Walking into your first yoga class can be overwhelming. As a full-time instructor since 2004, I’ve seen a range of emotional responses from new students. Some immediately love the practice; others are put off by the physicality, or an injury, or simply feeling insufficient even though they are brand-new. Considering that there are dozens of different styles of yoga, it takes patience to find the right teacher and approach that works best for you. Fortunately, patience is one thing that yoga is great at helping us cultivate.
While these four misperceptions about yoga are the most common that I’ve come across, they definitely don’t only apply to beginners. Since yoga is about creating sustainability in your body and emotions, it truly is a life-long discipline. Your practice inevitably changes as you age and your body adapts to new circumstances. I suggest reading this list with what we in yoga call “a beginner’s mind,” no matter how seasoned a practitioner you might be. And if you’re brand-new to yoga, welcome! I hope this is helpful to you in your journey.
Mistake #1: Thinking you need to be flexible to do yoga.
If I thought this 13 years ago, when I first stepped onto a yoga mat, a much less flexible version of myself would be writing a different article right now. Yoga helps you become more flexible. Everyone has a different anatomical structure, and there are certain poses that may always challenge you, as well as ones that might not be right for you at all. Don’t push too hard, ever. Be open to being challenged. Always remember to breathe before moving. (As I like to say, breathe into a pose instead of getting into a pose and then figuring out how to breathe.) Most in-class injuries occur when a student is holding their breath and tries to force a muscle or joint to bend too far. Flexibility comes with dedication and self-acceptance, and is a worthwhile pursuit at any age.
Mistake #2: Treating your yoga teacher like a doctor.
I’m constantly asked for medical advice, and I always have the same reply: See your doctor. While I’m comfortable giving alternative poses for students with injuries, I would never offer medical advice. You won’t find answers to statements like “My shoulder hurts right here when I do this” in my class, and for the most part, you should not listen to any medically-related answers from the vast majority of yoga instructors. Instead, simply ask for different postures to practice if something bothers you. Some students tell me that they don’t trust Western doctors, but these physicians have devices like X-ray machines — something a yoga teacher does not. That is important to remember.
Mistake #3: Thinking yoga classes are serious.
They definitely can be; a strong sense of focus is often required. Yet taking postures too seriously is counterproductive. There are many times I look out at and see the contorted and stressful faces of my students; but scrunching up your forehead and clamping down on your jaw is not going to reduce anxiety. Very often, we simply transfer tension from one part of our body to another; faces hold a key to understanding what’s going on in your head and your body.
Simple exercises like fluttering your lips and opening your eyes and mouth wide and closing them helps to soften those areas. If you approach yoga with a loose and playful attitude, your entire practice will flow with ease. If you’re too rigid, the chance of injury increases, and you don’t have nearly as good of a time practicing yoga. If there is no fun at all, it’s simply not worth doing.
Mistake #4: Trying to attain the perfect pose.
Alignment is important. I’m a huge fan of teaching physical cues to help students get the most out of a pose. Still, I’ve seen numerous students spend the entire time we’re in a posture making tiny adjustments with their hands, hips, shoulders, and so on. There is no perfect pose. Our practice will change every day. It’s much more important to hold a pose and try to still your mind than to overanalyze every subtle shift in your body.
The Sanskrit word for posture, asana, is translated as “seat.” The idea is to be able to “sit” in a pose for as long as possible with a meditative mindset. While you’re learning the poses, small corrections are important; but at some point you have to let all the correcting go and simply “sit” in the posture. When that happens, an enormous amount of space is made in your mind, and you can truly enjoy being in the present moment.
—Derek Beres, Women’s Health Reporter