Thinking about starting a yoga practice? Or maybe you’ve already begun one. If so, you’re in good company. Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance recently conducted a study that found that the number of yoga practitioners in the United States doubled between 2008 and 2016. It’s increasingly evident that the number of people practicing yoga is steadily on the rise, and it’s no surprise. As you’ve probably heard, yoga is a great way to de-stress and improve your health.
Many studies—including this one—have shown that yoga can be useful for treating insomnia and depression, improving your overall focus, increasing blood flow to vital organs, and, well, for making you happier too.
As a yoga newbie (or potential yoga newbie), perhaps you’re wondering where to start. Here are some tips that will help you get the most out of your own experience on the mat.
Think about what you want to get out of your practice. Are you looking for something gentle and relaxing or something more vigorous? Are you interested in the spiritual aspects of yoga, or would you rather focus only on the physical? Do you want to increase your flexibility/mobility or build strength and stability?
Whatever your goal, do a little research and pick a class that aligns with it. If you’re new to yoga, then taking a basics or fundamentals class is going to serve you better than dropping in to a level II vinyasa class.
Likewise, if you’re looking for a challenging workout to help you build strength and stamina, a restorative class isn’t going to be the best fit.
Once you find the style and level of yoga class you prefer, then shop around and decide which teacher (or teachers) you resonate with. Pick a teacher you feel safe studying with and comfortable approaching with your practice-related questions. The right student-teacher dynamic is key to having a positive experience with yoga.
And expect, too, that this dynamic might change as your practice needs progress. As you continue to advance, you may require further guidance from other teachers who have additional tools you can take to the mat. This is perfectly fine. Your teacher(s) may shift over time.
Rule out potential contraindications. For some people, it may be helpful to check in with their doctor before they take up a yoga practice—whether for a routine physical to gauge overall health, or simply to seek advice as to whether or not yoga is a suitable practice for them.
There are a variety of health concerns to be aware of before beginning a practice. For instance: Inversions can be contraindicated for people who have high blood pressure. And while yoga can be beneficial for scoliosis (i.e., a spinal curve), it is a condition that often necessitates more mindfulness in the yoga practice. It might, for example, be most beneficial to seek out a yoga teacher or therapist who has experience working with students with scoliosis.
If you’ve experienced any injuries (past or present), be sure to speak to your teacher before class about them. You can also share any health concerns you may have.
Start with the basics! It can be tempting to see a fun, flashy pose (like a big, pretty backbend or arm balance) and to want to learn it right away. However, when it comes to some advanced poses (full pigeon, for example), trying them without doing the groundwork can put you at risk for injury. Instead of just jumping into these advanced shapes, it‘s best to work up to them slowly.
You may consider yourself to be pretty athletic overall, but if you’re new to yoga, it is wise to begin with the basics. If you don’t crawl before you try to run, you might end up with a pulled muscle or worse.
Try out a class or workshop that’s specifically geared toward beginners (these classes will often have names like “yoga for beginners”) to help you get a good grasp on the basics. Remember that yoga for beginners isn’t any less yoga than more advanced offerings. The whole idea surrounding yoga is that just by deciding to come to your mat, you have offered your body a gift of time and peace.
You don’t need a ton of fancy gear! Yoga gadgets and accessories can be especially tempting for new practitioners. You might wonder: Why not give that $100 yoga wheel a try? Why not get a yoga mat in every single color?
Buying a ton of gear at the start of any new venture can be tempting, but the truth is that you don’t need anything to practice yoga other than your body, your mind, clothing you can move comfortably in, and a willingness to learn (okay, and maybe a yoga mat…one).
It’s better to focus more on learning yoga principles and basic practices than on outfitting yourself with tons of cool gear. Of course, nothing says you can’t also buy all the fancy gear if you want it, but you might want to wait until your practice is established before you make the financial investment.
Create a schedule (and stick to it!). Doing yoga every couple of weeks only when the urge strikes isn’t really what the writers of yoga articles you may have read, including this one, mean when they refer to establishing a yoga practice.
An asana practice means getting on your mat frequently and regularly. Set a “regular practice” goal that’s realistic for you, create a yoga schedule, and teach yourself to stick to it.
Discipline can be just as big a part of yoga as learning how to do a downward dog, even if you practice only once or twice a week at first.
Sticking to a schedule can keep you motivated—after all, motivation often results from seeing progress, and you’re not going to see much progress if you only practice sporadically.
Check in with an expert. Many people feel more comfortable starting with a home practice rather than a group class. There’s nothing wrong with being self-taught—some of the greatest minds in the world were developed that way.
That being said, the self-taught can generally benefit from having their technique looked over by an expert to make sure they’re practicing in a way that’s optimal for them—which applies to disciplines like guitar playing and dancing as much as it does to yoga.
Subtle differences in alignment and technique (like the way you distribute your weight, angle your body, focus your core, and transition from one position to the next) that you might not be able to notice when you practice by yourself at home won’t go unnoticed by a teacher, and these are the sorts of things that can take your practice to the next level.
Hopefully the above tips will help you establish, or maximize the potential of, a long-term yoga practice so that you can reap the benefits that yoga has to offer.