If I ever become that person who practices yoga every day, the kind who also drinks spinach smoothies and wakes up before sunrise, I will have achieved success in life. Three times, I resolved to make practicing yoga a daily habit. I swore that I would roll out of bed every morning and promptly bust out Shavasana and Kapotasana. Each time, I failed.
So, when I saw the Yogis at Yale class description for Wednesday and realized that we would be practicing our “baby grasshopper and headstand,” I got scared. I can’t even do a cartwheel, let alone a headstand. I had no clue what movements “baby grasshopper” entailed, but it probably required inhumane hamstring flexibility and impeccable balance, neither of which are qualities I am blessed with. I debated not going to the class, and just basing this article on interviews with Yogis at Yale members. But alas, I concluded that my dignity must be sacrificed for the sake of authentic, first-hand journalism.
I arrived at Slifka Chapel for the class wearing leggings and a sweatshirt, the most yogi-like outfit I could scrap together from my wardrobe. The room was huge. It had a wood-paneled floor, high ceilings, and windows that spanned the entire length of one wall. It was exactly what I imagined a yoga studio to look like.
Sharon Li, one of the six Yogis at Yale instructors, was sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat in front of the windows. Other yogis trickled into the room and proceeded to stretch on their yoga mats. I tentatively walked up to Sharon and introduced myself. It’s always safer to set low expectations of yourself, so I made sure she –and the other yogis in the class— knew that I was a “complete beginner.” She told me it was completely fine. She said all of us were at different levels, and that wherever we were, it was “exactly where we needed to be.”
Maybe if someone else had told me that, I would have rolled my eyes and left. But hearing it from Sharon, my unease thawed almost completely. Sharon is that rare kind of person who has a soothing aura, who manages to be encouraging without sounding pitifully consoling, the kind who makes you feel completely comfortable.
The class began at 5:30 p.m. I braced myself for the next hour of trying to keep up with the other nine yogis. We began by sitting cross-legged on our mats, focusing on our inhales and exhales. This part was easy enough.
Then we got into Child’s Pose, a position in which you spread your knees on the mat and lean forwards, so that your forearms and forehead rest on the ground. With all of us in Child’s Pose, Sharon asked us to raise our hands if we were beginners, so that she could also teach us easier variations of difficult moves. I raised my hand. I couldn’t see if anyone else did because my head was smashed onto the mat. This was yet another subtle way in which Sharon made us all feel comfortable.
Then we were instructed to get into Table-Top Position. I obviously had no clue what that was. But thankfully, Sharon walked us through every move. In a couple of short sentences, she told us where to place each limb, giving pointers like, “Make sure your shoulder is above the palm” and, “Press into the fingers.” Following her clear explanation, I easily got into the pose. I aspire to speak that articulately. I wondered if giving concise explanations is part of the training for getting certified in yoga instructing.
Sharon walked us through the Downward-Facing Dog, Baby Cobra, Upward-Facing Dog and the Half-Moon, a pose where we balanced on one leg while holding our torso and other leg horizontal to the ground. Sharon said that we could hold onto one of the pink polystyrene blocks to stabilize ourselves. I used the pink block and felt relieved that most people were using it too. Once, I lost my balance and toppled off of my yoga mat. I looked around with a sheepish smile in case someone had seen. Nobody had. Everybody was completely focused on themselves.
Then Sharon said, “Nice job, yogis,” in her clean, calming voice. Being called a “yogi” made me feel like I was part of the class. Like I truly had a place there. I actually smiled of happiness while doing Downward-Facing Dog.
I was surprised when Sharon told us we were done with half of the class. It had only felt like ten minutes. We moved onto the dreaded headstand. Sharon gave us three options of increasing difficulty: the Rabbit (putting the crown of the head down and keeping knees on the mat), the Rabbit but with the feet on the ground and straight legs, or an actual headstand. Some yogis did headstands. Others, the Rabbit, and some even their own variations. I did the Rabbit.
When class ended, my joints felt stretched out, and my head was clear of thoughts. The other yogis also left the room looking visibly refreshed. I overheard one girl saying that she had looked forward to the class the whole day. The effect of yoga on me was almost magical- my to-do list for the day felt more manageable than it did just an hour ago, and I felt completely calm.
I also felt completely foolish. Foolish, for being initially embarrassed that I was a beginner. For being intimidated by the class and the other yogis. For believing that people who do yoga are health gurus, someone I could never be.
When I talked to Sharon later, she spoke (with some heat) about the commercialization of yoga today, which makes yoga seem like an exclusive activity for a “certain demographic, a certain class.” The image I had of yoga was that of a trend, or even an accessory, for celebrities, Youtubers and other accomplished adults who have their lives figured out. The westernization and commercialization of yoga appears to have obscured the original purpose of the practice, making it an ideal that seems unapproachable by common people.
But this is the opposite of what yoga is. Yoga originated in ancient India around five thousand years ago. There isn’t a consensus on what yoga’s goals are, but Sharon’s perspective is that it is a tool to cultivate inner peace. It’s a tool that can be useful for anyone. All you need to practice yoga is your body, and therefore it is accessible to everyone.
Yogis at Yale started with the goal of providing free yoga to all. There are daily practices with updates on their website. Classes are drop-in, so you don’t even need to register for it. There’s no commitment. Classes are for all levels.
Yoga makes you feel restored. It’s easily accessible here. So why not try it out? If you don’t have time, just try a ten-minute video by Yoga with Adriene (a Sharon-approved YouTube channel). But if you can, go to a Yogis at Yale class. There’s something quite captivating about doing Warrior Two with other yogis in a huge room with tall windows. If there is a simple, zero-cost way to feel good, why isn’t every single one of you doing it?
Contact Mao Shiotsu | firstname.lastname@example.org