Published Live Better magazine. Available online here.
“Find your centre,” purred the American-accented yoga instructor.
I watched my knee wobble in front of me. My arms, supposed to be stretched above my head, kept twitching as I struggled to keep my balance. My ‘warrior one’ pose definitely needed some work.
“Now, push your weight onto your back knee, flex your front foot, and release the body over your front knee.”
What? I crumpled to the floor and hit pause on the YouTube tutorial, scrutinising the perfectly angular limbs of the influencer filling my phone screen. There was no way my feet could be that far apart without a lot of complaints from my muscles. Don’t even get me started on how her nose was practically touching her ankle.
It was my first week of trying yoga and wow – I was so bad. As someone who considers themselves relatively fit and strong, this came as a shock. I hadn’t anticipated this being so difficult. The video was literally called ‘Yoga for Beginners’. If this was beginners, what were advanced people doing?
My flexibility has been bad for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure there was ever a time that I could bend over and touch my toes, so the idea of getting those same toes up around my ears seemed completely laughable. I was convinced that I’d go along to a class to find everyone else doing head stands, while I couldn’t crouch down to the floor without my knees audibly cracking.
Finally though, I decided to take the plunge (or swan dive). A bit of stretching could only help my general fitness. Horrified by the idea of being the only person in the class face-planting into the mat, I started with YouTube tutorials. There I found thousands of videos of beautiful people gracefully moving through a series of poses, or asanas, with names like dhanurasana (bend over backwards and make a bridge with your hands and feet on the floor) and sirsasana (stand on your head with one leg stretched out forward, the other back). I quickly decided my favourite would be balasana, or child’s pose (crouch on the floor with your legs tucked up under your body and your arms stretched in front). It was the only asana that didn’t look likely to snap me in two.
Wai Ying, Director and Founder of Reconnect Yoga in Melbourne, explains that the best way to get into yoga is to ‘just start’. ‘There is a Day 1 for everyone. There is no need to wait until you can touch your toes, as the practice of yoga is much more than developing flexibility.’ Yoga can be tailored to suit everyone’s needs, regardless of physical ability. ‘As long as you are breathing, you can practice yoga’, Wai says.
For my first attempt, I began sitting cross legged and reaching my arms up, inhaling deeply. No problems so far. But of course this moment in my comfort zone did not last long. In a few seemingly effortless moves, the yoga Youtuber was into downward dog, her hips bent at a perfect right angle. I didn’t need a mirror to know I was not emulating her successfully. A couple more smooth transitions (on her part, not mine) and my brand new yoga mat was soaked in sweat. My calm, deep breathes had become a desperate pant. My Bhujangasana was more of a car-flattened carpet snake than a striking cobra.
My initial difficulty was not unusual. Wai explains that ‘adult beginniner students can be too self-critical. I often have to say to students not to be too hard on themselves when they have only tried something once. It is not expected and necessary to get it straight away.’
I certainly wasn’t getting it straight away. But yoga is a practice. Pushing down my fear of being the worse in the room, I signed up for a short course at my local studio. This was the best thing I could have done; an experienced teacher in the room, rather than on my screen, was exactly what I needed. Wai notes that ‘it is essential… to get assistance to adapt the movement to suit your current physical capability’. Beginners normally benefit for a ‘slow and steady approach’, with weekly classes. Wai also suggests ‘sticking with one teacher for a period of time’; ‘there are many ways to deliver the same message… consistency of instruction is as important as consistency of attendance.’
As I discovered, yoga achieves a lot more than a toned torso. Wai says that ‘it has the potential to bring about physical, emotional and mental balance’. Yoga contributes to your overall good health, promoting a range of movements, improved posture, and better circulation. It can benefit your digestion and improve your sleep. It also cultivates mindfulness and relaxation, rebalancing our nervous system and increasing our resilience to stress.
Starting anything from scratch – whether it be still-life drawing, baking bread, or cycling – is hard. You might feel vulnerable, or uncomfortable, or just plain stupid. There’s the niggling thought that everyone seems to be doing this, so why can’t I? But the point is not to be awesome at everything you attempt; it’s just to attempt it.
Four months on, and I am still really bad at yoga. My downward dog is abysmal. I haven’t even bothered to try a headstand. But I feel stronger in my muscles, and less sore after other exercise. My back is straighter sitting at my desk. After a session I feel calm and relaxed, and I sleep deeply through the night. I still might have a long way to go, and I don’t think I’ll ever be as bendy as those yoga instructors on YouTube. But guess what? The other day, I touched my toes.