It seems as though yoga has become very cool recently. Out of all of my friends who do yoga, I’m the last one to actually give it a shot—aside from the three-month stint I had with the stuff in 2012. There is something to be said about working diligently to put your body and mind to work at the same time, all while bettering yourself in the form of Eastern meditative exercise. Social media isn’t all gossip and fashion anymore, and I’m beginning to feel a sense of refreshment while clicking through yoga-related Instagram posts or reaching spendthrift nirvana knowing I can watch full-length yoga class YouTube videos for free. These days, pretty much anyone can practice the exercise from home or in a studio. However, there are some things that can improve your practice regardless of where you put your mat down. After attending classes of varying levels over the past few months, here are a few things I’ve learned:
1. Invest in a good mat
Now, I’m not saying you have to spend $100 dollars on a fancy-shmancy mat you might only use once a week for two weeks and then decide you’re not into it anymore. What I am saying is to do your research. Companies that label themselves as “yoga-centric” may not actually be your best bet—or what’s best for your wallet. I’ve found that my best mats have come from stores like Marshall’s and TJMaxx rather than Sports Authority. If you’re more serious about investing in something that’s going to last you a long time and really want to know which direction to take, ask an instructor or someone who works the studio shop for mat advice. Plenty of yoga studios actually sell mats on location, and they won’t sell you anything they wouldn’t use themselves. It’s the yogi way. Some things to take into consideration are mat length, thickness, and stickiness. You want something that’s going to work best with your body and your practice. You’d be surprised at how important the sticky level of a yoga mat is when you’re standing in Warrior Two for more than fifteen seconds.
2. Invest in a towel
Not just like a beach towel that you can put over your mat—although if you’re in a pinch, they can be a decent temporary fix. Just like yoga mats, many studios sell mat towels as well. The best towels will have a non-slip bottom that helps it to stick to your mat, along with absorbency that soaks up all that sweat that inevitably will land all over the place. A regular towel just ends up sliding all around and distracting you during your otherwise meditative practice, so don’t underestimate the power of a good mat towel. Don’t forget: with sweat comes dehydration, so don’t forget to bring water!
3. Listen to your instructor
It’s easy to disregard some of the yoga jargon instructors use while teaching a class, but yoga is more than just a physical experience. When your instructor tells you to “set an intention” for your practice, do it. Connecting your physical actions with a mental and emotional goal helps you to reconnect when you lose your focus. Setting an intention allows you to devote an hour or two to something or someone you care about. Whether it be letting go of stress, adopting a more positive outlook, or just connecting with yourself, the intention brings you to a place of meaning within your session.
4. Stay connected with your body, too
It’s easy to become distracted during a yoga class, especially those that go over an hour. When you lose your balance, it can be frustrating and tempting to give up. What I’ve found is that the more I consciously feel my muscles and my body, the more control I have over what they do. Giving yourself a spot to look at—make sure it’s not yourself in the mirror, instead focus on something that’s not moving or wiggling around—can free your mind from anything outside yourself, giving you room to fully connect with what your body is doing. Every part of it. Another note on that: if it hurts, don’t do it. There’s a difference between pushing yourself and hurting yourself. You know your body better than anyone else, so if something becomes unusually uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to ask for a variation that will ease the pain.
5. Don’t be afraid to try something new
Every class I go to, I attempt at a pose I have never done before. Sometimes it’s a variation of a pose I’m familiar with, and sometimes it’s something new altogether. When I first started doing yoga, I was so intimidated by the “regulars” that I found it nearly impossible to do anything outside my comfort zone. I soon realized how negatively this impacted my own practice. We all have to start somewhere, and if we don’t try, we’ll never know what we’re capable of. My very first class ended with a ten-minute inversion session, which left me sitting on my mat while everyone else practiced their various headstands, forearm stands, and handstands. I went home that night and practiced on my mat with only my cat and dog as onlookers. I made it my goal to be able to do a forearm stand—someday. Every class since, I attempted to do so, and nearly two months later, I was finally able to get my legs up. I can now hold the pose for about thirty seconds, but I never would have been able to do it at all had I not shed the fear of failure.
6. Have fun
Yoga isn’t meant to be a serious practice. Yes, we are supposed to take it seriously, but we have to remember that we’re not being graded on anything. Whatever you get out of your practice is enough. When you stay focused on your body, on your breathing, and on your intention, you are getting every cent of your money’s worth. Outside of that, remember to be playful and be able to laugh at yourself when you fall out of an arm balance…or even if you—God forbid—fart right as the music comes to a stop.