Expectations Vs. Reality: How My Yoga Practice Surprised Me


My journey along the path of yoga these last several years has been filled with much joy and affection, often in ways very different from what I had expected or envisioned. The experience can best be expressed with the wise words of Dr. Seuss: “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep, because reality is finally better than your dreams.”

For me, beginning a yoga practice was a lot like falling in love. The first flush, the heat and the passion, and finally a knowing intimacy. And moving through the process very often defied my expectations. Here are a few of the ways in which the reality of yoga was so much bigger than any of my expectations, and led me to a relationship that continues to deepen and grow.

Beginning a yoga practice was a lot like falling in love.

I Thought I Could Compete at Yoga

The first time I practiced yoga, I was about eight years old and a competitive swimmer. My coach was an eccentric man who had hopes of sending some of his team to the Olympics. He began to teach us yoga and meditation, believing that 15 minutes of meditation was the equivalent of four hours of sleep—and the less time we slept, the more time we could be training in the pool. We were taught to use yoga as a means to an end, in order to create the sharpest possible competitive edge.

I stopped swimming for sport a few years later, burned out and eager to return to a more normal childhood. But the stage had been set. When I began a regular practice in my 30s, asana excited me. The original competitive energy imprinted on me as a child was reawakened. I found myself pushing to go deeper, harder, or higher in the poses.

After an injury dramatically altered my asana practice, I had no choice but to develop a gentler approach. I returned to the basics, reveling in a mountain pose, generously using props, and moving much more slowly. What a challenge to experience a physical injury, but also what a humbling gift. Today I consider physically moderate options in a yoga class to comprise an advanced practice, and I’ve learned the magical art of keeping my eyes on my own mat. My yoga is now about creating a foundation of lifelong agility for body, mind, and spirit, rather than contorting my body in ways that will only serve my ego in the short term.

I Thought Teachers Were Goddesses

Some yoga teachers just glow, don’t they? Even if they aren’t smiling, they still have a soft light about their faces, rather than the scowl or vacant stare I see on many people as they drive to work or stand in line at the grocery store. When I first started practicing yoga, I had heroine-envy of my teachers, the vast majority of whom were women. They appeared before me like goddesses who’d descended to Earth—with beautiful hair, strong and healthy bodies, and the seeming ability to transcend gravity.

I’ve come to realize that yoga teachers are human, both divine and flawed, as the rest of us are. Yoga teachers get divorced. They have bad moods. Sometimes they eat sugar and drink too much coffee. Remembering that my teachers are human beings doing divine work is important for my practice because it reminds me to be responsible for myself. If a teacher offers a cue that I know won’t serve my body, I trust my instincts and choose another option. I’ve also learned that my teachers are in need of love and affirmation just like everyone else. In the past, I would sometimes leave a class without telling the teacher what it meant to me. Now I’m much more likely to share at least one thing I loved about that class.

I Thought Yoga Was Just Physical

A few years ago I experienced a major life transition after I quit my full-time job to spend more time with my family and to pursue new dreams. While that was ultimately a very positive decision, it had unintended consequences. Even though I was still working part-time and had a young son to care for, I found myself with more time on my hands than I was used to. I quickly noticed that I couldn’t sit still. I would flit from activity to activity, never able to settle down. I knew something had to change.

Soon after, I walked into my first “real” yoga studio, a space that was dedicated to the yogic way of life (I’d previously practiced in gyms or community classes). My hope was that the physical exercise would help to quiet my monkey mind. It did, but there was so much more involved. My teachers offered readings and themes about what it meant to be alive. I learned how to breathe—probably for the first time since I was a baby. One day, with my head turned sideways in a twist, I began reading the titles on my teacher’s bookshelf. I went home and ordered my first copy of the Yoga Sutra. I learned about the niyama known as svadhyaya, which encourages self-study. For a bibliophile like myself, opening the doors to the philosophy of yoga felt like being a kid in a candy store. Even though I’m now a yoga teacher, I am first and foremost a student of this philosophy of infinite expansion, which informs but is never limited to the postures we practice on the mat.

My teachers offered readings and themes about what it meant to be alive. I learned how to breathe—probably for the first time since I was a baby.

I Thought Yoga Would Fix Me

I feel that I first came to yoga as something of a collection of coping strategies—rather than a human being. The first year I practiced, it felt like I was offering up on my mat these broken parts of myself. “Fix me. Heal me. Save me,” I seemed to implore. After a sweaty vinyasa class, I would typically get a few hours of relief from my persistent discontent. But I was still me—divided me, undeniably broken.

In Living Yoga, Ken Wilber says of meditation: “Meditation means you can’t hide the pain anymore. You have to step right into the middle of it.” Eventually yoga and meditation did get me to step right into the middle of it. They coaxed me closer and closer to my pain, always whispering, “No matter what happens, we’ll be here.” They gave me the spiritual support I needed to piece myself back together, but they didn’t do the work for me. They didn’t fix me; I had to do that through the hard work of unearthing my demons, staring them in the face, and attending therapy and recovery meetings on a regular basis to learn how to integrate them and become whole again.

The work isn’t easy. But whenever it becomes too much, I can find a solace on my mat—which prepares me for the beautiful challenge of taking responsibility for my own happiness.

I Thought All Yoga Was Vinyasa-Style

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned along the path is that there are so many styles and interpretations of the philosophy of yoga. My first exposure to a real yoga class was a vinyasa-style class, and so I thought that was what yoga was. Today I know that’s not true. I’ve practiced Aerial, Kundalini, Kripalu, and Svaroopa yoga. My primary practice and teaching now revolves around gentle and restorative yoga. Downward dog and full sun salutations, which I once practiced daily, are now rare visitors to my mat.

The reality of yoga in the West means that many of us now have access to a wide variety of teachings. In addition to exploring studios in my local area, I also like taking classes when I travel to visit family. I use books and online yoga-streaming sites to explore further the bounty of yoga. Each type has unique offerings, and I can deepen my own practice by mixing them into my daily practice. Discovering so many beautiful teachers and teachings has been an unexpected gift along my path.

I Thought I’d Give up Other Types of Exercise

When I first started a daily practice, yoga became a huge passion. I wanted to be with yoga all the time. I lived and breathed it. No other forms of physical activity could match what I gained from a yoga class.

No longer in the throes of my new yoga romance, my singular focus on yoga has widened. I still have a daily practice, but it looks a lot different now than it did a few years ago. Today, for example, my yoga practice consisted of studying two Kundalini yoga philosophy videos online and chanting for about 20 minutes. My physical practice was a cardio- and strength-based aerobics-style class at my local gym. There are days when I spend an hour or more on my mat practicing asana, but I also invite other forms of physical activity into my life to create a balanced approach to health and wellness.

I Thought I’d Stay a Student

For over a decade, my livelihood has come from teaching college success strategies to freshmen. When I first started practicing yoga, it was such a gift to be a student again. I loved just showing up to class and enjoying that time for self-care. I didn’t think I wanted to do any more teaching. Then I noticed myself becoming more aware of the teachers’ cues and sequences in the classes that I attended. This led to an avid home practice. That first home practice was a true turning point for me. I get to choose the exact pose my body is asking for in this moment? I thought. This is too good to be true.

Several months later my home practice led to a desire to go deeper. I enrolled in a teacher training program at Frog Pond Yoga Centre. For the first nine months of that program (one of the most transformative experiences of my life), I reveled in the teachings—but still didn’t think I’d ever teach yoga. Then slowly, as I progressed in my YTT program, I allowed myself to entertain the idea of subbing. Finally, toward the end of my YTT, after completing my teaching practicum, yoga was calling me back to the front of the room.

Stepping into the position of a yoga teacher, while most unexpected, has been a great honor and joy for me. Sometimes, as it turns out, one’s yoga path presents possibilities and opportunities that are bigger and better than any we ever envisioned for ourselves.

About the Teacher

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Karen Costa
Karen Costa is a writer and higher educator living in Massachusetts. She earned her yoga teacher training... Read more