Friday, May 21, 2010

Succeeding In Yoga Your First Time Out

Finally it’s your turn to give this yoga thing a whirl. You know plenty of people who already do yoga, right? There are those folks at work who talk about it like it’s fun, and you also have a few friends who go to their “classes” regularly.

But now here you are. You are about to enter the room where your first yoga session will soon begin. You are facing a new and mysterious situation where you have to do – well, you don’t quite know what. It’s stressful, frankly, despite the nice music playing from inside the room.

Well, let’s see if I can ease your mind a little. I have been scouting the yoga landscape for quite some time and I have some great suggestions about how to get the most of your first yoga experience, and hopefully many more after that.

First, my humble credentials. I’m a pretty regular guy – plenty of organized sports growing up, not injury-free, but luckier than most; a fulltime job for many years; still loving to be active as an adult. I’ve been “doing” yoga, more or less, for nearly 15 years. That includes teaching a class twice a week at Northgate SAC for the past ten years. My own yoga practice as a whole has had its ebbs and flows. These days I attend classes regularly, and when I have some time I do some stretching at home, too.

Like many people I didn’t come to yoga in a “naturally flexible” body, not by anybody’s definition. Due to my yoga practice and other interested efforts, inflexibility diminishes, and in my early 50’s it’s wonderful to say that my body is a much more enjoyable and useful vehicle than it was in my mid-30’s.

Here are the three useful keys to remember for that first yoga class:
1) Focus on watching your body breathe as your primary goal.
2) Keep it simple. This is your first yoga experience. Take it way, way easy until you and your body know more about it.
3) Respect the situation, but trust only what your body tells you is okay to do.

To hear the feedback your body gives you, you have to be able to turn on or turn up your “inside-out awareness”. This very slick aspect of your “human being tool kit” allows you to watch what you are doing as you are doing it. The best way to connect to it is to create an ongoing focal point. You have one built in already: The one specific action that is always going on within your body is your breath. It’s also a great barometer of our stress level once you learn to check in on it.

You can actually switch from “fight-or-flight” responses to a healthy, calmer part of your nervous system with a little practice. By choosing to focus on how you manage your breath, you buy a return ticket back into your parasympathetic nervous system. That’s where your capacity to heal, and learn and create have the easiest time of it. The muscles relax and attune there. The mind becomes calmer. Athletes call it “the zone”, and rave about their enhanced performance when they find themselves in it.

Here’s something interesting: One consistent report I often get from new yoga students who make breath awareness a priority is that their sleep patterns soon change for the better. Right on -- a quick and easy health benefit realized -- so what if you can’t touch your toes yet! First things first, and becoming more self-aware is definitely job #1.

So breath awareness is one key, the big one. Next, especially during that first session, another kind of k.i.s.s rule: Keep it Smilingly Simple. Maintain a light heart. Avoid the desire to lurch, heave, rush or throw your body headlong into the next posture or action that is being offered by the instructor. Remember: you don’t have to do anything. No matter what the person next to you may be doing, no matter what the person up front making the suggestions says. Listen to your body, first and foremost.

Here’s the basic body science backing this idea up: One of the many benefits of yoga is to eventually create or restore the correct neural and motor patterns for proper, non-debilitating movement or stability – in many ways not that far off from the “functional training” methods practiced by many personal trainers these days.

Some yoga positions or movements aren’t super-difficult, but they are building blocks. Problems can occur if you launch willy-nilly into your hyper-adrenalized version of what the more experienced practitioners are doing during your first few sessions. It may take many later sessions to undo and re-arrange the neural and motor patterns, if at all. Seared into place unconsciously, these kinds of patterns can lead to ongoing frustration and potential injuries in the more complex positions and movement series that are part of the yoga “playbook”.

That brings us to the last key: Respect the situation, but trust only what your body tells you is okay to do.

So for that first yoga experience, respect the space and the sincerity of all the participants. Follow along at a pace that works for you. Breathe, observe, do what your body says is okay. If your body says “No”, let that be the final word. Politely resist a teacher’s interest in taking you where you are not comfortable going, especially the first time out. A good rule of thumb: If you can’t do it, and breathe, and smile, all at the same time, then ease up on the pose, or stop the movement completely. Find your breath. It’s your body, your mat, your yoga.

For your first yoga experience, take a nice sip of what yoga has to offer you. Wait until the day after, and then let your body tell you more about how it tasted, and if another class is worth considering.

I believe that any yoga class, at any level, can be a genuine and valuable learning experience. The education I am talking about is the one that comes from the intimate and fulfilling dialogue that blossoms between you and your body. To deepen and refine that relationship (polished by breath awareness) – it’s the best gift I can possibly recommend to anybody. Enjoy!

Written by Jonathan Yurkanis
Yoga Instructor, Seattle Athletic Club Northgate

View the Seattle Athletic Club YouTube Channel
Become a Fan on Facebook

No comments:

Post a Comment