26 August 2010

Those Who Cannot Bend

I finally did it.  I took a yoga class.

It took me several months of doing Internet research and then talking myself into the idea that yoga was even worth trying…in front of other people.  As much as I want to be fit, I have little confidence engaging in physical activities in the presence of my fellow man.  I wasn't blessed with coordination, balance, or endurance, so visualizing myself in a yoga class conjured up images of me plowing face first into the mat while trying to angle my body into a downward dog.  Not only that, but the idea of trying to stifle body sounds while stretching in a room where the only noise is that of your breathing left me unnerved.  Heck, what if my stomach rumbles or, even worse, I accidentally belch?  My friends can handle the cacophony of my intestinal tract, but would perfect strangers?

Macy, a close friend of mine who is as bendy as a silly straw, used to be my roommate some years back.  She would occasionally pass me one of her yoga DVDs so that I could attempt a pose or two.  Her disclaimer warned that the kind of yoga she was used to would be difficult for a beginner like me, so I should be careful not push myself too far.  I would wait for her to leave for class, run up to my room, close and lock the door, throw on my workout clothes, and pop the DVD into my laptop.  I couldn't risk watching the disc on our TV downstairs for fear a neighbor might drop in for a cup of sugar and find me with my legs tied in a pretzel.  It was an awkward task, trying to learn how to inhale and exhale all over again while attempting to find my ankles and introduce my chest to my thighs.  Macy had been right.  A session of virtual yoga left me feeling like the straight straw of our apartment.

Yet lately I have been under tremendous stress with trying to start a family and deal with a demanding schedule.  Even though the transition from teaching 3rd grade to 5th grade has been a smooth one, I am going home almost every night with lower back pain.  It's probably the result of being on my feet all day in cute shoes.  But hey, I spent all of last year darting through the rain between school building and classroom trailer in my polka-dotted rain boots.  I sacrificed my wardrobe long enough.  My platform wedges and kitten heels were beginning to feel lonely.  Not wanting to pop an Advil or fork out the dough for a masseuse with every twinge of pain, I decided I would try a 6-session run with a yoga studio not far from our home.  They even offered me a teacher discount.  Score.

I figured I would have to fill out paperwork in order to participate in class, so I arrived at the studio a little early.  I was expecting to walk in on a group of tunic-wearing hippies eyeballing the newcomer, obviously interrupting their discussions on existentialism and attempts to read each other's auras.  Instead, a warm wave of sandalwood incense greeted me, as well as a bubbly instructor named Heather.   Her husband, Michael, was the only other person there.  He sat barefoot on their reclaimed church pew against the wall closest to the entrance.

Heather took me on a tour of the studio, which was not much larger than my classroom.  She explained what class would be like and that I was welcome to use their equipment (hooray for use of free materials).  I cut a check and signed on the dotted line promising not to stretch beyond the snapping point.  Then I followed other students to the floor as they began to file in:  an older couple who helped themselves to the mats who found their spot near the mirrors and began breathing; a woman wearing a yellow paisley handkerchief and toting her own mat went straight for a lying-down pose; another woman with cropped grey hair and capris started her stretching in the back of the room.

No one was really that quiet.  Heather checked in with everyone, catching up on old news and asking about their days.  They chatted about church, tennis, and chiropractor visits.  I remained quiet, figuring it would be rude to jump in on strangers' conversations.

The class began with breathing exercises.  We were to breathe in and out, long and focused, with our eyes shut.  I didn't think one could spend 5 full minutes thinking only of your breath, but it was a powerful experience realizing I could shut out my stressors and concentrate on a basic function.

Heather would start us in positions that I didn't understand the names of, but I decided just to follow her lead.  Each instruction sounded something to the effect of, "OK, let's get our bodies into uttuwattayamma, like we usually do before we do a shashasawakka."  The student side of me wanted her to stop and write the spelling of every new word I was learning in grease pencil on the mirror so I could know what I was doing.  It was all Sanskrit to me.

We moved into poses and stretches that worked our intercostals (a part of me I have rarely stretched).  I was new at the whole controlled breathing thing, so I found it difficult to inhale while in certain positions. In fact, a couple of times, I ended up holding my breath while in a pose, which only made holding such positions painful.  I held my own, though, and attempted everything asked of me and was able to hold every pose until Heather said to return to standing.  Flexibility may not be my strength, but I sure as hell was more bendy than the older couple to my right.  Their hips were popping audibly, and they were trying to mask the pain with laughter.

At the end of the class, we all laid down on our mats with all muscles relaxed, closed our eyes, and went back to breathing.  My body had never been so relaxed, and my back pain had mysteriously melted away.  For several moments, I just…was.  Stress, schedules, and time did not exist.  It was simply me and my borrowed yoga mat.

Heather recited several affirmations for us to accept while inhaling the incensed air.  Then came three pings of her bell, which, as unwound as I was, seemed to shake the room and send pulsing sound waves from my arches straight to the crown of my head.

I wiped down my mat with organic cleaner and drove home.  The ride felt freer somehow, even though I knew ungraded papers awaiting my return.  Worrying over yoga had been for naught.  There had been no toppling or face-planting, and my downward dog looked great.


1 comment:

A. Hab. said...

Hooray!! A future yogini in our midst, folks! :D Welcome to the practice, V. You're going to love it.

I used to do yoga all the freaking time. Then I had to have lower back surgery, and then the recovery, and then I was ridonkulously stiff--much much stiffer than I had ever been in my life. This was over about a course of two years or so, I'd say. I was embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn't do a standing forward bend to save my life. The furthest down I could get was hands to knees. That was this past February.

I started doing yoga with my two friends at our gym in February, and we've been going regularly between 3-5 days a week. My girls are waaaay more bendy than I am, but, of course, they also didn't have back surgery to contend with. We also went to an ashram for a yoga retreat in June, and I was really worried. I mean, I could do yoga well enough in my gym class (by June I was able to stand on my hands in a standing forward bend), but with real pros at an ashram? I was scared! Of course, yogis and yoginis are about the most chill people in the world, so they were extremely welcoming and helpful. We were not pushed to do anything we couldn't do (and you shouldn't be in your regular class either, of course). I was really excited because one of the yoginis leading class one day told me that my triangle was perfect--and I wasn't even touching the ground (like an ideal triangle)! That was a pretty exciting moment for me.

But I think the most important thing I've learned through my years of practice (interrupted, of course) is this: you must forgive your body its limitations and praise its strengths. Every single day in yoga is different. You may have had perfect balance for both sides yesterday, but today your left side might be a little wobbly. So what? That's just your body. Love it as it is, and you'll find that yoga will meet you where you are.

(Also: breathing is the hardest part. I've found that it helps me if I try to practice proper breathing techniques in my day-to-day activities. It not only helps me when I'm practicing yoga, but it also helps keep me stay calm and focused in general.)

Good luck and have a good time! :)

(And, speaking of yoga, I better wrap up this comment so I'm not late to class--gotta get my favorite spot, of course. ;))


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