On My Yoga Journey

Almost a year ago to the date, I stepped out of my introverted comfort zone and went to a yoga class held by a yogi woman of color that I follow on instagram, who was doing her annual tour that happened to stop in New Orleans. That woman is Sanàa Jaman, PhD, aka “Ladydork,” who was on her #DorkTour. I don’t remember exactly how I cam across her IG, but it really resonated with me: a woman working on her PhD, who fell into yoga because of her intrigue over a specific pose, who started down a path of no return and became Dr. yoga instructor. Here I am, working on my PhD, just beginning my journey with yoga. Her story made me feel less silly for thinking about other careers that don’t involve my future PhD (not to say I’m trying to be a yoga teacher, but who knows?). Her DorkTour class was non-traditional: a deep yin practice, during which she spoke insightfully about the yamas and niyamas, pushing us to think about how we perform these behaviors in our own lives. I loved it!

Her DorkTour this year didn’t include New Orleans (boo!), so that was the last time I’ve been to an in-person classes. The unfortunate thing about yoga sometimes is that the financial barrier to accessing long-term instruction can be too high, particularly as a full time student in a field that doesn’t promise to bring in much income, even post-graduation. So back to youtube I went.

As I mentioned in my Journey to 30 Post, I started my year while I was beginning the 90-day yoga fix with youtuber, Fightmaster Yoga. I said before that I found it humorous that she’s my go-to yoga teacher, but that she really does have one of the best youtube channels out there as far as variety and price-point (FREE!). She has a few 30-day series, many of which are for beginner yogis, introductions to different styles of yoga (hatha, vinyasa, ashtanga, yin), pranayama and other meditation practices, and practices that target certain areas of your body. She constantly adds to her library. There are some other great reasons to follow her: she has a pleasant voice, she typically films her flow and records her voice over it so there isn’t a ton of over explanation and you can follow without having to look up at the screen too much, she’s not focused on looking a certain way or making a big deal over her mat, props, or clothing options, and she chooses great quotes to read during shavasana.

Anyway, I ended up finishing the 90-day Fix, and felt so good about my progress that for once I wanted to continue with a yoga practice. My relationship with yoga has been rocky. I took a semester of Hatha yoga in college and usually just felt like laughing most classes because I couldn’t relate to the teacher who looked like all he ate was a vegan diet of raw foods. It felt like I was appropriating a culture that I didn’t understand. That feeling still sometimes arises when Sanskrit is recited, because it sounds fake in an American accent. I also did a month of Bikram yoga when I was living in NYC–there was a Living Social deal that gave you unlimited classes for 30 days for like $30, so me and a friend both bought them and tried to go at least 5 times a week. Bikram was on some masochism mess. It was hot as hell and some teachers wouldn’t let you drink water until you got past a certain point in the standing practice. There’s also just something really grating about having to stare at yourself in a mirror while holding a static pose. And the type of folks that went to Bikram ranged from the super intense–I practice half-naked and can bend in half–to the, I pay out the ass for these classes and show up even though I usually just lay on my mat. A few people would wear those plastic-like heat suits, as if they weren’t already hot enough?? Though I had a number of negative feelings about it, I showed up to class pretty faithfully, and definitely enjoyed the way I would feel after the class was over. My flexibility wildly improved in areas that have always been tight, especially around my hips and knees. But once that month was over, I couldn’t keep going on my measly Americorps salary.

Fast forward a couple of years, and various friends and acquaintances would tout how beneficial yoga was to managing their stress and mood and life in general. And I would try to get back into it. I would practice along with various yoga instructors on youtube here and there, but I couldn’t commit. I would follow various yoga IG accounts, discovering a crop of yogis of color (like Lady Dork) and folks with different body types, and get inspired to start practicing again, but I still wasn’t feeling great about it. After I took Lady Dork’s class, I realized that who was doing the instruction made a world of difference. And since I couldn’t take class with her everyday, I started paying attention to what I liked or didn’t like about the various youtube instructors I came across, finally settling on Fightmaster Yoga. Still, it took me a couple of years to get to a point of consistency, even with her channel, because at the end of the day, yoga is still hard.

I think people look at yoga and see the postures and either think, ‘I can do that, that’s easy, that’s not a real workout,’ or, ‘I’m not that flexible or strong and I’ll never be able to do it.’ The physicality of yoga is one thing. The mental aspect and the breath work is entirely another. That’s where the difficulty truly lies. If you think yoga is easy, having to focus your mind on your practice and breathe fully, and sometimes breathe in sync with your movements (like if you were doing Ashtanga), can make some of the easiest movements harder than ever. Having to hold certain postures, especially twisted poses, while still belly breathing and focus, has sent me into near panic attacks. At the same time, if you can minimize the mind wandering and breathe fully, the postures really stop being as intimidating as they might look, you can hold them just a bit longer, and you can remind yourself that you’re not going to suffocate if you just stay calm and breathe.

The 90-day series that I was doing was intermediate/advanced, and the first few classes felt harder than average. By the end of that 90 days, I definitely felt stronger, more flexible, and more focused during my practice than I had been when I started. After I completed it this past November, my consistency wavered bit, partially because of the holidays but mostly because of stress related to finals followed by a death in the family. But I always end up going back to my mat. If I can just get myself out of bed, dressed, and sitting on the mat, then I will practice. There have only been a couple of days where I’ve quit mid-practice because my mind really wasn’t there; for the most part I push through. Half the battle is just showing up, and when I do, I know that I’ve at least accomplished one thing that day, and regardless of how I felt during the practice, .

Throughout this process, I’ve learned a lot more about yoga; not as much as I would like to know, but it’s piqued my interest to delve deeper. I’ve also seen a real shift in my strength over this year–physical and mental. Certain postures that I used to dread are becoming easier to hold, and other I’m starting to deepen and hold longer, particularly twists and binds, while still being able to breathe deeply. It’s extremely gratifying. Eventually, I would like to get into a studio. I think I want to develop an Ashtanga yoga practice, and even though there are several led primary series on youtube, it really does require some in-person guidance. Also, I have no idea what the opening and closing chants are (I guess I could just look it up). In the meantime, I’ve been scoping out some yoga retreats–go on vacation, see a new country, make some new friends, all while getting some in-person yoga instruction. We’ll see if I can gather up these coins to make one happen in the next year (new goal!).

For the first time, not only am I committing to yoga, but I’m excited about it. The journey continues…