Yoga

How To Start a Yoga Practice You’ll Actually Stick With

Photo: Getty Images/AnnaStills
I remember my first yoga class like it was yesterday. Against my will, my mom dragged me to her favorite neighborhood studio, and 20 minutes in, I fell in love in child's pose ("balasana" in Sanskrit). Yoga has existed as an exercise of the mind and body for somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 years—and there's a reason it lives on. No matter what you're looking for in yoga, it always delivers what you need. So I asked yoga teacher, Neeti Narula, an instructor at Modo Yoga in New York City, how to start a yoga practice that will carry you through every season of life.

"I think what's really special about yoga—and particularly around 'asana,' the physical portion of yoga—is that it's movement that caters to your mind. There's so many physical benefits people get from working out in general, but yoga came into existence to benefit the mind. I think that's the most obvious and most beautiful reason to practice because mind and body come together, hand in hand." Research is really just starting to catch up with what many yoga practitioners have known for centuries: The practice has been shown to decrease anxiety, slow down your brain waves for a calmer mindset, and improve your body image, among other things. Basically, it's a reset button for your parasympathetic nervous system (your "rest and digest" state)—and who doesn't need that?

"I think what's really special about yoga—and particularly around 'asana,' the physical portion of yoga—is that it's movement that caters to your mind." - Neeti Narula, an instructor at Modo Yoga in New York City

If you need more reason to dive into a yoga practice, try looking into the eight limbs of yoga: philosophies from Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, which teach you to live a meaningful life and provide a path to enlightenment (if that's something that speaks to you). Asana is just one of these eight limbs, so you can also access yoga (which means "to yolk" or "to unite" in Sanskrit) through many other modalities such as breathwork ("pranayama") and meditation (which falls under the "dharana" limb). Traditionally, you'd walk step-by-step through the limbs from start to finish—a lifetime project if I've ever seen one.

For now, let's get you started on your mat. Keep reading for Narula's top tips for starting a yoga practice, whether that means venturing out to your local studio or unrolling a mat in your living room.

How to start a yoga practice, according to an instructor

1. Commit to going to five yoga classes upfront

The first thing Narula wants you to do is to promise yourself that your yoga practice won't be a one-and-done thing. Invest in a five-class pass and give yourself time to learn the practice. "The one thing I always say to people is: If you're trying to start a yoga practice, you can't just go to one class and decide whether you liked it or not. The first several times you go, it's going to be confusing. You're just following along like Simon says. By time five, you're going to be like, 'Okay, I know what to do when they say down dog,'" she says. While Hatha yoga expressly names 84 asanas, there are countless variations and new poses cropping up all the time—so don't count yourself out just because you don't know what upavistha konasana is the first time the teacher calls it. (It's a wide-legged forward fold, by the way.)

2. Try different styles to see what feels good for you

As I mentioned earlier, yoga is old—and thus, has had a lot of time to iterate. If you've already done a lot of Googling, you likely know that there's hot yoga, vinyasa, Hatha, yin, power yoga—and the list goes on. So make sure that you're trying different things and picking a yoga type that aligns with your goals and ethics. For example, maybe you're an athlete who wants yoga to be your R&R time. In that case, you might pick a restorative class at a Hatha-focused yoga studio instead of a sweaty, rigorous class at a power yoga studio. Spend some time perusing different styles and deciding which one is right for you. Pro tip: Most yoga studios have beginner classes on their schedule, so make sure you take advantage of those.

3. Make it fit into the framework of your life

If you're working an eight-hour day, picking your child up from school, cooking dinner, and then trying to squeeze in a workout at the tail-end of the day, it might not make sense to book a class at a yoga studio across town. Yoga should fit into your life, even if that means you practice 20 minutes in bed before you finally crash. For example, Narula has found that during COVID-19, going to the studio every day no longer fits into the framework of her life. "Especially coming out of this pandemic, going to the studio, taking a class, and coming back feels like such a time suck for me. I love it, but I'm doing it a lot less than I used to. I'm used to being home more, and it feels weird when my whole day is out [of the house]," she says. In other words, pick the yoga schedule that works for your current reality rather than your dream yoga schedule.

Here's a 20-minuter beginner's class that will fit into even the busiest schedule:

4. Start in a space that makes you feel safe—whether that's a studio or your bedroom

Walking into a yoga studio can be intimidating. That's why Narula advises going for a hybrid model when you first start. "I think it's great to find a balance at the beginning between a home practice and a studio practice, especially since home practices are now so available," she says. That way, you're learning what downward dog is at home, but getting modifications and tips from teachers in real life, too. Over time, you'll develop relationships with instructors and other practitioners that will make the studio feel more welcoming—and even like a second home.

5. Prepare to outgrow your favorite practices and teachers

"If you really want to commit to a practice, you have to be prepared to grow and outgrow the practice. You might practice with one teacher for years and find yourself getting frustrated or bored, and it's okay to realize that you've outgrown a teacher," says Narula. This is important to know right from the start because it's exciting to realize that what you're beginning is something rich. When you're no longer connecting with your yoga practice, it's probably not a sign that yoga doesn't work for you; it's a sign that you're ready to wade deeper. "Yoga is a long-term journey. It can stay with you your whole life, and it'll grow with you your whole life, and you'll see it transform you for each phase you're in," says Narula.

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Tags: Yoga

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