I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for a conversation with Tom Carroll, who leads a Mind and Body Yoga class at Advocate BroMenn’s Health and Fitness Center. That conversation spanned many topics, from his journey into yoga and the positive ways the practice has influenced his life to raising children with technology, both as a tool and a distraction.
Near the end of our conversation, we looked at the questions we had intended to discuss (for the first time) to ensure we didn’t miss anything. We both agreed our discussion wouldn’t be complete until we talked about the greatest challenges that beginners face.
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You Don’t Have to Be “Stretchy” to Do Yoga!
Tom shared some of the most common rationale people have given him, over the years, about why they weren’t interested in yoga. Without a doubt, what he has heard most frequently is “I’m not stretchy.” I was surprised to hear this, because yoga is an integral part of the reason I’ve remained “stretchy” over time.
A quick Google search made it clear that Tom isn’t the only teacher hearing this excuse for avoidance. My search revealed an absurd (no exaggeration) number of videos targeting this audience. In my favorite clip, appropriately titled “Yoga for Inflexible People,” Brett Larkin opens by saying she made the video, by request, for the “flexibility impaired.”
Yoga Life’s blog post – once again appropriately titled, “I can’t do yoga – I’m not stretchy!” – details a wonderful conversation to illustrate the logical fallacy in this reasoning. The conversation begins with someone explaining that they can’t do yoga because they can’t touch their toes. The teacher points out that they actually can, and do, when they put shoes on. The instructor goes on to set the record straight:
“I’m going to let you into a little secret… *looks around to check no one’s listening* IT’S OK TO BEND YOUR KNEES IN YOGA!!!! Seriously, you can bend them so deep you’re practically squatting if that’s what it takes! The only things that matter in a yoga pose are that you’re there, you’re doing it safely, and that it feels good.“
Yoga isn’t strictly about being, or becoming, flexible. And although it didn’t come up in my conversation with Tom, I feel the need to mention that yoga isn’t, as sometimes perceived, “just an hour of stretching”. It builds strength, improves posture, aids in digestion, and yes, it will improve your range of motion. But that’s listing just a handful of the numerous physical benefits, which brings me to another point that Tom felt was essential for novice yogis to realize: there are also a multitude of psychological benefits to the practice!
Your First Session
Tom suggested that if you’ve never attended a yoga class before, you should go straight up to the teacher to let them know it’s your first time.
Also, let them know if:
- You’re nervous or uncomfortable
- You’re concerned about limitations
- You have recent injuries, or other medical conditions
The teacher should respond graciously and kindly to your introduction. Then they’ll let you know what props you need to grab and where to find them (mats, blocks, bolsters, straps, etc.). Due to the time required to choose a spot, get situated, and also out of respect, be sure to arrive early.
Go to the studio or gym website, or call ahead, to see if there’s anything they recommend you bring with you (maybe a water bottle). Note that some places will provide mats while others will not.
As is pointed out in Off the Couch and Onto the Mat: What to Expect from Your First Yoga Class, comfortable clothes are a must.
“Wear a tight-fitting top so that when you are in an inversion (like Downward Dog), your top doesn’t come down over your head.”
Comfortable shoes, on the other hand, are not needed. You’ll be removing your shoes, along with your socks, before you begin, possibly before you even enter the room.
Yoga Isn’t Just About Physical Postures
Yoga has an extensive history. Whether or not it’s discussed in individual sessions, it’s important to note that yoga is not strictly engaged in as a form of fitness. Among other things, it draws practitioners into the present moment.
In Sanskrit, the word “Yoga” is used to signify a connection or union. It encompasses the whole process of becoming more aware of who we are. This increased awareness fosters self-compassion. Because yoga heightens mindfulness, it also encourages inner growth. Personal development challenges our fixed mindsets and cultivates a growth mindset. Put another way, yoga increases conviction in the potential to develop our abilities.
“A growth mindset creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, but they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations — they see themselves as learning.”
To avoid injury we learn to respect our physical limitations. This stems from the recognition that everyone’s going at their own pace. We’re able to see that everyone’s on their own journey.
Tom mentioned that self-judgement often comes in the form of comparisons. People worry, for example, that they’re not as young as others in the class, that they’re not as good as they believe they should be, or that being incapable of doing some of the poses equates to failure. He points out that these kinds of thoughts are a mind game we play with ourselves.
We all have our unique gifts and abilities! Even the most experienced yogi finds some poses challenging. There are almost always poses that someone can’t do without modification, for a variety of reasons. A posture is done “perfectly”, not when it looks elegant to an outside observer, but when the person executing the posture is holding it at the edge of their ability. Yoga is achieved through appreciation of our body’s talents and respect for its limitations.
One possible barrier that Tom brought up was having the discipline to get to class and stay with it long enough to experience the benefits. It’s important to expect a learning curve. You won’t be able to do postures perfectly the first time out (or ever).
Selecting a Good Starting Style
Classes that advance through sequences of poses at the slower end of the speed continuum may be the best place for a beginner to start. They are more methodical, placing a greater emphasis on form. Having proper form reduces the likelihood of injury, later, when sequences are performed more quickly.
Also, if you see classes numbered, level 2 and 3 classes will be harder than those ranked level 1.
Again, from a safety standpoint, it’s best to become comfortable with form, first and foremost. Tom advises sticking with a more beginner friendly class for ten-ish sessions before branching out. This will give you time to become more confident and learn some yoga terminology. You’ll also have a chance to learn your strengths and limits.
Once you’re comfortable, try something new! What the heck, sample all the styles! Find classes that are a natural fit for you, and others that challenge you to stretch your comfort zone. There are so many different varieties, and there’s even more diversity in how they’re presented.
Yoga is a beautiful journey, that for some will last a lifetime. So pack your bags (or in this case your comfy clothes) and set out on your new adventure!