I’ve seen many a yoga class or series proudly sporting the name “beginner yoga” and have had quite a number of students ask which of my classes are beginner-friendly. I’ve even hosted several “beginner” series that were very different things. What happens when we, as a student, walk into a beginner-level class and feel completely overwhelmed and out of place? We feel that yoga is obviously not for us or not for our current bodies and don’t return. So let’s break down what it means to be a “beginner”, how it has many different definitions, and how you can find a class that actually suits your needs, no matter what stage of your journey you are at.
How does beginner yoga have different definitions? Simply put, there are different types of “beginners”. We all start somewhere right? Every great yogi was a beginner once. But one person as a beginner is not the same as someone else. A healthy twenty-year old who works at a retail job where she is on her feet all day, who has never done yoga before, is a beginner. A sixty-year-old man with limited mobility, chronic pain, and an office job, who has never done yoga, is also a beginner. Do these two people need the same class? Maybe, or maybe not. Chances are, many beginner classes are catered more towards the first person.
What do most classes mean by “beginner” and why does the STYLE of yoga matter more than the level in most cases? Most beginner classes simply mean the poses are not overly-complicated (i.e. no headstands or other inversions, splits, etc). They do not require the student to be overly-flexible, and is at a pace where the student can probably keep up. For example, I teach BUTI yoga, which is a soulful blend of power yoga, cardio-intensive tribal dance, conditioning, and deep abdominal toning. When asked if the class is beginner-friendly, the simple answer would be “yes.” What is the reason for this answer? A good majority of my regular students that attend BUTI yoga started as beginners; they had never taken ANY yoga class before. This is not limited to age either; I’ve had plenty of students not in their twenties and thirties start in this class as well. But does that mean it’s a beginner class for you? Well . . .
Do you have any trouble getting up-and-down from the ground?
Do you have any issues (heart or otherwise) with intense bursts of cardio?
Do you have trouble following along with faster-paced instructions?
When you typically attend an exercise class, do you feel the need to overdo things in order to “keep up” with the rest of the class?
Do you feel you lack the knowledge for how to modify poses (i.e. drop to knees in plank)?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then BUTI yoga might not be where you want to start.
Let’s talk about the styles or schools of yoga. The most common style of yoga in the West is Flow yoga (sometimes referred to as Vinyasa). Oftentimes, this style of yoga is given different, fun names to stand out, but if you’re moving through the poses with your breath (“inhale: lift the arms; exhale: fold forward” like with Sun Salutations), that is probably a Flow-style class. There is also a difference in Slow Flow and regular or fast Flow, but I’ll keep things simple for now.
Ashtanga is another common yoga style found in America (though less-so in the South). According to www.Ashtanga.com, “this method of yoga involves synchronizing the breath with a progressive series of postures—a process producing intense internal heat and a profuse, purifying sweat that detoxifies muscles and organs. The result is improved circulation, a light and strong body, and a calm mind.” It sounds similar to Flow, but tends to be much more intense and has a certain set of asana (poses) used.
Iyengar Yoga or Alignment Yoga is a style that is harder to find, but typically more accessible. This style (though it also goes by many different names) is famous for a heavy usage of props (yoga blocks, straps, chairs, bolsters, etc) to help modify poses or to even go deeper into poses. It helps align the body and the mind by taking poses slowly, and strategically sequencing the set of poses in order to achieve a certain goal (build up to a certain pose or focus on a certain part of the body like hips or back bending). The reason this tends to be the most accessible is because of the yoga props. With the right teacher, this style can have all levels of practitioner in the same class together, doing the poses in a way that fits their indiviual needs. For example, you can have one student doing the “classic” form of Ustrasana (Camel pose) on the floor reaching for their feet, while someone else is reaching back to a chair, and person number three is sitting in a chair. (I will admit, I am partial to this school of yoga, because it is my specialty, and I believe very strongly in the teachings of the Alignment-based classes).
There are many other styles, to which I will link a more detailed article at the bottom, but I feel like these cover a large basis of classes (BUTI yoga can even technically fall into the Flow category, even though it’s more than that).
With all of these options and the vagueness of the term “beginner”, how do you find the right starting class for you? Below is a list of great questions. Find which of these reflect your needs, and feel free to use them to ask your potential yoga teacher if he or she has the right class or options for you. Also, figure out the very base of what you’re looking for. What are you hoping to achieve from this class? Are you hoping to find healing or relief of some symptom or pain? Are you hoping to find mental/emotional relief or clarity? Are you hoping to find rest (Hello Restorative yoga and Yoga Nidra)? Are you looking to get into better shape? Figure out what it is you want, and be honest with the teacher. Use that and these questions to find your fit.
· Does this class require me to get up-and-down from the floor a lot?
· Does this class move at a faster pace?
· Is this class accessible to larger bodies? (Note: sometimes teachers *think* their classes are accessible for one reason or another—maybe because they have a larger-bodied yogi in their class—when they are actually not. Ask them more questions to find out how it is accessible? What do they do to make it accessible? How many larger-bodied people are in their classes? Is the teacher a larger-bodied yogi? Ask any questions that you can think of. That’s why the teacher is there.
· Is this class accessible to someone with (insert your physical limitation here: fibromyalgia, herniated discs, pregnancy, amputation, heart issues, etc; be very detailed and ask any questions you feel you need. Tell them any movements ESPECIALLY that your doctor told you to avoid, like forward folding)
· Avoid asking if the class is okay for certain ages (middle aged, seniors, etc), unless of course it’s for children; or if you do ask, give more detail. Age itself is not a limitation. There is a nearly-100 year old yoga teacher that can do poses I cannot in my twenties. Instead, be specific about what it is that you have issues with. Do you have knee or other joint issues? Do they have chairs or other options available? Do you have issues getting up-and-down, see above question. Do you have other physical limitations or ailments? Ask specifically about those things. “Age” is vague similarly to “beginner”. Anyone can say their class is age-friendly, but that doesn’t mean it’s friendly for you.
· Is this class okay for someone who hasn’t done any physical activity in a long while? Note: you should always talk to your doctor before starting any physical activity, though doctors tend to be very pro-yoga. Since we know “yoga” covers many different styles, ask about what style is best for you. If you’ve had no physical activity in years, it might be best to start slower, get your joints and muscles accustomed to moving again; then, when you’re ready, consider trying a slightly faster class. I have several students that started with Chair yoga. They learned in that class how to begin to trust their bodies and instincts (and to some extent, to trust me). They got used to moving in a small way, then tried Relaxing yoga, which got them out of the chair onto a mat. Now, they do Therapeutic yoga which challenges them a little more, but they are able to heal more deeply than they could before. Plus, they still enjoy Chair yoga!
· Will the teacher be doing the poses at the same time as the class, or will the teacher be demonstrating and watching the students? Admittedly, this is a personal choice, but many people like to know the teacher is watching and ensuring they’re in proper form. If the teacher is watching, he or she can also see when the student is struggling and can offer assistance or props/modifications. I teach both ways, but I always feel more confident in my students when I’m able to watch what they’re doing. Sometimes, hearing a cue and seeing it isn’t enough to realize what’s happening in your body; you need someone to say “hey; try this instead.”
· Does this class use props? If so, does the teacher show how to use props and encourage their use, or does she or he simply have the props there for the student to decide when and how to use them? Again, this is a personal choice, but can be very important to a beginner. Don’t be afraid of props. They can really help you understand your body, but only if you’re shown how to properly use them.
Basically, just as I said in many of the questions above, BE SPECIFIC and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Figure out what you need and what you can and cannot do, and ask questions about that. If you try a class and it’s not for you, try another class or another teacher. I promise, there is a yoga style and teacher out there for you, you just have to be patient and find it.
Namaste to all my yogis new on their path,
Back in Balance Yoga
Here is an article giving more details about yoga styles, written by another author: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/the-11-major-types-of-yoga-explained-simply