Knowing where to start is often the hardest part of any endeavor. Yoga, like any other practice, can seem intimidating in its complexity, and students are often scared away at the prospect of even starting because they simply don’t know what to do at first.
Common questions I hear from students are:
Which postures should I focus on? Which style of yoga should I practice? How often should I practice? How long? Which is better – led classes or Mysore self-practice? When will I be able to touch my toes? When can I do handstand?
All legitimate questions. They show that the student is curious about the practice and is willing to try new things. It is at this point that students can be led onto a productive path of self-exploration and discipline or a distracted path of self-indulgence and dissipation. Strong words, I know, but, as Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, writes in his epic sci-fi classic novel, “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.”
Start from first principles.
Here are some things to consider when starting your yoga practice. If you can attend to these items within your yoga practice, at the very beginning and then throughout your practice, then you will make progress much quicker.
- Learn how to breathe deeply. The simplest technique to learn is Ujjayi breathing (sound breathing), one of the four pillars of Ashtanga Yoga. It takes time to develop breathing this way, consistently, persistently, and without overworking. Start listening to your breathing on the very first day. Keep listening to it, every time you practice. Your breath will teach you a lot about how you are doing the postures.
- Distinguish between your left side and your right side. Simple enough, but over the years, I’ve observed that one of the most common problems students have is doing the right side when you call the right side. Or doing the same side twice. Learn how to pay attention to the sequence, to what the teacher is saying, and to what you are doing.
- Pay attention to your pelvic floor. AKA Mulabandha, the “root lock.” For all the mystique that surrounds mulabandha, the basis of the technique starts with the physical contraction of the pelvic floor muscles. You must learn how to contract, hold the contraction, release, and then relax the pelvic floor muscles, with awareness and without too much enthusiasm. Many teachers make this more complicated than it needs to be, talking about subtle contractions of the pelvic floor, or not seeking to do mulabandha but to let it arise naturally. Bullhonky. Start with the physical, with the practical (that is, that which can be practiced!). Pattabhi Jois perhaps described mulabandha most accessibly when he told the first Western students in the 1960s, “Contract your anus!” As you practice frequently and are able to contract and release these muscles rhythmically and at will, your experience of mulabandha will be more subtle and more refined.
- Keep your ears open and train yourself to respond to what the teacher is saying. Pay attention to the teacher’s words. A good teacher will speak precisely and concisely. It is my opinion that, at the end of the day, postural yoga teachers should stick to teaching postures and breathing. They shouldn’t be discoursing on philosophy, religion, or any other kind of topic not germane to the practice of moving the body through space. If a teacher is not helping you get better at your physical practice, seek a new teacher. If you want a teacher who can teach the more subtle arts of yoga (meditation, pranayama, philosophy), seek a qualified teacher.
- Practice simple postures frequently. Yoga posture practice is not rocket science. At its base, you breathe, you move with awareness. You hold postures for 5 to 10 breaths (or longer), moving through from beginning to middle to end. You end with relaxation, to return to a softer, more relaxed, peaceful state. That’s it. If you cannot figure out where to start, start with the simplest of postures: variations on sun salutations, standing postures, a few forward-bends, maybe legs up the wall. My personal favorite that I never tire of is the sun salutation – simple, dynamic, accessible, adjustable, portable, and challenging. All you need is a little space and time. Knock out 5 Surya As and 5 Surya Bs. Focus on your breathing. Focus on your sensations. Finish your practice. Then get up the next day, and practice it again. And keep doing that, with the simplest of postures, and you will get better. Forget about scorpion and all of these Insta-yoga freak-show postures. Focus on the basics – the foundation will help you get to the more advanced postures, eventually.
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You can purchase Frank Herbert’s Dune here. Long considered to be one of the most epic science fiction novels written, Dune is one of my favorite novels, focusing on how human beings and their institutions change over time (a theme I find particularly relevant to modern yoga).
Comment below if you have any insights to share.