As someone relatively new to the yoga world, I (at first) thought it strange to write a piece on my experience. I took my first yoga class only 7 or 8 years ago, and have only recently taken a more ritualistic approach that has turned into the semblance of a practice. The truth is that I have a lot to learn. However, I realized that the reason I want to write this is directly tied to the reason why I keep on practicing: it feels good to reflect, share, and work on my journey. Besides that, I hope that anyone who has been curious but felt they weren’t the “yoga type” will change their mind and step on a mat. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.
What is yoga?
Derived from the Sankrit word “yuj” which means ‘to unite or integrate’; yoga is a 5,000+ year old Indian body of knowledge. The National Institutes of Health describes yoga as a “meditative movement practice” combining “physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation or relaxation.” However, my experience (as limited as it may be) has led me to realize that it is much more than this.
Yoga is not something you do, it is a state of being. Your body, breath, and mind are all over the place as you go throughout your day. Yoga is the union of these three things in a world where they are at battle and in constant flux.
Your mind wanders as you move your body into a pose. Then you forget to breathe because you’re concentrating too hard on the pose. Your body falls out of the pose so you breathe deeply, but wait- your mind is starting to wander again- and then you’re there. The sweet spot. That place where all three of these things are harmonious: body, breathe, and mind. Nothing and no one is competing to be heard or acknowledged. It just is and you just are.
Your mind is finally quiet (even if it’s only for a minute), your breath is stable and deep, and your whole body feels so good in a weird pose that feels unfamiliar, but so familiar all at the same time. It’s a challenge where the only other competitor is you.
#1 You need to be flexible to do yoga
Much like the ‘What came first: the chicken or the egg?’ debacle, many people wrongfully think they need to be flexible, bendy, athletic, etc. to do yoga.
No, you don’t need to be flexible to do yoga. However, doing yoga will make you more flexible.
In the not so distant past, bed rest was recommended and encouraged for people with back issues. While this may still be necessary for certain serious cases, more and more doctors are looking to alternative methods (yoga being at the forefront) to help patients with long-term pain. Yoga can be as slow and as gentle as you need it to be, so don’t be afraid to participate if you have an injury. In fact, yoga could help you recover from an injury faster because it increases flexibility and muscle strength.
#2 Only hippies do yoga
I’m not going to lie to you. Yoga does have ties linked to spirituality, chakras, the ego, and connecting to the higher self. However, if that’s not your cup of tea – you’ll still be in good company.
Plenty of athletes (Lebron James for one) have been interviewed saying positive things about yoga, calling it both challenging and a “different way of stretching” after a grueling workout or game.
The bottom line is this: Not everyone who does yoga is looking to be enlightened. Some do it for only the physical benefits (which there are a ton), but I do encourage you to have an open mind about the mental, emotional, and spiritual side of yoga. You may be surprised to find that opening yourself up to it could make your practice better.
#3 My pose doesn’t look like everyone else’s so I must be doing it wrong
Yoga is such a personal practice and one size does not fit all. I repeat: One size does not fit all.
What do I mean by that?
What I mean is that your practice, your pose, your momentum, your intention, your time on the mat is yours, and yours alone. You are not in a race, but rather moving alongside other likeminded individuals who are also on their mats going through the same, but also different thing.
Maybe you’ll never do a headstand – or maybe you’ll do it in your first week. There is no playbook, or even time limit for when you should have a pose perfected.
In fact, in my experience with yoga goes a little something like this:
Intention, movement, quieting, listening, moving, more quieting, listening, moving, and so on…
Is it wrong? No. Is it right? Also, no – but it is mine.
What to do next
My biggest piece of advice is to listen to what works for you. It may sound strange, but you’ll tell yourself what it is you need to get on your mat every single day – so pay attention.
Do you feel a bit nervous about taking the first step and think you would be more comfortable in your own space? Great! There are literally thousands of videos on YouTube and online communities for you to join so you can practice in your bedroom, your office, your backyard, or even at a friend’s house.
On the contrary, if you want that accountability and connection you get from joining a yoga studio – go for it! I will say this, though: DO YOUR RESEARCH. The space in which you practice and the teacher that leads each class does make a difference.
I currently practice at a little yoga studio called Black Sheep Yoga in Oceanside, CA and feel a major connection to a few of the instructors there. It could be the way they lead, their voice, or the type of yoga they teach, but I just feel something during and after each class. Sometimes it’s joy, sometimes it’s sadness, sometimes it’s just a revelation- but no matter what, I am grateful and more grounded than when I first stepped on my mat. Basically, I know myself and recognize that I need to feel a connection with whoever is leading the class. It’s possible (or even likely) that you are different- you’ll know once you get on your mat and listen.
Last, but certainly not least, I highly recommend getting yourself a yoga buddy. I have one (Hi, Krista!) and there is nothing more special than bonding after class. We discuss the poses that felt good, the ones that were difficult, and what thoughts came up for us while on our mats. Usually there are a few tears (scientists still can’t figure out why yoga makes people so emotional), but also some giggles as well.
A few favorites (poses)
Stepping onto my mat (even on the days I don’t want to) has been a journey that has led to some difficult realizations, broken some shitty mindsets, and forced me out of my mental and physical restraints. Yoga has also opened me up to a community that I was once extremely intimidated by.
I used to go to class and inwardly wonder:
“When is my pose going to look like that?”
“I like that girl’s outfit. Why am I wearing this stupid shirt?”
“I can’t do a headstand. Why am I even here?”
Take a second and look back at the questions above (I’ll wait). What do they have in common?
Ding ding ding! I, me, my – or also known as the mighty ego. Everyone has an ego, but there is no room for it on your mat. In my experience, the more I practice the more I shed this mentality of comparing, not feeling good enough, and overthinking and instead give myself permission and room to breathe, feel, and move.
So, here are my top 5 poses right now:
Sun salutation (very energizing or calming sequence of poses depending on how fast or slow you do them, I love to set an intention with this first thing in the morning)
Downward facing dog (amazing stretch for your calves and shoulders, grounding)
Tree Pose (tests your balance and is also very grounding, great for the core)
Cactus Arms (a good shoulder/back stretch and the name just makes me smile)
Nadi Shodhan pranayama (alternate nostril breathing technique, helps calm the mind)
I love the poses above for different reasons, but they all share one very important quality: they make me feel strong as hell.
As someone who struggles with anxiety, I sometimes feel out of my body, in the clouds, a space cadet. I used to believe that this is just how I operate and that there was simply no way of changing it. However, starting a yoga practice has changed more than just my body, it has changed my mind.
You have no idea how freeing that is until you witness and experience it for yourself. My hope is that you do.
Featured Image from Free People’s Blog.