Beginning a Yoga Practice: Expectations

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I was sitting up in easy pose after savasana yesterday evening at V12 Yoga, in downtown Dallas. I had some “found time” and had hoofed it down to to take a class with my long-time teacher, Chinook Wusdhu. I love and absolutely require time to attend classes outside of my own practice and teaching. Even taking a beginner level class re-integrates a lot of body wisdom my mind has probably begun to take for granted and allows me to learn a new dimension of feeling and teaching the already familiar postures and sequences.

Chinook talked (as he is often wont to do at the end of his classes) about the benefits of practice. How good we’ll feel after today’s class. What happens the moment you make a decision to commit: to practice that day, or to come three times a week. How our bodies start to open up, to take in and integrate the work. I was reflecting on my own student population in terms of body type, experience, age, frequency of practice, and relative levels of overall fitness. Each student’s situation – and thus their goal – is so unique and I got to thinking about expectations. This often comes up in an initial session or consultation. It usually surfaces when a new student wants to learn yoga in order to lose weight. I always ask in an email in order to more deeply discuss in our first session, “why yoga?”, so that I can honestly answer a student’s goals and expectations.

Age, weight, ratio of fat to muscle, heart rate capacity, current activity levels and fitness history, and diet are all important factors in determining what you want to get out of a yoga practice (ESPECIALLY if your goal is weight loss).

Some other questions, of a more practical nature, that will help shape and manage realistic expectations:

1. How often will we meet? Once a week? Or twice a week? Meeting once a week is a good introduction. Most yoga studio beginner series meet weekly. But like most physical activity, adding a session can sometimes make a big difference in results. Double the frequency, and you double everything you’re getting out of our sessions – the one-on-one attention, the intensity and the release, the development of body/breath/mind integration at a stepped up pace.

2. Outside of these sessions, how often will you practice yoga on your own? If we meet weekly, try to work in at least one or two sessions on your own, even if it’s only for 20 or 30 minutes. Go back through everything you remember. Do the poses you like and do one pose you find challenging. Watch yourself, your reactions, and your breathing without outside instruction. Be safe and focus on alignment. This is the best way to start to integrate the work your body wants. If we have to miss a week, it’s even more important to take some time – whenever you can find it – back on your mat, even if you simply lie down in savasana and reconnect with your breath.

3. Outside of these sessions, what other kind(s) of exercise will you participate in during the week? Do you walk, run, swim, play tennis? Dance? Martial arts? Adding yoga to an existing fitness routine – especially as you move into your forties, fifties or sixties – obviously complements what you’re getting out of what you do. Increase flexibility if you’re already strong, add strength if you’re already pretty flexible. Developing a deep body/breath connection will enhance everything else you do to stay active, with the added benefit of the internal calm that yoga cultivates.

If you’re not already physically active, yoga is a very good place to start, for many of the same reasons I just stated. If you’ve been largely inactive or sedentary, suddenly you’re awake to the sensation of movement in your body. If you’re stiff or tight, you’ll become intimately acquainted with the muscles, bones and joints. If you want to get strong, you will feel your muscles work up to edge of their capability, in a safe and controlled manner.

Many of the men and women I work with privately want nothing more than to feel better. They’re moderately active or not very active at all, and those habits are starting to take their toll in aching joints, backs and tight muscles. There is a vague sense of “disconnection” where the body used to do what the mind wanted without complaint but now, there is felt resistance. I try to guide my students toward awareness of the changes they feel in their bodies and in their minds as their practice progresses. That’s where change happens. The superficial – what you or other people see on the outside – is a bonus.

Try not only to set realistic, modest expectations as you begin a yoga practice, but equally if not more important, pay close attention to what you begin to feel before, during and after yoga. What shifts are you experiencing in the way you think about your body and its health and fitness? A yoga practice connects us to an internal voice and vision, one that appreciates both effort and release, and the contentment and ease that follow the challenging work of strengthening and opening space in the body. These qualities can help shift our awareness from a preoccupation with the superficial toward a perception of what a fit body and a calm mind means for your daily life.

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