I’m in a warm room full of people, sitting cross-legged with my hand on my heart. My yoga instructor is on the mat in front of me, leading the group through breathing exercises. On the exhale, we chant: I am.
If you’d told me 40 days ago that I’d be doing this in all seriousness — and actually enjoying it — I might’ve laughed at you. But here I am, after practicing yoga every day for 40 days, and I feel like a new person. I am calm and grounded.
I had recently moved to an apartment in walking distance to a yoga studio, and I’d decided it was time to make my haphazard, once-in-a-while practice more regular. The only thing keeping me from doing so was the fear that, after putting yoga on the backburner during school, I would go to the classes and, surrounded by seasoned yogis doing all kinds of poses, feel exposed, inadequate, and foolish.
I knew the only way to get over my anxieties about practicing yoga — one of the few exercises I knew I really enjoyed — was to dive into it headfirst, and by honoring a commitment to myself. When I saw my yoga studio advertise a 40-day yoga challenge, I put my name down on their sticker chart (yes, we all giddily put moon and star stickers on a chart for each day completed) and got to it.
Here’s what I learned after completing 40 consecutive days of in-studio yoga:
There isn’t just one type of “yoga body.”
One of my yoga instructors talked a lot about how the yoga industry perpetuates a false image of what a “yoga body” is. While yoga magazines and videos tend to show yogis with slim, lean physiques in contorted poses, this is just not indicative of yoga practitioners at large. Every class I attended was full of people of all ages and sizes. I was just as likely to have my mat set up next to a woman or man in their sixties as I was someone my age. Seeing the diversity in people’s bodies and all they could do made me realize you don’t need to look a certain way to do yoga.
Breathing exercises are no gimmick. They’re exceptionally healing.
I must admit, when I first started yoga, I didn’t really think breathing exercises could be that beneficial. I just wanted to get a good workout in my hatha classes, and breathing came secondary. I learned fairly quickly how backwards this approach was. While yoga is super healthy for your body in a physical sense, it’s also incredibly balancing for your mental state. I’m an anxious person, and incorporating breathing exercises into my life through yoga classes (and now at home) has calmed me in a way that no other coping mechanism has.
You’re going to mess up or feel silly, and that’s okay.
I’m someone who worries about messing up or looking foolish in front of other people, but yoga has helped me reconcile the fact that sometimes it’s just bound to happen, and that’s okay. During one of my hot yoga classes, I felt a debilitating cramp in one of my legs. I wrestled with this for a few moments, thinking I could just push through it. But I remembered how the instructors, before each class, encourage us all to take a break when our bodies are giving us signals to stop. I paused and took a sip of water, knowing the cramp was likely a sign of dehydration. This sort of thing happens all the time in yoga classes, and I found there’s a mutual understanding among teachers and students that everyone has their own bodily limitations and needs from day to day, so it’s important (and not embarrassing!) to honor them.
You’ll start caring about things you didn’t pay much attention to before.
I knew yoga would encourage me to take care of my body through proper rest and nutrition. But what I didn’t expect was that I’d start to care more about my consumption in other ways as well. I started buying from organic skincare and cosmetic companies. I even bought yoga leggings made from recycled plastic bottles. They’re more comfortable than they sound!
You’ll practice more self-compassion.
I’ve struggled with body dysmorphia for most of my life. I often feel that I’m much bigger than I am, but yoga has helped me be kinder to myself when I look in the mirror. While it’s still an uphill battle, I find myself scrutinizing my thighs less and instead feeling proud of how my body exhibits my newfound capabilities — my shoulders are stronger from doing all those sun salutations, and it shows!
Yoga doesn’t have to be so serious.
One of the most refreshing things I’ve found about yoga is that, while my instructors and fellow students are totally engrossed by yoga as a lifelong practice, they still manage to make it fun. My favorite instructors are the ones who take time to relate stories about their own days or tell jokes to make difficult poses a little more bearable. One of them even treats us to hip hop playlists on Friday nights.
While it may not be practical to hit the yoga studio every day after completing the challenge, I now realize yoga doesn’t have to be such an intimidating feat — it’s really just a way to feel good in body and mind, even if it’s just for 10 minutes on your mat at home.