My 75-year-old mother recently began attending yoga classes near my former hometown in New Jersey. This may well prove that yoga is for everyone, and that it’s never too late to begin a new practice!
Before her first class, my mom sent me a series of questions via text, reminding me of the importance of supporting new yogis as they begin a new practice. It was also a reminder that what feels obvious to long-time students and teachers may not be wholly apparent to first-time students.
If you are new to yoga, read on for nine tips to help you get started!
It’s a great idea to contact the studio where you will practice to ask for a recommendation for a class that's appropriate for you. Explain your fitness history and let them know about any injuries or limitations. Even with gentle classes, there are always variations among teachers. The studio owner or manager can help you find your best starting point.
Ideally, start in a class specifically designed for beginners—where you’ll learn foundation poses, alignment, and breathing fundamentals. In the absence of a beginner’s class, I encourage all students to start in a gentle class. Gentle classes move at a slower pace, which will allow you to comfortably learn the postures and breathwork. For many students, gentle yoga will remain their primary practice, while others will eventually want more physically rigorous classes. But it almost always makes sense to pace yourself when learning a new discipline, rather than rushing into a class you aren’t ready for.
In the absence of a beginner’s class, start in a gentle class.
Try to arrive about 15 minutes before the class starts. This will give you time to get settled, locate bathrooms, and acclimate to the energy of the space. Dashing into any yoga class can bring anxious energy onto your mat. New students to my classes often confess to being nervous before their first class, which is perfectly normal. Try not to add to beginner’s stress by running late.
Make sure to introduce yourself and let your teacher know that you’re new to yoga. I always try to touch base with new students and to ask about any physical or emotional concerns they have. Don’t be shy in this regard, as it’s in your best interest to speak up about your challenges. Your teacher can, for example, offer helpful modifications for certain postures.
After working for many years in the field of education, I’ve realized that gravitating to the back row of a class seems to be a natural inclination for many people. Yoga classes are no exception, and many new students opt first for the back row. However, depending on the layout of the studio and the number of people in the class, that might not be the best choice. Rather, make sure to place your mat where you can best hear and see the teacher.
Most yoga classes begin with a chance to breathe and center before moving through postures. The teacher might also introduce a theme or an intention for the class. Consider using this time to set your own intention. For example, you may decide to focus on breathing deeply throughout the class, or to practice not judging yourself or others. Offering gratitude for the opportunity to use yoga to care for your body is another way to ground your practice. Whatever your focus, call it to mind any time you need some inspiration or could simply use a reminder of your reason for coming to yoga class.
One of the most popular cues in a yoga class is: “Listen to your body.” When I was a new student, I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. As you grow in your practice, however, your deepening connection to your body will make it far easier to listen to it. In the meantime, just remember that yoga shouldn’t hurt. If you experience any sharp pain, immediately pull back or return to what I call a “home base” posture: child’s pose, mountain, or easy seated.
You may notice new sensations, challenges, or openings in your body. Those are perfectly normal and beneficial. If you’re ever in doubt whether what you’re feeling is safe, err on the side of caution and come out of the pose. Additionally, use your breath as an indicator. If your breath becomes ragged, unsteady, or you find yourself holding your breath, it can be a sign that you’ve exceeded your limits. Take a break and a few deep breaths before returning to your practice.
When I was a high school student, my 10th-grade English teacher asked me to stay after class one day. She told me that every time she handed back a paper or test, I would look at my grade and then immediately crane my neck to see everyone else’s. “You’re going to make yourself crazy if you’re always comparing yourself to everyone else,” she told me. Twenty years later, I still remember that sage advice.
Yoga is not a competition. No grades are given. No one wins or loses. We practice progress, not perfection. So what if your neighbor can sink more deeply into her chair pose than you? Perhaps she’s been practicing longer, or her body is built differently. Keep your eyes on your own mat in order to focus on moving through the class in a way that serves your body and your needs.
Yoga is not a competition. No grades are given. No one wins or loses. We practice progress, not perfection.
For many students, both first-time and long-term, savasana (final rest pose) can be the most challenging posture of the class. Many of us are used to being in constant motion, and lying still with ourselves and our thoughts, with no movement to distract us, can be a new experience. Again, just start where you are, and try to avoid judging your experience.
Many new students also tell me that they experience stress in savasana because they can’t stop their thoughts. But this idea that one must stop their thoughts in savasana is a misconception. Rather than trying to stop them, just notice them, release them, and then return your focus to your breath. You may get caught in many thoughts during savasana; just keep returning to your breath and letting your body soften into the mat each time.
Yoga is a cumulative practice. With each class you take, its impact on your life will continue to increase. I often see people's faces light up after their first class. But if yoga doesn’t click for you right away, give it some time. Try different styles of classes and different teachers until you find the right fit for you. With diligence and consistence, you'll soon begin to reap yoga's many gifts!
My mom no longer texts me with questions. Rather, she sends messages of gratitude and excitement for the lessons she’s learning and the gifts she’s receiving from her regular practice. If you’re a beginner, enjoy the lessons that come from learning something new. Honor your needs during the process, seek support as you require it, and know that everything happens in its own time.