Yoga has been popular for years now but its ubiquity only seems to grow–everyone from senior citizens to 300-lb. defensive linemen sings its praises, and can be seen practicing tree poses and downward dogs with impressive and surprising litheness. But while more people than ever are embracing yoga, I have noticed through working in the fitness industry that there’s a silent but very real cohort of people who want to take yoga but don’t–because they are intimidated by yoga class.
Now, many yoga enthusiasts would protest this. They would talk about the “practice” of yoga and how the community was designed to be enlightened, welcoming, and accepting of various participants’ imperfections. And all of this is not untrue–but it also eludes the basic fact that yoga classes are a social situation, and any time you bring a group of people together, very human emotions–like shyness, body image issues, competitiveness, and judgmental looks–are apt to appear.
So if you’re one of the quietly bashful people I’m talking about–someone who would like to practice yoga more regularly, but is intimidated or uncomfortable in a class–here are some tips on how to get over the reservations you may be harboring.
Learn your yoga vocabulary. It can’t hurt to check out a yoga vocabulary refresher like this one from YogaSix before attending your first yoga class. Most yoga instructors guide their classes through sequences using both Sanskrit — the ancient Indian language used in yoga — and the English translations of the words. It would be rare to find a beginner yoga class taught entirely in Sanskrit, so don’t stress too much about learning a new language before your first class!
Try a restorative yoga class over Vinyasa or something more advanced. You may not know which type of yoga is right for you until you actually try it. When you’re starting out, look for a yoga class labeled “gentle yoga” or “restorative yoga.” These gentler and slower-paced classes may feel more manageable as you’re starting out. Certified yoga teacher Janie Kol, based in Atlanta, Georgia, says that when in doubt during class, remember to breathe! “Simply taking a deep breath reduces your stress levels and will remind you that you’re safe,” Kol says. She also recommends some good poses that you can always come back to in class even if that’s not what everyone else is doing: Child’s Pose and Rag Doll.
Take a private, one-on-one class before heading into a group. If you’re worried about getting into downward dog in front of others, there are options to learn in the privacy of your own home. Yoga with Adriene is a well-loved YouTube channel with tons of videos for all levels. Livekick, where I work, is another private fitness option which offers one-on-one yoga sessions with a certified yoga teacher over live video– like Skype or FaceTime. These options will allow you to get comfortable with some of the basic poses (Downward Dog, Upward Dog, Warrior 1, Warrior 2) privately, and then take that knowledge into a class setting once you’re ready.
Choose your mat placement wisely. In addition to choosing a busy class, you’ll also want to get some prime mat real estate. For beginners, yoga teacher Beatrice Pattenden based in Elgin, Scotland, recommends choosing a spot somewhere in the middle of the room. She says, “You want to be close enough to the front so you’re able to see what’s going on, but it helps to have a few people around you to follow if you’re feeling insecure about what a certain pose entails.”
Double up on the blocks. So you can’t reach the floor with your hand during triangle pose. Who cares? Many yoga poses offer multiple variations. Don’t feel like you need to aim to do what the yogi next to you is doing during your first class. Yoga is about doing poses properly to benefit your body (and your mind). Don’t sacrifice proper alignment for depth. Know when to reign in that ego! Check out Gaiam’s list of poses to try with yoga blocks to take pressure off of particularly vulnerable muscles.
Ultimately, you want your yoga class to allow you to feel welcome and supported, never judged. It should not feel intimidating or competitive: rather, it should provide the right environment for you to proceed at your own pace, with guidance from a professional. Happy practicing!