Message to the Beginners
When you're new to yoga, it can be hard to know where and how to start. There is so much information online and in other media which is misleading, it creates a false image of what a yoga practice is supposed to be. For your neighbor it might be a kick-ass workout in a hot room with upbeat pop music, one of your friends said that it’s a really good therapy which healed his knees and lower back and some yoga instructor on YouTube claiming to make you a happy human if you only will try his class. So how can all of this be a part of something what we happened to call YOGA.
Unless you will try you won’t know. So don’t let anyone confuse you with their experiences which can be completely different from yours. Not everyone longing for the enlightenment or inner journey as well as not everyone cares about what kind of “yoga” pants is trendy now. But deep inside we all seeking the Truth, something what will help us to figure out what is all of this about, what we are about, after all? And there are many practices out there which can give you a great tools for self-exploration, and dedicated and smart yoga practice is one of them. In this article I would like to point out a few important, in my opinion, tips which can lead to purposeful and safe practice. It can be useful for the beginners and as a food for thought for yoga teachers.
I recently allowed myself to teach a Beginner class having under my belt not less than 7 years of regular practice including 4 years of teaching experience all over the world. For many it won’t make sense because it seems that Level 1 class is supposed to be an easy thing to teach: it slow paced, there is no advanced postures or techniques and, frankly, nobody in the room have a clue what are they doing and why, so teacher can use it as a trial after getting graduated from the teacher training course. But nobody really thinking about the amount of responsibility behind it. People who never tried this practice had enough courage, energy and time to come to you. To learn, to explore, to trust that you will guide them through their first experiences. And in this first few months and years something what I would call “fundament” or “base” is being build. When you are going to school, first year you just need to learn to read, count and write so you can move to another subjects which require these skills. And if you didn’t get them at the beginning? Well, applying this example to yoga, in the best situation you are risking to waste time and money (gym membership will cost much less than membership in yoga studio and it will work perfectly to get you in shape and make you healthier), to be fooled by many frauds which will feed you with some delusions just to make you buy their product (whatever it is: super strap which will expand your consciousness or 10-minutes practice for awakening kundalini) or, in worst scenario, you will get injured. All of it will leave you frustrated and disappointed.
Ok, let’s exhale and start. You are in the yoga room, trying to make yourself somehow comfortable sitting on the floor (use those blankets – it is really helpful), looking around and wondering how your hair look like. Yoga instructor starting the class and probably asking you to stay still, calm your mind, concentrate on your breath and let go. A bit overwhelming for the newbie, especially, when back and hips very stiff yet, brain is still making a “to do” list for the weekend, right shoulder itching and you cannot make yourself calm as you still worry about those damn hair … Ok. Exhale again. Let’s break it all down in a few parts.
1. Breath awareness
Breath awareness is the most challenging part not only for the beginners but for the more advanced practitioners as well. And I am not even going to talk about any special technique or pranayamas … Just being able to support your physical movement, control your nervous system and internal processes with the breath alone is a big task. So here are a few tips:
• At the beginning of the class draw your attention to your breath. Don’t try to change it – simply watch it. Is it shallow? Heavy? Short? Fast? Be honest with yourself and accept whatever pattern of the breath you have now.
• Our aim is to create a spontaneous, natural and effortless breath through the nostrils (!). It is calm, steady and quite long. So, without forcing yourself too hard start with trying slightly lengthening your breath (yes, it seems as an automatic process…but not really, you are the one who can be in control with it). Observing the movement inside of your body can give you a great support: make sure that inhale expanding your belly and rib cage as a balloon and exhale releasing it to the initial point with your navel slightly pushing in towards the spine (it is not as easy as sounds – most of us have a reverse pattern). Take 5-10 breaths in this way, count it – it will help you to stay present.
• Once your breath calmed down a bit and you established the pattern of it – break it down to 3 parts. Inhale – Exhale – Pause. Start with pause 1-3 sec, the point is that you are not rushing into the next inhalation. It will allow you to find the moments of calmness and silence.
“As breath turns from down to up, and again as breath curves from up to down — through both these turns, realize.” (Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra) During the class try to recall these patterns (expansion/release and pauses in between the breaths) whenever it is possible, overwise just listen carefully to the instructor cues about the breath while you are getting in or out of pose.
Teacher tip. Don’t forget to talk about breath. There are postures in which student can benefit greatly if you specified what part of the breath leading to this pose (like Inhale to backbend or exhale to fold forward etc.) If you didn’t tell anything most probably they are not breathing at all or breathing randomly using their old patterns of shallow breath. And you cannot hear it because there is no ujjayi sound in the beginner class 😉
2. Focus your Attention
Movement of the body is nothing compare to the movement of the mind. While performing different postures or sequences try to observe what kind of feeling it creates in your muscles, tissues and organs. If you are lifting an arm – think about it instead of wondering about what will follow next, if you are balancing - think what muscles are engaging to maintain your posture (you don’t even need to know their names – let it be a self-anatomy class), give some love and attention to the parts of the body of which you usually not aware of (feet, palms, calves or maybe even armpits). Gradually become a process itself. You don’t need to concentrate on some special subject or your breath quite yet, as well as you should not try to push away any thought which is coming into your mind, let your mind be free, but gently guide it in a desirable direction.
Once you develop such a habit, everything becoming a yoga practice, a meditation. Washing the dishes, walking on the beach, driving the car or eating the food – if you are present and fully in a process you are whole and complete.
Teacher tip. Remind the students to stay present inside of their bodies during the class, but don’t tell them how to feel. If stretching hamstring makes you feel good and “yummy” – doesn’t mean that your student will feel the same. By talking about your expressions, you are stealing their experiences and sometime even make them feel that they are doing something wrong when they are not.
3. Forget about flexibility
Yes, this is not a mistake. Forget about it, that’s not the main reason why you are here (hopefully).
Unless you are a bodybuilder or athlete, first what you should care about on the regular yoga class is to build strength from inside out: starting from the core muscles of the torso and moving to the periphery. Before moving towards the advanced postures and tie yourself in the knots, build the foundations to develop strength and skill to protect the all-important joint. As you practice mature you will be much more mindful about your body, purpose of movements/postures and safety.
Being inflexible is a big benefit. Believe me. You will appreciate your body much more, you will be learning to move with small steps, your practice will be much more profound. It might seem strange, but the students with great flexibility (dancers, gymnasts etc.) might miss a big part of the practice where through discomfort in your physical body we are learning to strengthen our mind, and they must put up much more work to bring the deeper sense in their practice.
Teacher tip. Teach beginners with emphasize on strength, endurance and stability (joint exercises, standing postures, basic balances) gradually adding decent amount asanas for increasing flexibility. Your task is to help them to build the foundation of connective tissues throughout the body, especially those that bind musculoskeletal system together.
Alright, hopefully now this first few minutes of the class won’t be so confusing for you and you will stay safe and present to the final savasana. Here are few more thoughts which I would like to share with you.
4. Prepare the body
After I moved in the States I realized that Yoga here – is mostly just a good workout in a hot humid room. It’s physically taxing, people are sweating, body seems to become flexible quick and easy and at the end of the class you are exhausted but happy. Yeah! It feels good - I get it. I don’t really want to move to the discussion about pros and cons of Hot Yoga (Not even Bikram at this point) but all I want to say is that people forget about warm up. It’s hot, why do you need to warm up? Well warm up its not only about building body heat, it is not a cardio or type of warm up you would do before workout. Yogic warm up for physical body is the joint exercises. There are various schools of yoga and, of course, not all of them includes that in the practice but as my Guruji were saying: “There is not good or bad yoga, there are good or bad teachers”, so, even you never asked to do any preparation on the group class you always can come earlier and do your own movement before group will arrive. 5 min. Think not about entertainment but safety, not about shape but about health, even 5 mins of simple movements before actual postures can do a lot good and will help you to feel and control your body much easier.
Please check this free video with 30 min morning practice which will help you to get the idea about joint movements.
5. Cultivate regularity and patience
You are about to create a new routine which will bring lots of benefits to your life. Whatever you are seeking for: physical health, reducing anxiety, strengthen the mind – all of it just a side effects or regular and patient yoga practice. Create a schedule for yourself so you would spend few days in a week (preferably same days) for your practice. Local yoga studio or internet will provide you a guided practice; yoga mat, some space to place it and 10-30 min of free time will allow you to do some joint exercises, sun salutation, asana complex or even meditation by yourself even at home.
Once you created a new habit you won’t need to force yourself to do it – it will become a part of your life! Be patient and remember even though you are a beginner – always take personal responsibility. You became student of yoga to learn more about yourself: body, mind and spirit. Nor teachers, nor mentors or enlightened gurus will know you better than yourself. So, seat quietly and listen. Your practice of yoga begin here.