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.

 

 

A Case for Yoga

By Monique Parker

Yoga is being used therapeutically in conjunction with modern medicine today to aid in a variety of physical conditions and psychological problems. Research reveals that practicing yoga regularly helps to reduce high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. Yoga can even assist in the absorption of prescription medication, so that it can work more effectively.

When the physical exercises or asanas are combined with breathing exercises or pranayama, meditation, and a proper, well-balanced diet, the body’s physiological systems stabilize. The endocrine system—the thyroid, parathyroid, and thymus glands—normalize. Assimilation and digestion improves. Respiratory rate increases. Circulation and cardiovascular efficiency improves. Generally, your energy levels are higher.

From a physical and structural perspective, yoga improves both musculoskeletal strength and flexibility. Joint range of motion increases. Muscular asymmetry rebalances. Posture improves.

Yoga also has a huge advantage in that it directly and positively affects well-being and mood stability since breath regulation and focused concentration enhances one’s ability to cope with stress. There’s also more alpha and theta brain wave activity (which occur when we are relaxed and calm). As a result, you feel more alive, peaceful, and optimistic. Even sleep improves.

Yoga for Svastha

The Sanskrit word svastha is derived from two roots, sva meaning “self”, and stha meaning “to stay”. Thus, the goal of yoga is to stay as one’s self. As a practice you show up to your exercise-pranayama-meditation in order to 1) remind yourself to stay present in the moment, and 2) bring yourself back into harmony with nature and yourself.

Whenever you invest more energy in activities, work, and other people than you get back, you operate at a deficit. This state of imbalance leads to degeneration rather than regeneration. As well, because of the constant pull of gravity, our vital pranic life force flows in only one direction causing the stagnation of chi and results in high blood pressure, slipped disks, back ache, hernia, and other health issues.

That’s where yoga comes in as a healing modality. When practiced regularly, yoga brings about balance: structurally, physiologically, and mentally.  Here are some helpful tips for incorporating this ancient science into your life, today.

Tips for Starting Yoga

Find a teacher. Get direction from an experienced and certified yoga therapist or instructor. Guidance from a qualified professional will not only help you to feel better, but also help you to avoid injury or exacerbating a pre-existing condition.

Look around you. Increase your awareness by learning to pay attention to your body and how stimuli and certain activities affect your sense of well-being. Practice unplugging from brainless, instant gratification activities: TV, Internet, boredom eating. Notice the world around you: the wind, the shape of the mountains, how the body relaxes when exposed to the warmth of the sun.

Start small. Don’t overcommit. If you do less, on a more consistent basis, your body will more quickly regenerate. As with any resolution, habits form after around 30 days. You’ll have a better chance of sticking to a routine performed daily for 20 minutes than once a week for ninety minutes.

Join a class. A structured yoga class is beneficial because of the strong social support. If you are someone who needs people—and who doesn’t?—find a class that meets several times a week. Many teachers are trained to offer modifications for participants at varying levels of experience.

Be gentle with yourself. When we practice self-acceptance versus competition, we experience life in a way that nourishes rather than promotes conflict, both internally and externally.

The best news is that every step you take to improve your health will have a noticeably positive impact on the path of yoga.

**First published in The Taos News on May 23, 2013

 

 

 

 

Returning to Self

By Monique Parker, E-RYT

A few weeks ago a young woman named Claire came into Santosha Yoga where I teach weekly classes in Taos, New Mexico. She and a girlfriend were visiting from San Francisco. Having fallen in love with the beauty of the high desert landscape, they extended their vacation by a month.

After my class Claire expressed how different “this yoga” was from the classes she took back home. “I feel so quiet, so peaceful, so internally centered,” she said. “The yoga studio where I go plays techno music and everyone tries to outdo each other with what they wear and what poses they can do.”

Her comments, while not surprising, reaffirmed a long held suspicion. That while people come to yoga for all sorts of reasons—even the “feel good quality” of striking a pose to Deee-Lite—many practitioners, once they taste the nectar of inner peace, stay with yoga for an entirely different aim.

This has been the case in my own experience, as well as a number of the students who either study with me regularly in Taos, or who come here from other parts of the country for a personalized yoga retreat, where they can unplug from busy urban lives.

My yoga path began rather naively some fifteen years ago in a Gold’s Gym in Mountain View, CA, where, packed inside a sweaty room like sardines, some thirty yoga students chaturanga dandasana-ed (an Indian-style push up) like yogi-Marines. It didn’t take long before I was hooked. At some indiscriminate point, however, my external focus shifted. I began to change, internally. Desiring more knowledge, I sought out teachers who could guide me inward.

Today, as a teacher, I witness similar transformations among my students. While aspiring yogis want to feel better physically, they also suffer on some level from the unfortunate byproducts of our culture: habituated distraction, over-consumption, and addictive tendencies, leading to a loss of connection. In fact, a frequent mantra I hear is: “I don’t even know who I am anymore.”

In the Yoga Sutras, the “Bible of Yoga,” the great sage Patanjali describes his system of yoga as Kriya Yoga, which is comprised of three steps. The second step, Svadhyaya, refers to anything which helps lead us towards our higher Self, or to that state of internal peace where the Self resides. Naturally, the Sanskrit word Svadhyaya contains the root Sva, meaning “Self.”

This study which leads to knowledge of the “Self” is in essence a communion of wisdom, clarity, and direction from our higher consciousness to our lower state of consciousness.1 Essentially, the practice of Svadhyaya promotes internal peace. The practice can take many forms, such as the repetition of a mantra (known as mantra japa), chanting the Yoga Sutras, or the study of sacred texts.

Unfortunately, asana practice alone can not bring us to the Self. If it did, we might all be practicing yoga to techno music. And while physical fitness can be gotten from a myriad of activities, there is no other way to acquire mental health, to bring about steadiness in the mind.

When teaching a class, I include some form of Svadhyaya whether it be mantra japa, chanting, or excerpts from the Yoga Sutras or other darshanas or ancient texts as conveyed by my teacher, A.G. Mohan. To me it’s important to give my students a taste of something deeper, something practical that goes beyond the body.

As I exchanged goodbyes with Claire, she added, “I’ll be back. I really loved the chanting. Sort of like returning to myself.”  I couldn’t have said it better.

1I.K. Taimni, “The Science of the Mind,” The Theosophical Publishing House, Madras, India, 1968, section II, sutra 44, p 250.
2A.G. Mohan, From a lecture at Yoga State, Chicago, IL. 2006.

*First published in Southwestflair.com on September 2010