Yoga Tips for Beginners
It’s a new year, which means that some 70% of the population has resolved to get healthy and start a yoga practice. But for many, buying a new pair of yoga pants (or as I like to call them, thigh corsets) and top of the line mat is the easy part. When it comes to actually getting off of the couch and onto the mat, especially in the cold winter, we would often prefer to keep scrolling through Instagram pictures of sculpted yoginis on a beach doing the standing splits, rather than move through the initial inertia and start our own practice (no judgment - we’ve all been there).
It’s not just laziness that keeps us from starting a yoga practice. Yoga is a highly personal practice, and with the dozens of schools of yoga to choose from, it can be difficult to identify a practice that suits our individual physical, mental, and emotional needs. It’s hard enough to choose a yoga mat color, let alone a practice!
Luckily, you came to the right place! Learning yoga starts with stepping onto your mat. Simply follow the tips below to begin your yoga practice.
#1 Release expectations: Often we equate yoga with tough, limb-twisting poses. However, yoga is not about touching your toes or stretching 98 degrees to the northeast. Yoga, quite literally, means “to yoke” or “union.” Yoga is a process of uniting with yourself, and it should be easy and effortless. You are in yoga when your body, mind, and breath align.
So, throw away the idea that you should already be flexible, that you’re too old to venture into yoga at the age of 40, or that yoga is the only thing that will save you from your love handles (although love handle disappearance is one common side-effect of a regular practice)! Remember: yoga is a process, not a pose. Whether or not you touch your toes is irrelevant - what matters at the end of a practice is the state of your body, mind, and emotions. If you feel at peace and are able to pay attention to your breath for one more second than usual, then you are practicing yoga.
#2 Find a teacher: It is best to start practicing yoga under the guidance of a qualified yoga teacher who can lead you through the correct sequences and alignment. Doing so will help you properly learn different postures and avoid possible injuries. Ideally, find a teacher you enjoy and practice with them consistently, as you will be able to progress more steadily with the help of a trusted guide.
Also, some of the philosophies or techniques taught in yoga may be new to you, and having the guidance of a teacher aids in understanding. Keep an open mind, as it will help broaden and enhance your yoga experience.
#3 Focus on the yoga, not the pants: Yoga has become trendy, and entire industries now revolve around $120 yoga pants. Luckily, for the 99% (didn’t mean to get political...), you don’t have to buy the newest Ganesh tank top to reach enlightenment. Simply wear comfortable clothing while going to a yoga class or when practicing yoga at home. Hey, some of the best practices are done in pajamas after waking up. Also, avoid wearing excessive jewelry, as it can get in the way of yoga practice.
#4 Wake up early: Ideally, yoga is practiced in the early morning at sunrise when the mind is clearest and the world is quiet. The traditional yogic texts state that the hours between 4 am and 6 am are the most conducive to reaching a meditative state. Practicing first thing in the morning allows you to avoid distraction and start the day off with health and intentionality, thus setting the tone for the rest of the day. However, if you are not able to wake up early to practice, don’t let it be an excuse to skip! You can do it any time of the day as per your convenience.
#5 Practice on an empty stomach: It is best to practice on an empty stomach or at least 2-3 hours after your last meal, which is another reason why practicing first thing in the morning is most ideal. When practicing yoga, you are much more in tune to your body’s subtle feelings than at any other point, and practicing with food in your stomach inevitably leads to discomfort. Eating before practicing can lead to feelings of heaviness, and can disrupt the digestion process. It is also advised to drink at least three to four litres of water during the day in order flush toxins that are released while practicing out of the body.
#6 Start with intention: Before starting the physical aspect of your practice, creating an intention can help to set the tone for your practice and prepare your mind for an introspective experience. Whether your intention is “world peace” or “accept my nose”, centering your mind around that thought will help bring you into the present moment before beginning. Also, gentle warm-up exercises help loosen up the body and prepare it for the yoga postures coming ahead, functioning as a sort of physical intention.
#7 Seriously - talk to your doctor...and yoga teacher: Almost every yoga video opens with the instructions to talk to a medical professional before starting yoga. Most people, however, shrug those instructions off. While yoga is accessible to all bodies, many people injure themselves while practicing due to pushing themselves too far. At the least, let your doctor know that you are practicing, and be aware of your own physical limitations. If you have a medical condition, inform your yoga instructor before class begins. Doing so helps the teacher customize your sequence.
#8 Slow and Steady: The ancient yogic text entitled the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, defines yoga posture (asana) as Sthira Sukham Asanam, which translates into “steady, comfortable, and meditative”. We live in a competitive culture, where we can be competitive with ourselves and others, often pushing ourselves beyond our limits to be the best. However, the winner in yoga is the one who can achieve the greatest ease within a posture. Do only as much as you comfortably can and then stretch a bit more (to improve body flexibility). If you are having difficulty discerning your body’s sweet spots, use your breath as a reference point; when it is light and long, the muscles begin to relax, but when it is jagged or uneven, it means you have over-exerted. Going slightly beyond your comfort zone will keep the yoga practice interesting and will add a spark of challenge as you progress and adopt new postures. However, make sure you understand the difference between going beyond your comfort zone and straining.
#9 Be Where You Are: While we would all love to be able to wrap our left leg around our neck, that simply is not possible for everyone. This the beauty of yoga: it meets you where you are. Wherever you are in a yoga posture is exactly where you are supposed to be, so avoid comparing yourself to other students in a yoga class. Remember that each body type is unique and that different people are at different levels of expertise. Some might easily perform a particular asana, while others may need a little more time and practice to get there. Yoga teaches us to accept the present moment as it is, and therefore to accept ourselves (and bodies!) exactly as we are in the moment.
#10 Savor the end: As you complete your yoga practice, don't be in a hurry to get up and start moving about with the tasks lined up for the day. Often, if you attend a yoga class, students will jump up at the first opportunity to leave corpse pose. However, learn to savor the moment and allow your body the rest it deserves after a long practice. If you have time, give yourself extra love and lie down in Yoga Nidra for a few minutes, as it helps cool down the body and completely relax the mind and body after the session.
Yoga, like anything else in life, requires regular practice to experience sustained benefits. Not only will a regular practice get you closer to your goal of touching your toes or doing a headstand, but regular practice will also culture your subtle body, resulting in a peaceful state of mind that extends to life beyond the mat. Yoga encompasses postures, timeless ancient philosophy, pranayamas (breathing techniques) and meditations, which take you beyond the body level, offering a deeper spiritual experience.
So give yourself plenty of time and be patient! The rewards of regular practice will unfold in unexpected ways.
Do not be alarmed if you experience soreness during the initial days of your yoga practice. However, if there is any pain, inform your instructor immediately.
So roll out that mat, set your intention, and go!