The very first time I attempted to arch myself into a downward dog, I was 16 and didn't own a single pair of yoga pants. I'd only signed up for yoga to get out of having to go to my high-school gym class, and I'd gone in knowing that flexible, I was not. I set myself up in the back of a sunlit studio packed full of tall, blonde goddesses and struggled like hell to hold myself up in that down dog, arms quivering, instantly getting a headache as the blood rushed to my skull. I watched in horror as the women around me continued to quickly and effortlessly move into all sorts of other positions that my body refused to keep up with.
I was already suffering from chronic anxiety and a crippling fear of what everyone else thought of me, so by the time that class was over, I felt flustered, ashamed, and, most of all, disappointed that I wasn't sporting the rosy glow that all the beautiful 20-somethings were leaving class with. Maybe I just need more practice, I thought. But for seven straight weeks, it was more of the same: boot-camp style torture.
A couple of years later, still in the thick of untreated posttraumatic stress disorder, I tried again, hoping that a different class could work for me, help me cut through all of the noise in my head. I took a class my gym offered and epically failed. I tried again at 21, this time, at a studio that offered a number of different styles, but yoga stubbornly remained this thing everyone else could do that I couldn't.
I swore it off altogether, rolled my eyes at the women I overheard talking about how beneficial their practice was, and continued to spiral further into the rabbit hole of my own mind, relying on weed and alcohol to create the warm feeling of calm for me, signaling that my social binge drinking was starting to show signs of alcoholism.
It wasn't until age 24, two years after getting sober, that I felt brave enough to try again, at the suggestion of a friend going through a divorce who gave herself a "90 days of yoga" challenge. Before class, I went up to the teacher and told her I had a hard time with certain positions because I suffered from chronic migraines.
"I'm sorry if I can't keep up," I said.
"Not at all! Just do whatever you can," the teacher said in a soothing but strong Hungarian accent. "You do what feels good for you."
I smiled and thanked her, but I wasn't convinced. I'd heard those words before, and they were little consolation after class began.
My friend and I set up our mats towards the back row, and every time I looked around to make sure I was doing a pose right, I realized that I was, and, better yet, nobody was looking at me. I was able to focus on the teacher's instructions, my own breathing, and my own movement.
I finished the class feeling calm and relaxed — I'd even go as far as to say I was glowing. I couldn't wait to go back. As I walked home, I wondered what exactly had changed for me that day. Was it because, mentally, I was in a different place? Could it have been because the teacher was actually treating us like beginners?
Either way, I went to her class every week, until, one day, she mused, "Oh, you're back in beginners?"
"Yes... why?" I asked.
"You're a pro," she said as my mouth dropped open. "The true essence of yoga is listening to your own body and going at your own pace."
I started going to the intermediate classes, and was shocked that I could keep up. After that, yoga became a regular staple in my life.
Over the past three years, I've had personal triumphs, like moving into poses I never thought were possible, and sticking through especially challenging classes until the end. I also still have days where I'm wobbling all over the place, constantly taking "puppy" pose instead of downward dog, and moving much slower than everyone else.
In short, some days I'm still a hot mess — but the best part is, I don't care. I've learned how to own it, and I bet you can, too.
1. Hold yourself accountable.
Pay for the class in advance, make plans to go with a friend, put it on your calendar, do whatever it takes to just get your butt over there. You're more likely to show up when you have a buddy waiting on you or if you've already shelled out the cash. If neither of those options are available to you, just put one foot in front of the other and gently quiet the mental chatter that pops up to talk you out of doing something that's good for you. We all have a tiny evil twin on our shoulder that wants to keep us from growing. That twin's lifeblood is FOMO (fear of missing out). Beware of her.
2. Introduce yourself to the teacher, tell them your limitations, and let them know you'll be doing your best.
If you communicate your limitations beforehand, chances are you won't feel as "judged," and a good instructor will give you some extra attention and help you adjust your poses. Many people who practice yoga have certain health and physical conditions, so rest assured, nobody will think you're making a mockery of the class when you can't keep up, and you won't wildly be looking around to see who might be laughing at you.
3. Find the class that's right for you, right now.
There are many different types of beginner's classes out there, like gentle yoga and chair yoga, so you may want to consider checking your ego at the studio door to start there. Standard beginner's classes vary depending on the studio, so try a few if at first you don't succeed. If large groups make you nervous, check out a small, local studio, or take a class at a time of day that's the least crowded. Don't be afraid to do your research! I'd also caution against starting out at a fitness studio or a gym, because those classes are usually fast-paced and designed to really work you out.
4. Keep the focus on yourself.
Remember that a wonky downward dog is just as happy as a "perfect" looking one, so don't compare yourself to anyone else — and know that they're not looking at or judging you, either. In fact, this might sound crazy, but try and get in the front row if you can. You'll have a closer look at the instructor, and you can keep your eyes locked on her, then yourself, instead of everyone in front of and around you.
5. Listen to your own body and go at your own pace...
...even if it looks like you're going in slow motion. Don't be afraid to take a child's pose, or seven of them, especially if shit gets crazy at the end and people start standing on their heads. If you can't touch your toes, bend your knees. If you can't hold your tree pose, try and try and try, even if you look like a crazy Rockette, wildly kicking your foot around and popping it back in. Don't be afraid to fail — we're all human beings here, not actual trees.
Most importantly, if you find that yoga just plain isn't your jam, that's okay. As my first great yoga teacher taught me, the practice is about finding what's beneficial for you — and that might mean no practice at all. There are plenty of things people swear by that I have no interest in, like spin class, juice cleanses and no-carb diets. If it's just not working for you, don't force it.
But before you swear it off, try this: when you wake up tomorrow, interlock your hands, stretch your arms towards the sky, keep your feet grounded, and take a few deep breaths. You just got a quick hit — and chances are, you'll want more.