Getting Started with Yoga (Tips for Martial Artists)
The more I study martial arts, the more intrigued I am by Yoga. For awhile I was turned off by the sheer trendiness of it. It seemed like another vapid attempt by Westerners to find quick-fix solutions via Eastern philosophies. I wasn’t wrong…a lot of that goes on, but I was throwing the baby out with the bath water. Luckily, as time has progressed, I’ve read more about what makes Yoga tick and I’ve interacted with some high quality martial artists who are also avid Yoga practitioners.
So that led me to the question. I know it can be difficult finding a quality martial arts school, especially as an uninformed “outsider”. Certainly the same must be true for Yoga. How do you separate the good from the bad and make Yoga practice worthwhile?
One of the key individuals who started to clue me in on the whole thing was a gentleman named Greg Holmes. Holmes Sensei is a 6th dan in Shuri-ryu Karate and Okinawa Kenpo Kobudo. He’s also a highly regarded 2nd dan in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Some longtime readers may remember when Holmes Sensei introduced me to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, with predictable results.
In addition to his martial arts resume, Greg-san is a 20 year practitioner of Yoga, complete with instructor certification. He has used the practice to heal and prevent injuries in both himself and many students. That’s why I asked him to help me understand the basics of what Yoga is, and how to get started as a raw newbie.
Without further delay, here are his thoughts. I hope they are useful to you if you are trying to further educate yourself on this healthful activity!
The Yoga Industry
The yoga practice I’m addressing is a physical one. Asana (postures) are the physical yoga poses you perform. There are other forms of yoga but the physical practice through asana work comprise the overwhelming majority of classes offered in the United States.
The predominant form of asana practice right now is flow yoga. It may be in a heated or unheated environment and last between 60 and 90 minutes. Poses are typically held around 5 breaths then transition to another pose.
- Upside – Transitions you through many poses and is a great workout due to the frequency of movement rather than just static holds.
- Downside – Lack of detailed instruction. You don’t spend much time in each pose to allow a thorough breakdown of its elements.
There are basics classes at many schools which are not as flow oriented. They address the most common beginner poses, provide a breakdown of a pose, and move at a much slower pace than a regular flow class.
- Upside – Provides key details to poses which may not be addressed in a flow class.
- Downside – Pace of the class is slow and does not provide much conditioning for someone who is already in shape.
Another type are intermediate/advanced classes that are not predominantly flow. This type of class is becoming more difficult to find.
- Upside – Provide detailed instruction on the more challenging poses.
- Downside – Must have some background in the basics before attending. Yoga is as much about knowledge of the poses as physical ability to perform them at a high level.
What Are Your Yoga Goals?
The obvious question to ask yourself when getting started is, “what do I want to get out of my yoga practice?” For most it’s to become more flexible, others it’s elimination of aches and pains, and for some it’s just relaxation.
For starters, be prepared to try out several schools/classes. Each have their own culture. Even within an individual school, class environments can vary by teacher. Shop around.
If your goals are modest, then a basics class at most schools will suffice. If your goals are moderate, in terms of achieving conditioning and flexibility, many flow type classes will get you what you need. But if you really want to progress, attaining the equivalent of black belt in yoga, then you’ve really got to be selective.
To develop a more advanced yoga practice you need an actual teacher. You’ll need more instruction than just a class where they call out poses. This would be the equivalent in martial arts of doing line drills and nothing else. You can get a workout and make significant progress in these classes. But the more difficult poses or opening extremely tight areas of your body will require some specific instruction and practice.
When advanced instruction is not available, yoga workshops in the areas of inversions, hip openers, standing poses for example can be found. Many top level instructors only teach in this format. Their regular public classes are of the flow variety. This creates incentives for students to take their instruction workshops if they want specialized help in a particular pose or part of the body.
The key to staying with any activity is finding a training style you enjoy. It’s not so much whether the class is too easy or too hard but does the teacher instruct in a way that resonates with you.
With that said, there are some important aspects of a teacher you should assess objectively to provide you with the best yoga experience. These correspond to the learning style preferences of visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. Whichever style you prefer will dictate what you need most from an instructor. Excellent instructors should be able to do all of these but many emphasize one over the others.
- Can the instructor demonstrate the poses they’re asking you to perform? (visual learning style)
- Can the instructor break down the pose into component parts of the body and explain a progression into deeper versions? Can they explain it in anatomical terms you can understand? (auditory learning style)
- Can the instructor physically adjust you in the pose safely? Can they provide props and instruction to assist with improving the pose? (kinesthetic learning style)
What to Avoid
Some of these are common sense pitfalls but should be addressed to remind you that you’re the customer and you get to decide what you like and do not like.
- Instructors without your best interests in mind. Instructors should help you expand your abilities and move you toward whatever goals you’ve set for yourself. Avoid instructors that set limits for you or push you into unsafe positions. The limits they set usually are their own they’re projecting on you. Even the most advanced or challenging poses have safe, achievable steps to bring you there gradually.
- Not trusting your intuition. If the teacher come across creepy to you then leave. You do not need to adapt to them.
- Getting stagnant. Even if you find a suitable school/teacher, continue to learn wherever you can. Students sometimes outgrow teachers and your goals may change as you become a more seasoned practitioner.
Try several classes at different schools. There is a teacher out there to suit every type of student and their needs.
If you’re in it for the long term, take basic classes first, even if you consider yourself flexible and/or in shape. Every decent martial artist knows the importance of learning the basics to establish a solid foundation, yoga is no different. Supplement the basics classes with some flow classes as a transition into applying the basic technical knowledge you’re being shown.
At some point, a flow class will not be enough. You’ll need detailed instruction to progress into more challenging postures or deepening even the basic ones. Seek out advanced instruction to move your practice to the next level.
Lastly, yoga practice can be a lifelong undertaking. Enjoy the journey.