Why Yoga for Beginners Isn’t Just for Beginners

There’s something exciting about beginnings. Our canvas is blank. We don’t know where we’re going, where this new journey will take us. Whether we’re learning to dance, grow vegetables, or speak Italian, we’re swimming in the unknown, where anything is possible, where the instructions we receive might just change our lives for the better.

Learning yoga is no different. Beginner classes help to set the foundation for a solid practice. Learning the basics of yoga with other novices who share our questions and concerns can be reassuring, as we begin moving and breathing in new ways. Cristie Newhart, Dean of the Kripalu School of Yoga, notes that some of yoga’s greatest benefits—for newcomers and experienced practitioners alike—come from the breath.

“Deep breathing, or yogic breathing, helps us regulate emotions and reduces stress,” she says. “Breathing and moving mindfully moves energy through our minds and emotions and helps to awaken our connection to Spirit. We feel freer and more connected, inside and out.”

As we practice, we may notice an increase in our strength, flexibility, balance, vitality, and resilience over time. And if we stick with the practice, we’ll eventually become more aware of how its benefits radiate off the mat into daily life.

“Yoga postures make us stronger and more flexible, the way any physical activity might,” Cristie notes. “The difference is that the postures were originally designed to be done with mindfulness and intention, so they help us to inhabit ourselves and our lives in a new way.”

Back to the Beginning

Eventually, of course, we’ll no longer be beginners. Moving on to more advanced classes—confident in our Warrior II, Triangle, and Pigeon poses—we might feel that there’s nothing to be gained by revisiting a beginner yoga class.

Cristie would beg to differ. “Attending a well-led beginner class can help experienced students in many ways,” she says. For one, we might get an alignment cue we never heard before—there’s no one perfect way to get into Down Dog, for example, so beginner classes can help us remember that there are a variety of approaches to posture practice. 

Moreover, our bodies change with time. We might be able to do more on the mat or—with aging or an injury—less than we did when we started out, and we might also be able to understand a teacher’s guidance in a more embodied way. “Attending a beginner class can help us connect to instruction that we need now,” notes Cristie, “not five years ago when we began our practice.” As well, revisiting the basics can be grounding and affirming. “We get to see what we know and how far we’ve come,” she adds.

Activating Beginner’s Mind on the Mat

And yet, even though we’ve come far, there’s still value in approaching anything, especially yoga, with “beginner’s mind,” which Cristie describes as "living in the I don’t know.”

“Practicing beginner’s mind can be very challenging, regardless of how long you’ve been doing yoga,” she says. “We become habituated to respond to postures in a particular way. Beginner’s mind offers an opportunity to meet experience as it is, without imposing judgments or mental structures on it.”

The best part of taking a beginner class, for those of us who are more experienced, is that it helps us to remember what it’s like not to know, Cristie says. “There’s a humility in that. I think it helps us get clear on what’s really important.”

The real yoga, she says, isn’t about how long you can hold a pose or whether you can stand on your head. 

“I’ve met people who call themselves advanced and have practiced for many years, but have not allowed the practice to transform them, or shape them on the inside,” she reflects. “And I’ve met people who were very new to yoga, took a few beginner classes, and allowed the practice to inform how they live. The measure of the power of your practice isn’t how well you perform an asana. It’s in how you’ve let the practice affect your life.”

Portland Helmich has been investigating natural health and healing for more than 15 years, as a host, reporter, writer, and producer.

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