Yoga has gone so mainstream these days that I’ve noticed some of my friends cringe when they admit not being into it, as if it were somehow wrong – narrow-minded or déclassé – to be so. But I am not surprised; so off-putting was my first exposure to yoga that it took me 20 years to sign up for a second try.
That it took so long is regrettable but probably not uncommon—for a novice to plunge into yoga seamlessly would require an unlikely alignment of circumstances: being prepared mentally, walking into just the right facility, and falling under the watchful eye of an instructor who is physically, verbally, and spiritually ready to guide you.
So when I hear “no thanks” to yoga, I urge my friends to try again with this checklist:
1. Avoid the temptation of your gym, where yoga appears on the menu of other group exercises. At the gym, yoga classes cater to a random assortment of students whose varied skill set and level of commitment elicits a tepid and impersonal – if not incompetent – instruction. I am not suggesting that you avoid yoga at the gym indefinitely but never start there.
2. Invest in two private sessions before you attempt the practice in a class setting. Novices always overestimate the extent of their body awareness. You’d be surprised how often you will extend your left leg when the teacher instructs you to extend your right one. (To this my favorite teacher always says, “No, raise your OTHER right leg!”) We think we can tell our right leg from our left, but yoga practice will challenge that assumption. But more importantly, you should have a proper introduction to the basic poses, an awareness of how they feel when done correctly. Even the most attentive teacher will not be able to catch all your challenges in a class setting.
3. Nothing will determine your attitude towards yoga more indelibly than your first teacher, so look for the following qualities. First, your teacher’s verbal skills must match his or her enthusiasm for the practice. By this I don’t mean the use of fanciful or erudite language, but the teacher should be able to describe the pose with precision. It is one thing to imagine a cat or a dog stretching, a pigeon in flight, or the curve of a camel’s back, and another to attain the pose by coordinating body and mind movement in a series of steps. Every challenge must have a purpose, and it helps if the teacher can express it well.
I heard one teacher instruct the class to come out of savasana by moving their toes “gently and compassionately.” Can you move your toes aggressively and with disregard, I wondered? In contrast, I recall how my struggle with half moon—a pose that requires balance, strength, and faith—was resolved with just one word. “Your left side is congested,” my teacher observed. I envisioned phlegm passing though my bones, obstructing movement. I twisted my torso just so, refining the pose as if it were a matter of clearing my throat.
4. In yoga, past lives—yours and the teacher’s—matter. By this I don’t mean a variety of yoga schools mastered or years taught. More important is the diversity of life experience that the teacher will bring to your practice. My first teacher is an accomplished painter and a mother of two. Her description of the poses as they appear in pictures as opposed to real life set the bar for me, and her sympathy for the unsettling deconstruction a woman’s body undergoes in childbearing made my practice more forgiving.
Another teacher—I call her my long-lost rabbi—spent most of her life on a family farm somewhere in the Midwest. She is practical, resilient and earthy. Her ego-free practice enables her students to release theirs—at least while they are in class. Another teacher I admire refers to a mystery corporate profession she surrendered to pursue enlightenment. Her instructions tend to be assertive and efficient. A good teacher—like a soul mate or best friend—can’t be summoned on demand. She may take some time to find.
5. Yoga practice—like other rigorous, and artful expressions (Flamenco, for instance)—requires life experience that accumulates over time to really blossom. Here, age has its advantages. Where youth favors indiscriminate movement—always forward and always fast—age enables us to savor the state of repose and reflection. It allows us to humor failure, and that awareness will make your practice less self-conscious. An experience of distress—physical as well as emotional—will give you the confidence to keep trying. And if you don’t fell like doing this now, it will not hurt to wait.