It’s Not Only About Fitness
One of the most important realizations you can have if you are new to yoga is that the practice of yoga is much broader than what many of us imagine in the Western world. When we think “yoga”, we often envision super flexible humans bending themselves into seemingly impossible shapes, or performing advanced handstand variations. Sure, that can be a part of yoga practice- but it is definitely not all there is. The origins of yoga can be traced to a series of texts called Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The yoga sutras explain to us that there are eight “limbs,” or facets, of yoga: including breathing exercises, focused concentration, meditation, enlightenment, and physical postures. Physical practice, or “asana” practice is only ONE of these eight limbs. Physical asana practice was actually developed by the ancient yogis as a way to prepare the body to sit in deep meditation for long periods of time. It is not the end destination of a true yoga practice. In our modern world, we tend to place a lot of emphasis on the appearance-based, physical practice of yoga, but in reality, it is only one of the eight steps on the path to an enlightened life.
With that being said, it’s important to understand that yoga isn’t only about flexibility. This is another myth we have been led to believe by the Westernized understanding of yoga- that you have to be super flexible in order to practice yoga. People often use the excuse “but I’m not flexible!” to justify not trying a yoga class. It should be quite the opposite- the less flexible or mobile you are, the more you probably need yoga! The purpose of your physical practice should not only be to attain greater flexibility, however it is a nice benefit that comes alongside the regular practice of yoga.
Finally, don’t discount the importance of the most important posture in any yoga practice- Savasana. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, that refers to the posture that usually comes at the end of the class, where you lie on the floor, close your eyes, and allow yourself to completely relax. This might seem like it’s not actually a posture, because it’s not stretching or strengthening anything. But the magic of this posture happens on the inside- it is time for your body to absorb the benefits of your yoga practice, and it is absolutely necessary for you to feel the full effects of any asana practice. So when you hear your instructor telling you to take your Savasana, please listen. If it’s at the end of the class, give your body two minutes to rest in Savasana before you continue with your day.
Once you’re familiar with the above concepts, and you’re ready to step into the studio and take a class, you’ll want to know a few tips on common etiquette of being in a yoga studio.
First of all, make sure you are physically prepared. It’s most comfortable to wear workout clothes, and especially if you are practicing hot yoga, you’ll want to avoid wearing clothes that are excessively thick or baggy. Make sure to bring a water bottle and yoga mat with you, as well as a hot yoga towel if you are joining a hot yoga class. Make sure you’ve eaten so you have enough energy, but avoid eating a large meal right before your class. Being super full as you enter a yoga class can make some postures uncomfortable or even irritate your digestive system. For most people, a small meal or snack a few hours beforehand provides the optimal amount of fuel without causing any sluggishness.
When you arrive in the yoga studio, common etiquette is that the studio room is a sacred space. This means it’s best to leave your phone in the changeroom, avoid having conversations while people are settling into the yoga room, and try to be on time so as not to disturb the calm atmosphere once a class has begun. Always be respectful of others in the studio, especially if they are in Savasana or meditation, avoiding creating any loud noises or distraction. And remember- most yoga studios have a lobby or sitting area near the front desk where conversations can be had and connections can be made!
As well, make sure to do your research ahead of time so you have a general idea of what to expect in your yoga class. There are many different styles, and it can be confusing to walk into the room expecting a slow meditative practice, then realizing it is a hot power yoga flow class. At Midtown Yoga, we primarily offer Bikram Yoga, which is a series of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises done in a heated room. The practice consists of a warmup, standing balancing postures, and then a floor series to stretch and strengthen. It is an alignment-focused, more athletic style of yoga but it is suitable for any level of yogi. If you’re checking out a class at a studio where other styles are offered, be sure to read the class descriptions on their websites or do a quick Google search of the name of the class so you know what to expect once you get on your mat.
Trust Your Instructor
Remember that your yoga instructor is there to help guide you to have the best practice you can and that they have been trained to do so. It’s important to listen to the cues the instructor gives in order to get into the safest and most beneficial alignment you can. Especially in the Bikram practice, which is very dialogue-based, it is important to listen to every word. In a Bikram class, all instructors base their classes on a dialogue created by Bikram himself, and as such, you may hear the same cues multiple times as you come to more classes. Don’t let yourself tune them out. These cues are just as important every time- make sure you are doing what they say. And if you listen carefully each time, you will hear something new and gain a better understanding of something with every class.
You are also welcome to talk to the instructor, if you have any questions or concerns. Feel free to approach your yoga teacher after class if you need clarification on anything they taught in the class. As well, let your instructor know beforehand if you have any serious injuries- this will help them know what kinds of modifications or corrections to offer to you during the class.
Trust Your Body
As important as it is to listen to the teacher, your most important teacher in a yoga class is yourself. Always trust the signals your body gives you, and if you feel like any posture is too much, you can ease off. Remember in yoga that how you feel is more important than how you look. As long as you feel good in your body, you are doing good. Some days you might feel extra strong and be able to push yourself to your limits. Other days, you might need to take it a little bit easier and enjoy the restorative nature of the practice. Every day will feel different, so listen to what your body tells you!
Finally, remember that the most important tool you have in yoga and in any situation in life is the breath. Never sacrifice the quality of your breath to get deeper into a posture. Make sure you can and do breathe in every posture, and if you start to feel overwhelmed by anything, reconnect with your breath. This is the most important part of physical practice and it is the thing that will one day guide you to a deeper practice. So trust your body, and feel your breath.