After reading just that one little word, I bet you’re probably thinking of a person dressed in spandex and tangled up in a pretzel-like posture. Or a woman sitting cross-legged on a mat, chanting. Maybe you picture an Instagram post of someone doing a handstand on a mountaintop, looking all calm and blissful.
Maybe you thought, “Intimidating.” Or, “Boring.”
I’m guessing you also thought “flexibility.” When I polled some of my closest girlfriends, asking what yoga meant to them, “flexible” was their top response. While mobility is definitely a component of yoga, achieving Gumby-like stretchiness is not the goal.
See, as yoga has gotten increasingly popular, it has also become increasingly misunderstood. Contrary to what you may see on social media, yoga—true yoga—is not about achieving the perfect pose. So, what is it about?
What is Yoga?
The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word “yuj” meaning “union” or “yoke.” There are several ways to interpret this, but most people agree that it means connecting the mind, body, and soul.
Yoga is composed of eight limbs.* Only one of those limbs is dedicated to the physicality of the practice. In yoga, we strive to achieve equal balance between strength and flexibility. The poses (referred to as “asana”) and their transitions are meant to provide a moving meditation.
*The other seven limbs of yoga are: restraints, observances, breath, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and super-consciousness.
What’s In It For You?
In today’s day and age, we tend to live in a nearly constant state of hyper-stimulation. We’re trying to do everything all at once, and trying do it all faster than ever. We’re surrounded by light-emitting screens, notifications, voice alerts, alarms, dings, bells, and buzzers. All of the noise—both literally and figuratively—is drowning out the most important message of all: what our bodies are trying to tell us.
Depending on the style, yoga can offer a fantastic workout, but it’s about so much more than that. Yoga combines deep breath with intentional movement to decrease chronic stress (therefore helping with digestion, sleep problems, mood, etc.), enhance your body’s proprioception (ability to determine how you’re moving in space and time, tied to your balance, coordination, and agility), and improve mobility, stability, strength, and balance.
Yoga provides a rare chance to eliminate distractions, and dive inward to focus on the connection between mind, breath, and body.
I’m going to help you ease into yoga to make your practice more comfortable, but before we get into that, I need to be clear about something that’s very important: You can’t be “good” at yoga.
Just because a woman nails an arm balance or a headstand, it doesn’t mean she is good at yoga; it means she did an arm balance or a headstand. There is a huge difference. Remember, the physical portion only makes up one-eighth of yoga; the rest comes from your connection to your breath and mind, and there isn’t really a way to gauge that. Also, it’s crucial to point out that if you can’t be good at it, you also can’t be bad at it. It is your own journey into yourself. It’s neither good nor bad. This is why yoga is referred to as a “practice.”
The Importance of Going to a Studio
While many commercial gyms do offer yoga classes, I’m an advocate of going to dedicated yoga studios, especially when you are new to yoga.
Most dedicated yoga studios require that their instructors have at least 500 hours of training under their belts… er, spandex. In order to ensure that you’re getting safe instruction, it’s imperative that you go to highly qualified teachers. It’s not uncommon for instructors at commercial gyms to start teaching after taking one weekend certification course. In some cases, there are qualified instructors teaching amazing yoga classes at some of these gyms, but that isn’t always the case.
In addition, almost all yoga studios offer first-time students a free introductory class. I highly recommend you take advantage of that. The instructor can help you understand exactly what to expect, give you the lay of the land, and take you through a short practice. If you don’t see this on the studio’s website, give them a call and ask if they offer one! Chances are good that that they do.
If you bypass the free intro class and decide to dive right in, here are a few tips:
- Arrive 10 minutes early. Nothing is worse than frantically racing into a class only to spend the first 15 minutes of your practice trying to calm your heart rate.
- Introduce yourself to the instructor and let him or her know that you’re new to yoga. This is also a good time to mention any injuries or physical limitations.
- Stay near the front of class. You may feel inclined to gravitate to the back of the class, but try to scout out a piece of real estate closer to the front or middle of the room. This will allow you to hear and see the instructor clearly.
- Don’t shy away from blocks and straps. Both are offered in studios to assist you in certain postures, and I use them frequently! Don’t be shy—grab them!
What (not) To Wear
I strolled into class one night wearing a flowy tank top and some low-rise tights. As soon as I got into my first downward facing dog (a common pose), my tank flipped up over my head and the entire top part of my butt tried to sneak out of my pants. To say that this was distracting and uncomfortable for me is an enormous understatement. I couldn’t focus on my practice whatsoever because I had become so preoccupied with keeping my clothes in place and not exposing myself to the entire class.
This is a really common mistake among newbies and veterans alike. Almost every time I’ve cued downward facing dog in a class, women all across the studio tug their pants up and pull their falling tops down. This is not the way you want to spend your precious yoga time.
If you know me well, you know that I frequently joke about my credo, “fashion over function,” but when it comes to yoga, the exact opposite is true. It’s all about function. Your clothing must stay put.
When you get dressed for your practice, test your outfit. Jump up and down, move side to side, raise your arms up over your head, and then dangle your torso forward over your legs. Do your clothes shift in any way that will make you uncomfortable? When you bend over, are your tights see-through? Check, and then double check. Trust me on this one.
Get Your Own Mat
Many studios rent mats, but in my opinion, the mat is your sacred space. Purchasing your own is a wise investment that will last a long time if you get a good one and take care of it.
There is a wide range of mats to choose from, just keep in mind that you get what you pay for. If you buy a cheap mat, it’s very likely that your hands and feet will slide around on it, and it will shift around on the floor. It is not only obnoxious, it’s dangerous if you slip and fall out of a pose. A good sticky mat will typically cost around $70 to $80. My favorite mat is the Harmony mat by Jade Yoga.
How to Incorporate Yoga Into Your Workout Routine
I feel confident saying that we could all benefit from more time to slow down and focus on our breath, and how our body feels. If you are already following a fantastic program such as The Modern Woman’s Guide to Strength Training, consider incorporating one or two low/moderate intensity yoga sessions per week, lasting 30 to 45 minutes, preferably on your non-training days.
Whether you choose to practice for five minutes a couple of times a week, or perform a longer session every other day, you will certainly reap rewards from yoga. Like anything else, be sure to ease into your practice to ensure that you stay safe.
To help get you started, I filmed a video for you of sun salutation A, which you will see in most yoga flow classes. It is one of my favorite flows that you can learn and do at home, or even in your office on your lunch break.
May your heart be full of love,
may your body be full of health,
and may your mind be at peace.