Why I've Finally Given Up On Yoga

Photographed by Alexis Bynum.
A lot of people assume that, because I’m a woman in my 20s living in New York, I must like yoga. This is false.

Of course, I can’t really blame them. A 2012 survey by Yoga Journal magazine found that 20.4 million people practice yoga in the U.S. alone. Of those people, just 18% are men. So yes, yoga is incredibly popular — and yes, it’s primarily a women’s game. Even Refinery29 has yoga Tuesdays for its employees, an event in which I have never participated during my three years at the company. Do it the right way for long enough, and you could even orgasm from yoga. Still, I identify more with this one woman who finally flipped her shit about the whole yoga thing than with anyone I’ve met at a class.

One popular argument is that I "just need to find the right type of yoga" before I fall in love with it. Well, let me tell you: I’ve been around the proverbial yoga block. I’ve tried vinyasa, hot, power, and even aerial yoga. That’s right — I hung upside-down like a starfish just to find me some zen. Because that’s the allure, isn’t it? Yoga’s special bonus feature is an alleged heightened awareness of your body and mind. Truth be told, I crave that control over my breathing, a clearer sense of self, and that slightly spiritual connection. It is my white whale.

What really holds me back is that I’m just not into the yogi lifestyle, my perception of which is admittedly based entirely on stereotypes. Yogis are people who shop only at Whole Foods. They’re that one jerk in the front row of class who’s been doing headstands since we started warming up. They say words like utkatasana. What is that, even? (Spoiler alert: It means chair pose. You may be shocked to learn I don’t know Sanskrit.) At times, I’ve tried to take a cue from my peers, but the studio is usually too dark for me to see anyone else completely. And by the time I’ve figured out the pose I’m supposed to be doing, the instructor’s already moved on. Also, if we’re getting really honest here, spending 90 minutes in 100-degree heat should involve a glass of alcohol and the beach.

So, in March, when the W Hotel invited me to try out its Fit Retreat in Vieques, Puerto Rico — which is centered around healthy eating and celebrity yoga instructor Tara Stiles’ Strala Yoga practice — I was the perfect candidate (read: skeptic) for the job. If I was ever going to flip my perspective and find my yogic sense of self, it would be through a three-day workshop on a tropical island. Plus, the winter in New York was unbearable. They honestly could have lured me to Puerto Rico with the promise of a knitting seminar.

Truth: I went into this trip looking for reasons to hate on it. And when I was handed a glass of green juice upon arrival to the W, I thought I had found a reason. I’ve always been of the opinion that eating a salad trumps swallowing liquid kale. I took a polite sip, expecting to sneakily put the rest of the glass on a side table, and discovered that this juice was fucking delicious. What witchcraft was this? The server informed me it was Stiles’ own recipe, called the Green Dream: spinach, banana, almond milk, a touch of ginger. I drank the whole thing. If this woman could get me drinking green things, maybe she could change my mind about yoga.

Then it was right down to business. We started that evening with our first yoga session. Stiles created her own brand of yoga in 2008 based on vinyasa, infusing calm and connected poses and an easygoing philosophy. It’s all about soft movements (logical, straightforward transitions into new poses), having fun, and doing what works for you. “It’s your yoga” is a phrase you hear often in a session. And that first night in Vieques, I liked it. I liked the “whatever” attitude. I liked that the playlist wasn’t a meditation soundtrack. I liked that when I closed my eyes, I heard the waves crashing against the coast. I liked that the instructions weren’t in Sanskrit. Stiles said things like, “Raise your hands to the sky.” Or not. Whatever. How “island life” is that? In total, we did five yoga sessions — and each felt better than the next.
Photographed by Alexis Bynum.
I also appreciated the larger theme the practice encouraged: a more active life. When we weren’t on the mats, we were out sea kayaking or learning to cook healthy recipes. We went on eight-mile bike rides. And, since I had no cell service, it was the closest thing to a digital detox I’ve ever experienced. Plus, once you do yoga for three days straight, you start to get better at it, which feels amazing. I had more energy. Most importantly, I didn’t hate everyone around me. We were doing yoga outside under the palm trees, and no one was showing off or making me feel like I hadn’t earned the right to be there.

On our final night in Vieques, I told Stiles about my futile search for zen. “It’s not about a moment of zen. It’s about a general attitude,” she told me. “It’s telling yourself each day that today’s going to be a good day.” I let this idea marinate in my brain for the evening. Could inner peace really be that simple?

We flew back to New York the next morning. And, for about four days after my return, I woke up each morning feeling a need to stretch my body as far and wide as I could. I longed to start my day with wellness. But, unwilling to sacrifice the hour of sleep I could have sans “wellness time,” and lacking the group morale to get me out of bed, I chose snoozing instead. But what was crazy is that I missed doing yoga — something I’d never felt before.

In the spirit of balanced reporting, I thought I should try yoga on a much less exotic island: Manhattan. So a few weeks later, after my tan had faded and Vieques had become fodder for an Instagram #TBT, I went to Stiles’ studio in Soho to see if I actually liked it, or if I’d been unfairly swayed by the warm weather, crashing waves, and breathtaking views.

About halfway through our in-studio session, I realized why Stiles' version of yoga was different. Sure, it’s a more lax approach and one that encourages you to find your own version of the exercise. But really, the appeal of Strala is Stiles herself. She’s happy all the time, the kind of happy that glows. She's fit and makes me feel like I could do anything, even enjoy a green juice. And, in an essay for MindBodyGreen, she openly discusses how she overcame an eating disorder following a sexual assault; she didn't initially feel these parts of her past should be parts of the practice's message, but she later realized that they were. Stiles says her yoga is "about living with ease," and that as she met new people in her studio who shared their personal struggles, she "started to feel dishonest in not sharing my own story." I have a lot of respect for her strength. To quote Kat Stoeffl’s New York Magazine franchise, “I like this bitch’s life.” Her attitude became the aspiration for my everyday...until it didn't.

I hate to admit it, but back in my Brooklyn apartment, my mat remains rolled up underneath my bed. I haven’t felt inspired to practice yoga on my own. My life doesn’t even come close to emulating Stiles' life, and my homemade Green Dream juice tastes too much like banana. As much as I love Stiles’ philosophy, I don’t have "this bitch’s life," and I probably never will.
But maybe that’s okay. I may have a set of habits I can’t discard — choosing cheeseburgers over salad, opting for the treadmill instead of the heated yoga room (okay, I guess that’s not the worst swap), but maybe that’s my version of Stiles’ philosophy of having fun and doing what works for me. And if I can embrace that, maybe it is possible for me to achieve a clearer sense of self — even some kind of spiritual connection.

Because one thing’s for sure: There are still some things about being a yogi that I just can’t get on board with. Take, for example, the advice I got from Stiles when I asked how to make my Green Dream juice taste more like hers: “Just add more spinach.” Woof.
Vanessa Golembewski traveled to Vieques, Puerto Rico, and stayed at The W Hotel as a guest of the resort.

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