A few months ago, I walked into a yoga studio near my home and signed up for an evening class. I call myself mildly athletic and have over the course of my adult life tried various forms of exercise. So, I did not think yoga would challenge me in any way. I knew all about yoga, I presumed. After all, yoga is everywhere in our country. It is an integral part of our cultural heritage. We have yoga gurus, yoga celebrities and even a yoga-loving Prime Minister. In my case, since I also have parents who practised yoga at home, I was already an expert, albeit of the armchair variety. I was quite surprised to find that the yoga class was not what I expected: a motley group of people who did some slow-paced exercise together.
With origins in the Vedas, it has been practiced for centuries by rishis and swamis. How did yoga transform into an urban woman's fitness program?
The class was challenging physically and mentally and I was surprised to find that it also was a unique social space, a community, with its own language, codes and norms. For those of you who have been encouraged to join a class by the revelries of Yoga Day over the past week, here are some of my experiences and observations in the past months which will give you a glimpse into the world of yoga practice.
It's a woman's world
The gender ratio of men to women in a yoga class is generally quite skewed. Unlike what most people would imagine, there are hardly any men in yoga. Not just in India but around the world, yoga is dominated by women. For men wanting to begin yoga, this may be a little disconcerting. I too, wondered what kept men away from yoga. With origins in the Vedas, it has been practiced for centuries by rishis and swamis. How did yoga transform into an urban woman's fitness program? Mohan Kumar, an acquaintance who teaches yoga in the small town of Bareilly in UP, confirmed that yoga is popular among women in small towns as well. His explanation: "Women are more attuned to their inner self. They intuitively understand the benefits of yoga on mind and body." Yoga is wonderful for men as well, he added. "It is calming, relaxing and helps build muscle strength." Guys, you can also take comfort in Kumar's assertion that in spite of the large number of women practising yoga there are more men than women teaching the practice than women in India.
The king of yoga poses
Called the king of yoga poses, the headstand is definitely yoga's coolest contortion. As a newcomer, I gasped with awe when I saw people around me getting into the headstand. I observed that the class was divided into people who could do the headstand unassisted, those who managed to do it with the instructor's help and the other lesser mortals like me who could not, try as much they could, defy gravity.
I would look around and envy those who could easily achieve perfect poses. In a while it dawned on me that this comparison made my practice less enjoyable.
Like me, many beginners, I noticed, became fixated on achieving perfection in one posture or another. I would look around and envy those who could easily achieve perfect poses. In a while it dawned on me that this comparison made my practice less enjoyable. Yoga experts say that pushing oneself into a posture makes one more prone to injury. Yoga is not a sport or a competition. If you are a beginner, do look at it as a life-long journey to be undertaken with love for your body and compassion for your physical limitations.
Becoming a yoga evangelist
I became hooked on yoga within a short while of beginning my practice. I attended talks on yoga, undertook an advanced session and read up some books. I took an hour-long yoga class five times a week and contemplated taking the teaching course and becoming an instructor. I also began to talk about yoga to my friends. Yoga was benefitting me tremendously and I began to encourage others to experience the benefits. In short, I turned into a yoga evangelist. I pushed friends and family to join the class and some of them did. Though technically yoga is for everybody, I soon found out that everyone does not necessarily enjoy or even benefit from it. In the initial days of your yoga practice you may be inspired to make your loved ones aware of the benefits of yoga but wisdom lies in letting people choose their own path towards health and overcoming the arrogance of knowing what is best for everyone.
Though technically yoga is for everybody, I soon found out that everyone does not necessarily enjoy or even benefit from it.
Over the past few weeks I have begun to find balance both literary and figuratively in my yoga practice. While I am enjoying the fruits of my practice with better energy and flexibility, I am over the zealous phase. I have cut down my sessions to thrice a week. I have taken to walking on the other days. While I still thoroughly love yoga, I do not think I can advance to the "expert" level or become a yoga teacher. So, I am not going to become a "yogi" any time soon. But, I am happy with my practice. I have learned to keep my focus inwards during the session. Probably this is as close to being a yogi that I will get!
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