Can Love for Yoga Be Learned?

I really hate yoga...but it's too healthy not to do.

yoga
Cecilie_ArcursGetty Images

Perhaps I first decided yoga wasn’t my thing when, while attempting a one-legged standing pose during a Vinyasa Flow class, I lost my balance, tipping over onto my neighbor and causing a domino effect that toppled an entire row of lithe, previously-centered women. Or maybe it was when I tried Bikram and spent the entire class rearranging my place on my mat so as to avoid being dripped on by the very sweaty man next to me. It could’ve been a sign it wasn’t my thing when I signed up for a Yoga Nidra class that focused on savasana and guided meditation, then slept through the whole thing (so I basically paid $22 to take a floor nap under a dirty horse blanket). I almost called it completely when, in an act of desperation, I branched out to aerial yoga, then got red-faced and nauseous as the blood throbbed behind my eyes while I hung from a swath of fabric like a confused baby possum who accidentally emerged in the daylight.

Yet I persisted, signing up for prenatal yoga during my pregnancy, which was mostly just a bunch of hormonal goddess-monsters sitting in a circle and crying, then a few minutes of stretching that did little to relieve the aching rib pain that persisted through my second trimester. No matter what kind of yoga I’ve tried, at the end of each class when the rest of the group says “namaste,” I’m thinking “never again.”

I basically paid $22 to take a floor nap under a dirty horse blanket.

So why keep signing up for yoga classes when one after another seems to disagree with my very constitution? Because yoga is too healthy not to do, like declaring water “just doesn’t work for me.” Practicing yoga can lower your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar; help you lose weight and improve your body image; eat more mindfully; feel less anxious; and increase muscle strength and fitness, according to Harvard Medical School. (Though, to be honest, some of my motivation is not wanting to be left out of my girlfriends’ yoga-and-brunch plans anymore.) I keep trying because I’m convinced I’m just in a Goldilocks situation: the athletic, challenging forms of yoga are a porridge that’s too hot for me; the relaxing, restorative forms too cold. I either feel graceless and uncoordinated, or so bored I start mentally making my grocery list. If I keep trying different varieties of yoga, I reason, won’t I find one that’s juuuust right?

That’s why, on a recent trip to Hawaii’s Four Seasons Resort Lanai, I decided to not spend the entire time sipping Mai Tais in the lagoon pool, but to also check out their new 1,200-square-foot yoga studio (which happens to be on a cliff that overlooks the gorgeous coastline). First, I did the previously unthinkable and signed up for Sunrise Yoga (my early-bird baby is increasing my tolerance for being up before the sun). Outside the yoga pavilion, a half-dozen vacationers grabbed mats and laid them on the dewy grass, the view like a postcard. The lead yoga instructor for the resort, Will, had a John Slattery vibe and the kind of posture and long neck that really advertise the benefits of spending all day doing yoga, rather than my regular routine of hunching at a computer. He welcomed us to class and gave us a few minutes to get settled. I watched the sun coming up, painting the horizon in Easter egg colors, all pastel pink and orange and lavender.

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The view from the Four Season's new yoga studio.
Four Seasons Staff

“For the first decade I did yoga, I didn’t love it,” Will said, and I resisted the urge to raise my hand in solidarity. “But now I love it. You have to find the right teachers and what your connection is to it.” Huh. I’m not trying to be a yoga instructor, but his words made me hopeful that I could at least enjoy a class every few weeks. Then Will guided us through an accessible, mixed-level Hatha class that I could actually keep up with but still felt challenging. He gave a tiny adjustment, tilting my pelvis an inch or two forward in a lunge-like pose that erased all the tension from my lower back. Whenever my mind wandered, which it still sometimes did, he’d bring it back with a wise bon mot like, “You can never be bored in yoga because there’s always something to do: Check in with your breath or adjust your form.” I’d never thought about it like that before.

When Will told us, as most yoga teachers do, to focus on our breath, I noticed for the first time that the air was the same temperature as my skin. When he reminded us to feel the earth beneath our feet, another yoga staple, this time it felt revelatory, because the ground was literally right beneath my feet. (Well, right beneath my yoga mat, anyway.) Lying in savasana, whenever my to-do list popped into my head, I was able to redirect my attention to notice the birds chirping or the palm fronds clacking against each other in the breeze. At the end of class, I didn’t just want to bow and say “namaste” to Will—I wanted to give him a hug. It was the most physically and mentally enjoyable yoga class I could remember taking.

At the end of class, I didn’t just want to bow and say “namaste” to Will—I wanted to give him a hug.

Emboldened, I signed up for what the resort calls Zen Horse Yoga (after they assured me the yoga was near horses, not on them, which would’ve been too dangerous for me considering the aforementioned domino incident). At the resort’s stables a few miles upcountry, lined by a perimeter of Cook pine trees, my instructor Raj led me past mini horses, mini donkeys, and goats, promising this experience would be a lot calmer, with less chance of getting peed on, than what he’s heard about goat yoga. We walked to a wooden platform in the middle of the field, with a half-dozen brown and white horses milling around and eating from piles of hay. I was relieved to be up on a platform, so I could close my eyes when Raj suggested it without worrying about being trampled. Yet the horses were so calm, I started to understand why Equine-Assisted Therapy is increasingly used for people with disabilities and mental health issues; just being around them felt special and calming.

The Hatha yoga moves were my sweet spot: challenging enough for me to wobble, feel a stretch, and not fall asleep, but not so athletic that I felt a step behind the rest of the class like I had in Vinyasa or Ashtanga flow sessions. I also noticed that whenever I stopped paying attention to my body and started making a mental to-do list, it was easy to tune back into the moment through the sensory experiences: the gentle swish of the horses flicking their tails, the breeze in my hair, the warmth of the sun through my closed eyelids. Rather than being boxed in an urban studio that’s cut off from nature, where I try to turn off my senses so I don’t get a whiff of my neighbor’s B.O. or notice the sirens wailing on the street, I actually enjoyed focusing on what I saw, felt, heard, and touched.

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The writer’s fellow yoga-mates.
Sarah Z. Wexler

After all that yoga—okay, and Mai Tais—I boarded the plane home feeling more relaxed than I had in more than a year, before pregnancy and then my newborn kept my system on high alert. I spent all of takeoff trying to figure out how to keep the magic going at home. I’m glad I stuck with trying different types of yoga classes over the years. Now that I’ve found ones that were enjoyable, I liken it to how going on bad dates didn’t make me give up on men; I just had to keep trying until I found the one that clicked for me. So I was thrilled I’d found two yoga classes I actually enjoyed...but I was bummed because it’s not as though I can make yoga at the Four Seasons part of my daily practice, at least not until I win the Powerball.

Then it hit me: I can take my favorite part with me. At least when the weather is nice, I can bring my mat to my backyard and follow a Hatha routine on my phone, or I could sign up for a yoga class that meets in the park rather than in a busy studio. I’ll even be doubling up on my health benefits, because spending time outside can help with blood pressure, mental health, and even decrease your cancer risk. If “aloha” is a state of mind you can take with you when you leave Hawaii, maybe yoga is too.


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