I was first exposed to yoga about 12 years ago when I walked past a studio window at the Halifax YMCA where the woman (who would later become my first teacher) was leading an Ashtanga Primary Series class. As I watched the synchronized movements and became mesmerized with the way one pose flowed into the next, I thought to myself, “Wow…that looks like it feels really good.”
One of my later teachers, Ron Reid, often reminds his students of the Krishnamacharya quote, “The seed of yoga comes up differently in every person.” The idea of planting the seed of yoga has always resonated for me as a teacher, especially when working with beginners. I introduce people to yoga in a way I hope will help them fall into a deep connection with the practice, but I know better than to assume it will happen right away.
It was probably close to 10 years ago when I bought my dad an introductory 4-class yoga pass, trying to encourage him to start practicing. He only made it to about half of those classes, and it was unclear whether he went because he was interested or because he knew it was important to me—perhaps a bit of both. He didn’t continue to pursue the practice, but I hoped the seed had been planted.
A few years later, I told my dad I wanted to go to India and he asked, “What if I came along?” At first I was apprehensive, thinking he was proposing some sort of chaperone situation. But once he clarified he was truly curious about going to a place he had never been, I came around to the idea it could be something truly special.
Mere months after that conversation, my dad and I sat next to each other, sweating profusely in the back of an Indian taxi cab—a ride we thought could be our last—en route to Purple Valley. We spent two weeks at the retreat centre practicing Mysore style with one of my favourite teachers, Petri Raisanen. It was a fabulous experience which I’ve documented all about here.
I’m bringing it up again because watching my dad’s practice unfold has taught me a great deal about why people want to do yoga. Even after coming back from India, it took time for him to find a routine that included yoga. Much of it had to do with eventually retiring and making more time for healthy habits. Nowadays, he has an unlimited yearly pass at the studio where I teach, comes to classes (my own and others’) 3-4 days a week, and knows the Downward Dog community as well as I do. When I ask him what he likes most about class, more often than not the answer sounds something like “Because I never walk out of there regretting I went.”
For him and many others, “going to yoga” means going to practice something that makes you feel good. It doesn’t necessarily matter who’s teaching, or if there will be music playing, or what the theme of the class might be that day. It simply means taking time out of the day to move, breath and do something that leaves you walking off of the mat in a more improved state than before.
What I’ve been observing over the past few years, however, is the growing number of people treating yoga not so much as a therapeutic practice but rather as an intense form of physical exercise. I’ve watched as students practicing alongside me are wrenching their limbs into positions their bodies simply aren’t capable of supporting. I see how the practice has morphed from something simple and beautiful into something complicated by tricks, where class has become competitive and at times even demoralizing. I’m not trying to paint a pessimistic picture, nor am I trying to group together all teachers, studios and students—I’m simply describing a trend that can no longer be ignored.
Many of my teachers have reminded me along the way it is best to adopt a beginner’s mind, despite the number of hours on the mat to which our ego likes to lay claim. After a while, we can lose sight of what it once felt like to be the new person in the class, walking in with our socks on, unsure of what to expect. Take a moment and try to remember the last time you did something for the first time—whether it was a yoga class or otherwise—and put yourself back in that mindset.
How did you feel? Were you excited? Nervous? Intimidated?
Did you have any expectations? Were you apprehensive?
Do you remember the other people in the room? Did they inspire you?
How did you feel after? Were you glad you did it, proud to have tried something new? Did you go back?
If you are thinking of the first time you did something that is now a regular part of your life, imagine what it would be like if you approached it every time with a beginner’s mindset. I’ve recently started making this a part of my personal practice, reminding myself the newbie in me only started doing yoga because it looked like it felt really good. At the end of the day, this is what really matters: being able to wake up in a healthy body that will support us in all we do and allows us to share our gifts with others.
If your practice has ventured into a place where you’re not sure it’s serving you the way it could be, it might be time for a change. Take a step back, ask yourself what your body needs, and reconnect to the things that will make you feel like your best self again.