7 things to know before starting yoga
This post is written by Sarah Fretwell, Yoga Teacher, Movement and Mobility Coach and Writer based in Peckham - a girl who has a love-hate relationship with her hip flexors and who has just recently discovered a hidden talent / love for playing darts.
I can’t even remember what my life was like before yoga. I mean, I remember being a lot less flexible, but it has become such a huge part of my life now that I can’t imagine a life without it. What I’m saying, is that yoga will quite simply change your life. But I understand that to the uninitiated, to the total yoga beginners, it can look quite intimidating.
All those bendy folk touching their toes and chanting “Om Shanti” with their eyes closed. All that serenity. All those Sanskrit words and pose names you don’t understand. Yup, to a total yoga beginner just the thought of stepping into a yoga class can send shivers down your spine.
But you should step into that class. You really should. And to prepare you for when you do, here are 7 things I want you to know about why yoga is really, really good for you!
1. Being a beginner is the best place to be - Why? I’ve been there.
Yoga for beginners is hard. Really hard. When you first step into a room full of people that are better at you than something, two possible reactions can happen in the mind. You can either fall into a pit of despair and hopelessness, believing that you’re too late to the party. Or you can put on your student hat and recognise that yes, you are probably going to be the worst in the room, but you’re here to learn. I strongly recommend that you choose the latter reaction, because going in with an open mind will enable you to thrive, grow and improve way quicker than if you let doubt take over. You’ve got so much to discover, a whole journey ahead of you, so much unravelling and exploring to be done.
If the idea of embarking on a lifelong journey of self-discovery doesn’t excite you, well then maybe just stop reading here. (Please don’t though, there are some interesting nuggets coming up).
Here’s something else I wasn’t prepared for when I first started practising. Unless you have a background as a dancer or gymnast, or are part of the hyper-mobile club, you better be prepared to embrace the suck. The sticky bits. The times when you start practising and feel like you’ve taken 100 steps back in terms of your flexibility. The times when you go to practice but your body just won’t do what you want it to do. Sigh. All I saw when I first started were the poses, the handstands, the splits, the crazy arm balances. I totally underestimated all the hard work, strength, stability, mental determination, commitment and time it would all take. Yes, being a beginner at yoga is an amazing place to be, but you’ve got to be ready to embrace the suck, because there are definitely parts of the practice that will suck for you. And when you discover them, don’t give up! Keep practising, keep exploring and try different techniques until you find one that works for you, because we are all totally unique.
2. You can practice it anywhere
Yes, I mean literally anywhere. This is why yoga is so good! There really is no right or wrong way of how to practice yoga. On your bed. In your house. In the gym. Even at work. The beauty of having a self-practice is that you can bring it with you wherever you go, and all you really need is yourself and a bit of space. I’ve been known to practice in the disabled toilet at work using the wall as a prop. Lunch break downdog-against-the-wall anyone? I also try to sit cross legged if I’m sat on a chair, rather than the standard legs at 90 degrees (HELL for your hip flexors). The more time you dedicate to your practice, the more it really starts to become part of your everyday life. You’ll start seeking out spaces to practice in at the gym, eyeing up that cosy hidden corner. You might even start bringing your mat home to your mum’s over the crazy, family-packed Christmas period just so you can keep sane. If you’re going on holiday, start to pack a light travel mat with you to enjoy a practice on the beach, in your hotel, or on your balcony.
The beautiful thing about yoga is that it really is just about you and your relationship to your body and mind. It’s called a self-practice for a reason, and when you’ve been to a few classes and are starting to get into the swing of things, you can start to explore it on your own. Not every yoga practice has to be the same. You don’t have to do 10 sun salutations. You don’t have to do handstands. You don’t even have to do crazy arm balances if you don’t want to. You get to decide what your self-practice looks like, you get to make the rules.
3. It takes time and consistency
This is a big one, as so many people become frustrated when their flexibility goals take longer than they originally imagined. Becoming stronger and more flexible takes a whole lot of time and effort. You’ve got to be committed if you really want to improve and see real results. But how much time? It really depends on where you’re starting from and how long your body takes to change. Everyone is different, so try not to compare yourself to other people.
We’ve all been there, wondering how the person in front of you is nailing it when you’ve been practising for roughly the same amount of time as them. It’s frustrating, and it can make you feel like you’re failing, so try not to play the comparison game. Just how much time you need to spend practising in order to keep improving, developing and growing will be totally unique to you, so start to explore through trial and error. Maybe going to 5 classes a week leaves your body feeling energised and you quickly start seeing improvements in your strength and flexibility. Or maybe this leaves your body feeling sore and achy and you need to factor in one or several rest days in between your practice. There really isn’t a right or wrong here, so you will need to work out what works best for you.
There’s a ton of information out there, especially on Instagram, telling you what you should do. In my opinion, most of it is meaningless. “30 days to splits eBook!” “Learn to handstand in 1 month!” These marketing tactics are created by people who quite simply do not have your body. Their experience and progress will be totally different to yours, and there is a high chance that they have not just been practising what they say they have. So, just remember that the next time you see someone telling you they got their middle splits in 2 months.
4. It will empower you mentally and physically
For me, this one is hugely important. I’m talking life changing here. There are so many benefits to yoga and meditation. We should move to thrive, not merely just to survive. Movement is highly empowering, not only because it helps ensure that your body is strong, mobile and healthy as you age, but because it opens up a whole new world of play and challenge. When you start to tap into your body’s true potential and overcome challenges, wonderful things can happen to your mind set and self-confidence. With every hurdle that you overcome, every skill set that you learn, every post that you master, you start to believe in yourself a little bit more. Sure, you’ve got to show up and do the work, but when you do that challenging inner and outer work, you will emerge much stronger than before.
Yoga can also benefit us mentally. Our brains love a challenge, and so when we’re thrown something that we can’t quite reach, our bodies are very good at working out how to reach it. It’s all about stretching yourself little and often and taking baby steps in the right direction to slowly build your confidence and self-belief over time. Plus, it’s been proven that moving the body and the spine stimulates the hippocampus in your brain, so moving can actually help us to stay younger and fitter mentally. Forget your times table kids, just get moving…
5. Yoga helps encourage self-acceptance
We are often so hard on ourselves, and there’s no better place to work through this than in a yoga class or on your own mat in your self-practice. A great deal of patience and humility will be a crucial ally when it comes to your own practice. Our bodies are all built differently, and we all struggle with completely different challenges, both physically and mentally. Having a regular yoga practice is really mentally beneficial as it helps you to become familiar with your challenges and weaknesses, which in turn helps you to slowly work through them and befriend them.
Those stomach rolls we all see when we’re in shoulder stand can either make us shiver with disgust, or smile and be grateful that we have a healthy, strong body that is able to take us through our yoga practice. Working with an injury can also be really beneficial in that you are forced to slow things down and to accept the fact that you’re injured and you have to adapt some poses to suit you. It’s all about how we talk to ourselves, the words we choose to say and the thoughts we choose to listen to. Try and drop any judgement of yourself, and instead just turn everything into a playful exploration: How does this feel in my body? Why might this be? Where do I feel this? How can I explore this sensation even further? I highly encourage developing a self-practice so that you can work through whatever challenges you’ve got going on, in your own time and in private.
6. You will never stop learning
Yoga is only one part of the equation. Starting a regular yoga practice will likely lead to discoveries of new forms of movement, as it’s highly transferable and compatible with other movement forms. Think dance. Mobility. Gymnastics. Martial Arts. Capoeira. The skills you develop through your yoga practice will become skills that you can take with you when exploring other movements, and you can start to fuse different practices together, which becomes really fun.
There’s also the fact that yoga is constantly evolving as a discipline. The Ashtanga method that was introduced hundreds of years ago simply doesn’t work for the majority of bodies in this day and age. We lead completely different lifestyles and most of us have a desk job, which is why there has recently been a move towards mobility and functional movement and fusing this with yoga. Not only is this really exciting, because let’s face it, monkeying around is always fun, but this means that we can start to explore yoga with a completely open mind, rather than following a strict set of Ashtanga poses that never really change.
7. Your practice will change over time
Your body is constantly changing, so what works for you now might not work for you in 10 years time. Your practice will evolve and adapt to your circumstances. Try to let this happen, and let yourself explore and be inspired by everything and everyone. If your yoga self practice still looks the same in 5 years time from now, you’ll know that you need to inject some new inspiration into your life, whether that’s through a training course, discovering different teachers or working towards a new goal in your practice.
The more you get to know your own body, its strengths and weaknesses, the more your own practice will develop as you become better at knowing where you need to challenge yourself and where you need to cut yourself some slack. My practice now is totally different to my practice 5 years ago. I now move much more slowly and mindfully, rather than racing my way through the practice without any intention other than to get from A to B. I also know where my strengths lie (backbends) and where my weaknesses are (hip flexors…my nemesis) so I make sure never to neglect my hip flexors when I’m practising, but also to allow myself plenty of backbends because, well I just love them. I’m pretty sure that one day I will grow to love my hip flexors and we’ll be the best of friends. That I will start to explore all the splits poses and every variation that I’m currently just not able to do, and my practice will then change as a result. So be prepared to forget everything you think you know and love, and everything you think you hate. Because it’s all going to change for you one day.
Just keep practising and I promise you all is coming.
Sarah is a Yoga Teacher, Movement and Mobility Coach and Writer based in Peckham, London. She teaches yoga and movement classes at The Lodge Space, Zen Yoga Camberwell, Retreat Yoga Studio and Frame, and runs popular monthly yoga and mobility workshops in South East London. Find out more about her and upcoming classes, workshops and retreats and check out her movement and wellbeing blog over at www.sarahfretwellyoga.