If you've ever been on a yoga mat, even once, even five or more years ago, you likely know that you've heard and seen some pretty crazy things. The guy next to you breathing SO LOUD. (Does he have a cold or something?! Dang, I don't want to get sick...) The instructor pacing the room, telling you to breathe joy into your back. (My back?! My back doesn't have lungs, chick!) The crazy looking hippie in the back, who smiles the WHOLE time and grips mala beads. (Wait, are beads necessary for this?! Is there an arts and crafts portion of this class later?!)
I've been taking yoga classes for years and years now, and these yogic stereotypes still manage to crack me up. Allow me to address them:
"That Guy" who is breathing so loud it's distracting? He's actually doing it right! It's called ujjayi breathing, or "the ocean breath." One performs this by constricting the back of the throat so that you control (basically, slow down and deepen) how much oxygen you take in and release in each breath. Coincidentally, this makes a sound. Ujjayi breathing helps you move from pose to pose while focusing more on your breath, and less on if your Warrior 2 is perfect. It also helps you to breathe entirely through your nose, regardless of how fast your flow is moving (the goal in yoga is to "train" yourself/your lungs to function via the nose so that you're more mindful about your breath). Yes, not only did I just give you permission to make strange sounds in your next yoga class, I'm encouraging you! It's a bit strange at first, but I now LOVE being next to loud people as it reminds me to do the same, and almost "gives me permission" to be louder in class.
"Inhale joy into your lower spine; exhale out negativity." In teacher training to become a yoga instructor, we actually get tested on our verbal cues on breath and body placement. Some poses work better on an inhale, others are best for an exhale. That's why the instructor is telling you when to breathe. For example, you wouldn't want to take a big breath in for a forward fold - by nature of anatomy, your inflated lungs would inhibit your ability to fully bend over, limiting the stretch you would/should get.
When the instructor adds something like, "inhale into your lower spine", s/he is bringing your attention to that part of your body. Are you holding tension there? Probably. "Breathing into it" is a way to remind you that 1) it's there and 2) let that tension go. Give it a little shot of oxygen and release those muscles! If you have an extra-verbal instructor who tells you to "inhale joy into your lower spine" s/he is attempting to remind you to do exactly what I said above, but that it should also feel good. If you're like me, I get caught up in how dumb that sounds and completely forget about the joy, the inhale, and the tension release. So overly verbal-happy instructors aren't my vibe, to say the least. A "let it feel good!" is kosher; a "let the light radiate from your toes!" is enough to elicit an audible snort of laughter from me. Let's get serious here, nobody's toes are radiating anything. Or, radiating anything good...
Crazy-smiling-mala-bead-wearing-hippie. The mala beads have 108 beads on them, which is a sacred number in traditional yogic practices. The beads are used as a "counter" of sorts, so that s/he can repeat their own personal mantra in their head that very specific number of times. I can't personally multitask to the level of listening and practicing a flow AND repeating my own mantra 108 times in a class. The five or so minutes you get in savasana at the end isn't remotely enough time to make it through 108 repetitions, so I don't personally wear them in a class. But I certainly don't judge those who do! They have more yogi skills than I do, that's for sure.
Why are they so dang happy looking and smiling?! Remember that personal mantra I was talking about? I can PROMISE you it's something positive, whether it's reflecting internally (about themselves - "I am loved. I love") or it's external ("The world is good. The world is beautiful.") When you start to repeat positive messages over and over again, and you focus on your breath in a class and release tension and stress, there simply is no way that you wouldn't smile. That crazy hippie in the back practices this everyday. Frankly, they've got it figured out, readers! I used to think, "Damn she looks insane!" and now I think, "Man, she's got it together! I'm going to work to be more like her. She looks 15 years younger than she really is and is clearly happy... Wait, where are my mala beads?!"
The thing that's so great about yoga is that you can take the parts that work for you, and leave the parts that don't. However, I'd encourage you to look into and experiment with the part of yoga that you judge or make you uncomfortable. You never know what you could be missing! At worst, you conclude that it's indeed not for you; at best, your whole life is changed for the better.
*You'll notice in the photos that my hands aren't flat on the mat - they appear as though they're cupping something. That's intentional! Your wrists host TONS of nerves that go to your hands and fingers. Cupping your hands like I do in these photos is a way to take the weight off the center part of your wrist where those nerves travel, and prevent pain that can come with long-term yoga practices/poses that carry a lot of weight in your upper body (such as arm balances and inversions). This effect is magnified in pregnant women. I was about 28-29 weeks in this shoot, so my hands are "extra cuppy" to protect my wrists. Hey, the more you know, right?!