"I'm curious about yoga," friends frequently say to me. "Where do I start?"
I always say the same thing: Find a good beginner's class, keep an open mind, and go back at least four times, or as many as you need to feel confident enough for the next level.
They don't always listen.
Some find an intermediate (often heated!) vinyasa class, go once or twice, and walk away wondering why anybody ever subjects herself to that kind of torture.
Others find an intermediate (again with the heat!) vinyasa class, go and go until it's not entirely torture anymore, but inevitably develop bad habits like holding sloppy postures or taking shortcuts. Bad habits lead to injury, injury leads to disillusionment, and disillusionment leads to skulking back to Zumba classes with a completely wrong impression of what yoga is supposed to be.
Some do take my advice and start with a low or no-heat beginner's class. Outside of one rather neurotic friend who said she spent the entire time worrying that she might fart, nobody's ever come back and shared a bad beginner-class experience with me.
Here's why new yogis need to start as beginners:
1. Yoga skills are yoga skills.
If you were playing football for the very first time, you wouldn't expect to show up and be thrown right in as the starting quarterback, would you? Not even if you were in the best shape of your life! You still need to learn the moves, the rules, the whole game. And it will take time.
Show up to your first beginner class knowing that you'll be watching more than you'll be doing. Tell the instructor it's your first, second or third class. Give him or her the chance to guide you into poses correctly the first time and to make adjustments where needed. Be humble. Yoga, more than almost any other activity, is about non-competition. It's about meeting your body where it's at, no matter what anyone else around you is able to do.
2. Yoga is different.
Yoga isn't about weight loss. It isn't even about physical fitness. It's not a race, a contest, or anything else you might assign to regular sports activities. If you go into yoga with specific expectations, you'll have specific disappointments to go with them. Start at the very beginning and be ready to never stop learning. If you do anything less, you will be robbing yourself of the limitless lessons yoga has to offer.
3. Yoga injuries suck.
Period. If you rush your own process, over-exert, ignore your pain, or compete with your classmates, you'll almost certainly get hurt. And you'll blame yoga, probably never return to it, and that will be a darn shame.
4. The breath is the thing.
Starting slow will prove that to you. If you spend the entire first hour of yoga on your back or in child's pose, focusing entirely on your breath, then you've practiced yoga. A good beginner class instructor will remind you of that frequently, encourage you to return to your breath, and remind you to rest as much as you need.
An intermediate instructor won't know that you need that, may unknowingly push you, and you will learn the hard lesson I mentioned in number 3.
5. You risk missing the point.
When you head right over to the most advanced class you can find, you miss the point of yoga. The purpose of yoga is to find focus. The purpose of finding focus is to find peace, and to keep growing within that new peace.
This isn't to say that all the other things you thought yoga would do for you won't come to pass. Because of yoga, I am stronger than I've ever been and rarely get injured anymore. I also rarely overeat anymore, so I don't gain weight. I can actually meditate now, as opposed to lying in corpse pose, writing grocery lists or reliving arguments with coworkers.
But none of those things will happen if yoga becomes just another of a long list of things you "have to do" to lose ten pounds. Who needs another one of those? If yoga becomes something you have to recover from because you over-did it, it can never become the wonderful nurturing thing you do for yourself.
And that's what it's supposed to be.