It’s been ten years since the first time I took a yoga class, but I still shudder at the memory. My arms shook in down-dog, my feet slipped around in lunges, and I only understood about half the words the teacher said. Then came that “Om” at the end, which felt a little too cult-like for my taste. It’s a wonder I ever returned. But I’m grateful I did.
Over time yoga became more than exercise. It helped me to clear my mind and de-stress. As the years at my PR agency job passed, I spent less time clocking late nights at the office and more time at the studio. Miraculously, my performance reviews improved as yoga helped me to remain calm and focused. Getting in touch with my body and breath made me more confident, which enhanced my presentation skills and presence with clients.
After a few years, I knew I wanted to share yoga with others. Now, as an instructor, every week I have the pleasure of helping overworked yogis of Washington, D.C. sweat and exhale the stress away in Vinyasa and Yin classes. Here’s what I’d want to share with newbies as they start on their yoga path:
1. The struggle is real. Yoga helps to ease the mind and body, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. A flow yoga class will challenge you with a combination of isometric exercises (longer holds that fatigue muscles, like plank) and isotonic exercises (more dynamic, like sun salutations). Many poses, like the warriors, both contract and stretch different muscles in the body simultaneously, a particular challenge that even running or biking won’t offer. Start with a beginner-friendly class to nail the basics, and try to go a couple times per week to condition your muscles.
2. Embrace the mental challenge. Beyond the physical, your monkey mind may try to stir up drama internally. Rather than try to turn off the thoughts, allow your practice to give you perspective so your racing mind can become more like background noise. For me the hardest part of yoga is my self-imposed frustration and self-doubt. Our culture is used to instant gratification, but yoga doesn’t work like that. You can’t go around the hard stuff, you have to go through it.
3. They’re your neighbors, not your competition. I often will see students too timid to try a new pose, perhaps because they’re afraid they’ll fall flat on their face. I also see students so determined to push through that they completely lose their breath. Embrace humility. When you fall on your face you can laugh it off and move on. If you’re tired, come to child’s pose. Look to fellow yogis for inspiration and community, to know you’re not alone in the struggle.
4. Your yoga practice doesn’t start or end on the mat. Yoga gives you tools for dealing with life when you’re pushed to your edge. But Asana, the physical movement, is actually just one of yoga’s eight limbs. There’s also Pranayama (breathwork) and Pratyahara (meditation preparation). The ethical principles are key too, though generally less discussed. For instance, the Yamas and the Niyamas are guidelines to help you treat both yourself and others more kindly. So even if you felt like you had a sluggish class, you’re still doing the practice when you smile and help someone put their props away. Take it a step further and make kindness a habit by starting a gratitude journal or a 10-minute morning meditation practice.
5. It’s all in the process. Some of the poses could take years to work into the body — and some may never happen. It’s a cliche but yoga is about the journey rather than any result. One class you may find a pose, and the next you don’t. Sometimes the physical portion won’t be so important but the breath work will be. Nailing your first arm balance or headstand feels amazing, but letting go of expectations makes it more fun.
Most days I still feel like a beginner student. When one aspect of my practice gets easier, something else appears to challenge me. I think that’s what keeps me coming back. That and the chanting at the end — I’ve grown to love it.