Yoga works in mysterious ways to clear the mind and the body of what it no longer needs. For some, the very first yoga class is a transformative experience. For others it takes a little longer. Whether you are practicing yoga at home or in a class; whether you are new to yoga or been practicing for several years there are ten basic things you should know to ensure an optimal yoga experience. There are over 20 different types of yoga, and well over 100,000 yoga teachers in the United States. This means that there are many different styles of teaching and perspectives on yoga. It is important to note that yoga is really a way of life that consists of eight components: self control, discipline, the practice of sitting, the practice of controlle breathing, the practice of detaching the mind, the practice of concentration, meditation, and self-realization. More on the eight components in another post.
The practice of yoga is both a mental and physical; yet the majority of yoga classes focus on the physical aspect of yoga. After more than ten years of practice, trying out a number yoga styles and studying with a variety of teachers, I have discovered a few secrets (or maybe just pragmatic things you should know) to enhancing the physical yoga experience. Yoga is a journey of self-exploration, and there are many secrets that you will learn on your path. These are secrets I’ve learned along my journey that can help you reach new heights in your practice and avoid some unintended effects of practicing yoga in the “dark”.
- Yoga is a practice, not a performance. Be patient with yourself; it’s the journey, not the destination! Avoid trying to imitate your neighbor; listen to your body.
Takeway: Yoga is not a sport with points allocated for “best position”. It can be a life long practice that helps you understand and adapt to changes in you and your environment. Everyone is different, so the focus should be on you and not the other students.
- The breath gives you energy and stamina. We can forget to breathe in a pose if we are over exerting ourselves. Remember to breathe: don’t hold your breath in a pose.
Takeway: Be aware of your total experience, not just focusing on the position.
- Proper alignment is not only critical to experiencing all the benefits of a yoga pose, but it also keeps you safe from injury. Unfortunately, there are many uninformed yoga teachers out there. Find teachers that understand body alignment principles.
Takeaway: This is a very touchy subject among yoga teachers and studios. There currently is not an easy way to search for such teachers. Blue Pearl is working on making it easier. In the meantime, the two yoga types that focus on body alignment are Anusara and Iyengar.
- Know the difference between pain and “opening”. The body has an amazing ability to store stress and emotional wounds. Yoga helps to release this trapped energy and it can be confusing as the body it so tight it just doesn’t want to go there. Hip opening poses for example can be very challenging. In some cases it will take time, but if you are experiencing any pain tell your instructor. You may be out of alignment. You should never experience any pain in a yoga pose. If your instructor says that you need to “work through the pain” and doesn’t offer any modifications or guidance get rid of your instructor.
Takeaway: “no pain, no gain” is not the way to approach yoga. One of the best benefits of yoga is to slowly understand your body at a level that you never have before going through a guided practice.
- Forward bends can be deceptively simple poses because most people can easily hinge at the hips. However, you should enter these poses with due care to avoid straining the back, pulling the hamstrings or crunching the psoas, which is the large muscle that runs from your back to your thigh.
Takeaway: ok, but how do I know what a “psoas” is and what is “due care”? See references to books in #10 below to become familiar with your body. Due care is when you pay attention to proper body alignment.
- Practice shoulder stand with care. Most people do shoulder stand incorrectly and wind up on their neck instead of their shoulders. If you have never done shoulder stand before, don’t do it unless your instructor spends at least 5 minutes explaining how to get into the position. Shoulder stand practiced incorrectly can lead to injury.
Takeway: Some positions (if not all) require a good understanding of proper alignment. This will take time and practice and a willingness to learn the position to avoid injury (especially shoulder stands).
- If you have any injuries, or experience any pain in any pose tell your instructor and ask for modifications. Yoga is therapy for many injuries and aches and pains. See #1 above. If your teacher doesn’t know, she can’t help you.
Takeaway: Many people don’t like to share their injuries or medical situation with in their first yoga experience. This is understandable. But by discussing your situation with your teacher upfront, you can also better gauge if this is going to be the right class and teacher for your needs. Upfront disclosure can also help you in avoiding any inappropriate adjustments that a teacher may make to your pose in class.
- Practice each pose with integrity. The benefits of yoga emerge when a pose is created from the inside out, as a result of proper alignment and intention. Don’t rush to get into or out of a pose. When you rush into a pose you miss out on its power to heal and help you reach greater awareness. Rushing also risks compromising the alignment and can lead to bad habits and later injury.
Takeway: go slow – but “how do I know?” Take classes that focus on alignment and you will be able to recognize when you are rushing into poses. With training in proper alignment, you can take any yoga class and go at your own pace.
- Don’t let your muscles go to sleep in a yoga class. While yoga can result in ultimate relaxation, unless you are in a restorative yoga class, your muscles should not be relaxing in yoga class! All the muscles in your hands, feet, legs, arms should be engaged and awake. The alignment discussed in # 6 requires some degree of work. But it is the secret to not only unlocking the stress and tightness that builds up in our bodies, but to a safe yoga practice.
Takeaway: We are naturally lazy and the body likes to take the easy way out. We tend to prefer poses that are easier. But yoga takes work and effort to reap the rewards.
- Know your body. If you are not familiar with how your muscles, attachments, and bones work… learn. Learn about how poses physically affect the body and your breathing.
Takeway: Read these books: Anatomy of Movement, Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and Practitioners, Yoga Anatomy (this is a pretty technical book for those interested in all the mechanics of muscle and bone articulation), and The Anatomy Coloring Book.
Be grateful. Thank yourself for everyday that your body takes care of you. Yoga is a gift. It will transform you in ways you couldn’t imagine, if you let it.