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World Yoga Day: Journey of an accidental yogi

Ennui made me turn to yoga, for the first time in my life, during the pandemic. Now I’m set to take my first Yoga Teachers Training course in Rishikesh

Online yoga has helped many get into a regular practice
Online yoga has helped many get into a regular practice (Tim Samuel/Pexels)

This is my journey from yoga noob to heading for a yoga school, as the pandemic raged on. Until June 2020, I didn’t know the first thing about yoga. The following month, though, to quell growing feelings of restlessness, I started learning yoga by watching YouTube videos. What began as short 10-minute sessions grew in intensity to hour-long routines by March, and in April I decided I was ready to take it to the next step by doing an advanced course. In August, I will be headed to Rishikesh to join a 200-hour, month-long Yoga Teachers Training course at a residential yoga school.

How did I get there, all during a pandemicwhile being stuck at home? It started in June last year. I was living at the time in Gangtok, on my own, in a house that overlooked the beautiful cloud-speckled Rey Valley. Everything, except kirana and medical stores, had been closed since March. My long solitary walks up the winding hill road to Rumtek Monastery were a thing of the past. I had last seen my friends in Feb and last shopped in Lal Bazaar in Jan. Now I only stepped out to get groceries once a week and hurried back home and took a bath.

Three months of living like this and I was jaded. I needed a break. That’s when a friend suggested I try yoga. She sent me a 10-minute beginner yoga tutorial by American yoga instructor Sarah Beth, who runs a very popular YouTube channel and yoga app. It set things in motion.

Well, almost.

The first few weeks I wasn’t very regular. I kept telling myself, this isn’t for me, this is boring. But my boyfriend was very encouraging and made sure I showed up on the mat every morning. Eventually, after about a month, I began warming up to the practice. Over the next few months, I read a lot and watched a ton of videos to learn how to do yoga properly. YouTube has some excellent yoga channels and these have videos specially curated for newcomers, which I used to build my base.

Also read: Decoding 'kapalbhati pranayama' for beginners

Yoga with Adrienne has a series called Foundations of Yoga, which breaks down individual asanas to show how to correctly move into, hold and move out of poses. It is super easy to follow and I highly recommend it for newbies.

Yoga with Kassandra is a go-to for yin yoga. Last year, when I slipped and fell and ended up with a swollen knee, I did Kassandra’s yoga for injured knees every day for a month and it worked like magic.

For advanced poses like Hanumanasana, I referred to Ventuno Yoga, for Surya Namaskar I turned to Yogalates with Rashmi, and for Chaturanga Dandasana I followed Niomi Smart.

But the one person I kept coming back to was Sarah Beth. Her calm and centered voice, slow-paced instructions, and accompanying yoga philosophy, enabled me, a beginner, to learn the ropes pretty easily.

So, when I got the opportunity to write this, I reached out to her to get her views on beginners learning yoga at home.

“Do what you can,” she says, right off the bat. “It’s not so much about doing the poses properly, but enjoying the practice and being present with your breath.”

Beth urges us to listen to our bodies and modify new poses if necessary. “Do not push yourself too far, too fast. Never work through pain. The strongest yogis know when to modify.”

Also read: What is Yoga-HIIT and is it good for you?

She assures that with consistent practice, we will notice that the poses feel a lot “easier”, when in reality we are getting stronger and our body awareness is growing.

The only poses she suggests we avoid practicing without an instructor are inversions, specifically headstands. “These carry a big risk of injury and there are subtle cues that need to be understood in order for them to be done properly and safely.”

The Science Of Yoga

Clinical psychologist Smriti Joshi says that in yoga, the mind-body relationship is very strong. “Yoga teaches us to notice and regulate our breathing which can help relieve stress.”

She explains that when we are tensed or feel threatened, our mind prepares for a fight, flight or freeze response. It is an automatic physiological response that has evolved over millions of years for preservation of life. In early humans, this response was life-saving as it helped them evade predators. But in today’s life, the same response is triggered, even though there are no predators, when we find ourselves in stressful situations like issues related to our jobs, relationships, etc.

“Such extreme reactions are unhelpful,” points out Joshi, “because things aren’t as catastrophic and can possibly be resolved by discussing with a mental health professional.”

“When we practice yoga, the mind is trained to identify when the body is experiencing tension. It picks up cues like rapid shallow breathing, faster heartbeat, etc., and we can then modulate our breathing using deep breathing techniques. This sends the brain the message that everything is alright and it calms down. We relax and are better able to handle the situation.”

Dr. Siddharth Warrier, neurologist and YouTuber who makes neuroscience videos, agrees. He says that yoga enhances awareness of one’s own body, state of mind, emotions and physiological conditions. “When we do yoga, we are acutely aware of our body movements and breath. It is a meditative exercise which increases mindfulness and mindfulness has been found to have a calming effect on the brain.”

He explains that different parts of our brain are involved in self-awareness. “The parietal cortex is responsible for body awareness like placement and position of limbs. The insula receives the body’s internal stimuli. It tells us if our stomach is empty or if we are unwell. Insula is closely connected with the hypothalamus which controls the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS balances our heart rate, breathing, digestion and immunity. When we do yoga, and meditation, we stimulate these parts of our brain, and sustained stimulation has been shown to improve self-awareness.”

Joshi adds that a little bit of yoga every day can go a long way in boosting our mood. “Working a desk job can give you a backache and impact your mood. Doing a few stretching exercises daily can release muscular tension and prevent aches and pains.”

Who can do yoga?

Joshi believes “anyone on the entire spectrum of mental health, from wellness to illness, can practice yoga.” However, she advises people with arthritis to consult a professional yoga teacher before starting.

Dr. Warrier recommends yoga and meditation for anxiety. “But patients with balance and spine problems must do it under the guidance of rehabilitation specialists.”

I started doing yoga because I wanted to stay fit while being house-bound. I stopped going for my walks because I feared I’d contract covid.

At-home yoga was also affordable. My only spending so far has been 1200 on my mat and blocks.

So yeah, if you want to get fit but don’t want to leave the house, or spend too much money, this is your jam.

So…hop on a mat?

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