The Beginner Yoga Student

The following is a common conversation I have with new yoga students: “Welcome! Have you taken a yoga class before? No? This is an intermediate to advanced level class so I encourage you to take your time and place yourself somewhere in the middle of the room. Although it might be easy to push yourself, it's okay to take breaks. I really hope you can take an introduction class soon!” I do my best to keep a smile on my face while trying to refrain from gritting my teeth. My teeth gritting typically intensifies when I walk into the yoga studio and see that New Student decided to not take my advice. New Student has sequester themselves into the far back corner. 

Although this is something that drives me bonkers now, I too was guilty of stepping into an advanced class as a beginner. I studied dance in college and was encouraged by some friends to take a class at a local studio. Based on my friends’ recommendations I stepped right into a level two class. When checking into my first class I said the words that now make me cringe, “I’ve never really done yoga, but I’m a dancer.” Cue eye roll. Dance, gymnastics, martial arts are all different from yoga. Sure they all use the body in various ways, but they are all different disciplines. In my first class I was so horribly lost and uncomfortable for the entire hour. I’m sure I also provided added stress to the teacher as I flopped around on my mat.

There's probably very few people who walk into an advanced Jiu-Jitsu class and expect to hang with everyone. A lot of people can use a lawn mower or know how to trim shrubs, but they probably wouldn't sign up for an advanced bonsai pruning class without prior knowledge. I wouldn't even think of stepping foot into an advanced ballet class and I studied dance in college! I would probably be asked to leave! 

What it is about yoga that makes people think they can come into an intermediate or advanced level class without any prior knowledge or experience? I have a few thoughts:

1. The Low Expectation Student--“Yoga is just stretching, right? Anyone can just sit on a cushy mat and stretch their legs. How hard can a level two class really be?” They’ve seen people doing simple stretches in a yoga class in the movies or on television and they aren’t expecting much more than that. 

2. The Athlete--Dancers, gymnasts, martial artists all fall into this category. People who are physically strong and fairly body aware. I put myself into this category. Any conditioning or workouts these students have done in the past have prepared them for a yoga practice apparently. Often these students leave the level two class very humbled. 

3. The Partner--Yogis, please don’t bring your wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, life partner to an advanced class for their first visit. Do them a favor and join them in a beginner friendly class and be a good student while taking the class. Please, please, please don’t plan to teach your partner during class. Let the teacher do their job.

4. The Convenient Yogi--This is the student I sympathize with the most. This is usually someone who works 9-5, has a family, and desperately needs to carve out time for themselves. This student wants to start taking yoga, but wants it to fit conveniently into their busy schedule. At least in the Minneapolis area, I rarely see any beginner friendly classes before traditional work hours so this student is forced to jump head first into whatever is offered. 

To new yoga practitioners, I have some suggestions:

  • Stop by the studio before taking your first class if possible. Inquire about beginner friendly classes and ask what you should bring on your first visit. 
  • If you bring your own mat to class, ask your instructor if it is appropriate for the class you are about to take. Pilates mats typically make a yoga practice much more challenging, but not everyone knows the difference. 
  • Some studios don't offer various levels and all classes are open to everyone. These classes are then also open to beginners. If you find yourself in an open level class remember that everyone in the room will have various levels of experience with yoga. Listen very carefully to your instructor and don't worry about looking like those around you. Everyone started somewhere.
  • Do your best to put your ego aside and remember you'll be much better served by learning the basics first. Chances are very slim that you'll return to your yoga mat if you leave feeling completely defeated. 
  • If you don't enjoy your first class try a different studio or try a different style of yoga. Not all yoga classes are created equally and I truly believe there is a type of yoga (maybe it's not the physical kind) that will resonate with everyone. You just have to be willing to find what works for you. 
  • Lastly, new students, keep an open mind. Come to your mat with no expectations and just enjoy whatever comes your way. Experienced students, myself included, please do the same.