I’m considering my first yoga class: what do i need to know?

So you’re thinking of going to your first yoga class, but you’re a bit nervous. You don’t really know what to expect. You might even be worrying about how positively unbendy you are and how that means you simply shouldn’t even be considering yoga (see my previous blog to understand what nonsense that is).

You’ll probably stare at your toes as you head into the class, look around at everyone already in the room who you’ll decide are definitely ‘better at yoga’ than you and are probably all professional contortionists. If given free rein you’ll almost certainly plonk yourself awkwardly at the back of the room; maybe even in a corner, as far from prying eyes as possible. You don’t want to be seen (might I suggest sitting nearer to the front where it’s easier to see the teacher’s demonstrations?).

The kind and lovely instructor might have already laid out the room, rolling yoga mats out and, horror upon horror, there might be props by the side of each mat! I introduced a friend to yoga and the first time she was brave enough to go to class alone the instructor had set up the room. My petrified friend sent me a photo of the block and strap that lay before her, possibly concerned that she’d somehow accidentally stepped inside an S&M dungeon by mistake. Try not to worry - you almost certainly haven’t done that. In fact, in my experience yoga studios tend not to host those kind of events.

Depending on the venue you might find that everyone is sat around chatting - oh my goodness, they all know each other and you’re the odd one out! That’s cool, they probably mostly met there - go nuts and say hi. There, now you’re chatting to people too.

Or you might find that everyone is lying or sitting quietly - oh my goodness, no one talks and it’s so intimidating! Well, they might just be trying to ground themselves before the class, they might be exhausted and yoga is the only time they ever get to be still and be quiet, or they might just not know each other. You could always say hi and see what happens!

The instructor will say hi and probably ask if anyone’s new to yoga and your belly might go into turmoil as you wrestle with whether or not to draw attention to yourself by raising your hand. Raise it! Let them know that you’re new. We all remember what that was like, and it’ll make them aware that they need to be sure to explain things clearly throughout the class. To be honest, there’ll almost certainly be people in the class, if not the whole class, who will be thrilled with the extra cues.

The class will probably start with some breathing; either specific breathing exercises or just some instructions to bring your awareness to your breath. The breath is a big part of yoga - in my humble opinion it can be way more important than the actual poses - which is funny as the poses are probably the reason you’re there, right? That’s why I went too - don’t worry, they’re still a huge part of the practice and you’ll learn plenty of them.

Some of the breathing exercises might seem really weird. Most likely you’ll have been told to close your eyes for that part and will be tempted to open them and look around just in case you’ve allowed yourself to be tricked into some elaborate prank and no one else is doing the exercise. That’s fine, if it puts you at ease then do that, but then close them again and concentrate on the task in hand.

You might be aware that yoga is an ancient practice that originated in India, As such, Sanskrit, an Indian language, is heavily associated with the practice. Some instructors use a lot of it to describe breath-work and name the postures, others won’t use any. My personal preference is to avoid it as I understand that yoga can be intimidating enough for some people without throwing linguistics into the mix - although that’s not to say I use none at all. However, as a rule, instructors that use Sanskrit names for poses will also give the English name. No instructor wants to confuse their students, and so any Sanskrit words should be explained - you’re not expected to know them - even if you’ve been going for years!

You’ll start doing some poses, which are the physical aspect of yoga, and feel all kinds of stretches in all kinds of places. Finally! The reason you came! The teacher will call out a pose, along with cues explaining how to get into that pose - lift this, squeeze that, pull the other back. It’s a lot to think about, and as you follow one cue, you may well stop doing the other. This is normal - it takes a while for us to be truly present in our bodies and able to do all these things at once. Also, some of the cues will be so new to you that you’re not even sure how to do them at first. It might take immense concentration just to get the smallest twitch in a specific muscle, for example. This little twitch is you finding a muscle you didn’t know you had, and the beginning of building new neural pathways between your brain and that muscle. Next time you come to do that pose and follow that cue, you’ll remember how it feels and it’ll be just a little bit easier. The pathway will strengthen each time, and eventually it’ll become even easier still. Yoga is a discipline - not something to be mastered in one class.

They’ll call out alternatives to the pose for students to either challenge themselves further, or alternatives to make the pose less challenging and more accessible. For the love of all that is good please please please take the less challenging option if that’s what your body needs! You are not in competition. If anything, yoga is the least competitive activity that you will find in a gym. Listen to your body, do what feels good, take the ‘easier option’ if that’s what your body needs. By all means, take the more challenging option if that’s what feels good, just don’t push yourself into poses that feel awful because you’ve decided you have something to prove. You don’t - no one is even looking at you.

All the way through the class, the teacher will remind you to breathe, and you’ll realise that you’ve been holding your breath whilst battling with a pose. Believe me when I say that this makes everything so much harder. Breathe. Your muscles need oxygen, and if you’re holding your breath, they’re not getting it. There’s a reason that the breath is known as the life force in yoga. If you’re really struggling to breathe comfortably then ease out of the pose a little until you can, or take the less challenging option. It’s your practice - enjoy it and stop fighting your body!

During the practice, the instructor might come round and adjust you. I say ‘might’ because not all instructors do this, although I think it’s an invaluable part of the class, so if you’re in a session with me I will come round and adjust you. This is not to correct you. I repeat: this is not to correct you! You are not doing anything wrong. How can yoga possibly be wrong when it’s so personal and our bodies are all so different?! However, sometimes a tweak in alignment here, or a reminder to squeeze a muscle there can transform a posture for us. Suddenly we feel lighter, or stronger, or can go deeper, or can breathe more freely, or feel the stretch differently. Sometimes it’s simply a case of being able to help someone get deeper into a pose using the external strength of the instructor because we don’t have the leverage to be able to get there ourselves. It can give a delicious stretch that even yogis who have been practicing since birth couldn’t achieve without help. So, rather than beating yourself up for being ‘rubbish at yoga’, just enjoy it. And breathe.

You might also find that the instructor introduces some chanting to the class - most likely the word ‘om’, either at the start or the end of the practice (maybe even both). When we’re new to the practice it’s common to be desperately trying to stifle a giggle during this. You might wonder what ‘om’ means, and that’s really a whole other blog, but it’s often thought to represent the sound of the universe, and the vibrations can be felt in our body as we chant it. It’s generally considered to represent the joy and peace that resides within us all, and the respect that we have for one another and the practice. It’s up to you whether you want to join in with the chanting or not, but why not try it and see how it feels? It’ll feel less alien and silly the more you do it.

And then there’s the next day. You will ache. Depending on the class that you did you might wonder why you ache, or how, but you will ache. Maybe in places you’ve never ached before. But it’s that fabulous kind of ache that reminds you of how you took the time out to take care of yourself and your body the day before, and hopefully you’ll love it and rush to book your next class.

So there you go, a quick rundown of everything to expect from your first yoga class. Nothing too scary in there - so why not get yourself to a class and experience it?

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