since realised this is common with beginners wanting to do whatever someone tells them.” — Yancy Wright, Alternavida
Once the class is done, thank the instructor, and look for a spray bottle to sanitize your mat if you borrowed it from the studio. If you liked the class, make plans to come back again! And if not, it’s fine to go somewhere else next time, or to just enjoy doing sun salutations on your own in your living room. If you’re challenging yourself a little and having fun, you’re doing yoga right.
“Beginner students tend to put a lot of unnecessary pressure and expectations on themselves to quickly learn and “nail” poses. This leads to feelings of fear, embarrassment and lack of confidence. But in reality, the poses are not and have never been the true goal of yoga. You don’t need balance, flexibility or yoga knowledge to practice. These attributes are naturally cultivated over time. The body is simply seen as a doorway into the mind. As your body opens, so does your capacity for mindfulness. So, it’s the experience itself of exploring your body and developing an awareness of it through trying poses that is most important. New students simply need to muster up the courage and dedication to come to their mat and practice.” — Brittany Szafran, Sass Yoga