I showed up to my first yoga class in the winter of 2015. Carrying the ancient blue yoga mat I’d bought with a workout video years before, I was relaxed, a little tipsy from a glass of wine with dinner.
For years people had told me, with exasperation and concern, that I should really try yoga, saying it the way my granny told 21-year-old me that I should try church, after I arrived home from college sporting Cookie Monster–blue hair. As a runner and a gym-goer, I’d always sniffed at the suggestion that I should partake in an adulterated form of an ancient practice that had been culturally appropriated and turned into an excuse to wear expensive stretchy pants.
Yet here I was, walking into a studio that reeked of lavender and patchouli, timidly signing the proper forms and unrolling my mat next to my friend Elise, who had invited me. Why? There were reasons, of course.
A few weeks earlier, I’d had a break-up. I was also struggling with my writing. One night I was grumbling about my life to Elise. She had listened, taken it all in, and then asked me if I liked myself. As I was struggling to come up with an answer—it was a question I’d never asked myself—I realized that I really didn’t.
I thought about what that meant, and how it explained so much of my life up to that point. I’d avoided yoga for so many years because I wanted to keep moving, to keep avoiding myself. I’d gathered that self-reflection was a key part of the practice, and I was sure that wasn’t for me. But my way wasn’t working.
I was miserable. When Elise invited me to a class a few weeks later, I decided I had nothing to lose.
We started out on all fours, swiveling our hips as the teacher, an energetic young woman named Brittany, advised us to “stir our pots” and learn how to kick our own asses “because if you don’t know how to kick your own butt, someone else will do it for you.” This was eyeroll-inducing, but I gamely did what I was told, trying to focus on my breathing.
I still had the faintest wine buzz, which kept me from feeling too self-conscious as I stuck my butt in the air. As we moved through the poses, it soon became obvious that yoga is about more than stretching and breathing. Maybe I should’ve skipped the wine, I realized, because I was sweating buckets and puffing desperately as my hands slid over my mat, failing to find any grip as I went back into downward dog, where my arm muscles were burning, and then chair pose, where my thighs felt as if they were on fire.
As I gasped, a nearby woman in her late sixties was going through the flow with absolute grace and not so much as a glimmer of sweat on her brow. Certain she was showing off, I sucked in another breath and listened to the instructor to distract from the pain. Brittany was yammering on about letting go of negative energy and clearing your mind, visualizing and embracing the positive. Maybe I was just trying to keep up with the graceful lady, but I actually started trying to do those things. It was weird, but it felt good.
By the end of class, when we were all in corpse pose—per Brittany, giving ourselves a moment of rest and peace before going back to the world—something had happened. I’d slowed down for a moment, letting myself just be present. Afterward I was a little calmer, a little kinder, a little more generous and forgiving both of others and myself. I glanced in the mirror, saw my sweaty reflection, and managed to smile at myself. I still rolled my eyes when the show-off started dabbing herself with a towel, but it was a start.
And, you guessed it: I’m now a full-fledged, wheatgrass-drinking, sun-saluting, fancy-mat-owning, harmony-loving, grateful, in-the-moment yoga person who saves the wine for after class—or at least, I try to be. I did thank Elise, both for calling me on not having a lot of self-worth and for introducing me to yoga. She asked if I liked myself now, and I didn’t hesitate before saying yes. Then we went shopping for yoga pants.