Stretching it out with yoga

Mastering this ancient practice is easier than you think

yoga_article01 Kate W. Mak was hooked on yoga from the start – so hooked that she started teaching it. Today, seven years later, she seems to embody what one would expect of any yogi: peace, positivity, fitness and a friendly, accepting demeanor. When she first stepped onto the mat, though, it was for the same reason many people turn to any fitness pursuit – to get in shape for an impending beach vacation.

“Yoga is a community that is very loving and very accepting. They ultimately want you to live the very best version of your life, whatever that means, and just support you in getting there.”

Mak was working in neurological science at the time, spending hours in the lab studying the effects of two specific genes on acute T-cell leukemia. Her first foray into yoga showed her “a sense of peace and serenity,” and an opportunity to let everything go for a period of time while she practised. She also quickly found what she felt had been missing from her mostly solitary life in the lab.

“What kept me coming back was the sense of community. I would come to class and there would be five people I had met through the studio, and they now are my friends,” she says of that early time in her yoga practice. She adds, “Especially in cities, we become very segregated, and very isolated, and yoga is a way of connecting with others and with yourself, as well.”

Mak describes herself as a social person, and she was realizing that she wasn’t happy in the lab where there was so little human interaction. A couple of years later, when friends opened a yoga studio of their own and offered her a job teaching there, she realized, “either I was going to continue being unhappy, or I could give this a go.”

Though yoga has existed for more than 5,000 years (according to the American Yoga Association, it predates written history), it only began to slowly spread across North America a little over a century ago. Nowadays, it’s a well-known staple of the western fitness world, and with that comes not just general public knowledge, but also a variety of misconceptions.

Everyone knows someone who practices yoga, and who probably talks about how great it makes them feel. And yet, many people who would be interested to try the practice themselves do not do so. What’s holding them back?

Jackie Clark, a yoga teacher in Edmonton, has observed that for some, the reason they don’t brave the yoga studio is a belief that they’re “too fat” or “not flexible enough.” For others, as was the case with Clark when she began attending yoga classes at a studio, it’s the “mystery of the spirituality. Some people may think yoga is a religion.”

Though she had dabbled in yoga at home, letting videos and DVDs guide her, a friend had asked her to come along to a studio class. It was 2004 and Clark’s father had recently died. She was feeling lost.

After that first class, she says, “I was hooked. I felt calm. For those few minutes you have a chance to just tune everything out. There is a clarity that comes from connecting with your breath.”

She was, however, intimidated by the spiritual aspect of the classes. In the ashtanga classes she was attending, “they would practice an invocation at the beginning – and I didn’t know if that resonated with me.” yoga_article02 The conclusion she eventually reached is the same advice she offers newcomers who might be feeling nervous in the same way. “You have a choice when you step into a class or onto the mat. You can ‘Om,’ or you can stay silent. You choose which aspects of yoga you want to take into your life.”

Another common worry for yoga newbies is that they don’t fit the physical mold of a yogi. Mak points out that people in a yoga class aren’t paying any attention to one another’s bodies; they are too busy focusing on their own practice.

“Yoga is a community that is very loving and very accepting,” says Mak. “They ultimately want you to live the very best version of your life, whatever that means, and just support you in getting there.”

As Clark tells people who are afraid to attend a class because they believe they aren’t flexible enough, “you can’t get more flexible unless you come to class.”

So where to start, then? Both teachers recommend learning about yoga first, and point to online magazine Yoga Journal as a great starting point. The site contains a wealth of information, ranging from an index of basic poses and an advice column for beginners, to fitness and mindfulness challenges, to downloads and feature articles.

Newcomers looking to try yoga should research the different types of yoga, both Mak and Clark agree. “Ask yourself what you’re looking to get out of yoga,” says Mak. “Are you looking for relaxation? Are you looking for health? Are you looking for flexibility, or strengthening, or something to complement running or cycling or weight training?”

Choosing between heated and non-heated, power yoga, or a more relaxing style of yoga, will depend largely on a given person’s goals.

Clark recommends approaching friends who are already practising yoga. “Somebody in your life probably does yoga. Ask them questions; get a sense of what their experience was in the beginning.” Consider attending a class with a friend, she says. She encourages people who are just getting started to try a variety of types of yoga before deciding whether yoga is for them.

Mak advises that most studios now offer an introductory pass which allows the pass holder to take unlimited classes for a week or a month, and some also offer a registered beginners class series.

“Some of the (non-beginner) classes that I teach can fill up to 50 people,” she says. “If you’re brand new, and you’re one out of 50, it’s going to be harder for me to keep an eye on you than if you’re part of a much smaller group.”

Both instructors recommend calling ahead if you are unsure and asking questions about the classes, the studio and the teachers. They also agree that beginners are best-served starting with instruction from a qualified teacher.

Getting started in yoga doesn’t present much of a cost – a simple yoga mat from any general sporting goods or outlet store, and some comfortable athletic clothes that you are able to fully stretch in – and it’s not complicated.But it is best, the two teachers advise, to get started with a qualified instructor to avoid getting used to practicing a pose out of alignment.

“When you’re practicing without somebody that’s actually looking at your body, you may be practicing with your hip out of alignment, and then you will get used to practicing in that shape,” explains Mak.

Mak adds that anyone with health concerns should consult a doctor before getting started. Issues such as high blood pressure, low immune function and herniated or bulging discs may dictate the type of yoga that is best suited to the person who is interested in starting out.

She recommends that people who do not have a yoga studio within a reachable distance practice carefully at home, perhaps following the instruction of “world renowned teachers” via Yoga Journal.

“Err on the side of caution when practising without a teacher,” she says. “If it hurts, pinches or feels off … Stop, try not to force it and back off, if not exit the pose entirely.”

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