If you had told me 10 years ago that someday I’d be a yogi (i.e. a person who does yoga), I would have laughed my head off. Yoga was the last thing John Sifferman was going to get into. Yessiree!
But several years ago, a friend invited me to a class, and I went. And it was a horrible experience.
Picture a skinny, redhead, white boy with an awesome farmer tan…ehh, maybe I’ll save this story for another time. Let’s just say it was bad – really bad. Seriously. My heart was racing. I was seeing stars. I’m just glad I survived.
But today, yoga is just as much a part of my life as eating, sleeping, and flossing my teeth. It’s just something I do. But don’t get me wrong because I’m certainly no yoga master. I can’t do any of those crazy advanced poses. Nor am I particularly interested in that. But I have figured out what works for me and the clients I’ve trained. And now, I can’t imagine my life without it.
Okay, OK! I’ll tell you the story…some of it, anyway!
My (Terrible) First Yoga Experience
So, a friend of mine invited me to attend a hot yoga class at my local Bikram Yoga studio. I had dabbled in yoga on my own before, but had never actually gone to a class. Who am I kidding? I had no idea what I was doing, or getting myself into, for that matter.
But my friend had been to this class before and assured me that it would be “awesome.”
You’ll LOVE IT, they said. You’ll have a BALL, they said.
Plus, we were going with one of his friends, a regular. You know, someone who buys the package deals for sessions all year. Yeah, he was good.
Now, one of the things that makes Bikram yoga unique is that it’s performed in a heated room. There are 26 postures and two breathing exercises that the instructor guides you through verbally. There’s no music, incense, chanting, etc. Just some hot yoga, really.
But before we go any further, let me elaborate on the “heated room” because I really don’t feel like I’ve done it justice. This is not just a heated room, like a swimming pool may be a “heated pool.” After I signed the medical waiver at the front desk, I stepped into a sauna.
I remember like it was yesterday. As soon as I opened the studio door, heat leapt towards me to escape the stuffy room. A little voice in my body screamed, “don’t go in there.” But I pressed through the atmospheric pressure into the furnace.
This was the official beginning of the mind games.
Before I had even laid my mat and towel down, I could already feel sweat developing on my brow. So, I sat down to chill out before the class began. Heat rises, right? Not in the Manchester Bikram Yoga studio it doesn’t. Heat follows you, it encompasses you, it goes inside of you, until your body temperature eventually rises to 115° F. That’s how warm they keep the room, by the way.
Before we began, there was talk of having a very full class. Wonderful! The more the merrier. There ended up being over two dozen of us stuck in this tiny room – packed like sardines. To make matters worse, my friend, his friend, and I were the only dudes in the whole class.
Awesome. Not only am I going to make a fool of myself. I’m going to do it while surrounded by beautiful women, and lot’s of mirrors.
The good news is that I had mere inches of space between my mat and those beside me, which included a young woman who could have probably taught the class herself. With all of us in this little room with wall-to-wall mirrors whose sole purpose is to mock our slippery sweaty bodies, I find it hard to believe the temperature stayed at 115° for very long!
But even before the class began, every of those 115° has surrounded me. It’s 115° in my ears, nose, mouth, lungs, and under my arm pits. It’s 115° between me and my buddy. I can see sweat flinging from person to person as we prepare for the session. Our instructor, Megan, enters at exactly 9:30 with her microphone pinned on her tank-top. She instructs everyone to rise and begin a deep breathing exercise.
Oh, great! That’s just what I want to do…BREATHE this stuff.
The next 90 minutes were extremely challenging for me. And I don’t say that lightly because I know what hard feels like. For comparison, in all my years running cross country and track and field, I don’t think I ever had that much difficulty completing a race. And I was the guy who looked like a zombie every time I crossed the finish line because I truly left it all out there.
But I got through that first yoga class with sheer stubbornness and an attentive instructor who eventually said over the intercom for all to hear:
“Hey you, it’s John, right? (AKA, THE NEW GUY!) Maybe you should skip the next few poses and just focus on breathing for a bit.”
Embarrassing, yes. But that advice probably saved my life.
What I Learned
Now, if it wasn’t for that terrible first experience, I’m not sure I would have picked up on yoga as early as I did. You see, it bothers me when I can’t do something that I should be able to do. And it really bothered me that I struggled so much with yoga. It bothered me that I was so tight – so restricted. It bothered me that what I thought was such a simple task was so overwhelming to me – physically, mentally, and even emotionally. It bothered me that I had no idea what I was doing.
And so, I decided to do something about it: I tried yoga again. Albeit, a much more appropriate form of yoga for me as a rank beginner. But I stuck with it, and the rest, as they say, is history.
So, now that I’ve got some yoga under my belt, and am a little wiser for it (and a LOT fitter, stronger, and healthier because of it!), here are some things I wish I knew before I started. Some of these lessons took me years to understand, and a couple of them are things that I need constant reminders about.
5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Yoga
1) You need to find and do your yoga.
There are many different kinds of yoga. Some focus on the poses and others on breathing. And still, others on movement. Some forms of yoga only teach very specific pose routines that are the same for everyone (Bikram yoga is a good example). Others encourage movement exploration and freedom. Some methods are quite strenuous, even athletic. And others are more relaxing and restorative.
But here’s the thing: YOU are the one doing that yoga with YOUR body. And every body is different! We all have a unique height, weight, girth, proportions, levers, joint structures, and fascia lines, among other things. Plus, some people sit all day long. Whereas, others are on their feet all day. Or, perhaps you play a specific sport or have a strenuous job that wreaks havoc on your body. The point is that we’re all very different with unique needs, goals, and circumstances.
And that’s one of the great things about yoga. It can accommodate anyone: old, young, fat, fit, tight or flexible – anyone.
And it’s useful for a lot of different things, too. You can use it to manage stress, get a tough workout in, or practice mindfulness, among many other things. You just need to figure out how to best use it for you and your specific needs.
And that’s pretty freeing, actually, because I don’t have to worry about doing someone else’s yoga, or in someone else’s way – only mine.
2) You can’t force it.
One of the reasons I struggled so much with yoga initially is because I was trying to achieve a certain position (i.e. pose, posture), when my body wasn’t ready or even capable of doing so. I was trying to force it. Unfortunately, this is a surefire way to make yoga harder, less effective, and more dangerous. It just doesn’t work like that.
Tara Stiles, the founder of Strala Yoga, said, “There has been a stigma with yoga that you have to force and struggle in order to achieve ‘the pose’. Practicing with force puts stress into the body and mind — and doesn’t feel that great. If people shift this concept to moving with ease, more can be accomplished with less effort, and it feels great and free. More space opens mentally and physically.” (Source)
You may have heard it said that yoga is a balance of strength and surrender, and the stronger you are, the more you’ll be able to surrender into poses. So, strength is an often-overlooked, but critical factor. But when it comes down to it, yoga is a fusion of mindful breathing, movement, and structure in which you apply the proper amount of effort with strength to achieve the desired outcome of progress.
The reality is that you can’t force yourself to become more flexible or to get deeper into a pose – at least, not without serious risks. Sure, I could just force my body into a position, but I’d probably pull, strain, or tear a muscle or worse. And I’ve done that before. But trying to force yourself into what you think a pose should look like will usually do more harm than good. And that’s not the point anyway.
The point is to increase your self-awareness and to ease away the restrictions that are holding you back so that you can gradually shift things to a more positive direction. You do this by focusing on what you can control.
So, yoga grounds you into the moment and forces you to pay attention to what your body is telling you. It also forces you to be honest with yourself. And usually, it’s a very enlightening and humbling experience.
3) It’s not just about flexibility.
Yoga is not about being able to touch your toes or straining in a position until your muscles lengthen. It’s about making you healthier, fitter, stronger, and more resilient in body and mind. Yes, yoga can help make you more flexible, if that’s your goal. But it will also help you rebalance your body, recover faster, be able to train more and harder, and make you feel amazing, among many other things. Basically, it will improve your health, performance, and quality of life across the board.
Apart from all of the musculo-skeletal benefits that we tend to associate with yoga (e.g. improved spinal health, less back pain, better posture, etc.) yoga will also improve your cardio-respiratory health, your immune function, and your balance. It lowers blood pressure and blood sugar, helps you sleep better, and makes you happier. It’s also helpful for people suffering from heart disease, arthritis, asthma, insomnia, MS, PTSD, and many other conditions. It even boosts your memory. And that’s just scratching the surface. Suffice to say, yoga does your body good.
Speaking of which…
4) The physical benefits are only the beginning.
I started doing yoga because I wanted to feel and move better. And I would continue to do it, if that were the only benefit. But there is so much more. And you really have to experience it to understand.
But as an example, one of the greatest perks of yoga is that is gives you the opportunity to deal with discomfort, practice mindfulness, and develop coping skills. It’s a great self-assessment tool for how you do when things get uncomfortable. Do you get frustrated, angry, or give up easily when you get out of your comfort zone?
Not only will yoga help you perform better at practically everything you do, it will teach you so much about yourself, too.
I’ve also found that it will provide valuable insight on how to succeed in life (if you’re paying attention). Let’s just say that I’ve learned a lot of lessons while I’m twisted into a pretzel.
5) I’d be hooked for life.
Ten years ago, I would have never imagined myself doing yoga regularly. But once I got through the initial challenges (i.e. me being dumb) and finally figured out what worked for me, I was hooked. And now that I’ve been immersed in it for nearly a decade, I can’t imagine life (or training) without it. Looking back, it’s been one of the best investments of time, energy, and education that I’ve ever made.
Doing yoga and enduring through the challenging learning curve (especially for stubborn me) has been well-worth the time, energy, and effort. I’ve found that the more I’ve given to yoga, the more it’s given back to me. As from where I’m sitting right now, I’ll be doing this stuff for the rest of my life.
Now, if you want to dip your toe into the world of yoga, I’d recommend doing a little research on the different kinds because there are many. And then try to find a local class that suits your goals and preferences. Make sure it’s one where you’ll get some individual attention/instruction and not just blend in with the crowd.
And if you want to try something on your own, the Ageless Mobility program, which is a fusion of joint mobility training and yoga, is a great resource for getting started. Highly recommended! I also recommend Six Degree Flow, as a challenging, but very accessible yoga workout program. There are a lot of benefits packed into that routine.
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Health-First Fitness Coach