I’ve played competitive sports since I was barely old enough to see over a soccer ball. In recent years, I’ve opted for cycling, the occasional 10K and lots of group-based high-intensity interval training — all things that let me channel my competitive edge. In short: I like to win.
I first tried yoga several years back with the goal of improving my flexibility. At the time, I considered it a chore, a functional activity to be endured for health reasons. I had no idea it was such a rich, multifaceted workout. Or that it could be so challenging. Or that I’d learn to love it.
Turns out, I didn’t know much of anything. So below: seven things I wish I knew before starting yoga. May they help you on your path to yogic enlightenment … or your first class.
1. NOT ALL YOGA IS THE SAME
Ashtanga, Bikram, hatha, vinyasa. Those are just four of the many styles of yoga, each incorporating different postures and sequences. For example, Ashtanga yoga is meant to feature the same poses in the same order, while vinyasa — often referred to as “flow” yoga — is often set to music, features smooth transitions between movements and will likely vary from one day to the next. There’s a lot of variety within yoga, so it’s worth experimenting with multiple styles to find the ones that suit you best. And while same-named styles may vary slightly from studio to studio, they’re based on established principles and should feel familiar regardless of where you practice.
2. IT’S NOT JUST PHYSICAL
Yoga is a lot more than twisting poses and downward-facing animals. The discipline itself dates back thousands of years and has strong roots in spiritualism. Physical movements and postures are one part of yoga, with other important factors including breath, meditation and mindfulness. After the end of a yoga class, it’s common to feel rejuvenated, both mentally and physically.
3. IT’S HARDER THAN IT LOOKS
Sure, my favorite pose is probably savasana, a resting pose where you literally just lie down on your back with your eyes closed. But yoga can incorporate challenging sequences, test your balance, require considerable strength and leave you dripping with sweat — often at the same time.
4. IT’S OK TO USE PROPS (OR REST)
Blocks, straps and other helpful props are available for a reason, and should be used liberally. Struggling to settle into a pose, and then staying there uncomfortably, can compromise form and even lead to injury. So put your hands on those blocks or employ a strap as needed. Another alternative: take a break. Drink some water, towel off or sink into child’s pose — there’s no shame in resting, and doing so keeps you fresh for what’s to come.
5. YOU CAN GAIN SERIOUS STRENGTH
Yoga is a total body, low-impact workout that combines flexibility with strength. From chair pose, which is akin to holding a mini squat, to chaturanga — which moves your body from a high plank to low plank, working your core, chest and arms — several movements and postures increase muscular endurance and strength. The point is: You can get ripped doing yoga.
6. IT’S A CONSTANT WORK IN PROGRESS
That’s why it’s called a yoga “practice.” You can’t win at yoga, so drop your competitiveness at the door. That person next to you who’s nailing all the postures and flipping up into a handstand … she’s likely been practicing for years. Everyone must start somewhere, so don’t get discouraged. Like anything else, you’ll get better at yoga the more you do it, and there’s always something new to learn.
READ MORE > ON MY MAT: INSIDE THE MIND OF A YOGA TEACHER
7. YOGA IS PERSONAL
It took me awhile to really embrace this mindset. Yoga is in-the-moment and adapted to the individual. What’s right for you might not be right for me. What works for my body might not work for someone else’s. There’s no right or wrong. A successful yoga practice takes into account what your body needs at that particular time — whether it’s a deep, challenging stretch assisted by the instructor or a few quiet moments to regain your breath.