There are many reasons to give yoga a go. My fellow Zen Monkey writer, Rob Cook, who’s never done yoga before is about to dive into yoga with both feet by doing 30 yoga classes in 30 days in July. An inspirational, if extreme, idea.
You might have a friend who’s been saying how great it is for a while, but you just can’t seem to find the time in your busy week to fit it in, but even if you’ve got the smallest spark of interest it’s worth finding a class and getting into those poses. If you need a little more persuading, read on.
1. Yoga Is For Every’body’
If you Google ‘yoga’ the images that come up are a total mixture. On the one hand there are people doing what look like extremely non-sporty things, like bending backwards a bit, or sitting cross-legged with a blissful sunset in the background. On the other hand you have people in rather confusing, acrobatic positions with legs coming out at odd angles and young, nubile people in a very small amount of clothes looking pretty intimidating.
It’s a sad fact that there is a sub-section of the human race who are irritatingly good looking, tanned and insist on wearing what is essentially underwear given the smallest of excuses. While you can celebrate their genetic lottery success, don’t let their scary postures put you off! None of these pictures tell the whole story. Those acrobatic poses are very advanced and if you’re in a class with a responsible teacher you’ll never be bullied into a pose that you don’t feel ready for.
The majority of yogis I come across are not at all of that ilk. Once you start doing yoga, it gives you a very different view of your own body and the bodies around you. Whatever size, shape, or age, everybody has different strengths and weaknesses. I happen to have freakishly long arms and legs and a short trunk, while my teacher has the opposite arrangement.
Once you start seeing your body differently, you’ll be able to inhabit it in a way you won’t have done before. Although some yoga poses may look ‘easy,’ like Mountain Pose (Tāḍāsana) which is essentially standing up straight, there is a huge amount going on. For the first time, you will be told to put your big toes together, inner heels touching, pull your knees up, etc. By focusing on those tiny details you’ll gain a new awareness of your body for use in everyday life.
2. It Loosens You Up
We all started our lives with great posture. Take a look at babies and toddlers as they sit, move and walk around. Children have a natural freedom of movement and flexibility — they are essentially little yogis. However, by the time we get to adulthood we’ve usually accumulated a whole host of bad habits and sometimes the odd injury too.
It doesn’t help that a large percentage of us work sitting hunched at a desk. Many of us also have tight hamstrings, thanks to long hours of sitting or driving or simply a lack of core strength, which can then cause spinal injuries.
Yoga can be a key tool to slowly change the bad habits your body has picked up. With practice and perseverance we can change from being tight and stiff to being loose and bendy. It really is possible. When I first started practising yoga I hated forward bends. As soon as I started to move forward from vertical, I would start to feel nauseous and slightly panicky. I would look at people who could smugly fold themselves in half and think, “Well, I’m not flexible, so I’ll never be able to do that.”
But now, after five years and a lot of warming up, I can finally get my head on my shins in Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottānāsana). So, if your excuse is, “Yoga’s not for me, I’m not flexible enough,” you’re one of the people that stand the most to gain from it!
3. Yoga Is Good Exercise
The poses tone, strengthen and exercise your muscles, and you don’t even need to go to a gym! For example, the action of lifting your arms above your head in Raised Hands Pose (Ūrdhva Hastāsana), will immediately increase your heart rate. Medical studies have also found it very useful to practice yoga alongside other aerobic exercise, such as running, as it will help avoid injury.
My own personal anecdotal evidence is that I come out of nearly all of my yoga classes, thinking, “Wow, that was full on!”
I first started yoga as a way to ‘get fit’ and ‘lose weight’: the two most common reasons for starting any new exercise. Yoga can and does achieve these two criteria, but not overnight. There are certain schools of yoga, such as Bikram Yoga, that achieve those results faster, but I actually ended up practising Iyengar yoga, which is more of a slow burn approach.
In the end I realised that it was my way of thinking that needed changing perhaps even more than the body I had criticised. I now think of my body as stronger and healthier, as opposed to fitter and thinner.
4. Keep Calm And Do Yoga
Confession time: after your first yoga class you’re more likely to feel jolly stiff, not necessarily stress-free and serene.
However, yoga is the gift of an ancient culture, based on the wisdom of thousands of years. Geeta Iyengar, daughter of the late, great B. K. S. Iyengar, says:
The seemingly physical āsanas have a great potential to change the behavioural pattern of the practitioner, which in turn changes the mental stature.
By taking the mind into the body, we give our whizzing brains a chance to come off the frantic hamster wheel of endless ‘To Do’ Lists. In fact, if we don’t, the poses themselves show us up, especially the balancing poses. If your attention is wavering then so does your standing leg!
Crucially, yoga gives you time to be with yourself. In our world that is faster, more connected, more full of distractions than ever before, the practice of yoga is a simple way to turn away from all the external busyness and meet yourself on the mat.
5. Before Baby
Obviously this reason isn’t going to be relevant for everyone, but yoga can be a fantastic way to prepare your body for childbirth.
I was pregnant with my first child the first time I tried yoga. I saw a poster at a local church hall and decided to see what this yoga thing was all about. I was nervous the first time I turned up, unsure of what to expect, but the teacher was wonderfully reassuring and wrapped her students in a womb of care. We were given herbal tea on arrival, were encouraged to become still and connect with our bodies and our unborn babies, and at the end of the session she put lavender oil on eye bags and sent us off to a place of pure rest.
Both my births were natural and positive experiences, and in my mind this was due in no small part to my yoga classes.
Just Do It
I hope you’ve found a reason that appeals to you in amongst this lot. Try researching the yoga lessons available in the local area and give them a go. Don’t be ashamed to try a beginners class, and if you find the pace too slow, or fast, then try a different form of yoga.
A good example is my dearest mother-in-law. After hearing me talk about yoga for four years, she finally plucked up the courage to come to a class a few months ago. She wasn’t sure what to wear, what to bring or whether she’d be able to do any of the poses, as she’s never been able to touch her toes. This week she managed her first ever unassisted Shoulderstand. Not bad for a sixty-something year old! She was so proud of herself, and with good reason.
Do you remember your first yoga experience? Or have you encouraged someone to try it for the first time themselves? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below! You can also come back on Friday to follow Rob Cook’s adventure through his thirty day challenge. There’s a yoga class out there for everyone — the hardest step is the first!