So you want to try yoga but you aren’t flexible? First of all, I’d like to introduce you to reality—I’m Olga Marie and you should be stiff if you don’t do yoga! And, if you are naturally flexible you are probably weak so don’t worry, it will all balance out in the long run. That is… if you actually start to practice yoga.
So where do we go from here? Let’s start with the fancy words. If you are dealing with bad injuries you want to try Yin or Restorative yoga. This is for people who might break (physically or emotionally) and need to chill. Everyone needs yin but I would never have stuck with it had my high-strung, impatient self started there.
If you say that you want to do yoga but you “get bored,” then you need to start with Vinyasa, which just means there will be movement. Vinyasa refers to sequences that go together and create heat. Hatha (or heat) yoga uses vinyasa to build heat so if you look for the words Hatha or vinyasa you probably won’t get bored. I was so bad at yoga when I started that I didn’t have one iota of zen in my entire body. I twitched like I was having an exorcism in every pose. I was constantly fixing my hair, adjusting my clothing, looking around, breathing like an old donkey and flopping all over my mat. If it weren’t for vinyasa to keep my mind busy I would have probably gotten kicked out for bothering the other students.
Speaking of breath, Ujayii breath refers to the way we are supposed to breathe. It’s how children breathe and how we screwed up adults who don’t snore breathe while we sleep. Look at kids—their bellies get bigger when they inhale. Their lower ribcages expand with every breath. As we get older and society tells us our stomachs should look hollow and empty all the time so we start holding them in and breathing in our chest instead. The breath gets shallow and we feel anxious all the time.
It took me about a year of practice to breathe correctly. A good teacher will constantly remind you to breathe. Which you will need because if not you might just die while doing a forward bend. When you hold your breath you no longer have oxygen entering the bloodstream, so while you are literally dying a slow death, the muscles are completely frozen and you cannot make progress. When you are reminded to breathe the muscles will start to open again and you will increase your flexibility over time.
Pranayama is the practice of breathing. Over time you will use pranayama, bandhas (internal locks that provide core strength) and Drishti (eye gaze) to create pratyahara or sensory withdrawal. It’s what took me from fumbling all over my mat like a complete spaz to gracefully moving through my yoga practice. And it takes practice. Lots of it.
If you are a beginner, hot yoga can be dangerous. I personally feel that 78-80 degrees is the perfect temperature for yoga and if you want more heat you should wait until you have developed a consistent yoga practice for about a year. Think about putting heat on a rubber band. At some point, it’s going to snap. So take your rigid muscles that haven’t stretched since gym class circa 1990 into a room that is 100 degrees and you might just pop a hammy or two. Then you get to spend the next six months trying to get back to an even more rigid version of yourself. So stick with warm but reasonable temps while you get to know your limitations.
As for Sanskrit (the language that tells you what pose to do next), it’s good to know that the word asana means “pose.” Every word ends in -asana! So blahblahasana means blahblah pose. Now you know half of the word already. Your teacher might teach in random English words like crane or pigeon, and that’s cool too. Either way, you probably won’t know what those words mean and, unless you practice yoga a lot, you shouldn’t!
Taking a yoga class means you are ready to learn an entirely new language. Would you ever expect to learn Spanish in one day? Well then don’t expect to learn Sanskrit overnight either! Just look around and see what people do when the teacher says “padangusthasana.” Then try to do it. You don’t have to feel stupid because people who practice a lot aren’t looking at you. They are practicing pratyahara (sensory withdrawal) and should have forgotten that there is anyone else in the room at all! Trust me, when I practice yoga I don’t notice anyone else around me at all. After 12 years I barely even open my eyes. I was once a beginner too and I’m stoked to see others being vulnerable enough to try.
As far as teachers go, if they don’t know about your history or limitations, don’t let them touch you aggressively. I have so many students who go on vacation and come back injured because they took a class and the teacher gave them a deep adjustment without knowing they have problematic hips, tight hamstrings, bad knees or unstable rotator cuffs. You might feel afraid to speak up because you don’t want to look stupid, but if someone is pushing on you and it feels BAD, tell them to stop. Difficult is one thing, but pain and injury are another. In yoga, a body without injury is an asset and you deserve that much.
When I have new students I usually look for ways to help them modify so their body has proper alignment. Backing off can actually increase the difficulty level tremendously while keeping them safe! So try to find teachers who want to show you ways to make the asana more doable but also help you feel the burn.
Most of all, yoga is the most amazing experience if you can give yourself time practicing to have it. One class will be enough to make you feel like a really uncoordinated dumdum so don’t stop there. If you go once a week you will basically get reminded of how stiff your body is once a week. Twice a week and you will start to see progress, three times a week you will start to become a yogi.
Becoming a student of yoga requires consistent, uninterrupted practice over a long period of time. You have to start somewhere so start! I like Leslie Fightmaster on YouTube if you need some help getting started, and Kino makes some great beginner videos also. There is a lot to learn, so stop worrying about learning it all and just start! I was never a gymnast and I have so many limitations. But I don’t give up and I’m consistent. The “yoga high” is a real thing and it’s worth the effort!