Well, today was the first day back and also the first class of a new session, so, at the first class, there were some new folks. Inevitably there are some things that they don’t know yet, and some get scared off and never come back. Below are some tips I’ve learned from yoga over time.
1. Know Your Body. Make sure you tell the yoga instructor if you have any medical issues that may make some of the moves difficult; i.e. major surgeries or injuries. Just like in any other physical activity, you can hurt yourself in yoga if you don’t take care of your body. Your yoga instructor should have suggested modifications ready for you for moves that involve those sensitive body parts. And if the instructor offers you any kind of modification, and you think you might need it, take it! The first time I took yoga, the instructor offered a neck modification for one of the poses, and I didn’t take it because I didn’t want to be different from everyone else (see #4 below). The next day my neck was messed up, and I blamed it on yoga. It took me years to come back.
2. Figure out the difference between discomfort and pain. You’re going to feel uncomfortable during yoga — it means you’re working hard! (A particularly uncomfortable sitting pose comes to mind — it stretches back the feet and the toes and is the more uncomfortable than getting caught snooping through someone’s medicine cabinet.) But nothing you do should be hurting you. Yoga should feel more like a good workout and less like a rhino sat back on you and crushed all your bones. Ok, I’m exaggerating. But, the point is, listen to your body. You’ll figure out what’s good “hurt” and what’s pain. And if you’re not sure, don’t risk it. And on the other hand, once you’re pretty comfortable, feel free to push it if you know you can. Not too fast — but gradually push it. The more you can safely stretch and push your body, the better for you.
3. Don’t forget to breathe. This is particularly important during balancing moves or very difficult poses. Don’t concentrate so hard that you start to turn blue, and anyway, breathing during yoga is just as important as keeping that oxygen flowing during any type of exercise. Truly, breathing is the most important part of yoga. Our instructor likes to remind the class that nothing is as important during that class as breathing. If we just breathed the whole time, we would still benefit.
4. Try to focus. Be in the moment. Focus on the pose. Better yet, focus on the breathing: deep breath in, deep breath out. But if you can’t, don’t sweat it. Just like in other types of meditation, if you catch yourself drifting, bring yourself back. If you’re completely distracted, try again next time. My mind was all over the place today, but I wasn’t too worried about it because I know I’ve had better days, and I will have better days again.
5. Recognize that everyone’s body is different and everyone’s experience level is different. This is a particularly hard one for me and can be a particularly hard one for newbies. Someone like me might get frustrated easily because I’m still considered fairly young, and I’ve been doing yoga on-and-off for about 3 years now. So, I sometimes think that I should be able to do any of the poses. This is clearly not the case. Even though I have a particularly flexible torso, arms, shoulders, and hips; I’m equally inflexible in my legs, lower back, and feet. I also have fairly awful balance. And unless I continue practicing balancing poses and leg stretches, I’m probably not going to see any dramatic results any time soon. That’s where I am right now. And that’s ok. Remember #3: Breathe. Also, some yoga days are better for you than others. You might find you can’t stretch as far or hold your balance as long as you did the weak before. Don’t panic; that’s perfectly normal. One session you might feel fantastic, and the next week you might feel like you can’t do anything. Any number of factors from sleep to diet to stress level to weather changes, etc may have changed your body, and your body will change again. Again, remember #3. Breathe.
6. Bring a mat. Brian and I have missed yoga once or twice because we realized we had forgotten our mat, so we turned around and went back home. People have attempted the class without the mat, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s uncomfortable doing some of that stuff on the floor. Also, you might want to bring a towel or block to go under your bum or your knees — your bum for some of the exercises if your lower back/legs/hips are tight, and your knees if you’ve got bad knees. I bring a towel because I have super tight legs and lower back, and it gives me a lift during the leg stretches so that gravity can help me get past my block. You also might want to bring a yoga strap (to help with various stretches, especially shoulders or legs).
7. Make sure you are comfortable. Try to wear flexible clothing that is loose enough to move with you, but not so loose that your T-shirt collar has slipped over your face and is suffocating you during downward dog or so loose that your pants have fallen down or tripped you up and caused you to topple into your neighbor while you’re moving into warrior pose. Also, figure out what to do with your hair. If it’s short or super long, you’re golden. If it’s somewhere in the middle — as mine has been while growing out — it gets a little trickier. You may want to put it back in a headband if it’s fairly short and put it in a low ponytail if it’s fairly long. You’ll want to have it out of your face for the poses where your head is hanging down, but you’ll want the ponytail low or high enough so that it doesn’t bother you in the poses where you’re lying down. Finally, some people like to have a sweatshirt or blanket in the winter months for Savasana, the stationary meditative final pose in yoga.
8. Be prepared to get cozy. If it’s a packed class with your mats staggered to conserve space, you may end up with someone’s head near your feet, and your hand near someone’s leg, so just be ready for it. Going along with #6, you may want to make sure your legs are shaved and your toes are painted because your neighbor might be getting a bird’s eye view or accidental feel. (If you are perfectly comfortable with yourself and care nothing about the opinion of others, bless you; I’m jealous and hope to someday aspire to your greatness. If you care nothing about your toenails and leg hair because you are male, that doesn’t count.)
9. Try not to eat too near class time. And if you must eat, choose carefully. (Refer to #7 again and think this through.) I have a particularly rambunctious stomach, so this is a tricky one for me. And at the same time, if you let one slip, don’t freak out about it. It happens to the best of us, and people will forget (unless it happens every class, and you notice that people are starting to leave you and your mat a lot of extra space.) I’ve done it; Brian’s done it; I’ve heard other people do it. Life goes on. And besides all that talk about gas, other unpleasant side effects of yoga on a full stomach can be just as unpleasant:indigestion and nausea. Something to think about. Also, do not drink alcohol before yoga. It relates to #9 below, but especially do not get tipsy or drunk before yoga. It’s bad enough trying to do balancing poses when you’re tipsy, but trying to do any standing yoga poses or stomach poses are particularly awful when your head is spinning and your stomach is a little unsteady.
10. Drink lots of water. All throughout the day. Yes, it can make you have to go to the bathroom, but it will also make the poses easier for you, and it’s healthy for you anyway. Dehydration leads to charlie horses, and nobody likes those. Also, to avoid dehydration; avoid alcohol and particularly salty or sugary food.
11. Do NOT vigorously exercise on the same day as yoga. This includes weight-lifting, long-distance exercises, and very intense shorter exercises. You will be dying during downward dog if you decided to weight-lift that same day, and you will be crying during the warrior poses if you just came back from a long bike ride. Believe me, I’ve tried it. Yoga is exercise. Even I forget that. Do you think my somewhat tight stomach and legs are from the elliptical or walking the dog? Guess again. It’s yoga. You may not be moving too much, but you are working the whole time with every pose you hold, some of which you might hold for a long time (which is what some people are not prepared for and why they don’t come back). Don’t underestimate it. If you are really set on getting some extra exercise in, go for a walk or try some other low intensity activity.
12. Bring it home with you. You’ll get a lot more out of yoga if you do some every day. Can’t hold that balancing pose? You will after you practice! The more you practice, the stronger and more flexible your body will become. Can’t stretch down and touch those toes? I can’t either! And that’s why I’ve started stretching my legs every day. I also practice posture poses in the car and when I’m walking around, in hopes that my back is more straight as an arrow and less curved as a rainbow when I get to be 106.
Some day I will be able to do this!!