I’m the Worst Yogini in the Room
I’ve never been very flexible, or very athletic. In elementary school, I was usually the last kid picked for any team sport (unless the “sport” was a spelling bee). I was a scrawny child, slow of reflex, weak of arm; a girl who would much rather be sitting under a tree, reading a book.
I’m still a bookworm, but I did discover the joys of exercise once I grew a little older. I jogged for years; I lifted weights; I love to swim.
But, being so not-flexible, yoga scared me. What if I was terrible at it? What if I looked stupid? What if I injured myself? Would they even let me try — whoever “they” are, the mysterious gatekeepers of yoga?
Well, long story short, I finally did try it when I was about thirty. And it was AMAZING. After my very first class, I felt…magical, almost. Like channels had opened up inside me, that I had never known were there. I called my brother (who had been practicing for a few years) and said, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I did,” he said. I could hear him smiling even over the phone.
That very first class was hard, too: I was the least flexible person in the room, and totally weak, and I knew I looked like a fool. But it FELT so good! I was hooked.
Fast-forward a couple of years, and I was looking for something more than the three-mornings-a-week beginner class offered at work. There was a yoga studio near my home which offered something called “Mysore” in the early mornings; I decided to give it a try.
Mysore classes are self-paced; an instructor is in the room, but the students arrive and just start practicing, doing the poses in order. The teacher walks around and gives adjustments and pointers.
Unless, of course, you don’t know the poses yet. Then the teacher stands with you and teaches them to you, one at a time, while you try not to look at all the crazy-flexible strong thin people practicing all around you.
Also, it’s hard. Like, out-of-breath-and-sweating hard (and not just from the 80-degree room).
I made it through my first day, having been taught maybe 10 percent of the practice. My arms were trembling and aching; my face was beet red; my hips and calves were screaming. This is way beyond me, I thought, but maybe I can do it once a week or so, and build up my strength…
“Okay, see you tomorrow,” said the teacher.
I gulped. “Tomorrow?”
“Yes, we practice every day except Saturdays and Moon Days.”
Somehow…I showed up the next day. And the next day. And before you knew it, I was a totally devoted Ashtangini. I practiced every day, except Saturdays and Moon Days. I took a travel mat with me whenever I left town and made sure my accommodations included a span of hardwood floor. I gained strength and flexibility.
And I was always the worst yogini in the room.
It took me about a year to even get my fingertips to the floor in a standing forward bend — much less my palms. My twists were not very twisty; my balances wobbled. And I never managed a smooth vinyasa — the jump back-jump through sequence between every Ashtanga pose that gives the practice its energy and flow.
But it didn’t matter. My body grew stronger and healthier, and nobody was judging.
That, in fact, was the greatest thing: yoga was not a competitive sport. At least, not in the community I found myself in. We all had different bodies, different levels of experience, different old injuries, different potential. I never felt judged in that room — or in the next room, after my first teacher quit a few years later; or in the room after that, when the new studio closed and we all had to find another. We were a great community, helping each other with poses when the teacher was busy, and gathering for potlucks every few months, where we’d joke about how different everyone looked with their clothes on.
I figured I’d do this practice forever.
Then I moved away, to a different city in a different state. I’d done my research, finding the city’s one Mysore Style Ashtanga room. I showed up once I got settled, introduced myself to the young teacher, and began practicing there, looking forward to getting to know my new community.
These people seemed a little less friendly, though; even among each other, I didn’t see the little greetings and mutual assistance my old crowd did. And if I’d find myself in the outer room at the same time as another student, they never introduced themselves, never even said hi.
After I’d been practicing there a few months, the studio’s floors were refinished, polished to a high gloss. They were very beautiful, and clearly the young teacher was very proud of them. He began to criticize my vinyasas, telling me to not knock my heels on the floor during my jump-throughs.
I said, “Yes, I have always struggled with this. Can you help me learn how to keep my feet up?”
He said, “Just don’t let them hit the floor.”
I tried. Reader, I tried.
We had basically that same exchange a few more times. Then he pointed out how I was marring the finish on the beautiful new floor, with my nasty, disobedient heels.
I stopped practicing there.
But see, the beauty of Ashtanga is that you can do it completely alone, at home. On your own hardwood floor, to your own schedule.
It’s nice to have a community, and it’s very helpful to have a teacher — but once you know the poses, you don’t need those things.
So I practiced at home, for several years.
Until the practice sort of started to…fall away from me. I got busy. I joined a gym and started doing other exercise; and who has time for an hour-plus of yoga in the mornings, if you’re also going for a swim later? My home practice shrunk to a fifteen- or twenty-minute routine of basically rolling around on the floor and waking my muscles up, then reaching for a big cup of coffee.
By the time the pandemic hit, it had been probably eight or nine years since I’d done Ashtanga. I’m older now. Heavier. Even less limber. All our hardwood floors are covered in rugs.
But there’s no gym to go to now, no pool, and my daily walks out to the mailbox just aren’t cutting it. So…after mulling it over, I pulled out the old cheat sheet and dove in.
Oooooh those sun salutations were hard. And…so were the rest of the poses. On the first day, I managed maybe twenty minutes, maybe a quarter of the practice. After two days, my arms were so sore, I worried I’d pulled something.
But it’s gotten a little easier every day. I’ve gotten a little stronger, a little more flexible.
I will probably never make it back to the practice that I used to do. I am, however, doing something resembling all the Primary Series poses now — at least, someone familiar with the practice would probably recognize what I am doing as a rough attempt at them. If they squinted.
I am now three weeks in. Tomorrow is Saturday: Ashtanga holiday. I forgot about Moon Days until I started writing this article, so I practiced yesterday. I am looking forward to tomorrow’s day of rest. My body needs it.
Yoga has taught me so much about my body, over the decades. About its limits, and its capabilities. I’ve learned how to tell the difference between a move or position that is uncomfortable but will be good for me if I push through it, and one that is injurious.
Even more deeply, I think, yoga has taught me a great deal about self-acceptance. Once I got past my initial fear, shame, and embarrassment about being so inflexible and weak, I began to delight in what I could actually do, and in seeing that ability grow with time and effort. I can stand on my head! (That took about five years to learn.) I can put my palms on the floor in forward bend! (Four years.) I can…well, okay, I can’t yet manage the vinyasas between every pose anymore (even banging my heels on the floor), but I have faith that I will get that back too.
And if I don’t? That’s okay too. Just doing the practice that I’m doing now has already made me feel so much better — physically and mentally.
Right now, I am the very best yogini in the room.