My first experience in a yoga studio put me through a wide array of emotions. At the start, I felt uncomfortable. I had never practiced yoga before, nor had I chanted “om” (at least not in any serious manner). I had no flexibility and I was scrawny. As the class continued, I suffered through the sun salutations; my spindly arms fought through each chaturanga. I emerged from the studio like a dog from the groomers. I was completely washed down of all pride and ego, feeling relieved, but also extremely light, renewed, and eager to go back.
I share this little story because I assume many people have experienced something similar. The first yoga class is intimidating but, if you find the right studio or yoga style for you, it can also become a new community. You probably emerged from the first class with tons of questions. Do they always start a class with a chant of “om?” What was that weird breathing exercise called? How do I get into that pose again? Are all the classes the same? The good news is that the more you go, the more answers you will find. To help you along, the following paragraphs break down some of the basic elements of a studio, yoga etiquette, etc.
First things first – do not worry yourself with feeling self-conscious when you walk into a studio. Some studios have mirrors, others do not. The important thing to note is that everyone is busy focusing on themselves – just as you are busy focusing on your self. That is the point. People seek to disconnect from their daily lives and take time for them selves when they enter a yoga studio. With that in mind, know that the studio is a place for you as well as them – so respect that. Be courteous to the instructor and other students. Arrive 15 minutes before class starts so you aren’t rushing in loudly. Remove your shoes when you walk into the studio. Leave your cell phone, car keys, and all other distractions that are not part of your yoga practice in the lobby. Studios usually have cubbies or lockers for you to store your things and they lock the doors to the outside while class is in session so you don’t have to worry about your belongings. Be quiet – remember those indoor voices from kindergarten? Use them. Lastly, just be happy. You came to the class for a reason, to make a change in your life and in your body, so be happy that you made it there!
Gear can either be of the utmost importance to you or it can be irrelevant. A good rule of thumb is to K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid. Arrive at the studio with your basic essentials: comfortable clothes, mat, a water bottle, and perhaps a sweat towel. Wear something you are comfortable in and can move easily in. Tank tops and leggings are an excellent start, but really, anything works. My only bit of advice in regards to apparel is to avoid super loose articles of clothing. They just get in the way.
Yoga mats are the next thing to consider. There are dozens of brands and, depending on your budget, you can either drop $10 or $150 on a mat. My personal favorites are Jade and Prana yoga mats. Both brands are excellent quality, mid-range in the price, and made of organic materials. Many studios rent mats so you can try them out.
Towels are a necessity if you are going to a hot yoga or Bikram class. You sweat so much in these classes that you will slip, slide, and possibly face plant without a mat towel. They range in price, so again, test some out, ask other people at the studio, and make your purchase.
The Om Mantra
Many studios, but not all, begin and end their classes with Om. The mantra is a recitation that begins and ends a meditation. The chant is more complex than it seems. It is a four-part sound: ah, oo, and mm followed by silence. The intention behind the chant is to center your self. The vibration of the sound as it moves from your belly, to your heart, and up through your throat serves as a reminder for why you are there. In a studio setting, the chant also joins everyone together. Whether you admit it or not, the energy in the room around you (how much everyone else is working, how energetic the instructor is, etc.) affects your practice. Having everyone start and end together builds a sense of community that can otherwise be missed. Admittedly, many people find the chant to be odd and uncomfortable, especially if they are not of the Hindu or Buddhist religions. However, the truth is that the sound is no different than “amen.” It is just a word, a recitation to begin and end a yoga practice, which is a moving meditation. So don’t be unnerved by it. Join in if you feel ready. If not, then sit and listen to the sound – it can be just as impactful in silence as when you participate.
The most important thing to remember when practicing yoga is to breathe. There are some common breathing methods, known as pranayama, that many studios use. The first is ujjayi (oo-jai-ee). Also called “the ocean breath,” ujjayi is energizing for the body, as well as calming for the nervous system. The reason some call it ocean breath is because you make audible inhales and exhales, powerful, and yet steady like the ocean. With a slight constriction at the back of your throat, you cultivate a gentle hissing sound as you inhale, and a strong hum as you exhale (like when you fog up a mirror). The difference is that ujjayi is solely through your nose.
Alternate Breathing is another style that may be introduced to you. This breath is a little more complex but also serves to calm the nervous system and center the mind. It is more meditative than ujjayi, which is an active breath. With alternate breathing you use your right hand. Start by plugging your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through your left nostril. You then switch, plugging your left nostril with your pinky and releasing your thumb to exhale through your right. Then repeat. Inhale through the right. Plug. Exhale through the left. Ever find your self losing control and stressing out? Try this breath. It might just help you calm your self.
Asanas are poses. Everything you do in a yoga class, from savasana (corpse pose) to bakasana (crow pose) is an asana (ä-sə-nə). The term comes from the sanskrit word āste which translates to “he/she sits.” Originally, asana was just one seated pose meant for meditation, the third part of the eight limbs of yoga. As the practice of yoga has evolved into numerous postures and styles of practice asanas have become the main focus of a class. Note how the sanskrit name for each yoga postures ends with the suffix -asana. Each one has various benefits, utilizes different muscles, and strengthens your body. The thing to remember is that the poses are only one part of a yoga practice. Pranayama, the breath, is extremely important, your presence of mind, your meditation, etc. Asanas have many variations and modifications; meant to be expressed and performed in the way that is most beneficial to you. So remember that when you arrive in a yoga class. It is not just about the poses.
Now that you understand pranayama and asana, the last thing to be prepared for in a studio experience is the instructor. Instructors are there to guide you. They demonstrate asanas and cue your movements from one to the next. Most instructors just give verbal cues, some practice along with you and you can watch what they do. Listen. Pay attention to what they say. They are not trying to trick you or make you do something you do not want to do. They will give you options to modify (either to make it easier or more challenging). They will also perhaps assist you in a pose. They might gently press your shoulders down, or help you bend your knee a little more and activate your quadriceps. A good instructor knows how to get you into proper alignment by combining verbal cues with physical assistance. They will help you realize your muscular potential. It is an amazing moment to realize how good a pose can feel if you break away from the habit of trying to make a pose easier. By that I am referring to when you might feel your leg burning so you straighten your knee and lock your joints. If you just learn to link your breath with your pose and push through the uncomfortable moments, you will enjoy the pose.