If you’re thinking about trying yoga in 2019, you have plenty of company. More than 14 percent of American adults practice yoga, according to a new study released by the CDC that analyzed data from 2017. The practice, which originated in India around 2700 B.C.E., continues to grow in popularity in the U.S., ranking #7 on the American College of Sports Medicine’s recent 2019 fitness trend predictions.
Yoga is much more than a trendy way to exercise, which is mostly what it’s known as in the west. And despite the #yoga images on Instagram that make it seem intimidatingly tough, you don’t need a specific body type or level of flexibility to practice it. In reality, there are many misconceptions about yoga—especially in the United States—and knowing the facts before unfurling your mat for the first time can help you appropriately honor its origins and make the most of your experience.
Here, three yoga experts explain what you should know before your first yoga class—covering the important and oft-overlooked history of yoga, plus what type of movements to expect, what to wear, how to choose a beginner-friendly yoga class, basic etiquette, and more.
1. First, it’s important to note that yoga is about much more than fitness—it has a long and deep history that is often overlooked in the U.S.
Yoga originated in the Indus Valley Civilization thousands of years ago, and before its transition to the West over a century ago, it was never considered just exercise, Rina Deshpande, Ed.M., MS.T., ERYT-500 certified yoga teacher, tells SELF. “It’s a philosophy of how to live well by transforming yourself and how you experience daily life with all of its ups and downs,” explains Deshpande, who writes, researches, and teaches about the benefits of yoga and mindfulness for adults and children.
Classical yoga—called Raja yoga—includes eight limbs, or kinds of practice. Together, all eight practices comprise yoga, which means “unity” or “yolk” in Sanskrit, explains Deshpande. In general, the Western practice of yoga mostly emphasizes just one of the eight connected limbs—asana, the physical limb which means “seat” or “pose” in Sanskrit. The other seven limbs, however, are equally essential to yoga and include the yamas (social principles such as “do no harm”), niyamas (philosophical principles for self-care, like cleanliness and observing your thinking habits), pranayama (intentional breathing practices), pratyahara (withdrawing to your inner self), dharana (effortful concentration on the path to meditation), dhyana (concentration becomes more effortless and soft), and samadhi (meditation, stillness, and connection to the universe), explains Deshpande.
As mentioned, many yoga classes in America focus primarily on just the asana part of yoga. So while you may enjoy a class that’s focused on giving you a great workout, and reap certain benefits, just know that you may be missing out on the holistic benefits of yoga depending on the studio and instructor you choose. (More on how to pick the right class for you in a bit.)
2. You don’t need to have a certain level of fitness or flexibility to try yoga.
If you search #yoga on Instagram, you’ll see images of people in designer leggings twisting their bodies into complex poses and balancing in ways that seem to defy the laws of gravity. These images can be mesmerizing and also intimidating, especially if you’ve never before tried yoga and perhaps have limited flexibility. Yet you don’t need expensive clothing or any baseline level of flexibility—or fitness, for that matter—to try yoga.
“What’s happened in the U.S. is that we’ve ironically introduced a culture of yoga that can feel exclusive or that ‘requires’ material objects—a proper mat, an outfit, a kind of body, or athleticism,” says Deshpande. In reality, “anyone at all can practice yoga.”
Amy Opielowski, San Diego-based master trainer at CorePower Yoga, agrees. “Anyone can step on a yoga mat as long as they have an open mind and heart to try something new without judgment or expectation,” she tells SELF.
3. There are many different styles of yoga. Here’s how to choose a class for you.
From hatha to vinyasa to yin yoga and more, there are many different styles offered in the U.S., and it can be overwhelming to sort through the options, especially if you’ve never done yoga before. On top of that, styles may vary by studio and by teacher, and some studios have their own brand of classes. Your best bet is to call local studios and ask which classes they recommend for beginners. In general, non-heated classes offering foundational poses are a good bet for newbies, says Opielowski. Vinyasa, which loosely means “breath linked with movement” and focuses on flowing movements connected to your breathing, or hatha yoga, which in Sanskrit refers to any type of yoga that teaches physical postures (though at most studios, describes a more basic, slower-paced style), would be the best choices for beginners, Claire Grieve, certified yoga instructor and stretch therapist, tells SELF. Some studios will have designated beginner classes, too.
As you’re sorting through the options, know that many styles of yoga are devoted to revered teachers’ last names, like Iyengar and Kripalu, explains Deshpande. Some styles—like Ashtanga yoga—are more rigorous, focusing on “fervent postures and movement,” says Deshpande, while some, like yin yoga, are more slow-paced, involving poses held for minutes at a time. Some studios, like CorePower Yoga, offer fusion classes that are more strength training focused and involve, at some point in class, picking up weights and doing movements like lunges and squats.
“They’re all offering great ways of practicing yoga in their own way, but I believe that whatever the style, it’s the guru (“remover of darkness”)—the teacher—that matters,” Deshpande says. She also notes that in the case of fusion classes, it’s ideal to find someone who is “instructing these classes holistically and in a balanced way, offering yoga philosophical teachings infused in a power practice.” You likely won’t find that in every power yoga studio out there, especially those that put a strong emphasis on physique or weight loss results. Again, it really does come down to the studio and specific instructor.
When evaluating potential studios and teachers, know this: “Your teacher does not need to have only an Indian background to be a good teacher,” Deshpande explains. “A good teacher need not look athletic or ‘spiritual,’ a studio does not have to have high-end equipment or outfits for sale, there’s no requirement for Indian statues to be around, and no need to be only Indian or have an adopted Indian name,” she adds. “A true guru of yoga simply needs to be an authentic student of yoga, a practitioner of all elements of yoga, as much as they are a teacher of yoga.” Ideally, Deshpande says, a teacher will link asana with the other limbs of yoga. Research potential teachers online and call studios to ask about the background, expertise, and philosophy of their instructors to find someone whose practices align with what you’re looking for in a class.
4. The structure of a yoga class varies depending on the style, but there are some general things you can expect.
The structure of a yoga class will also vary depending on studio, class type, and teacher. Classes at CorePower, for example, begin with a series of poses to help connect you to your breath, says Opielowski. From there, the teacher may ask you to set an intention for the class, which essentially means selecting a specific word or quality to focus on for the remainder of class, like openness or healing. Then, you’ll likely move through different poses and flows (a specific sequence of poses repeated several times). Your class may also have a “pose of the day” that your instructor describes in detail and provides several regressions for the class to work toward. Classes may also include hip-opening movements and spine-strengthening movements before ending with a brief meditation performed while lying on your back in Savasana (also known as Corpse Pose).
Also, while the specific poses you do will vary greatly depending on the class and instructor, there are a handful that are great to know beforehand as they often pop up in many different popular styles of yoga. Check out these 12 must-know yoga for beginners to arm yourself with a few basics.
5. When dressing for class, opt for something comfortable and form-fitting.
Your attire, first and foremost, should be comfortable, says Opielowski. It should also absorb sweat well and allow you to move, stretch, and breathe with ease, she adds. Most people wear leggings to yoga, though you can certainly wear shorts if that’s what you’re more comfortable in. On top, a supportive sports bra, and a light, comfortable T-shirt or tank are good options. Just make sure that whatever you choose is form-fitting, or tuck your shirt into the waist of your pants, so that it’s not billowing out as you move through different poses, says Opielowski. You don’t need special shoes as yoga is performed barefoot.
6. Introduce yourself to the instructor before class.
Arrive to class early and introduce yourself to the teacher. Let them know it’s your first time at yoga and alert them of injuries or concerns before class begins. A good teacher will be happy to guide you through any modifications or reservations you may have, says Grieve.
7. Consider bringing a water bottle, towel, and yoga mat.
A water bottle (for hydration), small towel (for sweat), and mat (on which you’ll perform your poses) are three essential tools you’ll need in class. You can bring your own, though most studios will provide rentals or include those items gratis with membership, so it’s worth calling beforehand to double check the offerings and what’s included in the class price.
8. No matter what type of yoga class you attend, there’s basic etiquette you should follow.
When you enter a yoga room, leave your phone and any other electronics behind, says Opielowski. Respect the current noise level—most studios are dedicated quiet places. Most studios will also have cubbies in the locker room or outside of the room for your shoes. Drop them there instead of bringing them into class where they can get in the way.
When lying down your mat, take note of where others have placed their mats. Though there typically won’t be markings on the ground, most people will end up arranging their mats in rows. As the room starts to fill, make sure there is room for everybody, and adjust the placement of your mat if needed.
Lastly, as with any group fitness class, do your best to be on time and stay for the entirety of the class, if you can, says Opielowski. This is out of respect for both the teacher and your fellow classmates so that everyone can enjoy their practice with as few outside distractions as possible.
9. If you can’t do a certain pose, don’t stress.
A good teacher will provide instructions for how to modify poses, says Opielowski, and it’s completely acceptable to skip a pose if it’s not working for you. You can rest in a basic pose known as Child’s Pose any time you need a break, adds Grieve.
10. You may experience some soreness after your first class.
You will probably be a little sore after your first class, says Grieve. “Yoga tends to work muscles that aren’t often used, even if you are a regular in other sports,” she says. However, if you feel any pain in your joints and/or ligaments after yoga (versus just overall soreness in the muscle), that is a sign that you may have injured yourself, in which case you should see a doctor if the pain persists after a few days or worsens.
11. To avoid appropriating yoga, educate yourself by simply asking, reading, and committing to the practice before making any decisions about it.
“Keep in mind that we don’t know what we don’t know sometimes,” says Deshpande. Educating yourself and asking questions (of people who have invited you to ask them about yoga) will help a lot. Deshpande says folks frequently tell her that they are fearful of trying or practicing yoga because they might be unintentionally appropriating a practice from a culture they don’t belong to. Her response: “We’re in a really powerful, transformational period of time where yes, this is something we’re talking about more—to bring light to deeply meaningful practices or sayings that have been marketed away from their roots,” she explains. “Walking in to a practice of yoga with a sense of humility and self-started education, such as reading articles or even asking simple questions, is not walking in with a mindset of appropriation. The practice of yoga is so valuable, so my hope is that anyone who is so inclined takes the step to find the limb of yoga that calls to them and begin.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the origins of yoga, Deshpande recommends reading The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, as well as teachings by legendary yogis Paramansa Yogananda and Swami Vivekananda.
12. If you’re still feeling intimidated, focus on letting go of your self-judgment and walking in with an open mind.
Any time you are trying something new—movement-related or not—there can be judgment and expectation, says Opielowski. Try to let go of said judgment and expectation before you unfurl your mat. A yoga class can provide “a beautiful opportunity to connect to your body and breath in a collaborative space,” she says. You just have to give yourself the chance to be vulnerable and open yourself up to learning from everything yoga has to offer.