Category Archives: Yoga

First Yoga Class

I had planned to spend several months practicing at home before I went into a studio. After a month or so of steady practice with videos, though, I hyperextended my knee and it was hard to keep practicing. I asked for advice from yoga teachers, and found out that I might have saved myself the injury by getting in front of a teacher early on. Luckily, you can learn from my mistake.

Choosing a group class has different challenges from choosing a video class, but it also pays dividends in safety and motivation. This is how to pick the right class and things you can do to make your experience even better.

Too busy to read the whole article? [2,000 words, a 10-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • Try a few studios. Ideally you want one that (1) is convenient (2) has a good vibe and (3) has a good range of classes.
  • Keep an open mind and remember that yoga is traditionally a mental and spiritual practice, not just exercise. If you want just exercise, choose a class taught from this perspective.
  • Start with a beginner’s class (or a few), even if you have experience practicing from videos.
  • Try several different teachers until you find someone you connect with, as a teacher and a person. Ideally, you’ll spend some time learning from the same teacher and maintaining this relationship can deepen your practice.
  • Make sure your teacher knows if you have an injury or a health condition, because it might affect the adjustments they offer you.

Going to a group yoga class used to fill me with anxiety. I’m not competitive, exactly, but the idea of being the worst at something and in a room full of people who are all much better at it is intimidating.

“as teachers and as advanced yogis, we love beginners”

Once, another student told me after a class that she was glad I had been next to her so she could see “someone else also having a hard time.” It was reassuring that I wasn’t the only one struggling, but it did underline my fear that, secretly, we were all watching each other.

I used to worry that, not only were the other students better than I was, but even the teacher would be annoyed at dealing with a beginner in her class. I was relieved to hear from Instructor Laurence Gilliot that “As teachers and as advanced yogis, we love beginners and we love the feeling of the beginner’s mind . . . It’s like learning to walk for the first time. We forget how that is. But when we do yoga and especially in the beginning, it’s like a whole world opens. So instead of worrying about ‘Oh I can’t do this thing, and other people are looking at me,’ just really enjoy this newness, …when you get more advanced you will crave this feeling of the beginner’s mind.”

Step 1: get a feel for a few different studios

A good yoga studio is one of the most supportive environments you can find, so it’s worth getting past your nerves to step into a studio.

Before you commit to a studio, try dropping by for an introductory class, or even just walk through the front door and talk with whoever happens to be hanging around. Yoga studios might vary as much as, say, a planet fitness versus a CrossFit gym, but you should get a feel for your options in person, even as a beginner. Instructor Melissa Smith says, “when beginning a yoga practice, think of it as a huge yoga buffet. Sample as many recommended teachers, styles and studios as you can.”

“when beginning a yoga practice, think of it as a huge yoga buffet. Sample as many recommended teachers, styles and studios as you can.”

Here’s what to consider:

#1: Location and price. This might seem like a no-brainer, but the most important part of yoga class is, well, attendance. I wrote about the importance of building a daily habit in my first article on yoga. Signing up with the “best” studio in town doesn’t get you anywhere if you never build up the habit of attending on a regular basis.

#2: Community. A good community and studio can deepen your practice. Or as instructor Rob Williams says “practicing with others is a wonderful part of practice. A part of this process is about engaging in your life and life for most of us would be much emptier without a community.”

Ask yourself:

  • How sociable do you want to be? Do you want to chat with people from your class, or do you want to run in when you have the time, take the class, and then go? For instance, studios with a restaurant or coffee shop attached are often more social, while studios advertising short lunch-hour classes might be more businesslike.
  • Are you interested in learning more about things like meditation, body work, nutrition, or natural health? If you aren’t, and you want to take traditional fitness classes too, you might be better off taking classes at a gym than at a dedicated yoga studio.
  • Are you ok with spirituality? Some teachers only teach asana (the physical postures for exercise), some light candles and open and close a class with chanting, and some reflect on ancient yogic texts and openly discuss spiritual beliefs. Ask yourself if you are comfortable with integrating mediation or spirituality into your class, or if you want a 100% physical practice.

#3: Classes offered. I really think accessibility and community are the most important factors when choosing a studio, but if you want to keep the long-term in mind, make sure to choose a studio that offers a wide range of classes. As your practice grows, you’ll eventually want to try more challenging classes or target parts of your practice you feel are lacking.

What if there are no studios near you? Google Helpouts are a great option. We’ll talk more about this in an upcoming next article, but an 1-on-1 Helpout with a live teacher is the next best thing to an in-person class.In a Helpout you can ask questions, demo postures and ask for adjustments, as well as ask for help developing your own routine. If you have specialized needs, like a serious injury, a private hangout might be better than a large class taught in person, since you’ll have the teacher’s full attention, without the urge to compare yourself to the other people in your class.

What’s with yoga and spirituality, anyway?

You probably wouldn’t be asking yourself this question during a Pilates or a spinning class—yoga is different because it is not solely an exercise methodology. Even though most yoga classes today focus on physical postures, this is actually only one aspect of the tradition of yoga.

In yoga, physical postures, or “Asana” is just one of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. The other limbs encompass a holistic system with roots in Hindu and Buddhist traditions (among others) governing things like ethics and behavior, self-discipline and faith, breathing, awareness, and mediation.

There’s not enough space to go deeply into it here (and I’m not qualified—people can spend a lifetime studying this), but suffice it to say there’s a reason that many yoga teachers don’t stick to just telling you how to stretch. Rather than just exercise, physical asana was historically intended to prepare the body for greater spiritual discipline, growth, and union with the divine. Some further disciplines include breathing exercises, called Pranayama, and meditation practices—hence their inclusion in many classes. Some teachers also reflect on sacred texts like the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, (a foundational text of yoga), or spiritual teachings from many faiths

This sounds heavy, but even a very spiritually-oriented yoga class is not like a religious meeting or church; instead it’s an environment where people discuss spirituality from this perspective.

Many people do take yoga classes just for exercise, and a teacher should never be pushing their spirituality on you, but if you are uncomfortable with any amount of spirituality in a class, you’ll be missing out on a lot of classes. Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar is a great resource for more about yoga and spirituality, though it’s not a quick read.

Step 2: Choose a instructor you connect with

Later on we’ll talk about the huge range of yoga styles available to you, but try not to get hung up on that right now. Going to your first class should be about finding a teacher you connect with, regardless of the style they teach.

Melissa advised, “My preference is that you find a teacher that you can meet in person, as opposed to a video. That way the teacher can see your form and offer you adjustments or props that suit your body best . . . . Look for a teacher that speaks to you, challenges you, and offers you a practice that meets you where you are, not where you want to be. And, one that is humble enough to spend time listening and offering you some feedback on your practice.”

Laurence told me, “Go with someone with whom you connect as a person, not only as a teacher. You should like how you feel around them, in their presence, even outside of the class. Because remember that, whatever you practice, whatever teacher you have, if you practice a long time with them, in a way you’ll become a little like them. So be sure you choose a nice person, someone you want to become more like.”

Yoga instructor Garance Clos added, “yoga is an inner journey before being a physical practice, so even for beginners, it’s important to find a  teacher with whom you can be yourself, feel free, safe and comfortable.”

Melissa believes the right teacher is invaluable not just in the class they teach, but in your home practice. She says, “I hope that you also seek out a teacher that will equip you to do a regular practice on your own . . . . I believe mentors and teachers are priceless, but they should give you all you need to carry on to self-study and practice. One day you may grow out of a certain teacher or style and that’s ok. Just be open to what may come. An open heart is the beginning of a life-long practice in wellness through yoga.”

Step 3: Start with a beginner’s class, even if you’re not a beginner

If you’ve been following this series, maybe you’ve already done 30 days of yoga. Or practiced and memorized all the basic poses you need as a beginner.

Should you still be going to beginner’s classes? In my experience, yes.

Just because you have some experience with yoga doesn’t mean you have experience attending a yoga class.

Also, keep in mind that the atmosphere of a group class can make you push yourself harder than you would at home, and being too sore to move the day after a too-tough class is really demotivating.

“Beginning and Intermediate is a blurry line, and I think with intention. No one can tell you what level you’re at, but one can judge a great deal by looking around the class and seeing you feel like you fit in or if you are more lost than others,” Rob told me. “I’d guess one’s first 9-12 classes at least should be beginner’s… 6 would be for an avid athlete who already has advanced body skills and awareness. With all that said, I still go to beginning classes sometimes. One can use the time to work on settling the mind, moving with extreme intention, and maintaining a meditative mindset.”

The best thing you can do for your classroom experience is to come early and introduce yourself to your teacher. It’ll be easier for them to teach you if they know you are a beginner (or you’ve only learned from videos), and they really need to know if you have a health condition or an injury.

One reason your teacher needs to know about any injury or health problem is that they may offer adjustments, which can be anything from placing a hand on your body to remind you to relax to strongly pushing you into a posture. I’ve received very strong adjustments which were actually a bit scary, but which helped me immediately.

Once, though, I showed up late to a class and didn’t tell the teacher that I had a neck problem; then he pushed me into an posture which aggravated it. I had the feeling the adjustment wasn’t going to be good for me, and I didn’t pay attention – but I also don’t think the teacher would have offered the adjustment if he had known that I was hurt. Even though it’s your responsibility to keep yourself safe by listening to your body, your teacher is also there to help, so give them the information they need.

Settle in to your yoga habit

The most important thing when you select a teacher, class, and studio is that you feel comfortable there. A good yoga class is a supportive and inclusive community which gives you space to explore your practice. You should never feel judged about something like your technical abilities, your body, or even your clothes. If you feel uncomfortable for any reason, try a different teacher, class, or studio.

Your Next Action: make a list of convenient studios

  1. Research studios that are accessible: close enough and cheap enough you’re likely to actually go.
  2. Go to a few studios, pick up a schedule, and soak in the vibe.
  3. Try beginner’s classes with a few different teachers. There’s no hurry to commit to one teacher or style; you’ll try new classes throughout your practice.
  4. Show up early to class and talk to your new teacher, especially if you have an injury. Following basic yoga etiquette will make you more comfortable and improve your experience.

After spending some time with a live teacher, you’ll probably feel ready to move forward with your home practice. In the next article I’ll review several subscription services for learning yoga on your own.

Yoga: How to start and sustain a healthy and holistic practice

I’m Kaitlyn, a writer, traveler, and serial exercise dabbler. Over the past three months, I’ve gone from complete yoga novice to nurturing a daily practice. In this seven-part series, I review the best resources, tips, apps, and gear to help even the most stressed-out and stiff-backed desk workers start a healthy, holistic, and life-changing yoga practice.

Here’s are the other posts I’ve written so far in this series:

Too busy to read the whole article? [1800 words, an 8-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • This is part 1 of a 7-part series. Follow-up articles will be linked here as they are published.
  • Habits are built through a series of trigger->routine->reward.
  • I test out DoYouYoga’s 30-day video program to see if it can help me build a habit.
  • I like the program, but I don’t like that it doesn’t give me time to meditate, which is very important to me.

Part 1 (of 7): How you can build a yoga habit in 15 minutes a day.

I don’t have any particular qualifications to write about yoga. My lifestyle is unremarkable—I don’t smoke, but I do eat meat and drink alcohol a few times a week. I over-salt my food. I stay up too late, I work too much, and I can’t remember the last time I woke up for the sunrise.

I used to live in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a laid-back city with a yoga scene of international repute. I would drop into a class every now and then, get a rush of endorphins, hug my teacher and pledge to be back in a few days. Then I would get busy and stressed out and forget. When I couldn’t maintain a perfect lifestyle and schedule, I’d get embarrassed and stop trying. This on-and-off cycle lasted for years.

With most fitness routines I get attached to keeping an ideal schedule, but when I can’t keep it up, my enthusiasm wanes. This makes it hard to make a daily practice stick.

Instead of rigorously planning my practice, I needed to make it into a habit. The Habit Loop helped me understand how a habit works—habits are caused by a Trigger, followed by a Routine, and that then leads to a Reward. For example, every morning I wake up (Trigger), make coffee (Routine), and drink it (Reward—both because of the caffeine and the comfort of fulfilling the habit with delicious hot coffee).

I already knew the Reward for doing yoga (it feels amazing). Routine gets more complicated, simply because there are so many kinds of yoga, and so many ways of doing it. We’ll cover some of the variations later on, but since we’re all beginners here, just trust me: it never ends. I realized my fitness plans never quite work because the best way to start a habit that sticks is actually to start very, very small.

Yoga instructor Laurence Gilliot agrees. “If I don’t feel like it, I tell myself ‘Ok, just five minutes.’ Then I start and often I end up doing more than five min. The hardest part is to get yourself onto the mat.”

“The hardest part is to get yourself onto the mat.”

So I definitely needed something short. I needed a quick routine that would help me build the fundamentals and the confidence to move to a longer practice later. Yoga is supposed to be fun and feel good, but like any new skill, there is a learning curve. I didn’t want my daily routine to be so challenging that it left me discouraged or constantly sore—I wanted to see if yoga fit as part of my daily life.

I started with the DoYouYoga 30 Day Yoga Challenge. In this program, instructor Erin Motz leads a different 10-20 minute routine every day, designed to introduce a total beginner to some basics of yoga and let them feel the benefits. You can either sign up for a daily email or find all the videos here or on YouTube. The daily email became my Trigger, and the video my short, achievable Routine.

DoYouYoga

30 days of free videos, via daily emails or download when-you-want

Price: Free

Pros:

  • No-pressure, short intro to yoga, with a motivational 30-day format
  • Easy way to sample some different kinds of yoga and different poses
  • If you’re sore, try a targeted Day to get straight into your problem area
  • After 15 minutes you feel the reward of the practice – and often want to do more

Cons:

  • A 15 minute practice doesn’t have the space to spend much time in any pose
  • Many comments were asking for advice when they found a pose difficult or painful – A teacher will be able to make adjustments if you’re doing something incorrectly and safely push you to go farther, but a video can’t
  • Since they are “bite-size,” the videos often do not make a coherent sequence if you double up, so if you want a longer practice, find a longer video class (more about this next time)

My experience with DoYouYoga’s 30-day challenge

Day 1: Opening up hips and back helps people (like me) who sit a lot. My lower back felt loose and warm with fresh blood flow all day. It’s also interesting to see that one side of your body can be more flexible than the other.

I liked the idea that committing to 15 minutes of practice every day would make it easier to add more time. Everyone can find 15 minutes each day to spare, right?

Day 2: Spending a lot of time in Downward Dog used to be impossible for me—my shoulders would pop out of joint and I would topple to the ground. It looks and feels like I am weak or off-balance, but actually I have an abnormality in my arms. If I hadn’t had a teacher show me how to work around this problem in a live class, I wouldn’t have been able to finish even this short routine, and I would have been totally demoralized.

All video classes have this disadvantage—they cannot accelerate your practice the way a few sessions with a live teacher can, especially if you have an injury or a health problem to work around.

All video classes have this disadvantage—they cannot accelerate your practice the way a few sessions with a live teacher can, especially if you have an injury or a health problem to work around.

Day 3: Focusing on the back and posture was a good counterpoint to days 1&2

It turns out even finding 15 minutes was tough. I would plan to wake up early, but end up sleeping in and then drinking more coffee instead. At night I would decide to meet up with some friends …

Day 4 & 5: I got busy. And the internet was too slow.

How frustrating. Why would I procrastinate about doing yoga? I like doing yoga… right?

The daily reminder email wasn’t helping – if I couldn’t start the video right away, it got buried in my inbox.

I was buying into my old habit again. I got anxious that I wouldn’t be able to do a routine the “right” way or that I wouldn’t be able to keep up the practice. Then I would avoid yoga. I needed to let go of these ideas before I could move forward.

The second time I tried to do Days 4, 5, and 6: The YouTube commentators and I are all surprised at how sore the short yoga-and-Pilates influenced routines make our abs and core. Day 6, focusing on the lower back, is a great relief.

So I gave up on the perfect schedule and squeezed my practice in between work and errands. I wasn’t sure how this would work with a longer daily practice, but I was finally doing yoga every single day, whether first thing in the morning or in the afternoon after hitting a deadline. This really built my confidence.

Pro tip: Instead of doing a routine when I got an email, I left my yoga mat unrolled on the floor where I would see it when I had time to practice.

Day 7: Crow pose always looked impossible and somewhat boggling. A clear explanation of a sequence and which muscles to strengthen made this seem much more achievable. Day 8 also demystifies Wheel pose.

I started to look forward to the daily video, and soon I was spending more time on the mat. I would start with some stretches at first and revisit favorite poses after a video ended. Some days I doubled up or tripled up, and I also stopped feeling guilty if I had to skip a day.

Day 9: More movement and the introduction of more balance poses. I love balance poses, and I really like doing these at home where I can control the length of the pose (and no one sees me fall over!)

Days 10 & 11: Some relaxing stretching through the side body followed by a restorative routine with plenty of time to unwind and quiet down.

I was missing something, though. My favorite thing about yoga is that focusing on your practice naturally quiets your mind down and moves you into a meditation.

Laurence calls yoga a “Meditation in motion” and says, “When I start my practice, I usually still have thoughts flashing through my mind. When I start to focus on my breath and movement, I get into ‘the zone’—I just become the movement. My mind slows down and is concentrated on what’s happening in the present. Stillness comes. If I am struggling with a question or a challenge in my life, in this moment of stillness, the answer arises by itself. This is a magical moment.”

In only 15 minutes I really couldn’t get “in the zone.” Meditation is a major part of the yoga experience, and it’s missing from these 15-minute videos, I think simply due to the short formats.

Pro tip: Consider pausing the video for a few minutes occasionally if you want more quiet space.

Day 12: How embarrassing. I hurried through the hand and arm sequence that looked “easy” and ended up straining my hand. Between that and the intense hip openers on Day 13, I was ready for a recovery day. These were good reminders to keep listening to my body, not my ideal of what I thought I should be doing.

After about two weeks, I’d learned that I could keep up with a regular practice and get excited about getting on the mat each day. I was willing to commit to 15 minutes of practice, and I often did 30-45 minutes once I’d started. I had also built the confidence to start doing longer routines. I was ready for more.

What I learned from 15 minutes a day for 15 days

1) Just start doing it! This isn’t the time to strategize or plan. Go to the videos or sign up for the daily emails. Do one video today, while you are thinking about it.

2) There is no way to “Win” the 30 Day Challenge, so treat the format as a guideline, not a rule. Do two in a day if you want. Pause the videos to stay in a pose longer if you feel like it. Try to stay roughly in sequence (don’t just jump to the end), but you can explore what you are interested in that day. This isn’t how the program is designed, (and, again, I am not a yoga teacher) but I got more out of these videos by using them as a jumping-off point, then listening to what I needed.

3) Conversely, if the 30 Day format is motivational and comfortable for you, stick with it—what do I know?

References

  1. Laurence Gilliot, interview. With six years’ dedicated practice of yoga with a wide variety of styles and gifted teachers, Laurence’s classes are inspired by Anusara, Vinyasa, Restorative yoga, Yin yoga and Ayurveda. Laurence has also studied Buddhist mindfulness meditation on several retreats with Zen-master Thich Nhat Hanh, co-facilitates a weekly meditation group and combines the Eastern practice of Buddhist psychology with the Western practice of Non-Violent Communication to coach both individuals and groups towards more fulfilled and joyful lives.

The Best Free Resources for Yoga

I’m Kaitlyn, a writer, editor, traveller, and serial exercise dabbler. Over the past three months, I’ve gone from complete yoga novice to nurturing a daily practice. In this seven-part series, I review the best resources, tips, apps, and gear to help even the most stressed-out and stiff-backed desk workers start a healthy, holistic, and life-changing yoga practice.

Here’s what I’ve written about so far:

Today, I’ll share the resources I found as I started my first foray into yoga. Some were more helpful than others, but all of them were free.

Too busy to read the whole article? [2300 words, an 11-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • There is so much free yoga online.
  • DoYouYoga offers a great 30-day intro to yoga, but I found that the flows were too short for me to get the benefits of meditation.
  • Do Yoga with Me was my favorite resource. It offers a wide range of video lengths and styles and a beginner’s plan.
  • Yoga Journal has shorter videos, but 360 degree video explorations of different poses are incredibly useful.
  • There’s always YouTube, but searching “Beginner’s Yoga” gets overwhelming. I recommend a few videos and share my search technique.
  • If you like to do your research before jumping into things, look up Sun Salutations12 and Vinyasa (breath control). I found these concepts extremely helpful as I sustained my practice.

After two weeks using the 30-Day Yoga Challenge to create my habit, I started checking out other free online yoga. The biggest problem I had with the 30-Day Yoga Challenge was the fact that the short routines didn’t give me enough time to meditate and reflect. I also wanted to build my understanding of yoga, my confidence to keep going, and my physical ability to do the poses.

So I was looking for:

  1. Videos about an hour long. Since many studio classes are about an hour long, this seemed like a good place to start.
  2. Good routines for relaxation.
  3. Good routines for an athletic challenge.
  4. A breakdown of basics to improve my foundation.

I checked out a handful of resources recommended to me by friends who had experience with learning or teaching yoga. These were my favorite resources.

YouTube

Let’s start with the most obvious place to find free yoga videos. YouTube is where I started and it’s how I found DoYouYoga’s 30-day yoga challenge that I tried for, well, about 15 days.

But search YouTube for beginner’s yoga and you’ll find 370,000 results. It’s boggling.

I did find a few good beginner videos:

With that being said, I wouldn’t recommend randomly searching YouTube as a beginner. Instead, try one of the other beginner’s program I write about below, then come back to YouTube when you know what you want.

Example good yoga videos on YouTube:

That’s just a tiny sampling of the videos out there. Obviously, some are better than others—choosing the right video is a combination of being familiar with a particular instructor and knowing the exact type of flow you want.

DoYogaWithMe

I spent about a week with the videos from DoYogawithMe. The site displays each video’s length, average rating, and a few lines of summary before you click through, so it’s easy to quickly find what you want. Reviews from other beginners are under each video, which is helpful with videos like Beginner Basics in Flow which some viewers found very challenging. They also offer donation-based curated routines.

  • Burnout to Bliss is a nicely paced, hour long beginner’s routine. Great transition from the 30 Day Yoga challenge.
  • Seated Whole Body Hatha Yoga Flow is a series of gentle stretches that can become quite powerful and leave long-lasting warmth and looseness in your body. The instructor here goes really deep—you probably won’t be able to, so don’t feel pressure.

Yoga Journal

I spent the next week with Yoga Journal’s video resources. These were harder to choose from, since you have to click through to see video length and there are no reviews. Their routines are generally more technical, more likely to use Sanskrit terms, and more athletically challenging than those on DoYogaWithMe. Plus, most of Yoga Journal’s routines were shorter than an hour, which is less time than I needed to get into a meditative, head-clearing state.

With that being said, I did find a few of their videos useful:

  • The Morning and Evening sequences are short, gentle, and meant to be done twice a day (one in the morning and one in the evening—duh?).
  • Strengthen your Core was the opposite: this athletic, dynamic routine with some arm balance will tire you out. I think it’s best suited for someone who is already in good shape but is looking to try some yoga. For this flow you really need two blocks to put your hands on so you can jump your body through your arms. Blocks can stabilize you in poses where one hand is on the ground, or improve your alignment. Until I got a great set of heavy cork blocks (more about that in a future article), I used a big, heavy book instead.

While it was tough to find the routine I wanted on Yoga Journal, I came back to the site for their invaluable 360-degree video explanations of different poses. I returned to these over and over while learning the basics of a Sun Salutation, the basis for many modern yoga routines.

Learning basic postures (asanas) will quickly make you more comfortable. You’ll pick them up as you go, but if you prefer to study ahead of time, you can use Yoga Journal to learn these poses:

  • Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
  • Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)
  • Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
  • Lunge
  • Plank Pose
  • Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

Other sites I looked at

Some yoga teachers host videos on their websites, such as Yoga with Adriene. If you find a teacher you like on another a video site, try Googling their name and seeing if they have a personal site with free videos.

My Free Yoga and Free Yoga Videos both host hundreds of free videos. But they weren’t as easy to navigate as DoYogaWithMe and their videos didn’t feel as curated. These sites have more videos because users can upload their own, of varying quality. I liked sites with more oversight, even if it meant fewer videos to choose from.

Some other websites offer free yoga classes, but these are part of a free trial or restricted to a small portion of all their videos. I’ll talk more about the limited free trials for paid sites in a later article (link will be updated here when it’s posted).

The Limits of Free: Injury and Asking for Help

While doing all of this yoga, my body felt great—until it didn’t. One major downside to practicing from videos vs. learning from a teacher is that it’s easier for a beginner to injure themselves. I was really into my new practice, but I pushed it too hard and had to learn to practice more safely.

I’m naturally flexible, so I tend to like stretchy routines. I realized, though, that I had hurt myself because I was doing too much stretching and not enough strengthening.

I started feeling weird popping noises around my left knee and aching at the base of my neck. With any new exercise, it’s normal to feel some new aches and pains while your muscles adjust.3 When you release tight muscles as you start doing yoga, it impacts your overall posture and muscles in unexpected places across your body, which might make you sore. Since I’m a desk worker, I wasn’t surprised that waking up neglected neck muscles was uncomfortable—they always get sore when I exercise my upper body, and the sensation was familiar.

But, according to instructor Laurence Gilliot,4 any sharp pain means you should slow down and come out of the pose that caused the pain.

My knee stayed sore when I was resting, with sharp pains around my kneecap and the back of the joint. When I couldn’t sleep one night because my knee hurt, I knew something was really wrong. I worried I was feeling a symptom of misalignment—when doing a pose incorrectly and repeatedly harms your body.

Then I asked Laurence about what I was feeling and went to a couple of beginner’s classes. We’ll talk more about classroom lessons next time, but I found that in-person classes were the quickest way to check my alignment and make sure I practiced correctly from the beginning.5

In class, teachers are there to help you. If you are experiencing pain, ask for an adjustment. One caveat: beware that aggressive adjustments from a teacher can sometimes worsen injuries,6 so it’s important to listen to your body and take responsibility for your own safety—more on this next time.

Sustaining the Practice and Next Steps

I’ve often heard that it takes 21 days to cement a new habit (even though some evidence suggests otherwise7). Regardless, at three weeks into my (nearly) daily yoga practice, I felt great. I had more energy and less stress. I was even waking up early to do yoga each morning, and I hate waking up early. I had either stuck the habit or just caught beginner’s enthusiasm—either way, I was happy.

This was also when I began to see—not just feel—changes in my body. It wasn’t dramatic, but I noticed more definition in my arms, shoulders, and legs, which was surprising because I was intentionally leaving the rest of my lifestyle unchanged. While bodyweight exercises and weightlifting have given me much more dramatic results more quickly, the benefit of yoga was that I wasn’t forcing myself through difficult routines and I always finished up feeling energized and relaxed instead of sore.

By the sixth week my practice felt, well, stable. I wasn’t as excited by the novelty of yoga, but it was something I did steadily. I spent more time thinking about what kind of practice I wanted when selecting videos, and I had picked several favorite video I kept going back to. I wasn’t necessarily doing an hour every day, but I usually managed more than 45 minutes five times a week.

And I finally found the peace of mind I was looking for.

I learned to keep my movement attuned to my breath. This is called Vinyasa.8 It was tricky for me, but it’s become one of the most important physical aspects of my yoga practice.

Mindful Vinyasa is a major part of how yoga helps your mind, and provides helps to relieve stress.9 In my opinion, Vinyasa and breathing exercises like Pranayama10 are part of what makes yoga a more holistic practice than just stretching or resistance training alone.

Your Next Action: Try a Few Videos

  • I still think DoYouYoga’s 30-day plan is a good way to get started. Try a few of their videos.
  • Next, head over to DoYogaWithMe and try their Burnout to Bliss or the Morning and Evening sequences.
  • Keep exploring or, if you like structure, sign up for DoYogaWithMe’s beginner program.
  • If you’re not following a curated plan, be sure to vary your routine. We tend to like to do what we are already good at. If you try different routines and styles you’ll find some surprises, and developing strength, flexibility, and balance will keep your body safe.
  • Try some Vinyasa routines. It’s fine if you can’t do it the entire time, but you want to bring your attention back to your breath when your mind wanders. This practice will help you get the most from Yoga.
  • If you have the time and ability, go to a couple of beginner’s classes. Even if you want to do the majority of your practice at home, it’s important to check in occasionally with a teacher so you don’t teach yourself bad habits. We’ll talk more about how to choose a class in my next article.

Notes:

  1. Wikihow, How to do the Sun Salute ↩
  2. The Art of Living, How to Do Surya Namaskar
  3. Eliza Martinez, Sore Muscles After Yoga. azcentral.
  4. Laurence Gilliot, Interview. With six years’ dedicated practice of yoga with a wide variety of styles and gifted teachers, Laurence’s classes are inspired by Anusara, Vinyasa, Restorative yoga, Yin yoga and Ayurveda. Laurence has also studied Buddhist mindfulness meditation on several retreats with Zen-master Thich Nhat Hanh, co-facilitates a weekly meditation group and combines the Eastern practice of Buddhist psychology with the Western practice of Non-Violent Communication to coach both individuals and groups towards more fulfilled and joyful lives.
  5. In addition, Laurence recommended keeping my quads engaged during forward folds to protect my knees, and after reading up I now practice forward folds and some other stretches with a small bend in my knees to protect my hamstrings.
  6. Ivy Markaity, Good Pain vs. Bad Pain? How to Protect Yourself in Yoga Class. HealthCentral
  7. Ben Gardner, Busting the 21 Days Habit Formation MythHealth Chatter: The University College London Health Behaviour Research Blog.
  8. You’ll see some yoga routines described as a “Vinyasa flow,” which means you’re expected to transition between poses according to your breathing.
  9. Alex Korb, Yoga: Changing the Brain’s Stressful Habits. Psychology Today.
  10. Alisa Bauman, Is Yoga Enough to Keep You Fit? Yoga Journal.