Hater's Guide to Yoga
Skeptically embracing your inner yogi
By Holly von Winckel
This is what it means to be a yoga-hater: Spandex is not my friend, turning upside down inevitably causes sweat to go up my nose, and yoga mats smell like the inside of gym shoes. Yoga spirituality reeks of cultishness, to which I have an immense emotional allergy. Making all these issues even more painful, I am a perfectionist by nature, a hardcore introvert and very literal minded. To put it another way, a room full of strangers unanimously doing something I am having trouble with, described in terms I am unfamiliar with, is an unmitigated nightmare.
Yoga’s physical benefits are well documented, wide-ranging and very real. Everything from blood pressure to nerve conductivity can benefit from the practice.
So that’s me. What about yoga? Yoga is a series of movements of the body, almost always accompanied by prescription breath control. Yoga’s physical benefits are well documented, wide-ranging and very real. Everything from blood pressure to nerve conductivity can benefit from the practice. The activities included in yoga are so varied as to beggar belief. For instance, lying motionless on the floor (shavasana) is every bit as much yoga as pouring saltwater up one nostril and letting it drain out the other (jala neti). Being monkeys, it's easier to see someone else do these things and emulate them, so there are classes, books, video recordings and even video games. Good luck finding a Groupon for dribbling saltwater out your nostrils.
As a hater, taking a class just doesn't seem like a good idea, but I've done enough yoga without classes to know the benefits are genuine. I asked Cloud9 (6910 Montgomery NE) manager Jessica Martinez what a class could get me I couldn't get any other way, and she cited hands-on guidance to prevent injury, moral support and the encouragement of other human beings. She also said, “Hot yoga makes you sweat, which leads to detoxifying through your pores. We can literally smell what a person eats, smokes or drinks.” I interpreted that to mean detoxification is good, not that smelling what other people consume is good.
Yoga F.U.Q. (Frequently Unasked Questions)
In general everyone except the instructor will be very focused on things like not falling over and remembering to breathe. You should be too.
Will I have to wear yoga pants? No.
The standard advice is to wear something comfortable. Yoga clothing may have been designed with the movements of yoga in mind, so it may offer some advantages in terms of not riding up, binding, sliding down over your face or other inconveniences. Of course it may also have been designed with the movement of dollar bills in mind, emphasizing color coordination and apparel trends more than athletic requirement. I personally find that yoga pants stick in the crack of my self-consciousness, and yoga-specific tank tops tend to put me into Wardrobe Malfunction Pose, so I wear the same thing I wear for any outing to the gym: knee-length Russell Athletic shorts and a moisture-wicking t-shirt. Some folks prefer swimwear for hot yoga and rightly so; you will get wet on that ride.
Erin Hansbrough, co-owner of Grassroots Yoga (4310 Lomas NE), offers a compelling argument in favor of yoga pants, though. “Women had to deal with restrictive gear for decades. Then suddenly the fashion gods tell us ‘Just wear these stretchy pajama things, and you're good to go.’” It’s like five generations of our foremothers are following us into our closets every morning saying “Wear the yoga pants! Do it for us!”
Will everyone be staring at me? Not all at once.
In general everyone except the instructor will be very focused on things like not falling over and remembering to breathe. You should be too. If there are 30 people in your class, it is inevitable you will be in someone’s line of sight at some point, and while many people do some of their yoga with eyes closed, it’s just not possible all the time. Smaller classes, individual instruction and learning to corral your own roving eyeballs all help with this. (If you don't make eye contact, no one saw anything. Problem solved!)
Cloud9 conducts their classes in a dim room with covered windows, which provides some relief for the deeply self-conscious. If and when you get a helpful nudge into a better position, only you will know what was changed. Many studios have a wall of mirrors, which is great for self-correcting your posture. However, if you are new to this, shy or a vampire, that won't do much for you. A well-lit studio with pleasant decor, as you'll find at Grassroots, is relaxing but also encourages conversation. If, like me, you do not regard yoga class as a social outlet, sitting silently on your yoga mat with your eyes closed is the universal Do Not Disturb sign. Call it “meditating” for more gravitas.
Is hot yoga better than the room-temperature kind? Maybe.
There are advocates for all styles, but what it comes down to is how you feel when you are practicing. As a sweat-advantaged person, I look like a drowning victim after any exercise; the difference is how soon it trickles down my back. “Warm up” is a literal term, and hot yoga jump-starts that warmth, especially if you turn up for class early and settle in the sweat room ASAP. That heat also makes it easier to overdo the poses, come out of the sweat room overheated and spend the next day feeling as though you've caught a terrible beating. The fitness jargon for that feeling is “pumped,” so if anyone asks how your class was, tell them you got totally pumped! Those who exercise regularly will be sympathetic; everyone else will be envious.
Will I have a spiritual epiphany? Maybe.
The closest I came to Nirvana was when the instructor played ’90s alt-rock to accompany a workout. If you think you are about to transcend, drink some water and lie down on your mat until the feeling passes. Don’t worry about disrupting the class, either. As long as you’re not having a heart attack, no one will disturb your little lie-down.
Many people use yoga to address various physical situations without emphasis on any possible spiritual aspect. There are at least two studios in town combining yoga with hardcore fitness (think MMA combatants), and several large companies offer yoga to combat “swivel spread” and general stress. At High Desert Yoga (4600 Copper NE), classes include yoga for scoliosis, pregnancy, joint pain, cancer survival, hormonal balance and many other conditions. If you are skeptical about what makes the class a specific remedy for a health issue, call or email the studio and ask about that. Most instructors are more than happy to share their training, motivations and philosophy with potential students. Yoga classes are not Q&A time though, so ask about it outside of class. If you're thinking during class, you are most likely missing the point. If you're talking, you are definitely annoying someone, probably me.
What equipment is needed to start yoga practice? None.
Heck, you could practice yoga naked in your living room if you wanted to; lots of people do. But if you want to take classes, you need those comfortable clothes we talked about. Spring for a yoga mat, because sharing one means rolling around on a rubber surface with the sweaty ghosts of past practitioners. A water bottle and a towel are essential for hot yoga and useful for all yoga. If you don't have those, you may want to deal with that before taking up any new activity.
Yoga also commands an army of accessories, ranging from helpful to pointless. In addition to mats of various thicknesses, colors, prints/patterns, textures and prices, there are also shirts, pants, headbands, grippy socks (with and without toes), straps, blocks and other cushiony things specifically useful in a yoga class. There are also coordinating items: water bottles that match your headband, bags that match your mat, mat-cleaning spray that matches your wiping cloth, ad infinitum. The single most intriguing item I encountered in my survey of yoga retail was a $15 ounce of mutton tallow; I assume it was rendered from transcended sheep. It didn't seem to match anything.
Will I be asked to breathe through my butt? Possibly!
Every yoga instructor has worked out a patter of the words most likely to result in the students moving their bodies into position. Perhaps your instructor found that saying “pull in your lower abdominal muscles as you do when you move your bowels” has had undesirable results in the past and now phrases the instruction in a different way.
During a late-night cosmic yoga session at Cloud9, instructor Eddie had us in apanasana, shoulders and tailbones on the floor, knees pulled toward chins, and then he walked around offering everyone “a squishy.” I was a little freaked because in my house, a squishy happens when one of the cats isn't feeling well. But Eddie explained his offer meant he would lay a towel over our shins and gently press down, so we could go deeper into the pose than we could under our own steam. This is why it is important for noobs to check out a variety of yoga venues and find the one that really clicks. If you think of cat diarrhea when offered assistance or giggle when the instructor tells you to “direct your exhale past your sit bones,” you might not be in the right place.
Is this going to be expensive? Depends.
That depends entirely on where and when you practice. Many gyms offer free or low-cost yoga classes for members, while yoga studios frequently have trial programs for newbies and discounts for regulars. There are so many studios and classes available in this city that you could probably take a class every other day for a year without seeing the same instructor in the same room twice. While that may seem like an overwhelming number of options, the practical upshot is that if you are loudly flatulent, clog the sweat drain or snore during class, you can easily continue practicing yoga without embarrassment ... at least until your reputation gets ahead of you.
In terms of monetary value, a drop-in class costs about the same as a fancy coffee drink or lunch special. A monthly pass costs the same or less than a doctor visit co-pay, new shoes or a tank of gas. Hell, I pay more every week at bowling league than I would for a yoga mat, and my bowling team has never once given me a squishy.
Isn't there a lot of lingo and jargon I won't be able to follow? Some, sure.
Your instructor will almost certainly bust out some Sanskrit on you. Words like namaste, prana, asana and chaturanga are pretty common. In my experience, if an instructor uses Sanskrit, it will come before or after the common English equivalent. Maybe you still won't know what the heck happy baby, lizard or mountain pose is, but at least you’ll get some hints from what your classmates are doing. Generally, however, you'll hear a series of instructions: Put your feet under ... Move your head toward the ... Bring your hands to ... Direct your gaze upon ... and presto! It’s “flaming carrot” pose!
Despite my handful of negative associations with yoga, taking just a few local classes was enough to make me question my hater status. Fortunately yoga culture is fundamentally non-judgmental. They're happy to let me keep hatin’ if that’s what I want to do. I wanted to know what yoga peeps aren't tolerant of, so I asked the internet, and it delivered a message board list of yoga class pet peeves. Apparently the number one most-irritating thing people do in classes is getting on another person’s yoga mat. If violating someone’s personal space is the high treason of yoga class, these might be my people after all. (Number two is seeing someone’s privates, by the way. Dress for success, kids!)
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