The first time I set foot in a yoga studio I regretted it immediately. It was 6 a.m. on a weekday (already a bad idea) in Santa Monica (oof), and I was about to begin my first hot yoga class (double oof). The room was filled with lithe white girls wearing Lululemon, and there I was, in Target athleisure, with a Pilates mat to boot. The feeling was nothing new, I’m used to being the only brown girl in white spaces. It usually doesn’t bother me, but I was already feeling insecure and out of place, and the white gaze only heightened those feelings. I don’t think this yoga thing is going to be for me, I thought.
It didn’t get any better as the class got underway. I didn’t know any of the poses, and I got increasingly unsure as my inexperience began to show. My eyes darted around the room; Are people staring at me? Do they know I’m new? Are they laughing at me? Fifteen minutes in I started to feel the heat. My face was flushed and I struggled to breathe, all the while I was trying my best to flow, stretch, balance, and twist. Half an hour in I started to feel like I was going to die, or at least vomit. It took all my focus and concentration to keep it together and finish the class, which ended with five minutes of Savasana, on our backs. As I lay there, endorphins flooding my brain, I felt euphoric, and I began to reflect on what I had just accomplished. I felt proud that I had finished the class (albeit barely) and conquered my body, if only for that hour. All the negative, insecure, and anxious thoughts I had started the class with had melted away during the course of that hour. This was a foreign feeling, I rarely get a reprieve from the infinite stream of thoughts that float around in my brain. Maybe I could get into this after all.
Flash forward to today, a year has passed since that initiation, and I’m still doing yoga. Trust me, nobody’s more surprised about it than I am. Throughout the years I’ve picked up and abandoned countless hobbies and classes: Krav Maga, boot camps, gyms, and practically anything that’s ever been sold via Groupon. I had no reason to believe that yoga would be any different, but somewhere along the way it stuck. There are several reasons why this practice has resonated so strongly with me, and in honor of my practice, here they are:
The core principles of yoga are about fostering a mind-body-soul connection
When you close your eyes and think of yoga, what do you see? Chances are you probably think of a series of stretchy bendy poses. That’s partially correct, but there are actually seven other limbs of yoga that one must practice along with the poses. The other limbs of yoga have as much to do with your practice off the mat as on the mat. The goal is to achieve self-awareness of your mental, physical, and spiritual states, and begin to implement discipline in order to gain control over all three. To do so is extremely difficult but also extremely rewarding. Not to say that I’ve mastered it (I’m still a very new student and have lots to learn), but I feel I’ve gained small victories which would have been otherwise lost, and I have my practice to thank.
It’s all about the practice, not the “ultimate expression” of the pose
It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Cheesy, right? But so true! Although we have targets and goals in yoga, it’s important not to obsess over them. We must lose ourselves and our egos in the practice because, as many a yogi has said in class, you can’t be where you are not. Rather than get frustrated at your inability to do advanced poses like headstands and arm balances, enjoy and cherish the poses you ARE able to do. Be thankful that you can breathe and that you have the use of all of your limbs, it’s that basic. When you come to your mat, there shouldn’t be any expectations except to enjoy your time and practice with intention. I had to learn this the hard way. Yoga isn’t a competition to see who can raise their leg the highest or hold plank the longest, it’s about being comfortable with yourself, as you are, in that moment.
If you practice regularly, and with intent, you will see results
It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I made a serious time investment in something that wasn’t my job or career. Isn’t that sad? For the longest, I just felt like an automaton that had been programmed to go to work, come home, and go back to work. Making a serious hours commitment with yoga has reminded me that effort equals results. Not to say I’m some shredded up warrior, I’m not (yet), but I’ve seen muscles appear where there were none, and I can hold poses for longer than I could at the beginning. My upper back pain has improved as well, which tells me my alignment is on point. Micro-changes only I can see, but even my husband was impressed when one day I asked him to feel my triceps. Even little things, like carrying grocery bags or picking up dog poop have become slightly easier because of my increased strength, flexibility, and balance.
Yoga can be whatever I need it to be
Some days I wake up full of energy and ready to take on a challenge. On those days I book a 90 minute Strong or Power Flow class, something that will challenge my strength and endurance. Other days, I have to peel myself off the couch to get to class. On those days, I opt for a gentle restorative or Yin class that’s more about stretching and meditation. I can go strong or soft, long or short. I can target certain muscle groups or even ailments. When I’m having digestive issues, I do a lot of lower body twists which help massage the lower digestive tract. I can literally tailor a flow to address how I’m feeling at that very moment.
Yogic principles can, and should, be taken off the mat
The more committed to my practice I became, the more I understood that yogic principles could be applied to virtually any other practice or discipline. In particular, I thought of this as I thought about my writing, a discipline I had long ago abandoned in favor of being lazy. The biggest parallel between the two is the emphasis on a frequent, if not daily, practice in order to hone your skills and gain confidence. Read any intro-to-writing article on the internet and the number one piece of advice is that you have to write every day, some of them like to specify 500 words daily even. And just like yoga, you have to do the work in order to gain the benefits. A writer doesn’t magically discover their voice, it’s through years of work, different experiments, and deliberate, meditative, self-exploration that they achieve results. Being a writer seemed like such a lofty goal when I was a kid, but now I realize it just means you have to write. If you’re dedicated to your writing practice, it’s impossible not to improve. I really believe this now.
You can practice yoga by yourself or within a community
I’m introverted and sometimes I just want to be alone, especially if I need to recharge. The beauty of yoga is that it can be practiced at home as well as at a studio. I’ve purchased props for my home practice, and I watch guided classes on YouTube, and this has worked great for me. Of course, I still love going to class, it’s important to get the feedback of an experienced yogi that can point out alignment issues or other opportunities for injury. Not just that, but nothing replaces the energy in a yoga studio when everyone’s mid-flow, experiencing the same sensations in their body, breath synced, sweat dripping, together. Once you find instructors you like, you get to know them, their style, their music, and you enjoy your time with them. Since my first yoga class, I’ve found studios that are much more diverse, inviting, and down-to-earth. There are yoga studios of all varieties, so it’s important to find a community that resonates with your personal values, it enhances your practice that much more.
In sum, I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, and I’m cool with it. Here’s to another year!