3 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Practicing Yoga
The title of this article may be a bit misleading. To say that I wish I knew earlier what I know now, regarding any aspect of life, sort of defeats the purpose of the learning process. And yoga can provide quite the steep learning curve. Yet had I known earlier what I'm about to share with you, my former yoga-self would probably have had fewer expectations about yoga in general. Fewer expectations, as we all know, can lead to fewer disappointments.
To say that I wish I knew earlier what I know now, regarding any aspect of life, sort of defeats the purpose of the learning process.
But I'm not necessarily sharing this list of things I wish I'd known because any of this stuff should be avoided. Everything we experience "along the way" should be honored; it's what's led us to become who we are, as we know ourselves today. But perhaps you can relate to a few of these points, or maybe you'd simply like to add a few things to this "wish I knew that" list. I encourage you to share your reflections on this topic in the comment section below.
Here's my list:
1. Asana isn't about athleticism.
Growing up, it felt like some people were just born with a seamless mind-body connection. And I equated that flawless sense of embodiment with athleticism. During my teenage years, I all at once admired, and was jealous of, the kids on the track team, soccer team, and cheerleading squad. It seemed to me, their bodies were their allies. Their friends. Sources of empowerment. On the other hand, I never felt safe or okay in my body. Probably because I was bullied constantly by my peers during formative years about my body's shape, size, and form.
Years later, when I was 26, I found yoga. And while I'd often heard that asana was a lot of fun, to me a yoga mat felt more like a bed of hot coals than a place for curious play. This was probably the first time I'd ever (ever!) really slowed down and paid attention to my physicality, and it was uncomfortable, and sometimes it hurt.
Practicing alongside the super-athletic people who'd show up to the all-levels classes I attended also didn’t help. (I'm talking about the kind of practitioners who will take the full splits, headstand, and one-leg-lifted in wheel pose options in class.) More often than not, I felt like the lone yogi who'd shake and sweat in even the gentlest, most basic of poses. And it wasn't necessarily because I thought those poses were super difficult—it was just so uncomfortable, so triggering, to be in my own skin.
It wasn’t until I actually started listening to what my teachers were saying (like "If you're breathing, you're doing yoga," and "You don't have to practice the 'full expression' of any pose") that I began to realize that embodiment doesn’t necessarily have to take the shape of athletic feats. That I don't have to do anything particular with my body to be in my body. Awareness is enough.
I can lie in savasana, and even if that's the only pose I do all day, if I am breathing deeply, and aware of my feelings, I’m progressing toward embodiment. As far as I'm concerned, I'm also progressing in yoga: a practice that, traditionally, is considered a means to help unify body, breath, and mind.
2. What my teachers could offer me, and what they couldn't.
Years before I found asana, I was lucky enough to study yoga philosophy (self-inquiry, to be exact) with a master teacher. And I’ve been blessed to meet quite a few master teachers since. But perhaps I could have gotten more from their tutelage if I didn't so consistently freeze up like a popsicle in their presence—unable to speak. They made me nervous, and I was also pretty sure that all of them could read my mind, which wasn't cool. (I’m human, after all, and my thoughts can be pretty, well, human. I didn't want them to hear me thinking about any of the four primal urges: food, sleep, self-preservation, and definitely not sex.)
When I look back, I see there was a fair amount of idealization going on—though I have compassion for my former yoga self, because it can be easy to put people who speak of paths toward enlightenment on pedestals. Now that I've met and worked with quite a few yoga teachers, I've come to realize that they're all just like you and me: ordinary folks who strive to be good, though not perfect, people.
Master teachers and your everyday yoga teachers, they are all divine beings—just as divine as a flower, just as divine as you and me. They are also human. And most of them will admit this.
In fact, one of my favorite lessons along the way (from a master teacher I studied with, actually) is this: Don't look toward the teacher, look toward the teaching. Furthermore, develop and follow your own instincts, because any teacher could offer advice that is wrong, or at least wrong for you. Master teachers and your everyday yoga teachers, they are all divine beings—just as divine as a flower, just as divine as you and me. They are also human. And most of them will admit this.
If I could, I would have referenced the Buddha and told my former yoga self: "Light thine own lamp."
3. I didn't have to worry too much about what I didn't know.
Speaking of the non-asana-related aspects of yoga, the esoteric side of practice can be a bit confusing for beginner practitioners—and it certainly was for me. Even in gym settings I’ve heard terms like “pratyahara,” “shakti,” and “kundalini.” After all, it's not uncommon for sequences to be described in terms of their energetic or spiritual benefits—flows, even individual poses, that will “balance your chakras," "release your inner goddess," and yes, "awaken your kundalini."
One of the most befuddling yoga-moments for me was the first time I heard this prana (life force) inspired cue: “Breathe into your little toe.” I began to wonder how I could, and then put all of my mental attention into why a teacher would ask me to do something physiologically impossible. Turns out this cue wasn't meant to be taken quite so literally. But unfortunately, the experience left me with the initial feeling that time-tested yoga concepts (such as prana) were no more than fairy tales.
While my current yoga-self really enjoys discussing yoga philosophy (including concepts like pratyahara, shakti, and kundalini), my former yoga-newbie self couldn't comprehend it. If I were to have a one-on-one conversation with this budding yoga-self, I’d say: Don't worry too much about what you don't know. Don't try to understand things you can't relate to just yet. Your kundalini probably won’t rise during your first yoga class anyway (and it might never), and it’s very okay if you don’t feel like a goddess after practice is over.
There will be so much that you just don't get yet, not until you've covered more ground. Then you can connect the dots as you look back.
Your practice won't suffer because you don't understand everything your teacher is talking about right away. Too much analysis can slow you down. There will be so much that you just don't get yet, not until you've covered more ground. Then you can connect the dots as you look back.
How about you? When you look back, what experiences come up for you? What would you like to share—what would you lovingly tell your former yoga self?
Kathryn is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."