Everything You Need to Know for Your First Yoga Class
Yoga class. The last uncharted territory for the modern man.
I had my first yoga class several years ago, and while I like to think I'm a pretty outgoing person, it definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone – and I'm not even talking about the postures.
The very environment of a yoga class that I've since come to love, was intimidating at first. It's unlike anything I'd ever encountered before. It's full of unusual customs, smells and sometimes.. unusual people.
In this article, I'm going to break down exactly what you can expect to find from your first yoga class, and equip you with the right tools to move forward.
Starting with the Right Class
There's a whole load of different yoga styles out there, with new ones emerging all the time. Did somebody say Drake Yoga?
Some are suited to beginners, and others definitely are not, so it's important to pick carefully. Trust me, nothing is more disheartening than attending a class that's way above your level.
Try to find a studio that runs a beginner series. They are aimed at absolute beginners and generally run over a course of six weeks or so. They will gradually introduce you to the yoga fundamentals of breath and movement, at a slow and gentle pace.
When I speak to other guys and ask about their fears of trying yoga, the main one is they tell me about is the fear that they'll be singled out as the new guy, and made to feel unwelcome or unwanted. I had it too, but that feeling evaporated within minutes of my first class in a beginner series. The people in the class came in all shapes and sizes, and we're all entirely new to yoga. There was no competition, no judgement — just a fantastic learning environment.
If your studio doesn't run a specific beginner series, then look for regular beginners classes. They're not aimed specifically at first timers but they will still move at a pace that you can keep up with and learn effectively from.
Other Suitable Classes
If you're keen to dive right in, or if beginners classes aren't available – the most suitable style would be Hatha.
Hatha is more of an umbrella term really. All yoga is technically Hatha, as it's the name used to describe the actual practice of the physical postures. In practical terms though, when classes are described as Hatha, it implies a slow and grounding practice. One that focuses on proper alignment and breathing, with breaks between poses.
Other styles you may want to try are Yin and perhaps something of the "Gentle Flow" variety. Gentle Flow builds from Hatha into gentle sequences more suitable for beginners. Yin involves holding postures for long periods of time – which can be useful for beginners as you have plenty of time to get to grips with each one.
Prepping for Class
You want to feel as comfortable as possible when you go to yoga class. I know that I like to feel light on my feet and fluid in my movement.
That means not eating too much beforehand. For some people, a light meal just a few hours before the practice is ideal. Others prefer to have a quick snack (like a banana) just before the class. I like to practice on an empty stomach, but it's not for everyone.
With water too, it's best to turn up to class hydrated, but that doesn't mean you should chug a bottle of water right before class. You're allowed to go to the toilet if you need to, but it's best if you can avoid that need. Plus, you don't want water sloshing around in your stomach.
Bring a bottle of water to sip on if you think you'll need it. Teachers tend to not recommend actions that might distract you from your practice, but they won't have a problem with you taking a few sips now and again – especially if it's a hot yoga class.
Yoga classes are a sanctuary from the stresses of the outside world, where you can relax and decompress. Most of us live stressful lives, but you mustn't bring any of that into the class.
You want to go in with an open mind and an open heart, so try to make that mental shift before class.
What You Should Wear
You've got yoga pants right?
Oh, that's right. Men don't have a default yoga outfit like women do.
Most new guys turn up in either their comfiest lazing around clothes or their full set of cycling gear. Neither is particularly ideal.
You want to be comfortable and unrestricted in your movements, and it's important that your teacher be able to see the position of your body through your clothes so they can judge your alignment. Big, loose clothing just hides in your body and gets in the way.
So baggy t-shirts and loose pants might seem like a good idea, until you get to downward dog and it flops in your face. On the other hand, cycling gear is fitted and made of sweat-wicking material materials, but it's also pretty restrictive.
Before you rush out to buy the latest Nike yoga gear, there is probably something in your closet that's suitable. Most male activewear will function just fine, so take a look through your gym clothes first. You're good to go, as long as it's somewhat fitted but doesn't restrict your movements.
Alternatively, if it's hot, or you'd just be more comfortable – go shirtless.
Right now I'm in England and winter is coming, so only a madman would feel comfortable going shirtless. Totally different story when I was practising in Australia though. I pretty much refused to wear anything on top.
One thing is always for certain – socks off
You'd think that was obvious really.
Arriving at Your First Class
Get there early.
You've no doubt been told that on any number of other articles, but it really is true. While it always applies, it's especially true for your first class.
You really don't want to be scrambling for a position as everyone is getting started. I think this was the thing I was most nervous about. I wasn't sure of the etiquette and I was terrified that I'd interrupt the wrong class or set up in the wrong way and everybody would witness my humiliation.
Luckily I was spared that horror.
A lot of articles insist that you should introduce yourself to your teacher, and I can see why. It's polite for a start, and you can let them know about any injuries or ask any questions you might have.
However, I do think it's a little misleading to say it's something you need to do. Yoga teachers are often the last person to arrive at their own classes. So if there isn't an obvious opportunity to introduce yourself, don't worry about it.
Maybe it's just me being neurotic, but that's something that would stress me out if I was lead to believe I had to do it but didn't see an opportunity.
If you've brought your own mat, you can start setting up right away. If not, most studios will loan you one (sometimes for a fee) so you can just grab one from the rack.
You want to unroll it so that it faces the front of the class, and so it's lined up with the others in rows. If you're one of the first ones in there and you're panicking about where to put yours down (speaking from experience), just put it against the back wall. As a beginner, being at the back is the best place for you anyway.
You'll often find the regular yogis set up near the front, taking the time to pre-stretch or settling down into a meditative position.
In those first moments, it can really feel like everyone is watching you. The big open space of the room can be imposing when you're sat on your mat, not really sure what to do with yourself.
Here's where you can take the time to relax
- Get comfortable sitting or lying down
- Draw your attention to your breath
- Slow your breathing
- Bring your attention inward, taking notice of what you're feeling
Generally, the time before a class is one of quiet and relaxation. Where everyone can detach from the day and ready themselves for their practice.
Just when you thought yoga was straightforward, you find cushion mountain in the corner of the studio. You'll find a range of yoga props that can help you in your practice.
For now, it's best to grab yourself a mat (if you don't have your own), a block and a strap. At the beginning, your teacher will probably explain what you'll be needing for the class too and give you an opportunity to grab it.
So don't feel like you need to rush and grab everything at once
If you've bought your own mat already, you should definitely bring it along. If you haven't, you might want to start thinking about investing in your own mat pretty early. It helps to build a positive association between your mat and your practice, which is great for shifting your mindset ready to get started when you step onto it.
It's also way more hygienic. You should always clean borrowed mats at the end of class, but you can't be sure the person before you did. You don't want to be rolling your face around in someone else's back sweat (grim).
Every class is different, but most follow a familiar structure.
Your teacher will most likely begin the class by inviting you to get comfortable and guide you through some breathing exercises to help you detach from the day and to focus your mind.
You'll then be guided through a sequence designed to build stretch and build heat in the body.
Once you're warmed up and limber, you'll start the body of the class. In beginners classes, this usually takes the form of the teacher demonstrating a pose then inviting you to try it yourself while they offer advice and alterations.
It's important to listen to your body throughout the whole process. Your teacher is an expert in anatomy and yoga alignment, but only you know how your body is feeling.
One of my teachers often told us:
When it comes to yoga, we should 'Get comfortable being uncomfortable'
That doesn't mean, however. That you should ever be pushing through pain. It's an important distinction. If you feel a hot and sharp pain at any point, you should stop immediately, no matter what pose you're in.
Always remember that you can take a break at any time. You may be in a group class, but it's your practice. There's no shame in taking child's pose for a couple minutes to catch your breath, then rejoining the class when you're ready.
Typical Yoga Customs
A lot of things that yoga teachers say will seem like another language... and it is. Over time you'll get more familiar with the Sanskrit names of yoga poses and such. It is useful to learn some of the yoga lingo when you can, as it'll really help with context and understanding.
There's also a few yoga customs that are common to most classes.
Is exactly how it sounds.
Lots of yoga teachers like to start and end the class by having the group chant ohm together. It sets the tone of the class and brings together everyone's energies in the room.
It's easy to feel self-conscious here. I know I did at first.
Your voice is going to stand out amongst all the female voices, it can't be helped. If that makes you really uncomfortable, it's okay to sit it out.
I'd really encourage you to try though. As with most things, I found it gets easier the more you commit to it.
Own your ohm and it won't waver.
Doesn't sound much like yoga right?
The thing about Savasana is..
It's so important
The physical system of yoga was developed for the purpose of preparing yogis bodies for meditation. This is your opportunity to relax and observe whats happening in your body. To allow all that you've experienced in your class to be processed and absorbed.
Savasana is the spiritual culmination of your practice
To skip Savasana would be like a chef chopping up all the ingredients for a dish then throwing them in the bin. You may have gotten better at the preparation but you've missed out on the nourishment.
Savasana can last any amount of time but it's usually 10 minutes or so. Your teacher will guide you through the process and prompt you to wake when it's over.
After Savasana, your teacher will guide you through a simple seated exercise through which the teacher and the class bow to each other whilst saying "Namaste".
Namaste can be translated as "The light in me recognises and acknowledges the light in you".
The purpose of Namaste is to acknowledge the connection between our true selves and the class and teacher – from a place of empathy, compassion and love.
It's one of those things that sounds a bit rich on paper, but when you're there, it'll make sense.
Let's Wrap Up
Alright, we've covered a lot of ground here. There's no reason to memorise everything we've discussed, ready for your first class. Yoga is always a learning process – you can never be fully prepared.
At least now you have a sense of what to expect, and hopefully it's eased some fears.
So if you haven't already..
Get out there!