A friend of mine from college recently sent me a message, asking if I could make some recommendations about how to try out yoga. I tried hard to keep my response short and to the point, but it’s a subject I have some opinions on, and I don’t think they’re without value, so I decided to expand my initial response to him into something more general and post it here.
The best analogy I can come up with to the problem of trying out yoga is that of trying out jazz.
Think about it: both have styles beyond number, all of which have their adherents, and about which some devotees are so ardent and partisan as to condemn anyone who even considers some other style as being worthy of consideration. Some devotees prefer styles that are disciplined and consistent, while others want things to be loose and free and unstructured. Some performers change styles over the course of a career and are considered by some to have betrayed or sold out their roots. Some performers will work closely with another for a time, then dissolve their partnership, causing a schism in a community. Oh, yes, and the performers are ultimately just human, with human failings and foibles that devotees sometimes feel compelled to overlook.
And whatever your best friend likes is just as likely to annoy you beyond endurance and vice versa.
If you think about it in this way, it perhaps makes more sense that that one class you tried several years ago was the most abysmal experience you ever had in your life, and you can’t understand why anyone would ever put themselves through that experience day after day, week after week–you didn’t find a style you enjoyed, no matter how much your spouse, sibling, parent or co-worker loves it.
I practice, trained in and teach a style called Anusara–you may have heard of it, as the recent revelation of a pattern of unethical behavior on the part of the founder has been the subject of much discussion in the yoga community of late. Good times. Whatever John Friend’s ethical lapses (and I found them egregious enough I have severed my professional relationship with him, and, therefore, Anusara), Anusara teachers have to go through a rigorous certification process that means that its very rare to find one who’s not capable and committed.
So I like to recommend Anusara classes as a good option for being introduced to yoga—starting to learn the poses, which means starting to find new and baffling ways to use your body, and unusual and unexpected places to be sore.
And, of course, adjusting to the sort of stuff yoga people say. Watch and weep (hopefully with laughter):
This is, if anything, too kind. There’s a lot of cookie-cutter new-age-y bullshit out there. A lot of 20-somethings spouting schlock spirituality that they heard in their yoga classes–and while I’m sure there are some spiritually mature people in their 20s out there, they’re in the minority, because they’re in the minority no matter what age group you’re talking about.
(Hell, I have probably spewed some of it at one point or another. In fact, I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to cultivate a community of practitioners attending my classes who are happy to call me on it when I say something incomprehensible or silly. Making fun of the things I say is a constant feature of my classes. But it’s not a hollow mockery, either–it stems from a willingness to listen, consider, respond; basically, to engage.)
Anyway, should there be no visible Anusara options nearby–and as the organization continues to implode, they will get fewer and further between–another good starter option would be a class in Iyengar yoga. There is a filial relationship with Anusara, so they’re not utterly dissimilar, but their attitude about the body is a little different. Still, an Iyengar class is more likely to move slower and with more emphasis on doing poses in a way that supports your body than many other styles, which is good when you’re starting out. Going to a fast-moving class, while it can be fun, means you’re going to have to learn a whole lot while you’re moving really fast and sweating it up like mad. Better to start off at an easier pace; it’s going to be hard enough.
Lacking Anusara or Iyengar options, I would look for something simply labeled Hatha Yoga. Although technically any of the pose-on-a-mat forms of yoga are considered a form of Hatha Yoga, when people are labeling classes, they are often using Hatha as a way to distinguish the class from a more flow-oriented class. Classes labelled Power, Flow, Vinyasa, Ashtanga and other things I’m forgetting are often faster-moving. Sometimes much faster moving. This is neither good nor bad, it’s just different. If you’re not already a little familiar with yoga, though, it’s going to be much more challenging to keep up, and to actually build strength or flexibility while not hurting yourself.
Still, when all is said and done, the absolute best class is the one you can’t make excuses to not go to. Perhaps don’t start off with a power yoga class or bikram or something more physically stressful, but never underestimate the power of proximity–I got started down this path because I was able to go to a class that was 5 minutes from my house; I couldn’t make a good excuse not to go. Get on Google Maps, type in your home or work address, then do Search Nearby for ‘Yoga’. Look at the websites. Look for classes explicitly marked beginner. Look for times you can make consistently.
Let me emphasize, you definitely want to start at a beginner’s level. It may seem like it’s moving slow as molasses at first, but you need that time to build up strength in places you’re weak and start to open up places you’re tight. Moving too fast before your body has come to an accommodation with all this weird stuff you’re doing can have negative consequences–and understand, if you’re doing it right, it’s going to be weird and confusing and uncomfortable (but never painful–pain is your body’s way of telling you to stop doing something damaging. If a teacher suggests that pain is a good thing, don’t come back. A good teacher will be able–and happy!–to make suggestions on how to alleviate pain should you experience it. If they won’t or can’t, don’t come back).
If you’re ever discouraged at how hard and incomprehensible it is, think of it this way: Ideally, yoga should be the compliment–or perhaps the antidote–to the things you do all day, every day. So yes, it’s certainly going to feel awkward, and probably intense, because it’s got to be very different from those things in order to balance out your body. And you’re trying to balance out a week’s worth of sitting in a chair, or standing in bad shoes, or sleeping on an old mattress in 90 minutes. Of course it’s going to be hard.
And ultimately, expect to have to try a few different classes. If you’re not enjoying the class you’re taking, it may be the teacher, it may be the style, so really consider shopping around a bit. Don’t write off all yoga just because of one experience, or two, or even five.
Also, if you find a style and teacher you like and you can afford it, and make time for it, try to go more than once a week. You will derive lots of benefits even from going just once a week, but more often will be even more beneficial.
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