New to yoga? Roll out your mat with confidence by putting these 12 tips into practice.
By Jessica Matthews, MS, E-RYT 500
While yoga offers a plethora of research-supported physiological and psychological benefits—from improved flexibility and balance to reduced stress and improved mood—it is not uncommon to feel a bit uneasy about kicking off your shoes and stepping onto a mat for the first time. To calm your nerves and set your mind at ease, some of the country’s top yoga teachers share their personal tips for getting started and sticking with a yoga practice.
1. Break Free from Your Comfort Zone.
Having the courage to brave the unknown and try something entirely new should be celebrated, and acknowledging that you may feel a bit uncomfortable and a little out of place at first is all part of the process, says Jane Bahneman, co-owner of Blue Nectar Yoga Studio in Falls Church, Virginia. “During your first yoga class, you might feel a bit clumsy, but keep in mind that every yogi was in fact an awkward beginner at one point,” she notes. “If a teacher instructs poses that you are unfamiliar with or chants words in Sanskrit, just go with it and try to remain open-minded. Don’t allow the first class to determine how you ultimately feel about the practice of yoga as a whole.”
2. Choose A Class That Serves Your Needs.
There is no one size fits all when it comes to yoga, as there are many different types of classes and styles of yoga to choose from. Individuals who are new to yoga should do a bit of research and find a class description that aligns with their individual interests, goals, and needs, says New York City–based yoga instructor Heidi Kristoffer, creator of CrossFlowX Yoga. “For example, if you are seeking something a bit more athletic and want to sweat, look for words like strong and power flow in the class description. Alternatively, if your objective is to relax and restore, find a description that matches those desires, such as a gentle flow or restorative class.”
3. Allow Time to Settle In.
To make the most of your first yoga class experience, allow yourself ample time to get situated. Amanda Kriebel, DPT, a registered yoga teacher and the founder of Awareness Physical Therapy, suggests that new students arrive to class at least 10 to 15 minutes early to complete any necessary paperwork and to introduce themselves to the instructor and ask any general questions they may have. This additional time will also give you an opportunity to learn the check-in process, destress from your day, and get settled in at the studio. Keep in mind that yoga is practiced barefoot, so shoes and socks will not be needed. “Typically, there is a designated area to stash your shoes at the door—and remember to take your socks off, as well, as they do not offer traction and will cause you to slide on your mat,” says Kriebel. “Also, you may wish to choose a spot in the middle or toward the back of the room where you can see the teacher and also glance around at what other people are doing as you’re learning the poses.”
4. Come Equipped.
One of the nice things about yoga is that it does not require fancy—or superexpensive—equipment. Having a few basics items on hand, however, especially during your first class experience, will help you feel more comfortable and ensure that you are adequately prepared for whatever the practice might have in store. Bahneman suggests bringing water, a small towel to wipe away sweat, and a yoga mat if you have one, though you can always inquire at the studio if they offer mat rentals, which typically cost a few dollars per class. “A good yoga mat does make a difference, so I encourage new yogis to invest in a quality mat sooner rather than later.”
5. Dress for Success.
Although you are not required to sport any specific ensemble or particular clothing brand, wearing the right kind of apparel that allows you to remain comfortable throughout the class experience and to move without restriction is a must, says Lisa Yee, a registered yoga teacher and personal trainer and the owner of LisaFIT in San Diego, California. “I constantly see beginners struggling to tuck in shirts when in inverted poses like downward-facing dog, or attempting to hold up low-rise bottoms when folding forward,” says Yee. “To set yourself up for success, wear comfortable, form-fitting, stretch-fabric clothing that enables you to move with ease and allows the instructor to see your form more easily.” Invest in comfortable clothing options, such as those made from quick-drying fabrics that help wick away sweat, and consider sporting layers—such as a sports bra, tank top, and lightweight long-sleeved shirt—to allow you to customize your level of coverage during class so you remain comfortable at all times.
6. Flexibility Is Not a Prerequisite.
Believe it or not, you need not be flexible to participate in a yoga class. In fact, one of the many benefits that a regular yoga practice provides is increased flexibility, both in the physical body and in the mind, says Jonathan Old- Rowe, a San Diego–based yoga teacher and lululemon ambassador. “Yoga is about being flexible with your inflexibilities,” says Old-Rowe, who has taught yoga around the world, from top studios to penitentiaries. “This is not Cirque du Soleil, so resist the temptation to judge your body based on what someone next to you is doing.”
7. Start Slowly and Ease Into It.
Whenever you start something new, it is important to gradually ease into it, especially when it comes to the physical practice of yoga, says Stacy McCarthy, an international yoga educator and the creator of the Yoga Body DVD series. “Progress from yoga comes from practicing earnestly and meeting yourself where you’re at physically, mentally, and spiritually.” Much like learning to play the piano or building up the endurance to run a half marathon, yoga too takes time, practice, and dedication, so take it slowly and go easy on yourself.
8. Let Your Breath Move You.
While the word yoga often makes people think of upright balance poses such as tree pose, the breath is truly an integral part of the practice. Understanding the critical role that the breath plays and realizing that ultimately it serves as your best teacher throughout the class experience will set you up for lasting success, says celebrity yoga and Pilates teacher Kristin McGee. “Listen to your breath and start slowly, resisting the need to rush into anything or to push too hard. Instead, allow your breath to be your guide and to help you progress at your own pace.” If during the practice you find that your breath becomes short, rapid, or constricted, that’s your cue to back out of the pose and opt for a more accessible expression of the pose or an alternate posture that best serves your body.
9. Explore What Serves You Best.
Instead of trying to forcibly push your body beyond its current abilities, Gillian Gibree, standup paddleboard yoga instructor and owner of Paddle Into Fitness, recommends focusing your energy on seeking postures that serve you best. “Yoga is supposed to feel good, so if there’s a pose or movement that causes strain or pain, remember you can always adapt the pose until it feels right for you,” notes Gibree. “It’s important to acknowledge that each day is different and there are always options you can explore. Personally, I sometimes just lie on my mat and relax in savasana for most of the class.”
10. Learn From Different Teachers.
Just as there are a number of styles of yoga to choose from, so too is there an abundance of yoga teachers, each with a unique personality and personal approach to instruction. While having a variety of options to choose from can be exciting, much like trying to find the perfect restaurant in a big city, it can be challenging to find the right yoga instructor for you, says Lawrence Biscontini, a mindful movement specialist and award-winning mind-body educator based in Puerto Rico: “The instructor’s approach has to match your philosophy, so don’t hesitate to try different classes taught by different teachers to find the right class for you.”
11. Express Gratitude for The Experience.
At the end of the day, yoga is an experience—a personal journey that requires an investment of your time and energy. Bahneman notes that it is important to allow yourself the time and space to explore and enjoy all the aspects of the practice: “From the movement between poses to the stillness in the final resting pose, it is all equally valuable and beneficial. There is truly so much to be thankful for.”
12. Try, Try Again.
Regardless of how the class goes and what happens, make it a point to come back and practice again. “During class your mind might wander and you may judge yourself or feel as though you are doing it wrong, but the reality is, it is all a process,” says Old-Rowe. “Come back to your mat, have fun, let go, laugh at yourself, and—above all—keep smiling.”
Jessica Matthews, MS, E-RYT 500, is an assistant professor of health and exercise science at Miramar College and an associate kinesiology faculty member at MiraCosta College, where she has designed and implemented yoga teacher training programs at the 200- and 500-hour levels. A dynamic speaker, innovative educator, and respected wellness expert, Jessica is a recognized go-to media resource, regularly contributing to numerous publications and media outlets, including the Washington Post and Prevention magazine, on topics ranging from fitness and yoga to health coaching and mindfulness. She also serves as ACE’s senior advisor of health and fitness education and is the lead editor and author of the new ACE Group Fitness Instructor Handbook: The Professional’s Guide to Creating Memorable Movement Experiences. You can reach her at fitexpertjess.com, @fitexpetjess (Twitter and Instagram), and facebook.com/fitexpertjess.