How to cure my yoga phobia?
March 11, 2015 9:12 AM   Subscribe

I'd really like to (re)start doing yoga, but I had a pretty bad experience last time and I can't seem to get myself to go again. Any advice?

I started doing yoga at home some time ago with an iPad app and really liked it, but a few people independently told me that I really should go to classes because that way a teacher could make sure that I was doing the poses correctly and so forth. That sounded pretty sensible to me, so I went to a yoga studio (they had a promotional thingy for unlimited classes for a week for $40 or something like that).

Well, it kind of turned out to be a disaster, at least from my standpoint. The people who worked there were pretty rude, or at least curt, so that was a bad start. For example, when I asked about renting a mat, the guy kind of sighed as though he was annoyed that I hadn't brought my own, and sort of gestured in an impatient way to where they had the mats. Ok, whatever -- maybe he was having a bad day. But the class was no better. In fairness, the instructor was fine and nice, but some of the people in the class seemed kind of nasty. I actually fell over doing one of the poses -- not badly enough to hurt me or anything, but enough that it was really obvious. The person next to me, instead of just sort of ignoring it, laughed in a really unpleasant way. I get that this was her problem, not mine, but honestly, it really upset me a lot and I couldn't shake the feeling that everyone was staring at me and thinking how dumb I looked or what have you. (Something to work on with my therapist, I guess, but that's a separate question.)

Since then, I haven't gone back to any yoga. I actually signed up for a class at a different studio -- it was called "Absolute Beginners" or something, and was supposed to be for people with zero experience in yoga. But in the end, I chickened out and just skipped it, which made me feel worse.

So, I'd like to go, but am totally intimidated. Has anyone else overcome feeling sort of phobic and nervous about starting yoga, or any other activity, for that matter? How did you overcome it?

(Data point: I recently started lifting weights again; the last time I did that I was in my mid-30s and in far better shape. I was suuuuuper nervous about doing that, especially since I'm a middle-aged kind of plump woman and most of the people in the weight room are buff young men, but I managed to push myself. The big secret for me was that I started going to the gym at pretty strange hours when there was basically no one there; I was able to get used to it so I knew what I was doing and now I just go whenever and I don't care because I probably appear mildly competent. Obviously, this is not an option with a yoga class.)

Thanks for any advice!
posted by holborne to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Have you thought about seeing if you can book an hour with an instructor for private instruction? That would eliminate the other people/judging aspect, and after you did that, maybe you would feel more confident going to a class? Depending on cost, you could do a couple of them, practice in between, and maybe that would help with feeling more confident?

We have yoga at the gym downstairs, and I am very hesitant to go, because I'm overweight and have a lot of weird issues (lower back, hip, elbow, wrist) and I feel like if I go, and can't do the poses (or look awful doing them), I'll be judged.

But I feel better when I go, and I don't actually do yoga at home on my own. So I just have to push through it, and most of the people are really nice. I'm sorry you had a bad experience.
posted by needlegrrl at 9:20 AM on March 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Can you find someone to go with you to a yoga class? Having someone counting on you to go helps get you out the door, and it's nice to have someone to discuss the class with afterwards.
posted by rawrberry at 9:24 AM on March 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'd start with a new studio, obviously. Your experience sounds like the exact opposite of any studio I've been to. Every teacher will be different too, so try a few different ones - you'll most likely find one who you're comfortable with.

It's also useful to remember that everyone was new to yoga at one time - they all struggled in certain poses too. You'll also find that you can't (and possibly will never be able to) do certain poses, and be really awesome at other poses. Everyone's body is going to have a different experience.
posted by backwards guitar at 9:28 AM on March 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

Maybe try reading Yelp reviews for different yoga studios before you go? You might get more information about how a particular place treats beginners and feel more comfortable. Or go visit to check it out before actually attending a class, as a half-step that doesn't force you to commit.
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:28 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I find 'normal' yoga too intimidating, especially when teachers comment on your ability to do a given posture! But I love gentle, Scaravelli-inspired, restorative yoga etc. In those classes you tend to find more people who have injuries, restrictions, and just a less competitive atmosphere. So perhaps look for that as a start and build up to other classes if you want.
posted by wingless_angel at 9:34 AM on March 11, 2015

I go to yoga classes at a climbing gym and it doesn't seem to attract the weird competitive yoga people.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 9:45 AM on March 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Sorry you had a bad experience. I have been doing yoga for ages, and have never liked yoga studios. They are cramped, pretentious and expensive. I have really enjoyed the classes offered at my community Centre and the ones at my gym. Or for an authentic yoga experience, if you have a Hindu Temple nearby, see if they offer classes. Best of luck. I really hope you can keep up a practice.
posted by leslievictoria at 9:47 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, seconding Blue Jello. Yoga classes at things other than yoga studios are usually great. I go to one offered at a martial arts studio. Since it is for the purpose of supporting another activity, the people and instructors are just interested in doing yoga for the benefits and fitness of it- not vanity. I really enjoy those classes.
posted by incolorinred at 9:49 AM on March 11, 2015

Has anyone else overcome feeling sort of phobic and nervous about starting yoga, or any other activity, for that matter? How did you overcome it?

When I first started fighting my way out of a crippling social phobia shell (and it did feel like fighting) I did a lot of acting. To be specific, I pretended that I was 7 of 9. Yes, from Star Trek. Does 7 of 9 give a rat's ass that someone looks at her when she walks down a hall? She does not. Does she care that her voice is shaking or her hands trembling when she talks to someone? Nope. She just plows ahead. There was a lot of dying inside on the inside and plowing ahead on the outside for a couple of years.

At one point I signed up for the YMCA (online) and didn't manage to actually enter the building for a couple of months, despite several attempts. Drive into the parking lot...Nope! I'm turning around and heading home. Walking up to the door...Nope! I despised the thing inside me that told me No! but I didn't really start to overcome it until I consciously thought of it as an enemy to be demolished, no matter how long it took.

That, coupled with a job where I'm confident about my abilities and people respect me.

In short: 1) acting, 2) viewing social phobia as an enemy to be demolished, and 3) having good job that helps with my confidence is what worked for me.
posted by frobozz at 9:51 AM on March 11, 2015 [15 favorites]

My only ever experience with yoga was with a class specifically for overweight people. It was a really great class. I had zero experience with yoga before going there, and the instructor was really understanding of people's difficulties and helped us modify certain poses to do them more safely. I stopped going because it was actually not challenging enough for me, but I would suggest that if you're worried about getting back into yoga, yoga for people who are overweight or otherwise deconditioned might be a good starting point, because the instructors are supposed to be more understanding. You could then move on to a 'normal' yoga class when you feel ready... which may be sooner than you think.

Has anyone else overcome feeling sort of phobic and nervous about starting yoga, or any other activity, for that matter? How did you overcome it?

I recently posted a not dissimilar question about gym phobia. Our questions are different, but some of the answers may help you. They helped me a lot - I go back to that thread periodically just to reread the answers whenever I need encouragement. I have to say, it's been one of the most positive things I've ever done for myself, and when I remember how scared I felt to walk in for the first time (I thought I was going to throw up!), I feel even better about myself because I did it anyway.

I'm sorry you had a bad experience, and I hope you find a new class soon that's better for you. Good luck, you can do it!
posted by Ziggy500 at 9:51 AM on March 11, 2015

Your first yoga studio was terrible. I'm really sorry that you had to deal with that. Just the fact that they rent mats instead of providing them (when the classes are paid for) is a huge red flag for me. And I've never met anyone involved with yoga who hasn't been super nice and accepting.

I would honestly recommend re-signing up for that Absolute Beginner class that you found before. It's at a different studio, and there is no way that there are two studios that are as horrible as your first one in the same area. Plus the fact that they even have an Absolute Beginner class is great sign.

In beginner classes the instructor will be able to take more time walking you through the poses, so you understand what you're trying to do. This is something that isn't really done in "regular" classes, because it takes time and can hold back the practice of folks who already know the basics.

If you hadn't mentioned already finding the Beginner class, that would have been my recommendation to you. Another type of class that you might want to look for (that really helped me get into yoga) is some kind of plus-sized yoga class. The studio local to me that runs a class like that calls it Big A#%! Yoga. For me, the fact that they obviously have a sense of humour about it helped me to get over my initial fears of taking a yoga class at an actual "studio". And then it didn't hurt that the instructor was absolutely amazing.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:55 AM on March 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Different studios and teachers create different environments. Some are super snobby and the attendees/staff are competitive and unpleasant. Other studios/classes/instructors are awesome and they create a lovely and supportive environment. It sounds like you tried a rotten one. I've been in great group classes and yucko ones. It's worth it to seek out the good ones. Ask friends and stay away from anything that's too fancy. I also agree with trying classes geared toward more non-traditional exercisers or people just starting. When I'm trying to make myself try something new, I think of a good prize for myself if I just do it. Maybe it's a fancy new tea, or a new lipstick or some other token indulgence. Positively reinforcing and rewarding myself works for me.
posted by quince at 9:59 AM on March 11, 2015

That sounds AWFUL. Not at all like the studio I used to go to. I'd be yoga-phobic too if I had that experience ! The studio I went to was so nice, very welcoming, had loaner mats and supplies for newbies, etc.

I'd start asking around for recs of studios in your area. Ask people on your social networks, check Yelp, etc. Maybe you can get a friend (either who has done yoga before or is new) to go with you?

You might also want to try going and visiting the studios you're interested in. Talk to the receptionist, ask about classes for beginners. You'll get an idea of what the vibe is.
posted by radioamy at 10:29 AM on March 11, 2015

Nthing staying away from yoga studios. I've had good experiences with yoga classes at my gym, and at my city's Parks and Rec. In my experience, beginner-level classes put on by city Parks and Rec departments attract ordinary Joes and Janes (often retirees) who just want to stay flexible and don't buy into the pretentiousness that can surround yoga studios.

Check Yelp reviews and ask around. Your first yoga studio sucked and shouldn't be treating its clients that way.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:30 AM on March 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Echoing Rosie -- look for a class at your city-run rec center. The people will likely be much nicer and way less hardcore.
posted by Clustercuss at 10:40 AM on March 11, 2015

Nthing that the first studio sucked. IMO, a good yoga studio would find a way to discourage that kind of negativity and judgmentalism towards fellow students.

A beginner's Iyengar class might be a good place to reenter. Iyengar-style yoga is all about using blocks, straps, rolled towels, and other props to ensure that you can do the pose with proper, healthy alignment, regardless of how flexible or inflexible your body may currently be. Part of that orientation, in my experience, is an attitude that where you are is just fine, what you can do now is just fine, and the goal (for lack of a better term) is to experience the poses as you're currently able to do them, not to drive yourself towards "better" or "more advanced" versions.

You might want to put the skunk on the table when you speak with the next studio. "Hi, I'm a complete beginner at yoga and had a bad experience with the first studio I went to, feeling like I was being judged for not being more advanced. How do the teachers at your studio deal with beginning students?" If you don't like the attitude you get back from the studio, you'll know to cross them off your list without having to go through an unpleasant class experience first.
posted by Lexica at 10:44 AM on March 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

Nthing that you should shop around for other studios or non-studio classes. Your experience will vary depending on the teacher and your classmates and you need to find the right fit. A lot of studios have either new member discounts (unlimited classes for a few weeks, for example) that will let you shop around, or something like a Yoga 101 series for an intro to the core poses.

No matter what option you try, though, tell the teacher you are brand new to yoga--that will give the teacher a heads up to both be more methodical in explaining what the poses are and to look out for you for adjustments. Also, never be afraid to opt out of a sequence (take child's pose, for example) if you feel like you need a moment or to skip something.

And I'm sorry you had the experience you had. Yoga should really be judgment-free, especially since everyone will always be at different levels and trying to improve. I've been practicing for 10+ years and every time I try to take a pose to the next level, I'm at much at risk of falling over or not achieving the pose as I was on day 1-->the point is that I feel free to try because I know it's a safe space.
posted by trixie119 at 10:59 AM on March 11, 2015

Geez, laughing when you fell was super uncool of the other student. I've never been to class where something like that would be tolerated. The instructor should have gently reminded the class that yoga is an individual practice, it is *not* a competitive sport. And she should have talked to you afterward as well to make sure your feelings were in an okay place (a bit of embarrassment is okay, being traumatized to the point of not returning to practice is not).

Second the suggestions above to do some private lessons. Maybe like 4 lessons, just enough to feel like you are getting your feet wet and understand how to do some of the basic poses in a way that you will not injure yourself. Anecdotally, yoga (like pilates) is a practice where you should never be encouraged to do more than your body will allow. If you are encouraged to stretch farther or harder than you are comfortable with, you have the right to end the class for yourself right there, as the instructor is not being careful with regard to preventing injuries. I didn't know this until I finally took a class with an awesome instructor who demonstrated her interest in preventing injuries - ever since her class I measure every instructor against her. If they are not equally cognizant that every body is different, I move along.
posted by vignettist at 11:13 AM on March 11, 2015

The people who worked there were pretty rude, or at least curt, so that was a bad start. For example, when I asked about renting a mat, the guy kind of sighed as though he was annoyed that I hadn't brought my own, and sort of gestured in an impatient way to where they had the mats. Ok, whatever -- maybe he was having a bad day. But the class was no better. In fairness, the instructor was fine and nice, but some of the people in the class seemed kind of nasty. I actually fell over doing one of the poses -- not badly enough to hurt me or anything, but enough that it was really obvious. The person next to me, instead of just sort of ignoring it, laughed in a really unpleasant way.

That's just a shitty yoga studio with a shitty attitude.

I have been going to yoga on and off for several years, and I always use one of their mats. (They don't charge a rental fee.) No-one has ever raised an eyebrow, or had any opinion about equipment other than making sure that everyone has everything they need for the class.

People fall over in yoga all the time. It is totally no big deal and nothing to be embarrassed by. The reason I feel this way is that this the attitude that the yoga instructors bring to the class and actively reinforce. (Because actually, I'm a clumsy person with an insecure streak.) I can readily imagine how any instructor at my yoga studio would have handled your situation: 1) They would have quietly come over to you to give you some direct positive reinforcement. 2) They would have worked a pointed comment into their patter (in yoga-speak) to get across that there is no place in the studio for anyone to shame anyone else.

Look on Yelp and ask around, try smaller studios that aren't too "slick," and you should be able to find someplace with a more accepting vibe.
posted by desuetude at 11:33 AM on March 11, 2015

I think everyone's advice here is good. From a slightly different angle, here is a step-by-step plan that you could work your way through.

-Go online and order a (cheap) mat and a towel. Not only will it save you the annoyance of having to negotiate the rental, but now you'll have made a small financial investment that might work as a sunk cost and help get you out the door.

-While you're waiting for the mat to arrive, search on Yelp for the reviews of studios and gyms in your area. Look for keywords like "beginner," "friendly" "warm," "easy," etc. Pick 3 places that look good to you. (FWIW, I haven't had the experience of gyms being friendly and studios being snobby - I think there's lots of variations in both places, but the atmosphere at a good studio tends to be a little more relaxing, meditation-minded, and pleasant than your average gym.)

-For each of the studios, identify the best class for you. Beginners classes are good. So are "relax and renew."

-Tell yourself that you're going to TRY one class each of the three studios once, and if it sucks, you'll never go back. As soon as it starts to suck (i.e., you're thinking "I hate this and I don't want to be here,") you'll wait 15 minutes and if it still sucks, you'll leave. So you are committing to, at most, fifteen minutes of discomfort. (Yeah, it might be weird to leave in the middle of class, but people do all the time and there's nothing wrong with it.)

-On the day of class, pack up all your stuff and get there early - like, really early.
Half an hour early if you can.

-When you talk to the person behind the desk, remember that they are almost certainly a volunteer and don't know what the heck they are doing, and if they're being mean to you, it's because they're overwhelmed and stressed. (I was really intimidated by the hot young things behind the desk at my yoga studio until I realized that while they were probably very good at yoga, they were also in college and not yet very good at having jobs, and they were stressed out by any variation in the usual *swipe your card* routine. I'd bet this is what happened to you.

-Go into the studio and put your mat in the way, way back so that you can see other people, but they can't see you.

-Use your extra 30 minutes to meditate.

-Once class starts, give yourself permission to skip any pose you don't want to do. You are a beginner. So, maybe you will just watch as other people do the pose. Or, maybe you will go into child's pose and just chill for twenty minutes. It's a useful class if you do one pose that feels satisfying to you. That pose can be child's pose. Everything else is optional.

Good luck!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 11:37 AM on March 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

The yoga studio you went to sounds awful! I will chime in as another data point that not everywhere is like that. I also have found better luck with the classes at regular gyms rather that dedicated "yoga only" studios.

My best advice would be to bring a friend so that IF it goes badly, you at least have someone who "gets" it and is on your side. I once went to a horrific kickboxing class where the instructor was flat out mean and yelling at people, and I was so glad I had gone with a friend so that afterward we could be like 'That wasn't just me, she was super mean, right?!!? What was wrong with her?' rather than worrying it was all our fault/in our head
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:40 AM on March 11, 2015

I think you're a lot like me in that you're fine as long as you feel you have some baseline competency and no one's laughing at you for doing it wrong - the way you've approached learning to lift is exactly the way I'm trying to go about it right now. All I can recommend is to keep doing it at home with your ipad to gain more familiarity with the movements, and try classes here and there until you find one you like. If you can find a small group class that might help, especially if the reason you want it is so the instructor can help you. It's very rare in my class that the instructor will work with anyone because there's just too many of us.

I also agree that the less fancy the class, the more welcoming it seems to be. My class at my fancy gym now is crowded and full of guys who are desperately keen to breathe really loudly and show all their arm balances off and I am the fat girl in the class and it would have been hella intimidating to me when I was new to yoga, but I've been doing it for long enough now that I know the basic routine, I breathe and focus on my own practice, I skip things I can't do, I fall over, and I give no fucks what anyone else there thinks. The classes I went to years ago at my local leisure centre that were mostly middle aged mums were much less intimidating.
posted by corvine at 12:21 PM on March 11, 2015

A friend of mine is a yoga instructor and leads a "curvy" yoga class designed for all body types and ability levels. She also leads a chair yoga class for those who have difficulty with standard yoga poses. She would be horrified to hear what happened at your first class. You may try adding those terms to your search.
posted by Bretley at 1:04 PM on March 11, 2015

Tell yourself that you're going to TRY one class each of the three studios once, and if it sucks, you'll never go back. As soon as it starts to suck (i.e., you're thinking "I hate this and I don't want to be here,") you'll wait 15 minutes and if it still sucks, you'll leave.

This, exactly. This has worked really well as a New Year's resolution for me for several years, after moving to a different area, for several of my activities. It's hard to find really like-minded people, and all the encouraging adjectives in the world on a web page can't really tell you whether those are your people and your vibe or not. The only way is to commit to trying several different groups, once each. And by all means give yourself permission to say "This sucks. Going home. Oh well."

Every yoga class is different, and my experience is that the teacher is the thing that varies the most, whether that class is labeled Hatha, Iyengar, Vinyasa, Flow, or Lava. You just have to go, and find out what it is.

I'm really sorry you had the experience you did. Sheesh. I cannot imagine anyone laughing in any yoga class I've ever been to. I would think that should demand a serious rebuke from the teacher, actually, if that teacher is at all serious about a good environment. On the bright side, recognize that all of the answers here agree: almost any other teacher or studio you try, is very likely to be better than that one!

posted by Dashy at 1:52 PM on March 11, 2015

The only yoga classes I've liked were Family Yoga at my Y. People can bring their children, which means the class is more fun as toddlers attempt to do yoga and roll into you. Children were not required -- there were adults in there who seemed to be there just because it was a laid-back yoga class.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:40 PM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding a good Iyengar studio. It depends a lot on the instructors, but the best ones I've had were Iyengar and talked about what your body was doing structurally which made it a whole lot easier to self adjust without having to poke and prod.

The classes I was in had people aged from 23 to 70+ and every body shape you can imagine.
posted by plinth at 8:20 PM on March 11, 2015

I came here to suggest yoga at perhaps a University or local college if they allow people from the community. We had a very affordable class for beginners and everyone was pretty friendly. Our teacher was great too.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 3:37 AM on March 12, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers and encouragement! It's funny -- for some reason, it never really occurred to me that I could get private instruction in yoga, but of course that's possible. I may do that for a couple of sessions if the cost isn't prohibitive. Also, I did check and the Parks Department does actually have some classes, including chair yoga, so that's definitely an option.

As for the person next to me who laughed, I just figured that she was probably nervous herself and so maybe it was nervous laughter, and I tried not to take it too hard. Still, I did, I guess.
posted by holborne at 8:18 AM on March 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Also agree with all the above about trying other places. Ugh. But I also want to say that I really hope you try again because I found yoga to be life changing in lots of ways. I was just like the beginners who come to my class once upon a time but I kept at it and the wonderful thing is that you will get stronger and have better balance and more flexibility in time. Its kind of amazing to feel your body change so try again!
posted by bluesky43 at 8:26 PM on March 12, 2015

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