Starting something new can be challenging and a little anxiety-producing, especially when it has a reputation of being hard, or being for athletes or twenty-somethings in tight pants. Yoga is for everybody, at any age, and at any level of fitness. There are many styles of yoga, and if you are a human being with a body and mind, there is probably a class just right for you, quite possibly within driving distance.
If you've never done yoga, here are some tips before your first class:
Contact the Teacher
If you are curious about which class will best meet your needs, if you need directions, or if you are just wondering how big the classes are, contact the teacher. Most yoga teachers are more than happy to answer your questions, and getting to know them, even over the phone, can put you at ease when you arrive.
Especially if you have a particular limitation, or are recovering from an injury or surgery, it can be useful to speak to the teacher to have an idea whether the class you have selected will be appropriate and beneficial for you.
When you contact the teacher, it is also a good time to inquire whether you will need to bring your own mat or any other equipment to class.
The average yoga class includes quite a bit of movement. You will want to wear clothing that fits comfortably, that allows you to bend and stretch to your full range of motion without causing discomfort, and allows you to breathe fully as you move.
Most students prefer pants, as shorts can be somewhat revealing in various yoga poses. It also nice to wear either a fitted shirt or one that can be tucked into your pants, as many inversions tip the torso upside down, which can cause loose-fitting shirts to fall and expose the torso.
Depending on the type of class, you will possibly want to dress in layers. Physically active classes spend some time generating body heat, and short sleeves or a sleeveless shirt may be more comfortable for the middle, most active portion of class. You might like to have a sweater or long-sleeved shirt for relaxation at the end of class (although there are also blankets available for you to cover with as needed).
Yoga is usually practiced barefoot so your feet have traction in standing and balancing poses, although many postures can be done safely with socks on.
Have some Water, and Eat Lightly
It is important to stay hydrated before, during and after yoga exercises, not only because of the physical exertion itself, but also because yoga in particular works with the connective tissues of the body. The general health and pliability of connective tissue (and thus your physical comfort) is much improved when it is well hydrated. Many locations will have water available, but you might like to have a bottle or other closed container of water near your mat as you practice.
Some students find that they prefer to practice on an empty stomach, and others prefer to have a light snack before class. Either way, eating a large meal or drinking too much water can cause discomfort during yoga. Many yoga poses are designed to squeeze, stretch and twist the abdomen, so use your judgment when planning to practice yoga after a meal.
New students often express concern about appearing foolish, unhealthy or clumsy in their first yoga class. Please know that the other students are generally too absorbed in their own experience to notice anybody but the teacher.
The teacher will keep an eye on each student to make sure everybody is practicing safely, and the teacher may suggest modifications, corrections, or explanations as needed, but these suggestions are made with respect, compassion and kindness. For a yoga teacher, it is an honor to teach a new student, and any comment or suggestion made is intended to keep students safe and help them more fully experience the practice.
Have an Open Mind
If you have never done yoga, be prepared to do a lot of things that may seem awkward, unnatural, or maybe silly. Depending on the class you attend, the teacher might be cuing movements which place your body in a position you've never experienced, or the teacher might ask you to become aware of your body, breath or thoughts in a way you never anticipated.
Most yoga teachers of new students will understand that a lot of what they're asking you to do is completely new, and that some of it might be challenging or uncomfortable. You don't have to do it all. You don't have to say Om, or Namaste. You don't have breathe in a way that feels strange. And you definitely don't have to do anything that hurts.
If something feels a little strange, you are welcome to be an observer instead of an active participant--but please show the teacher and other students the same measure of respect that you are given. Try to withhold judgment. Remember that yoga is an ancient practice. Even if something doesn't appeal to you, or something seems funny, there is probably a purpose for it which you may not understand. It's OK to not understand, or to not like something.
Listen to Your Body
Your yoga teacher will likely guide you through a series of postures, or positions, which may strengthen, stretch or relax your body. The teacher may also guide you through breathing exercises. Depending on your level of physical fitness, and on any physical limitation you have, there may be exercises which are not appropriate for you at that moment. If at any point you feel light-headed, nauseous, dizzy, or as though you can't breathe fully, stop what you are doing and rest. You can let the teacher know if you would like a modification that is more appropriate.
Yoga teachers are guides. They have experienced yoga in their own body, and they have taught many students and have a general idea of what will be safe and appropriate for most people. But they don't know everything, and they certainly don't know exactly what you are feeling or thinking. Listen to the sensations of your own body, to the flow of your breath, and to the voice of your inner wisdom. Especially if the experience has moved beyond discomfort to pain, know that you always have the prerogative to do what feels right to you. One of the goals of yoga is to more clearly hear this inner voice, so that we can live mindfully, in a way that supports and nourishes us at every level. Yoga class is about your practice, not about the teacher.
Don't be Afraid to Talk to the Teacher
You might have questions about what you experienced. Perhaps you'd like to know what a certain pose is called, you'd like feedback on how you did, or you'd like some more information on a certain type of stretch or strengthening exercise. Yoga teachers LOVE to talk about yoga. That's why they are standing in the front of the room during class. They love to answer questions, and if they don't know, chances are they will enjoy researching answers to your questions. It is such a pleasure to teach students who are interested enough to ask us questions. Remember that we are still students ourselves, and there are no stupid questions because we've asked them once too.
Again, it is important to stay well-hydrated for activities which work connective tissue. That means drinking water--not soda, not coffee. Drink to thirst.
Chances are, you may be sore after your first yoga class. Especially if it is asana (yoga pose) heavy. Give your body some time to recuperate. It's learning something completely new. Your yoga teacher likely does yoga poses every day, possibly several times a day. It will take some more experience before your body can do yoga as efficiently.
Until then, take your time. Perhaps you can balance more active classes with restorative classes. There is a broad spectrum of types of yoga classes, from really active Vinyasa to gentler Hatha yoga, to therapeutic and relaxing restorative. Beyond asana, yoga also involves mindful living, breathing and meditation. Yoga is a lifelong practice that blends different techniques to balance the body, mind and soul. There is no need to be an advanced student right away. There is no need to be other than you are. Allow the yoga techniques to support and enrich your life over time.