Curious Yoga Novice Seeks Guidance
September 17, 2009 12:55 PM   Subscribe

Tips, advice, recommendations, insight, cautions, suggestions and matters unforeseen concerning the addition of yoga to my fitness regimen.

I'm considering adding yoga to my weekly exercises. I know very little about the practice, but what I've come to understand about it makes it sound quite appealing indeed. From what I've heard, yoga can help one build strength, burn fat, build flexibility, ease joint pain, ease anxiety and stress and is, on the whole, a tremendous benefit to one's overall health.

However, what I don't know about yoga could fill a stadium. I've come to understand that yoga is practiced in several variations and sub-variations, some of these variations call for special equipment, that there are mats and appropriate clothing to consider, that there are a dizzying number of books, websites and videos available, and, well, it's all more than a little overwhelming. I was hoping the hivemind could help me find the ideal way to add yoga to my fitness regimen.

I am a thirty-year-old male at an average level of fitness. I do, however, struggle a bit with some stiffness and inflexibility in my hips and lower back. My current workout routine includes a lot of compound-movement weight training and resistance band exercises, favoring work on large muscle groups rather than bodybuilder-style muscle pinpointing. I ride my bike everywhere and, starting in October, plan to also add lap-swimming to my routine. The weights happen 3-4 times a week and the cycling is just about daily.

My overall fitness goals are the building of muscle, the burning of fat, increasing overall energy and the suppression of sedentary hazards such as depression and anxiety. My goals for adding yoga, aside from those just mentioned and, assuming I understand its potential benefits correctly, would be to drastically improve my flexibility and balance as well as control sundry aches and pains.

What I would like to know from you, AskMe, is how shall I set about as a yoga beginner? Is it best to dive right into a formal class, or to first learn some basics so I'm not the stiff, unbalanced buffoon tipping over in the back of the studio? Which yoga variant is best-suited to my goals? What clothing and equipment will I require? What books, websites and videos do you recommend? What qualities distinguish the best yoga instructors, groups and studios? Is yoga compatible with my current routine and exercise schedule - if not, what needs adjusting? And what do you wish you would have known when you first made yoga a part of your life?

Thank you very much for your help.
posted by EatTheWeak to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Go to a class, even if it's just once. I've been to just one class, but it was all I needed to figure out how to get better use out of the DVDs I'd had stacked up forever.

You can wear anything you want, I guess loose and comfy is best. I really love Rodney Yee, particularly his Slow Burn Yoga DVD. The moves are very slow, and he does most three times so you can repeat them until you get them.
posted by motsque at 1:00 PM on September 17, 2009

so I'm not the stiff, unbalanced buffoon tipping over in the back of the studio

how did you know I do yoga? well, not really - but my roommate is an instructor.

I think you should try a class or two first so the instructors can help you with your form - it's my understanding that good form for the few basic positions is really crucial
posted by Think_Long at 1:06 PM on September 17, 2009

I can't speak too much towards the complexities of yoga, like recognizing good instructors, etc., but as a relatively inflexible 21 year old male, I recommend iyengar yoga.

Unlike most yoga disciplines, iyengar is centered around the idea of not making you go the full monty, and instead focusing on a variety of aids (foam blocks, blankets for padding, chairs) to meet you partway and gradually get you to gain flexibility and strength. I'm surprised that guys can do any other form of yoga at all, because even this was difficult as shit for me. All you might need is a mat, as all the aids are provided by the studio.

A word of caution -- if you're not the type of person who would be able/motivated to do yoga on your free time at home, and you're planning to go to less than 3-4 lessons a week, you're probably better off doing something else with your time and money. I went once a week, and I felt like the gains I made each week (though I felt really good the next day) were lost in the 6 days between lessons because I couldn't find it in me to do triangles and shit at home.
posted by the NATURAL at 1:13 PM on September 17, 2009

I started at a studio, just found a beginner's class and showed up with my mat.

The only thing I wish I'd really understood before starting my practice is that it's a lifetime study, not something you can "win at". I was frustrated at first thinking I'd never get as good as the other people I saw, and shy about asking for help.

Now when I go to a new class I always get there early, introduce myself, explain where I am in terms of experience and the other exercise I do, and note any special issues I might be having (like your back stiffness). That way the instructor can better help with any corrections or modifications that might work for me. And I no longer pay much attention to the people around me, because I understand that their practice isn't my practice, and it doesn't matter if one of us can hold a shoulderstand longer or bend more deeply. There is no yoga championship, nobody in the world is the "best at yoga" because there's always more to learn.

I've tried different styles of yoga, all I really know is that I don't care for heated yoga and I tend to shy away from classes with "Power" in the name, and toward classes with "Flow" in the name. For me, where I am in my practice, I'm not terribly interested in the teacher's lineage or any of that.

I practice daily at home, whether or not I do other exercise during the day. It's a nice wakeup, and a shorter practice makes a great warmup and cooldown if I am going to run. There's a twenty minute yoga podcast at iTunes that includes downloadable pose guides, and I use that quite a bit, and I have a few random DVDs that I use, mostly choosing which one based on how long it is. I'm crazy about the yoga half of the Budokon workout, it's short and invigorating and has a nice balance of stretching, strength, and balance work.

All you really need is a mat (I have a Gaiam mat from Target) and comfortable clothes that won't tug or bind or flop down in your face when you're in downward dog, and a block is very helpful. Most of the studios I've been to also have straps, bolsters, blankets on hand which can be very useful for different asanas, and you might find them useful in a home practice as well--I keep a couple of Mexican blankets and the belt to an old bathrobe near my mat at home just in case.
posted by padraigin at 1:16 PM on September 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

I just started showing up at the Y for beginners classes. I didn't even bring a mat. They told me what to wear [loose fitting clothing that you're comfy in] and what to eat [not much before class, don't come wiht a full belly] and that was it. I took a class at 11 which meant no power yoga people at 6 am and it seemed to guarantee me a nice class full of retirees and other unemployables which was just my speed. I was okay at some stuff and bad at others. My neck pain went away and I slept better. I think yoga is a great complement to a new exercise regiment.
posted by jessamyn at 1:34 PM on September 17, 2009

Go to a class - ask your friends, family, colleagues for a recommendation in your area. Repeat as required until you find a class you like. Borrow any equipment from one of the abovementioned until you know if you like it or not...there will be people who have tried it and stopped who would be happy to let you have their kit.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:36 PM on September 17, 2009

If you're looking for something gentler then try Hatha Yoga, if you want something more physically rigorous, try Ashtanga Yoga.

Drop in to a bunch of classes given by different instructors and see which one you like. Beginner classes are a good place to start.

I second what padraigin said. We're so caught up in competitiveness in most of our activities but yoga is your own space at your own pace.
posted by storybored at 1:52 PM on September 17, 2009

I second going to a beginner's class at the YMCA. That will teach you the basic moves, what they're called, and how to do them right so you don't injure yourself. Wear loose clothes. (running shorts, or pants, and a t-shirt. There are specialized clothes that are made of technical fabrics and cost a lot--I've been wearing ten-dollar sweatpants and a t-shirt since i started practicing 8 years ago.) The Y should also provide you with a mat, and any props you'll use in the class. And, yeah, don't eat a lot before hand. You'll puke.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 2:06 PM on September 17, 2009

Definitely try a couple of classes - you don't need to buy anything if you don't want, but it really is better to bring your own mat.

Definitely tell your instructor before class if you're having any physical problems - yoga is all about modifications!

Definitely wear comfortable clothing, but as a courtesy to your fellow practitioners (whom you might find yourself in somewhat close quarters with, depending on the size of the class/studio), please don't wear shorts that are so short and/or fit so loosely that your, ahem, stuff is on display. It has happened.

As for being an unbalanced buffoon, pretty much everyone in a beginner's class will be an unbalanced buffoon at some point. But everyone is focused on their own practice, and on the instructor, and the most they check anyone else out is a quick glance to see OMGamidoinitrite? One of the nice things about yoga is that it tends to attract (or create) fairly positive, happy people, rather than Judgy McJudgersons.

And what do you wish you would have known when you first made yoga a part of your life?

How totally awesome it is, so that I could have started sooner.
posted by somanyamys at 2:14 PM on September 17, 2009

Yoga Journal has lots of information about yoga, including an article about the different types of yoga available so you can get an idea of what's out there.

I'd recommend reading some of the beginner Q&A points, perhaps look at a couple poses and such just to get an idea of what it's all about, but then go to an actual class to try it out rather than starting on your own. You want an instructor there who can correct your form and show you variations of the poses. Go a few minutes early and let the instructor know that it's your first session, that way s/he will be more attentive and ready to help you.

And I wouldn't be too worried about how yoga affects your current exercise schedule, other than being aware of what areas of your body might be sore when you do certain poses. Unless you have a very specialized exercise plan or have certain physical limitations, yoga is pretty compatible with most fitness routines.

Good luck and enjoy your practice! :)
posted by moutonoir at 2:24 PM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think classes are irreplaceable. I also think it's probably better to start with something that emphasizes accuracy in the poses and understanding the anatomy--then if you go on to something that moves faster you have some good foundations. So I'd start with a hatha or Iyengar class. I think the point above about the diminished returns in only doing it once a week in class are true but only to an extent. So if you can afford it and you don't practice much at home, go to two classes a week!
I strongly encourage you to shop around--go to several instructors before settling down. For me, I want a teacher of yoga, not just someone who leads the class through a sequence. If a friend of mine was starting out, I'd want them to be confident the teacher knew what they were doing and weren't likely to injury folks through bad instruction or progressing too quickly to more demanding poses. Personally, too, while I'm comfortable with the fact that spiritual inquiry is one of the pillars of yoga traditionally, I can't stand a class that is too "new agey" or makes spiritual demands on me. You may feel differently, but I think it's important to be comfortable with the philosophical frame of the class--and also things like the attitudes of students and the sound of the teacher's voice!
Yoga as a life-long inquiry is a good way to think about it--especially in contrast to something you "win" at or "get right." But also don't let it intimidate you. I bet you can find a lot of classes available in Olympia for $8-$10 a pop, so why not just try it out, treat it as a fun experiment, and don't overdo anything at first.
posted by Mngo at 2:36 PM on September 17, 2009

Definitely go to a class first. Give it some time - the first few classes are mostly just fumbling trying to keep up with the instructor.

Lululemon has expensive, but great, yoga clothing. I wear shorts - 95% of the other people in classes I've taken wear yoga pants or similar.

I'd say look for Ashtanga or Hatha classes - but experiment, classes range quite a bit from instructor to instructor, not just to the different types of yoga.
posted by backwards guitar at 2:45 PM on September 17, 2009

"From what I've heard, yoga can help one build strength, burn fat, build flexibility, ease joint pain, ease anxiety and stress and is, on the whole, a tremendous benefit to one's overall health."

This could be said about any exercise program, nothing listed here is specific to yoga, you are essentially letting yourself be pulled into the allure/hype/pr. No one ever cites any clinical research showing yoga improves these things, let alone better than other forms of exercise (not to say there isn't research on the subject).

"My goals for adding yoga, aside from those just mentioned and, assuming I understand its potential benefits correctly, would be to drastically improve my flexibility and balance as well as control sundry aches and pains."

If you want to improve your flexibility, you had to spend time exclusively working on your flexibility. Yoga contains a lot of flexibility work, but nothing novel or more effective than a regular flexibility program.

Also, yoga (mainly) encourages static type stretches, which is an incomplete approach to flexibility as there are several types of stretch receptors that respond to different stimulus (magnitude, velocity). PNF and dynamic stretching are also important to include in your stretching routine.

If you're really interested in increasing your flexibility, you need to spend about an hour a day working on it for a month or two.
posted by zentrification at 3:08 PM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Don't worry about all the books and equipment etc. (Other than maybe a mat, but most places will have mats you can use.) Start with a class or two. Find a beginner's class at the Y or similar local venue that's at a time that works for you. If you have a choice of places, call up and ask which is their absolute beginner's class, or which instructor they recommend for someone in your position. (Some instructors go fast, some go slow, some are good with back issues, etc. Most should be fine for you to just show up to though, so don't worry if you don't call first.) You can also ask if they have "week passes" or something where you can buy 5 lessons and just show up to different instructors' classes to try them out.

The yoga classes I've been to - beginner Ashtanga - are a set sequence of poses, every class the same sequence. Beginner classes go through the poses slowly, with feedback from the instructor on how to do them; more advanced classes will just go from pose to pose to pose, often without any pause -- this approach is what's meant by "flow", as I understand it. Those classes will assume you already know the basic poses, and won't have as much time for one-on-one feedback. So you want to go to the beginner classes until you know the poses. Because it's a set sequence of poses, you can do it at home easily too - just work through the poses, at whatever pace you like. If you decide you like yoga, you can learn the basics from a beginner class, and then do it every day at home. Learning the poses from a class is much easier than from a book, IMO.

A good instructor will give you a clear description of how to do the pose, and give "modifications" for various physical problems (eg, if your back hurts when you do this, try it with a cushion propping up your shoulders). This is personal preference, but - a good instructor will be straightforward about how the pose should feel, where your eyes should be, whether you are inhaling or exhaling in time with a given movement. If you find you're in a class with someone who's not clear about this, I would move on to a different instructor; there is a fair amount of variability.

Don't worry about being uncoordinated or inflexible, most people are.

Something important I learned is - don't push yourself to do the pose the "hardcore" way (stretching as faaar as you can, for example) if it's not sustainable. Do the pose in the middle of your range of ability, and hold it longer. If you can't balance on one foot, no problem, try the beginner modification and hold it, keeping track of your breath. Getting to do some of the poses "right" (in the full version) takes a long time, and isn't something you can sprint toward. You'll only hurt yourself. Don't think of it as gymnastics/contortion class. If your joints are hurting, scale back.

Another thing: most classes I've been to end with a cooldown in which you rest on your back, just lying flat on the mat quietly, for several minutes. There may be a short guided relaxation along with this, where the instructor talks you through relaxing your muscles. The first class I went to, I thought this was really weird - now I like it a lot, but just letting you know to expect it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:45 PM on September 17, 2009

My husband has gotten much more flexible in his legs and back since he started doing yoga. He was incredibly stiff and it hurt a lot at the start, not so much b/c of hte level of intensity, but more his personal physiology. He mostly uses the Rondey Yee DVDs, he's way too shy for taking a class.

I've done various kinds with no real dedication or verve for any of them. I just like it. One style that I found to be particularly effective for what you seek is the Baptiste method. It's vinyasa yoga done in a heated room - but not as hot as a Bikram studio. It really gets your heart rate up and is fairly aerobic for what is essentially a stretching class. The nice thing about doing it in a hot room is not feeling as sore the next day. Perhaps this is just a placebo effect but I really felt great afterwards. I also have exercise-induced asthma, and the steamy air made that less of a problem. If I could afford any kind of studio membership I would choose one of theirs.
posted by wowbobwow at 6:59 PM on September 17, 2009

Despite having read many yoga magazines and interviews with/articles about yogis and yoginis over the years, I have never once seen a sentence like After injuring him-/herself in an Iyengar class, So-and-So switched to Ashtanga/Power/Bikram/hot/Kundalini yoga to rehabilitate and strengthen, and has been injury-free ever since.

Seen it plenty of times the other way around, though.

Nthing "try Iyengar first".
posted by Lexica at 7:21 PM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yoga's fun, give it a try! You shouldn't need any specialized equipment, but I do recommend your own mat...the shared mats at the studio/gym are an excellent way to pick up athlete's foot. or so I hear.
posted by maryrussell at 11:53 AM on September 21, 2009

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