Beginning Yoga

If you're thinking of beginning yoga you've come to the right person for advice – I'm a beginner too! Normally you'd think the best person for advice on something like this would be an expert, and that may be so, some of the time – and I would certainly suggest that you do that as well if you need to. But if you also want to hear from someone who's just a couple of months ahead of you and won't bamboozle you with jargon and unfamiliar concepts, well then who better than myself?

I'd been thinking of beginning yoga for years before I eventually joined a regular class earlier this year. (Actually, I had been in a regular class when I was pregnant, and for a short period afterwards when my baby was between 3 and 6 months old - but that was over twelve years ago and that baby is now a cool scooter dude. I loved those classes, because they stilled me and calmed me and made me feel I might just, after all, be able to cope with giving birth and being a parent. But that's another story).

Quite a few years prior to that, I even went on a week long yoga course at Cortijo Romero – happily oblivious when setting out that it was Iyengar Yoga, which is a rather precise physical approach to yoga, with an emphasis on holding poses for sustained periods and working through the “good pain”!

But I survived and am here to testify that it is true – what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

(I'm exaggerating, for dramatic effect – I actually found the week, even as 100% complete beginner at that time, very healing and helpful, and even came away with some of the teachers audio tapes, which I did use at home for a time).

Both of these experiences gave me a good feel for what my relationship with yoga could be like – deeply healing, sometimes challenging, always nurturing. However both of these earlier experiences took place slightly outside my daily life, rather than central to it, and I found that practicing on my own without a class, it did eventually fall by the wayside under the rush of other demands. So, to make it stick you need to...

Integrate yoga into your life

Now I am at a point in my life – finally! - where I am beginning yoga as a practice that I am integrating into my life, and this is something that I recommend you do too.

Beginning yoga as a practice, and having it as a toolset for supporting your body, mind, emotions and spirit, will bring you back into yourself if you are out of touch. It will ground you when you are stressed, and reduce the physiological effects of stress on your body and psyche, and it will reduce the amount of time you spend in (the very harmful) fight or flight mode.

There are a number of steps you can take to help make this integration successful.

Start where you are

There are a variety of approaches to yoga and I'm not going to attempt to cover what others can do much better. But be aware as you look for a teacher and a class that different approaches focus on different aspects of yoga practice, emphasising in different degrees the physical body, the breathing, preparation for meditation, spirituality and so one.

One of the most popular in the Western world is Hatha Yoga, which focusses on the body and the breath, and not so much on the spiritual aspects of yoga. The class I go to is Hatha; but in my view the actual approach matters less than than how well a particular class and teacher suits you.

The key thing is to start where you are – what are you looking for? Some of the things that draw people to yoga include:

  • physical conditioning – gentle, or more challenging?
  • relaxation
  • stress reduction
  • calmness, stilling the mind, greater connection with the self
  • strengthening and challenging the body
  • integrating the physical and spiritual aspects of the self.

Have your own priorities in mind as you talk to friends, read leaflets, and ideally, talk to teachers about what they offer in their classes. Remember, it may take a little trial and error to find an approach that suits you and that is fine; but take care that if you are (for example) in need of something supportive and restorative, that you don't sign up for the class full of yoga warriors competing with themselves and each other to get into the most extreme poses - known in this house as "Scary Yoga".

There is a huge variety out there, and you are going to have to do at least a little research around where you live or work to find something that suits your needs and your life.

Whichever teacher you choose, make sure that they really demonstrate commitment to individual practice – as someone just beginning yoga myself, I know how important it is to me that my teacher emphasises the importance of going at your own pace, finding comfortable ways into poses and only going as far as feels okay.

All yoga teachers should do this, but some approaches do assume a higher level of fitness and flexibility, so if that's not where you are at, save Bikram and Ashtanga Yoga, for example, for later.

As a good starting rule of thumb look for a class that:

  • Emphasises individual support and pacing.
  • Is advertised for beginners
  • Includes/mentions restorative poses – these are gentle and healing poses that allow time and space to assimilate the work done in other, stronger poses

Make it easy

I mean this in two senses; both the actual practice, and just as important, ensuring that it's easy to actually do the practice or attend the class.

Despite living in Brighton, which seems to have dozens of classes of every imaginable type of yoga, I stopped myself from beginning yoga for years because I know from past experience that keeping up with a class or habit has got to feel easy for me. To stand half a chance of sticking with it, I need it to be easy to attend or - I know me - I just won't do it.

Now, you might be someone who sees something, makes a choice and follows it through just like that (if you are, please contact me immediately and tell me your secret). If you are a more ordinary mortal like myself, more likely you are juggling different demands, roles and responsibilities in your life, and possibly health challenges too, and need a little more support and structure to bring positive change into your life. Quite possibly, finding time to do things that support you tends to get shunted low down the list of priorities.

Fit yoga into your daily routines

Find a class that you can go to straight after work or after dropping the kids at school, or that is just around the corner from your home at a time that works for you. Don't under-estimate the importance of being able to get to the class regularly – try, if at all possible, to avoid times when lots of other demands are bearing down on you.

Be realistic; don't sign up for a class that starts at 7pm if you know your energy is low at that time and you'll struggle to get yourself out of the house again. But if it's a higher energy time for you, then go for it.

Your choice of classes will be limited by what's available and what you can fit into your life. I didn't join a class until things shifted in my life and I found myself – not entirely willingly – with space in my life during the daytime. Then, a yoga teacher that I already knew emailed me to tell me she had the perfect class for me (which turned out to be true!), at the right time on the right day, and offering a temptingly gentle-sounding approach.

It also helped that it was easy to book and pay for a half-term at a time, so I made a commitment. I recommend you do the same soon – try out a few classes on a drop-in basis by all means, but after 2 or 3 throw your hat in with someone and just get stuck in.

If you live somewhere more remote your options will be fewer, but on the other hand, you will already have developed the ability to get the best out of what it available to you, whether that is a local teacher or perhaps using classes available via the internet.

I was fortunate because the universe made it easy for me; I already knew my teacher a little and was on her email list, having been to her for nutritional therapy in the past. So I already knew I liked her, and I had a good sense of what her approach to teaching yoga might be like.

Start gently

I approached Yoga this year somewhat desperately, but also timidly, with a bad back, low energy levels, and suffering the ongoing emotional effects of a significant loss. I really didn't want to be challenged or pushed beyond what felt safe. What I found was a safe, gentle space where I could go at my own pace, working gently into the poses how it suited me, with an attentive yoga teacher who moves smoothly and unobtrusively around the class supporting individuals at different times.

Find a class and teacher that enable you to start slowly and gently. Carry this approach through to your personal practice as well, and build it up at a pace that suits you. It might be that you are adding an intermediate class within a couple of months but equally, that gentle beginners class may be the perfect basis for your ongoing practice.

It doesn't matter.

Yoga is not a competitive sport,

it's about being with yourself,

where you are.

Establish the habit

Soon after starting my class I made a conscious decision to develop a daily yoga habit. This is really crucial; I quickly realised that just going once a week, although beneficial, was not going to be enough to really ingrain the habit and practice and that I needed to do it at home as well.

I committed to a 30 day trial – as suggested by Steve Pavlina, who knows a lot about developing new habits – and set my alarm clock for 45 minutes earlier than my previous waking time. I now wake up, do 5 or 10 minutes of tapping on whatever thoughts and feelings are around before getting out of bed, and then get up do a 30 – 40 minute yoga session.

For this I use video yoga sessions. Sometimes this might be one of the several squillion that generous yoga teachers from all over the world have posted on the internet. There is so much good stuff out that there you will certainly be able to find abundant sessions to suit you. I love knowing that I can pick and choose from sessions with skilled teachers all over the world, with a huge variety of approaches and styles.

But actually at the moment I more often than not use the two 30 minute video downloads of sessions by my yoga teacher, Charlotte Watts. I particularly love Charlotte's explanations, because she guides you carefully and precisely into the poses, telling you what to do with each limb, muscle and stretch at each moment.

I happen to like this kind of approach and its particularly helpful while I'm just beginning my yoga practice - and I also find concentrating on Charlotte's voice and guidance adds to the pleasantly hypnotic effect of her approach, which is gentle and focusses on stress relief. Fortunately for me, I'm able to access this in an actual class as well as on video.

Give your practice a boost

At some point quite early on, maybe within your first three to six months, take the plunge and go to a day school, or even a weekend or longer retreat or yoga holiday. This will give you a boost of energy and forward movement in your practice and multiply the benefits, and hence your commitment, to your practice. I go to a monthly half-day session that my teacher offers on a Saturday; it's a little more challenging than the weekly class and a great compliment to it - it gives me a real boost.

Do it with a friend

A real life one, or if you prefer, sign up for my site blog and follow my progress in developing my own yoga practice. Let's do it together!

Keep at it

There is a lot of talk around the internet about what it takes to integrate a new habit into your life, with the magic numbers of 21 days or 28 days often being mentioned. Recent research suggests it's a lot more variable than that, depending on the size of the change, your personality, your life circumstances etc. Stands to reason, really.

So let's go for broke and set ourselves a 90-day/12 week challenge. It's not forever, but on the other hand once you've kept up your new yoga practice for that long, chances are it will be an integral part of your life and you won't be able to do without it.

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