How to find a good yoga class and teacher
Finding a class
The first hurdle in finding a good yoga class is deciphering all the different yoga style names--Hatha, Vinyasa, Iyengar, White Lotus, etc. There are lots of styles out there which range in their focus: some are more physical such as Vinyasa or flow yoga, and others are more focused on spirituality and breathwork such as Kundalini. The Yoga Journal has a good article which breaks down main styles, but essentially the class should include a class description that makes some sense to you. If not, ask for clarification.
I strongly recommend shopping around for lots of different classes, trying several styles and teachers until you find the one that best meshes with you. Some people like the heat, some people can't stand it. Some people like high energy classes, some people like more meditative quiet styles. There's a huge range out there, and within that range, teachers have their own unique personas. So it's important to find a style and a teacher that you can connect with.
If you are a beginner, try to take a beginner class. Even if you are a serious athlete, yoga is very different and you will use your body in a different way. I made the mistake of thinking that because I was athletic and was a kickboxing instructor that I could jump into an advanced Astanga class. One torn hamstring later, I realized I needed to start with the basics.
If you are in a special time of your life, such as pregnancy, then go to a prenatal class. There are lots of shifts and adjustments that happen during pregnancy and a prenatal class taught by a qualified instructor will be a lot safer and more enjoyable for you. The same applies for other times, such as when you are recovering from an injury or entering your "golden years."
Finding a good teacher
Even though yoga emphasizes individual responsibility and you have the right to opt out or modify every pose in the class, you still want to find a teacher who knows what they are doing. Don't be afraid to ask for their credentials. Also, don't assume that someone teaching at a studio necessarily has credentials.
There are numerous training organizations out there and there is an umbrella organization called the Yoga Alliance, which provides list of teachers who are registered. In order to be registered, one must accumulate 200 hours through a school which is accredited by the Yoga Alliance. However, these schools run a huge gamut, as the styles of yoga can vary immensely.
Now, it's possible that there are good teachers out there who are either working towards their Yoga Alliance certification or have other credentials. For example, if they have some yoga teacher training workshops, have been practicing yoga for years, and hold a degree and a license in physical therapy, that teacher probably knows enough about the body to keep you safe. If the teacher seems they don't know a thing about anatomy, I would keep looking for a different teacher if you are taking a physical class.
If you are taking a specialty class, ask about the teacher's qualifications. For example, if you are a senior, taking a seniors' class you want someone qualified. There are lots of things that start to change as we age, so you want to take a class with someone who knows, for example, that the sense of thirst goes and that seniors have to be reminded to drink water. Another example: just having been pregnant does not qualify someone. No one's pregnancy is a universal experience for all and there are lots of modifications necessary for prenatal classes to keep everyone safe. Don't be afraid to ask someone about specialty training as well as their general credentials.
If the teacher offers you medical advice, ask them where they got their information and by all means verify it. Remember, most yoga teachers are not naturopaths or medical doctors.
However, yoga is not just about the physical aspect. There is also a meditative, or spiritual aspect. Some teachers are very pushy with their spiritual beliefs, and if that's what you are looking for, then that works for you. Others prefer to open the door, but to let students walk through on their own. Some of this depends on the type of class, but if the teacher seems to cross a line with their beliefs, or on the other end of the spectrum is focused too much on the physical--especially on physical beauty--then you might want to find a different teacher.
Also, you will sometimes find new age psycho-babble, pseudo-science, and buzz words in some yoga classes. Don't be afraid to ask the teacher what they meant by something. Often teachers will repeat something they heard or read without thinking it through. Many teachers are very poetic and offer excellent words of inspiration. You will be able to tell the difference by how authentic they sound.
Attending your first class
Congratulations! It's scary to try something new. As adults, when we enter a new learning environment we first are admitting there is something we do not know, which can be very intimidating. Yoga may feel intimidating, especially if you walk into a studio filled with exotic statues and everyone seems to be thin and speaking in a whisper.
However, you can get through it with some basic advice. First, make sure you are well hydrated by drinking water regularly throughout the day, and 8-16 ounces 2 hours prior to class so your muscles are adequately hydrated. Avoid a heavy meal before class, but a light snack such as an apple 30 minutes before is fine. Arrive to your first class early--there will be paperwork to sign, probably a waiver form and you will want to orient yourself to the space, such as knowing where to change and where to use the restroom.
Try to let the teacher know you are a beginner when you first meet the teacher. Don't be shy about it. Everyone was once a beginner and most of your fellow students will be welcoming and encouraging. Use your best judgment in class: if a pose feels difficult in that it regulars a lot of muscle strength that's fine, but if you feel sharp, shooting pain, particularly in the joints, come out of the pose and ask the teacher for a modification. Poses should feel hard, but not painful. Cut yourself some slack: it took me years before "getting" some of the poses; if you were to master them all in your first class then you will have nothing to learn and no room to grow. Remember to breathe and to keep your breath flowing smoothly; if you find it difficult to breathe in a pose, back off from it.
Finally, after class, congratulate yourself on trying something new, and remember to hydrate again. If you didn't care for the first class you tried, try it again. If after the second class, it's still not your cup of tea, try a different style and/or a different teacher. Just like there's not just one type of music, there's not just one type of yoga and teacher.
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