I'll never forget the first time I walked into a yoga studio. It was Summer 2015, and I had only been practicing for a couple months in the privacy of my apartment. My experience was limited, to say the least, mainly consisting of a few 20-minute beginner workout videos I discovered through a quick YouTube search. There was a studio near my apartment that I frequently walked by, and I decided to pop in one day to try a class. It was a 60-minute intermediate Vinyasa Flow in a heated room (and at the time, I had no idea what any of those words actually meant).
When I checked in, I was told my first class would be on the house, and I was then escorted to the 90-degree studio. It was packed. I meagerly walked into the sea of pastel-colored sports bras, attempting to find an open space that was not near the front. All around me people were in backbends or full headstands, and the class had not even started yet. I finally squeezed in the back right corner and began to wonder if the redness in my cheeks was coming from the heat or just my mounting anxiety.
I sat in Child's Pose feeling self-conscious and a little defeated. I left that class not ever wanting to return.
The instructor — a gregarious 20-something with arms you could fry an egg on — entered the room and asked us to set an intention for the next 60 minutes. Mine? To try with all my power not to embarrass myself over the next hour. Although I had grown up running track and considered myself a relatively fit person, I was not flexible in the slightest and lacked upper-body strength. I had tried a Chaturanga in the comfort of my bedroom before, but here I was mortified with how little my arms could bend compared to everyone around me. As I watched the room of 25 people flow with ease and balance and even stand on their heads, I sat in Child's Pose feeling self-conscious and a little defeated. I left that class not ever wanting to return.
I originally became interested in yoga when a colleague recommended it to address my periodic back pain and muscle stiffness. I often stretched before bed or after a run, but I wasn't familiar with all the different ways I could open up my hips or get a deep, juicy stretch in the various muscles throughout my body. I cried (in a good way) the first time I did Pigeon Pose and couldn't believe how much a Supine Twist helped ease my back pain. But as much as I appreciated the corrective benefits of yoga, I couldn't bring myself to go back into that room.
Although I fully intended on only practicing alone in my bedroom from that point on, I did get dragged to a class every now and then with friends who were avid practitioners. Each time, I gritted my teeth, got a spot in the back, and tried not to beat myself up for not having the same skills as everyone else. I felt like as hard as I worked, I would never be able to perform the moves that the majority of the people around me could do. I tried to pretend like I wasn't ashamed when I sat in Child's Pose while everyone else stood on their heads. Although I pushed myself and tried to focus, I never left those classes feeling good about myself or my practice.
One day, after multiple probes, a good friend and yoga instructor finally got me to agree to come to her hot Vinyasa class. At this point, I still had never returned to another heated room. Although I was wary, I showed up — giant water bottle in tow — hesitantly ready to tackle it. My friends, it was anything but graceful. I must've taken a hundred water breaks and grunted out loud periodically, but I got through it.
My class anxiety did not completely dissolve overnight, but I made it my goal to stop letting it hold me back.
At the end of the class, the woman next to me stood up and hugged me — sweat and all — and told me that she usually feels self-conscious in this class, but hearing me grunt and moan my way through it made her remember that it's difficult for everyone. In that moment, I realized that I was not in a room full of perfect people judging my Chaturanga; I was sharing a space with people of all athletic skill levels who showed up to do something for themselves. I got into yoga because it made me feel good, and worrying about how I stacked up against everyone else was only doing myself a disservice.
"See you next Monday?" my new friend asked. She absolutely would.
My class anxiety did not completely dissolve overnight, but I made it my goal to stop letting it hold me back. Once I shifted my mindset, my ability actually improved — on the mat and even as a runner. I still can't do an inversion without the assistance of the instructor, but I'm working on it. My Chaturanga — albeit still at a beginner level — has gotten better, and sometimes I choose a spot in the front row. My skills might never mirror those around me in class, but I'm OK with that. I leave every class feeling good, mind and body. And that makes me proud.