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.