5 Things Every New Yogi Needs to Know
When I started practicing yoga several years ago, I must admit there was little thought to it. I was working shifts and yoga seems like the best activity to do after staying up all night at work. I’d tried running a few times and almost fainted. So I just chose the class in the gym nearest to 9am. Since those humble (and naive beginnings) I’ve become a bit more experienced, but I realize that when I started I had many misconceptions about yoga and what it was/was not.
Here are 5 things that I’ve learnt that I wish I’d known at the beginning of the journey.
- Go Slow
I think the biggest challenge for me was allowing the improvements to come slower. In running, you might take it up and six weeks later have lost all the weight, or improved your time by 20%. In yoga, the gains (seemingly) come slower. In reality, they probably come faster, but as it’s often difficult to gauge, it seems like it has taken you six months to get that one inch closer to your toes! I always tell friends interested in yoga not to expect miracles overnight. Along with the new surge of popularity in yoga and great results people get, some people expect too much, too soon. Be patient and it will come.
- Test, Test and Test
I tell new yogis to test different aspects of yoga before coming to a conclusion (like it’s not for them, or yoga is boring, or you don’t improve strength). We all come to activities with expectations and preconditioned beliefs about what we think is true, and this clouds our experience. I always suggest trying different styles of yoga, with different teachers—even if you really like the first one. This will give you perspective and a better platform to make a decision from. If you just go to one class and think, “Well that was too easy compared to what I’m used to”, then you are generalizing all yoga to that one experience. And this can have the power to affect whether you continue or not. Test teachers, styles, locations and formats. Then decide.
- The Mat is a Mirror for Life
What happens on the mat stays on the mat? Not really. How you perform on the mat is often a microcosm of your life. Are you scared to take a risk in that headstand? Are you concerned about what others think about your inability to do the splits? Do you constantly pick up on any errors you think the teacher is making? I once heard a speaker say, “How you do anything, is how you do everything.” And it’s often true. Are you always late and flustered for class? Do you think that it’s too easy for you and you have nothing to learn from it? Well, the mat is a mirror, so use it to get a better understanding of your own psyche.
- Find Out What You’re Sensitive To
It’s one of the seldom discussed aspects to yoga, but all that stretching, twisting and breathing can, well… release “tension” built up in the body, expelled through, well, you know where. And struggling to keep in a bit of flatulence is going to affect your practice. One thing I came to realize was just how what I ate affected my practice. So find out what might cause you to pass gas—typically it’s things like dairy, eggs, fried food, crisps/potato chips and many other products— for me it’s often almonds! Refrain from consuming anything that gets you going and you’ll be able to relax more.
- Make Mistakes, and Many of Them!
We heard it a lot as children. That it’s okay to make mistakes—as long as we learn from them. Well, somewhere in growing up we forgot that. But the thing is, in order to learn a new skill, we must make mistakes. The reason is that as we repeat certain activities, our neural connections in the brain get stronger. The more we do said activity or task, the more the connections strengthen. If you imagine the neural connections as copper wires that send information from one part of the brain to another, then the more you do something the stronger the signal becomes. However, a substance called myelin wraps around the ‘wire’ (like the insulating part of copper wires) and is important for keeping the signal in. And myelin grows and gets more insulating with deep practice. This is the kind of mindful practice where you make mistakes and then work to improve each time. So welcome the mistakes. Be conscious of where you go wrong and you will improve faster.
3 Ways to Cultivate and Keep a Home Yoga Practice
Starting a home practice can be a daunting task. When I talk to students about starting a home practice, the same topics keep coming up: They don’t have the space or the time, they’ve tried but can’t stick with it or when they try, they don’t end up doing the type of practice they would like to. A home practice can teach you to follow your intuition and how to listen to your body. It will teach you to make time for yourself and it will allow you to reap the benefits daily practice can bring.
Below are my top three tips for starting and keeping, a home practice:
1. Keep a journal, calendar, or both.
Why? It keeps you accountable. By writing on your calendar that you are practicing that night, you’ll motivate yourself to practice so as to avoid staring at your missed commitment the following day. A missed practice can be a big kick in the pants.
I keep my journal on a shelf in my home practice space. When I was working on incorporating consistent practice into my life, having the journal there always got me to go to my practice area, even if I had told myself I didn’t have time, or was too tired to practice. No matter what, I could always convince myself that I had time to jot down what I was feeling in my journal. After a few instances of writing but not practicing, it started to feel ridiculous to be there and not practice. One new habit fed the other.
I have both a calendar and a health journal. I check my practice off on my calendar when I’ve completed it, and I write in the journal even if I don’t do a practice. Both keep me accountable and motivated.
2. Release your expectations. All of them.
Don’t worry about having the “perfect” space to practice. Don’t worry about how much time you were able to spend on your practice on any given day, and definitely don’t worry about the kind of practice you decide to do. Find a spot that’s big enough to roll out your mat and start there. If it helps, you can set up a special space where you can keep your yoga stuff. Try setting up an alter, but don’t let an imagined need for such a space keep you from starting your practice today. All you need is one space that is big enough to lay out a yoga mat. Period.
One of the issues I faced when I was starting my home practice was making the time. It seemed like a rare occasion when I had enough time to do what I would consider to be a practice; however, once I got serious about starting a home practice, this was one of the first beliefs that I had to let go off. Some nights I come to the mat exhausted and my practice is savasana, and only savasana. Whether you practice one pose or fifty, it doesn’t matter. I don’t judge and I don’t talk down to myself as though it wasn’t enough. I don’t wish I’d done “more.” I come to the mat with the time I have and I do what works for me on that day.
This goes for the type of practice too. When I started my home practice, I had this idea in my head that my mornings would be set aside for restorative and that I would rock a vinyasa flow in the evenings. I soon learned that I had to let go of what I thought I should be doing and just do what my body told me to do. If that meant doing restorative, I did restorative. If I felt energized, I did a flow. The same rules as above apply.
Don’t judge it, and don’t think it doesn’t count just because it didn’t meet an expectation you had set out for yourself. If you do, you’ll risk getting caught up in the downward spiral of feeling like you aren’t “really” doing a home practice, and once you’re there, it’s very easy to continue with those thoughts and eventually decide that your excuses and downfalls are more powerful than your wish to practice at home. This is where a lot of us end up. Don’t give up on yourself. Persevere through these thoughts.