As a yoga studio owner, teacher and devoted student, I meet people all over town -- in line at Trader Joe's, at the nail salon (yes, I'm a yogi and I get mani/pedis), during dismissal at my kids' school -- and they all want to talk about yoga. "How do I get started?" "Can I do it?" "I really should do it." "I've been meaning to come." "I drive by all the time." "What is yoga, anyway?"
Yoga is the fastest growing "fitness" trend in America, and it's big business too. According to a 2012 "Yoga in America" study by Yoga Journal, 20.4 million Americans report that they practice yoga; that number is up by 29 percent from the magazine's previous study in 2008. Nearly 14 million Americans say a doctor or therapist has recommended yoga to them. Inc. com wrote that yoga is one of the best industries for starting a new business. (But let me set the record straight: This is not a business to make millions in.) CNN Money reported in 2011 that the yoga and Pilates studio scene is expected to hit $6.5 billion. Last week, Lululemon, the Vancouver-based yoga-wear line, projected more than $1.6 billion in revenue for 2013. Lulu's "Wunder Under" pants retail for $92 (and if you're reading this post, you probably have at least one pair of these Luon lovelies in your workout drawer right now).
All sorts of products and services, having nothing to do whatsoever with the practice of yoga (banks, cars, sodas, soaps, etc.), use images of people doing yoga in advertisements. Celebrities are routinely pictured by paparazzi coming out of classes, with yoga mats and almond milk lattes in hand. More star athletes are adding yoga to their training regimens (go Andre Ethier, go Dodgers!). Even the U.S. military is using yoga in boot camp ("om in the army"), so now we know it's not just for sissies anymore. Today, we're all about mindfulness, meditation and other ancient yogic practices.
And yet, while it appears that absolutely everyone is interested in trying yoga (Yoga Journal calls these folks "aspirational" yogis), many of us are still wary of it. Whether the challenge is physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual, people are still intimidated by yoga. This intimidation comes in many forms: Sometimes people will volunteer statements such as, "I'm intimidated by yoga," or "Yoga intimidates me," and "Yoga is intimidating." Sometimes the fear is more veiled: "What? I can't even touch my toes" (this is the one I hear most often), "I'm afraid I'll look stupid," "I'm injured -- I can't do yoga" (we get this one a lot, too), or "I hate yoga. I can't still my mind." "Yoga agitates me -- it stresses me out." Yeah.
Here's what I tell them: "So what if you can't touch your toes? That's what yoga's for. It helps increase flexibility." If students are injured, there's always some sort of Gentle, Therapeutic or Restorative practice for them. Indeed, some systems of yoga are specifically designed for those with injuries; people can learn methods and modifications for adapting postures, providing support and healing with yoga. Can't still your mind? Neither can I. Most of us can't. It's the mind's job to keep us busy and distracted. Our job is to practice quieting and questioning our thoughts; that's why it's called a "practice."
I hope this helps some of you get over it. But, for the greater skeptics, here's more info and insight about what you can anticipate and expect from your yoga studio, your teachers and your fellow yogis.
First, I always recommend that people start their practice in a studio -- not at home, not a gym, not in the rec room at the local public park. Beyond my own business interest, as a long time student and now a teacher, I believe it is best to learn in a setting that's safe and supportive. Plenty has been written about the "dangers of yoga," but yoga is safe and beneficial if it's taught and practiced carefully and correctly. DVDs and inexperienced teachers are no substitute for the real thing; you want someone to guide you, someone who knows what they're doing.
A good studio provides its students with many choices and options: a wide variety of offerings, different types of classes (for different ages, levels and abilities), multiple methods of payment (class packages, memberships, single classes, community classes at reduced rates etc.) A good studio is open and accessible to as many people who want to practice yoga as possible.
It's fair to expect your studio to be welcoming, well-run (professional personnel vs., in L.A. for example, "work trade" volunteers wired into their iPhones, who'd rather be auditioning to be an extra in a sitcom than greeting and checking you into yoga class) and clean (floors are swept between classes; blankets are laundered frequently; equipment and props stored neatly; washrooms with refilled toilet paper dispensers).
Yoga is a personal practice. Most people practice local; that is, they choose a studio near their home, in their neighborhood. A place that feels familiar, comfortable and safe. You know, personal. A "home" studio often feels warmer, more inviting than a slick corporate yoga setting, especially for students new to yoga. Find a studio that feels good to you.
Your teachers should be well-trained, experienced in their craft and mature human beings. But beyond education and years on the job, there's something even more important to look for in your teachers. Are they kind, patient and compassionate? Are they challenging you enough -- or pushing too much? Can you relate to and connect with them? Do they care about you?
Training and experience is foremost; but there's also a magic about certain teachers. Yes, teachers should teach the poses -- how to get in and out of them safely, with good alignment; how to be in the poses with both stability and ease; how to best benefit from your Savasana, final resting pose. But the magic comes in between those moments. Great teachers guide us towards seeing, knowing and accepting ourselves. If they don't, please feel free get off the floor, roll up your mat and run out the door!
Try different teachers -- we all have our own different influences, styles and personalities. Get to know your teachers. Find the one or two that you feel most comfortable with, whom you can trust as a leader.
Yoga teachers (while it's appropriate to expect them to be kind, caring and compassionate) are not therapists, doctors or best friends. They can't solve all of our personal problems, they can't diagnose disease. It's not fair to expect your yoga teacher to answer texts in the middle of the night or meet you for tea after every class.
Your Fellow Yogis
Know that you are not alone. Not everyone in the room can touch their toes or still their mind. Not everyone can rock those fancy party trick poses. You are among friends; you are allies, yoga warriors.
Your classmates will not judge you; they're not here to watch or criticize your yoga practice. We're here for ourselves. To touch our own toes, do our yoga party tricks. To feel better, to have a happy, healthy meaningful life.
When you walk into a new studio, take a look at the people around you. Introduce yourself, say hello -- and don't be surprised if someone reaches out and welcomes you. Are they people you know, are they neighbors, do they work nearby, do they have kids at the same school? Do they go to the same manicure place? It's not necessary that you share all of this in common, but it does create a sense of camaraderie.
There are many different definitions and purposes of yoga. Some of us practice to learn about ourselves, to be in bliss, to discover the meaning of consciousness itself -- or to get a yoga butt (and into those size four lulu pants!). Whether your journey is physical, philosophical or spiritual, once you're practicing regularly (we always recommend at least 2-3 times a week), you'll find like-minded folks, who share similar values and interests. You'll find community, a sense of belonging and being together. That can be powerful, especially in our world where we tend to be so disconnected from each other -- and ourselves.
So fear not, aspirational yogis. Be intimidated no more. Go for it. Get into it. You'll be welcomed by others -- and you'll welcome yourself.
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