February 16, 2016

Lessons from a Yoga Noob: Yes, I’m Stronger & more Flexible but that’s not All.


There is a yoga studio a few blocks from where I live in West Philly that I’ve walked past hundreds of times. Every time I pass it, I slow my stride slightly, as if I am a whizzing electron pulled to the positively charged nucleus of an atom.

I linger curiously outside the door.

The building intrigues me, a narrow orange juice-colored strip squeezed between a run-down pizza shop whose sign looks like it hasn’t lit up in years and an empty warehouse with peeling white paint and dusty windows. A black board easel rests on the side walk outside the door with the words “Vinyasa w/ Tessa at 4:45 p.m.” written in curly-cue highlighter pink.

I watch as a slim woman with elegant yoga legs and a soft expression glides up to the door, turns the doorknob, and slips inside. It seems mysterious to me, people going in and out of this box of a building, up the smooth wooden staircase that I glimpse in the half second before the door gently creaks shut. My hand twitches to reach for the gold doorknob and see what treasures are up that staircase. I can almost feel a peaceful energy emanating from this structure, drawing me in. I hear the lazy clanging of a trolley clambering by in the distance and the chirp of children playing on the playground at the park nearby. The sun’s late afternoon rays shift as a cloud floats overhead and I catch a reflection of myself in the dusty warehouse window, wisps of hair sticking out of my headband. I brush them abruptly into place and hurry along my way.

Later that evening, as I am sitting at home browsing Facebook for bits of entertainment, my eye catches on a post by this yoga studio linking a video interviewing some students and teachers about what they like about yoga. I click on it out of curiosity. One teacher says that after a month of yoga, he didn’t recognize himself in the mirror. “Yeah, right,” I think. He must mean a physical transformation. Yoga abs, anyone?

The next day, before I lose my nerve, I go back and sign up for a month of unlimited yoga at this orange juice-colored studio. If not now, when?

Lesson 1: Jump in!

I choose Hatha yoga as my first class. I have no idea what Hatha means.

I walk in with my arms piled high with a yoga mat, yoga blanket, two yoga blocks, and a yoga strap and see several people lying down on their mats with blocks under their lower back and head, respectively. Should I do the same?

I deposit my armful of yoga props down in the back corner of the room and suddenly notice a framed portrait at the front of the room of a gray-bearded man next to a small lit candle. Who is that? This better not be guru-worship class… I sit down on my mat and shift uncomfortably.

Just then, the teacher walks in and confirms my suspicion.

“Let’s all sit cross-legged with our hands open to absorb the energy of the Spirit. Root your sit bones down and soften your heart. We are going to get into the second and forth chakras today.”

I chuckle to myself and shake my head. Oh boy, what have I gotten myself into?

The physical and mental benefits, I get. Those are measurable; you can go on Pubmed and find papers about how regular practice of yoga will lower your blood pressure and it’s all good and jolly. Not this voodoo.

An hour later, I am “blessed by the guru’s light” and “nourished with grounding energy.” I have not even broken a sweat and an hour of my life is gone. At least I had a little amusement. “Oh, these people. When are they going get that it’s all made-up?” says my scientific mind.

I fold up my mat and almost slip out of the room without a word but the teacher appears out of nowhere and catches me at the door.

“I hope you enjoyed the class, Megan!” she exclaims with an almost urgency in her blue eyes.

It takes all of my willpower to keep myself from snarkily correcting her, “My name’s not Megan.”

But instead I just spread my lips into a smile and mumble thank you and escape out of this world of chakras and lights and spirits. Was she trying to get me to join her cult? I quicken my stride and don’t make eye contact with anyone on my way out.

Luckily, I didn’t call that my last class or I would miss out on some wonderful teachers.

Lesson 2: Hold all judgments.

My next yoga teacher, Sam, pretty much ignores me during my first class with him while helping the students who were clearly more advanced than me. I guess even yoga teachers play favorites.

After my third or fourth time in his class, Sam comes by my mat and whispers “put a little bend in your elbows” while I am in downward-facing dog. I breathe a sigh of relief as he walks away and I bend my elbows a little per his instruction and grip the mat with my fingers.

A few weeks later, I graduate to a more advanced level of assistance. “Try five times to kick up into handstand with each leg.” Handstand? Are we really doing this?

I try, as in my attempts don’t result in anything more than feeble little rabbit hops that don’t get more than two feet of air. I watch other people gracefully floating up into handstand and I can’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy in my stomach. I know that gravity doesn’t discriminate but why don’t my feet have hidden springs on them? But alas, Sam sees me struggling and comes over to help me (whether it’s because he feels sorry for me or I’m the only one who needs help, I don’t care).

I stand facing the wall, hands on the ground a foot or so in front of the wall. He puts his hands on the back of one of my ankles. “Go ahead and kick up.”

I put all my energy into the ball of my right foot and jump, fully expecting to fall back down just as before. But he catches my right leg and swings both of my legs up in a smooth arc. I am in handstand! I am on top of the world!

Blood rushes to my head and I laugh and almost lose my balance but Sam is there, steadying me with his grip and soothing me with his presence. My upper arms are trembling and a muscle that I didn’t know existed is burning. He gently sets my legs down and I come back up to reality.

I begin practicing handstand at home with the wall for help. My blue yoga mat that normally stays in one corner of my room finally gets some use outside of its primary purpose as a cat-scratching post.

I thought Sam’s class was it. I begin waking up at 6:30 a.m. to go to his classes. I sleep in my yoga clothes (wardrobe efficiency anyone?). I don’t go to any other class. Until I do.

Lesson 3: Keep coming back.

I go to Mark’s Level 1 class, and boy, is that a misleading label.

This tall, bald man reminds me of my high school chemistry teacher. When I walk in, he is asking all of the students their names.

“We’ll start with wrist stretches and then move into cat/cow pose. Move at your own pace,” he says with a kindly smile.

“Yes, an easy class,” I think to myself.

20 minutes later, I’m dripping sweat onto my mat and I’m shaking in my Warrior II, legs spread apart with one knee bent over the ankle and arms outstretched at shoulder height. Mark is walking slowly around the room, adjusting everyone.

“Lower, lower, lower,” he says, nudging knees into sharper right angles.

He stops by my mat and scrutinizes my pose thoughtfully. My thigh muscles are quivering visibly and I fear that if he touches my knee I am just going to fall down onto the floor in a heap of limbs. I hold my breath and my pose as I wait for his verdict.

He motions to my knee (please don’t touch it!) and I automatically slide it a half-centimeter forward. Still standing! Okay.

“Now you’re in Warrior II!” Mark exclaims triumphantly, clasping his hands together in delight. I frown. His enthusiasm irks me, like when my friends laugh at an inside joke that only they know about.

He turns to another student and doesn’t see me straighten my leg for a second behind his back. I don’t think I can hold his version of the pose while he adjusts another ten people. Yeah, I cheat in yoga.

Lesson 4: Don’t get overconfident.

My one month pass at the studio finishes and I visit a free class at Lululemon. The store is so crowded that the guy on the mat in front of me accidentally kicks me at one point during the class and I conveniently grasp the bare mannequin next to me to steady myself during Half Moon pose.

There is a mirror along the front of the room and though there are several people obscuring my image, I catch a glimpse of myself behind the 12-year old girl with better abs than mine. It takes me a minute to recognize myself.

I blink to check my eyesight. That person is standing where I should be in the reflection. I turn my head from side to side and the person in the reflection copies me.

Who is that? That strong, steady warrior of a person. I feel like I am looking in a distorted mirror at the fun house at the fair. What happened to the shy, unsure, clumsy me? She’s gone.

I get what the teacher in the video was saying. The transformation of yoga is more than skin-deep.

Yes, I’m stronger and more flexible and I can do a real Warrior II and I can almost do the revered handstand without help. But what I see in that mirror is that I love myself more. And you can’t measure that.

Lesson 5: Be prepared for miracles.


Author: Laura MacKinnon

Editor: Katarina Tavčar

Photo: angrylambie1/Flickr

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Laura MacKinnon