Q: There are so many yoga studios popping up around the city. What’s a good way for someone new to yoga to get started?
Most people prefer having choices over being stuck with limited options. Yet an abundance of options might leave you feeling paralyzed, especially when trying something new. For both the beginner and experienced yoga student, the multitude of studios to choose from in our metro area is a wonderful problem to have.
Yoga means union and this is reflected on both a personal level — the integration of mind, body and spirit — as well as the community level in which there is no separation between you and I. For the beginner, this premise can seem pretty lofty and removed from what we often see in our Western culture, which can appear more like a club of women wearing stretchy black tights.
Please don’t be fooled by what may look like a homogenous mentality among yogis. Yes, there can be some group-specific language (such as the occasional Sanskrit) or commonalities in lifestyle (being spiritual “seekers” or vegetarians) but at this point the community has become so vast that there is a flexible (pun intended) range of beliefs among those who practice yoga, and all are welcome to participate.
Here are some basics as you get started: most studios have mats and other props provided for free or a small fee; studios typically have a special discounted rate for your first week; wear loose, comfortable clothing and expect to be barefoot, taking your shoes off before walking into the yoga room; inform your teacher of any injuries you have so they can give you modifications; the class may be mostly women, which certainly does not mean it isn’t equally beneficial for all genders; some teachers may touch students to assist them into better alignment or a deeper sensation of the pose but this is not required and you can always opt out of adjustments.
Every studio and teacher has their way of facilitating the practice depending on their lineage so be forewarned that different class styles may suggest slightly contradictory methods. Consider the saying “imitate, imitate, imitate then innovate, innovate, innovate.” This means let yourself be curious, look around at others in the class, copy them and see how it lands in your body. Then slowly synthesize what you’ve experienced and arrive at your personal preferences based on your strengths, limitations and energy level on that given day. Remember that you are the expert of what works for you.
I suggest you remain patient as you explore different styles. Think of yoga as giving your body “nutritious movement.” Just as you don’t want to eat the same salad every day, you don’t want to become stale in your movement routines, such as jogging the same 3 miles every day. Attending a variety of classes can give you a wider range of physical and mental benefits and an opportunity to see what resonates with you. All the different styles of yoga mean there’s something for everybody and every body type, not just the young and bendy.
There are many beliefs about what yoga means and why it matters, which can be confusing. There are styles of yoga that believe the body is a vessel to enlightenment, styles that believe the body is a celebration, styles that don’t involve movement as much as breathing and so forth. As a beginner simply focus on showing-up and letting things unfold. The best way to “convince” someone on the merits of yoga is not to preach but rather lead them to a class. It is said that “yoga is 1 percent theory and 99 percent practice.” Transformation cannot happen without experience. There is no substitute for discovering what happens when you inhabit your body and breathe. This is because our mind can become full of rigid rules whereas our body is a path to discovery. Let the physical experience of yoga lead the way.
As a mind-body psychologist I emphasize how yoga has extraordinary benefit on both the physical and emotional body. For some it’s about release of bodily tension, for others it’s an opportunity to gain empowerment, find mental stillness in a hectic world or expand community. I’m delighted when yoga goes beyond the physical for a new student: the poses becomes a gateway to learn about yogic philosophy, including principles of self-reflection, forgiveness, letting go, non-reactivity, presence and compassion, to name a few.
Yoga is a personal experience and not a competition. If the goal of your practice is to get somewhere externally, such as showing off twisting your body into a pretzel, there are other physical pursuits that will better suit you. Leave behind the “no pain no gain” mentality you learned in other fitness classes. Yoga is about finding your unique balance between effort and ease, rather than forcing yourself from a place of ego. The heart of yoga is not about 6-pack abs, it’s about releasing tension so you can slowly connect to your vulnerability. Yoga asks you to be authentic in your own beautiful complicated way. It invites you to step on your mat and show up as you are without apology or judgment, not how you think you’re supposed to be. You are simply there to breath and feel more spacious within. It’s about letting go and softening into who you already are. As a recovering perfectionist, I find this idea radically soothing. T.S. Eliot stated, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
I’ll conclude in a manner congruent with a typical yoga class, ending with the Sanskrit word “Namaste,” meaning the teacher and the light within me honors the teacher and the light within you. No matter how skeptical or intimidated you are, it’s never too late to honor your inner teacher and see what arises when you step on your mat.
Dr. Rachel Allyn is a licensed psychologist in private practice. Learn more about her unique style of therapy at DrRachelAllyn.com. Send questions to Rachel@DrRachelAllyn.com.