You want to lower your stress, increase your muscle tone, and stop your thoughts from running away with you — all good things, of course — so you hit a local yoga studio or your favorite gym and enlist in a “beginners” class or series. Next thing you know, everyone is standing on their heads or cycling so fast you’re getting splattered with sweat. Not necessarily what the doctor ordered.
As one my most influential yoga teachers used to say: “You don’t have to twist yourself into a pretzel; life will do that for you.” Fortunately, there are some simple ways to find easeful mind-and-body refreshers that put less pressure on your constitution (and your pocketbook) if you know how and where to look. So before you plunk down that class fee, keep reading.
It’s not advisable to practice meditation all on your own if you’ve never done it before, simply because instruction here is critical — especially for true beginners. People often tell me they cannot meditate because it means they need to “stop thinking.” Actually, that’s not the the intention of meditation at all. The mind is designed to think. Practices like yoga and meditation are both ways of slowing the mind (not stopping it) and learning how to witness its constant movement—without reacting. Once in a while you might notice a space between your thoughts, which can be a real relief for most of us. Another plus: Many meditation classes, even in (uber-pricey) Manhattan, are offered free of charge—or for a donation that’s up to the student.
New York studios requesting a small donation (of your own choosing) include Reflections Yoga. The Shambhala Meditation Center of New York also offers introductory meditation instruction to newcomers for free.
Like many Shambhala centers, the Shambhala Meditation Center of Los Angeles also offers public sittings several times weekly free of charge. Generally, what you will do in any meditation class, whatever the style (and there are several, including mindfulness meditation or “Vipassana”) is receive instruction in how to sit mindfully, watching your breathing or watching thoughts come and go without following them.
In other words, say you are seated for meditation and you think, “Hey, I’m sort of hungry.” Not attaching to the thought means you don’t have to follow the mind into an extended exercise in what you should purchase for dinner. You just watch and wait for the next thought, which is likely to be totally different. Public sittings are advantageous because of the group atmosphere and, similar to yoga classes, the collective “vibe” is often more conducive to practice than meditating alone at home. All the same, the more meditation you do, the easier and more natural a personal practice will become.
(Check out a list of Shambhala centers nationwide).
Yoga for Relaxation and Strength ($15-$25 per class)
While it’s not hard to wander into a yoga class that’s more focused on exercise than breathwork and relaxation, you can also find a gentler alternative once you know the ropes. If an intense workout isn’t your thing, stay away from any yoga class that includes the word “core” or “power.”
Power yoga is not traditional yoga. “It’s bringing people to a more competitive and aggressive place rather than engaging their more meditative, parasympathetic nervous system,” says Paula Tursi, founder of New York’s Reflections Yoga.
Twenty dollars is about what you’ll pay to take most any yoga class cost in New York; in other cities around the country, Tursi observes, classes can be bought for as little as $10-15 or so. Studios across the country offer packages of multiple classes, which brings the per-class cost down.
Restorative yoga ($20 per class)
If you want something combining meditation, breathing and lots of reclining postures supported by thick blankets and pillows, think “restorative” yoga. Nechemia Bar-Yehuda, a New York yoga teacher and practitioner for 30 years, explains that his main purpose in teaching it “is to support students in relaxing and expanding their awareness of their body and all aspects of their life and being, and helping them to glide easily into deeper and deeper states of meditation.”
Here, some of the work is done by placing massage balls in strategic locations during reclining postures, designed to allow you to melt and let go.
Pilates ($25-$40 per class)
Due to teacher-training costs, relatively small class sizes and the high cost of Pilates equipment (i.e., reformer machines), Pilates classes tend to be more pricey than other options. Package deals are often available though, which can bring down the per-class cost. (IM=X Pilates of Little Rock, Ark, for example, offers a 12-month membership allowing students to take class three times a week for $149 a month. This franchise’s Madison Avenue location in Manhattan was recently offering 10-class sessions for just $199.)
Pilates can have some rather remarkable benefits for those of us with chronic or recurring pain, observes IM=X Pilates Master Trainer Renee Raiche, who trains other Pilates teachers as well as working with students at the Manhattan branch.
For people with back issues, this is an excellent way of getting strength back and reducing pain,” says Raiche. “This is not just another fitness fad.” In fact, chiropractors have increasingly been incorporating Pilates into their offices and practices. Two chiropractors are about to move into IM=X Pilates’ New York office.
Like yoga, movement happens on the breath, using “deep diaphragmatic breathing,” so students are “exhaling at the point where it is most difficult in order to fire up their deeper core muscles.” But the movements themselves are relatively simple, so they’re easy to remember.
Therapeutic Yoga ($75-$85)
If you’re looking for a yoga class with specific therapeutic benefits like easing back pain, it can be worthwhile to look for a specialist who can offer private or group sessions.
Among other things, a yoga therapist can show you how to “use movement to relieve tension,” as well as “how to balance strength and stretching for postural support,” says Julia Hough of Weehawken, N.J., who is trained both in Integrative Yoga Therapy and Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy. (Her private classes are $75 or $85 if she comes to you.)