Whether you’ve never tried yoga or you're only a few classes deep, there's no question that it can be pretty intimidating in the early stages—especially if you’ve been spending time on social media. Searching the "yoga" hashtag yields way too many "perfect yoga body" photos, complete with inversions and splits.
Before you toss your phone across the room and give up, take a deep breath. It’s actually the most foundational postures—not the fancy positions—that provide you with the true benefits of yoga: flexibility, strength, and awareness that every body and mind so badly needs. The true journey into yoga begins differently for every person. Some start for flexibility, some to heal an injury, others for stress and anxiety relief.
The truth is, there's no "right way" or time to get into yoga, nor does it matter how flexible your hamstrings are or how strong your core is. What matters is your willingness to learn something new, to open your mind to an entirely different culture and language, to let go of control, and to allow the process to happen with patience. Over time, you might just find that yoga ends up changing your life. Ready to begin? Here's what you need to know.
Preparing your body.
A word of advice: Don't show up to your first yoga class drenched in perfume or anything else that might cause an allergic reaction. You want to receive as many hands-on assists as possible during your first class, and as kind as yoga teachers are, they'll probably be less likely to help you out if they're worried about sneezes and itchy eyes.
Additionally, it's best to take your first class when you have a strong reserve of energy because learning something new requires double the effort of the mind and the physical body to focus, listen, learn, and move.
And make sure you eat something small no less than an hour or two before class. "Hangry" does not count as one of the limbs of yoga! Go for a piece of fruit with nuts on the side or a slice of toast with almond butter.
Preparing your mind.
The body is important, but the mind is everything in yoga. In order to have the best possible experience in yoga class, it's important to let go of some control. Take the fear out of being wrong or messing up. It will happen anyway, so embrace that. If you think you’re being judged by someone else in class, I can assure you that's not the case—that person is in their own head after a terrible day at work, or better yet, they're so focused in on their breathing that they don't even hear the music playing in the background.
All eyes are not on you, and this is a great thing! Now you can go back to focusing in on you, and the experience you’re having on your mat and in your body in that moment. And if you're worried about hurt, try not to overthink it—if you’re present in your body, feeling what you’re doing, and under the guidance of a well-trained and experienced teacher, you’ll be fine. You may be sore tomorrow and feel places in your body you never knew existed, but, in the grand scheme of life, you’ll be fine—and most likely, better off than when you first started before the class.
Last but not least, pick a time when you can be relaxed and at ease before going to class. Do not choose the 5:30 p.m. class if you get out of work at 5 p.m. and know that, with traffic, it takes you at least 29 minutes to get there. You’ll need to fill out some paperwork prior, find parking, get some water, go to the bathroom, and settle into a space that calls out to you before the class even beginning. So plan for at least an extra 10 to 15 minutes to arrive before the class time begins.
A general note on preparation: Do your research!
As I mentioned, taking on a new practice of yoga is like moving to a new country. You wouldn’t just spin a globe and let your finger do the talking (well, most of us, wouldn't). Ask around for a teacher who is known for working well with beginners. Look for an instructor with a strong alignment background, and one who is experienced teaching all levels of students.
Another thing to note: There are many different kinds of yoga, each varying to some degree more than another. In a way, yoga is like going to the grocery store and saying, "Today I’m going to try a new vegetable!” only to discover that there are so many different varieties of vegetables out there.
Yoga is the same—there’s variety. From sweaty- and strength-focused flows to relaxing and restorative classes, there’s a yoga class out there for everyone—it just takes a little effort beforehand (and sometimes, trial and error) to find the right one for you.
What to expect from your first yoga class.
The most important thing you can do in your first yoga class is tell your teacher that you're new. That way, you can tell them about your body's background, any injuries, and if you prefer more or less attention in class—this takes out some of the guesswork.
While each class looks different, the beginning of class will typically be a body-opening warmup, the middle will be the heat-building portion where you’ll move and sweat, followed by some floor work to stretch out your legs and back. By the end of the class you’ll lie on the floor, breathing in the beautiful dreamland called savasana.
And if you think you know your lefts from your rights, get ready to get confused. The mind is very active, processing a lot of new things all at once, and you’re going to get turned around. You'll lunge with your right foot instead of your left; you'll get lost, goof something up, and end up accidentally rolling over and onto the mat of another unsuspecting yogi.
It's all good. Relax, breathe, laugh, and, like a dance move, just pick it back up whenever you can. Also, pay attention to these two very important words: child’s pose and savasana. They both mean rest! Child’s pose is your home base, your go-to when you get that feeling of "too much," or feel like you need a break. Place your shins on your mat, forehead to the ground, and place your arms by your sides, palms facing up. That’s it. Now, just breathe. The other, savasana, is the 5 to 15 minutes at the end of class when you get to lie on your back breathing, relaxing, and letting all of the benefits of your class and hard efforts seep and sink in.
Remember nap time when you were younger? Guess what: Adults need breaks, too, and savasana is the perfect "conscious" nap time. But just a word of warning: Savasana may be the time when you get the most anxious or feel the need to get up and move. Try not to. Contrary to what you might feel at first, savasana is so far from a waste of your time, so resist the urge to skip it or go through your to-do list in your head. Breathe and repeat the words "I am calm; I am one," cuing each phrase on the inhale and exhale. If that doesn't work for you, simply make up your own mantra. Like most things, it really does get easier as time goes on.
If you absolutely must leave a class early (it happens!), let the teacher know in advance. And on this note, if you need to use the bathroom, go. Finding inner peace certainly won’t happen if you’re dealing with a full bladder.
The yoga dress code.
In yoga, the most important "code" to follow is to be comfortable in what you’re wearing. Ditch the idea that you have to show up in a specific brand of clothing with a label attached to your bra strap. In general, fitness clothing is ideal, with high-waisted yoga pants or shorts for more intense practices, and more loosefitting pants for restorative ones. If you choose to wear a T-shirt, be sure it’s form-fitted, and not loose. Nothing worse than being upside-down in a downward dog and the shirt is constantly getting caught in your mouth or face. And when it comes to men's yoga pants, the more coverage the better. But if you do want to wear shorts, consider a pair with liners on the inside.
Skip the long necklaces, bracelets, watches, and hoop earrings—they'll just get in your way! And speaking on behalf of your dermatologist, remove your makeup before class and leave your skin free and healthy to breathe and sweat.
And don't forget to ditch the socks—you’ll need those toes for feeling, balancing, and (most importantly) not slipping. Last but not least, depending on the style of class, bring a layer to adjust from the transition from the warmup to the heat-building portion of class, to stretching, to savasana.
Creating a more mindful yoga practice.
How mindful do you want your yoga practice to be? Truthfully, it's always your choice. If you feel overwhelmed and like there’s too much going on in your head or you can’t catch your breath, close your eyes whenever you feel like it and move into child's pose at any point you choose. Remind yourself that you are awesome for taking on something new to enhance your life, and remember that being stressed about yoga isn’t going to relieve stress in your life. So let go, breathe, and create those little moments of peace, clarity, and empowered choice as often as you need to.
Something helpful I tell all new students in my classes is to allow yourself to feel and hear, and remember that you don’t always need to see all that is going on around you. Close your eyes. Learn to trust yourself, your mind, and your body a little more.
This practice of yoga is 100 percent personal journey, and it's never a competition. Let go of the idea that you need to keep up with the girl next to you or hold a plank longer than that guy behind you. And when all else fails, laugh whenever possible. Yoga should never be taken too seriously. And like laughter, it really is the best medicine.
Want more from Sara? Read about the two phrases that helped her heal from a debilitating injury.