My first experience with yoga was when I was in the fourth grade. My mom was taking a weekly yoga class at the town's recreation center. I knew absolutely nothing about yoga -- or what people even did while at yoga -- aside from the fact that sometimes people sat cross-legged with their eyes closed and their thumb and index fingers touching (and somehow this was "meditation"). I decided to try said "meditation" during school while my teacher was passing out a test (because I had heard somewhere that meditation can help you focus and I really, really wanted an A on that test).
As you can imagine, a 10-year-old with her eyes closed, thumb and index fingers touching and legs crossed awkwardly under her desk caught the attention of everyone in the class. The classroom reactions was split pretty much down the middle: half had no idea what I was doing and the other half thought I was trying to talk to the dead. I had absolutely no answers to give them, so instead I got red in the face until the teacher asked everyone to quiet down and start their test.
For the record, I have absolutely no memory of how I did on that test.
My mom eventually traded in yoga for Jazzercise and I didn't have any additional experience with yoga until I was in college. There's a joke that there's a time and a place for everything, and that time/place is college. I knew that the university's gym offered yoga classes, but the idea of being in a yoga class for a solid hour -- sometimes even an hour and a half -- seemed absurdly daunting. I mean, for crying at loud: I wasn't even in the gym for an hour.
But I wanted to try it out for the same reason why I wanted to try sushi and go abroad for a semester: I had never done it before and I wanted to see what the big fuss was about. So I decided to go online and find a few ten- and twenty-minute classes on YouTube. I was lucky enough to find a few yoga instructors who had a very, well, approachable approach to yoga. This would eventually evolve into me taking a wide variety of classes, from power yoga to kripalu and back again. I was trying to figure out what I should be getting out of yoga: was I supposed to experience enlightenment during savasana? Am I failure if I fidget instead? Is this just a nice workout and stretch? At what point do my heels actually come down and my back actually straightens while in down dog?
It took a few years and a lot of messing around at home on my own yoga mat before I realized quite possibly the most important thing to realize with yoga: yoga is exactly what you make of it and exactly what you need it to be.
Are you going to yoga class because you need something to balance out a stressful day? Awesome. Are you going to yoga class because all your friends are doing it and you're curious as to what it's about? Great. Are you doing this yoga sequence purely to warm up your muscles and joints to prevent injury? Have at it. No judgements, no assumptions.
Do you need yoga to be a mental experience, a spiritual experience, a physical experience, or some combination of the three? Whatever you need it to be, it is.
My goal as a yoga instructor is to produce that same amount of warmth and approachability that so many "YouTube Yogis" would put forth. I want to welcome in the person who, in the fourth grade, thought yoga was a way to talk to the dead. I want the person who rolls their eyes at the idea of chakras and I want the person who genuinely wonders if "opening her heart chakra" will help her feel better about an issue at hand. I want those with perfect ujjayi breath and I want those who panic over the idea of constricting the back of their throat. I want to make my classes approachable and fun and open enough that students can take whatever they need to take from the class.
I remember going on a YouTube video and seeing this novel-length comment about how this particular video was a fraud because the instructor didn't emphasize ujjayi breath and how it's not "real yoga" unless you are doing ujjayi breath. And I couldn't help but think of all the people who typically get turned away and turned off from yoga because of guys like that. Guys who treat yoga like this exclusive club, ready and willing to berate those who fall short of the requirements, letting you know what "real" yoga is or isn't.
As a yoga instructor, I hope I can be a counterbalance to that. I hope that, bare minimum, I can show people that yoga is exactly what you need it to be, the same way the poses are exactly what you need it to be through the variations and modifications (or through doing a completely different move instead). I want to foster growth, but never force it.
Yoga is exactly what you make of it, and exactly what you need it to be. And that will differ from day to day, hour to hour, even pose by pose. And there's nothing wrong with needing something different or something that is off the beaten path. Acceptance, understanding, and growth. If nothing else, that's what I want to have in my class.