Beginning Yoga! (and my personal practice journey)

"How do I get started in yoga? I'm not flexible and super scared to do a class. How did you get into it?"  I get this type of question very often, and I love answering it because yoga is one of my favorite ways to move (and I love that others want to try it!)

Yoga has always been more of a physical practice rather than emotionally/mentally as it is for some people.  This is not a bad thing, and it's important to enter your practice knowing that it's ok if the meditative element doesn't click at all (or, you don't think it has.) After now having practiced for ~6 years, I understand that regardless of my intentions, I am so much more capable of staying present in all aspects of life.  

My very first class was at a donation based studio in Santa Monica, CA.  My best friend/roommate had been going for some time and I figured I'd join her for fun.  Prior to this my concept of yoga was so warped.  Having been an athlete for so long (cross country, track, rugby) I imagined all forms of yoga to just be deep breathing and stretching, leaving me with a "wasted" hour because I'd still crave a good sweat later on.  Yeah, I was very very wrong.  The whole experience was incredible, and it probably helped that the instructor was world-renowned (his name is Tamal Dodge, who now owns a studio in Venice, CA, and travels the world to share his gift of teaching.) Through this first class (followed by several more drop-ins) I realized how dysfunctional my body was in terms of flexibility and static strength.  Sure, I could squat 145lbs for 6-8 reps, but I couldn't stand in warrior 2 for longer than ~20 seconds without shaking/wobbling.  What a strange and wonderful experience to find a form of exercise to which my body had never learned.  In just those few classes, I was hooked. 

If you want to get started in yoga, just... GO.  

My first few classes I fumbled through and had to look around at others, trying to mimic the moves.  It will be awkward but only for you. Literally, no one cares what you're doing on your mat.  Everyone is engrossed in their own practice, and most people barely realize other people are in the room. If you want to try yoga, TRY YOGA.  You don't need any equipment and you can show up and rent a mat at most studios.  I'd actually recommend this, because buying a cheap mat may deter from your initial experience. Having a high-quality mat with good traction (my go-to is Jade Yoga Mats, but everyone has their own personal preference) can really make a difference in your postures. You don't need any experience to do a beginning or all-levels class. You don't need the latest lululemon pants, or mat cover, or yogitoes slippers. You just need an open mind and a place to lay a (rented or purchased) mat. Do a little search or ask around regarding people's favorite yoga studio in your area; you'll want a place that's affordable (admittedly this is hard) with a down-to-earth attitude.  If you're in the Philly area, my favorite studios are Dana Hot Yoga and Dhyana Yoga.  Low key with fantastic teachers! 

Explore a variety of classes and find your favorite style--

Anyway, after my first taste of yoga, I then wanted to explore all forms of it, to see which one i liked best. I went to vinyasa yoga, power yoga, bikram yoga, yin yoga, asthanga yoga, you name it, I tried it at least once.  Vinyasa was definitely my favorite, so it's usually what I practice.  Some people absolutely LOVE Bikram yoga and the heat really does it for them, but it's just a little too much for me. There are benefits to every form, so practice the one you enjoy (and this won't be the same for everyone.)  

Shortly after starting my practice I moved to a small suburban town in Pennsylvania for medical school.  In hindsight, I'm so thankful yoga was already in my life prior to starting this very overwhelming journey into medicine. Only when I started practicing regularly in the midst of my studies did I appreciate the mental and emotional benefits of yoga.  My intentions didn't change-- I loved showing up to classes and trying different fancy arm balances and inversions, but by practicing consistently I had a personal escape from books that left me so rejuvenated.  If any of you find yourself in Greensburg, PA.. do yourself a favor and go to Moonglow Yoga.  Such a sweet group of teachers who really challenged the growth of my practice! I miss that studio SO much. It was my saving grace during the first two years of school. 

You can watch my interview with AllHeart Scrubs, partly regarding how yoga has helped during my medical training, HERE.  

Not until ~2 years into practicing yoga did I even attempt an arm balance or headstand.  There is this fantastic instructor at Moonglow who would walk us through crow pose, and I initially had no interest in it. I just assumed I couldn't.  I had never done gymnastics, and despite my body mechanics/balance improving dramatically, I just thought I'd never be one to try it (assuming I would continue to fail.)  Then one class I just decided to go for it, and actually held it for a couple seconds. IT. WAS. AWESOME. I felt so rejuvenated by doing something so playful!  That's really what arm balances and fancy inversions are to me-- play time.  You feel like a child learning how to walk; You're doing something that is seemingly so difficult but in reality it's just FUN.  Advancing your practice by doing difficult postures is actually more mentally beneficial than anything.  I'm not truly focused on the present moment until I'm upside down balancing on my forearms trying to put wrap into eagle legs (I mean, really, try to think about deadlines in a time like that.)  There are yoga purists out there who think focusing on advanced postures is all for ego, and shouldn't be "goals." I understand this concern, but realize I truly find both peace and excitement in accomplishing difficult postures.  

Don't ever let anyone tell you your practice is "wrong." You get from yoga what you want- whether that be physical, mental, or emotional.

Halfway through medical school I wanted a more cost-effective way to practice yoga and felt ready to do a home practice.  I turned to social media for yoga inspiration and fell in love with yogis like @laurasykora, @yogagirl, and participated in @beachyogagirl's winter yoga pose challenge.  Some naysayers will hate on social media and yoga, stating that it's "commercialized" and "ruins the intentions" of yoga.  How rude.  I can personally say that by connecting with talented yoga teachers around the globe, I was able to practice at home, affordably, and grew leaps and bounds both physically and mentally.  As a disclaimer, it's important that if trying difficult/new postures at home, you do them safely and as instructed.  You should be well warmed up before jumping into your first titibasana and you shouldn't get frustrated if you still can't do a press handstand (I surely still can't.. and I've been practicing for 6 years.)

For home practice, is where it's AT.

Also, if you're starting with or switching to a home practice,  I really encourage you to still do online full-length classes.  Doing isolated challenging postures is really hard when you lose the benefits of full-flow practice.  My absolute #1 recommendation for online yoga is  The variety of classes you can find, both by style and level, is insane!! Kathyrn Budig's classes are by far my favorite on there. I survived 3rd/4th year rotations on the road, jumping from hospital to hospital, with yogaglo to use when i needed a good class. You can do a 2-week trial for free, then it's very well priced per month (WAY cheaper than studio classes that's for sure!) I know others will recommend codyapp, but I don't have much experience with it. 

I used to be embarrassed by posting yoga pictures and videos, but realized that by doing so, many others out there were interested and encouraged to start a practice.  That's why I continue to document poses on social media; my whole purpose of engaging is to encourage wellness and health. Yoga embodies all that I believe in. 

I used to be embarrassed by posting yoga pictures and videos, but realized that by doing so, many others out there were interested and encouraged to start a practice.  That's why I continue to document poses on social media; my whole purpose of engaging is to encourage wellness and health. Yoga embodies all that I believe in. 

So how's my practice these days? Consistently inconsistent.  With frequent changes in my schedule, work load, and time of day that I'm working, it's difficult to fit in a very regular practice with any modality. Additionally, despite my love for yoga, I still value other forms of exercise and know they're good for me too! I do at least 3 plyometric-based workouts a week (lots of jumping, bounding, weighted stuff, dynamic pushups etc) and 1-2 HIIT sessions either running outdoors or on a bike. Since none of my workouts last longer than 30 minutes, I almost always add a short 20-minute yoga flow to the end of workout for flexibility and balance training. A couple times a month I'll pay for a drop-in class at a local studio, and another couple times a month I'll do an online full length class.  After years of practice, I've found the parts and methods of yoga that benefit me the most, and make them a priority to do regularly (even if it's inconsistent.)  I'm so incredibly thankful for finding a practice that's enriched my life and kept me grounded through my medical training.  Yoga for you may be a different experience entirely, but I can promise that if you commit, it will be transformative. Don't be shy now, Namaste :-P

Love Always,

Shanny, D.O.