When I first started working in the hair industry some 14 years ago, I was barely aware that yoga even existed. A fellow hair stylist of mine would enter our salon each Saturday morning, coffee in hand, and announce how good she felt after last night’s yoga class. The furthest that took me was, “I have a friend at work who does yoga.” Then I’d go for my morning runs and do some hair.
I was a hair stylist for less than six months when the body aches and pains began. Chronic low back and shoulder pain, neck discomfort, intense pain when I sneezed or coughed from a rib being out of place, and painful plantar fasciitis were normal for me.
I found that movement and stretching helped relieve some of the discomfort. So each morning before work I would go for a jog and follow it with an intense stretching routine which included a heating pad under my low back and about 45 minutes of enjoying Regis and Kelly (when that was a thing) if I could catch a small glance between hamstring stretches.
Once this morning routine was done for the day, I felt great! For about 20 minutes. And then the muscles would seize up again and I’d be back to square one wishing I had just finished my morning jog and had time to stretch again.
I was miserable in my body most of the time. I even tried massage and Chiropractic adjustments, only to find out that those were temporary fixes too. I grew tired and discouraged, and wondered if I could really keep doing this hair styling stuff.
Then one day, my yogi work friend asked me if I wanted to go to yoga with her. I had never done yoga before but I thought what the heck? Ok!
We walked into the studio and I immediately felt intimidated. Everyone around me had a fancy looking multi-colored lotus flower yoga mat and were OBVIOUSLY professionals and had been doing this a long time because they were tall, slender and super bendy too. And their outfits…like when did it become a thing to wear your cutest trendiest attire to workout in? I couldn’t tell if they were going to a night club or a fitness class.
Then there was me. I had one of those old bright blue foam mats. You know, the ones your mom used to do her thigh master exercises on? Yeah, one of those. (It had Velcro. Now I know you’re jealous…don’t be.)
I also had a history of having ZERO flexibility. Like, please do not ask me to touch my toes or I will fear for my life. And the grey, baggy Old Navy crop pants that made my five foot tall self look even shorter, coupled with my Tinker Bell tank top from Disney couldn’t compete with the nightclub-goers.
Upon entering the yoga room, I was lost on what to do. The music was soft, the lights were dim, no one was talking and EVERYONE was doing some sort of yoga pose that was as foreign to me as TGIF on a Tuesday night. Everyone was looking at me, I just knew it. They MUST know I’m new, and they must be laughing so hard at me. Oh boy. What did I get myself into?
Throughout the class I had no idea what I was doing. I felt awkward, and some of those poses were the hardest EVER. I remember downward facing dog being one of the toughest poses…my arms were shaking so hard I thought I might die a slow painful death just trying to hold myself up.
At one point I remember “flipping my dog,” and not knowing where I was in the room. Which way was up, down, left, right…? You could have handed me an ice cream cone and I wouldn’t have known how to hold it let alone eat it.
All of that business and yet, after that class, I felt better than ever, in mind and body. My anxiety had gone WAY down, and my body felt loose and open in a way I had never felt before. All the pain I was used to feeling dissipated just within that one hour, and I felt light and joyful, like I could take a ride on a unicorn in candy land.
And that was the day I realized yoga was more than just a workout and some crazy pretzel-twisting poses. I felt a whole new world had opened up to me. At the time I had no idea why or how, but I found my spirit that day.
After that it took me many years to find myself on the mat every day. I would practice sporadically, each time not quite fully understanding why I felt so great afterwards. And eventually it led me to my daily yoga practice and ultimately, to becoming a teacher and mentor for others.
Based on my own experience, I would like to share with you a few key things I wish I had known before that very first yoga class…
1. Yoga is for everyone. So I couldn’t touch my toes. So I didn’t know any of the poses. So what? Yoga is for everyone, anywhere from novice to the more experienced student.
Every yoga teacher is different, but in my experience as both student and teacher, many instructors give alternatives to more complex poses throughout the class. In addition, teachers are often able to sense if a student is struggling, and with gentle awareness can offer help or reassurance if that is the case.
Furthermore, if you are just beginning your yoga practice, or if it is your very first class, it is always helpful to let the teacher know, so he or she can be of support to you throughout the class if you should need it.
So no matter who you are, what you do, or how long (or short) you have been practicing, get out there and try it. It could just change your life!
2. In yoga, we practice non-judgment. This means you don’t have to wear fancy clothes, or carry a Lululemon yoga mat in order to “fit in.” The truth is, that day I walked in with my bright blue foam mat in my Old Navy crop pants and tinker bell tank, I may have been judging myself…but no one was judging me.
In reality, no one is paying attention to us in the yoga room. Instead, we come onto our mat to be in our own body, our own mind, and to practice in love and with respect for others.
And all those other people I saw, with their fancy mats and nightclub outfits, well, if I’m being honest with myself I was judging them. And they probably didn’t even notice me!
So try and open up your heart and your mind, and arrive on your mat as yourself. Your true, authentic, wonderful self, and don’t let anyone or anything intimidate you away. Because trust me, no one is paying attention anyway.
3. Yoga can help strengthen, tone, and create space in the body. I only wish I would have started a regular yoga practice a lot sooner in my hairstyling years. I started seven years in, and I truly believe it would have helped me a lot more if I would have started years before.
Since beginning a regular yoga practice, my foot pain has completely gone away. My neck and back discomfort is 75% improved. My rib is back in place and I don’t scream in pain when I have to sneeze or cough. My hand and wrist pain has been greatly reduced.
I feel more spacious, and I feel a lot stronger in every aspect: body, mind and spirit. And if I am having some sort of body ache or pain, 90% of the time I am aware of what is going on and some exercises I can do to relieve some of the tension.
Yoga is not just for stretching and giggles. It is challenging, strengthening, and expanding our spirit. It builds stability, calm and focus. It can release pent up emotions which are stored in our tissues, and move stagnant energy in the body, creating space for healing.
4. You have to start somewhere. Not every yogi is born with the natural ability to jump right on up into a handstand (in fact, I do not recommend trying that unless you’ve had plenty of practice and a qualified practitioner to assist you).
Perhaps you are in a class where everyone around you is achieving the peak pose, and you are left wondering how the heck they are doing it. There is one simple answer and that is practice. This is obviously not your classmates’ first yoga venture if they are coming into Hanumanasana (splits), Bakasana (crow), or Adho Mukha Vrksasana (hand stand).
Don’t judge yourself for not reaching a pose if you’re not ready for it. It doesn’t mean you don’t have the ability, or that you “aren’t flexible enough,” or that you are somehow lacking in some way. It simply means you’re just not ready!
I have been practicing yoga for over seven years, and it was only a few months ago that I finally had the space and strength in my body to achieve Urdhva Dhanurasana (wheel pose). And I’m still waiting to feel confident enough to come up into a full handstand without assistance!
So, you have to start somewhere. Try not to worry about what others think, and definitely do not criticize yourself in your yoga practice. If you want to achieve a certain pose, believe you can get there, with time, practice and experience.
They say yoga is a metaphor for life. Are you often hard on yourself? Do you judge yourself for not accomplishing a goal or task? Notice if you feel similarly on the mat, and try giving yourself a break. Be kind to yourself for even showing up, because that is the first step to something even greater.
For those of you who are just beginning to bring yoga into your life, I hope some of these tips help you feel a bit more comfortable either starting or continuing your practice. I was right where you are once, and believe me I was feelin’ all the feels you are feelin’.
My hope for you in your yoga practice is that you keep going and keep trying. That you give yourself the love you deserve. That you come to your mat with a gentle kindness for yourself. That you keep striving for what you desire, whether it’s “that one pose,” or a personal or professional goal in life. And that after each practice, you feel like you could take a ride on a unicorn in candy land.