What comes to mind when you hear the word “yoga”? Perhaps words like flexibility, skin-tight clothing, heated room, chanting, meditation, and expensive. Despite its growing popularity, yoga is not exactly approachable. Here’s my attempt at demystifying yoga, a fairly intimidating experience for first timers.
Clothing: Be comfortable. That doesn’t mean dropping your next paycheck at Lululemon. My favorite yoga outfit is a tank top and sweatpants. If you can comfortably do jumping jacks in it, then you’re good to go. Leave your shoes and socks outside of the studio. Your feet play a big role in every yoga pose that you do and it’s hard to tune-in to your feet when they are confined in socks.
Yoga Mat: Pretty much all yoga studios have mats you can rent for about $1. It’s a small price to pay for someone to clean it when you are done. If yoga becomes a larger part of your life, you can invest in your own mat. They sell mats at Whole Foods, Target, Walgreens– pretty much anywhere these days. If you want to invest in a high quality mat, Jade Yoga is a great brand because you will never slip on it, even when you’re dripping sweat.
Props: When you walk into class, you will notice that on one wall, there are a variety of “props”. The main props in yoga are blankets, blocks, straps, and bolsters. Whenever an asana (Sanskrit word for posture or pose) is challenging, a prop can be used to make it more approachable. Most teachers will tell the class what props will be needed at the start of class and instruct you on how to use the props during class. Props can be used in a variety of ways. Blocks make the floor closer when bending over, blankets make sitting on the floor more comfortable, straps are great for when tight shoulders prevent hands from clasping behind the back, and bolsters are comfortable to lie down on. Using props is not considered “cheating”! The most advanced yogis use props.
Sanskrit: Sanskrit is an ancient language from India, where yoga originated. Every asana– or pose– has a Sanskrit name and an English name. Most instructors will say the Sanskrit name and the English name. Every Sanskrit name ends in -asana, and usually is the name of an animal or something in nature– cobra, fish, dolphin, dog, tree, mountain.
Breath: Without the focus on breath, yoga would simply be “gymnastics”. As soon as class begins, most yoga teachers will ask students to try to lengthen their inhales and exhales to at least 4 counts each. Your breath is the gateway to a calm mind. The more focus that’s on the breath, the better. Much of yoga is about linking the breath with movement. This is called “flow”. As you move into a pose, your inhale takes you there. As you move into a new pose, your exhale takes you there. Many yoga teachers will instruct you when to breath. If your breath count doesn’t match up with what the instructor is saying, that’s perfectly okay. Just do your best to match your own movement with your breath. If your breath becomes short and ragged, then stop what you are doing, come to your knees and sit down with your buttocks on your ankles and your forehead on the mat. Rest in “child’s pose”! When you are ready, you can begin again with the rest of the class.
Safety: Always stack your joints. In most poses, your knees stack on top of ankles, shoulders stack on top of hips, head stacks on top of shoulders. Always keep the the natural curve in your spine. That means if, when you bend down to touch your toes, your hands don’t reach the floor without rounding your spine, then bend your knees. Always remember, if your pose doesn’t look exactly like the person next to you, that’s perfectly okay! If your alignment is off, don’t be surprised– or insulted– if the yoga teacher comes over to you and makes a hands-on adjustment. He/she is just trying to help you find the correct alignment in your body and sometimes just saying it isn’t enough. And don’t worry, you are not the most inflexible person in the room!
What’s the point? Umm… besides getting a yoga butt, of course? Yoga invites us to slow down and pay attention to our breath, something we rarely do. Yoga also invites us to focus. When our attention is on what our shoulder blades are doing, we are not thinking about our difficult boss, or the fight we had with our partner, or what we are making for dinner. We can actually begin to attempt to turn off the chatter of the mind. But the chatter in the mind is actually valuable as well! For example, when we find ourselves in a physical shape that is challenging, we begin to gain some awareness around how we respond to difficulty in life. We learn to breath through it. Over time this awareness that we cultivate on our mat can serve us in the world outside of the yoga studio.
So, do yoga! Then maybe the next time someone cuts you off on the road, perhaps you will pause, return back to your breath, and remain calm. Or at the very least, your shoulders will be more open as you lean on the horn.