Yoga for Skeptics

I’m as stressed out as the next person – if not more. But as we all know (or at least we should), stress is a subjective thing. What drives me nuts may not drive you nuts and vice versa. When pushed to the limits, some of us get headaches, others gain weight, others find themselves restless or struck with any one of the innumerable other stress-reactions we hear about every day. Despite all these variables however, one part of stress is universal – the need to cut it out (or at least down significantly)!

So what do you do when you hit your boiling point? If your natural inclinations are anything like mine, you contemplate which kind of cocktail goes best with cheese and chocolate (I like a nice, full-bodied red wine, personally), and dive right in. However, it’s time tested and true that we’d all be much better served to take care of ourselves in a healthier way. While this was always tough for me to believe, I realized (through experience) that being unkind to my body certainly wasn’t helping any. So since my early twenties (despite my occasional sinning spree), I’ve looked for ways to unwind while being kind to myself. While many methods of stress reduction have their benefits, I’ve found only one that’s guaranteed to release significant tension and leave me feeling grounded. That’s yoga.

I was never the patchouli-wearing, yoga-mat-carrying type, but back in college, as a lark I would take a class called candlelight yoga on Sunday nights. I did this pretty much because I was hung over from the weekend and the yoga instructor would burn incense and lead us through a guided relaxation at the end of the class. It seemed to me a great way to both end the weekend and start the week, though if I recall it correctly, we didn’t do much in the way of actual yoga except a few downward dogs and some stretching. Like most things in my early twenties, yoga was a phase, and a short lived one at that. I’d venture to say that as soon as I got a boyfriend, Sunday night yoga was replaced by dinner at his place – with special attention paid to dessert.

My next foray into yoga came (perhaps not surprisingly) when I moved to Los Angeles and was significantly shorter-lived. I knew from the instant I walked into class that it wasn’t for me. A bleach-blonde instructor who had undergone obvious plastic surgery greeted me as I entered the room and told me with a straight (and made up) face to take off my shoes before coming any further. Perhaps it was judgmental of me (no, it definitely was), but rather than comply, I turned around and left. How could I take yoga from someone who, in my mind, so clearly demonstrated its antithesis?

Yoga, in my mind, has always been about fostering (and strengthening) the mind-body connection. By getting perfectly in tune, first with your breath, then with your movement, you learn to tune out all outside forces and truly connect with your essence. To put it in less frou-frou language, you experience what it is to truly be present in your own body in the moment. Ideally, you should leave a yoga class feeling firmly entrenched in the moment, worked out and relaxed. At least that’s what I look for. What you look for may be something else, but if it’s related at all to a fusion of all that is you as an individual, I believe yoga is a great place to find it.

After the buxom blonde yogi, convinced me that all the yoga-types in Los Angeles were clearly missing this concept and I was somehow superior, I stayed away from the studio for several years. I tried just about every workout routine you can think of, from kickboxing to Pilates to classes called “chisel” that involved copious squatting and lifting heavy things. And I was in great shape (which probably kept my stress levels down), but I wasn’t at peace. Finally, it was the rigors of graduate school that led me back to the mat. The promise of connection has always been appealing to me (as someone who lives so much in my own thoughts) and I was hoping a little yoga would clear my mind and help me to focus.

Armed with my own mat this time (I felt it was showing dedication) I showed up for a Sunday morning power yoga class at my gym. I was surprised when the instructor (this time a handsome Australian) led us through some sun salutations and then put in a mix CD. The purist in me objected to this at first (I mean, how “LA” can yoga get), but the experience was priceless. As the room full of harried professionals (including myself) went through Sun Salutations (26 to be precise) with Bono crooning in the background (I believe “One” by U2 was first in the play list), we got into a flow. Suddenly, it was like the world outside didn’t matter at all (never mind the stresses of my thesis, my love life or what I was going to do to pay back all the debt I was going into to get my MFA). I was completely present in that room, along with the thirty or so other people around me. I had literally – even if only for the 90 minutes I was there – found peace!

The class gradually wound down and the instructor closed as he had opened — with three Oms. I knew as I stood and rolled my yoga mat that I’d be back.

That particular instructor has since left my gym, but I’ve found a new one I like even more. He fosters a spirit of acceptance wherein people of all levels can practice in the same room without fear of embarrassment or the need to compete. He encourages us to take breaks if we need to and to push ourselves when we feel able. And yes, he plays music. Perhaps that’s what makes us less focused on what we look like and more in the moment. And sure, it’s not traditional. But whatever it is, it works.

I still get stressed out, there’s no way around that. But I know that each Sunday morning, if I take the time out for myself, there is respite awaiting. I’m not a yogi, I haven’t changed my lifestyle (yes, I still love wine and chocolate and cheese), but I have opened my mind to the possibility that peace is possible. And I encourage you, no matter how skeptical you are of yoga culture and the sometimes silly people who are associated with it, to give it a try. You might be surprised. And if you can let go of any judgment of yourself and literally go with the flow, you’ll definitely be refreshed. What more could any stressed out person ask for?

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