People may have been practicing yoga for several millennia, but so far during this century it’s soared to new heights of popularity. More than 36 million participants did yoga last year, according to the 2016 Yoga in America Study, up from 20.4 million in 2012.
And if you’ve thought about saying “om,” too, you’re not alone—the study found 34% of Americans, or about 80 million people, say they are likely to practice yoga in the next 12 months. After all, research shows yoga has a number of benefits for both your body and mind, from helping your heart and increasing both muscle strength and flexibility to aiding in weight-loss efforts and conquering stress. Ready to roll out a mat and give yoga a go? Here’s what you should know about trying this age-old practice for yourself.
Before you go
Check the schedule. There are a variety of classes you can try, so it’s worth doing a little recon before you show up. Look for those labeled “beginner” or “Level 1.” You can also choose from styles like Hot Yoga (done in a heated room), Iyengar (focusing on form and alignment), Vinyasa (a series of poses that flow together and is usually rigorous), and Restorative (a very relaxing option). Some general yoga classes are also called “Hatha,” which is a more generic term for any type of yoga that teaches the poses. “It’s worth simply calling the studio and asking what they might recommend for a beginner,” notes Mandy Ingber, a Los Angeles–based yoga instructor and author of Yogalosophy: 28 Days to the Ultimate Mind-Body Makeover.
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Get comfy. Put on clothing you are able to freely move around in (nothing too tight or constricting). “You don’t need expensive pants or a special outfit,” says Ashleigh Sergeant, the head of yoga content for Gaia.com, a streaming yoga service. “The meaning of yoga is to connect with yourself—not worrying about whether you look a certain way.” In fact, one of the best things about yoga is the nonjudgmental vibe most studios maintain. That said, you might want to try avoiding super-loose tops, especially for women, since they tend to ride up when you’re bending over toward the floor.
A water bottle. Yoga is a physical activity like any other, which means it’s a good idea to stay hydrated. Make sure you bring a bottle with a closed cap so it doesn’t spill, and try to keep it close to your mat so it’s easily accessible and out of the way of the other class members.
A yoga mat and props. Most studios will already have these in the room, so grab a mat as you come in and keep an eye out for wooden or foam blocks, blankets, and straps. “These props can help you get into a pose or make a posture a little easier to hold, especially if you’re tight or can’t reach the floor,” says Sergeant. If you’re a germaphobe, you can choose to use your own mat, which is a nice investment since you can use it at home or in a studio. Fortunately, most studios do a good job of keeping mats clean.
Close quarters. Some yoga classes can be crowded, which means mat space is at a premium. When you get to the studio, stake out a place near the back of the room (it’ll give you a chance to copy some of the more experienced participants) and don’t worry if your neighbor tends to stand a little closer to you than you might like or you have to shift things around a bit. “You may have to be flexible to fit other students into the room, so don’t get too attached to your spot,” advises Ingber.
Bare feet. “There are no shoes or socks allowed in yoga because it can make things too slippery or impede your movement,” explains Sergeant. Leave your shoes and socks outside the studio door (there are usually cubbies to keep them in order) and don’t fret if your toes aren’t pedicure-perfect.
Controlled breathing. “Yoga is all about being aware of your breath and how it connects to your body,” says Ingber. “It can take a little time to develop but as long as you are breathing consciously, you’re doing yoga.”
Keep in mind
Tell the teacher you’re new. “Yoga instructors don’t always know if students are new to the practice, so come a few minutes early if you can and give him or her a head’s up,” says Ingber. This way the teacher can help advise you on any positions, give you modifications as needed, and keep a closer eye on you.
Each class is a little different. Some classes play music (rock, classic, or instrumental) and some are silent. Some teachers use the Sanskrit names for yoga poses, others stick to English, but after a while it will all start to come together. Some teachers also like to finish class with a short chant or meditation.
Just relax—you don’t have to participate in any of it if you’re not comfortable. “Yoga’s not a religious thing, it’s more about a community. But it’s perfectly fine to just sit back and take it all in,” says Ingber. “It’s all about what you bring from the practice into the rest of your day.”