Yoga is today’s hottest way to lower stress, improve sleep, lower depression, and increase happiness — so you’ve dropped the $20 to sign up for a yoga class and you’re already wondering if it’s going to be worth it.
I have been teaching for 15 years, with plenty of opportunity to see all the ways that a student can set herself up for success — or not! Here are a few guidelines to help you get the most out of your yoga, whether this is your first or thousandth class:
Before you even sign up:
Scope the teacher, studio, and class style
Do your research — not all yoga is the same. Of course, timing and location should be convenient for you, but beyond that, look into the offerings themselves. Choose a studio that seems to match your interests. Some studios are corporate, franchised versions of “yoga” that veer more towards a bootcamp format. Other small studios offer traditional styles (Ashtanga is athletic yet traditional vinyasa flow; Iyengar is more of a workshop format emphasizing alignment of postures). Some studios offer Yin or Restorative classes, best for those looking to lay around on blankets and pillows for an hour-long-nap-prep. Vinyasa classes are the most ubiquitous at the moment, a free-format flow that varies depending on the training and mood of the teacher.
Speaking of the teacher, this could be the most important factor in your class experience. It is worth taking the time to read the teacher’s bio on the studio website, and even look into his or her website and/or Instagram presence, with these questions in mind: Is this a person that you could respect and connect with? Could you trust this teacher implicitly? You will, after all, be blindly listening to her cues for an hour — it’s worth making sure that she has solid trainings, years of teaching experience, and a respectable yoga practice of her own. Most importantly, choose a teacher who inspires you to actually get to class.
Day of class:
Keep yourself well hydrated (plain water!) and plan your meals according to the class timing. Ideally, you’ll feel well prepared to begin class with an empty but not growling belly.
It’s common fitness advice to have a small snack directly before beginning a workout, but yoga is best approached differently. The postures are more than just physical, tapping into anatomy as well as energy. The idea of a yoga class, if taught by a seasoned and intelligent teacher, should be to purposefully lift your inner heat and energy, then slowly lower it back down.
Yoga asana is designed to create heat within the body (tapas), stoking the internal fire (agni) to lift energy along the spine and detoxify inner impurities. This is also why it is recommended not to drink water during class (it literally quenches the inner fire), so plan on being well hydrated as you walk in. Also, nearly every posture feels best when the body is light and doesn’t have to worry about directing energy towards digestion. This way, you will be able to focus on engaging your deepest core muscles for strength, levity, and expansive breath throughout the class.
Speaking of focus: the best thing you can do for your yoga practice is to begin with a calm clear mind. I know, the yoga is supposed to do that for you, but you can give yourself a leg up by beginning in a calm, stress free manner, just by planning to arrive 10–15 minutes before class starts, especially if this is your first time finding the studio or if you need time to change your clothes after work. That way, if something comes up during the commute, you won’t have to panic about being late — you’ll just be less early than planned.
Now that your body and mind are well prepared for class, what accessories will you need? Today’s yoga market is booming with “essentials,” ranging from high end boutique spandex to cheap mats in a supermarket aisle. I’d recommend the middle-of-the-road basics.
Clothing: comfortable and form fitting (no one wants a mouthful of t shirt during downward facing dog). If you are taking a heated class, or know that you are a sweaty person (no shame), you may want to plan on taking your shirt off during class and/or bringing a small towel. Bring a hair tie (if your hair is long), and plan on being barefoot on the mat (regardless of your hairlength!).
Mat: while studios will carry mats that you can rent for $1 or $2, it is far more hygienic to bring your own. (Trust me; I’ve worked in dozens of gyms and studios and seen how they “clean” their mats.) It is worth investing in something lightweight and high quality. Jade and Manduka are the top two brands on the market. Personally, I’ve been using Jade’s travel mats for over a decade, and always recommend them to friends and students.
The most important thing you can do during class is to listen to yourself, beginning with your breath. If you find that you stop breathing, or that you are panting or otherwise breathing in a distressed pattern, let go of striving towards the physical posture to focus first on creating smooth, even breathing. The breath is foundational to life as well as yoga — once you establish strong, stable breath, you will find that the postures will flow smoothly from there.
Another thing you can do is set an intention: consider how you are feeling as you begin class, and consider how you would like to feel as you finish class. Keep checking in with yourself to make sure you’re working towards the finish you have in mind. In other words, be purposeful in your actions.
Yoga is Skill in Action.
— Bhagavad Gita
Enjoy the results of your work! Take care to wear warm clothes, rehydrate, and eat something light soon after class — these steps will help keep your energy level steady as you reenter the real world. Try to resist anything toxic (food/drinks/stressful environments/ negative people), to keep the “yoga high” going strong. Bask in your feelings of being calm, relaxed, alert, and, most importantly, book your next yoga class!