I’ve been taking courses from Mindful Schools to add a different perspective to my professional and personal life. Because of this program, I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection. After seeing a lot of “doozies” in a recent class I attended, I wish I’d learned about the common mistakes we make as yoga students “new to the mat.”

Mistakes We Make #1:
We Don’t Research Yoga Before We Try It

Let’s be honest, if a doctor or friend says, “you should consider yoga for your condition,” we may look for any yoga class we can find or afford. We discover a diverse array of classes, from the basic to the bizarre, to those with exotic titles like Kripalu, Anusara, Jivmukti and Satchidananda… Unfortunately, people’s personal preferences vary as widely as the world of yoga, so what works for your friend may not for you.

As personal experience also taught me, most doctors are not familiar with the rich diversity of yoga. To many, yoga is… yoga. “I suggest you try a yoga class – I hear it’s good for your back,” was the blanket statement two of my doctors gave me. That type of advice isn’t sufficient enough when you have an injury or medical condition. Before you pick a class or studio, read this article… and ask local studios and teachers you’re considering to observe a class.

A class is not a class.

Today’s yoga, like the automobile, has a vast array of styles and challenge levels. Just like a new driver, consider starting with a simpler version before you try a “Lamborghini” version, like power yoga. Some styles incorporate spiritual centering, while others simply view yoga as a form of exercise. Classes may even incorporate other movement disciplines, such as Pilates, Tai Chi, or QiGong. Which do you prefer? Here are some guidelines:

Yoga styles I am familiar with that are good for beginners include Kripalu, Amrit, Kundalini, Iyengar and *Hatha. These foundational styles consider proper alignment and student ability levels. Consider waiting on the more rigorous styles, like Ashtanga, power yoga, vinyasa, hot yoga and Bikram until you figure out the discipline, develop strength, understand the poses, and sense your heat tolerance. If the class description doesn’t mention the style, ask!

Don’t forget class level. Good class levels for newcomers include these descriptors in the title: Slow, gentle, introduction, beginner, chair, fundamentals, foundational and restorative.

But I want to try a more advanced class – it looks easy enough. Speed and complexity come with risks and the choice is yours. In a beginner class, you will learn the names and types of poses and how to do the poses safely. If you start with an experienced teacher, you’ll discover which poses to modify or avoid for your body. If you approach yoga with respect, you will be establishing a basis to protect your body and well-being from injury and frustration. One of the main yogic concepts, Ahimsa, defines the discipline as one of “no harm.”

Good classes for newcomers include these descriptors in the title: Slow, gentle, introduction, beginner, chair, fundamentals, foundational and restorative.

Mistakes We Make #2:
We Get Caught Up in the Price

Yoga can be expensive (and for very valid reasons), but due to its skyrocketing popularity, there are many choices and prices. Before you say “no” to the cost, research the class style, level and teacher. When you think you’ve found the right type of yoga for your needs, ask experienced yoga students which centers or instructors they like. You can also research YELP, Yoga Alliance, your local magazines, yoga schools, Yogafinder and even TripAdvisor!

Go beyond yoga programs, and consider individual instructors, whose teaching styles vary according to their training, ongoing education, personal practice, and life experiences. Some of yoga’s best instructors don’t teach in traditional studio settings. Two of my favorite instructors teach in home settings, while others I know teach in hospitals, non-profit centers, clinics, senior centers, and churches. Ask, ask and ask again, for people’s recommendations.

When in doubt, follow the reputation first, the wallet second.

Although we have good reason to worry over expensive yoga classes, don’t let your inner “cheapskate” hurry to the first free class or Groupon special. In many cases, you may get what you pay for – new instructors with limited teaching experience willing to teach at rock-bottom prices. Although all teachers need to start somewhere, ask yourself if you are willing to take the risk. As a new teacher I quickly learned that I couldn’t handle large classes with diverse abilities or special populations (i.e., seniors, injuries, restrictions, trauma, children, pregnant women, etc). That skill develops with time.

To confuse matters, many excellent teachers offer *freebies* and donation-only classes for community service and and to build their clientele. When in doubt, follow the reputation first, the wallet second. Again, you can always ask to observe the class before participating.

Mistakes We Make #3:
We Don’t Always Honor Our Bodies – or Our Minds

As yoga “newbies,” we may want to look as graceful and strong as our fellow students. If we aren’t careful, can push ourselves into injury, especially our muscles are too tight or too weak – or if we haven’t mastered the alignment.

Before you take a class, think about your preferences and abilities. That way, you will know if the class meets your goals. Consider:

  • Physical Ability:
    Know your physical limits and honor them. If you are older or have a medical condition, check with your doctor to see if your body can handle yoga. Medical issues that raise red flags include joint replacements, spondylosis, spinal stenosis, and other disc or vertebral issues. Others include injuries, post-operative recovery, pregnancy, heart conditions, arthritis, movement disorders and strokes. Ask your doctor if you should refrain from bending, arching, stretching, twisting, bearing weight on specific joints, or specific joint rotations.Ask the instructor if they’ve worked with your type of condition. Great class alternatives include restorative yoga, yoga therapy, chair yoga, meditation, and if you can afford it, private yoga sessions.
  • Room temperature:
    What you can handle? Ask if the class has specific temperatures. If you don’t mind hot, how hot? Temperatures vary by instructor and studio.
  • Music:
    Do you mind music in your practice, and if so, what type? Can you handle rock music, or do you prefer something more ambient? If you prefer quiet, ask if classes are offered without music.
  • Pace:
    Do you want to go slowly, moderately, or quickly?
  • Mirrors and large windows:
    If the studio has mirrors or large windows, consider if you can tolerate seeing your reflection – or being on display for passersby.
  • Mat, sweater:
    I prefer my own sweat, thank you very much, so I take my own mat. If the temperature is low, bring a sweater.
  • Props:
    If you are a trauma survivor, would certain props “trigger” you? Call the studio and ask if they regularly use straps or use strobe lights.
  • Class size:
    Is the class large? Are the mats close together? Will you feel claustrophobic?
  • Gender and age:
    Are you comfortable practicing with both genders? Do you prefer a class suited to a specific age group, or are you comfortable in a mixed-age group?
  • Water:
    Do you need it? Are you allowed to bring it into class?
  • Culture:
    Is the culture commercially-based, community-based, non-profit focused, secular or religious? Does the instructor openly offer choices for poses and other techniques? Is yoga viewed as an exercise, a form of meditation, a form of spirituality or religion, an overall lifestyle, or a combination of factors? Does the class clash with any of your personal beliefs?
  • Touch:
    Does the teacher touch students? Do you want assists? If not, make that clear before you participate.

Mistakes We Make #4:
We May Not Share Our Limitations and Preferences with Our Teachers

If we don’t tell our instructors about medical or mobility issues, we risk  physical or emotional injury. Don’t assume the instructor will teach to every need and condition without your input.

One of my students had a breathing attack while doing a basic breathing exercise. Up until that moment, she never told me she had asthma. Knowledge is power – teachers can only help if they know.

Mistakes We Make #5:
We Practice Yoga From the Ego

We’ve all been there to some degree. Part of us wants to look athletic, graceful and toned. Some of us want to look “sweet” in the latest yoga duds. We may push our bodies beyond our abilities to “look” like we feel.

On the other end of the judgment spectrum, we may hate our bodies for being “too fat,” “too thin,” “too old,” “too weak.” When we focus externally, we miss the broader context of yoga, now popularly coined as the balance of mind, body and spirit.

What is the fix? Focus inward instead of out. Focus on how you feel, not how you look. We each come to the practice for a variety of reasons. Give yourself permission to focus inward, and your real yoga practice, with all of it benefits, will begin.

 

*Although all yoga movement classes are considered “hatha,” gentler versions are often marketed as “hatha.”