I felt silly as I unrolled the bright pink sticky mat my mother had purchased for me from TJ Maxx along the three-foot-wide space between my twin bed and desk. How could I do yoga in this tiny room? Moreover, how would I begin practicing seriously on my own, without the daily support of an instructor and group of fellow students?
The urge to attempt establishing yoga as a regular part of my life was born mostly from a place of limited time. It was October 2015, and I had just started the second and final year of my master’s program. My schedule was packed with courses, field internships, part-time work, and leadership responsibilities in a student organization. It was not feasible for me to dedicate more than an hour to exercise on any given day, and this prevented me from going to the campus gym, which was far from my residence.
I have always been an active person, with athletics a near requirement to being part of the Haidar family. So abstaining from exercise for a year was not feasible, either. I needed something that I could do quickly, perhaps even roll out of bed and do in my room, in my pajamas. Yoga seemed like the best solution.
I was not unfamiliar to the practice when I decided to adopt it with full intention. Yet all the engagements I had with yoga beforehand were mired in anxiety. I had gone to a class at a yoga studio years before, with one of my best friends who had been practicing for half a decade. She moved so gracefully and knew the names of the poses as the instructor called them out; meanwhile I floundered to keep up through the flowing movements, nervous as I tried to keep track of lefts and rights and back foot and front hand. I longed to just go for a run instead, to the familiar rhythm of one foot in front of the other, repeat for one mile, two miles, three miles…
Years before this aforementioned experience, perhaps in high school, I had gone to a yoga class at my local gym. I found the holding of poses incredibly boring. I was used to the high impact of volleyball, throwing myself to dig a ball hurtling toward the ground, conditioning with heavy weights and pushing through series of sprints until I felt dizzy with exhaustion. I was clenched in anticipation the whole time, waiting for the hour-long yoga class to please just finish, feeling badly that I wasn’t as engaged as my neon spandex-clad peers.
So the decision to try practicing in earnest, years after these decidedly unpleasant experiences, was in many ways a leap of faith. I wiped clean my prior impressions and gave myself permission to be an uncoordinated novice. I kept reminding myself that I was still exercising even if buckets of sweat were not pouring from my body.
Though I didn’t admit it to myself at the time, the urge to practice also emerged in response to chronic stress and a bit of loneliness. It was tiring to have every minute dedicated to work, to learning, to planning for my professional future. And social work school was full of emotionally-charged conversations in the classroom and challenging experiences in the field. Meanwhile, nearly all of my friends from undergrad had moved away from Hyde Park, and my graduate student peers were just as busy as me.
There were many hours by myself, and I longed to bring some sort of purpose to this solitude. I sought ease from the torment of my mind constantly being on. Running everyday at high velocity with music pounding in my ears no longer served as a release; it began to feel more like an additional mechanism by which I overextended myself. Something needed to change. Having burned through my previous coping mechanisms, I was ready for that change.
And so, I quieted the voice that told me, this whole thing is silly, and bowed my forehead to the pink sticky mat covered in positive affirmations. I stretched my arms and legs to the extent that 36 inches of horizontal space allowed me. I began following YouTube channels dedicated to online yoga instruction, and did one video practice per day.
I was introduced to novel ideas by kind virtual teachers:
You are working with a different body each day. You might have slept in a crooked position, or maybe you’re feeling sick and a bit tired today, or perhaps you have a new injury. Respect the body you have today. Learn to listen to what your body is telling you. Stop telling it what to do all the time. Slowly, you will build awareness of how to push your limits thoughtfully, with intention. But for now, stop forcing your body into shapes it is not ready to make.
Breathe: full, expansive breaths in and out through your nose. When is the last time you breathed like this? Did you breathe at all today, yesterday, last week, even once in the last year? Notice how good it feels to breathe. Notice the way energy flows through your veins, your pores, your muscles. Relax the muscles in your face, relax your shoulders, release the grip on your hips – did you even know that you’ve been clenching them this whole time? As you hold this pose, thoughts may come to mind. Acknowledge their presence and kindly dismiss them without judgement.
One compassionate-filled instruction at a time, I began to forgive and honor my stiff body and hyperactive mind. One asana at a time, I found myself falling into a habit worth keeping.