By Jessica Louise Parkinson - The Musical Theatre Yogi
The most common question I have been asked by my social media followers has always been “How do I go about starting my own yoga practice?” So answering that question is exactly what I’m going to attempt to do in this two part blog. The following may be useful to you even if you’re already practising yoga but please note I will be talking throughout as if whoever is reading this is a complete beginner to yoga. So hello there beginner yogi, let’s get going!
I think it’s important to first talk about types of yoga. Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Hot/Bikram and Yin Yoga are just a few of the typical classes you will find in gyms and studios. Some larger studios will include other types- there are a huge range of classes out there for you to try which all have their own unique history and benefits. It’s important to note however that Hatha, although usually associated with a slower form of yoga and more emphasis on holding the poses, is actually the word that refers to the practice of the physical postures. Most forms of yoga can really be classified as Hatha and the practices themselves are designed to align the body, calm the mind and prepare the practitioner for meditation. Hatha is literally translated as “force” or “exertion” (strange seeing as the common Hatha Yoga class tends to be on the less forceful side than say Vinyasa or Ashtanga Yoga!). An even more literal translation is SUN (ha) and MOON (tha), Hatha often being described as the yoga of balance or the yoga of activity. This is not likely to come up in conversation for most of you but I thought it was important to include.
I usually advise beginners who are thinking of going to a class at a studio or gym to try Hatha first if there isn’t a clear “beginners” class listed. As I mentioned above, it’s usually associated with a slightly slower practice and the poses are held rather than flowed together which means there is more chance of you understanding the technique, learning the names of the poses and generally feeling more comfortable overall than diving into a faster paced class straight away. A quick google of a class name that you’re unfamiliar with will sort you out but for a more intense yoga experience Ashtanga or Vinyasa Flow classes are the most common. While I’m recommending a certain type of class for a beginner I suppose I should also give you my opinion on where not to begin (should, I shouldn’t I? Whatever, I’m going to ;)). I personally don’t recommend a beginner trying hot yoga or Bikram as their first experience of yoga. Why? A Bikram or hot yoga class is usually taken place in a room heated between 32-40 degrees. This will vary of course but as a beginner how can you focus on the poses, your technique or even begin to start “clearing your mind” if all you can focus on is how much you’re slipping around on the mat or how annoying that drip of sweat is on the end of your nose? It is of course up to you where and how you practice, but my general advice is- If the temperature of a room is getting in the way of you focusing on your breathing and your body then it’s too hot and should be avoided. I have many other opinions on hot yoga but I shall leave those for another time… *braces for backlash*
So your first time in a studio class has arrived. Keep in mind that any good yoga teacher should always be asking whether there are any injuries/illnesses or any beginners present before the class begins. It is within your interest to speak up at this point if this is you! Not only will it ensure you get the attention you need as a beginner but if you do have any injuries/illnesses then the teacher will be able to adapt the practice for you when necessary to avoid you experiencing discomfort or exacerbating the problem. So that shy, reserved, “I’m new and will stay at the back” attitude isn’t ideal for anyone! Get yourself to the front as a beginner- you’ll be able to see the teacher more clearly and you won’t have to look at anyone else in front of you.
Looking around the studio you might notice some foam or cork blocks, some straps and even cushions or bolsters that people are taking to their mats. These are what we call yoga props. When it comes to flexibility and strength I wouldn’t be where I am right now without my trusty yoga props. A lot of people in classes treat props as a failing or a weakness and don’t want to be seen as the one accepting a block from a teacher. To respond in this way is not only naive but it’s ego based (yeah, I said it) and you could end up hindering your progression or even risk injury if you don’t at least give yourself the option of using them. For example, if you have tight hamstrings (backs of the legs) and in class you’re asked to balance on one leg then lean down to touch the floor, you could struggle, strain or even force yourself to touch the floor without benefiting at all. Pop your hand on a block however and you’ve given yourself a much more comfortable way to enjoy and reap the rewards of the stretch! Again, in part 2 of this blog I will go into props and equipment a little more-what they’re used for and what you might want to have to hand at home.
So is going to a gym or a studio the only way to start your yoga practice? Absolutely not. Firstly, the beauty of yoga is that you actually don’t need much space to practice, so your bedroom or your living room should be enough. If you can roll your mat out in the space, that’s all you need! Secondly, social media is truly a blessing when it comes to what is available to us in terms of free online content. You can practice with some of the world’s greatest yoga teachers without even leaving your house. I personally recommend doing a mixture of both home and studio based classes, simply because a teacher that is physically present in the room will be able to properly guide you, adjust you and ensure your technique is spot on. I do however understand that for a lot of us, taking that first step into a public class can be a daunting experience so home yoga is an ideal way of getting your practice started. In part 2 of this blog I will be delving deeper into a home yoga practice- what you might need, how to set yourself up and I’ll also be sharing my favourite online content with you all (including my own, obviously…).
Talking about the physical practice itself, keep in mind that when you first begin you may not be as co-ordinated or as fluid in your movements as those you’ve seen on Instagram, the teacher or other participants in class appear to be. Whatever you do, do NOT let that bother you in the slightest. You are you and if you’re only just starting out then it’s going to take some time to get used to the poses and the flow of a class. Also, the flow or the look of the poses isn’t important at all- the physical and mental benefits are the things you want to aim for. I always encourage my class participants to focus on themselves and not look at anyone else. Granted you probably need and want to look at the teacher at some point but by keeping the focus contained to your own mat space and your own body, you’ll be able keep out any self judgement or comparison to others.
You may have noticed at this point that I haven’t mentioned meditation at all (I know, sacrilege). But there is a good reason for this. I felt like there was a little too much to say to make this blog manageable, so in part 2 you’ll find meditation covered fully. Don’t mistake this as me prioritising the physical practice over the spiritual/mental… absolutely not. In fact, I feel so strongly about this side of the practice that I felt it deserved a whole other blog!
Check in with me next week for part 2 of “How To Start Your Own Yoga Practice” which will cover home yoga, meditation, yoga props/equipment and creating the perfect atmosphere for your practice. If within the next week you take yourself off to a public class just remember to be proud that you’re a beginner! Set yourself up at the front, introduce yourself to the teacher and really enjoy the experience of trying something new! If we don’t give something a try, we’ll never know what it could have done for us…