When I kicked off my quest to go from yoga novice to full-fledged yogi, I'd planned to spend several months practicing at home before I ever stepped foot in a studio. But just a few weeks after I started following a series of yoga videos, I hyperextended my knee, which made it hard to keep practicing. I asked for advice from yoga teachers and found out that I might have been able to avoid the injury by getting in front of an instructor early on.
At the time, attending a group yoga class filled me with anxiety. I’m not a rah-rah kind of competitive athlete, but the idea of being the worst at yoga in a room full of yogis is intimidating.
And these thoughts weren't unfounded. Once after class, another student told me she was glad I had been next to her so she could see someone else was having a hard time. It was reassuring that I wasn’t the only one struggling, but it also underlined my fear that we were all secretly watching each other.
Other students weren't my only concern, I also thought the teacher would be annoyed to have a beginner in class. But yoga instructors, like Laurence Gilliot, say they love working with newbies because they get to be part of their dawning awareness of yoga. “Enjoy the newness,” Gilliot says. “When you get more advanced, you will crave this feeling of the beginner’s mind.”
Step 1: Feel Out Different Studios
Before you commit to a studio, drop in for an introductory class, or even just stop by and talk with the people hanging around. Just as gyms can run the gamut from Planet Fitness to a CrossFit box, there are lots of variety when it comes to yoga studios, so it’s best to get a feel for your options in person. Yoga instructor Melissa Smith likens yoga studios to a buffet. “Sample as many recommended teachers, styles, and studios as you can,” she says.
Here are three things to consider when selecting a studio:
Location and Price
This might seem like a no-brainer, but the most important part of yoga class is attendance. It doesn’t matter if you sign up for the best studio in town. If the location is inconvenient or cost prohibitive, it'll be difficult to establish a daily yoga habit.
A studio with a good community can deepen your experience. “Practicing with others is a wonderful part of yoga,” says instructor Rob Williams. “A part of this process is about engaging in your life, and life for most of us would be much emptier without a community.”
Here are some important questions to ask yourself to figure out the best kind of yoga community for you:
- How social 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 leave? Studios with a restaurant or coffee shop attached tend to be more social, while studios advertising short lunch-hour classes are 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.
- Do you want spirituality to be part of your practice? Some instructors only teach asana (the physical postures for exercise), while others include chanting and reflections on ancient yogic texts.
I found accessibility and community to be the most important factors for me to consider when choosing a studio. But if you want to keep your long-term yoga future in mind, make sure to also 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.
No Studios Nearby?
Google Helpouts are a great option. Using Google Hangouts, the company’s video chat platform, you can virtually connect with a yoga instructor for a one-on-one session. It’s pretty much the next best thing to an in-person class. In a Helpout you can request demo postures, ask for adjustments of specific poses, and get help developing your own routine. If you have specialized needs, such as a serious injury, a Helpout might be better than a large in-person class because you’ll have the teacher’s full attention and none of the urges to compare yourself to the other people.
What’s with Yoga and Spirituality, Anyway?
You probably wouldn’t be asking yourself this question during a Pilates or a cycling class. That’s part of what makes yoga different. Even though many yoga classes today only teach physical postures, the practice is not just an exercise methodology.
Physical postures, known as asana, are just one of the eight limbs of yoga. The other limbs encompass a holistic system with roots in Hindu and Buddhist traditions that govern things like ethics and behavior, self-discipline and faith, breathing, awareness, and meditation.
There’s not enough space here to go deeply into the holistic side of the practice, but there’s a reason that many yoga teachers don’t stick to just telling you how to stretch. Historically, asana was 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. Some teachers also reflect on sacred texts, such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, or spiritual teachings from many faiths.
This might sound heavy, but a spiritually-oriented yoga class isn't like a religious meeting or service. Instead, it’s an environment where people discuss spirituality. B.K.S. Iyengar's book Light on Yoga is a great resource to learn more about yoga and spirituality (Fair warning: It’s not a quick read.).
Step 2: Choose an Instructor You Connect With
Going to your first class should be about finding a teacher you connect with, regardless of the style. Smith advised looking for a teacher who will listen to you and offer feedback on your practice. “Look for a teacher that speaks to you, challenges you,” she says. “And one that offers you a practice that meets you where you are, not where you want to be.”
Gilliot stressed the importance of finding a yoga instructor who you connect with as a person first, not just as a teacher. “You should like how you feel around them, in their presence, even outside of the class,” she says. “Whatever teacher you have, if you practice a long time with them, in a way, you’ll become a little like them.”
Garance Clos, another yoga instructor, stressed the idea that yoga is an inner journey, not just a physical practice. “Even for beginners, it’s important to find a teacher with whom you can be yourself, feel free, safe and comfortable,” she says.
Another sign of a great teacher is someone who will encourage you to continue to practice yoga outside of class. “Mentors and teachers are priceless,” Smith says. “But they should give you all you need to carry on to self-study and practice.”
Step 3: Start with a Beginner’s Class (Even If You’re Not a Beginner)
Maybe you’ve dabbled in yoga at home and practiced with videos that taught you all the basic poses. Should you still be going to beginner’s classes? In my opinion, 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 grueling intermediate class can hurt your likelihood of sticking with the practice in the long run.
There’s a blurry line between beginner and intermediate yoga, and yoga instructor Rob Williams thinks that’s intentional. The best person to tell you what level you’re at is (surprise!) you. Choosing the best yoga class comes down to you feel about it. Do you feel like the class is manageable but challenging? Or do you feel more lost than others in the class? It’s important to remember that advancing to an intermediate class doesn’t mean you can’t go back to a beginner class from time to time. “I still go to beginner classes sometimes,” Williams says. “[You] 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 come early and introduce yourself to the teacher. It’ll be easier for them to teach you if they know you are a beginner (or that you’ve only learned from videos). It’s also important that you let your instructor know about any health conditions or injuries. That way they can modify poses for you throughout class. When I first started, I received a bunch of strong adjustments. They were scary at first (should I really be bending this way?), but my body felt a lot better once I was doing the poses correctly.
Once, though, I showed up late to a class and didn’t tell the instructor that I had neck issues. Without knowing about my injury, he pushed me into a posture that aggravated it. While it’s ultimately 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 Into 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 that 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.
With all of these pointers in mind, here’s your action plan:
- Make a list of convenient studios. Research studios that are accessible—close enough and cheap enough you’re likely to actually go.
- Go to a few studios, pick up a schedule, and soak in the vibe.
- 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.
- Show up early to class and talk to your new teacher, especially if you have an injury. Following this basic yoga etiquette will make you more comfortable and improve your experience.
This article was originally produced as part of 75toGo, a project to publish research-intensive health and fitness stories for twentysomethings looking to create good practices and habits for the decades ahead.