Especially when your main perceptions are formed by Instagramming yogis who pose photos of themselves contorted in every which direction, and flawless fitness models flaunting those totally cute leggings while holding down dog, for someone who’s never practiced before, yoga might seem unapproachable and intimidating.
But despite what you think you might know about it from social media and activewear catalogs, really, yoga is accessible to exercisers of all levels and backgrounds.
For most, it’s pretty simple to jump right in by attending a beginner-level class or even following along with a beginner-level video at home. But even so, it’s nice to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into and what to expect no matter how you plan on approaching your practice for the first time.
Nityda Bhakti is a vinyasa yoga teacher of nine years and founder of The Yoga Wellness Space, an organization designed to help make yoga accessible and less intimidating to anyone who wants to build a sustainable practice. To help you get started with your own yoga journey, below she shares her expert insights and explains everything you need to know before getting started.
The Very First Step: Where to Start
“I always recommend practicing one-on-one with an experienced and knowledgeable teacher in the beginning,” Bhakti said. “We are each unique in our ability to take verbal and manual instruction and interpret it into the ways we are being asked to move our bodies.”
“We are equally unique in our ability to understand and retain new information. More so, our bodies have all been through things, both physically and mentally, before we begin yoga. The history and daily wear and tear that our bodies have experienced affects how things feel within them — not every yoga pose is right for everybody.”
Because yoga is unique among individuals — Bhakti says there’s no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” practice — she highly suggests working with an experienced instructor, at least for your first few sessions. And if possible, work with them one-on-one.
“Group classes, though they are fun and offer a different kind of energy than one-on-one sessions, are taught in a general one-size -fits all way,” Bhakti explained. “A yoga teacher teaching a group class cannot give each and every student the attention needed when first beginning yoga. If students repeat things over and over again the wrong way, damage can occur.”
“Skilled teachers will always offer modifications for newcomers or those with injuries and more advanced options for more experienced practitioners, but when first beginning yoga, I recommend doing a handful of private classes to make sure you are getting the proper foundation. Then, yes, please, venture off to beginner-level group classes! Save the ‘open-level,’ ‘all level’ classes for after you’ve gained an understanding of the basics. Check in with a teacher you’ve grown to trust and ask her/him if you are ready for more advanced classes. Patience and self-love are key.”
What Equipment Will You Need?
“Typically, studios provide all the props needed and also have mats you can rent, usually for one or two dollars if you don’t wish to bring your own,” Bhakti explained. “I honestly encourage my private students that I train one-on-one in their homes to use household items rather than spend money on props. However, the one prop I do encourage students to buy are yoga blocks. I recommend sturdy foam (rather than soft foam) blocks or cork blocks. Blocks help lift the ground to you, making it easier to touch the ground when bending forward from a standing position. They also help lift our spines into proper alignment in poses such as Supported Warrior III Pose and Balancing Half Moon Pose.
The following are a few other props Bhakti recommends, if you want to spend the money and invest in them: bolsters, yoga blankets (she recommends the kinds that are stiffer, such as these Thunderbird Blankets, which offer more support compared to softer kinds), and a strap.
“Again, pillows can be used instead of a blanket in some situations and household blankets or towels can replace yoga blankets or even a bolster,” she said. “A belt can easily do what a yoga strap would. And chairs also come in handy.”
Understanding the Basic Poses
The following are eight foundational poses that Bhakti recommends becoming familiar with.
Note: You should always consult a doctor before beginning any new exercises or exercise programs. Additionally, Bhakti adds: “If you are injured, please consult a knowledgeable and experienced yoga teacher, physical therapist or other healthcare professional before attempting any of these poses. Some poses are contraindicated for specific issues. For example, forward folds are generally contraindicated for herniated discs
Pictured Here: Child's Pose
1. Child’s Pose — balasana: A kneeling forward bending pose that offers a nice place to rest and practice deep breathing.
2. Baby Cobra Pose — bhujangasana: Puts the spine into a small amount of extension (backbend) and is great for helping students learn how to gently engage the abdominals while strengthening and lengthening the spinal muscles into a backbend.
3. Seated Forward Bend — paschimottanasana: It’s a good idea to sit on a folded, stiff blanket or pillow while practicing this pose which opens the feet, ankles, legs and spine. This is one where a strap would be handy if the feet are far from reach.
4. Mountain Pose — tadasana: Helps students learn to distribute the weight evenly through both feet/legs while standing and while strengthening the entire body in a way that allows it to hold itself up with healthy alignment/posture.
5. Reclined Spinal Twist — supta matsyendrasana: First it’s just a good idea to lay on our backs as simply lying flat with good supports (such as with blocks or pillows under the knees and a small rolled towel under the neck) helps to decrease compression between the vertebrae and lengthen out the spine. Twisting then from this reclined position helps us move toward regaining the natural range of motion and rotation in our spines.
6. Opposite Arm/Leg Reach: This pose helps us build scapular stability (stability of the shoulder blades) and across the shoulder girdle, abdominal strength and strength within the arms and legs — it’s a whole body engager — it also helps to strengthen the deep subsurface back muscles that encase and support the spinal column.
7. Reclined Pigeon Pose — supta eka pada rajakapotasana: This gentle hip-opener is a great way to stretch the outer legs, hips and glutes, which tend to be tight as a result of the activities our bodies carry out daily.
8. Final Relaxation Pose/Corpse Pose — savasana: Again, lying on the back decompresses the spine. This pose also allows our bodies the chance to rest, to turn our focus inward and practice letting go of what is external to us, just for a short while, to find that the breath naturally supports the body with a peaceful quality that supports us in moving toward a calmer place all around.
Pictured Here: Baby Cobra Pose
Words of Wisdom and Advice for Beginners
“If you are looking to start with private classes but don’t know a teacher I recommend asking friends/family for recommendations via face-to-face, email or even a Facebook message blast,” Bhakti said. “I have had the pleasure of meeting many of my private students through referrals this way.”
Or, she suggests, you could do an Internet search for “private yoga teacher [insert your city here].”
“Check out the teacher’s website and contact the teacher to see if it’s a good fit,” Bhakti said. “If you want to try a group class, research some studios in the area by doing a google search. Most studios have everything you’ll ever want to know on their website, from class prices to the class schedule to teacher bios.”
For Your First Class: “Arrive early to avoid stress, as you’ll need to fill out a waiver and register,” Bhakti explained. “Studio staff should be friendly and accommodating and most studios have New Student Specials allowing you to try several classes at a discounted price so you can get a sense of whether or not the studio is a right fit for you and/or which teachers resonate with you the most. Again, be patient with yourself. Go to ‘basics,’ ‘beginners,’ or ‘restorative’ classes in the beginning. Some studios even have Absolute Beginners workshops — ask if this is the case.”
Keep in Mind: “There are many different styles of yoga, styles of studios, styles of teaching and teacher personalities,” Bhakti said. “If one class, studio or teacher is not right for you, don’t give up just yet. Not always, but sometimes it does take time to find the right yoga fit for you.”
How Long Until You’ll Feel Like a Regular?
“This is very individual, but generally speaking after five classes you’ll start to recognize and remember a good number of basic poses,” Bhakti explained. “Allow this to be a fun journey, to be curious and playful like a child about your yoga practice, to have your goals but not be rigidly attached to them. Like anything worthwhile, it’s a process, and we want it to be an enjoyable one.”
Other Things to Consider Before Your First Class
“Check out the philosophy of yoga. Understanding the history of yoga and learning ‘The Eight Limbs of Yoga’ will give you a nice guide of how to approach your practice, and your life overall,” Bhakti said. “This is what we call taking yoga ‘off your mat.’”
She adds, “Reflecting on practices such as non-violence — ahimisa —this can be viewed as kind and compassionate thoughts and actions directed toward self and others, and non-attachment —vairagya — can make the yogic journey more enjoyable and sustainable.”
Bhakti also said it’s important to be patient with yourself. “Particularly in group yoga classes, as in many other areas of our lives, we tend to compare ourselves and endorse hateful self-talk,” she explained. “Allow yourself to be exactly where you are — have goals around your practice other than physical ones and this will be easier to do.”