I still remember my first Yoga class like it was yesterday. I had been in the stress management business for over 15 years, had read about the many benefits of yoga (which include stress reduction, pain relief, increased flexibility, increased strength, and weight management) and even occasionally "practiced" yoga while watching it demonstrated on TV. But I had never actually been to a live yoga class. So, given my fear of doing anything new, it was with great trepidation that I drove myself to my first class.
I remember being afraid that I would be wearing the wrong clothes, or be the only man in a class, or God forbid, that I might look or do something foolish. And I just know I never would have gone if I'd had to pay for that first class. It came "free" as part of my membership. Suffice it to say, I'm a tough sell when it comes to trying ANYTHING new.
So I put on some non-descript gray sweatpants and a blue T-shirt hoping I wouldn't "stand out" and headed over to the Y. I fought back the negative chatter going on in my head during the drive over by saying, "Hey you tell people you're a stress management expert and you've never taken a yoga class, what's wrong with you?" Boy I really know how to motivate myself, don't I? I was rushing to get there so I wouldn't be late (which seemed ironic.)
I remember feeling almost queasy as I entered the building and walked down the hallway. I noticed there were several women ahead of me carrying yoga mats and I thought, "#*#*! I should have brought a Yoga mat." I started to turn around and then a very brave (and very quiet) voice inside of me said, "Maybe they have yoga mats in the studio." So I continued walking. That brave voice was practically drowned out by the negative voice that said, "Why would all these women in front of me be carrying yoga mats if they already had mats in the classroom?"
But the brave voice spoke up again and said, "Jim you are almost there, just keep going another 20 feet and find out if they have yoga mats." So I kept on walking but now I was even more nervous. I opened the door to the studio, (with the loud, irrational voice) still trying to convince me of the error of my ways. Sheepishly, I introduced myself to the teacher like any SANE person would and I told her that this was my first yoga class. Then I asked her if there were any extra yoga mats I could use, fully expecting her to say NO. She kindly lead me to a closet in the back of the room, opened up the door, and I saw dozens of yoga mats and all sorts of other yoga props neatly piled on racks. ("So there," I said to the loud voice in my head, "you're wrong.")
I took the thickest mat I could find and set it out on the floor, thinking that I would just blend right in like a regular. That's when the teacher took one look at my mat and said: "Don't use that one, it's a Pilates mat. Use the thin ones, they're for yoga." The irrational voice spoke up again: "See you idiot, you can't even pick out the right mat!"
In a few moments the class started and I was stretching in ways that I never thought humanly possible and feeling better than I had felt in weeks. I was soon discovering that wonderful point in a stretch half-way between pleasure and pain that is so unique to yoga and this seemed to finally silence the irrational voice in my head. Still, I've never forgotten how difficult it was getting to that first class and overcoming all the doubt and negative self-talk associated with doing ANYTHING for the first time.
So I thought I'd try to develop a tool for people to use, to become acquainted with a stress management activity like yoga (or meditation, or biofeedback, or mindfulness, or massage) before you actually do it: To help you get over the initial fear of the unknown and to quiet that irrational voice in your head. That's why I'm developing a new video blog series (The Ten Things You Need to Know Before You Go) that is going to introduce you to these various methods for managing stress. My hope is that this combination of video and written blogs will introduce you to enough of the main points about one of these activities that it will get you over your initial fear or hesitation of actually doing it.
So if you are thinking about ways of reducing stress and have wondered what it would be like to take a yoga class, here's your chance to find out what you need to know before you go. The video blog covers basically the same information that we have outlined in the article below. But if you're nervous about trying new things like I am, be sure to watch the Yoga video blog [part 1 | part 2]. Seeing what you will be doing in advance helps activate the mirror neurons in your brain. In a very real way - at least as far as your brain is concerned - you will be experiencing yoga and this in turn will help you overcome inertia, skepticism and your initial reluctance to go.
Tell the instructor if you have any injuries, or if you are pregnant, or have any other problems you think the instructor ought to know about. You can talk to him or her privately before the class if you wish, or wait for the beginning of class when many teachers, if they see some new faces, will usually ask for this information. If you are pregnant, for example, or have a back problem, the teacher will want to know this and will slightly adjust certain poses for you to keep you (and if you are pregnant, your baby) safe.
What to bring. You can bring a water bottle, a towel, if you think you might be sweaty, (some yoga classes are more aerobic than others - so find out if it is a beginning level class or an advanced level class). You can bring a mat (most studios have mats you can borrow but some people prefer to bring their own). There are usually blocks, belts and blankets at every yoga studio for you to use when needed.
What to wear. It really doesn't matter what you wear to yoga as long as it isn't too loose, and that it can stretch with you as you stretch. I've noticed that most men wear baggy gym shorts and a T-shirt and most women wear some variation on a leotard for a bottom and often a blouse, t-shirt or leotard that isn't so loose-fitting or too open or low-cut for the top. Remember it's going to fall down or even fall up when the body is inverted for a pose like downward facing dog (see information on poses below).
What to do when you arrive. Sign in, take your shoes off (you can wear your socks during class if you're cold, but most teachers encourage you to take them off so your feet don't slip on the mat.) Turn your cell phone off and leave it and your shoes by the door.
Gather your props. There's usually a closet or storage bin in the back of the room where the mats, blankets, blocks and belts are kept. When you get there, see what everyone else is taking. If everyone is taking a belt, it means the teacher often teaches with a belt. If everyone takes two blocks, take two blocks. But most teachers teach with one block and the belt is optional. And taking a blanket, unless the teacher tells you to, is also optional. It's nice at the end of class to snuggle up under a blanket for the final relaxation period, but that's totally up to you.
You don't have to do everything. This is the beauty of yoga. It's not a competitive sport. Usually the teacher will provide different options for each pose (geared toward different level students). And they will say, while explaining the pose, if you want a little more challenge here's another option for you. As a beginner, you may want to stop at the first option which is usually the easiest version of the pose. But if it's going well and you feel like you are up for the challenge, continue adding the suggested options to further enhance the pose. But keep in mind: you don't have to make it more challenging if you don't want to.
Don't hesitate to give yourself a break at any time and just put yourself in child's pose, no matter what the rest of the class is doing. (This seems odd the first time you try it, but trust me, people do it all the time.)
If you don't understand what's going on you can always ask. Not all teachers demonstrate every pose. Especially once they've been teaching the same group of people for a while. But you can always ask for assistance if you need it, and most yoga teachers will come over to you and give you an adjustment if he or she sees you aren't quite getting it. I still get occasional adjustments in class from all my teachers and I find this hands-on form of instruction to be a very special aspect of yoga. (If you don't want an adjustment you can always say, no thanks.)
There are always one or two advanced students in every class who nail every pose perfectly. They are usually pretty easy to spot. When the teacher isn't demoing a posture, I often look to one of these more advanced students for reference.
Some teachers, while facing you in front of the class, will demo the postures using a technique called "mirroring" where they actually move the opposite limb from the one they are say they are moving. This is done because, when the teacher faces you, your mind tends to perceive his or her limbs moving in the opposite direction from the instructions, sort of like when you look in a mirror. So to compensate for this tendency some teachers use this "mirroring" technique. When it's done well you probably won't even notice it is happening. And when the teacher DOESN'T use mirroring (most don't), you'll notice your tendency to move in the opposite direction of the actual instruction. (Just listen to the instructions and you'll always get it right.)
You can always take a break. Besides taking a break when you're tired and just want to rest for a moment (in child's pose), you are also free to get up and get another prop that you might need, or leave the room to go to the bathroom. You're not stuck in the class for the entire hour. (BTW, classes can vary in length from 45 minutes to 90 minutes.)
Yoga Postures. Below are ten basic postures that you will be glad you know when you go to your first class.
"Namaste." After the five minute relaxation period is over at the end of the class, your teacher will undoubtedly put her hands in front of her heart and bow to you and say "Namaste." (Nah - mah - stay) This is a common greeting in India, pretty much like saying hello or goodbye here in the US. Literally it means "the light in me bows to the light in you." If you feel comfortable returning this gesture, after he or she says it, you can say "Namaste" back.
One last thought: I've been doing yoga now for about seven years. And throughout that time I've noticed that new people come and go in just about every class. So you can always join a class at any time. I'm in an advanced class now, but (first time) beginners are always welcome. Usually the teacher will find time to give them a little extra instruction and hands-on direction during the course of that first class.
In spite of this open door policy, I worry that our advanced class will seem just a little too intimidating to a beginner. Even though you NEVER have to do all the poses, and the teacher will always offer up easier options to the difficult poses, I worry that a beginner might get frustrated and never come back. (Keep in mind, there are usually beginner level, intermediate and advanced level classes in most studios.)
But remember, even in an advanced class, there will be others close to your level too, even if they are not rank beginners. And it doesn't take long, really just a few classes, for you to get the hang of yoga. So stick with it, practice the poses below, and you'll soon come to understand why yoga is such a unique and satisfying form of exercise.
10 Yoga Postures to know before you go to your first yoga class
Downward Facing Dog
Reclined Spinal Twist