What I Wish I Would’ve Known for My First Yoga Class

Yoga seems to be on everyone’s mind. Celebrities do it, our coworkers and classmates do it, and a yoga mat might as well be a signature accessory for half the girls I see on the sidewalk. The problem is, yoga can be a tad…intimidating.

Rachel Brathen Yoga girl
Source: Rachel Brathen, or “Yoga Girl”

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Yoga really can be for everyone, but there are some things you should know if you want to start practicing yoga:

1. Pick the type that is right for you

There are many, many types of yoga, but here are the five most common:

  • Hatha: Hatha yoga is typically gentle on your body, relaxing, and slow-paced. It focuses on breathing and meditation over strength or movement. It’s great for those learning the basics of yoga or seeking stress-relief.
  • Vinyasa: This type of yoga involves basic poses that are synchronized with your breath. Ever heard of a sun salutation? Expect a lot of those. I love Vinyasa yoga for the lean muscle and flexibility gains it provides.
  • Ashtanga: Ashtanga yoga means “eight-limbed yoga.” It involves synchronizing the breath with a progressive series of postures. Ashtanga can be an intense practice that requires dedication.
  • Iyengar: Say what? The name might not be the only thing you stumble over. Iyengar yoga involves a lot of standing poses that improve your balance. It is designed to strengthen and bring your body into alignment. This type of class can be especially good for people recovering from an injury.  You will work little balance muscles you didn’t even know existed.
  • Bikram: Hope you like it hot – Bikram yoga classes take place in rooms kept at 95-100ish degrees. The heat isn’t a gimmick, though. It can help you get a deeper stretch and sweat out toxins. Bikram yoga has some seriously devoted students who swear by it, and it is certainly an experience. Maybe pass on this type if you feel faint while vacationing anywhere below the Mason-Dixon line in summer, however.

2. Know what to expect:

Studios, classes, and individual instructors can vary greatly. Most yoga studios provide mats you can rent or borrow, but you may need to bring your own. Just call ahead to ask. If you’re serious about starting a consistent yoga practice, owning your own mat is a must – and a possession you’ll grow to love. Luckily, mats aren’t always expensive or hard to find.

Mats may be placed just a few inches apart in a busy class, so check your personal space hang-ups at the door, show up early to score a spot you love, or choose a less popular class time. The instructor may tell you to grab a block or a strap to assist you in certain poses. These tools are awesome for everyone, but they can be especially useful if you aren’t very flexible.

Most students will likely be dressed in fitted tops and pants (either capri or full). In a hot class, women may just wear shorts and a sports bra. Despite all the yoga fashion floating around Instagram, what you wear does not matter as long as it doesn’t inhibit your practice.  When in doubt, think form-fitting over loose. Leave the oversized look to your Sunday morning lounge outfit – all those stretchy fabrics actually do help your instructor see your body better, and therefore help you during class.

On that note, your teacher might want to adjust your body while in a pose. Most yoga instructors let you provide some kind of feedback if you would prefer not to be touched. If at any point you feel uncomfortable with your instructor’s methods, don’t hesitate to speak up.

Unlike most other workouts, yoga can have a spiritual element to it. While yoga is not a religion (despite what your crazy uncle might say), some of the instructions might not be what you’re used to from spin class. Some possible phrases include “visualizing energy” or “breathing into” a certain part of your body. Be open-minded, but also explore until you find a class or instructor that fits your style.

yoga in the wild

3. Lose your self-consciousness

As a beginner, it is normal to feel a little self-conscious. You’ll soon learn that people of all ages, body types, and experience levels participate in yoga. Remember that everyone is focused on themselves and the instructor, not on how flexible you aren’t or the fact that your breathing sounds weird.

If you want to get more comfortable in class, add some at-home practice. There are some great yoga apps out there and plenty of YouTube videos. Don’t completely ditch classes in favor of tutorials, however. When you are in the early learning phases, it is vital that you get in-person instruction to correct your form and prevent injury. The best way to improve your yoga practice is by attending class with an experienced teacher who can answer your questions.

4. Yoga Etiquette

  • Shoes: No need to track street grime into a room where people will be hanging out on the floor. Some gyms have cubbies for shoes and socks, while others just leave them by the door. Ask at the front desk, or watch what others do at your particular location.
  • Punctuality: To me, punctuality means showing up 10 minutes early. Some students may come as much as 20 minutes early to grab a spot in a popular class. If you find this is the norm, just hang out and get to know your classmates. Be sure to read the room before speaking loudly. Some classes are extremely quiet, with individuals meditating even before the instructor is present. If this is the case in your class, maybe reconsider starting a spirited Game of Thrones discussion.  If possible, introduce yourself to the instructor before your first class starts. This way, you can highlight any injury you might have so he/she can make a note to discuss modifications for certain poses.
  • Distractions: Once class begins, conversations  and electronics are no-nos. Turn off your cell phone (not just to vibrate) and refrain from chatting up your neighbor. During a class, most people are focused on their own practice and the teacher’s instructions. You’re here to yoga, so yoga!
  • Personal hygiene: In busy classes, yoga mats can be placed quite close together. Wear deodorant. Brush your teeth. Avoid perfume/cologne, which may offend your neighbor (or worse, cause an allergic reaction). Seriously, you probably know this stuff, but a reminder never hurts.
  • Savasana: Most yoga classes end with savasana, or corpse pose. Yes, it is exactly like it sounds – you lie on your mat like a corpse. Don’t skip out on this pose and head for the door. You’ll miss out on the awesome yoga nap time! If you absolutely have to leave class early, do it before everyone settles into savasana. Better yet, try to find a class where you won’t be rushed towards the end of the time slot.
  • Ending class: Most teachers end a session by saying “Namaste” (pronounced nah-mas-tay), which is basically Sanskrit for “I bow to you” or “I honor you.” The class usually repeats it back, and you should join in. I make it a point to personally thank the instructor while everyone is cleaning up their space, mostly because they’re often awesome people that I want to get to know better. This is also a great time to ask questions!

If you’ve  been putting off going to a yoga class – don’t! There’s nothing to fear, and a lot to gain.

(Psst…follow my yoga Instagram if you need some support. I love making new yogi friends!)

Rachel Medlock yoga

Do you have any other tips for yoga beginners? Share them in the comments!