Ouch. I'm nursing sore shoulders, hips, and legs this morning because I went to my first yoga class in months. I'd forgotten how good feeling sore could be! Going through sun salutations and twisting into a triangle, I was reminded of why I used to practice yoga more regularly.

Last night's class - and its participants - also reminded me of what it's like to be a yoga first-timer. As I lay in savasana at the end of class, one of the last thoughts I let cloud my relaxation was this: I should write up a quick newbie's guide to your first yoga class.

The thought originally came to me as I sat in the narrow stairwell entryway to the yoga studio. At the top of the stairs is a door with a sign that says "Please do not enter when class is session." When yogis arrive, they perch on the stairs and wait. I happened to be the first one to show up last night, so I settled in on the top stair. As I waited, a woman walked in and up the stairs toward me.

"Are we not allowed to go in there yet?" she asked. I smiled, gestured to the sign on the door, and whispered back, "Not till this class is finished." I figured it must be her first class at this studio, not knowing the protocol, and something told me this might be her first yoga class ever. Why? Because when you walk into a yoga studio, it's customary to be quiet so as not to disturb any class that is already in session.

When the previous class ended and the door was opened to us, the same woman unrolled her mat beside the wall in the front row, just to the left of where the teacher would be. Makes sense, right? A newbie would want to be able to see the instructor, right? Or did she just make a yoga newbie mistake? Yep. Why? Because when you're unfamiliar with the moves and poses, it's good to position yourself in a spot where you can see the other participants as well as the instructor.

Our instructor took her spot in the front of the class and asked her customary pre-class questions: "Does anyone have any injuries I should know about?" and "Is anyone new to yoga?" The woman I'd spoken to earlier raised her hand timidly. Way to go, yoga newbie! Why? Because telling your instructor that you're new to yoga will help them to better instruct you and guide you through your first class.

The teacher welcomed her and then explained that she would probably be able to see better if she were to sit farther back from the front. I volunteered to switch spots with her because, despite my absence, I remember the basics pretty well. I didn't mind moving either, since the woman I was next to insisted on keeping her belongings on the floor beside her mat. Faux pas! Why? Because most yoga studios provide a storage area for your belongings so they are not in the way in the practice area.

I sweated and struggled my way through portions of the standing and balance poses, and I could tell my endurance was not what it used to be! At a couple of points, I decided to forego a couple of challenging chaturanga dandasanas and rest in child's pose - a gentle stretch that allowed me to catch my breath. Yay for me! Why? Because it's important to listen to your body and rest when you need it. Yoga is meant to be non-competitive - especially with yourself!

I was very relieved when we moved to the floor positions! Our instructor demonstrated a shoulder-opening position utilizing 2 wooden blocks as props. After she modeled this pose for us, we all started shifting around our blocks and trying to get ourselves into the right position. Another woman who had raised her hand earlier to admit she was new to yoga spoke up as the instructor walked near her, "What am I supposed to feel here?" Good job, yoga first-timer! Why? Because asking clarifying questions will help you get into the poses correctly and get more out of your practice. Don't be afraid to ask if something doesn't feel quite right!

Finally, when class was over, I noticed the newbie I'd spoken to earlier approach the teacher, thanking her and asking follow-up questions and about other classes she taught. Nice work, yogini-in-training! Why? Because it's just plain polite to thank your teacher!

A couple more things that a yoga first-timer might appreciate a heads-up about:

  • Savasana: Savasana closes out many yoga classes. Also known as corpse pose, it's a restful position meant to allow all of your effort and energy to settle into your body. You'll be instructed to lay on your back with your arms at your side and to let yourself sink into the floor, let your mind go, let your thoughts disappear, and to just savour the sensations of the previous 90 minutes or so.
  • Nama-what? In most yoga classes, after you've risen out of savasana, your teacher will ask you to place your hands in a prayer position and join the class in a chant of "Om" or "Om, shanti, shanti," or some other chant, and end by saying "Namaste." "Om" and "Om, shanti, shanti" are mantras said as a way to feel the vibration of our breath and to connect ourselves to the universe. And "namaste" means, approximately, "I bow to you." It's a gesture of respect after a shared experience. It may all sound a little hokey at first, but you can choose whether or not to join in - no one will force you to.
  • Sharing space: Yoga studios will sometimes be small or crowded. At times you will be quite close to the person next to you and not have much room to move around. To make it easier for each other, stagger your mats so that you're either a bit in front of or a bit behind the person next to you. That way, when you need to extend your arms, you won't whack your neighbour in the face.
  • Why so serious? There's a mistaken idea that yoga is a serious, earnest, humourless endeavour. Not so. During a floor position last night in which we had to stretch our legs out to the side, our feet in our neighbours' faces, our teacher joked, "This one's a great ice-breaker." We laughed. It's okay to laugh in yoga! Sometimes people laugh, sometimes they snore in savasana, sometimes they fall, sometimes they pass a little gas. It's all good.

If you're thinking of trying yoga for the first time, good luck and have fun!

Amy Toffelmire