Jennifer Winther: What Really Happens to You and Your Body During Yoga?

Jennifer Winther

A few months ago, I stumbled across a local museum website announcement for a new offering of a free 50-minute weekly yoga class. To circumvent the sedentary aspect of being a writer, I thought that’s perfect. I can totally try that out.

With no expectations beyond a little stretch here-and-there, I arrived on the first day of class as I usually do before I attend a new event…five minutes before start time without having done much research. I had no idea what type of yoga would be taught, the best clothing to wear, or if I would need any gear. It seemed like a great opportunity to try something new and again, it was free, so I just showed up.

With a cheerful and pleasant disposition, the instructor, Jennifer Winther, brought energy to start of the class that made it personable and highly welcoming. She stated we would begin on the mat. The last time I sat down on my faded yoga mat was 16 years ago at a pre-natal yoga class before the birth of my daughter. That class was pretty easy.

Why would this one be any different?

20 minutes into the class, after remaining in Plank pose for a full three seconds and convincing myself Downward-Facing Dog would absolutely be the end of me, I felt like I was near death.

Sweat ran down my forehead so profusely I could barely see the instructor when she demonstrated what I was supposed to do. Six times I had to grab a corner of my t-shirt to wipe the sweat (and sting) from my eyes. I couldn’t tell how everyone else felt, but my legs felt limp, like they no longer wanted to support my weight. A public collapse seemed imminent.

“Reach as far as you can…open your chest…heart up, straighten your right leg…” she said. I tried to reach but my arms no longer wanted to reach for anything!

Finally, 45 minutes later, near the end of class, I lie on my mat flat on my back and tried to suppress my laborious breathing and nausea as thoughts raced through my mind.

Never again! WHO is this class for?! I had no idea the left side of my body was so weak. What the hell was I thinking? Damn, I’m out of shape! Did anybody see my tank top roll up?? THANK GOODNESS IT’S OVER!

Everything ached after class and continued to ache days later. However, despite soreness and complete ambivalence, something in me knew the first class wouldn’t be my last.

As a human being alive in the world, of course, I was familiar with the general concept of yoga and passingly heard of the benefits. However, as a novice, I lacked real understanding of the deeply rooted changes this ancient practice of challenging postures, breathing and meditative techniques would yield in my life.

Several weeks into the class, yoga had introduced me to muscles I didn’t know existed. Joint stiffness and pain in my left hip began to decrease and I felt physically and mentally stronger, calmer and more grounded in my body.

However, beyond what I noticed on a topical level, it was clear something else was happening. I felt as if a multi-layered healing and release was occurring as a result of the consistent practice and I began to wonder the following:

What really happens to you and your body during yoga?

So, I reached out to my instructor.

Jennifer Winther

Jennifer Winther, Ph.D., E-RYT 500, is a writer, meditator, and Los Angeles based certified yoga instructor who leads teacher training, retreats, workshops and classes.

Here is our conversation on how yoga is way more than asanas.

BJB: What is the main purpose of yoga?

JW: I have to preface my response according to who I am. If I’m anything, I’m anti-orthodox.

I lead teacher training and teach people about what yoga is, but I always approach it as “if someone is going to tell you this is the only thing that yoga is or this is the only way to do authentic yoga,” run as far as you can in the opposite direction.

Yoga is a lifelong practice of awareness; a practice of self-study and a journey that can be treated as the path to enlightenment.

“The birth of yoga originally comes from the Vedas (ancient Hindu scriptures), which dates back between 4,000 to 5,000 years. Vedic knowledge was passed down from teacher to student through perfect memorization in the way of verses and poems. But it wasn’t until the second century B.C. that a sage named Patanjali outlined what is known today as the Eight Limbs of Yoga.”

JW: Patanjali may have been one person, but perhaps not. He is recognized as the author of the Yoga Sutras, a classical yoga text on theory and philosophy.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga is part of the Yoga Sutras, and asana