Beginning yoga tips
December 11, 2003 2:27 PM   Subscribe

Everyone tells me I should do yoga, that their favorite thing on earth is yoga, and that yoga made all the bad things in their life good. My question is, how do I get started? Is there starter yoga? [more]

I've been running off and on for almost 20 years (yes, since I was a wee lad in 7th grade), and I remember whenever I start up again, it takes months for my stretching to catch up to what I would consider limber.

I'm barely running currently and not stretching much so I'm way out of shape. When I look at yoga classes being offered, it seems the experts and the beginners are all in the same yoga class. Am I going to die the first few times I do it? How long does it take to loosen up and enjoy the process? For the uber experts of yoga, is it really worth the $10 per session to go? Should I be going multiple times per week or is once or twice a week plenty?

Lastly, do you just feel better and maybe get more muscle tone, or is it a sweat-off-the-pounds thing too? (of course, I'm talking about normal yoga here, not the crazy super hot room one which I could never stand to do since I'm not so good with the heat)
posted by mathowie to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The key to good yoga practice for beginners is a good teacher, and small classes. You want to find someone who will help you challenge yourself but work safely within the limits of your own body and avoid injury. You don't want to make your limbs into pretzels just because the person on the next mat's body works differently than yours.

So you shouldn't die the first few times you do it, no. If you find a good class, you should be loosening up and enjoying it right from the start. And it's sort of like martial arts in that "one is always a student" way, where you keep setting new goals for yourself. And depending on the class, you'll find that some of the more vigorous poses and transitions between poses will raise your heart beat. Without the crazy heat.

I find it hard to make time more than once/twice a week for classes, but I do try to do a bit at home when I can.

I practice with a great teacher here in SF, Kristie Home, and would highly recommend her book, which is available through the Body Shop (or on Amazon).

Lemme know if I can answer more questions for you.
posted by judith at 2:42 PM on December 11, 2003

Join a beginner's yoga class at your local new age/Indian centre.
posted by riffola at 2:54 PM on December 11, 2003

from personal experience -- don't start with bikram. the wonderful heat masked my natural limits and i trashed my back.
posted by heather at 2:55 PM on December 11, 2003

I mean let them know you are beginner and that they should proceed accordingly. As for the number of times a week, twice or thrice is enough. Go more frequently at first as you are learning, once you know how to do the basics on your own, you can cut down to once or twice a week and do the same excercises at home.
posted by riffola at 2:57 PM on December 11, 2003

I think the most important thing is to go to a class. A good teacher well help you make corrections you wouldn't be able to detect on your own. Once you've learned some poses, just practice and practice.
In my personal experience, my flexibility increased a LOT when I started doing yoga, even though I had been dancing for a long time and stretching a lot already.
Lastly, if you don't get that into it at first, keep with it for a while. I didn't really settle into the routine until maybe my tenth class, but it felt amazing after that.
posted by bonheur at 3:02 PM on December 11, 2003

I started yoga just under a year ago. I'm probably the most inflexible person you'll ever meet and it's done comparable wonders. I'm never going to be able to sit cross-legged, but. Yoga practice won't shorten your stretching time, but it will teach you how to stetch in new and interesting ways. You'll also feel better in the mornings.

I started with a beginners' Hatha session and am only now beginning to think about more advanced classes. Look around, you really don't want to start at too high a level. Power/Bikram is not for beginners.
posted by bonehead at 3:05 PM on December 11, 2003

The most important key to not hurting yourself is DO NOT try to stretch as far as the next person in class, just to look good. Concentrate on good form and breathing and go just as far into the posture as your body can safely handle at the moment. You're better off stretching one inch into a pose with good form and good breathing and awareness then stretching eighteen inches into a pose with bad form and awareness. If you take that attitude, you should be able to enjoy the process fairly quickly.

Once or twice a week will give you benefits, but yoga is one form of exercise you can actually do every day if you want without tearing down your body. (Unlike weight-lifting or running which require more recuperation time.)

There are a ton of good yoga videos out there. (I particularly like Baron Babtiste). It's probably worth paying the $10/session for a few classes in the beginning, just to get some feedback on your technique. After that, it depends on whether your the sort of person who's more comfortable working out on your own or with a group.

Don't forget to stay focused on your breathing. If you're working out on your own, don't cut short your time in the relaxation pose at the end. That's one of the most important parts of the routine.

As far as weight loss, it's not up there with running, but if you consistently do a more strength-based workout, one that forces you to breathe really deeply, you may drop a few pounds.

There are a lot of different teachers and teaching styles out there. Some will focus more on flexibility, some on strength, some on the mental or spiritual aspects. If you don't like the first teacher you try, shop around.

Good luck!
posted by tdismukes at 3:11 PM on December 11, 2003

Most studios offer a starter special. 1st 30 days free or the like.
posted by scarabic at 3:15 PM on December 11, 2003

I don't do yoga but I do take a stretching class that uses some yoga principles. A good instructor will be able to tailor the program to fit a beginner. In my class each exercise usually has a beginner level and a more advanced level.
posted by konolia at 3:56 PM on December 11, 2003

Matt, most yoga-specific studios will offer beginner and advanced classes. I'd beware of any that did not.

I know you're not in SF anymore (despite what it says on your user page), -- I'm sure you've googled a bunch already, but this place in Portland offers Beginning Yoga classes and the instructor bios look pretty good (also they have both male and female instructors, which, for some reason, I've always found to be a sign of a 'healthy' yoga environment). Not sure if Portland is near to you now or not, however. (I think it is, since you keep taking photos there!)

This place seems a bit more ... er .. spiritual, but they also offer short classes on the Essentials of Yoga. This place on the other hand, just look plain scary.

What I normally recommend is that people who want to dip their toe in the yoga water should look for a studio that a) offers short (4-6 week) classes that are b) explicitly advertised as beginner classes. Studios that lump everyone in the same class are not generally recommended, because really no one is getting their needs met in such classes.

If you get in a beginner class, you most certainly are not going to die the first time you do it. Yoga isn't nearly as vigorous as most pre-running stretches; it should be very gentle.

Going once a week at the start is plenty. As others here have said, yoga, like running, is something that its easy to do by yourself, so you can do it more if you want. Classes are mostly useful for getting good posture and technique right from the start, and for moving from one difficulty level to the next.

I don't know of anyone who has lost weight due to yoga, but many who have lost inches because they're using muscles that other types of exercise plans don't normally work on. Also, its very (at the risk of sounding all new-agey) relaxing and centering ... a time to think only about you and your breath and your heartbeat.

Good luck!
posted by anastasiav at 4:04 PM on December 11, 2003

I recommend you try classes in as many styles of yoga as you can find. The various styles have some pretty big differences, and you may have very different experiences with each.

Personally, I like Ashtanga Yoga. In Ashtanga you practice a specific sequence of postures in which each posture prepares you for the next. Most schools include led classes for different levels, but traditionally new students are given postures one at a time, so in the beginning you only practice a handful of postures and gradually add more when your teacher thinks you're ready. You also practice at your own pace, which makes Ashtanga classes look pretty chaotic from the outside (the movie in which Madonna was a yoga teacher showed what an Ashtanga class looks like.) It's also a sweaty experience, but because of the style of breathing and the pace rather than the room temperature. So if you like to advance slowly and at your own pace, and you want a really strong back, it's a good style if you're near a good school.

Also, I always hear that runners have especially tight hamstrings, so don't be surprised if that's the case.
posted by homunculus at 4:13 PM on December 11, 2003

not the crazy super hot room one which I could never stand to do since I'm not so good with the heat

That style is called Bikram Yoga, btw, named after it's founder.
posted by homunculus at 4:21 PM on December 11, 2003

Yoga means union.
posted by majcher at 4:40 PM on December 11, 2003

Another option is to go to a regular class with no set beginning and end like at the YMCA. In Seattle, they just had a few ongoing classes, one for beginners and one for more advanced students. Many people just stayed in the beginners class and the teacher would, over time, cycle through somewhat harder and somewhat easier poses. I got a book so I could practice some of the poses at home, but it's really a challenge, for me anyhow, to get up and do yoga at home. I did Iyengar Yoga for the better part of a year and it helped me get rid of a crick in my neck and sort of sort out some emotional crap I was going through. You can just keep going to the same classes over and over, like Judith says, it's not dull or really repetetive but if you have completion-anxiety you might want to go for a class with a fixed number of sessions.

Getting a good yoga class is like finding a good shrink -- it's okay to try a few different ones out to get one that works for you. I found several classes to be a bit too new agey for me [there were little prayers, or ringing bells, or whathave you, just not my scene] and a few where the instructor was like "feel the burn" which in my mind is the antithesis of good yoga. I wound up in sort of a special-ed class with me and some 70 year old men and a pregnant woman... we were all pretty remedial but it was a friendly supportive group.

I went twice a week at lunchtimes, sometimes more b/c at the Y it was just drop in whenever. I felt more limber and just more grounded. I used to say that I felt like I was walking better when I left it. You won't die when you try it, though it may be challenging or you may see other people in your class doing things and be frustrated that you can't. If you're someone who has trouble relaxing or not twitching your foot when you sit, it may feel a little slow at first, but it's pretty easy to get into the rhythm and definitely a nice way to stay limber in winter.
posted by jessamyn at 5:02 PM on December 11, 2003

Bikram yoga, IMHO is as good a place as any to start if you enjoy/tolerate extreme heat. It helps your muscles get limber, and while it can be as difficult and challenging as any yoga, the one rule mentioned several times above still applies: Go as far as you are comfortable and don't push yourself past your limits on your initial visits. I think the best thing to do is go to two or three different kinds and settle on one that suits you. Bikram is really wonderful and works very well for many people, even if the founder is a total jackhole. It's expensive though, make sure to take PLENTY of water, be prepared for 90 minutes of 90 to 100 degree heat, extensive sweat and hard work.
posted by vito90 at 7:44 PM on December 11, 2003

I have been doing yoga since 1975 - I learned it by watching "Lilias, Yoga and You" on PBS. As I'm not much of a "joiner," I have never been to any class with other people, but I always practice 3 times per week, doubling or tripling each of her daily suggested practices from her book.
I find that yoga helps keep my joints limber and adds a lot to my peace of mind. Lilias' method allows for skill levels from beginners to more practiced, she continually reminds students to not hurt themselves but to push themselves a bit to continue the stretch. She also has video tapes available - I have the beginner tapes and they seem pretty good.
posted by Lynsey at 9:17 PM on December 11, 2003 [1 favorite]

There have been some great posts in here, so I'll just share my 2 cents...

I've been doing yoga for 3 years now off and on, and as a man who's starting to creep towards my middle 30's, it's been great.

My personal experience, is that if you're used to doing sports, astanga yoga (aka power yoga) is a great place to start. It moves much faster than "regular" (hatha) yoga, and that kept me interested. It didn't focus too much on the spiritual side of things either.

I went in not being able to touch my toes, and with some back problems that were starting to get serious. I also had a stress fracture in my foot that wouldn't heal. I came out 6 months later much better aligned, with a good back and a healthy foot (no impact = good). I can now play sports competetively again.

I paid about $30/month for unlimited classes, and went to about 10 beginner classes before moving up. It's quite important that you get an instructor of some sort, because doing poses badly can really mess you up. Another thing is that you should try to go more than twice a week. 3 times was good for me.

Good luck and have fun.
posted by sauril at 10:25 PM on December 11, 2003

While I enjoyed yoga classes when I went, I never felt like they were really workouts, and I eventually stopped because I didn't have time for both yoga and aerobic workouts. I did like how relaxing it was, and it certainly felt good. But I find running puts me in a similar mental state while also giving me a great cardio workout. Also, it's cheaper. Not to say you shouldn't try yoga Matt, but I encourage you to get back on the running, even in the rain. Heck, we've been running in blizzards here in NYC and it's been lots of fun. Good luck finding something that works for you.
posted by megnut at 7:42 AM on December 12, 2003

When I was stuck in the middle of nowhere on the BC coast for a few months, I started teaching myself out of this excellent book on Ashtanga yoga, written at it happens by the Wellness Director for the New York Road Runners Club.

Now I've been doing it for about 3 years (31 y.o.), and I'm counting on it being what keeps my bow legs and flat feet from completely crippling me by age 50. A few tips in my limited experience:

* Don't get discouraged, especially by all the impressive people positions other people in your classes can get into. Some people have been doing it for years and year, and some people are just flexible. It's hard sometimes, but ignore that girl twisting her arms behind her back and over her head - you can't and maybe won't even be able to do that. I am still light years away from doing certain "basic"-looking positions.

* A good teacher is crucial. I've been to a lot of flaccid, quiet-talking, soporiphic yoga classes that would have discouraged me completely had I been a rank beginner. It shouldn't hurt, but it should be a bit of a challenge too - you should sweat a bit. I've found a great instructor here in DC, and her classes are long and sometimes tough but she's also encouraging, even humorous, and you leave feeling stretched, stronger, *and* relaxed - a rare combination. Her classes are always full.

* Once a week isn't enough for any progress - try to do it at least twice a week, if not more.
posted by gottabefunky at 9:50 AM on December 12, 2003

this excellent book on Ashtanga yoga

I've never seen the Birchs' book myself, but I've been told that they modified the Ashtanga primary series quite a bit to make it more accessible (there are 5 series in total and the advanced ones makes Chinese acrobatics look tame.) My favorite book on the full primary series is this one by John Scott, though David Swenson's practice manual is also very good and it also shows the second series. They both also have instructional videos which are better to learn from than a book, imo.
posted by homunculus at 1:41 PM on December 12, 2003 [1 favorite]

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