My love affair with yoga started about 13 years ago. At the time I was fiercely committed to cardio workouts and weight lifting—I loved spinning classes, boxing classes (in an actual ring), indoor rock climbing, and boot camp. My mother, who thought I needed to slow down a bit, wanted me to try yoga, which she'd been practicing since the 1970s. Since "mom always knows best," I decided to give it a try, gradually weaning myself off of my gym classes and weight lifting until yoga became my exclusive exercise routine. I've never looked back.
"Yoga is a union within ourselves and then with ourselves [and] the world around us. It is the joining of the breath, body, and mind," says Ashley Dorr, who teaches at the Shala, a Manhattan yoga studio that I frequent. Personally, I started yoga to try a different type of exercise. I wasn't really thinking about the mind, breath, and body connection. But as the years have passed, I have found this connection fascinating. During my practice, I think less about my busy schedule and more about what my body is capable of doing.
With so many different types of yoga available today, choosing a practice can be overwhelming, says Chrissy Carter, senior teacher at YogaWorks in Manhattan. "You need to know what you're getting yourself into because not all styles are for everyone," Carter says. "I know a lot of people who love to sweat but walked into a calm, meditative class and left saying, 'I don't like yoga, it's too slow for my taste,' to which I respond, 'You went to the wrong class.'"
I started out with yoga classes offered at my gym. At first, I wasn't in love with it. To be honest, my first class was a disaster; I felt like I didn't know what I was doing and, to make matters worse, I didn't like my teacher. In retrospect, I should have taken a beginner's class or workshop, regardless of my belief that since I was athletic I didn't need it. Carter recommends that people interested in yoga should begin with an introductory class "where postures will be broken down and explained clearly."
Luckily for me, I didn't give up yoga as a result of my initial experience. I did exactly what Dorr recommends—trying different teachers and studios until finding the right fit. Since people connect differently with their teachers, it's worth seeking out an instructor who is right for you, Dorr says. Also, it's a good idea to do your homework before jumping into a new class. Look online for reviews about types of practice, which may include Iyengar, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Anusura, or Power. Or, call a studio to find out more about the classes offered. You might want to ask about the class pace, type of musical accompaniment, or whether meditation will be involved so that you can put yourself on the right path.
Also, it's wise to introduce yourself to the teacher and explain that you're a beginner. An experienced teacher will be sure to offer you modifications and extra attention. If not, that teacher may not be the best fit for you. As a longtime yogi, I can tell you that the extra attention is something you will wish never stops!
A common excuse I hear from my patients for not trying yoga is that they aren't flexible. To quote Carter, "Even more reason to practice yoga! A healthy body is one with strong, flexible muscles." Yoga can make you strong, very strong. Think about the arm strength required to support your body in an arm balance, forearm stand, or handstand. And consider the mental and spiritual benefits. As Dorr says: When our bodies become more flexible, our minds follow.
Over the years, my yoga practice continues to evolve. The daily challenge of what I will encounter on my mat helps me to return on a regular basis. But it is also the practice that yoga inspires when I'm off my mat, like trying to be more patient, seeking goodness in someone even though it would be easier not to, and focusing on kindness when I am so not in the mood. Dorr referred me to a great quote by the Indian yogi Sri K Pattabhi Jois, who said, "Do your practice, and all is coming." There is neither beginning nor end with yoga, but a journey, and one that I am so glad to be on.
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Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.