What Is This Yoga Thing Anyway?

Your cat doing yoga

Starting yoga is easily the hardest part of any yogi’s journey. For every serene and impossibly bendy ‘success story’ there are hundreds of people at the very beginning of their exploration of yoga feeling a little bemused. These people may already have ventured into a few classes. They might be studying pictures of yoga poses with intrigue, apprehension, or probably both, while they wonder how they’ll ever choose what kind of yoga class they want to go to. Or they might be reading Yoga for Dummies on the tube asking themselves, “Is it worth the emotional upheaval to take the plunge at all?

Off the Mat

The secret to getting ahead is getting started.
~Mark Twain

With the exception of those special few that grew up in a yoga household, people starting yoga are usually overwhelmed by the varity of different styles, words, opinions, choices… It feels like you have to learn a whole new language to make yoga your thing.

A lot of people are drawn to yoga by the promise of getting fit, but often find that there’s much more to it than working that six-pack. After a while, people find that other aspects of the practice start to sneak into their lives. Maybe you notice that the panic you feel at a stressful business meeting is similar to the panic of trying a new pose for the first time. Maybe you find yourself becoming aware of your breath in the middle of a heated argument. Perhaps you even discover that showing yourself a bit of kindness turns out to be more productive than beating yourself up. There are all sorts of unexpected things to learn from yoga beyond the physical benefits. What’s nice, though, is that no matter your motivation to get onto the mat, it is the doorway to all the experiences that come with owning your yoga practice.

Stretch even further
Image Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli on Flickr.

Do you want to know the best way to discover how to own yoga in your life? Go to classes. Revel in the fact that it’s all new, and try everything. There are so many different classes to choose from, each with a different focus, and you might be surprised by what feels good to you. Ashtanga classes discuss discipline, whereas Iyengar classes call for alignment. Vinyasa Flows are known for creativity and sweat whereas Jivamukti classes focus on for yoga philosophy in practice.

On the Mat

Once you’re in class there are only four things you need to do: listen, breathe, move your body and rest when you need to. There will always be things that are difficult in a yoga class (no matter how long you’ve been practising, believe me) but you are always welcome to take Child’s Pose or Balasana when you need a break. One of the most common mistakes is being afraid to rest.

balasana in blue
Image Credit: uwenna on Flickr.

When I’m teaching, watching someone move into Child’s Pose tells me that they’re listening deeply. Not just to me, but to their body and what it needs. It’s a sign that someone is present in their own practice, and not just powering through every pose for the sake of it.

After the session, feel free to questions after the session if anything wasn’t clear to you, and pay attention to how you feel afterwards. If you finish a practice feeling energised, calm, and as though you can take on the world, it’s probably a good sign.

If you feel like it, you can check out some reviews of studios and teachers online, then go forth and yoga! Be warned that there are probably classes out there that you won’t like – but finding what doesn’t work for you is a necessary step towards finding what does. Recently, I spoke to a new-to-yoga friend who thought that all he wanted to do in class was sweat, get strong and do things that look impressive. He and I kept in touch as he went through the process of trying different classes and teachers, and he found that the ones he wanted to go back to were the ones that included lots of time for meditation and chanting. On the other hand, someone who wants the meditation and chanting might find that they love a sweaty power yoga class. You really don’t know until you try.

Unrolling Your Mat

Tiger Prowling
Image Credit: Todd Petrie on Flickr.

There’s a limit to how much you can learn from reading or listening to what other people say about yoga, but you can learn endlessly from practising it. One of the breakthrough moments in my own practice came from a teacher at my YogaLondon Teacher Training who told the class to ‘prowl like tigers on the mat.’ Admittedly it sounds silly out of context, but in the moment it made a lasting difference in the way I moved.

All this to say it’s understandable if you’re at a point where it’s all a bit baffling. Your head might be spinning if it seems that yogis have to be able to walk backwards on their hands, hold their breath for ten minutes and drink coconut water through their ears. Don’t worry. Go to a class, dip your toe in the water and see how it feels. Yoga is not the same thing for everyone, and therein lies the beauty of it. The knowledge and experience is out there to help you build a practice that suits you and it’s just waiting you to start!

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