It's been my experience that a regular yoga practice doesn't come as the result of life's happiest or most financially secure moments. A disciplined and dedicated yoga asana (that's Sanskrit for "pose") practice almost invariably comes as the result of life's unprettiest moments. My most eye-opening yoga moments have been ego-shattering experiences, drenched in sweat and tears. No matter what Yoga Journal spouts about "inspiring" tropical retreat centers or natural beauty remedies, these humbling experiences are the real reason you should practice yoga.
I began practicing yoga during a very difficult point in my life. I was in my early 20s and suffering from a host of body-image issues, which were compounded by a general dissatisfaction with my life. I was lost at sea and felt completely alone. In fall 2011, one of my graduate-school classmates encouraged me to purchase a Groupon pass to our local Bikram-yoga studio. Created by the enigmatic and incendiary guru Bikram Choudhury, this ass-kicking style of hot (literally, the room is heated up anywhere from 90 to 117 degrees!) yoga is structured by 26 postures that are specifically sequenced to heal all of your bodily ailments while challenging your mental and physical abilities. I had actually tried Bikram once when I was 16, but my experience was so overwhelmingly negative that I almost didn't heed my friend's advice. Back then, my aunt encouraged me to join her at a Bikram-yoga class. However, when you're a whiny high-school student being forced to spend your summer vacation in a sweaty and stiflingly hot yoga studio instead of camped out on your aunt's couch watching her endless supply of VHS tapes, one 90-minute yoga session will quickly turn into a nightmare. After that experience, I swore never to try yoga again, convinced that it was not worth my time.
I'm glad I eventually overcame my prejudice, because when given a second chance, yoga provided an immense sense of comfort in my life. The combination of heat, repetitive sequencing, and long holds was a complete release from the stress of my daily life, and I began to look forward to class in a way that I didn't really look forward to anything else. It made me feel powerful and self-assured at a time when I couldn't summon those emotions on my own. In yoga, I had the opportunity to set my daily worries and troubles aside while I challenged my physical limits.
It wasn't until several of my close family members passed away unexpectedly in quick succession that I began utilizing my practice as a complete release from emotional turmoil. Over the years, yoga has become a constant refuge in my life; no matter how stressed, exhausted, or out of control I feel, my practice is an ever-present place where I can seek relief and release.
Even with all the obvious benefits, there are still a million reasons people feel like yoga just "isn't for them." The root of many of those issues comes from the fact that the only widely recognized "yoga body" is that of a thin, affluent, white woman. And who can blame people for thinking that? This is the only type of person yoga companies, studios, and sometimes even teachers put any active effort into attracting to the practice. This is a shame, because the eight-limbed path of yoga knows no size; it is completely unrelated to the lame beauty ideals that are heralded by the media and society at large. Yoga asana can and should be practiced by everybody — LITERALLY EVERY BODY. Once we recognize that the mainstream images of yoga are merely marketing, the same way they market lipstick and yogurt, then we can change the perception of what a "yogi" physically looks like. Plus, practicing yoga in fancy studios can be very expensive and prohibitive for new practitioners. Early in my yoga journey, I participated in a studio's work-study program that allowed me to practice yoga for free. However, establishing a home yoga practice became the true key to unlocking my long-lasting, sturdy, and financially viable practice, which continues to this day.
If you want to start practicing yoga TODAY (not tomorrow, not next month, but TODAY), you don't need the world's best yoga mat or handmade leggings crafted from recycled water bottles. You don't need to wait until you're "thin" or "flexible" enough — you're perfect today. In fact, all you really need is an open heart and an open mind. And I know that sounds like a cheesy message from an after-school special, but stay with me. It is inevitable that we will walk onto our yoga mats with perhaps unreasonable expectations about our bodily abilities or the exact benefits we will glean from the practice. This will not be helpful. Avoid thinking about what you need to get from your yoga practice — when we predetermine and set mental boundaries, it's nearly impossible to maintain an open heart and mind.