Beginning students are just as likely to feel the joy that comes from yoga as are their more experienced comrades. But beginners also face a pesky collection of obstacles. For one thing, the vocabulary of yoga can be difficult. Despite its beauty, Sanskrit has a tendency to make Western eyes glaze over (read the words pashchimottanasana and paravairagya quickly and see if it still happens to you). Another problem is that even relatively common practices may require more than a casual explanation (“You want me to pass salt water from one nostril to the other?”). Finally, many of the goals of practice seem improbable (“I’ll be sitting like that? Comfortably?”). Beginners, in short, need empathy.
Among the most difficult challenges for beginning yoga students is creating a home yoga practice. For that a student must choose from a growing list of techniques and arrange the selections to fit into a never-quite-adequate length of time. The practices mushroom as you progress from class to class, and it can be difficult to keep up with them all. It can be even more difficult to measure the relative significance of the practices (“How important is this?”) or to make sure that when you are doing them at home you are doing them correctly.
There is also the question of faith. Patanjali, the original codifier of yoga, noted that yoga prospers when the student practices with faith. Beginners often do have faith in the value of yoga, which helps them through periods of doubt and frustration. With the passing of time, however, beginning students must make the journey from blind to reasoned faith. And this means learning to own the practices yourself—even when it feels more comfortable to cling to the sticky mat of your teacher.
Here are some suggestions for beginners—tips that will nourish the joys of yoga for a lifetime. Most of them are practical—do this and do that. A few cultivate attitudes. The bulk of them apply to old yoga hands as well as to beginners. See if they work for you.
Keep a practice journal.
Yoga classes are full of little comments and insights that smooth over life’s rough edges and change the way we see ourselves. But today’s “aha!” experience is often swept away in the flood of tomorrow’s activities. Write it down.
A spiral-bound blank book is a great place for recording thoughts about your practice, even if some of your insights turn out to be less than cosmic. Use your notebook to make observations about the classes you are taking, too. Compile lists of postures—the ones you know and the ones that you are learning. List new terms that you think you would like to remember. Write down questions that come up in meditation. You get the idea.
Become an “artist.”
Drawing stick figures is a great way to summarize information and remember the fine points about a posture. “Mr. Stick” (or “Mr. Peanut” if you are a bit more talented) takes only moments to sketch. Highlight your drawing with arrows and important cues. Small figures can be used to create short sequences (vinyasas) and even longer practice routines. Of course, if you are a computer whiz you might consider scanning digital photos of postures into your computer and manipulating the images onscreen. But then you’ll miss the fun of creating the image yourself.
Make space in your home.
By practicing in the same place at home you create a groove in your mind—the memory of past days’ experiences makes it easier to begin today. Store props nearby so that getting started doesn’t require a lot of running around. An inspiring image or statue, an Oriental carpet, or a specially selected cushion can mark this place as special.
Define your practice.
The practice routine you create depends a good deal on you. Define the time you have available for practice, the technique you would like to focus on, and the balance among meditation, breathing, and asana practices. Then consider the details. Are you clear about the order of your practice and the methods you are using? Are there aspects of an asana that need attention or that intrigue you? If a posture or any other practice seems too difficult, could you break it down, or prepare for it with less challenging techniques? What are the steps in the relaxation or meditation methods you have learned? If you have questions, make sure to ask your teacher for help.
Invest in a sticky mat.
This may seem like a minor matter, but the security that comes from firm footing is hard to overrate. If you have never tried a mat, borrow a friend’s so that you can feel the difference it makes in any of the spread-legged postures and in the downward-facing dog pose. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll probably want your own.