A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Yoga

If you’re anything like me, the first few yoga classes you went to were confusing and had minimal life-changing impact.

I remember leaving my first classes thinking, wow, I can’t take myself or anyone around me serious.

Yoga was so much different than anything I had ever experienced.

I spent my childhood playing soccer, lacrosse, softball, basketball, and pretty much anything outside. However, the closest I ever got to yoga was team stretching before soccer practices.

Now, as I go through 200 RYT yoga teacher training in my late twenties, I see the clear benefits of yoga and how those around me can practice yoga to achieve their own goals. And I wish it was something I learned at an earlier age.

Part of my training includes understanding the benefits of yoga. All 77 of them.

Improving blood pressure, pulse rate, circulation, respiratory, cardiovascular endurance, organs, gastrointestinal, immunity, pain, metabolism, aging, posture, strength, energy, weight, sleep, balance, integrated function of the body, body awareness, core strength, sexuality, mood, stress reduction, anxiety, depression, self-acceptance, self-control, mind-body connection, positive outlook on life, hostility, concentration, memory, attention, social skills, calmness, the list goes on…

Having spent the past decade of my life working in technology, I know my body gets stressed from always-on work, social pressures, and expectations. I can easily get tension headaches, migraines, poor diet habits, lack of energy, apathy.

While I found it easy to become stressed in an ever-connected world, I found it much more challenging to relax and rest.

I used to channel stress energy by running. First a half marathon, then a full marathon, and then injuring myself while training for my second full marathon. Something was still missing. I could tire myself out from thinking, but when I wasn’t tired from running, negative voices and tension returned.

It wasn’t until this past year where I took a deeper dive inside myself to change the way in which I think, training the voices inside my head with controlled breath and movement.

Yoga has given me a way to reduce stress, become more aware of my body and the tension it holds, and create self-control where action reigns over reaction.

My journey to loving yoga didn’t happen overnight.

Knowing what I know now, there are a few fundamental things I wish were shared with me the day I first walked into the studio. I want to share these tips with you in hope that your journey to loving yoga, and its countless benefits for your mind, body, and soul, will expedite.

Tips for getting started with yoga:

1. Show up with an open mind.

Many beginners are unsure of what to think of their first class. Maybe even laughing at others, themselves, or the instructor for what they’re doing or saying. I had my own nervous laughs that stemmed from my own insecurity of not knowing what to do as the rest of the class flowed right along.

Yoga is boundless. You can learn something new about yoga’s history or your own practice every day if you let yourself. Show up to your first few classes with one question, “what can I learn from this?” and think through what you learn from each class.

By focusing your energy on something positive – like new learning – you move your brain away from thinking about your own insecurities. You’ll get more out of your class and be one step closer to enjoying benefits from yoga.

2. Learn the basics before you move forward.

A lot of studios have classes specifically for new beginners. This helps the instructor create a sequence that sticks to the basics and teaches you about the purpose and correct alignment along the way.

Yoga is like any sport. You need to learn the basics before you can start practicing to become an expert. Just as you wouldn’t jump to a competitive game of rugby without learning the rules of the game, you shouldn’t jump to a more advanced class of yoga without knowing the basics.

Go to a beginner class, admit that you’re a new student, and you’ll set yourself up with the right foundations to grow your practice.

3. Do homework.

Yoga can be done anywhere with a flat surface – your apartment, a local park, a school’s gym, etc. So you have countless ways to practice what you learn.

Yoga resources are all over the internet. If there was a pose in class you didn’t understand, search it on YouTube. There are videos of instructors that go through proper alignment and benefits of each pose that you can practice in the comfort of your own home.

It’s better to learn from the experts than it is to assume you have the correct posture and train yourself with bad habits.

4. Know that Sanskrit exists.

Most instructors learn the different poses names in Sanskrit (an ancient language of India) along with their native language. This can be confusing at first if you’re unaware that every pose can have two names, which mean the same thing.

For example, Chaturanga Dandasana is the same as high to low plank and will often be stated simply as “Chaturanga.”

Over time as you go to more classes, you’ll start to pick up different Sanskrit names and  be able to repeat some of them.

5. Compare yourself only to yourself.

This is probably the most important, yet most difficult thing to do for beginners. While it’s easy to look around and try to be like others, probably more advanced, in your class, it’s super important to turn that focus inward.

How is your body feeling? Are you starting to get more flexible? Are you beginning to expand your breaths? Are you able to meditate, allowing thoughts to float on by, for longer?

While it’s fine to admire other’s practices, remember that every one is on their own journey, including you. It will take time to progress and it will be important to look back on your own journey to see how far you’ve come.

6. Hold your pose, not your breath. 

As you listen to every cue the instructor gives for adjusting into the correct pose and before you realize, you may start to hold your breath and tense your face.

Your breath is what gives your body the oxygen it needs. When you take deep breaths in different poses, you send oxygen through the blood to the organs that need it. This breath to movement is what makes yoga so powerful and rejuvenating. It’s what makes you feel awake after starting a class drowsy. And it’s half of the equation for getting the benefits out of yoga.

Listen to the cues your instructors share, specially the ones pertaining to your breath.

Bonus! Remember these simple Pointers throughout your practice:

  • Align your poses from the earth up.
    If your stance is wrong, everything above your feet will be off and you won’t get the most out of the pose.
  • Engage from the core out.
    There will be many poses where you need to adjust yourself and engage different muscles. Start with core. It will be challenging at first, but over time you will build the strength you need to sustain an entire class.
  • As you INHALE, think as your body as lengthening.
    Whether it’s lengthening the reach of your arms out wide in Warrior 2 or extending the length of your spine in Extended Mountain before you hinge forward to reach your toes, think of your body as stretching out during the inhale part of your breath.
  • As you EXHALE, think of your body as sinking.
    Whether it’s sinking your tail towards your toes in Child’s Pose, or your heels into the ground during Downward Dog, think of your body as sinking deeper into a pose during the exhale part of your breath.

Now it’s time to start! Grab your mat, water bottle, and towel, and sign up for your first (or first since reading this post) yoga class. Show up and start putting these tips to work.

If you find that you’re still not getting anything out of your practice, please send me an email or find a time on my calendar to connect. I’d love to learn more about your experience and how I may be able to help you on your journey.

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