I admit a part of me thought I might be trapped in some bizarre pretzel-type position right about now. Unable to move and, more embarrassingly, unable to perform the asana correctly, I would need help untangling the mess I'd gotten my body into. Calling 911 would be in the realm of possibility.
Such is my ignorance of the finer points of yoga that this was a plausible scenario for a beginner. I've seen the photos online. If I try something complicated I could end up in real trouble.
Instead, I'm standing in my living room in an unfamiliar, but not uncomfortable, position trying to get my mind and my body and my breathing on the same page. I'm working on Warrior 1 and my private instructor, Carolyn Shaw, is simultaneously explaining and demonstrating the finer points while I try and follow along.
I'm facing the front of the room with my feet spread wide apart in a kind of modified lunge, except I'm not trying to lunge over the forward knee, but sit into the pose by dropping my pelvis toward the floor.
“Remember to orient your pelvis toward the front of the room,” instructor Shaw reminds me. Moving a few degrees brings the realization this is much easier facing one direction than it is facing the other. Also, when I concentrate too hard I forget to breathe. When I bring it up I am gently reminded, “You have to breathe or it's not yoga, its just posture.”
Incorporating proper breathing is clearly something I will need to pay more attention to. And my mind, well, my mind is all over the place. One thing is for sure; learning the fundamentals of yoga is going to be an interesting journey.
The truth is I've been thinking about trying yoga for years, but always found an excuse to avoid the first step. I don't have time. It's not my thing. I don't even know what to wear (it is difficult to argue on the side of middle-aged men sporting Lululemon after all). But, they were just excuses.
So, when the opportunity to write about the experience presented itself, I knew it was time for a crash course. One that was long overdue.
Fortunately, I've got a practitioner living two doors down in my condo complex. Before I ventured into a studio I wanted to get a handle on the basics in a more private setting. Yoga people have a reputation for being centred and aware. Instructor Shaw, predictably, understands my apprehension.
“I was 16 when I took my first Ashtanga Yoga class here in Canmore,” she said to me in an email before our first session, “and I remember being extremely nervous and self-conscious about going. I thought everyone would be judging me for being a beginner and for not having a clue what I was doing. Or for not even understanding what language they were speaking.”
It can be overwhelming. Asana (the physical techniques) and pranayama (breathing techniques), not to mention the different disciplines that fall under the yoga umbrella, including Yin, Ashtanga, Hatha and Iyengar, are just a fraction of the yoga terminology found in a simple Google search.
But with a home session under my belt, wandering into the Yoga Lounge in Canmore didn't feel like finding myself in enemy territory. Another passage from instructor Shaw's email also helped get me there,
“Yoga is not about the pose, the posture, what you look like, or if you know what you're doing. It doesn't care if you're thin, fat, strong, flexible, pretty, have the right outfit, or are old or young; none of that matters.
“Yoga only cares that you show up and are present. It doesn't matter if the day you had was good or bad, it's about showing up for yourself and being there with your breath.”
Instructor and Yoga Lounge co-owner Jeff Mah was helpful in keeping me on the right track, suggesting classes most appropriate for a beginner.
“If someone has never done yoga before, we would generally steer them toward something easier physically,” Mah said.
“In classes like Yin or Restore and Repair you spend more time seated than standing, so the level of exertion is not as high off the get go. Also, because they're not as fast tempo and poses are held longer, this is easier to catch up with all the information.”
Restore and Repair turned out to be a good followup to my home session.
In it, Jennifer Ivison guided a group of about 20 aspiring yogis through a progression of asanas designed for therapeutic neuromuscular re-patterning, which is not nearly as complicated as it sounds.
Most of my classmates were in their 40s and 50s, and I positioned myself in a far back corner of the large studio and tried not to look stupid. As had been suggested, it didn't matter. Nobody cared. We did the seated twist, cobra and downward dog, among many others, and whenever I snuck a peak around the room I noticed a remarkable range in the ability to execute certain movements.
Some people had clearly been doing these asanas for years. Others were less adept, but equally willing. Instructor Ivison's reference to Right Effort, finding a place where you are engaged, but not overdoing it, helped me relax and concentrate on the task at hand.
It would clearly be impossible to get a handle on everything yoga all at once, the point was to be present in the effort. When things went sideways, the suggestion was to focus on breathing, clear the thinking mind, and try again.
The rest of the class went quite peacefully. Some of the asanas were intuitive and relatively easy to execute while others exposed old injuries and a lack of flexibility along specific planes. When I did manage to focus my breathing and synch it to the movements, I experienced a minor buzz of endorphins pulsing through my body. My mind still wandered, but I suspect I'll eventually get to that. Gentle patience is a big part of this process.
My second class, Rejuv and Restore, is where I got a feel for what regular yoga practice could potentially do for me. It was on a Friday night at 7 p.m., and the blustery snow squalls ripping around outside did nothing for my motivation. After a long day of work, my feet hurt and my back ached and I just wanted to go home and watch TV.
Knocking over my water bottle and spilling the contents 30 seconds into class didn't help.
But the class started slowly and had a relaxing meditation component. The poses were held for longer periods and accentuated gentle stretching as part of a realignment of the body. My breathing was more disciplined (slightly) and my mind slipped out of hyper-speed for brief but satisfying periods.
As I walked home through the wind and the snow I noticed my back didn't ache quite so much anymore.
The Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture, describes yoga as “the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.”
This could very well be true, but sounds like a lifelong pursuit. In the meantime, I will add a couple of classes to my health and wellness regime. It certainly can't hurt.
Yoga is not about the pose, the posture, what you look like, or if you know what you're doing. It doesn't care if you're thin, fat, strong, flexible, pretty, have the right outfit, or are old or young; none of that matters.