I stroll into the cramped studio five minutes late, trying not to notice the thousand eye daggers thrown in my direction, and awkwardly squeeze a loaner mat into the only available space. The yogi, Marco Rojas, a veteran instructor trained by YogaWorks creators, comes up to me, squeezes my hand, and asks if I've got any body issues or injuries he should know about. "Just the knee," I say. Braving a look around, I see that I'm one of only a handful of men in the room and probably the youngest by far. I can't help but think to myself, "I'm in way better shape then all these folks." Half an hour later, I've lost what seems like half my body weight in sweat, have fallen three times, and would cry if I had any liquid left in my body to make a teardrop actually happen.
Going into my first-ever yoga session, I can see that I had this yoga thing completely misunderstood no matter how much credit I tried to give it. To me, it was just a silly stretch workout that vaguely had something to do with meditation-granola munching fluff. I couldn't have been more wrong. It's an intense workout that is physically and emotionally demanding.
It's an ancient practice that originated in India that focuses on sustained poses and controlled breathing, challenging your physical endurance and flexibility to push past your body's limits. "Yoga will bring you strength. It will bring you flexibility. It will balance the muscles, it will bring you the best muscles that you can achieve," Rojas tells me. Starting from child's pose, with my knees bent up to my chest and my face planted firmly in the ground, we moved through a progression of increasingly challenging poses. From Downward Dog to the Hero to the Warrior Pose, seemingly every muscle in my body was engaged intensely, working my quads, biceps, triceps, lower back, and hamstrings, stretching and bending my limbs, torso, and shoulders beyond their limits, all the while attempting to control my breathing.
It's one of the most intense and holistic exercises I've ever experienced.
The immediate physical benefits are obvious. The more experienced of Rojas' students were ripped beyond belief, and could do complete headstands and twist their bodies like contortionists. Studies have shown that meditation and yoga can contribute to health and longevity by increasing muscle strength and joint flexibility, and by reducing stress and improving the endocrine system. But to experience the high after a intense yoga workout is something in itself. They call this high feeling Samadhi, "ecstasy of relief, freedom, happiness. When you come out of class, that's what you feel," Rojas says. "The essence of who you are."
There are many different types of yoga, and finding the one that best suits you is really a process of trial and error. I tried Raja, or royal yoga, which is the classical style that focuses on intense mental focus combined with deep controlled breathing and challenging poses. The best way to get into it and breach your physical limits is to find an instructor whom you trust and know will push you forward. "The only thing you need to practice yoga is courage. That's it," says Rojas. "If you have a medical condition, the teacher should be able to help you, to adjust the postures, to bring props to help you. Yoga is all about doing what your body will let you do. A medical condition or a body disability will not prevent you from doing yoga," he adds.