I don’t think people can truly appreciate yoga until they’ve been away for a while.  My busy schedule has kept me away from class for a while, and my lower back and tight muscles are asking me “Why, Teri, why?”  Yoga is pretty amazing. It’s helped me feel better, and I have friends who swear by it.  I hope to pick up a regular practice again soon and to keep doing it for the rest of my life. Starting yoga again makes me think of a new class.  Any time a new block of classes starts there are often some newbies.  (My teacher always asks.)  Inevitably there are some things that they don’t know yet — and some get scared off and never come back.   Below are some tips I’ve learned from my yoga experience that will keep you happy, healthy, yoga-mat-toter.

1. Know Your Body.

Make sure you tell the yoga instructor if you have any medical issues that may make some of the moves difficult; i.e. major surgeries or injuries.  Just like in any other physical activity, you can hurt yourself in yoga if you don’t take care of your body.  Your yoga instructor should have suggested modifications ready for you for moves that involve those sensitive body parts.  And if the instructor offers you any kind of modification — and you think you might need it — take it!  The first time I took yoga, the instructor offered a neck modification for one of the poses, and I didn’t take it; I didn’t want to be different from everyone else.  The next day my neck was messed up, and I blamed it on yoga.  It took me a few years to come back.

2. Figure out the difference between discomfort and pain.

You’re going to feel uncomfortable during yoga — it means you’re working hard!  (A particularly uncomfortable sitting pose comes immediately to mind for me — it stretches back the feet and the toes and is more uncomfortable than getting caught snooping through someone’s medicine cabinet.)  But nothing you do should be hurting you.   Yoga should feel more like a good workout and less like a rhino sat back on you and crushed all your bones. I exaggerate.  But the point is: listen to your body.  You’ll figure out what’s good “hurt” and what’s pain.  And if you’re not sure, don’t risk it.  And on the other hand, once you’re pretty comfortable, feel free to push it — if you know you can.  Not too fast — but gradually push it.  The more you can safely stretch and push your body, the better for you.

3. Don’t forget to breathe.

This is particularly important during balancing moves or very difficult poses.  Don’t concentrate so hard that you start to turn blue.  Proper breathing during yoga is just as important as in any type of exercise.   Actually, breathing is the most important part of yoga.  In fact, our instructor likes to remind the class that the most important par of what we do in class is the breathing.  If we just breathed the whole time, we would still benefit.

4. Try to focus. 

Be in the moment.  Focus on the pose.  Better yet, focus on the breathing: deep breath in, deep breath out.  But if you can’t, don’t sweat it.  Just like in other types of meditation, if you catch yourself drifting, bring yourself back.  If you’re completely distracted, try again next time.  If my mind is all over the place in class, I’m not too worried about it —  I know I’ve had better days, and I will have better days again.

5. Recognize that everyone’s body is different and everyone’s experience level is different.

This is a particularly hard one for me and can be a particularly hard one for newbies.  Someone people get easily frustrated easily because they’re relatively young, have been doing yoga for a while, and they feel like they should already be incredibly flexible. In my years of experience with yoga,  I’ve sometimes felt that I should be able to do any of the poses.  Not so.  Even though I have a particularly flexible torso, arms, shoulders, and hips — I’m equally inflexible in my legs, lower back, and feet.  I also have difficulty balancing — and unless I continuously practice balancing poses and leg stretches,  I’m probably not going to see any dramatic results anytime soon.  That’s where I am right now.  And that’s ok.  Remember #3: Breathe!  Also, some yoga days are better for you than others.  You might find you can’t stretch as far or hold your balance as long as you did the week before.  Don’t panic; that’s perfectly normal.  One session you might feel fantastic, and the next week you might feel like you can’t do anything.  Any number of factors from sleep to diet to stress level to weather changes, etc may be affecting your body, and this is ok. Remember — breathe.

6. Bring a mat.

My partner and I have missed yoga once or twice because we realized we had forgotten our mat, so we turned around and went back home.  People have attempted the class without the mat, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  It’s uncomfortable doing some of that stuff on the floor.  Also, you might want to bring a towel or block to go under your bum or your knees  — your bum for some of the exercises if your lower back/legs/hips are tight, and your knees if you’ve got bad knees.  I bring a towel because I have super tight legs and hips and a tight lower back, and it gives me a lift during the leg stretches so that gravity can help me get past where I get stuck.  You also might want to bring a yoga strap (to help with various stretches, especially for shoulder or leg stretches).

7. Make sure you are comfortable.

Try to wear flexible clothing that is loose enough to move with you, but not so loose that your T-shirt collar has slipped over your face and is suffocating you during downward dog — or so loose that your pants have fallen down or tripped you up and caused you to topple into your neighbor while you’re moving into warrior pose.   Also, figure out what to do with your hair.  If it’s short or super long, you’re golden.  If it’s somewhere in the middle — perhaps in the “growing out” phase — it gets a little trickier.  You may want to put it back in a headband if it’s fairly short and put it in a low ponytail if it’s fairly long.  You’ll want to have it out of your face for the poses where your head is hanging down, but you’ll want the ponytail low or high enough so that it doesn’t bother you in lying down poses.  A final suggestion for comfort: some people like to have a sweatshirt or blanket in the winter months for Savasana, the stationary meditative final pose in yoga.

8. Be prepared to get cozy. 

If it’s a packed class with your mats staggered to conserve space, you may end up with someone’s head near your feet, and your hand near someone’s leg . . . so just be ready for it.  If you’re self-conscious about such things, you may want to make sure your legs are shaved and your toes are painted — because your neighbor might be getting a bird’s eye view . . . or an accidental leg feel.  If this doesn’t matter to you — fabulous!

9.  Try not to eat too near class time.

Avoid eating, but if you must — choose carefully.   Remember that whatever you have put in your stomach will be stretched , moved, and possibly turned over!  I have a particularly rambunctious stomach, so this is a tricky and potentially socially awkward issue for me on more than one level. If something happens, and you let slip a social faux pas — don’t freak out.  It happens to the best of us, and people will forget. I’ve done it, my partner’s done it, and I’ve heard other people do it!    Life goes on.

Also, do not drink alcohol before yoga. Besides dehydrating you at a time when you really need fluids, it’s pretty tough to do balancing poses when you’re a little tipsy, and standing yoga poses or stomach poses are terrible for a spinning head and unsteady stomach.

10. Stay hydrated.

All throughout the day.  Yes, you may need to use the bathroom, but it will also make the poses easier for you, and it’s healthier for you.  Sometimes you sweat in yoga, and you tend to release some inner toxins as you stretch and work your body.  You need to keep replenishing those fluids to help your body continue the cleansing process.  Charlie horses and headaches in yoga are signs of excessive dehydration.  Also, avoid alcohol, sugary drinks, and overly salty or sugary foods before yoga; these will increase dehydration.

11. Do NOT vigorously exercise on the same day as yoga. 

This includes weight-lifting, long-distance exercises, and very intense shorter exercises.  I’ve had some very unpleasant downward dogs and warrior poses because I chose to weight-lift or do a marathon bike ride that same day.  Yoga is exercise.  Do not forget that.  If you still don’t believe it after a few months of yoga, start paying more attention to your muscles.  I had some pretty defined abs and leg muscles after months of doing only yoga and no other exercise.   You may not be moving too much, but you are working the whole time with every pose you hold, some of which you might hold for a long time.  So, don’t underestimate it.  If you are really set on getting some extra exercise on class day, go for a walk, or try some other low-intensity activity.

12. Bring it home with you.

You’ll get a lot more out of yoga if you do some every day.  Can’t hold that balancing pose?  You will after you practice!  The more you practice, the stronger and more flexible your body will become.  I’d like to be able to touch my toes and sit in the yogi pose when I meditate.  I can’t either!  With repeated practice, I get closer.  And that’s why I’ve started stretching my legs every day.  Practice posture poses in the car, while walking, or in the bathroom.  My partner does some quick stretches in bed before he even gets up.

If you’re prepared — and you give yoga a fair chance — it can be a great friend to you, helping you stay healthy and full of energy for the rest of your life.