Having a life that largely revolves around fitness, I've generally always known that yoga is a good thing. I have friends that do it and talk at length about how good it makes them feel, I read detailed articles about how it benefits people from all walks of life, from those suffering stress and anxiety to MMA fighters wanting to improve their performance, and I have in the past occasionally done it.
Something never quite clicked for me though. Unlike running, weight training or even a period of time where I really got into fencing, I've never found myself consistently going to a yoga class. Sometimes I'll be invited by a friend to one and I'll go along, but it's generally a one-off. I've never made a habit of it.
- Essential reading: The beginner's guide to yoga
And it's not because I don't understand the benefits. I know very well how it can help my running, my gym workouts and even help to protect my (almost) middle-aged body from injury.
However, despite all of that I've never quite found myself becoming an actual yogi, save for a couple of months going once a week to a Broga class β largely because there weren't any HIIT classes going on in the gym that morning.
Why have I never got into it?
For me, it's always been about priorities. I go to the gym most days because I want to build muscle. I go running two or three times a week because I want to maintain my speed.
Yoga for me is almost a secondary form of fitness. It doesn't specifically help with those two goals so in my head I generally think "I could go to yoga, or I could get another run or gym session in". Then I invariably opt for one of those options.
There's another reason as well, and something which I imagine is an underlying cause for people getting involved in any sort of new group activity: I generally feel quite out of place. By that, I don't mean that people are rude when I go to class but that whole world of yoga has always seemed to be something that I can't quite get my head around.
The names given to the movements, the format of the classβ¦ and also the fact that all my forms of workout generally have a very simple and quantifiable outcome, I either get faster or I get stronger. In yoga it's not about that β people talk about feelings and thoughts, yoga teachers explain the mindfulness aspects of practice. It feels alien.
Oh yeah, I'm also not very flexible. Put me in a CrossFit box, boxing session or on a climbing wall and I can pick it up straight away. Put me in a yoga class and I just don't feel like I can do any of it β but of course I imagine the same thought process could apply to people in the early stages of picking up one of my activities.
As I mentioned, I've done yoga a few times before. I know a fair bit about why I should do it and the benefits I'd get from it. The major hurdle for me is just doing it, and doing it consistently.
Get Sweat Go is all about helping people to take the first or next step in their fitness journeys. That might be a first marathon, a first walk into the gym, a first spin class or, for me, really getting to understand yoga. If you're interested, James from team GSG has been doing a similar project with the team over at CrossFit London β you can read that here.
My full-on journey starts with the popular London yoga studio, FLY LDN, where Head of Yoga Fi Clark rather kindly offered to take me on as a student. But before I started I thought I should probably have a nice chat with Fi about what I should expect from taking up yoga, as well as run through the kind of thoughts that had me questioning it before.
Do I need to buy a mat?
When it comes to running and fitness I know exactly what I need (and want), but when it comes to yoga I've never really known if there's any specific sort of kit I should start with.
At FLY LDN the mats are already provided and they're actually good ones, so nobody who comes to a class generally brings their own in β but Fi told me that's not always the case. In a lot of studios, the mats can be older or not that good quality. The main issue there is the mat sliding around under you.
Fi says: "If you're getting into it or if you're new I would suggest taking an overlay mat that's grippy. One of the worst things I've found is when studios have got bad mats because when you come into poses like downward dog you can really injure yourself β or you're activating the wrong muscles just to stop yourself slipping off the mat. It can give people a bad impression β it's like buying a pair of trainers that are too small and going for a long run"
Why do I find yoga so hard?
I remember being in a yoga class and attempting to hold a pose for a few seconds and thinking this is horrible, I'd much rather be doing a HIIT class or going for a run. That's probably one of the major factors that's stopped me from coming back to a class, and can actually be quite daunting when you're just starting out β especially when everyone else in the class seems to be able to do it easily.
According to Fi, that's completely normal. Yoga uses the body in a very different way from what people are used to and it takes time to adapt to the format of movements. Evidently by just going once every now and then I've always experienced the same things and never seen any sort of progression.
Should I practise at home as well?
I've never even contemplated doing yoga at home because I always feel like I'd end up doing it wrong without having a teacher there. Either that or I just put in a lame effort that isn't really helping me get the most from it.
Fi's tip for me was: "One of my biggest recommendations for people, whether they're just beginning or even if they're advanced is that if you spend a lot of time at a desk or if you're weight training β basically anything that forces muscles to come inwards - when you're at home watching TV, sit on the floor. Sit on a cushion, sit cross-legged, sit wide-legged - whatever it is just start to introduce different stretches into your everyday life and it will become a lot easier when you're doing yoga.
"Otherwise you're going straight from sitting for eight hours straight and then expecting your hips to be really open β it can be quite detrimental to your body to keep pulling it in different directions. Just make incremental changes to your daily life."
What kind of benefits can I expect?
As somebody that does a lot of exercise, I've always looked at yoga as something to help benefit those aspects of my training instead of something as a standalone activity. So I want yoga to have a positive impact on those things.
Fi says: "Yoga is very good as a counter exercise to weight or strength training because it gives you space to open out and give you mobility β especially for things like the shoulders. I've had people come to me that do CrossFit and they can't interlace their hands behind their back. So you can look at people and think they're really fit and healthy, but if you concentrate on strength work you compromise your flexibility and mobility.
"If you do both it will definitely impact the strength work, especially for people like runners and triathletes, giving them time to properly stretch the quads, core and the shoulders. It will improve your running form and your endurance."
What sort of goal should I have?
For someone focused on fitness goals, yoga has always been a tricky one for me to get my head around. Should I be trying to do a headstand? Should I be able to lift one leg in the air? Instagram largely seems to focus on impressive-looking yoga poses. But is that the right way to be going about things?
Fi says: "The reality is that with every single posture there's no endpoint, and that's the beauty of it β that's why it's more of a lifestyle for a lot of people, rather than there being an end goal. I wouldn't say 'I've come in to yoga to do this', because once you've done it you'll find there's more to go."
I also wondered if there was a pose I could use to measure how I'm doing in terms of flexibility and mobility.
According to Fi: "I would say something like pigeon for a hip opener. For a lot of people, they'll need to prop themselves up with a block on the mat so you can track progression as your hips and pelvis become level to the front and your hips lower to the floor."
Am I meant to keep looking up to see what the teacher is doing?
This is a big one and something I've always struggled with in a yoga class. Often I spend the majority of a class looking around or craning my neck to find out what the various words and phrases mean. The result is that I'm not feeling particularly relaxed and spend most of the practice just trying to work out what's actually going on β something that's not conducive to a calm and relaxed yoga session.
Fi says: "Well with beginners, I'm just happy that they've come to the mat. There's a lot to take in so I'd never expect anyone to be doing things at the speed I'm doing them. There's a lot going on, so even if they just get one simple alignment cue, the next time they come they can layer that on. People are very much visual learners. With beginners, there's a lot of looking up and looking around and that's just part of the process.
"Don't come into a class and see somebody who's a regular practitioner without remembering that they had a beginning point as well."
So with my questions answered and my fears slightly quashed I was ready to actually dive into yoga properly for the first time. Stay tuned for my next update after I've been to a few sessions.