March 28, 2008

Advice From Your Yoga Instructor

This guest post is written by Heather, who blogs at yet another blog you should be visiting! It's really very good.

I know you think you should try yoga.

You need to relax. Lower your blood pressure. Maybe your doctor told you so. Maybe to lose a few pounds.

I know you're not flexible. I understand you can't touch your toes.

I'll tell you what though - I like you a hell of a lot better than 20-year-old Missi Stretchy, the ex-high school cheerleader who is there to show me how flexible she is.

I love people who can't touch their toes. Want to know why?

I've been a yoga instructor for several years now. I started as a hardcore aerobics instructor, back when I was Missi. I kicked ass. I tried yoga. I hated it. A friend forced me to take another one. That one was better and soon after I started studying to teach yoga.

I was still young, I still kicked ass, but now I was kicking it through round after round of powerful sun salutations with extra push ups. I saw my arms tone up like never before while my students groaned. I ignored savasana - bah!

Then I got hurt. It wasn't an ankle twist or a rotator cuff suddenly and screamingly doing something it shouldn't. Studying a style that didn't focus on form and consistently pushing my flexibility led to overuse injuries that I still have today.

My sacroiliac joint was completely out of whack. My shoulders ached and I slouched. I had headaches that nothing could touch.

Then I discovered a different style of yoga, one that focused on basic alignment and letting your heart open to the practice. The theory being that if your body is optimally aligned, then every pose becomes endless. You can just enjoy it instead of struggling to hold it up. There's a life metaphor in there somewhere.

I learned a new way to align my body and use my muscles. My SI joint was out because I was so flexible and kept pushing splits and back bends. My shoulders ached because my shoulder joint was hyper-extended in down dog. By hyperextending my shoulders, I was clenching my trapezius muscles, turning them into iron bands that caused my headaches.

Yoga is a balance of strength and flexibility. Missi’s don't listen when I cue them to try something differently, because to do so would force them to back off for just half a second.

If you tell me you're not flexible, I'll tell you that learning yoga will be easier for you because you have built-in stability. You just need to coax your muscles into letting go a little.

Learning to draw back from flexibility and build the strength you need to safely practice even basic yoga poses requires not being the most flexible, bendy person in the class.

Getting over the competitive spirit of comparing yourself and coming out on top in the flexibility game is way harder.

If you tell me you don't have time, I’ll tell you that you probably need to be there more than anyone. I don't practice poses every day, but in my book even remembering to back away from your desk and stretch and breathe for 5 minutes counts as yoga.

If you don't know where to go, most places will let you try a free class. Look in the phone book or gasp! use the Internet.

If you don't enjoy the class, YOU'RE NOT IN THE RIGHT CLASS. There are hundreds of different styles from restorative to power. If your brain is resisting what you're doing for the entire duration of the class and you come out more exhausted or agitated than when you went in, something's wrong.

If you don't click with the teacher, FIND ANOTHER. Ask questions. Some use music, some don’t. Some have grating voices. But someone teaching at a studio where you pay $20 per class isn’t necessarily better than the teacher at your gym where classes are included as part of your membership. There are good and bad instructors everywhere.

I bet you're stressed because you've been meaning to try yoga for ages now, and it's just one more thing on your to do list.

Don’t worry about it. It will still be there.

If you’re a Missi, don’t take this personally - just be willing to listen next time you take a class.

And to answer that other burning question, yes I heard it and I knew it was you when you farted on your mat the other day.


  1. Thanks for the tips!
    I've always thought of yoga as something that I was too unflexible to try, but maybe it's time for a change :)

  2. I actually have a flyer on my bulletin board for a free five session yoga start up at the local library. I was hesitent to call. Watch me run to the phone. Thanks for this!


  3. The Bag Lady loves yoga. She's just too freakin' lazy to start again... Maybe, though, if she bought a new DVD, she could get back into it. She's perhaps a little bored with the DVD she was using. Note to self - buy new yoga DVD!!

  4. I take a Pilates class with a friend who is, well, "of my generation". We do have a couple of stretchy children in the class and I do TRY not to compare myself. Fortunately my friend is there to support me and vice versa...


  5. Heather, I wish we lived in the same city....... I would love to take your class! Thanks for the inspiring post, I've been wanting to give yoga another shot for awhile now and haven't taken the time to do it.


  6. Like the Bag Lady, it is time for me to get back on the mat. The thing I like about DVD's, the instructors can't hear me fart on the mat ;)

  7. Wow, double exercise session, Terrie! Running to the phone /and/ signing up for the classes. That's the best way to make sure things get done, do them right away.

    Bag Lady, you reminded me of that book 'yoga for people who can't be bothered.' Definitely sounds like time for a new DVD.

    (Heather -- do you recommend DVDs as well as classes? Any favorites?)

    Missicat, I know it's hard not to compare yourself with others in a class. (Or on a DVD for that matter.) Sometimes I wish class instructors provided blinders so I won't get distracted by comparing myself to fellow students.

    ThickChick, it is hard to know where/how to start. I think I'll check the rec center or the Y to see if they have classes. Can't hurt to look :)

  8. Reb, have you tried taking classes as well as DVDs? I ask because it just occurred to me -- I know with Pilates, "they" say you should try to take a class to make sure you're doing the positions correctly. I wondered if yoga was similar. (I know little about Pilates, and much less about yoga!)

  9. I have to say:
    All this talk is making me rethink my 'position' on yoga ;)

  10. Great discussion all!

    Go Terrie! I hope you enjoy your classes.

    Bag Lady and Merry - I can recommend some of my favorite DVDs for you. I like Bryan Kest for a power series. Seane Corn gives great instruction and focuses a lot on breathing. Desiree Rumbaugh is one of my absolute favorite instructors and she has two brand new videos out in a series called Yoga to the Rescue. I haven't seen them, but she has been one of my primary teachers and I would highly recommend her to anyone.

    Merry is also absolutely right that if you primarily do a DVD 'tis helpful to take a class every once in a while so the instructor can check your form. And sometimes the instructor will say something that will just click for you and from then on that pose will never be the same.

    Thickchick - a great place to find classes is through your community or local colleges - and a lot of times you'll see the same instructors teaching at studios and at rec centers - especially if you're in a small to mid size town.

    Missicat - Just remember that what they might have in flexibility, you have in life experience =)

  11. Is Sun Salutation the same as Cobra?
    I do a few yoga stretches each morning. Makes a wonderful difference.

  12. Fabulous post, Heather. Really. But now I have to admit I'm a Missi. I'm actually really embarrassed about this. I'm not so much about being competitive with other people but am totally about relying on my flexibility and not on strength or good form. I so need you as a teacher. My teachers at the Y (God love 'em) don't ever correct. I think they got certified in a weekend class for 50$. And your line about the splits and backbends? So me! I do them every day. Should I stop?? I don't have any pain... yet.

  13. Twenty-four years of yoga, here, and still wobbly!

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  14. Heather -thanks, will remember that! :-) Actually I feel great when I compare myself to me when I first started Pilates - I have come a long way and can do things that I never thought I would be able too. yay me!


  15. Great post!

    I go to a yoga class at the local branch of my mass market gym, but the instructor is fantastic. She makes corrections to a number of us, but I suspect more with those that actually respond to them or appreciate it (I thank her every time she corrects me).

    I guess you could say I have "Missi-like tendencies", not so much that I compare myself or compete with others, but in that I always try the advanced option first.

  16. Yoga For Inflexible People- Amazon has it. Boring because it's extremely detailed in describing correct positioning, excellent instructor has the ability to tell you how to "feel" in your body that something is correct (I'd think better than books etc. if you can't get to an instructor). Also has alternative positioning with blocks and blankets and chairs. Can choose degree of difficulty and length of guided workout, plus choose areas to work (shoulder, hips, etc.).

    I'm going to check out the other references posted here, thanks!

    AND, not least, WONDERFUL, wise post, great tag line, thanks for the inspiration! :D

  17. Thanks for the suggestions, Heather. Have to go to town tomorrow, so will look for those DVDs!

  18. Hooray for yoga!

    I've been practicing for about 5 years now and am amazed at the difference it has made in my life (even when my practice is periods of weeks where I mentally reflect on how much I enjoy going to class . . . without making it out the door to go enjoy it physically, too).

    The difference was so profound that my husband and parents all decided to give it a try and now regularly practice, too - and my dad has done little exercise beyond biking and snowshoeing for 30 years . . . it got him to break into something new and he's found an amazing inner strength that he puts to good use as a piano technician when he's fixing pianos! Thanks for shedding a fresh light on such an amazing activity/philosophy.


  19. I just want to say that I'm really enjoying these guest posts. Can you do cross country moves more often?

  20. Ah, you say that now, TB-M, but in another day or so you'll be missing Miss Crabby! (Actually, you'll probably start to miss her tomorrow: I'm doing the Random Friday by myself and it's Just Not The Same. I'm glad she's getting a blog vacation, but it will be great when she comes back.)

    These are all good comments. Heather, I think you've hit a subject that lots of people want to know more about.

  21. Thanks all! Glad you enjoyed it...

    Leah - cobra is usually part of sun salutations although I usually try to warm up my students before I have them add it in.

    Charlotte - the best advice I could give you would be to try out a few different classes. Not drop the Y but maybe explore some different teachers. Splits and backbends are great - as long as you do them properly. Hands on adjustments can make a huge difference and can help you figure out if you're alignment is good.

    TK brought up a great point with using props - there are some excellent books and videos that explore using props both for beginners and to make poses more advanced!

    Brianna - good for you for getting the family 17mo old and I do yoga together but as of yet I haven't convinced my husband...I won't rest until he's taken my class =)

  22. I love this post because I'm one of those non-yoga people who would just assume the class was for the Missi Stretchy's of the world, not us unflexible, wobbly folks. Were I brave enough to even go I'd hide in the back, hoping not to get in the way.

    Great to hear from the instructor's perspective.

  23. Great post, and great advice to try different classes until you find one you like. They seem to vary so much, and just because two things are both advertised as "Yoga" it doesn't mean that the experience is the same, or even close.


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