Survive and Thrive in Your first Yoga Class


Photo by Katherine Egli

Monique Parker with friends and clients of Taos Yoga Therapy. Photo by Katherine Eglie

by Monique Parker

Yoga not only helps you feel better physically, it also contributes to overall well-being, such as stress reduction, increased self-acceptance, and overcoming fear—including the fear of trying something new. Following are some tips to help you not only survive, but thrive in your first yoga class.

Feeling like a newbie around experienced practitioners

I took my first yoga class in the early 90s when I was living in the Caribbean. Upon entering the studio, any nervousness I felt was exacerbated when I discovered the teacher deep in meditation and one of the students standing on her head. The class hadn’t even started, yet they already appeared to have been practicing for hours!

During the class the teacher directed us into exotic and foreign sounding postures that were unfamiliar to me. I sheepishly copied the other students, who looked serene balancing and twisting with perfect poise. I felt self-conscious, as if everyone was watching and secretly judging me. As a result, I pushed myself too hard and found myself competing with the other students.

After over two decades of practice (and teaching), here’s some things I’ve learned about being a novice:

  • Give yourself permission to be a beginner. Even your teacher took her first class once.
  • Most students aren’t looking at you, but are preoccupied with their own poses: breathing, muscle engagement, and alignment. As your proficiency increases, the more inwardly focused you will become.
  • Don’t compete with others. Yoga is an individualized practice; everyone is at different levels of fitness with varying physical issues.
  • Overexertion is the antithesis of yoga. When you push yourself into poses, the body reacts by creating tension.

Studio etiquette: How not to be a jerk on the mat

Just as there are rules on the slopes, such as skiers in front of you always have the right of way, there is “Yoga Etiquette”. As a new yogi, in the throes of developing self-awareness, you may inadvertently be insensitive to your fellow practitioners. Here are some guidelines that will help you from disturbing the peace:

  • Remove shoes before entering class—yoga is practiced barefoot.
  • Chitchat outside the studio.
  • Avoid snapping your mat as you roll it out and/or unnecessarily cramping your neighbors.
  • Arrive on time. Late arrivals are a disturbance.
  • Refrain from wearing strong scents: perfume, hairspray.
  • Turn off your cell phone. Yoga classes are device-free zones.
  • Wear appropriate clothing.
  • Don’t walk on other peoples’ mats—they may be made out of thermoplastic elastomer, but to others they are sacred spaces.

Practicing self-acceptance like a seasoned yogi

When you engage in a new activity there is a learning curve—that period of time where you acquire new skills, comprehend new lingo, and experience your body in a new way. It takes time and can be frustrating.

Your yoga instructor may offer modifications or adjustments. This isn’t a critique. It’s a way of teaching you the proper and safe way of executing a pose for you at this time. If constructive criticism hits a nerve or you become defensive, accept that you cannot learn anything new without first making mistakes.

Seasoned yogis make practice look easy, not because it is, but because self-acceptance is a steep mountain slope.



Pre-Season Conditioning with Ardha Utkatasana: Chair or Half Squat Pose

 By Monique Parker

Svastha Yoga teacher Julie Cortopassi demonstrating half squat pose.

As snow season approaches, Taos athletes can get in some last minute pre-season conditioning with a popular yoga posture that benefits all winter sports: Ardha Utkatasana, also called Chair or Half Squat pose. Whether you snow shoe, cross country ski, downhill ski, snowboard, or ice skate, Utkatasana can help you to improve your performance while decreasing the risk of injury.

Even if winter sports aren’t your thing, the squat (often considered the king of exercises), because it strengthens key posture muscles—erector spinae, gluteals, quadriceps, hamstrings, and abdominals, is an exercise that can make navigating through life easier. Think of the muscles you use when you’re getting up off the floor, or in and out of the car. And, the squat is versatile: you can perform it anywhere (office, home, outdoors), as part of a larger routine or as an isolated exercise by itself.

Utkatasana, the classic deep knee yogic squat may increase the potential of injury to knee ligaments and therefore should be performed after considerable preparation.

There are a variety of squat variations to creatively challenge your muscles and keep you from getting bored:

  1. Standing in either wide or narrow stance
  2. Varying the degree of knee flexion (ranging from a few inches to a half squat to a squat where the thighs are lowered past parallel)
  3. Using weights or no load at all
  4. Going symmetrical (two feet on the ground) vs. asymmetrical (one legged squat)
  5. Lifting the heels off the floor (which also targets calf muscles)
  6. Squeezing a block between the thighs to help hug or co-contract the hamstring and quadriceps muscles

Squatting requires a high level of proprioception when done correctly (the ability to sense the position, location, and movement of the body in space). It’s also a closed-chain exercise, which coordinates the ankle, knee, and hip joints so they move together in a functional pattern.

“Yoga is a great tool for developing proprioception and balance in the muscles used for skiing and boarding. So when you’re sliding down a hill with something strapped to your feet, you can react to the terrain and more skillfully move through those inevitability awkward moments with fluidity,” says yoga instructor Monica Martin. “The more ready you are before you’re on skis or a board, the less warm up time it takes to be comfortable in the terrain you want to be in.”

Besides being used for ski conditioning, the half squat is also the basic stance used in ice-skating (knees bent, back straight, and arms out). In fact, when students learn to skate they’re frequently told that “if you start to fall, get small,” meaning, regain balance by bending the knees, keeping the feet and arms pointed forward. In this half squat pose, skaters find stability out on the ice.

“I always think of these instructions when I’m walking outside in winter, especially on icy parking lots,” says Carrie Leven, an ice skater and yoga practitioner, “and have saved myself from falling many times.”

One legged squat is a great variation for toning and strengthening legs in preparation for ice skating.

Skaters use one-legged squats to condition their legs and core and improve balance for performing sit spins and moves like “shoot the duck”, a full one-legged squat with the opposite leg extended forward. “The half-chair strengthens the core abdominals, back, and leg muscles that are so important to holding the body firmly upright in forward and backwards skating, as well as in the fast turns and jumps,” adds Leven.

Besides being a great sports conditioner, the modified squat is also used in physical therapy centers and may be appropriate for the rehabilitation of most knee injuries. If you have knee issues, please consult your doctor or physical therapist before performing this exercise.

Whether or not you ski, board, or skate, the benefits of Ardha Utkatasana, can’t be ignored. Happy Trails!

Carrie Leven will be offering a free “Yoga for Ice Skating” conditioning class October 28 from 11am-12:15 at the Taos Youth and Family Center. “Practicing yoga off the ice gives people strength, stability and confidence on the ice,” Leven says. For more information, call 586-1480.

Squatting with the heels up puts greater emphasis on the calves, develops balance, and is one of the core postures in the famous Bikram Yoga series.

Julie Cortopassi instructs a Gentle Svastha Yoga class on Fridays from 12-1:15pm at Santosha Yoga of Taos. “We work on postures that develop core strength and stability and to prevent bone loss,” says Julie. “We put in effort in conjunction with using the breath to create a holistic feeling of being strong, yet relaxed.”

Monica Martin, together with partner Josh Fredrickson, a ski instructor with over 20 years experience, designed a Pre-Snow Season Yoga Conditioning series that she teaches on Tuesdays 5:15-6:30pm at the Edelweiss Lodge & Spa at the TSV, and Wednesdays 6:15-7:30pm at AwarenessWorks Feldenkreis Studio in the Northstar Plaza in El Prado.

First Published in The Taos News on October 18, 2012

Watch Your Back!

By Monique Parker, E-RYT

When people learn that I teach yoga they often respond by saying either: “I’m not flexible…I can’t even touch my toes” or “My back hurts…should I do yoga?”

Before I blurt out, “Yes, of course, yoga fixes all,” let’s take a few things into consideration. First, eighty percent of adults experience some sort of low back pain during their lives. So if your back hurts, you’re not alone. Back pain is the runner up of most common reasons why people miss work, second only to the common cold.

Strangely enough, back pain is frequently the result of neglect. My first yoga teacher was from China. She used to say, “If yoga hard, your life too easy.” What she meant was that our lifestyle plays a huge role on our health. How we live each day—including our habits and activities, the food we put in our body, the stimuli in our environment, even our thoughts—determine our state of health.

Many people who experience chronic backache also have stiff muscles—they go hand-in-hand. So if you feel back discomfort regularly, it could be the result of not enough exercising!

If your back hurts, it’s important to determine first where it hurts and what causes the discomfort. Of course it’s always a good idea to get a diagnosis by a medical professional.

Aside from general muscle tension and stiffness, the most common cause of low back pain is injury due to a muscular strain or ligament sprain. Because we use the lumbar spine (and its muscles) for most movements—it’s prone to getting hurt. I’ve known people who’ve suffered back injury from bending over to pick up a grandchild or when reaching up for something in an overhead cupboard—simple daily activities we take for granted.

While it’s true that yoga can be used to alleviate or manage symptoms of back pain, it is equally true that certain yoga postures or movements can exacerbate pre-existing conditions or result in back strain/sprains. It’s important to work with a qualified yoga teacher or yoga therapist to find exercises that are right for you. Yoga is currently being used as physiotherapy for conditions such as disc herniation and the degeneration of cartilage in the vertebral discs.

Monique Parker demonstrating Dvipada Pitham or bridge pose is great for back relief and strengthening the core muscles.

As a general rule, yoga can help condition the body with exercises that strengthen the muscles of the low back, glutes, pelvis, hips and abdomen. Also called core strengthening or stability exercises, these movements contribute to better balance and posture. One such exercise is called Dvipada Pitham or bridge pose. It’s commonly used in Pilates and physical therapy. It helps to relieve the low back by stretching the deep abdominals muscles, such as the psoas, which can cause the low back to feel tight. It also strengthens the back by contracting the glutes and muscles of the back.

Coming up in neutral spine, engaging the core, and protecting the back

Try this: Lie on the floor with your knees bent and the feet about hip width apart. As you inhale, press equally into the feet, and lift your hips/pelvis off the floor. Allow your arms to rest by your sides. Your body should form a line from the knees to your shoulders. As you exhale draw your navel towards your spine. Squeeze your buttocks and engage your hamstrings. Stay up in the position for a full breath. Then exhale and lower your hips back to the floor. There is a myriad of variations to this posture to make it more challenging, such as raising the arms overhead, using a block between the thighs, or raising one leg off the floor so that it is in line with the body.

Before concluding, I must add that backache cannot be properly addressed without mentioning yogic breathing. There is no other involuntary function in the body for which we have control. In yoga, we learn to manipulate the breath through various techniques called “pranayama”. Pranayama helps to reduce the psychological burden of back pain by calming the central nervous system and increasing blood flow, oxygenation, and other nutrients to the cells in order to facilitate healing. It also gives us something to focus on so that the exercise itself becomes a meditation. The simplest way to start pranayama is to breathe through the nose, consciously lengthening and deepening each exhalation.

Combine this breathing exercise with six repetitions of the above posture. As a daily regimen, you’ll notice the combined effect of pain relief and improved strength right away.

*First published in The Taos News on December 15, 2011

Photos by Ganesh Mohan