A First-Timer's Guide to Yoga

Before you set foot inside a yoga class, you should be able to wrap your legs around your head, keeping a beatific smile on your face while choking on incense and simultaneously engaging your bhandas (yes, that’s legal).

Just kidding! None of this need apply—provided you act on our advice. Here’s how to avoid common pitfalls and surprises—and how to look like anything but a beginner. Baron Baptiste, a tough-love yoga teacher who specializes in boot camps for the uninitiated, is here to guide you.

Yoga is not a cult

Closer to physiology class than a Trekkie convention, yoga is a bona fide science. Yes, some instructors talk of prana (the life force), display Hindu or Buddhist deities, or lead classes in brief chanting. Don’t let this stuff spook you; just consider it something to focus on, rather than, say, the sirens outside or your neighbor’s nice legs. Concentrate on the techniques you’re learning, especially matching your movements to your breathing. “Focusing on the physical aspects of yoga is where you start,” Baptiste says. “The rest is yours for the taking but entirely optional.”

Give your Visa card a breather

Your “new” yoga clothes may already be in your closet. Try not to choose your baggiest gym clothes, though. “Tight clothes make it easier for teachers to see how your body is set from the feet to the shoulder blades, so they can adjust your pose,” Baptiste says. Do buy a mat. Germs thrive on studio-owned mats, and yours will probably pack more cushion and stickiness than the studio’s tired stock.

RELATED: Check out this Magic Carpet Yoga Mat (via Rodales.com)

Your yoga’s only as good as your teacher

Teachers registered with the Yoga Alliance have had 200 to 500-plus hours of training at an approved studio. (Go to yogaalliance.org and click on “Registered Teachers” to plug in a name.) In class you should feel a personal connection to your teacher and enjoy his or her style of teaching. An experienced instructor recognizes when a student is struggling and “allows the individuals to adapt each posture to themselves,” Baptiste says. Another clue you’re in good hands: The teacher asks new faces in the room to describe their experience levels and injuries.

The front row is for geeks

Okay, not really. But new students should choose another spot. “Start in the second row or the middle of the room so you can see what the rest of the class is doing, and what the teacher is doing,” Baptiste says. You might want to take a spot near the wall for support during balancing moves and standing stretches. (And, no, that’s not considered cheating.)

You can take timeouts

Anytime you feel that you can’t hang with what the teacher and class are doing, just take a break by going into child’s pose: Kneel on the floor, sitting on your heels. Bring your big toes together and your knees about hip-width apart, then lean forward, essentially lying facedown on the mat with your legs bent underneath you. Breathe. “At first, this might feel like admitting defeat, but it’s really a sign that you own your own practice,” Baptiste says, “and that you’re cool with your body’s limitations.”

Sometimes blocking is a good thing, too

Grab two of those foam or wooden bricks piled on one side of the studio, and keep them next to your mat. (Phonebooks work at home.) These props compensate if you can’t bend over and reach the ground in standing poses, allowing students of all levels to stretch deeper and align better. You can wrap a canvas or cloth strap (even an old sweatshirt) around the foot of an outstretched leg during seated poses to help keep you from straining your back. If you’re at all unsure about how to use these props, ask.

Sip it good

Yoga can be hot, slippery, and thirsty work. Make sure you bring a water bottle—grab a biggie for vigorous Vinyasa or power yoga. Hydrate yourself, knocking back plenty of agua before class, then again both during and after. Have a headache? You haven’t drunk enough.

Don’t slip up

To avoid pushing up into Downward Dog, only to have your hands whoosh out from under you, “place a towel over your mat and under your hands and feet,” Baptiste says. And don’t forget: “If you find yourself getting dizzy, go into Child’s pose until you feel clearheaded again.”

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