Yoga Dopers. How do I get better?

For the past few months I’ve been doing yoga. Saturday mornings, for one-hour and fifteen minutes. It’s not the intense, leave-you-all-sweaty type of yoga, but rather we focus on precision to improve balance, strength, and flexibility. So we hold poses for a lot longer than in “flow” class.

So far, I like it. I haven’t missed a class and I look forward to it. But I am the worse student. No, I’m not just saying that. I really am. I have a spot reserved for me at the wall because I can’t do any of the balance poses without falling. That includes the very simple mountain pose. I can hold it for about five or seven seconds before I stumble backwards or to the side. I try not to feel self-conscious about it, and the instructors have always been very compassionate and understanding, but I do have to say that it makes me feel embarrassed in front of the other students. Most are much older than I am, and I know that they have to be at least a little curious why such a young adult (and I look younger than I am) needs so much help doing such basic things.

Part of my problems are no doubt to my abnormal neurology (I am no longer using the word “deteriorating”). But I think a lot of it is due to poor attention (I’m always having to look at what the other people are doing because I unintentionally tune out when the instructor is demonstrating a move…like a big dummy). Also, there’s just the lack of experience. Yoga is hard even for people who have been doing it a long time.

I should really take another class. There’s another one on Mondays that I could take. But…(I usually try not to sound so whiny, but here goes), I’m scared. I’m already feel embarrassed in my other class, feeling as they I am hogging too much of the teacher’s time. I don’t think my fragile ego could take another helping of this. But it’s a conundrum because I know I need to take another class to really see some improvements. Right now, as much as I like the experience, I have not seen any. In fact, every time I go into the studio, I’m only reminded how messed up my mind-body connection is.

I do some practice at home. But I can’t trust myself to know that I’m positioning myself correctly at this time, being such a newbie.

Private lessons from the instructors are so expensive that I do not think I could take them for longer than a couple of months.

For yoga-involved Dopers, how long did it take for you to build up confidence in your own abilities? How many classes do you take every week? Perhaps I’m wishing for improvement in something that naturally takes a while to develop, and I’m being impatient? I have no idea.

What type of yoga are you practicing? I’ve been taking Iyengar yoga classes on and off for 20 years, as often as once a week, but with some years-long breaks. What you’re describing (focus on precision, holding poses) sounds similar.

Some thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Make sure you are in the proper level class for you. If your studio has mixed-level classes and single-level classes, you might feel more comfortable in a single-level class, where everyone is a beginner.
  • In my experience, other yoga students have never seemed to be judgmental or impatient with beginners. Those who don’t need as much or any assistance from the teacher just go right into the pose. They are able to hold it longer, as you and others get some help.
    -Iyengar classes are all about precision, but also about you doing the best pose FOR YOU. If you always need to stand at the wall, that’s ok. Pushing yourself to do more isn’t necessarily the goal. Not that you don’t want to progress, but if for some reason you can’t, you just do what your body is capable of, and that’s fine.
    -My teachers often start class by asking how everyone’s feeling, and whether anyone has any specific physical issues they’re dealing with (either long-term or that day). Have you spoken with your teacher about the issues you mentioned in the OP?
    -A few private lessons, or even one, could be a big help. Meet with your regular teacher for a few hours, and talk about all these concerns. Then s/he will better be able to address them in a regular class.
    -Yoga is very non-competitive and, as you say, it takes a long time to master. If I haven’t practiced in a while (months, say), I feel most comfortable in level 1 classes, and that’s after 20 years. Try to let go of any competitive thoughts, embarrassment or impatience. It is hard, and it does take time.
    -Maybe try some yoga DVDs at home? It’s still hard to know if you’re getting the poses right without feedback, but you’ll still hear the poses described.

Good luck!

Yes, it is an Iyengar class. And it’s level one. There is a gentle class, but I’ve been told that it wouldn’t really help me with my balance and control…that it’s really more of a meditative class.

Not everyone in my class is a beginner, though. I personally know someone who’s been doing yoga for years and is in that class with me (she’s an older woman with knee problems, so that may have something to do with it).

I know I shouldn’t feel self-conscious. No one has ever cut evil eyes at me or anything. So it’s all in my head. But at this point, I don’t see how taking another class will make me feel less self-conscious unless adding it to my schedule makes me improve a lot more. There’s only so many “don’t give a shit what people think” tokens I have allocated for each day. That Saturday class basically empties my entire bank account for the week.

The teacher always tells me to use the wall when she catches me stumbling. But how can I move out of my comfort zone and grow if I’m always propped up against the wall? In my mind, right before we do a pose, I ask myself, “OK, do I want to do this pose without the wall and embarrass myself? Or do I want to do this pose with the wall and feel like a tool?” And what kind of mountain is propped up against the wall? That’s not a mountain. That’s a drift. :slight_smile:

I told the teacher that I have a movement disorder that affects balance. So she knows just as much as I do, pretty much. I have a hypothesis for what’s behind it and the doctors have theirs, but I haven’t really shared all those details. And I don’t think the cause really matters.

After the second or third class, I did pull her to the side and ask if she thought the class was too advanced for me. She assured me that I was fine. I can only trust that she was telling the truth and not sparing my feelings.

Thanks. And that’s so much for the advice.

Practice, practice, practice. Good luck and have fun with yoga. I go 1-3 times a week and can feel some progress. I’m sure you will too, you just have to train yourself.

Edited to add: Got in just before my girlfriend’s post!

Seconding the comment that yoga is supposed to be non-competitive. The yoga instructors that I’ve had have been really good about emphasizing that it’s about how you’re doing, not anyone else. The instructor for the session I do at work is also good at pointing out that it’s yoga “practice,” meaning that you don’t have to be perfect. Also, even when talking about how you’re doing, what you can do can vary from practice to practice. What about just being near the wall when you do the poses without actually using it? It could be a comfort to have it there so that you could try the pose knowing that you can always move to the wall if necessary.

As far as how long it took for me to get more confidence in my abilities, it was probably a few months to a year. If I stop doing yoga for a few months, it takes a few months to get back into it. At the beginning, I was doing yoga once a week. Right now, I’m up to about twice a week.

Isn’t mountain pose just standing here with your hands clasped?

If you can afford it, you might want to get some 1:1 instruction in yoga or Pilates. That would probably help with your attention issue.
Also, practice more–once a week won’t give you much benefit. Grab your teacher for a few minutes and ask for tips on how to practice at home as a beginner.

IME, and I haven’t practiced for a while, a great challenge of yoga is mental. The self-talk you describe sounds familiar! I have a body that’s not so flexible, and never got more flexible even when I was practicing frequently. (Balance did improve, though.) The challenge for me was not only to push my physical boundaries, but to expand my mental comfort zone and cut back on the self-talk.

I know what you mean about the “tokens”, but think of the self-criticisms like a stubborn muscle group that you’d like to work on in class. I did find that the more I practiced with a class, the less self-conscious I felt about it. I always have had a hard time getting around “what other people think” especially in a physical performance context, but by focusing on breath and movement (I did Vinyasa-style classes), I was able to diminish its power over me. It took longer than a few months, but has been a great benefit in other parts of my life. Keep at it!

Time, patience and regular practice. It’s not about improving at the physical poses - it’s about how much it can benefit you, personally. There are a lot of things about yoga that can help people with all sorts of problems, far beyond strength, balance, coordination, flexibility, getting in touch with your body (and it helps with all these things too). I am glad you’re doing Iyengar, that is the perfect type of yoga for someone with physical limitations.

Please try to feel less self-conscious about your abilities, and about taking up the time/attention of the teacher. I am in the process of getting certified as a yoga instructor and so much of my training has revolved around meeting the needs of every member of a class, no matter their skill level or health problems. Your instructor is there to help you help yourself. There are many people with a variety of health issues who visit my studio (which is geared towads beginners) and who struggle with performing certain poses/categories of poses. And in every class containing some people who aren’t physically advanced or have restrictions, there are some of us who are quite skilled. My teacher tailors each class to both extremes - giving personalized modifications so those who can’t perform a given pose fully or easily (or at all) can still get benefit, and giving opportunities for more advanced/flexible students to challenge themselves.

I am really good at yoga now, but I’m coming up on my 4th year doing it, and for most of that time I’ve been doing 4-5 hours per week minimum (not counting savasana :)). I don’t have your more serious issues with balance etc, but I am not naturally flexible. I have also struggled my whole life with attentiveness, with being in touch with my body, and with anything that requires me to move in imitation of other people or according to directions. For the whole first year or so, I was all over the place during class. Always a step behind the other students - not able to move gracefully from pose to pose - had a really hard time even comprehending the principles of alignment, much less applying it to my own body. Eventually something clicked and I was able to connect more with my breathing and with the instruction, and I looked like I was really doing yoga.

So again, time, patience, self-love, and do as much yoga as you can. Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself permission to use the wall - there are at least three regular students where I go who always use the wall for standing poses and balances. It’s so not a big deal and they are still benefiting from doing the pose with assistance. They still challenge themselves by taking themselves away from the wall when they feel able, but they have it there to fall back upon if necessary. You know?

So listen, you’re not the worst student in the class.

The worst student is the one who never challenges themselves. Distracts the other students with chatter and gossip. Is inconsiderate by coming late or leaving early.

A student who is trying, in earnest, to learn yoga is a GREAT student to have in class.

Yoga is not a competitive sport. It doesn’t matter if you’re not as flexible, or need to use the wall for support. Go, learn the poses, do the breathing, try to connect with your body and your energy flow. You will be a success. This can be a hard thing for people used to a more North American style of exercise where it’s a bit of a competition, and people are trying to out run, out lift, out flip, out jump each other. Yoga is about doing today, what is right for your body today. No more. No less.

I will echo the others - going more than once a week will probably help you achieve your own personal yoga goals a bit faster.

It’s standing with your big toes together, arms straight down at your sides, fingers pointed “with energy” towards the floor, slightly outward.

It’s easy if you have normal balance. If you have mild ataxia, then it takes some concentration to keep it together for longer than a few seconds.

I think the “self-talk” as well as directing my body properly are both part of the process. And I’m finding that sometimes, at least for now, I have do the opposite of what the instructor tells us to do if I want to do anything at all. For instance, she’ll start the class off telling us to clear our minds. Not only is that something I haven’t been able to do in a long time, but when I approach a “clear” mind, I kinda lose contact with the world. That’s why I force myself so hard to listen to her voice. When I tune it out and turn inward to the looping going on in my head, that’s when I find out that I’m still lying flat on my back while everyone else is sitting or standing.

Perhaps it really isn’t the physical stuff that is going to be the biggest hurdle. It’s accepting that I’m going to be bad at something for a very long time, possibly forever, and that being embarrassed about it isn’t going to help anything.

GRRRRRR. You’re not BAD at it!! You’re new, and learning about your body.

The only way you can be ‘bad’ at yoga is if you bring your iPhone in with you and start checking stock prices while in Warrior II.

OK. I’ll stop using the word “bad” and try to think of a better word. :wink:

:smiley: I totally agree.

This is the interesting thing - mountain pose is still a pose. It needs presence and awareness to be able to balance in it - it definitely isn’t just standing.

I would recommend doing another class. For me, I would forget with a week inbetween each class. I do yoga five nights a week at the moment and it’s really helped me. I only started in January and would go once or twice a week, then signed up for a 40 day programme so now I go five nights a week and one home practice and the difference is huge.

The biggest difference I have found is that my core strength is improving. I still wobble quite a lot and I do worry that I should be better at it by now, but the teachers where I go say something which really helps: if you wobble and fall out of your pose, do it with a smile. I used to get much more annoyed til I heard that, and now when I do smile it feels much better.

I have also learnt the modifications for a number of poses so I don’t force it - if I’m not feeling able for the full pose I do the modification. So a basics class or a few one-to-ones will give you a great clue as to what your body can and can’t do. I know the difference now between a lack of strength which is something I can work on with time(and hopefully be able to do the pose) and something that my body just does not respond to. For example, I cannot rest on my knees for any length of time, so I have to pop a towel down when I’m even doing cat stretches. Under no circumstances can I do something which involves really squashing my knees. It’s unlikely this will change. But I have got better at holding plank poses as my arm strength has improved.

Please do give it time. I think I’ll be more able in about a year or so - I really do think yoga is a long slow process which should be as enjoyable as possible, not a skill you need to master really quickly.

It’s also not about how you’re doing compared to how you were doing the week before - you’re not competing with prior you either. It’s really just about that particular 75 minutes.

One thing that might help is for you to get more familiar with the poses so you don’t need pay as close attention to the instructor or look around at the other students. That way you can pay more attention to what you are doing rather than what you should be doing (if that makes any sense). 1-on-1 instruction might also help - there might be modifications that you could do or adjustments that make sense for you. In a private session they’ll have time to work through those.

I’m not an expert at all, but - I’m not sure I agree that the meditation-emphasizing classes wouldn’t help with balance. It seems to me that mental focus and concentration are just as important as pure muscle strength or flexibility. I was under the impression that the main point of the poses was to help the yogis achieve a transcendent mental state. But I could be wrong.

I would worry that if we’re just doing sitting or supine poses, I will not have enough stimulation to suspend my involuntary movements, my racing thoughts, and utterances. In addition to being bored. I don’t know if that’s all they do in a gentle class, but someone who has gone to one a few times told me that she didn’t think it was a good fit for me.

We do some meditation in Iyengar, but at least we actually move too.

So what’s been going on with you and yoga the last few weeks?

Thanks for asking, rhubarbarin.

I’m improving! I’ve buckled down and started taking another class. It’s the same level but a different instructor, at a different time of the day (7:45pm-9:00pm). The last makes it hard because when the day’s fatigue sets in, my guard drops and so does my self-control. But nonetheless, my triangle poses are getting better. I’ve found that I’m not so weebly-wobbly when I do everything more slowly. I’ve also discovered the assymetries of my body, so I know what to anticipate when we switch up. When we do the triangle poses towards the left side, my balance is much better and I can sustain the pose longer before I lose balance. When we switch the right, I struggle more. I don’t know if it’s because of differences in strength or what, but now I know what side I need to practice more on.

Strangely enough, I can do the tree pose better on my right leg than on my left. My right must be better at balance, but generally weaker. At least, that’s my hypothesis.

I still use the wall though. Even when I keep my feet apart, I cannot sustain a good mountain pose for very long. But maybe one day it will.

Being in the two classes has been interesting. The Saturday class seems to go slower and have more “special needs” students than the Monday class, which is more youthful and full of dancers and the like. The Saturday teacher is more hands-on and will position you the way you need to be, while the other teacher will just tap the area you need to fix and then walk on. She tends to ignore me while the Saturday teacher’s attention seems more fixed on me. I don’t know why the classes would be so different in composition–they’re at the same studio. I wasn’t anticipating that, but I’m rolling with it anyway. I’m practicing just keeping my energy and attention on my mat and tuning out the more graceful people around me. :slight_smile:
(Sometimes I wish we could do yoga with our shoes on. I would be a yoga master if we could wear shoes!)