Begin at the Start

After her first experience of yoga left Ellie Smith with an injury, her second experience of the practice gave her the healing she needed to nurture herself. The positive effects of yoga inspired her to pursue the spiritual path and her lessons from that first bad experience gave her the wisdom to understand how essential it is to start the practice in the right way. In conversation with Indica Yoga, the founder of Ellie Smith Yoga, (UK) shares why she focuses on the beginner student and how to find the right class and teacher when you’re completely new to yoga.

Sophia: Tell us about how your yoga journey began?

Ellie: Back in 2007, someone recommended yoga to me as a means to lose weight. I believed them and feeling very insecure about how I looked, immediately threw myself into the most advanced practice I could find. Soon after, I injured myself and had to take a break for a few months. As soon as I was given the go-ahead, back to it I went, and soon after that, injured myself again. I was also increasingly frustrated as I wasn’t losing any weight, nor was I feeling like I could “achieve” any of the poses. In a rather sulky manner, I took another break from it. Then, one day, I was fumbling around on YouTube and found a yoga class by a very friendly looking woman. I followed along and was amazed at how much better I felt. She kept reminding us to breathe and that it wasn’t about the pose. She was giving us permission to detach from the outcome of the practice and instead just focus on the feeling. She transformed my approach to asana practice entirely, and that opened up a space for me to allow other facets of yoga to enter into my periphery, albeit slowly at first. 

I no longer saw yoga as a way to lose weight, I no longer equated it with “exercise”, and I no longer felt the need to lose weight. I was increasingly appreciative of the world around me and the people in it. I could get a small sense of what it meant to observe with curiosity, and without judgement. It wasn’t all roses, though. Yoga asks you to hold a mirror to yourself. Along the way, I had to address some confronting things about myself (like the propensity to sulk, for example) and my past. This hasn’t always been easy, but it has always come with refreshing outcomes, a new understanding about myself, and therefore an opportunity for a new way to approach life. 

I feel, now, that I am on the cusp of a beginner’s journey into yoga. Whereas this once felt daunting, now it feels like the inevitable way forward. 

Sophia: You specialise in yoga for beginners. Why did you choose to focus on that specifically?

Ellie: I feel that this is a truly underserved community, particularly in the West. Most of the people I encounter in my yoga circles hark from individualist cultures where progression and achievement is the goal. I think this has contributed to the intense focus on asana in the West, almost at the expense of other aspects of yoga. Asana is tangible and therefore measurable, and thus a sign of “progress” if flexibility and mobility improve. This was certainly true of me when I first began a yoga practice. I skipped from one injury to another before I learned to slow down and focus on what I could do, not what I wanted to do. Over the years, I found that a lot of asana classes advertised as beginner-level are often pitched too high for the true beginner, though I do believe this is changing in recent years. I thus see many people initially curious about yoga soon put off because they are left with more confusion than clarity, or even frustration because they couldn’t “achieve” certain poses. I feel that in order for the yoga-curious to have the chance for a sustainable lifelong practice, we as teachers hold the responsibility to provide well-structured, well-scaffolded classes and courses that help the complete beginner to enter into the realm of yoga with a little more confidence and a little more clarity. 

Sophia: You moved from the U.K. to Japan and you have an interest in Indian knowledge systems. What attracted you to Eastern spirituality and philosophy?

Ellie: I think, initially, it was because it was just so completely different to any way of thinking about life that I had experienced, and therefore it had this somewhat glamourous allure. Growing up in a predominantly Christian culture, in those early years I always felt that it was more about following a strict set of rules to make a higher power more accepting of you, than of self-acceptance. As a self-appointed low-key rebel this never really sat well with me, but I wasn’t really sure what else I was looking for.  I don’t claim to have really any knowledge of Eastern spirituality but I think one aspect that stood out to me was that sense of all you need is within you. This is in stark contrast to some ideologies I grew up with, which left me questioning if I was enough, or if I’d ever be considered good enough regardless of how closely I followed the rules. (I am not suggesting that Christianity is bad, or that it is “less than”, just that this was my interpretation growing up). 

Pair this with the realization that a lot of what the ancient yogic texts have to say about how to live well modern science is recently catching up with and I can’t help but be increasingly fascinated. It’s an area I hope to delve deeper into over time. 

Sophia: You speak about how yoga can be confusing and overwhelming on your website. As an Indian, I find this unsettling but also agree with you. There is tremendous misinformation and appropriation of both yoga and Indian culture. Can you share your experiences and highlight the need and importance for authentic teachers and teachings?

Ellie: In terms of it initially being overwhelming, for most people in the West, their entry point into yoga is through the asana practice, as it was for me. And, like me, I see many people thinking that this is the totality of yoga and being somewhat surprised to find that it is much more than that. Going into class thinking you’re getting a full-body workout with a goat or a beer and later discovering there is a whole philosophy behind it that never included goats and certainly not alcohol can be a little overwhelming. You can either feel suspicious about what you signed up for, or like a kid in a candy store running around tasting each bit but never staying long enough to fully digest it. This is why I think yoga classes in the West need to include more than purely asana components put into context, especially for beginners. 

The narrow emphasis on asana has led to Yoga in the West becoming riddled with misconceptions. For example, people don’t start because they have been led to believe they aren’t physically strong or flexible enough, though these have never been a prerequisite to any aspect of yoga. Some don’t start because of the sheer number of classes out there to choose from. I remember spending hours on YouTube scrolling through class after class, most aimed at targeting certain body parts, trying to decide what it was I needed. The terminology used to describe some asana classes has, I think, contributed to it becoming almost exclusively a female-centred physicality-focused practice in the West. 

Yoga in the West has not escaped consumerism, meaning people think they need to fit into tight leggings or purchase chemically harmful yoga mats and lots of equipment in order to practise. In terms of confusion, there is a lot of conflicting dogma around yoga that can be confusing at first. Some teachers have told me I need to maintain a 6-day-per-week-practice, others tell me it’s enough to practise when I can. Should I practise asana when menstruating or not? The texts say it's a time to rest, but some teachers have said to listen to my body and practice autonomy. Am I disrespecting tradition by exercising autonomy and agency?  Should I say “Namaste” or not? These are but a few examples I’ve heard teachers give conflicting opinions on. 

Add to this the cultural appropriation (plays on the word ‘Namaste’, studios with crystals laid out, tattoos of the “Om” symbol on feet) that we are slowly opening our eyes to, and it’s clear to see how Yoga in the West can be confusing and overwhelming. Personally, I only started to gain some clarity by turning to the Sutras, and to teachers close to Yoga’s roots, India, who had an embodied knowledge of yoga philosophy far beyond asana. I also think that Yoga, due to its rich and vast history, lends itself to a little confusion and overwhelm regardless of cultural appropriation. As I understand it, Yoga has evolved and adapted throughout the centuries, and as practitioners we need to keep reinterpreting and recontextualizing the texts to suit modern contexts. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the likes of Harmony Slater, Arundhati Baitmangalkar, Prasad Rangnekar, Lesley Fightmaster, and Vikram Jeet Singh among others for their loving guidance and wisdom when it comes to this and to understanding what constitutes cultural appropriation in yoga. Prasad once said something on the Let’s Talk Yoga podcast that changed my outlook a little and helped me to stop confusion in its tracks:  “Simplify to simply fly”. 

Sophia: What are some of your favourite books on yoga?

Ellie: “Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha” and “Surya Namaskar: A Technique of Solar Vitalization” both by Swami Satyananda Saraswati have been fantastic reference books for me both as a practitioner and teacher. I highly recommend these for students at all levels. Both are extremely accessible and have served to help me connect with the practice on a deeper level. The Science of Yoga by William Broad helped to understand how yoga developed so rapidly in the West, and to dispel some of my own long-held misconceptions around yoga. 

I enjoyed “Yoga for Trauma Recovery” by Lisa Danylchuk as this helped me to understand some of the science behind why certain aspects of yoga have benefited me so much. Similarly, though not technically a Yoga book, James Nestor’s “Breath” helped to see how breathing techniques used in asana and pranayama sessions have helped regulate my nervous system. 

I can’t avoid mentioning the staple book. Edwin Bryant’s version of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is wonderful. His commentary on each sutra provides space for the reader to consider their application in today’s contexts (though I’ve by no means read them all yet). I’ve just started Roots of Yoga by Sir James Mallinson and Mark Singleton. I’m only a few pages in yet I have a feeling it’s going to be near the top of my list. 

Sophia: How does one find a good yoga teacher in the West?

Ellie: This is an important question that needs consideration in order to set oneself up for a sustainable practice. I think good teachers abound in the West, and many more who want to improve. The proliferation of online yoga now means we also have greater access to fantastic teachers in the East whereas perhaps this once was more restricted. 

In my opinion, it’s important to spend time reflecting on the classes we take in order to avoid complacency,and instead to develop curiosity about the practice and how it relates to us. I often suggest that beginner students first identify several teachers they are interested in, and try a couple of their classes. Classes, in my opinion, need to be about more than asana. So, I encourage people to take a moment to reflect on the classes they take, in particular whether or not the practice was contextualised in the greater scope of yoga. To do this, there are a few questions I think beginner practitioners can consider. These include, but aren’t limited to, the following. Was the teacher using Sanskrit, at least sporadically? Was there a focus on breath awareness before, during, or maybe after asana or was it purely fitness-goal oriented? Was there a little time for meditation or contemplation? Was yoga philosophy referred to and contextualised or was it left out?  Do they make time for questions after class or not?  Perhaps not all of these aspects will be covered in one class, which is why I suggest taking two or more from each teacher until you find a handful of teachers you feel you could potentially spend years learning from. 

Sophia: What inspired you to start teaching yoga?

Ellie: In the last five years or so, people began to ask me about my practice, how I got started, how I stayed consistent, and how it has impacted me. I found it was something I loved talking about both with other yoga practitioners and with those curious about the practice. Some people asked me to teach them. Had they asked me in my earlier years of practice I may well have egotistically barged ahead and done so. Thankfully, no one did ask until I was at least ten years into practising, when I had some small awareness that I needed to know more about how yoga works and how to teach before I ever began working with other people’s bodies, physical and subtle. I am lucky enough to have a group of friends here who are yoga teachers who encouraged me to take training, and have been mentoring me ever since. 

On a more personal level, my yoga practice has helped me through some of the hardest times in my life. It has always been an anchor for those times when life was a struggle. Being able to share that with others has been an immense privilege and I only hope I do it with some modicum of justice. 

Sophia: What is your advice to people who have never tried yoga but want to learn?

Ellie: If you’re starting with asana in mind (which is fine), find a beginner-level course if you can, reserve your spot, and seek out your comfiest at-home clothes to wear during class. Get curious about how it feels during and after class, and what it brings to the surface for you. Come as you are, and with a commitment to developing a mindset of curiosity and observation over judgement. Know that yoga is more than asana,  and that you’re doing just fine. As one of my teachers, Arundhati Baitmangalkar said recently, “Take yoga seriously, yourself not so much”. 

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