Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I Hate Yoga

Yep, that's right. I hate yoga.

It's an uneasy sort of night. Something doesn't feel right in my body, in my mind. My spirit is unsatisfied. Nothing feels right or good.

I have harsh words for myself as I choose my clothes for the day. Do you really need all this crap? Why the hell did you spend your money on that?

I drive to the yoga studio, but there isn't any music that can soothe me. The notes coming from the speakers in the car sound like broken glass scratching across my mind and in my chest.

In the studio, I unroll my mat. I sit in easy pose, hands resting on my thighs. I follow my breath, the inhale and the exhale.

What the hell am I doing this for? Do I really need to be here? I don't need to be here. I should be at home doing the dishes or cleaning up the endless piles of stuff that get taken out and not put away every day or taking Colden to the park or cooking or cleaning the refrigerator.

My arms move up and down. I'm pissed at myself. Pissed at all my shortcomings as a human being. I'm a terrible person. I shouldn't be here. Why the hell did I think I could be a yoga teacher? Wasn't that whole thing a big waste of time?

I tip my hips back into down dog, and it shoots into my brain, right before my closed eyes: I. Hate. Yoga.

I really do. I hate it. At this second, I'm intensely aware of every single character flaw, everything that my body is not capable of, everything that I should be doing instead of trying to make my body move into these strange positions.

I hate the way yoga makes me aware of what's not working in my life, because then it begs me to answer the question: What do I need to change?

I hate the way that yoga makes me understand that my discontent in this moment is coming just from me, and not from anyone else.

I hate the way yoga makes me ache for connection with other human beings, other people who may or may not be struggling the same way I am.

My brain is snarling at me, snapping like a terrified dog backed into a corner.

And then...and then...

There's the release. Just when I think I can't take anymore, when my stomach and my brain and my heart are stretched to their limits, everything just busts wide open, and...

Everything is fine.

Monday, May 19, 2014

YogAlign: The Anti-Yoga?

A huge part of being a yoga teacher, of being a good yoga teacher, is staying open to new information about this ever-evolving practice. So when Michealle Edwards, the creator of the YogAlign method of yoga came to my local yoga studio, I signed right up to see what she had to say about yoga and posture.

I read through her website in the week before she came to the studio, and noticed that she uses William Broad's notorious book, The Science of Yoga, as an example of how "dangerous" yoga is. (Cue interior cringing. There's a lot wrong with that book and it's distorted presentation of asana practice.) Her website promises that her method will result in "pain free" yoga, which to me, seems kind of odd - I've always believed that all yoga should be pain free.

So, more on that later, but the day of the workshop, she had all of us take before and after pictures so that we could see if there was any shift in our posture after working with her methods throughout the morning. She taught us a couple of breathing exercises to make us aware of what muscles are moving in the body every time we take a breath.

Michaelle guided us through a series of movements meant to create body awareness and stabilize our posture. I definitely noticed a difference in how my body felt before and after we did each side. When we did some upper body work, I noticed that after completing a range of movements on my right side, my right arm was most definitely about an inch longer than my left. (The left arm evened up nicely after I repeated the movements on that side!)

First, I completely agree with Michaelle that posture is a huge problem for a whopping majority of people these days, even among practitioners and teachers of yoga. We've (de?) evolved into a society of mostly desk-sitters, and our bodies are slumping forward as the result of poorly designed chairs and desks from where we sit all day.

I also agree with her that yoga should not hurt, and that asanas should most definitely be modified to create a sense of ease and stillness.

I don't agree that the practice of asana is inherently "dangerous". Speaking as someone who hurt herself a whole lot (read: weekly) when I got serious about a daily asana practice 18 months ago, I've learned that a huge part of asana is meant to bring your awareness into your own body. How many years have we all spent rushing through life in this body without giving any thought to how it feels or what it wants? It's probably the hardest part of asana practice for many of us: learning how to tune in to our bodies and what they really want after all these years, and learning how to treat ourselves gently. That doesn't necessarily make the practice of asana dangerous - it just means that we have to pay attention to how and what we're practicing.

And how is our body really "meant" to move, anyway? I think a huge part of the practice of asana in yoga is to develop the strength and flexibility to get into some of these poses, while, of course, being gentle to yourself while you're doing it. Michaelle asserts that the human body was never "meant" to be in positions like staff pose (sitting on the floor with the legs stretched out in front, feet flexed).

But from my beading studies, I know that this is how the Ndebele tribe of South Africa sit for extended periods of time while doing their beadwork. Is this somehow unnatural?

Ndebele woman doing traditional beadwork in seated position very similar to staff pose

No, we don't often walk with our knees locked stiff and straight, nor do we walk with our pelvic floor tightened and engaged, nor do we sit like, well, the Ndebele tribe does on a regular basis. But that's not the point of asana in yoga - at least, not as I understand it. 

My last question, and one that was asked by more than a few people at the workshop, was that if Michaelle thinks that other forms of yoga are so "dangerous", why is she marketing her workshops to yoga teachers and yoga studios? Why is she even using "yoga" in the name of her method?

Now, before you get the wrong idea, I took away a lot of valuable information from this workshop. First and foremost was a reinforcement of my belief that too much flexibility without strength can be a liability in asana practice, and people who just stretch mindlessly without full awareness can indeed injure themselves pretty seriously.

Something else very interesting that Michaelle talked about was resetting our muscle memory, which is what I heard about when I took a short positional therapy workshop last month at Kripalu. Muscles that are too tight can cause lots of pain and lots of problems, and the idea behind positional therapy (much like Michaelle's YogAlign method) is that allowing certain muscles to relax back into their natural configurations, you can relieve things like chronic back pain and muscular tension headaches.

I intend to immerse myself in Michaelle's book to learn more about her methods and the reasoning behind them, but for now, I'm going to continue to practice certain asanas with the support of props like blankets and modifications like bent knees.

Last lesson behind all of this? Staying open to new information from alternative viewpoints can sometimes lead to a reinforcement of your current beliefs! Don't be afraid to hear what others have to say, even if it's not totally in agreement with what you already think you "know"!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Finding Strength In the Small

So yesterday morning after Colden was packed off to school, I rolled out my mat before I did anything else, and I put myself through a vigorous asana practice. I did my Sun Salutations, went through a nice vinyasa flow using my favorite standing poses, and then did a few seated poses to cool down.

A thought kept popping back into my mind as I went through my flow. When I was at the studio for practice yesterday morning, Robin said to me, "Look at your biceps! Oh my God!"

Yeah, after 18 months of near-daily Sun Salutations, I have itty bitty biceps on my itty bitty arms. My body has definitely changed - I'm more flexible, stronger, and leaner than I was 18 months ago. My size 12 jeans have been replaced by sizes 8 and 6, if you can believe that. And all I did was yoga. I do not lift weights. I do not run. I do not do "cardio" (except for a vigorous Ashtanga practice now and then), and I don't go to the gym to "work out". I just do yoga.

And it's not like I'm doing any of the really big, flashy asanas, here. No headstands for me. I can only do shoulder stand if I'm using a bolster or a stack of blankets about 6" high. I can't do plow, or wheel, or any of those crazy back bends. (At least, not yet.)

But think about it: if you stand in Warrior II with your arms outstretched, what are you doing? You're working those muscles. You're breathing deeply, moving oxygen and red blood cells through your body. You're standing still, yes, but you're WORKING.

It's not a big movement to stand in mountain pose with your arms stretched overhead. But if you do it every day, what happens? Eventually, you get strong. Your legs get strong - your bones get strong from weight bearing, your muscles engage and get used. Your shoulders loosen up, your arms get long and lean.

When I  move through Chaturanga, the yoga push-up move that's a part of every Sun Salutation, I still can't move right from plank and lower down to the mat without dropping my knees first. I just don't have the strength in my core.


But practicing all those Chaturangas with my knees bent has paid off - I have biceps! 

Don't be afraid to start small. If you're looking to start a yoga practice, don't be afraid to walk into a beginner class and learn the basics. Don't tell yourself that just because you need to modify a pose that you're practice isn't as "good" as someone who doesn't need a prop or a modification.

Yoga is not about a competition. It's about working on YOURSELF. It's about checking in with YOU. Treating yourself gently makes you stronger, not weaker.

Have you ever just spent an entire yoga practice sitting in easy pose or child's pose? That's a powerful move, right there. Do you have the strength to sit with your thoughts and your breath for a full 75 minutes? I encourage you to try it one day, and experience it for yourself.

Sure, one day I might have the core strength and strength in my shoulders to get into head stand and shoulder stand. But for now, I'll keep practicing my small moves, and enjoy those biceps of mine.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

For the Record.

For the record: I do not like this culture of "more, faster, better" that seems to be all around us. We're told to want more, want it faster, and want it to be better than before. But to what end? What if - what if? - we all took an hour every day to do absolutely nothing? What if we took an hour a day to just be with our families, our friends, ourselves? What if we took an hour a day to check in with ourselves and find out what's working and what's not in our lives? What if we took an hour a day to just look at the sky and daydream? What if we told ourselves that we have enough, that we are enough?

I do not like the way we rush our kids off to school, the way we rush ourselves off to work. I do not like the feeling that we have to cram as much as we can into every second of every day, or else we're not "productive".

The world must have a balance of hard and soft, of dark and light, of movement and rest. And because we are so very much a part of this world, we must also find this kind of balance in ourselves and in our lives.