Alice Chan, our social media guru here at Vagabond Temple, was an absolute yoga beginner when she joined us back in February. Now she practices every single day and can’t get over how much progress she’s made in a few short weeks! In this post, she shares five valuable insights to help other beginners embarking on their yoga journey.
My first and only experience of yoga before coming to Vagabond Temple was one solitary class back in my hometown of London. It was supposed to be a class for all levels, so I hoped that my physical fitness (or total lack thereof) and ridiculously tight hamstrings wouldn’t be a problem. Even so, I had a sense of apprehension that always comes with trying something new.
Twenty minutes into the class, my worst fears were confirmed. I was sitting tailbone on the ground, legs spread akimbo to the side. Everyone else was bent forward, chests to the ground, pawing at their legs like smug cats. I had moved maybe three inches forward and couldn’t go any further. The teacher came up behind me, placed her hand on my shoulder and said: ‘Are you sure you’re in the right class, dear?’’ Cue intense humiliation. I wanted to crawl under a rock, preferably not holding any sort of yoga pose whilst doing so.
And with that, a huge mental block was cemented into the inner folds of my sub-conscious: “You cannot do yoga, you’re not good enough, you’re not flexible enough.”
Seven years later, and I found myself checking into Vagabond Temple during my travels in Southeast Asia, after quitting my job and embarking on a (clichéd but necessary) journey of self-discovery. I had no idea what to expect from a yoga retreat. I just liked the idea of eating healthy and attempting some sort of exercise, what with all the bingeing I had been doing on my travels. After months on the road, the prospect of some routine and regimen was attractive.
At this point, I was still holding onto the Western perception of yoga; I thought it was all about toned buttocks and flat abs. Within a few short weeks, all my misconceptions about yoga were blown out of the water. I feel very fortunate to have had this experience and to have my mind thoroughly awakened, but I’m also aware that not everyone can drop their entire life and wander off to Cambodia for a yoga retreat. So for all the other beginners out there, anyone who is unsure about yoga or had a bad experience like mine – I wanted to share my five biggest revelations, I hope that they will help you discover and develop your own relationship with yoga.
1. You don’t have to be flexible to do yoga
You don’t have to be flexible to do yoga. Once more for those who didn’t get it: you don’t have to be flexible to do yoga. I was told this by all the staff at Vagabond Temple as soon as I launched into my usual “I’m super inflexible, it’s a nightmare” spiel. I realized the reason for feeling physically incompetent stemmed from the way the yoga teacher made me feel seven years ago and I was stuck in a cycle of self-doubt, but after my first yoga class was over, I was pleasantly surprised. I surpassed my own expectations by being able to do most of the poses, some with modifications, and the teacher made me feel so at ease and comfortable. It didn’t matter if I could put my chest on the ground or only bend forward three inches – what mattered was being present in the class and listening to my own body. Yoga was suddenly not so intimidating anymore!
2. There are many different types of yoga
Most people are familiar with hatha and vinyasa yoga. These styles focus on keeping the whole body very active, with lots of fiery stretches and flowing sequences. It’s obviously popular in the West, where most people practice yoga to keep fit. But after my first few days in Vagabond Temple, I was introduced to kundalini and yin yoga. All these words meant nothing to me initially, but slowly I began to distinguish between the different styles. Kundalini yoga uses repetitive movements combined with breathing work to raise energy and concentration. Yin yoga is slow-paced but intense, training the body to relax into really deep stretches. Now I can identify which type of yoga will suit my body on a particular day, which will work on my strengths and which my weaknesses. My previously narrow view of what a yoga class can be expanded considerably.
3. Breath is everything
I thought the most challenging thing about yoga would be twisting my leg behind my head or maybe doing the splits. Turns out the most challenging part of yoga is just remembering to breathe. I attended a pranayama workshop (loosely translated, pranayama means “breath control”) and discovered I’d been breathing incorrectly for most of my life. It was truly eye-opening to learn diaphragmatic breathing and the importance of it to our general well-being and how it can further our practice in yoga. Now I’m armed with techniques that can help me come back to the moment and reconnect with my breath in a challenging yoga class. Many yoga teachers say if you’re not breathing, you’re not practicing yoga – and after a few weeks of intensive practice, I can’t say I disagree!
4. Resting is just as important as sweating
Out of all the new words I’ve learned at Vagabond Temple, savasana is probably my favourite. Savasana is the ‘corpse pose’, it involves lying flat on your back, legs and arms in a resting position and we do it at the end of every single class. This pose allows your body to absorb all the benefits of an active practice and breathing restores the body, sending air to newly activated muscles. Sweating and working hard is important, but in yoga, finding stillness after action is equally important and savasana is definitely the most rewarding and gentle way to end a ninety minute class. A stubbornly sedentary person such as myself can’t possibly object to a pose that emphasizes the importance of mini-naps!
5. Yoga is for everyone
Yoga does not belong solely to the flexible elite and people who look good in spandex. Yoga is not about picture perfect poses. As an Instagram junkie, it took me a while to come to terms with this, but once I did, it was a beautiful realisation. Yoga is about learning and respecting my own personal alignment, strength and boundaries. Those boundaries can change day-to-day depending on energy levels, diet, mood and a host of other factors and that’s ok. It’s not about being hard on ourselves to achieve some distant goal. Every pose has modifications for different body types and ability levels, and a good teacher will always offer them. Use the modifications! That’s what they’re there for! Modifying a pose is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that you respect the unique needs of your body. And if you’re really struggling, you can always just sink into a relaxing pose, because your body is your own and you should only go as far as your body will allow on any given day.
I know I’ve still got a long way to go before I can touch my toes with straight legs, but that thought no longer dismays me – it excites me. My hamstrings might always be tighter than most people’s, but the sheer improvement that I see in my body each day is in itself worth celebrating. I’ve learned that yoga isn’t a sport and shouldn’t be competitive. I’ve learned to stop comparing myself to my friends on the mats around me. As long as I’m breathing, I’m doing yoga and slowly but surely, I will get to where I want to be.
Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is that the most of the obstacles we face in life are put there ourselves without even realizing – the mere perception that we’re not able to do something can be a powerful and destructive thing. We must learn to recognize self-doubt, throw caution to the wind and just go for it.“Don’t wait any longer. Jump into the fire. Dive into the ocean. Leave and let the sea be you.” – Rumi
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