Yoga for Absolute Beginners

I am constantly hearing people say how they want to try yoga, but they are too intimidated to walk into a class for fear of looking or feeling stupid.  I totally get that.  It is intimidating for someone who can barely touch their toes to be seated next to a human gumbi who can effortlessly twist themselves into a pretzel.  If this newcomer only realized that the gumbi next to them was in their exact same state just a few months prior, maybe it would help them to overcome their angst and feelings of inadequacy, but more often then not, it just sends them bolting for the door.

I have seen way too many people walk out of yoga classes I’ve been in, never to come back because they feel they just can’t do the physical poses (asanas).  I always feel like jumping off my mat and running after them imploring them to give it another shot.  I feel compelled to share the benefits of yoga with everyone I come across since it has had such a profound effect on my life. But I don’t…partly for fear of embarrassing them even more and partly because I don’t want to leave my mat, my 90 minute place of refuge and escape from life’s demands.

Being a beginner is never easy, but changing your mindset will help ease you into your comfort zone.  Instead of walking into a room thinking, “I could never get myself into that position” or “I can’t possibly do a backbend, I’m too stiff”, shift those thoughts into a more positive spin.  “Look at the ease that woman has twisting into that pose, I want to get to that place eventually and that’s why I’m here”.  Accepting one’s physical limitations is key in beginning a practice and this holds just as true for the beginner as for the advanced practitioner.  Everyone comes to the mat with a different body.  You may have very tight hamstrings, but a great deal of upper body strength.  You may not be able to touch your toes yet, but find peace and ease in a balance pose.  Even after years of practice, there are some poses my body just cannot do and I’ve learned to accept that.  I don’t look at envy at the person next to me whose hamstrings seem to be made of rubber bands…I just get into my forward bend to the best of my ability, focus on my breath and turn my attention inward.

Whatever amount of yoga you can manage to do is better than not practicing at all.  As we age, flexibility is one of the first things to deteriorate.  Just look at how children can twist themselves into all kinds of contusions without even warming up.  Many adults on the other hand can’t even get down on the ground to sit in a cross-legged position or squat down on their knees without experiencing pain.

As a beginner, take things slowly and do not do anything that causes you pain.  If everyone is doing a pose you cannot do, just sit and breathe or go into child’s pose and rest.  The most important thing in any yoga practice is the breath.  Breathing into the asanas brings oxygen to your cells and helps to focus and quiet your mind so the practice becomes a moving meditation.  Flexibility and strength will develop naturally as you continue to practice.  So start wherever you are, begin gently, and don’t look around the room and compare yourselves to others. If you can’t help but stare at the freakishly twisted gumbi, then go ahead.  Admire her for her grace and strength and know that you too will develop both as you progress in your practice.  There are poses I thought I would never in my lifetime be able to do and then one day on the mat, I would surprise myself by just slipping effortlessly into the pose.  It comes with practice, just as everything else in life does.  There are no secret potions or tricks.  Just practice.

Above all, remind yourself that yoga is not a competitive sport.  People who approach it with that mindset end up with injuries.  I’ve done it myself; it’s tough to turn off that competitive mind when you walk into a yoga studio, but it is essential to do so.  If you push too hard to get yourself into a pose just because your neighbor can do it, you can pull something and injure yourself.  (I wish I had reminded myself of that last night when I attempted an arm stand in the middle of the room—because other people were doing it—and landed on my nose. Ouch.)

Some other tips for an absolute beginner:

If you can afford it, hire a yoga teacher to teach you privately for at least a couple of sessions so you can get the basics down before entering a class.  In most classes you won’t be able to get enough individual attention and starting with a strong foundation will make a world of difference.

Most yoga studios offer beginner classes and you stand a better chance of getting individual attention there as opposed to at a class held at a gym which tend to be larger and open to a mixed level.  After attending a few sessions at a yoga studio, you’ll feel more comfortable when you walk into a gym class.

Speak to your instructor before the class begins and let them know you are a beginner so they can pay extra attention to what you are doing and give you assistance or modifications if necessary.

Believe it or not, the WII has a decent yoga program.  My daughter has learned many poses from it and you can practice in the comfort of your own home.

DVDs are also a good way to practice at home.  It doesn’t replace having a qualified teacher with you, but it can help build your confidence.  There are tons of them out there…when I was starting out I watched Baron Baptiste and Rodney Yee, both of whom are excellent teachers.

The very best advice I can give to anyone looking to start a practice is to stop putting it off and just do it.  Go buy a mat and start practicing today….whatever you are able to do is better than doing nothing at all.