WHY EVERYONE SHOULD TRY YOGA + SOME TIPS TO GET YOU STARTED
After collapsing onto my mat in a recent Bikram Yoga class, I was lying there appreciating how wonderful I felt. Relaxed, calm, present and just the right amount of spent. Then I heard an indiscernible noise and wondered if it would be followed by an unmistakable smell. This got me thinking about how bizarre it is that I feel so perfectly at peace in a suffocatingly hot room painted hospital blue surrounded by slightly stinky strangers with only a mat and towel separating me from a carpet drenched with 10,000 gallons of stranger sweat. How did this become serenity for an Irish girl that hates heat and body odor and used to avoid touching anything in public bathrooms?
I don’t even remember the first time I tried yoga or the first time I felt that addictive calm that comes during and after a killer class, but I do remember what hooked me. It was the realization that the focus on breath and movement and the required mind-body connection left little room in my brain for stress and worry. I noticed after just a few Vinyasa classes that the 180 minutes I spent on the mat each week were the only minutes free of thoughts about work, my relationship, family, weight, etc etc. They effectively were my only minutes of true peace. I also felt incredibly strong and capable during the classes, took great pride in my evolving practice and slept FAR better on Monday and Wednesday nights than any other nights of the week. Perhaps most importantly, yoga was the first thing that challenged me to see my body in a whole new light. Instead of picking it apart in the mirrors of some gym, I spent 90 minutes feeling powerful, graceful and strong. Instead of being self conscious or uncomfortable in my skin, I spent an hour and a half holding dancer-like poses (which especially appealed to my chubby inner child who always longed to be a ballerina) and making beautiful shapes with limbs I was grateful to for holding me up in the first place. Yoga became my version of serenity because it made me feel at peace with my body, mind and the world around me.
After I had back surgery, Vinyasa became off limits. For a long time, I was stubborn about finding another kind of yoga. I wanted to go back to my cheap therapy, body positive sanctuary and the teacher I had a total girl crush on. I was like Goldilocks writing off porridge - this one’s too easy, that one’s too hard on my back, this one’s too slow, that one’s too fast. But I didn’t forget the incredible feeling those 90 minute classes gave me, so I kept searching. Eventually I found my happy place again, atop a sweaty mat on a stinky carpet surrounded by sweaty stinky people in a nondescript room. And even though it takes another shape now entirely, its heaven all the same. That’s the beauty of yoga. There is a teacher, studio and type of yoga out there for everyone - regardless of your fitness level, injuries, preferences, age or budget. And wherever you land, I can assure you that you’ll reap these benefits well worth the effort: a stronger body and a calmer mind.
WHY YOU SHOULD GIVE YOGA A CHANCE
In addition to improving flexibility, increasing strength, relaxing your busy mind and improving your stress response, yoga is also affordable (or free if you use an app in your own home) and can be done almost anywhere. If cheap, accessible and relaxing isn’t enough for you, here’s why I believe you should give it a shot!
- To develop a whole new level of awareness around your body and the way day to day habits effect it. Thanks to our fast paced lives and packed schedules, many of us have a pretty weak mind-body connection. We train ourselves to ignore the discomfort that comes from being sedentary or the signs of injury that might get in the way of maintaining a 90 mph pace. Over time, the mindful movement in class makes you more aware of your body outside of the studio, which unlocks a little bit of compassion for it and increases the likeliness that you’ll actually respond to its needs as they arise.
- To experience the gift of mindful movement, which is basically a magical blend of exercise and meditation - two things anyone and everyone can benefit from. You remain aware and focused on your body as you move through the poses, even if only to avoid injury or embarrassment, so the temptation to obsess about that jerk at work or eating those 3 cupcakes yesterday is reduced. Instead you get to clear your mind as you feel your joints open up after a day of hunching over a desk.
- To undo the damage you do by sitting all day. Sitting for long periods of time is awful for our bodies (not to mention our sanity). Yoga offers an opportunity to counteract that daily damage with things like spinal twists and flexion, hip openers and glorious glute stretches. Really, it’s the least you can do for holding yourself captive for 8+ hours a day!
- To discover muscles and joints you never knew you had and surprise yourself with what you’re capable of. It feels so rewarding to challenge yourself and watch your practice evolve. There’s nothing like walking into a room thinking “I can’t” and leaving it saying, “I can”.
- To integrate a workout into your life that can evolve and change with you as you age and/or face injuries or limitations due to health challenges. Let’s be honest, marathon running and back to back Soul Cycle classes may not suit you into your 80’s, but chances are there is a form of yoga that you can bring with you right to the grave. Not to sound morbid or anything ;)
- To keep your marbles. Yoga and meditation have been shown to ward off cognitive decline and dementia. Like crossword puzzles, learning new things and meeting new people, yoga and mindful movement have extensive mental and physical benefits, this one being my fave. Cause you doesn’t want to hold onto those marbles a little longer?
QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE YOU PUT ON YOUR STRETCHY PANTS:
There are dozens of forms of yoga out there and classes for people of all ages, physical fitness levels and inclinations. If you’re ready and willing to give yoga a try, do a quick assessment first to make sure you get the most out of your practice:
- What mental and physical benefits are you seeking? (Are you looking for a quiet meditative class to combat stress? A high-powered fast paced class to get your heart rate up? Looking to increase flexibility?)
- Do you have any injuries or physical limitations you need to be mindful of? (If yes, look for smaller class sizes and experienced teachers and make sure you ALWAYS inform teachers of your limitations.)
- Are you looking for something to compliment an already active lifestyle or will yoga become your primary form of exercise?
- How do you feel about heat and music being a part of your practice?
KNOW/DO BEFORE YOU GO
- Read up on what the different kinds of yoga have to offer so you have a leg up on finding the one right for you. You can certainly go in blind, but the likelihood of you giving up before you’ve given it a real shot is higher this way!
- Check the studio schedule and FAQs online so you know how to best prepare. Look for notes on prerequisites so you don’t accidentally land in an advanced class you’re not ready for. See if mats, towels, showers available at the studio. If not, plan around it.
- If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. This applies to the type of yoga, the teacher, and poses. They call yoga a practice for a reason, it takes time. Don’t give up before you find a teacher you like, a pose that makes you feel strong and experience the mental benefits at least once!
- As your practice advances, listen to your body and the teacher. People do injure themselves in yoga at all experience levels and most of the time its because they’re not paying attention to what they’re doing, not listening to the teacher or ignoring signals from their bodies.
- Try not to compare. Make yoga a deeply personal thing. Yes you’re often surrounded by loads of other people in a class, but yoga and ANY exercise should be tailored to what works for your body.
- Know your limits. Fatigue is normal but pain is not. If you know you have an unstable knee joint or a tricky back, be mindful of those limitations going in, respect them, talk to the teacher about them and figure out how yoga can help work with or around them.
- Stay open minded. If you’ve never done yoga before, the breath, movements, language and culture is all going to take a little getting used to. Don’t be turned off by fanatics or guru-obsessed students too easily, you never know their stories and you never know if you might end up equally obsessed! You do you, focus on getting what YOU came for and you might be surprised how many parts of the process become familiar and comfortable over time.