I started practicing yoga eight years ago in an attempt to rehabilitate a running injury. Prior to my first class, yoga was something I rolled my eyes at. I thought it was just some silly stretching, something you do to complement a real workout but not a physical challenge in itself.
I had also heard Jennifer Aniston made yoga a regular part of her workout routine and decided I was not opposed to, you know, trying desperately to be her body double.
So I went to my first class, a hot vinyasa class at 90 Degrees Yoga in Greenville, South Carolina. I wore my boyfriend’s sweatpants, a large cotton Winthrop T-shirt and the smug confidence of one who has never attempted these seemingly simple “stretches.”
It was a disaster. My fluffy cotton clothing was soaked in my own sweat and stuck to my non-Aniston body. My cheap Target mat was just one big slippery safety hazard. My allegedly athletic body couldn’t replicate a single pose the teacher floated through with maddening ease like some graceful warrior goddess.
Surprisingly, I stuck with yoga after my first disastrous class, but some people find their first class unpleasant enough to never return.
So I pulled together some etiquette expectations and a few tips for making your first yoga class enjoyable enough to encourage you to come back.
Know what class you’re taking.
There are dozens of yoga lineages and as many styles of teaching as there are individual teachers. If you walk into Y2 Yoga’s Superflow (a super hot, super fast, super loud, nontraditional 90-minute power class) when you were expecting a relaxing, meditative traditional class, you’ll be annoyed. So read class descriptions before you go.
For calmer, slower-paced stretch classes, look for descriptors like: yin, restorative, deep stretch and gentle. For a more intense, faster-paced class, look for words like: power, vinyasa, advanced and flow.
Talk to the teacher.
Letting the teacher know you’re in your first class will cue them to keep an eye on you and also to deliver their instructions in beginner-friendly terms (ie. not in Sanskrit, the traditional language of yoga).
Yoga teachers provide hands-on adjustments. (Yoga One has an entire training program just to be a teacher’s assistant who gives adjustments during class.) Sometimes teachers adjust you to correct alignment but other times they do it just to take you deeper into a pose you’re already doing correctly. Do not be self-conscious about this. They’re just here to help and they are not offended by your sweat or lack of pedicure. Trust me. If you don’t want to be touched or have an injury that should be noted, just let the teacher know.
I’m not saying go out and invest in a new Lululemon wardrobe, but if you’re taking a heated class, baggy cotton sweatpants are a terrible idea. Wear something you’re comfortable in and that you won’t fidget with during class. Non-cotton, moisture-wicking fabrics are ideal. I wear spandex pants and fitted athletic tops so they don’t fly up over my head. Again, aim for comfort and function. No one cares what you’re wearing and you certainly don’t need expensive things to do yoga, but you should be comfortable.
I worked at Lululemon in grad school, bought a ton of stuff on employee discount and have been wearing that exact same yoga wardrobe for the last four years. I couldn’t afford any of it at full price, but what I bought has lasted.
Do not wear shoes into the studio.
Aside from a yoga studio being something of a sacred space, it’s also a space where everyone is barefoot. If you track in dirt and debris (think little rocks or even pieces of glass) on your shoes, you’re creating an unpleasant and potentially unsafe environment for others. No, you don’t need socks and your feet will stick to the mat better without them.
Leave your cell phone outside.
Excluding rare extenuating circumstances, your cell phone should never come with you into a studio. If you are an on-call doctor, awaiting life-altering news (for example, if a family member is in the hospital) or need your phone for any other legitimate reason, just let the teacher know. Switch it to vibrate and leave it face down by your mat.
Know a few basic terms and when to expect them.
OM is a sacred spiritual sound that some teachers will “sing” to open and/or close a class. Students can join in or stay silent. No pressure. Savasana (corpse pose) is the final pose where you lay on your back with your eyes closed at the end of class. Some studios will hand out cool lavender towels for you to place over your eyes during this time. (Never leave class during savasana.) Namaste translates to “the light in me honors the light in you” and most teachers will close class with this. Students can respond with a reciprocal “namaste” or stay quiet. Again, no pressure.
Be patient with yourself.
You don’t have to know how to do everything on day one. You could spend a lifetime practicing yoga and still not be able to do everything. So go easy on yourself, especially on day one. Look at limitations as a reason to come back for more.
I hope you love yoga, but it’s not uncommon for your first yoga class to be uncomfortable and, in some cases, flat-out unenjoyable. Yoga is, after all, a practice of undoing mental and physical habits that numb us to the reality that perhaps we do in fact feel like crap and don’t even know it.
Coming to the realization that you feel like crap in the middle of a yoga class can lead you to believe the yoga is to blame so you bail, say yoga sucks and never return. What’s really happening though is the yoga is acting as a spotlight on problems that were there all along. And with time and patience and dedication, it can help fix them.