Confessions of a yoga newbie

Chest lifted upwards in cat pose

I’m a runner at heart. I love a slow jog through city streets, country roads and trails, no matter the season, my dog Jasper at my side and music in my ears. It’s always been the thing that got me out of bed or up from my desk, the one exercise that lets me lose myself in thought while I exercise my body.

Two years ago, a ski accident left me with a knee ligament tear and surgical reconstruction that made me hang up my running shoes for many months. Though I still lace up my sneakers for an occasional run, it’s clear I need to mix up my exercise routine to prevent further wear and tear on weathered joints.

I’ve managed some half-hearted cycling, swimming and walking, but I haven’t found my new thing. I learned a long time ago that I wasn’t coordinated enough to handle the dance routines behind many gym classes. I always secretly worry I’m going to accidentally injure the person next to me in a tragic grapevine or sashay misstep.

Compounding all this is the fact that, like many working parents, my time for exercise is limited. As in virtually non-existent.

My husband travels a lot for business, so I often work solo to get our three kids off to school at 7:30. Half the time I’m driving morning carpool, so I battle traffic, potholes and forgotten lunchboxes until 8:15. And since my days are spent sitting at a computer, I know well the aches, pains and stiffness that can set in after hours of inactivity. I need an activity that can fit into an hour in the mornings before work.

Not so simple.

It occurred to me that yoga might be my new running. By “occurred to me,” I mean almost every person I know said, “Why don’t you try yoga?”

On the surface, this made good sense. After all, I own several pairs of yoga pants.

They are my clothing of choice for everything from airplane trips to watching television. That’s as close as I’ve gotten to yoga in my 43 years.

But I had some concerns. For one, since I don’t have a lot of time to exercise, I felt I should just focus on hardcore cardiovascular training. The kind that lets me dream about getting back into those favourite jeans. I know there are decades of scientific research to back up the value of weight lifting, core conditioning, stretching and muscle toning, but I still feel like I need to work as hard as I can in the 45-60 scant minutes a day I can budget for exercise.

Secondly, I struggle to see beyond yoga’s trendy qualities. I’m not a gluten intolerant, vegan, juice-drinking master cleanser. I do like to eat kale and quinoa, but I also love a good hamburger and occasional ice-cream cone. Several reliable (and impressively toned) friends reassure me this isn’t the case. One goes so far as to order a large Tim Horton’s iced cappuccino to show me she is capable of consuming and enjoying food items of questionable nutritional value. I’m impressed.

So I show up to my first yoga class wearing my favourite yoga clothing which is only now realizing – for the first time in years of use – its true purpose on my body. I feel healthy and vaguely self-righteous even before I stretch out on my borrowed mat. Is it possible I’m already a little slimmer? I start wondering what I can treat myself to for lunch as a reward for turning over this new leaf.

I quickly stop thinking about food as the instructor gently encourages us to move our body into positions with words like “tree” and “sun,” but which actually feel totally unnatural. Everyone in the class seems to know what she is talking about but me. She smiles gently at me. “You’re new at this?” And without waiting for an answer, she passes her hand lightly along the top of my head. Unconsciously, I stretch out to meet it.  “Good,” she reassures me. “You’ll get it.”

I quickly understand that strength without flexibility and balance doesn’t do you very much good in yoga.

By the end of the class, I am sweating. I’m no longer thinking about lunch. I’m too focused on how my strong runner’s legs can’t support some of these poses. I am humbled; I have work to do.

Suddenly it’s the end of the class and time for something called “savasana,” or the corpse pose, in which you are supposed to lie flat on your back, calm your central nervous system and relax your mind. I look at my watch, calculating how these extra minutes might allow me one more errand on my way back to my desk. But I’ve signed up for the full yoga experience, so I forget stopping at the dry cleaner and lie down on my back.

I try out the deep cleansing breaths recommended by the instructor, but that’s hard to do while I’m thinking about the report I need to finish and the proposal due by the end of the day. The audible breathing of the woman next to me is extremely distracting as I mentally outline a blog post and consider the shopping list for tonight’s dinner. It occurs to me that I’m probably not supposed to be irritated by savasana. This is depressing to me: I’m failing at yoga. My competitive spirit rears up. I don’t like being bad at things. I resolve to become excellent at yoga. My blood pressure races at the very thought.

I don’t think that’s supposed to happen.

People are getting up off their mats. The yoga class is over. I somehow missed that part. Did I, for one brief moment, experience something akin to meditative reflection? I’m not sure. I do feel somewhat more relaxed. My body has had a good workout, albeit different from the one I experience when running. I may even be able to skip my usual post-workout Advil. I buy myself a 10-class card on my way out of the yoga studio, but then I stubbornly stop at Timmy’s for a small iced cappuccino. I may need another pair of yoga pants.