3 Supportive Tips for Yoga Beginners
Start as you are
Have you ever thought, said or heard someone else say,
“I wouldn’t be good at yoga, I’m not flexible”?
I’ve heard this sort of statement many times and love to counter this way of thinking by emphasizing the irony of it.
Yoga gives you the opportunity to become more flexible. Not the other way around. The yoga meets you where YOU are.
That doesn’t mean you don’t make progress. Over time you will likely still become stronger, more flexible, more calm and focused, but it does mean that it will be at a pace that is accessible to you and in service to you.
The former way of thinking suggests that those who start doing yoga are supposed to already be flexible before they begin, as if it were a prerequisite to the practice. That would be like if you were starting to pick up playing the guitar but decided not to because you didn’t know anything about music yet. We are allowed to not know much or anything about something before we embark on our own personal practice of it.
These sorts of ideas might come up in anticipation of starting something new, and can act as a way of deterring us from approaching change even if it’s positive, which is understandable and valuable to recognize. Or perhaps someone doesn’t feel ready or interested enough to begin, which is also valid and understandable. Or maybe it’s something else. Either way, there are no prerequisites to starting, besides having a yoga mat and blocks (although you don’t even technically need those either).
Here are some ideas to help set you up for success as you ease into a yoga practice and allow it to serve you best exactly as you are.
1. Don’t force
Take out any expectations you have for yourself as you develop your practice and even as an advanced practitioner. There’s no level of strength, flexibility, or enlightenment that you are supposed to have when you show up on your mat. But there is value and wisdom in staying curious within your practice so your outlook maintains a freshness and interest, rather than judgement and frustration.
Getting into the poses is not the point. The poses are more like a prompt or container for you to explore within. Moving into different shapes, exploring our breath, tuning into sensations and what comes up is the practice. How do we show up in this pose if it doesn’t feel good? Do we stay for a few smooth breaths, ease out, take a different pose, etc. The “right” answer is subjective because it’s what’s best for you personally.
If we are pushing through pain to accomplish a certain movement or shape, it could potentially lead to injury. This is a distinct “pain” from something like, for example, the sensation of the abdominal muscles engaging and or being sore after exercise. This is something that the instructor can try to sense in their students (ie. noticing faces tightening up, lack of breathing, etc.) but only the individual can feel what they are feeling and know if they need to ease out or turn up the volume.
I instruct my clients to stay in the general vicinity of a comfortable, sustainable edge. We can practice strengthening and opening and challenges without force. I invite students to play and see what space feels available to them. My intention is to offer options while also empowering people to make the choices that will serve them best.
Not forcing it also applies in meditation. There seems to be a widespread misconception that your mind has to be blank in order to practice meditation “well”. But meditation is not sitting with a blank mind, and then if you think you’re not doing it successfully.
Rather, it’s recognizing that thoughts will likely come up and then when they do, continually coming back to the focus of your meditation.
That “coming back” might be to the breath, sensations in your body, a mantra, etc. This acts like an anchor point for you to return to when your mind drifts off. But it’s not pushing your thoughts away. Your mind is just doing it’s job. The effort of the meditation is more about shifting your focus once you notice you are indulging in your thoughts.
Just like with yoga or anything you’re consistently practicing, you are probably not an expert when you start. The more you do it, the better at it you will become. But you don’t need to be a calm, clear-headed person to meditate or do yoga. In fact, I would go as far as to say that if that description really doesn’t resonate, then meditation might be exactly for you.
2. Be consistent
Yoga works. But it’s not always instant gratification. Although sometimes just after a few moments of meditating or stretching we can feel more at ease, it’s going to have greater impact if we practice consistently.
This can be tough because for beginners it is something new to work into your schedule and may take some getting used to and commitment to do so.
Developing a yoga practice goes at each individual’s own pace. Maybe if you used to dance, your body awareness may already very present, or if you did sports, you might already have built a lot of strength, maybe you’re naturally more flexible, etc, etc.
The point is we’re arriving at our mats coming from different backgrounds and experiences and the way your yoga practice develops is unique to you.
Whether you’re doing handstands and forearm stands or simply sitting cross-legged and breathing, both are still yoga, both are valid and good and part of the practice. One isn’t “better” than the other.
Within staying consistent, try also practicing with teachers that resonate for you and take classes that are supportive to you at your level. Rather than jumping to an intermediate or advanced class right away, take classes that feel accessible to you and meet you at a comfortable edge.
That way, you can ease into yoga at a pace and style that best suits you, is sustainable, enjoyable, and something you want to come back to.
3. Don’t compare
I’ll often cue my students to close their eyes during class, and especially during points in the sequence where we are doing repetitive movements or when there is a space to explore intuitively for a bit.
It can be tempting to look at other students in class, or if you’re doing a private lesson or online class, to rely on looking at the instructor to get yourself into the pose.
Using a demo or looking at other students can be clarifying especially for a complicated transition or when you haven’t cultivated a strong sense of body awareness and coordination yet, however, I also think it changes the experience.
Let’s look at downward facing dog for example:
To mirror/mimic someone in downward facing, you see what they’re doing and aim to make the same shape. You don’t necessarily need to know or be aware of where your hips or knees or shoulders are in space or in relation to the rest of your body. This is different from hearing someone say “bend your knees and tilt your hips up, push your palms down and away from you as you press your chest towards your thighs.”
One of the main reasons I emphasize this difference is because these poses are not going to look the same for everyone. If you’re trying to make the same shape as someone else but have different hamstring or shoulder flexibility, for example, the pose will likely look different but you’ll both still be doing downward facing dog.
Looking at other people can be interesting and even inspiring but I do think relying on it takes the focus away from yourself and your own practice.
With eyes closed and listening to cues as you move, you’re shifting your awareness to more of your inner experience as opposed to looking out at what’s around you for guidance.
All this is to say that yoga is a self exploration. It’s meant to meet you where you’re at even as you end up transforming along the way through the practice. It’s in service to you, don’t force yourself to get somewhere you aren’t, or strain to be or look like anyone other than yourself. Start where you’re at, every time, and the yoga will work.
Natalie Mazur is a bilingual (English/Spanish) Yoga Instructor based in San Diego, California. She teaches private clients in their homes and offers weekly group classes. Natalie has over eleven years of study and teaching experience combined, and has taught in the U.S. and internationally.
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