Updated: Nov 22, 2021
My first yoga class was at the local YMCA. I went with my kids and they giggled through most of the class. The other students talked openly with each other and the instructor. I went internally, just beginning to recognize my inner being. I immediately recognized this practice as genuine to who I was and maybe almost awakening a love I had long forgotten. I was immediately eager to learn and practice more, but I knew there was more - a deeper study ahead of me.
As I drove by the yoga studio downtown, I was eager to investigate but was also a bit intimidated. I didn't know what the procedure was, if I was capable of "real yoga." What were the expectations? Would they welcome me into what I anticipated being a very specific culture? What if I didn't fit in or was ultimately rejected? I realized though, to have a place downtown just for yoga, this must be a significant thing. Peeking through the windows didn't offer me enough information, so eventually I nosed through the studio's website, inspired by the variety of classes they offered.
My curiosity and eagerness was beginning to overcome my anxiety, so I signed up for the next available class with the studio owner. Then I stumbled upon a notice of yoga etiquette, including coming to class early allowing yourself time to get into the right headspace and honoring the other student's practice by not showing up late and disrupting their own efforts. There were quite a few specifics actually, so I read those and then searched google for more guidance and even more rules for honoring the yoga space. I was all in at this point, so I took notes and was committed to not overstepping, but rather, fully embracing this new journey.
I was early for my first yoga class, far too early, so I sat out front awaiting a more socially acceptable time to enter. As I waited, anxiously, a car came rather quickly through the red light on the corner and right downtown on the square did a U-turn, nearly hitting the front of my parked car, and then it came to a screeching halt within the parking spot directly in front of me. I sat there a bit dumbfounded, just as the truck driver who had been behind this woman rolled their window down so they could offer their profound disappointment in her driving skills. This gal, with her yoga mat swung over her back, responded with similar grace, and I sort of chuckled at the incident until my jaw dropped as I witnessed her open the door to the yoga studio and proceed in so she could get on her #yin. Yep, she had clearly missed reading the yoga etiquette notes I had so meticulously studied.
It was that moment that I recognized yoga people are also completely typical, normally stressed out people just like the rest of us and I need not worry so much about my own naivety. Whatever I needed to learn about journey would soon come to me. I walked in my completely authentic self.
Yoga truly is for every person, but admittedly, there is a bit of a decorum, so as much as yoga is about digging into who you really are and discovering that authenticity inside, here's why you should be familiar with some yoga etiquette. Knowing these tips will also help you feel more comfortable during your practice.
Imagine sitting on your mat, eyes closed, palms open on your knees accepting of whatever this practice is going to offer you this afternoon, becoming aware of your breath, giving up whatever doesn't serve you today and then someone races in the front door with only two minutes to spare, slaps down their mat in front of the crowded room, parking their cell phone right next to them, and they launch into a loud pranayama session. Are you now focused internally or externally?
Getting Your Yoga Etiquette in Alignment
Yoga is a collective and dynamic practice, and you are an individual within the collective. Your vibration and actions have an impact on the people around you, so you do need to be responsible for how your energy impacts the space. This requires tapas (self-discipline) to be self-aware and responsible for your actions within your environment - another tool to be practiced on the mat and taken with you out into the world.
Arrive five-to-ten minutes early, allowing yourself time to settle in and get centered, preparing for practice. Unroll your mat quietly, so as not to disturb students who are already there. Check in with your mood and begin to let go of outside thoughts and concerns. Lie quietly, or do some gentle warm-up poses. This is similar to when you have to leave class early. Be cognizant of how this may disrupt the practice of your fellow yogis and yoginis and even the teacher. If you can, make the instructor aware and choose to sit towards the back of the class so you can respectfully leave without creating too much disruption.
Prior to attending yoga, consider your hygiene. Again, this is about showing respect. The Sanskrit word for saucha refers to purity and cleanliness and it applies here to the simple act of washing your feet before getting on the mat, being mindful of body odors, excessive perfume, as well as excess sweat. Just like when you sneeze you cover your mouth so you don't get it all over the room, consider how your sweat may impact others. Have a hand towel available, as needed. Yoga is practiced in bare feet, so take off your socks, too. Do not put shoes on your yoga mat.
Breathing is an important aspect of yoga, particularly in a vinyasa or kundalini class. The ujjayie breath can certainly make noise and when everyone in the room participates in the synchronicity of this pattern, it truly is a beautiful thing, but if are getting really hot and heavy, it can be very distracting. Express yourself while being cognizant of others. This is about respecting the collective sangha, or community. The same rule applies to when you unroll your mat, no need to make a dramatic snap, right?
Your phone should remain in your jacket or purse. I've had the career that requires that I attach that piece of technology to my hip and assess every text, but if this isn't you, take this time to disconnect. Sometimes this is about breaking a samskara, or habit, right? If you are the person tethered to your phone for professional obligations, silence your phone and offer it only the most necessary attention. I would wear my apple watch to make this uber discreet and offer me the least bit of distraction within my own practice. Do not take pictures or record the class, as this would be stealing (asteya).
Don't do your own routine. Let your teacher know about any injuries or conditions that might impact your practice, and honor your body, modify as appropriate to you, but don't pop into a handstand when others are working through warrior II, for example. Trust the process. No need to add or skip poses from the flow, designed with intention for you.
Yoga is not a competition. There aren't any prizes for poses. The master yogi is not the one who can hold crow, but the one who can hear her body communicate to her and honors those boundaries. Your practice will grow, but will always differ from everyone else. If you reach the full expression of a pose, acknowledge that to yourself, but again, this will still look different than the full expression of the same pose for anyone else. Neither are better or suboptimal to the other. Attain what you can in yoga, then let it go.
Don't skip savasana. The final relaxing pose, called corpse pose or savasana in sanskrit is vital to your practice. This is a time for stillness and deep rest; a time for you to come out of a sympathetic dominant state and rest in your parasympathetic nervous system. This is when the benefits of yoga take place. You really do rob yourself and can potentially increase your oxidative stress if you miss out on this pose, potentially the most important asana of all yoga poses. If you must leave early, let your teacher know prior to class and leave quickly, before savasana starts. Be sure to allow sufficient time to collect your mat and belongings.
If you've borrowed mats, blocks, or straps, wipe them off and place them back the way you found them when you arrived. Fold your blanket and place it back on the stack as you found it. Don't just plop it in a heap. Better even, bring your own mat!