My very first yoga experience was in my living room using a VHS tape featuring a chiseled instructor named Bryan Kest. Although I enjoyed just watching him with his deep super-sexy voice, when I did do the routines I marveled at how empowering the movements felt even though they were completely different from my usual heart-pumping aerobics. Years later, I would take yoga classes at my gym and gradually learn the language: tadasana mountain pose, utkatasana chair pose, downward facing dog, Warrior 1, 2 and 3, etc.
I’ve tried different types: power, hatha, vinyasa, hot yoga (personally I think this sweaty format is overrated but maybe because my internal body heat fires up quickly on its own) with various instructors…all good experiences. I credit yoga most with developing body confidence.
When I became a certified group exercise instructor and began teaching my own classes in 2008 (dance, step, and muscle but not yoga), I had less time to take classes. Fast forward to today and you’ll see that yoga is everywhere, developed for every ability and fitness need. If you can’t get to a gym, there are free full classes on YouTube and yoga subscription sites like YogaGlo, as well as live virtual classes. I feel comfortable enough popping into any yoga class even when on vacation, because at least half of the movements are always recognizable.
Soo…. when I found a new yoga class 5 minutes from home at a low-cost gym, I walked in with zero anxiety and flipped out my yoga mat in the front row. Paula, the instructor, was slim and delicate-looking with a really kind face: very non-intimidating. Humbling moment #1. That first class was the reason why I’m writing this post. These are some things that happened:
- Mid-way through the class Paula led us into trikonasana triangle pose. I smiled, as other yoga instructors have always complimented my form in this pose. “Beautiful” they would say as they watched me. But not Paula. As I lowered my twisted torso and one arm towards my foot, she immediately came to my side, lifted my torso, and placed my hand onto a block. Hola, blocks are for beginners or the very inflexible. I never use blocks in class! But she said my form was off. When my hand was secured on the block, she repositioned my torso so that I was able to twist more deeply and open my top shoulder. Huge difference.
- Throughout the class, we flowed through planks into downward facing dog. Another pose I have no hesitation about; you do it at least a dozen times in any yoga class. But Paula kept looking at me whenever my butt headed north. She adjusted my heels to be more square. She told me to walk my hands out further from my feet (I’d always prided myself on being able to keep my legs and arms perfectly straight and not too far away from each other). She said that my version was placing too much weight on my legs and not in the desired area of upper body/chest. The pose immediately became more challenging after her readjustments.
- Towards the end, we did several bridge poses to lead into full wheel urdhvadhanurasana pose. Again with confidence I threw myself into wheel, pushing my hips up with my arms, effectively attracting Paula’s attention. She made me come down and brought two blocks to my side explaining how I could injure my lower back. “Push weight into your chest not your knees; keep your feet parallel and not splayed to the side, to protect your knees.” And again, I felt the remarkable difference doing it with blocks but also with proper form.
Since that first class, Paula has continued to make many, many adjustments to my form. There’s absolutely no room for ego. Occasionally I hear another of her students balk at her guidance, saying his “body doesn’t feel as challenged” her way. She retreats when he insists. There’s not much you can do about ego. I realized that with all my years of yoga without hands-on instructors who were defenders of proper form—I really knew nothing. I needed to learn everything from the beginning with fresh eyes. Humbling moment #2. But I am improving, and I’ve never left Paula’s class with unnecessary pain, just some good day-after muscle soreness! Other things I’ve changed or learned in my practice:
- Now not just in Paula’s class but every yoga class I visit, I keep blocks near me and use them even when no one else does.
- Many yoga classes (like other exercise classes) have competitive spirits who try to outdo each others’ poses. I often close my eyes during poses to prevent distractions so I can focus on my movements alone, to challenge my body from where it was the last time.
- Now that I understand the important progression of pose to pose (the preceding pose warms you up for a next deeper pose, so that for example you should not just lift into wheel or Warrior 3) and the vital placement of your feet, hips, torso, arms, head, etc., I can see why there is a high rate of yoga injuries. Just one inch off can unnecessarily strain a supporting muscle and cause shooting pain the next day.
Yoga can be the most rewarding workout, mentally and physically, but trust your gut about the instructor’s style and depth of knowledge. They should be demonstrating form for each pose, and ideally coming to you to adjust your body if needed. To their defense, providing constant individual attention is tough in a large group because it can slow down the class. So you might look for a smaller class. Also, poses should be challenging but not overtly uncomfortable. If an instructor makes you do the latter and also isn’t watching anyone’s form = red flag.
Feel free to share any yoga experiences in the comments! I’m always curious to learn from other yoga journeys 🙏