I remember my first Ashtanga class like it was yesterday.
I had already been practicing Hatha for close to six months before I finally had the guts to take my first Ashtanga class.
The first thing that I noticed was the heat. Wow. It was hot in here. Did the instructor leave the heat on by accident?
Then there was the guy next to me laying what appeared to be a blanket down on his mat and wetting both with water from a bottle. I looked at him with a questioning look on my face. He did not make an attempt to talk to me, but three minutes before the class began, he informed me that he and his wife were planning a trip to Mysore in the winter.
My response: “My what?
Then there was the practice itself. I’m not going to mince words: it was hard. In fact, it kicked my ass. However, I liked it enough to keep coming back for more. Indeed, it’s been nearly 13 years later, and I still coming back.
While my overall first time was a good one, I wish I had been told what to expect during my first class. After speaking to others—some of whom whose first Ashtanga class turned out to be their last—here are five things every newbie should know before setting foot in the shala.
1. It’s hot.
Unless you’ve practiced Bikram or hot yoga before, you may be surprised by how warm the room will be especially when you first enter it. I happen to love the heat and never minded, but for some, it is a definite turn-off. I’ve actually been in classes where new students asked when the heat was going to be turned out. Be forewarned, unless it gets extremely hot, it’s not going to happen.
While some studios provide towels, it’s a good idea to bring your own. If you sweat a lot, you may want a towel to cover your mat. (Wet mats tend to be slippery.)
Plus, it’s not that common to sometimes get someone’s else’s sweat on you. (It’s happened to me especially in very crowded classes.) While some readers may be grossed out at the mere thought of that, trust me when I say it really isn’t that bad.
3. Wear pants.
A lot people wear shorts when they practice Bikram or other forms of yoga. Ashtanga goddess, Kino Macgregor’s shorts are her trademark but alas, none of us are her or at least not at the beginning of our Ashtanga journey. Sweat can make it much more challenging to assume some poses. Also, Ashtanga is a pretty fast paced practice to begin with. Therefore, it’s a good idea to wear pants at least for the first couple of classes to cut down on the slickness factor.
4. Beware the show-offs.
Every class has them. You can usually spot them warming up before class begins in poses that would make a contortionist weep. They will vehemently deny that they are showing off, but they are aware that everyone is watching them.
Even those who are aren’t deliberately showing off may be a distraction because the primary series is absolutely, jaw-droppingly beautiful to watch. Even us “veterans” are not immune to this. (A few years ago, I use to attend led primary on Sunday and sit behind three yoga instructors whose respective practices were beautiful.)
The best way to avoid distraction is to keep the focus on your practice. If all else fails, move the front of the class where you are less likely to get a full view of the class.
5. There are going to be poses you cannot do.
Despite practicing regularly for over a decade, there are many poses I still cannot do in primary. If you’re a Type A, high-achieving sort—and Ashtanga attracts many of these types—this can be frustrating. However, one of the truly great things about Ashtanga is that it is humbling and reminds us that yoga truly is all about the breath.
In fact, it’s the main reason why I keep coming back and why it is still my favorite style of yoga hands down.
Everyone’s first Ashtanga experience is going to be different, but the above tips can give some idea as to what to expect. If you’ve been wondering about Ashtanga or curious if it is right for you, then the best thing to do is to take a class and try it out for yourself. Even if you don’t become a die-hard Ashtangi, at least you can say you tried it.
Speaking as someone who finally bit the bullet and tried it after months of hesitating, I can say without a doubt that it turned out to be one the best things I ever did.
I just wish I had done it sooner.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: photo: Lauren Rudick