Rolling Out the Mat

How Yoga With Adriene Changed My Life

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on

“No judgment, no frills, no body shaming. Just a welcome mat on which to plant my barking dogs.”

It was October of 2019 and I was reading A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, the first installment of the All Souls Trilogy. There’s a particular scene in the book when Matthew (vampire) invites Diana (witch), a yoga aficionado (and professional rower and alchemical historian and skinny blonde…groan) to a late night yoga session with a room full of other witches, vampires and daemons. It was a bit tedious, with a lot of subtextual dialogue in between descriptions of yoga poses with far too much detail. After the class, Matthew steamily tells Diana something about her being able to “twist your body into all sorts of shapes.” I don’t know why, but that stuck with me. I was suddenly jealous of this character (not super dimensional, I might add) in this just okay fantasy series. Why does Diana Bishop get to have it all? She has looks, smarts, witty comebacks to Matthew’s advances, AND can seamlessly align herself into a sideways fucking headstand? What CAN’T this bitch do, really? (I promise, I’m going somewhere with this.)

It got me thinking about my soft, 30-year-old body and all the sedentary activity that led up to it. It certainly wasn’t for lack of (half) trying and making excuses. There was the six month or so stint working out to Brooke Burke DVDs thrice a week (“Wanna know how I got my body back after four babies?” Shut up, Brooke). I DREADED these workouts – in fact, I threw up and napped the very first time I did it – but I’ll admit, I WAS in pretty incredible shape when I did them (albeit surface level, glamour muscle shape.) I did enough of her damn booty burn thrusts and side planks and forward squats and backwards lunges and “serving the platter” arm weight training so I could, as Brooke promised, “look good in gowns.” (The videos were effective, but heavy-handed on the too-perky 80s jazzercise lingo.) Regardless, I plateaued in both interest and muscle retention, and after a particularly gluttonous trip to Florida, I quit altogether. The DVDs still sit on my shelf as a mocking relic, growing dust from lack of use and also because who owns a DVD player anymore? I gave up on toning and tightening with Brooke’s pristine, sweatless form, but I obviously followed her on Instagram, because, I mean, look at her. It’s like having an ex boyfriend that’s way out of your league, the profile of which you forlornly stalk on occasion to remind yourself, You could’ve had this.

Until Yoga With Adriene, Brooke was my longest dance with the devil of physical activity. Prior to that, there were the Zumba classes I attended once or twice a week for maybe one winter, which I actually thoroughly enjoyed (twerking to reggaeton 100% burns calories), but my favorite teacher left and one night it was too cold and rainy and so the rest was history. And of course, there were the precisely 22 gym sessions at L.A. Fitness that took place over four whole months, which I only tallied after cancelling my membership because, let’s face it, gym rats are not people I want to surround myself with, and my once-a-week, 45 minute elliptical workout wasn’t doing much for my mental or physical health anyway. I never participated in a single sport in my years of K-12 education (unless you count that one time in fourth grade I joined the basketball team but found out I was too afraid of the ball.) I hated swimming outside of casual splashing around (I still have yet to learn how to dive or jump in without holding my nose). Gymnastics as a toddler was short-lived, you would never see me with sparkly pom-poms with the rest of the Spartans cheerleaders, tap dance classes did little in the way of actual cardio, and I certainly never, EVER ran the dreaded mile in gym class (side note: why the HELL did they force every student to do that?!)

To date, phrases like “group workouts” and “team sports” make me nauseous, frankly. (Who wants to talk while working out? Friends running side by side and chatting without being breathless is psycho behavior, IMHO). My boyfriend’s pleas for me to join his insane at-home HIIT workouts usually result in me yelling at him with frustrated tears and then enduring painful thighs when sitting up and down on the toilet for a week. And while our vacation to Costa Rica was very high energy, probably more physical activity in one week than I’d done in my entire life, I still was embarrassed I couldn’t even get up the rock behind Montezuma’s waterfalls without being literally pulled by a hexi-abbed girl and her equally as fit boyfriend. You would think THAT would’ve been the kick in the pants to get my shit into gear, but it wasn’t. It took two more years of heavy breathing after climbing flights of stairs and bemoaning my moon face to finally take the initiative and just do something. I was bike riding to and from work as often as possible, but only on days with good weather, and only out of necessity and absolute hatred for waiting on the bus. While it was a decent amount of miles, it was primarily giving me diver’s thighs and back-ne and not a whole lot of sought-after core strength. I still needed to do something more. But there was just one problem.

I. Hate. Working. Out. People who actually enjoy it – like, look FORWARD to it – are myths, I’m convinced. The Loch Ness Monster is really just a chiseled guy casually saying that his favorite way to blow off steam after being in the office all day is busting out a couple deadlifts at the gym. Interrupting a blissful, cold Saturday morning in a warm bed to jolt yourself awake and JOG OUTSIDE is martian behavior. It just doesn’t add up. Tearing your muscles apart to build new ones is against everything nature intended. A flat ass turned bubble butt? Admirable, but dark magic, indeed.

So by 30, instead of the made-up woes about biological clocks and marriage and house-buying everyone told me should be concerns, but weren’t, I realized my just-past-a-quarter-life crisis was that I couldn’t continue to live like a 17 year old in a tricenarian body, shoveling mouthfuls of Five Guys Burgers and Fries down my gullet, not even stepping foot outside the threshold of my door some weekend days, and still thinking I would live well into my 80s with zero heart problems. Drinking copious amounts of wine and beer on the weekends wasn’t going to suddenly transform me into an ectomorph. Aesthetics weren’t even the motivating factor, truthfully (okay, maybe a small part of me admits I wanted to look like Emily Ratajkowski, but who the fuck doesn’t?) I didn’t necessarily hate how I looked or felt – my 5’8″ height has thankfully served as a blessed, lanky funhouse mirror illusion of someone who’s got their shit together – but I didn’t LOVE myself (which I also think is a made-up advertising scheme to buy Dove chocolate, but that’s a story for another day.) The point is…I wanted to live a long, full, healthy life, and not despise the process getting there.

That’s where yoga came in. Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t entirely averse to it. I actually did try an in-person yoga class once several years ago, which claimed to be “beginner” but immediately started with the instructor saying “Okay, so we’re gonna do something a little more advanced today.” That scared me enough to not return, and the newly bought yoga mat from Target sat rolled up and tucked away in my closet for years. And it wasn’t just the fear of not being able to do it that had initially turned me off, but the culture. I had always associated yoga with the types of people I just, sadly, didn’t fuck with: spiritual reiki guides, spokespersons for crystals and their healing properties, vegan co-op members, Lululemon-wearers until they had a come-to-Jesus moment about sustainability and eco-fashion, and that one beatnik in a floor-sweeping white pants ensemble that sat at our booth at Oscar’s Tavern and threw the hang loose symbol after every sentence. I was none of these things. I love ripping a medium rare steak to shreds with my canine teeth far too much to ever switch to a plant-based diet, and I certainly never looked at strangers on the El as being part of some collective, humanitarian agenda for world peace. The most eco-sensical thing I’ve ever done is cut the plastic six-pack rings with scissors so turtles don’t get stuck in them.

So to actually practice yoga? I felt I was too rigid for its fluidity, too anxious for its calming ways, too serious for all its Hufflepuff hippiness. Mostly, I feared failure in trying to strike perfect poses I’d see on Instagram of tan, blonde surfer girls with trust funds: The One Where You Look Like That Breakdancing Guy From Ocean’s Twelve / The One Where You’re Sitting, But Like, It’s Super Hard / The One Where Your Shoulder Bones Contort Inward Like That Girl From The Ring. (Now, Corpse Pose, however…I could get down with that.)

So by December, after I had finished A Discovery of Witches, I had taken that small chapter about Diana doing yoga and just ran with it. What WAS stopping me from coiling my body into new and interesting shapes? Why DON’T I just try and be more flexible (read: flexible at all)? Who else but ME could take the wobbly axle of my unchecked anxiety and finally align it? This was it. I would try yoga on for size once and for all – like really REALLY commit to daily practice, even if it was just ten minutes a day. And if I didn’t like it, I told myself, I would go back to being self-deprecating and pinching my loose neck skin. But on December 23, 2019 (yes, I actually noted the date), I began my #YWA journey, the long road of which I don’t intend to veer off of any time soon, if ever.

If you don’t know the YWA channel on YouTube, I ask, with all due respect, where the fuck have you been? She’s got over 8 million subscribers on YouTube, a massive “Find What Feels Good” community of loyal supporters, and an ever-growing Instagram presence, where she shares not only links to her wildly popular monthly calendars with literally hundreds of accompanying FREE (yes, free) yoga videos dating back to 2013, but daily affirmations and resources for physical and mental wellness (not to mention, she’s an outspoken advocate for the BLM and LGBTQIA+ communities, using her huge platform to spread awareness.)

I came upon her by chance and the algorithm of Google when searching simply for “yoga for complete beginners.” And what do you know? I found exactly that – the first result on the YWA channel: Yoga For Complete Beginners, a short, 20-minute video on the foundational basics. It’s like she read my mind (I’ll get into that more down below.) If I had to estimate, I spent roughy 40 or so whole ass days mastering just this one video before ever moving forward in my journey. There was no need to rush it. For who? I may as well do it right the first time. And it was the best decision I ever made. Every plant that’s grown in my garden of yoga knowledge was rooted in that one practice: tucking the tailbone down so your pelvis doesn’t tilt, allowing your limbs some space when standing in Warrior I, dropping the shoulders away from the neck so you’re not crunched, thumbs to the sternum and opening the chest to the sky when seated in Sukhasana, pulling your hip creases back in any floor variation so you’re not collapsed, remembering to breathe, and aligning head over heart/heart over pelvis in almost all poses (my boyfriend can’t go a day without whispering “heart of the cards” from Yu-Gi-Oh! when I’m practicing in our shared living space.)

I’m sure you’re saying, “Yeah, that’s what my yoga instructor does, too.” And trust me, I am fully cognizant of the benefits of in-person classes versus at-home lessons, the most vital one being the teacher’s presence to fix my mistakes so I don’t hurt myself: lift my hips a little higher in Downward Facing Dog, flatten my back a little more in Extended Child’s Pose, pull my arms back farther in Warrior II (look at me, putting RESPEK on the names of the poses by capitalizing them.)

But Adriene isn’t your garden variety yoga instructor. What makes her teachings so uniquely her own happen right in the first minutes before you even “hop into something comfy” and start your sequence. This is the hardest part, I’ll think as I’m wiping sleepies from my eyes and fidgeting on my sits bones to find good posture cross-legged (and then she’ll echo those sentiments exactly: “Congratulations on showing up. The hardest part is rolling out the mat.” Is she reading my mind?) Her silky, low voice with a hint of raspy is music to my hates-unnecessary-loud-noises ears (seriously, I never again returned to this one spin class where the instructor shouted faux-positive affirmations in my face); whether it’s the guided meditations throughout, the reminders of humility, the silly playfulness (after an accidental innuendo, she’ll say, “Hey-oh!”), the comforting mentality of “if you fall off the horse, just get back on,” the gentle instruction to “set an intention” at the beginning of some practices, the open-arms embrace of “come as you are” and permission to “allow whatever comes up,” it all seems to bring me to near-tears when I finally get to set down the emotional baggage I didn’t even know I was carrying.

The mental practice, I’d argue, is actually the hardest part. But finding what the physical body is capable of, in combination with breath, is where you really soar. The ebb and flow of a “juicy” Vinyasa sequence (I love when she uses that adjective) is made even more loosey-goosey liquid when peppered with her repeated incantations that feel so much like home you forget why you came to the mat in the first place: “Don’t worry about what your body looks like…just feel your way into the shape” – and – “You don’t need to nail the Asana…just find what feels good“; encouraging a bit of wayward independence for the variety of body types to find themselves: “Halfway lift…your version”; and, of course, the always helpful modifications for those that are starting from square one: “If your leg doesn’t come up that high, maybe just try toes on the ground to start.” No judgment, no frills, no body shaming. Just a welcome mat on which to plant my barking dogs.

Not to say you get off easy – her Yoga For Weight Loss series kicked my ass, incorporating tons of arm strengthening (airplane arms target the triceps and are deceptively difficult), leg-sculpting (Goddess Pose makes me feel like our IRL goddess, Beyonce), and toning of dormant core muscles I had buried under years of burritos, but with a sort of mindfulness about it all that made me actually WANT to, genuinely, “welcome the heat” (a phrase oft-uttered by Adriene that sounds so much better compared to Brooke’s caustic “feel that burn.”) Even so, there are still some poses I admittedly don’t enjoy at this stage of my journey, but which I’m learning to love with the help of Adriene’s reminders that every body is different: Bridge Pose, Side Plank, Chaturanga to Upward Facing Dog, Cobra. Even something as simple as Tadasana (Mountain Pose) could be challenging if you’re not in the right frame of mind. (That’s standing. Yes, there are times I have difficulty even standing). Some days, I can hold a plank for 30 seconds. Other days, I’m shaking by 10. But most of the Asanas feel just plain wonderful for the spine, the sacrum, the soul: Pigeon Pose, Extended Side Angle, Warrior III, Tree Pose (when I’m not falling out of it), a strong high lunge turned Pyramid, and a nice, juicy cat-cow breathing sequence. Three-legged dog is my personal favorite – it makes me feel feminine and light – and when rounded forward into a hovering mountain climber variation, I feel strong, even if my heel doesn’t quite touch my buttocks just yet. (Sometimes Adriene will even say, “Whisper to yourself, ‘I am strong.’ ” It feels a tad corny, but it works.)

The real advanced posterbook yoga (Crow Pose, Shoulder Stand, head touching the ground in a wide-legged forward fold – how tho??) comes up every now and again, but only to demonstrate how first mastering the simplest of basic movements can eventually get you there, with daily practice. It’s not meant to be mocking – Adriene’s advice to “just have fun with it” feels more a sincere invite to a party than a flippant “you can come if you want.” No doubt, I’m sure these videos make up only a small fraction of her actual, far more difficult personal yoga practice, but even accessing just a sliver of her yogic brain is gift enough.

After the 40 days and 40 nights of the foundational basics, I moved on to her thirty-day “Home” series as a sort of challenge to introduce some new moves to my rotation, since I felt I was ready. Each practice lent itself to a different adjective of the day – Ignite, Awaken, Heal, Nurture, Grow, etc. – and moved through a sort of storybook starring me as the novel apprentice and Adriene as my mentor (accompanied by her wise, gray sage, Benji, a distractingly adorable shepherd dog who sleeps through most videos.) Having blazed through that during the month of February, it was time to peruse the seemingly unending YouTube filmography and land on her monthly calendars, March’s playlist being “CREATE,” which came at the literal perfect time of the dreaded Month One of Quarantine 2020. Only now, when Adriene was telling me to imagine all the people all over the world practicing at that very moment with me, it probably wasn’t an exaggeration. We were all home, doing all the same shit, and practicing together as one.

Grateful that back in December my mind and body somehow foresaw I was going to be cooped up in the house and would need some daily physical activity to get me through it, I dove right into each month that magically matched the rollercoaster moods of quarantine: April’s NURTURE enveloped the community in a much-needed “everything is going to be okay” when our lockdowns kept getting pushed back; May’s MEDITATE chilled us TF out when we realized we ain’t goin’ nowhere and to just appreciate our time at home; June’s COURAGE gave us the cojones to gradually assimilate back into society, to make necessary changes in our lives; July’s SHIFT allowed us to face the challenges of reopening (and then closing again); and right now, we’re in the thick of August’s INQUIRE. When will things return to normal, if at all? Where are we as a society headed? What can we learn from this? Who can we offer a helping hand to? And perhaps the hardest question of all: Why? Why even try? Why should I care? Why worry? Why NOT worry? Why do I feel so helpless? Why give up when you can still keep going?

How do we heal?

Yoga With Adriene assessed those questions, intuited the needs of her millions of followers, myself included. She was reading my mind. She knew just how to cater to the many whims of my brain and body on any particular day. Wake up with terrible IUD cramps? There’s a yoga for that. Feeling surprisingly energetic and ready to take on the day? There’s a yoga for that. Sometimes it’s more subtle, like I’m feeling blah, like I’m not sure I even WANT to do yoga today. Well, “this little ditty is here to help you get unstuck.” If you want to squeeze in a short session on your lunch break, she’s got you covered. If you’re looking for a lengthy and glorious deep stretch and widening of the hips, look no further than Total Body Yoga. You name it, she’s got it.

And it doesn’t stop at the mat. Flexing, expanding, contorting, and stretching my body (and brain) muscles kicked my three decades of getting by on fast metabolism alone into a higher gear of 360 degree wellness. I’ve started valuing my sleep more, aiming for a more consistent shut-eye time. I drink way more water. I finally acknowledged my face skin was less taut and bouncy, ripping off the bandaid on skincare that I neglected in my 20s and purchasing products that work for me, never skipping my nighttime routine of toner, serum and moisturizer (since no one asked for my skincare regimen.) My internal organs thanked me, too – in fact, Adriene has an entire Yoga For Digestion Flow playlist, breathing into the gut and spinal flexion included. Her mantras of maintaining a strong yoga belly even prompted me to take care of my own history of chronic acid reflux, finally making my long overdue GI appointments, and finding out I have Barrett’s Esophagus (fun!) (Yes, there’s even a yoga for heartburn.)

Even better, my mental health (sort of) improved. I’ve still got a long ways to go on that front. (I tend to find my mind wandering during sequences of meditation. Did I remember to Clorox my keys? Did I wash my hands before taking out my contacts?) But now, instead of starting and finishing the day in a tightly wound, restless agitation, I’m more lithe in movement and spirit. My jaw is unclenched. My forehead muscles are relaxed. My wrists don’t send shooting pain up my arm anymore (thanks, in part, to this video, which is great for preventative care if you don’t want Carpal tunnel.) And I bring yoga with me everywhere I go. Standing in line at Target, I find myself in my “best, most beautiful Mountain Pose.” Sitting in my sunken-in plush armchair when working from home, I’m pulling my elbows back and straightening my posture when I start to slouch. When said work is stressing me out, I remember to take a few paces and do some Ujjayi breath for some insta-calm. And perhaps best of all, getting my blood flowing, in turn, got my creative juices flowing (in combination with quarantine making me stir crazy inside the same four walls.) I finally started writing again, something I never thought I’d come back around to. Thoughts and ideas come up rapid fire every time I cascade my arms down into a Forward Fold. Hell, it inspired this poem.

Yoga With Adriene is like a Ouija Board, in that way. The oracle guides you to the answer, sometimes when you’re not even sure what the question is, but you’re still the one doing the pushing – the one in charge of where it goes, where it lands. I still have a long way to go. My Sphinx could be less crunched in the neck. My core needs to be a little more ironclad before soaring in Crow. And though I can’t control the frustration over a shaky practice or general life in 2020, what I can control is my choices. So when I wake up and feel too tired or achy for practice, too hopeless for humanity, I hop into something comfy and roll out the mat anyway.

© 2020 Andrea Festa

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