You did it: you’ve started a yoga practice. You’ve heard everybody and their brother talking about it -- friends’ friends, the babysitter, and even your 76-year-old aunt have gotten into yoga. So you said, "What the Heck? I’ll give it a shot." And here you are, embarking on a really cool new adventure. Being new to anything is both exhilarating and a little crazy, and there’s a lot you don’t know yet. To help you navigate the practice and etiquette of yoga, here are some of my top tips for yoga newbs (and not-so-newbs).
You will not be kicked out of a yoga class for wearing socks, a Hanes t-shirt, and 1970’s sweat bands.
Newsflash: Americans are a nation of consumers - materialistic achievers who really like to have their “stuff." Yoga has not been immune to this mindset; hence, the giant success of brands like LuLu Lemon. Nothing made me sadder than the time I overheard some moms talking while waiting to pick up their kids, when one of them said, “I’d really like to try a yoga class, but I don’t have the clothes. And if I did, everybody would run the other way if they saw me in yoga pants!!” People – I’m going to write this in all capital letters because it is so important: IT DOES NOT MATTER WHAT YOU WEAR TO YOGA! Yes, you will see people decked out in matching ensembles, with the latest water bottle, mat, headband, and a monogrammed sweat rag. If that’s what it takes to get them off the couch and into a down dog, then great! But what you wear and how you wear it is a personal choice. The only thing that matters is that you’re rolling out your mat (or towel, or just using the floor), and practicing yoga. There are no fashion police in yoga. In fact, the traditional garb worn by the Indian men practicing yoga very closely resembles a giant white diaper. Even today, those studying Iyengar yoga often wear traditional Pune bloomers, which look a lot like a huge diaper cover. Hey, if they can wear that stuff, you can wear whatever the heck you want to yoga. I am known to practice in mismatched random get-ups in the studio, and my husband’s boxer shorts at home when the mood strikes, god help us. And guess what: nobody cares. Throughout my years of practice, I’ve developed a well-rounded squad of makeup-less, sweaty, ponytailed friends who know and love me for what’s on the inside – not for what brand of yoga pants I’m rocking. Yoga simply doesn’t care what you wear or look like, and neither do true yogis. So throw on some socks, if that’s what floats your boat, and get yourself to class.
Make like Darth Vadar and breathe.
The room is packed and steamy, music fills the air, the teacher is very nonchalantly telling you to lift your leg over your head, look at your butt, and wrap one arm behind your back -- and to breathe. Breathe-?! You’re thinking, WHAT?! You’re just trying to make it through the twisting, turning, and balancing without falling on your face. Breathing is about the last thing on your mind. No matter how many times the teacher cues inhaling and exhaling, many newer yoga students simply don’t think this is for them. In fact, many view breathwork as the gravy on top of the yoga practice. They get so caught up with executing poses that they nearly skip the breathing altogether, deteriorating into panting and puffing wherever it conveniently fits in.
I’m sure you’ve heard your teachers tell you that breathing is the most fundamental component of your yoga practice. They’re not lying. Here’s the deal: when you focus on cultivating and controlling your breath, your breathing shifts from the medulla oblongata to the cerebral cortex (the evolved part of the brain). This controlled, steady breath allows thoughts and emotions to be bypassed – so you can experience focus and calm awareness. If you do NOTHING else in your yoga classes, take your teacher’s advice and breathe. There’s nothing more powerful than audible breath in a yoga class, the sound of a sea of focus and calm inhaling and exhaling like the rolling of the ocean, even through the most challenging poses. If you think, “that breathing thing is kind of stupid, I’m just here to sculpt on my yoga butt”, I beg you to give it a shot. You’ll feel fantastic, and start tapping into the energetic superhighway available to you through your yoga practice.
A random stranger’s sweat is flying all over you. Do not panic.
I’d only been practicing yoga for about a month, when I took a really popular class. I was all set up in my little corner, with a nice 5-ft swath of open space around me, when the room began filling up at an alarming rate. I was surrounded. I looked around incredulously as yogis coolly set up their mats less than 5 inches from mine. Worse yet, one was a 6’2” Navy Seal-looking guy wearing some form of yoga boxer briefs. WHAT?! I decided I was definitely going to complain to the management. This was crazy. How could I be expected to practice with nearly naked complete strangers so close? It wasn’t until two years later and 200 hours of Registered Yoga Teacher Training that I realized that close proximity isn’t something to be skeezed out over: yoga is an internal practice. And besides, pretty much all asana takes place within a 72” x 24” yoga mat – so it honestly doesn’t matter how close you are to someone. So when (not if, but when) you find a stranger lift into three-point down dog and fling their foot sweat onto your mat, and when you bend into a wide legged forward fold and find your head dangerously near someone’s ass, don’t freak out. Come back to your breath, close your eyes, and be grateful for a sense of community. Then go ahead and flip your dog right onto your neighbor’s mat.
The teacher touched you four times during class. Surely, they’re hitting on you, right?
So, you’re a new yogi, and you look up during paschimottanasana to see the yoga teacher draped over the person in front of you like a cheap suit. Say WHAT?!! Don’t freak out – you haven’t just witnessed a private inappropriate moment, it’s just a yoga teacher assist. One of the greatest things about yoga classes at a good studio with good teachers is the practice of assists. Teaching proper form can give you profound benefits in your yoga practice, take you into poses you otherwise may not be able to fully access on your own, and it also protects you from injury. It just happens that assists can sometimes look, well, weird. It’s important for all new yogis to know that your teacher has gone through many hours of assistance practicum, and is trained to not use their fingertips, a lingering touch, or to ever touch you inappropriately. When an assist is done well, all you’ll feel is WOW, and not OMG. If you have concerns about being touched in assists, let the teacher know before class that you’d prefer not to partake – they will not be offended, I promise.
True or False: If you lift your leg higher than the person next to you, you win.
As a life-long Type A personality and former competitive athlete, nobody can understand the lure of physical competition better than I can. If you’re one of those people who secretly races the person on the treadmill next to you at the gym, yoga is going to be a paradigm-shifter for you. For me, it was like the moving of the Earth’s tectonic plates to get to a mindset where I finally “got it” that yoga is NOT a competitive sport. Every yogi is on a different leg of their yoga journey, and every practice looks different. It’s totally cool to be inspired by those who can do poses (with calm, steady breath) that you can’t do yet. But I remind my students, in nearly every class, to avoid the dirty, dark trap of comparing yourself to others in class. Ego can crap up your practice really fast. I encourage my students to close their eyes as they practice, take their drishti inward, and strive to feel the poses from the inside out. I particularly love that my studio doesn’t have any mirrors. This really drives home the integrity of the message I’m sending my students, and encourages them to get away from competing with others around them, and worse yet, focusing primarily on what they look like while they’re in a pose. This isn’t Instagram, my friends – this is real life, and yoga is an inside job.
Someone farted. And it was you.
With all the conscious breathing, inward focus, OMing and everything else, yoga can start to take on a serious modulation. I mean, you’re on your mat to achieve ultimate enlightenment and transform yourself into a unicorn, right? The truth of it is that yoga can ABSOLUTELY be a life-changing pursuit. But the tone it takes is entirely up to you. If you step onto your mat with a sense of openness and adventure, you will be delighted by what the practice can bring. If you step onto your mat with intimidation, seriousness, and dramatic expectations, you’re going to not feel too great at all. And besides, when you start getting all caught up and taking yourself too seriously, the universe has a way of putting things back in check. Case in point: while on a business trip, I took a class at a “fancy” studio in Los Angeles. These people were SERIOUS about their yoga. You could cut the enlightenment in the room with a knife, it seemed. I admit, I was intimidated. And then somewhere in the midst of a prayer twist, somebody farted. (No, it wasn’t me, but it sure could’ve been after the huge lunch I had earlier that day.) The class kept right on going, but since there was no music in the studio, it was a pretty sure bet that everybody in the room heard it. After that, it was kind of impossible to be intimidated the practice, and by what I had considered to be “superior” yogis. Nope, these were just people, and this is just life. That’s all. It was a great class that I’ll never forget, because I couldn’t stop smiling the entire 1.25 hours.
When closing class, I love to cue my students to “turn the corners of your mouth up”. And, as we sit in anjali mudra (hands at prayer, heart center), I love to ask my students to touch just their fingertips together. It’s a gentle, yet powerful reminder to be light. Ain’t nothin’ THAT serious, my friends. It’s just yoga.
Buffy McCoy Kelly is a writer, Creative Director, and yoga teacher who loves to find the fun in stuff. Join her for class M- 6pm, Th -6pm, Sat- 8am.