I am acutely aware and concerned for the welfare and frame of mind of my students and clients when they come to see me in drop in or public group classes. I remember being very intimidated the first time I dropped into a class. And here's a secret - I still sometimes get intimidated when I am a participant:-). I have listed six tips that are useful not just for beginners in group yoga classes, but for everyone anytime you are coming to a movement based class or consultation. I wont be listing things such as dressing comfortably, bringing a yoga mat, or being prepared to be barefoot (those are indeed some general expectations!) - but I have put togetherwhat I feel are my most important takeaways stemming from my own experience when I as a novice and observations I have as a teacher/therapist.
1. Keep the focus on YOU. It is but human to scan the room and notice who may be regulars, who looks like newcomers, who looks good in certain postures, who looks "better" than you. Our bodies, levels of fitness, and abilities are all different. For a posture practice, its not about packing yourself into a shape, its about exploring what your body is able to do and finding stability. Focus your attention and energy onto getting to know your own body and potential, not on looking like your teacher, or like another participant in class. Yoga is about improving yourself, so keep the focus on YOU!
2. Listen to the instructor in front of you, AND inside you. You have choices. I often hear from some students when I give them options, "its okay, tell me where I 'should' place my feet/hand etc", or if I ask them if they would like a change in pace from my usual teaching, "I'll do whatever you say". A teacher will never know exactly how it is to feel like you, in your own body. There are always choices in a yoga posture class, explore them - and if they are not offered, ask your instructor. Listen carefully to the teacher’s instructions and know that there are instructors who may model everything for the class, and there are those who refrain from demonstration. Having someone move in front of you can be an effective way to learn how someone else looks like in a posture, but remember that you are the one coming in to learn and explore. The one person who should always be paying attention to you, is the instructor inside YOU.
3. Be responsible and informed. I have heard participants have impressions of either: "Its Yoga- it will be relaxing" or "Its Yoga - its gonna be a workout!" and despite having class descriptions, that some participants do not check first, or if they do, sometimes they are misinformed. Read the class description and inquire from the gym or studio; if at all possible, talk to the teacher before the class starts. A teacher's focus in a group class is always about keeping everyone safe, but it is also about getting everyone to move and practice and participate within a group. If a class is catered towards building a lot of strength and stamina - than expect a class that is likely to be demanding and challenging. If a class says it is focused on stress management and healing, than you might not be moving in a very fast pace. A class may describe itself as an "all levels class" but if you are newcomer and the rest of the people in class are regulars, keep in mind that those who have been attending regularly may already be practicing at a certain level and pace (and that's okay!). If you have a specific health condition, being in a group of people will not be the ideal way to get customized attention tailored for what will benefit you, so it is important that you have an understanding of your capabilities and what to avoid.
4. Pain is NOT a gain nor is it an option. Know your Limits - there is no gain with pain. The teacher will do his/her best to monitor everyone in class. A teacher can only gauge your experience based on what you express (i..e. facial expression, body tension, anything you may utter or say!). You must move only within your pain free motion. Pain is a message from your body telling you to stop, back off, you went too far. You are in a shared space, and it can be very tempting to see if you can do what other people in class may be doing. Focus on your own abilities and pace, and understand that there is a difference between straining yourself and meeting a challenge. If something does not FEEL right....you have the right and obligation to yourself to back off and do what will keep you stable and safe.
5. Inhale to express, exhale to stabilize. How and when you breathe DOES matter. I have heard participants say that the awareness to the breath is the most difficult part of the class. Understand that breathing is one process of the body that we have some control over. We can hold our breath - pause in between inhaling and exhaling -but at some point, without us having to control it, our body knows its time to either take in, or release. This is an excellent process to "link" to when you are moving or building a posture. The analogy is also excellent when you think of how this applies to developing mental focus - when we change how we breathe, we change how we think and how we feel. With mental focus comes awareness, ease, stability, and discipline. Do your best to initiate each movement with the breath (especially when your teacher gives specific cues). There are many ways to harness your energy with breath techniques - and the right way of breathing also supports the health of the spine, especially when you move actively or are training your body's core muscles. A general rule of thumb that I recommend is this: inhalations express and energize; exhalations stabilize.
6. Let the practice do its work. Do not be surprised with the last posture called "savasana" - wherein you are guided to lie on your mat and sink into stillness. The purpose of savasana, as my first yoga mentor would say, is to allow the body and mind to "digest the nutrients of your practice". If you have been repetitively going in and out of postures, and staying in a posture (holding it), you are not just placing your body into a certain shape - you are training your mind to get acquainted with a range of motion across your joints. Flexibility, which many class participants have as their "goal" in yoga posture classes - isn't about making muscles longer and pliable because you are stretching - its re-training your nervous system so that your brain understands that this is the range of motion you'd like for it to get acquainted with. There are people who feel restless during this part of the class - it is absolutely appropriate to request the teacher to help you find a position where the body and mind can integrate what it has learned from the posture practice. If you need to leave early, then do so politely, respecting the other participants in the room and your teacher. Sometimes a class ends right after savasana - sometimes there maybe a breath practice and or meditation. However which way the teacher/therapist decides to close the class, be hopeful that you will gain renewed energy and clarity.
I hope these pointers will give you more ease the next time you go to your favorite group class or see your private yoga teacher/therapist. Namaste!