When I Needed Yoga for Beginners
Have you always wanted to try yoga but don’t know where to start? It’s time for you to find yoga for beginners. I remember being a beginner. I was lucky really. It was 2001 and it would be years before the explosion of the yoga industry in England as we know it now, a yoga studio on every corner. There was no Facebook or Instagram, no poses of bright young things clad in barely more than their underwear contorting themselves into pretzels for our viewing pleasure.
I didn’t have to suffer the indignity of the yoga studio, or the terrifying thing it can be to go to a Vinyasa yoga class, trying to keep up with everyone else effortlessly jumping and floating in and out of pose to pose, barely breaking a sweat it seems.
There was no Lululemon or Sweaty Betty, no fancy yoga mats or demand for a wide-reaching variety of yoga leggings that reveal every lump and bump. There weren’t a million yoga videos on YouTube (was there even a YouTube?) for me to choose from, no bewildering array of options and choices with which to confuse and challenge.
Yoga teachers didn’t have web sites with fancy photos of themselves with their foot behind their head or arty sunset shots to impress. They weren’t advertising a myriad of yoga workshops or yoga retreats in far-flung locations.
Yoga the Old Fashioned Way
No, I had to find mine and do it the old fashion way. I had to find a teacher, advertised on the board at the Post Office or Tesco’s, and call her up to find out where her classes were. I had to trot along to a dusty, musty, cold village hall to meet my teacher. I wore an old, baggy pair of tie-dye leggings, God alone knows where they came from, and a paint-stained T-Shirt from an IT exhibition Comdex I had attended in the U.S some years before.
I did have to get a yoga mat, a thin strip of peach-coloured rubber that barely offered any protection from the floor, and two multi-coloured foam blocks and a cream yoga belt. Nothing matched, nothing was fancy, and nobody gave a single shit. And thank God.
I don’t know how any of you yoga beginners do it these days. Maybe you’ve been doing Pilates for years and yoga comes easily. Maybe you’re not put off by the pretentious studio or the fancy teachers, or the prices of the yoga mats. Maybe you’re not bothered by the mala beads and the incense and the chanting. I’d have run like hell.
And don’t get me started on what they advertise as ‘yoga for beginners’ these days. Go watch a video or two and you’ll see. Most of them are an entirely demanding, totally unmodified yoga class that they may, if you’re lucky, have slowed down a beat or two. They want you to be an Olympian before you even begin.
You may be surprised if I now admit that I am a yoga teacher. But it’s precisely the reason that I have written this post. When I first started yoga, I was terrible at it. I was 26, a brand-new mother, and had no idea what I was doing. I practised regularly for three years, but then couldn’t find another teacher I liked after a house move, and so I did it just here and there for a decade. At forty, I decided to take it up again. The intervening years had not been kind, as they often aren’t to us all. My flexibility was zero, my balance was shot, and while I could mentally remember a lot of the poses, my body refused to comply.
I was, in short, a total yoga beginner again. Only now I was fourteen years older, had been running for two years and barely stretched after, so my muscles were locked-up tight. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I couldn’t even touch my toes.
Long story short, I decided to train as a yoga teacher, and I, quite some time later, started teaching yoga to other human beings, most of them a similar age to me, most of them with as little experience of yoga that I had. And that’s where I learned about yoga for beginners, and, more importantly, what it’s like to have the body of a beginner to yoga.
I have never, ever, had anyone call or email to ask me about my yoga classes and then say something like the following. “Hi. I’m interested in yoga. I’m supremely flexible, have no injuries and am the perfect weight for my height. No, I have no issues with my lower back, I’m not seeing a chiropractor/osteopath/physiotherapist. I always feel calm and serene, my job/partner/children/family give me no stress whatsoever. How much are your classes?”
Everybody has a reason to start doing yoga. Everybody. Sometimes someone may fancy giving it a try, but even then, it’s often because they’ve had an issue physically or emotionally and someone has recommended to them that they try yoga as a solution.
This brings me to my tips for yoga for beginners. Actual beginners. Real beginners. Real, normal, human people with absolutely average bodies that can do and not do completely normal things.
Find a Class Specifically for Beginners
It may seem obvious but find a class or course that deals specifically with beginners. Even my yoga beginners’ class could be too much for some people, so I have a level in addition to that called Absolute Beginners. Unless you live in some remote location, you’re likely to be spoilt for choice of teachers, so call up a few and have a chat. If they say that beginners are welcome in that class, it means the class is not specifically for people new to go, they’re just happy for you to give it a go.
Don’t get me wrong, I have people that come to what I call my ‘open’ classes sometimes that are absolute beginners and they are just fine. They immediately ‘get it’ and can keep up. I was not one of those people and if you suspect that you may not be one too, then don’t do it to yourself. You’ll be put off from something that could be a wonderful practice for you and an excellent addition to your life.
Don’t Apologise for Injuries
I’m not sure I’ve met a student yet over the age of thirty-give that doesn’t have an old shoulder injury or a duff knee, or a stiff lower back. Our more sedentary lives are often spent huddled over the wheel of our car, or at a desk, typing on a computer, or head bowed, checking out Twitter on our Smartphones. Few people don’t have any aches and pains at all, or rounded shoulders, or feel much older in our bodies that we should for our years. So don’t apologise or feel bad for having physical issues. We all do.
Having said that, when you go to a class, or before, let the teacher know what your issues are. At least they will be able to help you to avoid poses that could exacerbate your problems, and at best they will be able to give modifications or poses that will help you to improve.
Yoga can be uncomfortable, but it’s not supposed to hurt. Even if you’re not aware of any specific problem but you find, during the class that your left knee hurts when you kneel on it, or your wrists ache when bearing your body weight, let the teacher know.
Work with Your Body, Not Against It
I firmly believe that yoga is for everyone. That’s why there are so many types. There is no one size fits all, so find something that works for you. Start where you are and don’t force your body into poses it’s not ready for. Can’t touch your toes when you fold forwards? It’s making your lower back hurt even trying, right? So bend your knees, really bend them, and now touch your toes. Voila, no strain in your back and you’re doing the pose.
Try to Ignore Everyone Else
So now you’re touching your toes but with your knees bent and you’re worried because you don’t look like the pictures that you saw on the internet? Has Sally, two mats over got both her legs straight and her hands flat on the floor? Human beings are competitive creatures, know this, acknowledge this, and then try, as hard as you can, to ignore what Sally is doing. She may have been doing yoga for some time. She may be hyper-flexible, she may just biologically have been born with long hamstrings. Who knows?
What Sally hasn’t done, is spend a day in the life of your body, only you have done that. If your wish to equal or better the person on the mat next to you more than it is taken care of a part of your body that is hurting, then you’re missing the point.
Make Yourself Feel Better
I quite often tell my beginners that as much as we shouldn’t be competitive, we can’t help it, and so eventually you will find a pose that you can do better than anyone else in the room. You will. I consider it a teacher superpower that I can help a person find it. It’s the rare, rare creature that can do it all. I know I can’t. Our bodies have a natural inclination to fold forward well, like Sally, but perhaps not bend backwards quite so well. Or we can bend in all directions but can’t balance on one leg for toffee. You’ll have your moment, it may just take a little patience, that’s all.
You May Not Get There
Having said that, there will most likely always be certain poses that you struggle with or can’t progress as well as you will others. Mine is an arm balance called Crow Pose. I nearly throttled my sister when she came for her first yoga class with me and did it straight off the bat. That was five years ago and I’m barely any better at it now. At some point, I had to accept it and realise that it doesn’t matter, not overall, in the grand scheme of things.
Maybe you have short hamstrings, perhaps slightly too short for the length of your thighs. You will always be a little bit shit at forward-folding in that case. Maybe your back doesn’t naturally like bending backwards. Perhaps you have limited flexibility in your right shoulder, just like I have. So what?!
It’s important to regard both your body and your yoga practice overall and how they feel and how they make you feel. I’m 46 now and the difference in my body now to when I re-introduced yoga into my life six and a half years ago, it’s barely recognisable.
And no, I don’t mean how it looks. I carry extra weight on my stomach, always have, likely always will. It’s not about that. I am stronger than ever. I am more flexible than ever. I can do poses that I could only dream of a few years ago.
The Difference in Your Day to Day Life
I love being able to carry all the bags in from the car at once. I can as easily squat down to reach the Tupperware at the back of the cupboard as I can stretch to get the last mug from the top shelf. I don’t groan getting up and down from a chair. I can do a cartwheel with my friends’ children. I don’t have aches and pains in general. I feel ten years younger in my body than I should.
It Changes How You Feel About Your Body
Honestly, I always hated mine. Truly. It’s been a long and difficult relationship for most of my life because I only ever focused on how it looked. I just give less of a shit about that now. I’m far more interested in how it feels. I don’t think my actual feelings about what it looks like have changed, more that they’ve been superseded.