Your First Yoga Class
Let’s imagine that you arrive at your first yoga class. We suggest that you wear loose comfortable yoga clothing and bring a non-slip yoga mat, if you have one. Some studios lend or rent yoga mats. You may want to bring a bottle of water to drink and a towel if you perspire a lot. If you are going to a “hot yoga” class where the room has been heated so that it is quite warm, a towel is a good idea. It is best to have an empty stomach when you go to yoga class. Yoga teachers, depending on their philosophy, advise eating a light meal no sooner than 1 to 4 hours before yoga class. This helps you avoid nausea during the class especially in inverted yoga positions, in which your body is upside down. You can avoid the potential for a headache or feeling sick by following this guideline. You should also arrive with a clean body as a courtesy to your neighbors. Depending on the style of yoga, you may be perspiring during the class. Perspiration serves as an inner cleansing of toxins in yoga.
What sort of yoga clothing should you wear?
In most yoga classes, you can wear athletic apparel like sweat pants and a t-shirt. In hot yoga classes, where the heat is turned up, wear something that is lighter like a tank top and stretchy yoga shorts. Hot yoga is done in a room heated to 95-105 degrees Fahrenheit. Muscles become softer and more pliable in the heat.
In Iyengar Yoga classes, the teacher likes to see your body for the sake observing your alignment. Stretchy Lycra yoga pants that cling to your skin make this possible. Find out what your teacher suggests, but in most cases loose athletic apparel like sweat pants and a t-shirt will be perfect.
You might want to wear or bring a sweatshirt for the end of practice. At the end of a yoga session, a yoga teacher often guides the students through Shavasana. This is a pose where you lie down on your back in relaxation for 5 to 10 minutes. Your body cools down and it is nice to be able to cover up with your sweatshirt. Some classes provide blankets for this part of the class.
The Yoga Class Begins
When you arrive to class, the teacher may guide everyone into tuning in to their own inner guru, or teacher. She may lead the class in an invocation, or the sounding, of the word “Om.” Om is a universal sound that has no meaning, or is beyond meaning and is considered sacred.
Usually a yoga teacher will ask about any injuries or physical conditions that she should know about. It is important to tell your yoga teacher if you have an injury, a strain, or any other physical problem so she can adapt the poses for you if needed. You also have a responsibility to listen to your body and stop doing something that causes strain and doesn't feel quite right. “No pain, no gain” is not the attitude to cultivate. A kind of pain to be wary of is a burning sensation. If you feel burning or sense that a pose is too much for you, stop or back off of the pose. Even though you have a yoga teacher, you have the best and most intimate exposure to what is happening in your own body.
One goal of yoga is to integrate learning gained in your body so that you come to know the self. Yoga means to integrate, combine or “yoke”, deriving from the Sanskrit word “yuj”. The core of yoga is combining kinesthetic knowing with intellectual information as part of the overall process of learning to know the self.
The knowledge gained in yoga can extend to the rest of your life. By noticing how you are feeling inside your body-mind, you get in touch with an inner feedback system. One way that yoga can affect your life is that you become aware of what is going on and are then able to take better care of yourself.
If this is a hot yoga class with a heated room, students may spread out a towel or yoga rug on their mats. Notice what the others do at the start of class, and follow it and feel free to ask the teacher or students advice on how to lay out your mat, what yoga props to have handy, and where to store your belongings. You might want to position yourself to see yourself in the mirror during class if that seems to be the convention, as it is in Bikram Yoga classes.
Centering your Breathing in Yoga
The teacher may have you sit on a cushion or a block at the beginning, or simply sit on your yoga mat. She has you start by tuning into the breath. Instead of noticing your thoughts and what is going on in the room, you gradually start to notice what is going on inside your body.
By noticing your breath as it deepens, you become more inwardly focused as you shut out the stimuli of the outside world. You may notice the quieting of your thinking mind. A yoga teacher slowly guides you in centering your breathing in yoga class.
Breathing is an important part of yoga. The breath in the body is said to move energy, which is called prana in yoga. Increased prana moving in your body, allows you to feel more energetic and healthy. Yoga positions (or asanas) are designed so that blockages of energy are unblocked through doing yoga postures and pranayama, or special breathing practices.
How you breathe effects your psyche. Shallow, short and fast breathing is what you do when you are upset. When you are relaxed, you breathe slowly and naturally. We live in a hurried culture, and slowing your breathing is a way to slow down the rest of you. Did you ever hear the suggestion to take a deep breath if you are angry or upset? Taking a deep breath is a good idea at these times and is also beneficial at other times. Breathing consciously connects the mind and body in a “yoking”, which is yoga. Noticing your breath takes you out of the usual mode of having a busy thinking mind to a more relaxed space. Yoga is an inward journey in which you stop paying attention to the outside input of stimuli to the mind. Attention to the inner self is called “pratyahara” by yoga practitioners. This is the withdrawal of the senses. Simply watching your breath helps you begin to this process of noticing your inner self.
Connecting the Mind and Body
Once you are tuned into your breath, the teacher is likely to begin to warm up muscles by moving into poses, or stretches that are not full poses. Your joints will be lubricated through this process, and muscles warm and become suppler. You should continue to be aware of your breath during the entire class as you notice how it feels to be inside your body.
To do this, check into the sensations of your body and begin to notice where it is tight, where there is tension or pain, tingling, dead space, aliveness, energy flow or whatever else may be present. Your limbs may be heavy or light. One side of your body may feel more closed or open. Take a picture in your mind of how your body felt at the beginning of the pose. Compare this to your internal experience at the end of a yoga pose.
Sometimes the teacher will lead you through leg stretches on one side. Notice how your body feels on the left compared to the right side. The recently stretched leg may feel like it is longer. After you stretch the second side, they may feel equal in length again and are more open. The key is to notice what happens in your body and occasionally take internal snapshots which can develop this knowledge of self.
Competition is something to leave behind when you go to yoga class. You may look at another person who seems more flexible. The only comparison in yoga that you need to make is between you and you. Yoga requires you to leave out the evaluation component of your thinking. The idea of going anywhere isn’t valuable. The idea of learning to be where you are in the given moment is valuable. Yoga helps you learn to be more in the present moment.
Performing the Asanas
In the middle of the class, your yoga teacher will guide you through a series of yoga poses, either in a flowing sequence from one to another yoga position, or will have you rest briefly between poses. She should demonstrate the yoga position and look at the students to make sure that they are doing it safely. Don’t let it bother you if she makes corrections as no one can do a perfect yoga pose. She may have you do poses from a seated position, like forward bends which will stretch your hamstrings. The class may also do backbends which are invigorating and uplifting. Standing poses are typical beginner yoga positions. In these yoga positions, work on extending your limbs and being aligned, which is to make a geometrical equivalent of what the yoga teacher demonstrates. Try to see your body from the inside by feeling what is happening there. Other poses include twists, where your spine and torso rotate, squeezing out bodily toxins and creating a flexible spine. You might do balancing poses from a standing position with the challenge of not falling over. Your yoga teacher can show you how to do the pose against the wall when balance is too difficult at your stage of learning. Another kind of yoga position is an inversion which is an upside down pose. Don’t do inversions on a full stomach or if you are a woman who is menstruating. Shoulderstand and headstand are classic inversions and are typically done only after you have some yoga experience.
Yoga props, like a yoga block in your hand to reach the floor in a standing pose, will help. If that doesn’t make sense, it will once you go to a class that uses yoga props like blocks, straps, and bolsters. Yoga props make poses accessible to everybody and help in your alignment.
You will go through a series that has been carefully considered by your yoga teacher who should tailor the class to the participants. Some classes like Ashtanga Yoga or Bikram Yoga do the same series each class which includes a mixture of forward bends, backbends, and standing poses.
Ending the Yoga Class
Many yoga classes end with Shavasana which offers time to feel the effects of your practice and to rest as you lie down on your mat for 5 to 10 minutes. It will feel really good to stop doing yoga and to let go. Even though it seems like you are doing nothing at this time, lying on your mat in Shavasana is quite important. Mind, body, and spirit integrate by allowing the effects of the yoga to flow through you. More prana flows as your life force energy is revitalized. You go from an active “doing” mode to a passive “receiving” mode which balances the practice. At the end of Shavasana, the yoga teacher will ask you to move slowly out of the pose and sit up.
The yoga teacher may lead the class in a salutation with hands in prayer position over the heart. She may say “Namaste” which is a Sanskrit word and a greeting used in India. Namaste means “The light in me honors the light in you.”
Some classes such as Bikram Yoga classes end with a breathing exercise. You may notice that students are often quiet at the end of class and roll up their mats while observing silence.
Yoga is an adventure, an inward journey, and you are likely to feel different than when you arrived. You might notice more calm and inner quiet when you finish. Your body might feel more relaxed and it may feel like it has experienced real exertion with a pleasant softening of muscles. Many people feel more alive, invigorated with energy flowing through all parts of their body.
Don't worry about knowing anything special when you attend your first yoga class. You will be guided through everything that you need to know. Feel free to ask questions of your teacher during class and afterwards. If you liked the teacher and the experience, be sure to go back for another yoga class as yoga benefits are cumulative. Each subsequent yoga class is likely to feel easier and even better than the first one.