What is yoga?
Yoga is most simply described as bringing the mind, body, breath and spirit into a connected state of bliss. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word Yuj which means "to join", "to connect", or as the root word implies "to yoke". When one yokes or puts a harness on a beast of burden they are effectually, physically controlling the animal. Overtime, the animal will finally stop resisting and bow to the harness. Much in the same way, a student new to yoga may experience their mind and body wanting to resist the practice altogether.
Over time and with a dedicated practice, the mind stops resisting and begins to want to practice the asanas and/or meditations. Yoga is not just a thing that you do, it is a state of being that you are trying to obtain with the assistance of the 8 limbs of yoga which include the physical poses that most Westerners are familiar with.
What should I expect/wear/bring as a new student attending my first class, workshop, meditation or private session?
If you are new to yoga and attending your first class or session, you should try to come with no expectations from your body. All of our bodies are different and we all look different from pose to pose. Everyone has an area(s) of yoga that they are strong in and adversely, areas that are more challenging for them. For instance, some people may be flexible, yet their balance may be off. Or, a person could have great strength and difficulty with flexibility.
Yogis coming to class for the first time should arrive 15 minutes before class begins to fill out any necessary paperwork and to discuss any injuries, illnesses, a pregnancy or concerns you may have with the instructor before getting started. Try not to eat at least 2 hours before coming to class. Food in your stomach will make it more difficult to move and can cause digestive issues. You should wear comfortable, breathable fabrics (such as cotton) that can move with you (such as athletic wear). Be sure to bring water for hydration because a yoga room can be warmer (or hot, depending on the format) and you may perspire more since it would be your first time, a towel is recommended, a yoga mat if you have one (we have a few extras on hand if you need to borrow though), and have an open mind.
The yoga instructor will provide modifications for poses as well as progressions. This is because students are at different levels and need either more or less of a pose. Only do what your body will allow you to do safely. Overdoing a pose can result in injury and a bruised ego (don't worry though, most yogis have made this mistake and learned quickly from it!). Also, no one is looking at you in particular in class and almost everyone thinks people are watching them at first. If you see someone glance your way, it's probably to see if they (themselves) are doing a pose correctly or they are simply just looking around the room.
Yogis having a private session for the first time should do all the above and since this would be your first session we would go over any physical concerns or limitations, a brief history of any incidents that may effect your practice and anything else you feel your trainer should know. The first session will cover yoga fundamentals and working with the foundational postures to begin training your muscle memory.
If you are a new student to a workshop or meditation practice then the above would still apply. In addition, you may want to bring comfortable pillows for sitting on or a meditation cushion, a scarf, shawl, or small throw blanket is good to have to wrap around your shoulders while meditating and could act as extra cushioning as well.
What is yoga etiquette?
When attending a yoga session, class, or workshop, you will need to be barefoot (no socks if we are performing asanas, unless you have a special reason). This is so that we do not track the outside world into our sacred space, so that our feet "stick" safely to the mat while we are performing poses; esoterically we are more "rooted" to the earth for receiving and processing the electromagnetic energy, and it's just more hygienic. When walking in the yoga room please avoid stepping on anyone else's mat or belongings (big faux pas in the yoga world). Be respectful and mindfully aware of your neighbor's space as they will do for you.
Please keep your phone outside of the yoga room and turned down or off, or if you must have it in the room with you, then please do so by turning the phone all the way down. Step outside quickly and quietly if you need to use your phone for any reason.
If you need to leave the room for any other reason such as using the bathroom or you need to exit early, do so quietly so as not to disturb anyone else in class. If you know ahead of time that you are going to need to leave early, simply let the instructor know before class. Try to use the bathroom before going into class if you can because sometimes yoga can cause one to suddenly have to use the restroom if you are relatively new to the practice. All of the bending forward and twisting motions will gently squeeze and put pressure on your organs, including the kidneys and bladder. Not to worry, this has a cleansing and detoxifying effect!
If you are sick, please stay home and rest. If you suddenly have a sneezing or coughing fit in the middle of class (this does happen) then just quietly excuse yourself until the fit has passed. This can happen if you have been sick recently with upper respiratory related illnesses, suffer from COPD, or if you are a smoker/recently quit smoking.
Please refrain from wearing any heavy scents or just don't apply any scents at all. Cologne, perfume, strongly scented lotions, and heavily applied essential oils tend to aggravate many people's sinuses and can cause headaches in people because we are breathing in deeply and purposely during class.
What should I look for when attending a yoga class, workshop, and/or private yoga session?
First, and foremost, you want to make sure that your yoga instructor is well-qualified. Many yoga instructors are certified in a particular style or styles of yoga and choose to get registered with a qualifying agency. It is ideal to find a teacher who is both certified and registered with either Yoga Alliance, International Yoga Registry, etc.
Qualified instructors should have at minimal, 200 contact hours of training and at least have led several classes in the style(s) they were taught. If you are looking for more than that in your instructor then you should find a trainer who has an RYT 500. This means they have had a much more in depth study of yoga and all its many facets as well as having taught many more classes and perhaps even assisted in workshops. A highly qualified instructor will be labeled as an E-RYT 200 or E-RYT 500. Both mean that the instructor has taught for at least 2 or 4 years respectively under a yoga registry, have more than 1000 hours of training, and have taught over a thousand hours of yoga-related material and may have led or assisted yoga teacher trainings.
Registries for yoga comply with the highest standards and require their registrants to keep taking continuing education classes on yoga as well as teaching a certain amount of classes per year(s) to maintain their good standing. These registrations also allow someone new to yoga to make an informed decision about who they choose as their yoga instructor.
Your yoga instructor should be able to create a yoga class that makes sense and has relatively easy to follow instructions. They should be able to cue and correct alignment verbally and by demonstrating. Hands on assistance is the last thing a teacher should resort to (unless this is a private session or workshop that is deliberately for this purpose) and should never touch a student without their explicit consent and a liablity waiver. To add to this, most teachers will not physically adjust their students until the student has attended a certain amount of classes. This is so that the instructor can learn how your body moves and learn more about you and any issues or injuries you may be dealing with on any given day. Our bodies are in a constant state of change and feel different from day to day, and injuries can occur at any time. Your teacher should be cognizant to this. Most studios, gyms, and community centers require all new students to sign a liability waiver.
The studio or meeting area should be clean and have a good ambience. Your teacher should introduce themselves to you and ask you applicable questions if you are new, or how you're doing if you're a regular. Your teacher should give a small introduction at the beginning of class and be accomodating throughout the class time because this is your yoga practice, not theirs.
Last of all, make sure you're comfortable with your instructor. We all have different personalities and some of us are cohesive with one another and some us can repel each other like oil and vinegar. Having a teacher you don't like can spoil your overall yoga experience. This is why it's also a good idea to try different teachers and different styles of yoga. Eventually, a particular style of yoga will speak to you and then it's just a matter of finding that teacher or studio that you mesh with and feel like part of the yoga community.
Often-times, studios will have introductory prices or free classes for new students. This could be a great way to begin your yoga adventure!
How often should I practice yoga?
Generally speaking, anyone just starting out should take it slow to allow their body and mind time to adjust to the movements and to allow for healing time after a class. More than likely, you will be sore if those muscles are not used to being stretched and lengthened as is done in almost all yoga classes. Once a week is good for some and others may be able to go a few times a week in the beginning.
After some time has passed and your body has adjusted to the poses, you could start practicing more days out of the week or compliment your practice by trying different styles such as going to a flow class one day and then to a more restorative practice another day, or even break it up by attending a meditation class to practice another limb of yoga.
Always listen to your body (paying attention to areas that may be in pain or are healing from an injury) and give it time to heal and adjust. There is no finish line in yoga, the prize is personal growth with an intention of reaching blissful states. However, being on an earthly plane, bliss rarely remains a constant. Our universe is designed to evolve which causes a state of change indefinitely. We must learn to accept change and respond with grace. Yoga provides the tools for these changes, but you have to take the first step onto your mat to begin the process.
*Additional note for women* When you are on your moon cycle it is best to avoid any inverted poses, save for Downward-Facing Dog; also it is best to avoid any powerful yoga flows, sequences, or poses. It is better to either stick with a more gentle practice on these days or simply use these days to rest or even practice meditation instead!
What is Sanskrit and do I need to know it?
Sanskrit is an ancient Hindu language that dates back to around the 2nd millenia BCE and is one of the oldest known Indo-European languages that is actually still in use today. Not only do yogis use the language in yoga, it is also still widely used in the academic arena, for ceremonial purposes, in music, poetry, when reciting hymns, etc. It's even still spoken as a language in some remote regions of India and other areas of Asia! Sanskrit has a very rich and long history just to describe here. It fills volumes of books!
This language can be intimidating at first but over time you begin to learn which pose is which in Sanskrit if your instructor chooses to use it to describe the poses. Many teachers choose to use both the English and the Sanskrit names for poses interchangeably to help their students become familiar with both terms for a pose. Like anything else in life, it will take time and repetition to learn all of the postures in Sanskrit and English.
How is yoga different from any other exercise?
Yoga is similar to other exercises in the respect that you are toning, strengthening, sculpting, and so on with your physical body. In fact, many exercise movements are yoga poses and understanding that yoga has been around for thousands of years, it's easy to see why. You must also pay attention to your breathing in other exercises. This has only very recently been incorporated with exercising. A good example would be with Pilates and the controlled breathing techniques which didn't appear in the West until the 1930's.
Many experts in the fitness industry now understand the importance of breath and movement. Yoga asanas focus heavily on alignment to develop correct muscle orientation. Again, most fitness experts also understand the importance of correct alignment when performing an exercise movement.
Yoga becomes different from regular fitness because the intention of yoga is different than that of other exercise formats. The goal is for the aspirant to obtain a state of bliss in which the mind, body, and spirit become one with the Universe. Yoga has many other "tools" to assist in obtaining this state such as mantras, mudras, meditation, seva practice, studying the ancient yogic text, and so on.
Yoga infiltrates itself into every aspect of your life if you allow it in. It can change negative thought patterns and help you become a better version of yourself. Maintaining a yogi vegetarian diet will assist in keeping your body clean and healthy.
Living as a strict yogi is very similar to the way prophets, monks, and saints of the past and present have lived (though most practicing yogis do not go to all of these extremes!); being conservative in material items, frugality and learning to overcome your human desires by practicing the 8 limbs; including abstaining from alcohol, drugs, and sex without love, respect, and compassion for your partner. All of these things are said to defile the body and make it unclean which in turn dirties the heart and mind filling them full of unending desires, wanting, longings, and constant pain and disappointment which leads one back to trying to fulfill their desires. It can be a nasty unending cycle for some.
This in no way implies that anyone wanting to practice yoga has to suddenly become a pauper by giving away all of their earthly possessions and living as a monk! Yoga teaches repeatedly about moderation to help prevent unhealthy habits, negative psychological patterns, and addictions. However, if one can abstain without the fiery sense of desire pressing on them incessantly, then the road to bliss is not as rocky and winding as the path most humans choose to take.
The asanas (poses) help to burn the fiery rajas (active, excessive energy that can turn into tamasic energy (gluttonous), or sattvic energy (pure and clean). Mantras help to purify the mind by replacing negative thought patterns with high vibrations of sound made by the apsirant (this can be done aloud, silently, or by writing the mantras). Mudras assist in concentration during asanas and meditation and have esoteric links within the chakras and nadi channels of the body. Meditation initially reveals what the mind has refused to acknowledge and once this "clutter" is cleared away, then meditation works to bring us to a higher sense of self and of our purpose, ultimately connecting one to everything and nothing at all. It is a lot to try and conceptualize all at once and this is why yoga is a repeated effort on every level.