I recently started teaching yoga and a beginner in my first class asked "What is yoga really?". Well of course, there is literally hundreds of websites and articles out there that describe what yoga is but I figured perhaps giving you my take might be an easier starting point in that I can share with you the things I wish someone had told me when I first started out.
The first is that the media gives us the impression you need to be slim, young, female, flexible, drink green juices and like tight clothes to be "into yoga". That stereotype undermines what it is really about which is learning to love ourselves, and I mean EVERYTHING about ourselves, including the nasty bits we are too ashamed to even vaguely admit to ourselves, let alone anyone else. The idea being, when we see others behaving dishonestly, we can still treat them with genuine understanding of the fact we are all simply human and not so dissimilar when it comes down to it. We all have shadows.
Being on your yoga mat is important but it is kind of like the swimming pool practice and real life is like swimming an ocean. Yoga postures help you grow self-awareness of your body, but to me more importantly, awareness of your emotions and your thoughts.
I dare not even try to recall the number of times I heard the voice in my head say "I can't do it" and how long it took me to retrain and replace that thought with "I can do it" and what do you know? Suddenly I could. Yoga gives you time and space to see what your thought patterns are when faced with easy things, challenges, the opportunity to show off, embarrassing situations and situations that make us want to storm out of the class; we get the chance to figure out how the hell to manage all that in real time.
Being on a yoga mat gives you the chance to focus on now and only now. It opens you up to be willing to experience pain as you learn not all pain is the same and it is not all bad; it always passes and often it is simply your body giving you a message. Yoga showed me that every pain I ever had was associated with some sort of emotion that I had buried or situation I couldn't face and that when I got the emotions out by crying or screaming or finding the courage to face the things in my life I was terrified to, those pains literally vanished. Like magic.
Yoga shows you it is ok to fail and fall, to be able to laugh at yourself, to push yourself a little harder and get back up. You realise most people are too busy worrying about how they look to even notice your trials and errors. Some of the hardest lessons for me were not to look around. Not to compare my body with other people who to my mind were inevitably slimmer, fitter and more beautiful than me. That we all have postures that we do easily that look impressive to other people, but these are not actually where we make most gains. The ones that infuriate you, that make you cry, that you think you will never be able to hold for more than a millisecond - they are the ones that make you grow. But you have got to be willing to show up, EVERY TIME, and try again, and again, then let it be for a while and suddenly you will be in that posture you never thought possible.
And the breath, wow, I literally never got that when I started (for like maybe 9 years...!). But if there is one thing that is the easiest to take from your mat into daily life it is that breathing, big, deep, long, slow belly breaths as often as you remember to. Try one or two now and you will get what I mean. Instant STRESS RELIEF.
I also never got meditation, I used to spend so much time thinking, “I am still thinking, this is a really long meditation, right? God! why can't I stop thinking, just for a second or two, to have a rest, you know? Relax. Ok, so I am focused on my breath, inhale, yes, exhale, no. I am thinking about dinner, and all the things I forgot to do at work today that I MUST remember tomorrow....and oh good! Thank God that is over!”
I can't say it is the same for everyone but somewhere along the way my mind changed. I was willing to let go, to trust I didn’t have to run the show and it was ok to step back and let my thoughts come and go. That I wasn’t them. And now meditation feels utterly amazing. There are still thoughts of course, and my overactive imagination runs wild, but I let the visions come now. I let the energy expand beyond me and I send love into the world and I get it back; and I feel good and whole and happy.
So, if I could give any yoga newbie some advice it would be this: SHOW UP.
Your journey and mine may well be completely different but I promise you that joining a class will bring you benefits you can't even imagine yet. And, it will not be a straight line; sometimes you will feel amazing and other times completely floored. You will get new injuries and pains in places you never even knew you had before. One day a posture you used to fall into with ease will suddenly become a nightmare. You will put on weight after working so hard to lose it and find muscles in the strangest of places.
But you will learn something else about being in a body and about living this time around that you never saw before. And if you can learn the lessons your mat is trying to teach you, swimming in the ocean one stroke at a time becomes easier, and not only easier, it starts to actually be enjoyable. And then you realise you had everything you ever needed inside of you all along and the only thing left to say is thank you.
For a brief history of yoga you can visit here. I believe it is well worth understanding something about chakras which are the energy centres in the body that yoga postures work to unlock and balance – you can find out some more here.
The ashtangas or eight limbs of yoga documented by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra’s are also an invaluable tool for living life. They start with the yamas and niyamas, which are a bit like the 10 commandments of yoga and the positive gems that are the genuine heart and purest intention of all faiths and religions worldwide.
They help you realise that yoga doesn’t happen on your mat. It happens when your child does that thing again that literally makes you want to explode. When a family member leaves dirty laundry on the bathroom floor again. When your neighbours are noisy and when your dog won’t stop barking. When someone pulls out in front of you or cuts into the queue you have been standing in for ages. When you don't get what you want. That is when yoga is most valuable. When you can take what the world is showing you and know YOU are responsible for your reactions and your reality.
And one more thing to keep in mind, once you start this journey it won’t end. Yoga is a bit like Alice following the rabbit into the hole. The more you learn, the more curious you become and the whole world shifts and asks to be rediscovered. Because in truth, yoga is not about the destination (do aim high and reach for enlightenment by all means!) but is only ever about this moment RIGHT NOW.
So, enjoy your beginning!