As I stretched back into downward facing dog, I could see a neatly aligned row of sorority girls from between my legs.
While I flowed through a sequence of asanas, I remained transfixed on the other bodies reflected in the three-mirrored walls of my university’s yoga studio. I could not help but stare at the toned, tight bodies of these women wrapped in Lululemon gear that I could never afford.
On their brand new Gaim mats, they exhibited the flexibility of former cheerleaders and the cool composition of practicing in an icebox while I sweated, shook, and swore on my mat, stained with the footprints of hundreds of sun salutations.
“Remember to breathe,” my instructor implored, “do not pay attention to anybody but yourself.”
While I committed to the physical act of yoga, pushing myself to practice nearly everyday, I ignored the more significant commitment to the philosophy and principles of yoga.
Nearly a year later, I no longer practice yoga this way. I have slowly learned to commit my daily time on my mat completely to myself, instead of getting distracted by other’s seemingly more advanced yoga practice.
I had always loved the physical effect yoga had on me, but was not yet aware of what the spiritual side of yoga could do for my mindset and even my body image.
Jealousy over bodies, ability, and even yoga gear, opposes the fundamental values of yoga. Yoga reverses our ordinary outward flow of energy and consciousness and brings it back inward. Through breathing (pranayama) and meditation (dhyaan) as self-discipline, yoga connects our minds and bodies.
As a moving meditation, yoga is a physical activity and it can be a workout. But though yoga requires and builds strength and flexibility, unlike fitness, yoga cultivates a unique awareness that will make a body and mind more flexible.
My misguided belief that yoga could be a sport or competitive in anyway, kept me and keeps many other new yogis from reaping its full benefits.
When practiced correctly, yoga not only improves your flexibility, builds muscle strength, and perfects posture, but it can prevent cartilage and joint breakdown, protect your spine and bone health, increase blood flow, drain your lymph nodes, boost immunity, up your heart rate, drop your blood pressure, regulate your adrenal glands, lower blood sugar, improve your balance, maintain your nervous system, release tension, help you sleep, improve lung function, prevent digestive problems, and ease pain.
Since I have begun practicing, I sleep better and feel better than ever before in my life. Yoga has boosted my self-esteem and body image on top of its physical benefits. Plus, it almost always helps to alleviate some of my stress and anxiety.
But how did I develop from a frustrated and inflexible beginner to a wholly devoted yogi? From one yogi to another, here’s how I overcame the negative body image and jealousy that kept me from receiving the full value of my practice, and how you can too:
A Change of Scenery
For me, practicing at YogaWorks (an LA yoga studio) as opposed to just at my university, made a huge difference. I had more class options, more instructor options, a diverse community of students, and best of all, no more mirrored walls to remind me of my messy hair, or how weird I look while doing a shoulder-stand.
When looking for a studio, shop around! Most places will let new students try their first class or even first week of classes for free. Also many studios offer student discounts, if you're a student like me.
Wear Whatever Makes You Comfortable
The Lululemon uniform of a strappy sports bra and tight capri leggings isn’t comfortable (or affordable) for everyone, and you do not need to submit to the pressure to buy expensive yoga wear.
Whether you wear a T-shirt and running shorts, sweats, harem pants, spandex, or yoga pants, wear as much or as little as you can get comfortable in, as long as it does not constrict your movement.
It is, however, easier to relax when you are not worried about the hole in the butt of your oldest yoga pants, or sweat stains on lighter colored clothing. I personally recommend the cheaper athletic wear from H&M or Forever 21.
Try Hot Yoga
I used to feel incredibly self-conscious about getting sweaty in a particularly challenging class, until I tried hot yoga or Bikram. Some studios like to turn up the heat for “hot yoga” classes to encourage flexibility and help students to delve deeper into postures. Hot yoga can also feel more difficult but encourage weight loss.
One of the things that I have come to love the most about this heated practice is the solidarity I feel when everyone around me looks just as sweaty, red faced, and challenged as I do.
Find Your Level
When I first started yoga, I only had access to mixed-level classes and I often tried to push myself to match the students around me, who clearly had more experience than me.
Once I joined a studio with leveled classes, I had an easier time finding classes that fit my needs and my ability and worried less about what those around me were doing.
If you are a new student, start with a level one or introductory class. Regardless of how strong, flexible, or in shape you feel, yoga has specific challenges.
Vinyasa Isn’t for Everyone
The faster paced Vinyasa or Cardio Flow yoga class has become one of the most popular types of yoga and my personal favorite. With most poses lasting just one inhale or exhale, Vinyasa yoga makes it easy for students to link their breath and leaves little room for distraction or outside thoughts.
However, these physically demanding classes do not work for everyone. Do not feel pressured to partake in a Vinyasa class if you cannot stay focused during it. Slower restorative or yin classes provide the same benefits; you can always get your cardio workout outside of yoga.
Find a Class with Mixed Ages
While taking yoga at my university, I found myself surrounded by 18-22 year olds. This changed when I joined a studio and noticed that some classes had a significantly wider age range.
Just last week, I placed my mat next to a woman about the same age as my grandmother and she reminded me of yoga’s longevity. Alongside my 20-year old physically able body, she easily kept up with the instructor.
Mature students practice to serve their bodies, not compete with their classmates. These classes remind me that I want to use yoga to serve my body for years to come, not just have a nice body during college.
Breathe Above All
“Inhale, root down to rise up. Exhale, samasthiti.” A common beginner’s mistake is to ignore the breathing instructions that accompany poses. But every movement in yoga should be guided by your breath. Whether ujjayi or lion’s breath, breathing should come first. If you ever find that you have lost your breath, take a break until you can come back to it again.
Find a Mantra to Chant
Your yoga instructor may lead you in an Om at the beginning or end of your practice. But if you have trouble focusing or get distracted by jealousy or body image during the Om, it may help to integrate a mantra or affirmation during your practice.
Usually mantras have two parts, one for each inhale and one for each exhale, that you can mentally repeat each time you breath. Some examples include: “I am centered (inhale) and grounded (exhale).” “I surrender (inhale) to this moment (exhale).” “I am connected to all (inhale). I am a part of it all (exhale).” Or simply “Let (inhale) go (exhale).”
If none of the aforementioned suggestions are enough for you, or you simply cannot find or afford a studio, I recommend practicing in the privacy of your own space. YouTube Yogis like my personal favorite Lesley Fightmaster’s Fightmaster Yoga offer a variety of free, online, guided yoga.
I use these videos when I do not have time to go to a class but they also provide the opportunity to practice without judgment or comparison to other students. However, an in-person instructor can keep an eye on your safety.
Yoga is a personal practice, every body is different and you know yours better than anybody. Listen to your body, learn how to adapt the poses to fit your needs and become okay with it.
But finally, yoga is a lifelong practice. You don’t need to master a handstand or even lotus pose in a day or a year. Try not to get frustrated with your current abilities because you have your entire life to keep working at it. Yoga is a journey, not a destination.