by Catherine Lewan, PT, DPT, CYT and Pat Staszak, PT, PYT

Taking a group exercise class is about taking good care of yourself, so getting hurt in class is obviously counterproductive, not to mention a real bummer.  Beyond that, we know your time is valuable, so we’ve created these tips to help you get the most out of your yoga class (and any other workout, for that matter!).

Introduce yourself to your Instructor. If they don’t already know you, it will help them immensely to know a little bit about you so they can offer modifications and tailor the class to meet your needs.  You might start with letting your instructor know how long you have practiced and inform them about any injuries or aches you might have.  That way, when a teacher sees you doing a pose differently, they can better support your efforts and modify the practice in a mindful way that meets your needs.

Find your best alignment.   Every asana or yoga posture has an ideal  alignment, and you might be surprised to learn that it’s not always an exact imitation of the teacher’s demonstration.  The instructor typically shows the best alignment of the pose for their body, but usually, it will look different in yours.  Optimal alignment in a pose will be a balance of effort and ease, which means you won’t feel excessive strain, gripping or tension in your muscles. If you are not sure about your alignment in a pose, ask your teacher!  If you’d rather not disrupt class, check in with them before or after, or even send an email so they can plan on addressing your question in the next class.

Breathe. When in doubt, make sure you are breathing.  Many students simply don’t know how to engage, or “hold,” their abdominal muscles without also holding their breath. Here’s a brief tutorial: While doing active poses, keep your deep abdominals gently pulled in so that the belly button moves inward toward your spine.  Then as you inhale, your rib cage will expand more than your belly.  Breathing this way allows the deep core muscles to protect your back during activity and facilitates mobility in your lower ribs and mid-back.  When you move into restorative or supported poses, like corpse pose, feel free to let it all hang out.  Allow your belly to balloon outward with your in-breath and simply relax as you breathe out. You might recognize this as diaphragmatic or relaxation breath. Developing an awareness of your breath takes time and repetition, so just keep showing up for your practice and breathing with intention.

Protect your Joints – It’s very helpful to know the difference between “good” and “bad” pain.  Generally speaking, when you are stretching a muscle you should feel a stretching sensation in the belly of the muscle, not across the joint. The belly of the muscle is the fleshy part, generally in the center of the muscle, that temporarily becomes taught during a stretch.  A good example is the sensation you feel at the back of your thigh when you stretch your hamstrings.  If the tight sensation moves to the back of your knee, slightly bend your knee to back out of the stretch. Doing so will protect the knee joint and surrounding ligaments and allow you to get the most out of the pose. If you feel pain in a joint or pain in a muscle that lasts longer than a day or two, you might have overdone it. If that joint or muscle pain lasts, then it might be time to pay your favorite physical therapist a visit.

Modify and go at your own pace- We recommend going slowly enough that you can get a feel for what alignment best suits your body, even if you are moving at a slower pace than the instructor or the students around you.  Remember, your practice is about you, not everyone else.  If something doesn’t feel right, try modifying by using props, or simply do a different pose altogether.   Most beginning yogi’s will benefit from the use of blocks to find their best alignment in standing poses and a blanket under their pelvis to keep the hips and low back relaxed while sitting. And it’s always OK to ask the instructor for another option– it’s their job to help you get the most out of the class.  If you are working with an injury or chronic condition, it can be helpful to find a teacher who has extra credentials in the modification of poses (i.e. a yoga teacher who is also a physical therapist).  We happen to have a couple of them here at APT, and we look forward to seeing you in class soon!