In the middle of a recent yoga class, I caught my own eye in the mirror. I was red-faced and grimacing — the opposite of zen. I wish I could say it was because I was in some complex twisting balance pose, but I was seated, with my hands together, like the prayer emoji. When is this going to end? I was thinking. Lately, yoga has been making me angry, and apparently I'm not alone. There are lots of reasons people are upset with the practice: Classes are often expensive and filled with thin white women; Instagram has seemingly put the emphasis on pretty poses and backdrops; injuries seem all too common, perhaps because of under-trained teachers; and the old-school Hindu philosophy has been more or less appropriated into a body-mind exercise for the masses. But none of those things were running through my head on the evening when I wished we were bowing our heads and saying “namaste” (a.k.a. wrapping it up) instead of ramping back up for more vinyasas. I couldn’t point to one thing in particular that was causing this rage bubble to form, but the frustration was as sticky as the mat under my feet, and it was preventing my mind from quieting down. Yoga used to be my cure-all. I started practicing when I was an 18-year-old college freshman, and I stuck with it for the next dozen years. I wasn’t fanatical, but I’d get to one or two classes a week and loved that it could give me the workout my body needed and the peace my mind craved. I had always played sports growing up, and I grew into an adult who needed exercise to stay happy. Throughout the highs and lows of my 20s (breakups, the death of a good friend, new jobs, and countless moves from one apartment to the next), yoga was one little way I found stability and continuity. Until the moment yoga snapped for me. I was at a fancy, dimly lit studio on a "trial visit"; I knew I’d never pay the studio's rates when the freebies were over. I had just moved, and it had been weeks since I’d so much as stretched. Everyone around me, however, seemed like they had tumbled out of a Cirque du Soleil rehearsal. I was trying to follow the teacher’s instructions, but it was like I was missing a secret script that said to sneak in a handstand whenever possible. Yoga is supposed to ask you to look inward, but all I could do was look around at these acrobats and take child’s pose to escape. For the first time ever, I wanted to walk out. What am I doing here? I wondered. When did my down dog start to feel like it was hit by a car? If I hear the words "roll up to standing, one vertebra at a time" again, I’m going to flip. I talked to some friends to see if they ever felt worse after a yoga class — or if I was the only one for whom an hour of chatarungas dredged up bad juju. The consensus was that if they didn’t click with a teacher, they might leave the studio feeling upset that they’d spent money on an underwhelming class or wasted an hour on something that wasn’t much of a workout. My friends also confessed to me other yogic annoyances, such as practicing next to a loud breather or, a favorite of mine, a teacher who announced that it was time for group kegels. I’d had similar experiences (well, minus the kegels), but what I felt was more of a gust of mid-practice anger that I couldn’t quite pin down. An uncertain swirl of why aren’t you farther along in your career/saving more money/less snippy with your husband? It didn’t help that everyone who seemed to really practice yoga seemed so happy all the time. Yes, the sunny people on social media, but also my friends who were more dedicated than me. I didn’t break up with yoga; I just pushed it to the periphery of my life. I’d feel guilty when I looked at my yoga mat, rolled up in the corner of my living room — and not just because it cost $80 and I had promised myself I’d use it all the time. The year prior, I’d completed my 200-hour yoga teacher training, immersing myself in yogic texts and learning how to demonstrate poses, with the hopes of teaching one class a week to complement my (somewhat lonely) career as a freelance writer. Now, just months later, I was dodging the practice and having to sheepishly answer “no” when my friends and family asked me if I was teaching. I’d mutter something about being busy, and how I was mostly practicing at home these days.
I’d been thinking yoga had to be everything: a workout, a therapy session, a place to meet friends, a part-time job.
Not ready to give up, I dropped into a restorative class one Sunday night. The online class description contained words like rejuvenation, healing, and nourishing, all of which seemed like things I needed in my life. Once I unrolled my mat, I barely moved for the rest of the class. Instead, we tucked ourselves under blankets and on top of bolsters, doing marshmallow men variations of familiar poses. I left with that mushy-headed feeling that I used to have after a good, sweaty class, but I wasn’t even glistening. Part of me couldn’t believe I was paying money to essentially lie under a blanket in public. I kept telling myself I’d get back to the hard stuff soon, but every time I took a power class, I felt out of sync, like I was missing the wave. I finally asked a longtime reiki/yoga teacher friend of mine if there was some reason why I just didn’t mix well with intense styles of yoga. She put it in Ayurvedic terms (Ayurveda is an ancient healing philosophy based in part on the idea that each person is governed primarily by one of three energies: wind, fire, or earth), explaining that some people who were driven, like me, could also have a fiery side. Classes that build heat in the body can basically fuel the fire and increase the irritation, especially if there's something else stressful going on, like a move or a new job. My friend gently suggested I try restorative classes, and her words immediately made me feel better. The low-key sessions had made me feel so good, but part of me had still been wondering if I should push through that wall of frustration. In my head, I saw the kid-gymnast version of myself, throwing my arms up in the air and arching my back, knowing I’d stuck the landing. I’d been thinking yoga had to be everything: a workout, a therapy session, a place to meet friends, a part-time job. But now I was being told I was more suited to kicking my legs up the wall and draping a woven blanket over my torso. “The goal of restorative yoga, if there is one, is to relax as much as possible,” a teacher said in a recent class. For me, that’s enough. At least for now.