If You’ve Never Tried Yoga, Here’s the Inside Scoop
From the outside looking in, yoga can seem like a perfectly bizarre world to dive into, and I totally get it. The crazy contortions, the chanting, the chakras. ‘Manifestings’ of things. How does all this mumbo jumbo result in the toned, glowing, infinitely optimistic posse that makes up the yoga community?
Questions abound. “Is it a cult? Do I have to go vegan?” Perhaps you’re curious to try a class, but worry that you’ll end up instantly regretting it. “I can’t do a freakin’ handstand, and these feet sure as hell aren’t getting behind this head. Will I be shunned for a lack of strength or flexibility?”
All these concerns can make yoga feel more than a tad intimidating if you’ve never tried it, so I’m about to give you the frills-free lowdown on yoga, amigo. There’s no such thing as a stupid question here. Let’s dive right in!
Why do so many people do yoga?
People try yoga for all sorts of reasons. Some want to get in shape, while others are looking to calm their minds. Why they keep doing yoga may be a different story. I morphed into a yoga junkie for the simple reason that it gets you high, in an invigorating and all-natural sort of way. The combination of targeted movement and breathing exercises, infused with yoga’s warm philosophy of compassion and acceptance, releases a cocktail of delicious brain chemicals that’ll have you feeling so good after class, you won’t even care that your housemate just ate your only ripe avocado without asking.
That post-class intoxication leaves you bathed in a sparkly pool of shimmering serenity. With regular practice, these calming sensations can actually change the brain and improve the way we experience reality. Many (or, if we’re honest, maybe MOST) people in the world today live with constant low-key anxiety triggered by perceived threats, stress, or negative thought patterns. This state of being stimulates the fast-acting sympathetic nervous system, prompting the body to unleash the fight-or-flight response, powered by stress hormones like cortisol. This is why being stared at by a stranger may cause a seemingly sane person to snap and blurt out “What are YOU looking at, wise guy?! Can’t I ride the frickin’ bus to work in peace?!”
The state of relaxation achieved through yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the more tranquil physical states we experience during periods of rest when no perceptible threat is present. Over time through a phenomenon called neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize its own synaptic connections in response to our experiences, this chillness replaces our defensiveness and becomes our default mode of operation. Finally, that keyed-up dude on the bus can mellow out and nod at that admiring stranger with a smile.
This healing change in perception and body chemistry precipitates a ripple effect that splashes over every other area of life. A calm mind allows us to clearly connect with our intuition and stay focused. We start hearing tips from other yogis about ways to climb even higher, like practicing meditation or adopting Ayurvedic eating habits. These incremental steps have us feeling better and better, and we look back wondering how we ever survived living with so much pent-up pain.
Yoga works better for many than any drug on the market ever could. It’s renewable, available to everyone, and does wonders for physical and mental health. Yogis wax poetic about positive energy and raising vibrations because they can feel their practice transforming their entire life as they slowly wade deeper and deeper into the pool.
How old is yoga and where is it from?
Yoga is, uh … really old. Actually, no one’s sure exactly when it was developed. The beginnings of recorded yogic philosophy can be traced back 5,000 years, but some researchers believe it may be as much as twice that age. Yoga was created in Northern India by the priests and mystic seers of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, and was streamlined over thousands of years into a step-by-step guide toward enlightenment. For believers of reincarnation, enlightenment is the ultimate human goal, allowing the soul to merge with the cosmos rather than staying stuck in the suffering-filled cycle of death and rebirth.
The practices involved in what’s known today as yoga are actually derived from a specific variation called Hatha, which was developed during the post-classical era through a focus on the body-mind connection.
It was believed that Hatha’s specific techniques could be used to free the spirit from the limitations of the physical realm. The sequences of poses, known as asanas, were designed to prepare the body to withstand sitting in meditation for long periods of time.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, yoga masters began traveling to the West to spread their teachings, earning themselves heaps of admirers and a dedicated following. Since then this fantastic exchange between East and West has continued, resulting in an explosion of yoga studios and ashrams in countries around the world, and the creation of more than 100 different styles.
Kewl. So um, is yoga a religion? Do I have to practice sorcery to do it?
Whether or not you perceive yoga as a religion depends on your intention for doing it. For example, is a kneeling person praying to god or just indulging in a sweet hip stretch? That’s really up to them to decide, right? (I happen to think so.)
Yoga was originally derived from the same holy texts that led to the creation of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, and many of its elements were intended as forms of worship aimed at the deities of those religions. The ultimate goal of yoga was prescribed by its creators to be enlightenment, a word that means different things to different people. So yes, for many practitioners, yoga is a means of unifying with the divine, whatever that means to them, whether they call themselves Hindus, Buddhists, Jainists, or Pastafarians.
But what if I don’t believe in god or subscribe to any sort of religion? What will yoga mean for ME?
It’s very unlikely that anyone will throw you shade at a yoga class for being atheist or agnostic. The majority of instructors I’ve met aren’t particularly religious either. (A lot of us seem to define ourselves as “spiritual,” a vague yet convenient term to describe people who feel a groovy oneness with the energy of the universe, maaaaan.)
The real thing to consider is how you’ll allow yoga to impact your belief system, and to what degree. I use the word ‘allow’ for a reason, which is that a lot of people in the yoga world will tell you things that won’t vibe with your personal ethics or sense of logic. That, my friend, is A-OK, and I encourage you to listen to your instincts. You can choose whether or not to adopt the beliefs and practices of others, but be sure to keep your head on your shoulders. There’s not a single person in this world, no matter how enlightened they claim to be, whose words you should follow blindly. Anyone who aggressively insists that you HAVE to pray to Shiva or eat quinoa to be living right is a jerk, plain and simple.
I’ve heard a slew of questionable tidbits in the 20 years since I started yoga. For instance, a major tenet of yogic morality is centered on ahimsa, the avoidance of violence toward all living things. Citing this concept, an instructor once advised our class to refrain from swatting away the pesky mosquitos that would join us each night in our outdoor jungle sala. Simultaneously, we were urged to eschew nasty chemical bug sprays. “Just let them bite you.” he suggested. “Use the experience as an opportunity to develop your mental strength and respect for life.” Uhh, and spend the next month in bed recovering from a life-threatening case of dengue fever, dear guru? Nay to that, I say. If using bug spray makes me a bad yogi, so be it.
You’ll hear some people touting the Law of Attraction as gospel. “If you just send out positive vibes and wait patiently, you’ll be more prosperous than Oprah in no time!” They may attempt to back up these claims with new-agey quantum pseudoscience. Nah, fam. Sending out positive vibes is awesome and will improve your relationships, but you still have to put in hard work to be prosperous. Money has never miraculously fallen into my lap because I asked the universe for it during meditation.
You’ll have other yogis telling you to treat every single soul on earth with endless compassion and acceptance at all times. This idea is great in theory but dangerous in practice. You can FEEL unconditional love for everyone that crosses your path, but making yourself vulnerable by accepting all kinds of treatment from anyone is a surefire way to get taken advantage of by sketchballs and abusers. Yoga can help us learn to deal with difficult people, but it shouldn’t keep us from setting healthy boundaries or lead us to enabling horrible psycho behavior.
And last but not least … the detox thing. Man. You will see some people take the goal of cleansing down a slippery slope to malnutrition.
“You can experience physical and mental benefits by giving up animal products.”
Cool, that seems to make sense, and this banoffee pie is frickin’ orgasmic. Maybe I’ll give this vegan thing a go!
“Try a raw food diet! It’ll aid digestion and boost your immune system.”
Really? OK, that sounds like an interesting thing to try.
“Just eat fruit and nothing else!”
Wait, what? Like, forever?
“Just live off of water, sunlight, and the energy of the universe!!”
Whoa, dude, what’s wrong with you?! Please eat something!
People have straight-up died taking these obsessions to the extreme, which, needless to say, is absolutely tragic. You need to eat healthy food, drink enough water, and create a balance of proper nutrition within the well-swept temple that is your glorious body. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise just because they teach yoga.
Our moral beliefs dictate the situations we put ourselves into. Try new things, but if anything about yoga starts to feel bad or make your life significantly more difficult, don’t do it. Making your life harder is not the point and does nothing to help you or the world. Resist black-and-white thinking that accompanies dogma. Think for yourself and do you.
Is all yoga the same?
Nope! As I mentioned previously, there are over 100 different types of yoga, the most popular being the Hatha, Vinyasa, Yin, Ashtanga, Iyengar, and Kundalini varieties. There are those you will love, some you’ll only like when you’re in the mood, and others that you may try once and vow to never do again. Attend a variety of different classes and try everything that interests you. You can do some research beforehand to see which classes sound like they’d be up your alley. Many studios actually describe their courses on their websites. Look ‘em up and check ‘em out!
Are all instructors the same?
Nope nope nope! Yoga teachers are just like anyone working in any other profession. They all have different personalities, interests, amounts of experience, and levels of training. Some will absolutely illuminate and blow your mind. Every session they teach will amaze and inspire you. There are also teachers whose classes you will not enjoy as much. You may get turned off by their methodology, energy, philosophy, or even their cheesy-yet-rockin’ playlist!
It’s worth it to hop around until you find a teacher you LOVE. Conversely, I don’t recommend continuing a class taught by a teacher you can’t stand. It’ll make yoga feel like a chore.
(Quick side note: don’t expect your teacher to help solve all your personal problems. You can talk with some of them about issues going on in your life, and many may want to form true friendships with you, but I guarantee they don’t have time to sit and chat about your devastating breakup for 30 mins after class. Yoga teachers are not therapists, and if that’s what you want then you should be paying them a WHOLE lot more money!)
Do I have to be perfectly in shape or super flexible to do the poses?
Behold, another overflowing bounty of NOPE! People of all shapes, sizes, and abilities will be able to do most basic yoga poses. Some are harder than others. There will be those you have to work for, and a handful that you might never accomplish due to physical limitations.
We talk in yoga anatomy about tension versus compression. Tension refers to the stimulation of muscle and ligament tissues experienced during a stretch. Restrictions related to tension will lessen as you practice, allowing you to become more flexible and nail poses you couldn’t do before. Compression, however, happens when bone hits bone, and in that case there’s nowhere else to go. You’ll just have to bite that bullet because you’ll hurt yourself by trying to push further. Nothing will ruin your beautiful progress like an injury. All skeletons are built differently and those are the breaks!
Don’t let your unique anatomy stop you from trying yoga. Poses can be modified for different body types and levels of ability, and trained teachers will be able to guide you. If you can’t achieve a certain pose, it’s nothing to stress over.
Am I ‘cool’ enough for yoga?
Don’t worry about being cool enough for anyone, ever. Yoga is about YOU, not the scene. It’s about connecting with your own body, mind, and spirit, and becoming a version of yourself that you can love more than a bouncy baby goat in pajamas. Your happiness is the entire point.
You will meet wonderful, empowered people through yoga, and it’ll make sense to think they’re awesome because they are! But if you fear joining a class because the scene seems cliquish, or everyone looks so flawlessly in shape, or like they’ve got their shit together so much more than you, then realize that every person deals with their own struggles. You’ll meet practitioners (and even TEACHERS every so often,) who are gorgeous, flexible, strong, and talented, but extremely showy and pushy about it, and not particularly considerate of others. Yoga does not magically erase one’s insecurities. At the end of the day, the only person to impress is yourself.
Will yoga change me for the better?
Yes, but just like Oprah’s money, you’ll have to work for it. No one snaps their mudra fingers and magically transforms into someone deep, down to earth, sexy, fun, open minded, or ‘better.’ Your focus in the present becomes your reality in the future. If you practice every day with the goal of losing weight, you will do so. If you want peace of mind and meditate regularly, you’ll have a great chance of achieving that chillness. Yoga isn’t an automatic cure-all, but it can aid you in developing the tools and awareness to get wherever you want to go.
So that’s the scoop! These opinions are mine alone and not everyone will agree with me, so don’t take my word for it. Get out there, try yoga, and discover its wonders for yourself.
About our Author
Peggy Holsclaw is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, voice actor, and certificate-wielding instructor of yoga and English as a Foreign Language (EFL). She strives to live a shamelessly awesome life and help others do the same. If you come to Osaka you’re likely to find Peggy at a café clickety-clacking away on her laptop, or on a dance floor somewhere cutting shapes in front of the stage. She thinks the world would be a better place if everyone meditated. Including you. So go forth, dive deep, and find your Zen.