I remember watching a video interview in 1998 of Madonna telling Oprah that she’d found this life-changing exercise that resulted in her terminating her gym membership. “I’m done with the stairmaster,” she said to a shocked crowd. At a point in American culture when exercise machines like the ab cruncher and the elliptical were at their peak, and the fittest person in a crowd was often the woman who spent 2 hours before work lifting weights and climbing stairs at the gym, Madonna’s statement was unprecedented.
That exercise Madonna was referring to? It was called yoga.
I learned, back in 1998, that yoga wasn’t done at the gym, that you didn’t use any weights or equipment (later, I would learn that students did use props), and that you moved slowly and deliberately through a series of poses, holding each pose for a short period of time.
I continued taking kickboxing and Tae-Bo classes at the YMCA and using my friend’s ab roller, and eventually, joined the track and cross-country teams at my high school, filing away yoga as something I’d probably never do.
Fast forward to 10 years later, and all of my friends seemed to be doing yoga.
They’d joined these little studios that seemed to be popping up all over the area, bought these colorful rubber mats and foam blocks, and swore that they were getting the best workout they’d ever had. I didn’t understand it, because it wasn’t cardio and it just sounded like a lot of stretching, but I wanted to give it a try.
My First Yoga Class
I’d just graduated from college and was living at home. The YMCA near my parents’ house, where I had a monthly membership, was offering yoga, so on a morning when I had the day off from my job at a local radio station, I signed up.
I wish I could say that my first yoga class was as life-changing as the yoga Madonna described in that interview, but it wasn’t.
There was a lot of stretching. And sitting still. And breathing.
I felt inflexible, like I couldn’t do any of the poses. I didn’t like sitting still. And the breathing (inhale for 5, exhale for 5) seemed like a distraction from trying to do the poses.
I never went back.
Fast forward to 3 years later, to April 2011, when the mother of one of my best friends, who was like family, started teaching yoga at the boutique studio in my hometown.
A Favor for a Friend
My friend’s Mom had practiced yoga since the studio opened in 2004, and could not be more ecstatic, or nervous, to teach the practice that she swore had changed her, and that had become an essential part of her life.
In support of my family, I signed up for her yoga class. I was living about an hour from my parents’ house, so to visit them, I took her class every Tuesday, then had dinner with my parents after. Having zero interest in establishing a regular yoga practice, I only took yoga classes at this studio, once a week, on Tuesdays at 6:15 when my friend’s Mom was teaching.
Two months went by, and I had a work event on a Tuesday. This meant that I couldn’t go to yoga class.
And, surprisingly, I missed it. I’d finally experienced a class where I didn’t have to remind myself to breathe, and thus could focus on the poses and on stretching a little further. I could see progress.
Not wanting to miss a class again, I started looking for a yoga studio closer to where I lived.
A few coworkers were doing a class near the office on Thursday evenings called ‘hot power vinyasa,’ a 90-minute yoga class in a room that was heated to 90 degrees. The class was so popular that students had to register in advance.
I tried it. The long, wood-paneled room in the back of a strip mall along busy Lancaster Avenue held 30 people in two long rows of 15. There was barely an inch between each person’s mat.
The class moved very fast and was set to dance music. The instructor cued loudly and to the beat of the music, with minimal time for instruction on a specific pose. The pace reminded me of those kickboxing classes I’d taken in middle school. The workout felt like a cardio workout.
The class was a far cry from the room temperature class at the little studio back home.
I was hooked.
A Routine, and My First Lesson
I signed up for monthly unlimited access to classes and started taking the class three days a week. Pretty soon, I’d abandoned my Tuesday night routine.
The class was insanely hot and humid, but I finally understood why my coworker had said that the heat made it easier to do the poses. Soon, I was doing things like headstands and arm balances – advanced poses I had thought would take me years to attempt.
What I didn’t understand is the risk that comes with doing poses in the heat for the first time.
During one Thursday night class, I was doing a headstand when I felt a sharp pinch in the back of my neck. The next morning, I couldn’t turn my head to the side.
I would later learn that I injured myself in that class because I hadn’t been taught how to do the pose safely: don’t put all of your weight on your head, use the backs of your arms, and other cues are what I’d hear instructors say in later classes. But I would also learn that in any class, we must take responsibility as students to ask for help from the instructor if we’ve never attempted a pose. In a fast-moving, hot power class, there may not be enough time to ask for help, and that means we just don’t do the pose, saving it for another class.
Ironically, it wasn’t too long after that happened that I moved back home to complete my graduate degree.
And I ended up back at the little studio in my hometown.
I bought a monthly unlimited pass, determined to continue practicing yoga three times a week, even if it wasn’t hot power vinyasa.
Life Outside of Power
On Saturday mornings, the studio had a class called Ashtanga yoga. The only thing I knew about Ashtanga yoga was that it was the kind of yoga Madonna had said she did during the interview with Oprah back in 1998.
I didn’t know the difference between Ashtanga and Vinyasa, and frankly, before trying Ashtanga, I didn’t even know there were different types of yoga.
Ashtanga was a class of the same poses, called the Primary Series, practiced in the same sequence every class. The teacher introduced each of the poses by demonstrating the different ways that students could do them, as a kind of beginner to advanced series (option A, option B, option C, option D). She stressed that we’d be getting the same benefit from the pose regardless of the option we took. There was no right or wrong option. We just had to decide what was accessible to us on that given day.
There was no music. It was room temperature. It was a 105-minute class.
It was the most difficult yoga class I’d ever taken.
And I loved it.
I learned more about yoga than I’d ever set out to do in that Ashtanga class, when I was just looking to continue a fitness routine.
I learned how to do a headstand safely.
I learned many new poses, like Boat Pose and Shoulder Stand.
I also learned that most yoga poses have a name in Sanskrit (Shirshasana = Headstand), as well an English one. Sanskrit is the ancient language of yoga, and is one of the oldest languages, considered to be the mother language of all Indo-European languages. The sound from a Sanskrit word is thought to have a therapeutic benefit. To read more about Sanskrit, check out this article from Yoga Journal.
The Most Important Lesson
After completing graduate school in 2014, I moved out again, this time to a different town.
And to a different yoga studio.
I joined a studio that didn’t have Ashtanga yoga, but it had Power Flow, which felt like that hot power vinyasa class I’d taken back in 2011, and it had Vinyasa, which was similar to the class that I’d started with in my hometown.
The studio also had yoga classes that I’d never heard of, like Yin, and Restorative Yoga.
I initially dismissed both of these classes after hearing that they weren’t as physically rigorous. But when I started working at the studio as a member of the front desk staff, students would call asking the question of, “What class is right for me?” and I needed to be able to describe the different class offerings to help students choose an appropriate class.
Describing isn’t exactly possible without experiencing, so it became difficult to be able to comfortably recommend a class to a student that I hadn’t experienced myself.
So, I tried Yin.
It was different. We only did a few poses during the entire class, holding each pose for what felt like eternity.
It was uncomfortable. Since we weren’t moving fast, the room felt cold.
It was quiet. There was no music, and since there only a few poses, when the instructor’s cues for that pose ended, the room was silent. The only thing I could hear was the sound of my own breathing.
It was difficult. The poses, though they didn’t seem advanced, became challenging after holding them for longer than I was used to.
It was the exact opposite of any yoga class I’d ever taken.
I wish I could say that I loved it, but I didn’t.
What I did love was completing the challenge of trying something new.
I’ve since gone back to Yin, making it a class that I take monthly, and I like the challenge that it offers.
Yoga has taught me many things since I took that class at the YMCA back in 2008, but trying something new and learning that you’ll be ok, and discovering that you may even like it, is the greatest lesson.