I was never the flexible girl.
Sure, I did gymnastics, but I was never that girl that could drop into splits effortlessly or high kick past my hips. I was always the “strong” girl. Quadzilla. Linebacker shoulders. You would never describe me as “willowy” or sylph-like. I was always the first one to scoff that I didn’t have the attention span or the flexibility to do yoga.
It wasn’t until I was sidelined by an injury that I even considered doing yoga as part of my wellness regimen. But every health care practitioner, from my physician to my physiotherapist, chiropractor and massage therapist were urging me to try yoga.
The truth is, it intimidated me. Scared me even.
My body didn’t move “that” way. I had visions of old, wizened men in a loin cloth doing all sorts of contortions, and all I could think of is that I needed my chiropractor on speed dial if I was going to attempt any of THAT!
I decided to give it a shot because it was the only activity that I could do at the time.
I confess: I didn’t love yoga the first time I did it.
For my first class, I settled on a class in a hot studio because it was November in Ottawa, and I told myself that I could place my socks at the foot of my mat so that my feet could be warm afterwards. The experience was humbling: I didn’t know any of the terms, I almost got whiplash from looking around making sure I was moving correctly, my muscles ached in postures I wasn’t convinced were NOT forms of torture, and my inner monologue kept screaming, “Why? WHY?!”. The whole time, I felt like a giraffe on roller skates: slightly out of control, and completely inadequate, feeling like I did not belong there at all. Teachers smiled encouragingly at me while I tried desperately to blend in to the backdrop of mats and blocks.
But that night, I slept well for the first time in months. My skin glowed (sweating buckets will do wonders that a pore strip can’t), and I felt as though I had more space in my joints. Though skeptical, I went back the following day. After a while, the movements started becoming intuitive, and for that time on the mat, I thought of nothing else but my movements, my breathing, and my focus was solely on well… me. I started exploring different types of yoga: kundalini, hatha, Yin, Power…. My husband commented that I seemed calmer, more grounded than before I had a yoga practice (not his words – he told me yoga made me nicer).
Before I knew it, I had committed to a 100 day yoga challenge, where I practiced every day, whether it be for 10 or 100 minutes. When that ended, I signed up for a 200 hour yoga teaching program. I was officially hungry to learn more about this practice that had improved my mood, increased my flexibility, and deepened my self-awareness.
This is not a scientific discourse on the benefits of yoga as demonstrated by randomized control trials and double blind studies, but rather a series of observations from my experiences in the yoga space.
Flexibility will protect you in the long run:
It’s the old comparison between the bamboo and the ….other trees… That which does not bend will break.
Flexibility means that maybe when you slip on the ice, the muscles of your lower leg will have enough wiggle room to let the bones move around to regain your equilibrium rather that snap like twigs. Flexibility means being able to remove your sports bra like a champ, or to try and retrieve your purse from the back seat without herniating a disc. It does NOT mean being hypermobile and bending over backwards until you are staring at your impeccable pedicure
from behind. Better mobility will allow you to go through life with less fear of injury as your body will be used to moving through different planes of movement.
The pose is not the goal:
You’ve seen them on social media: the instaYogis. Beautiful people in beautiful backdrops doing beautiful poses. The implication is that this should be every yogi’s goal. I am here to tell you emphatically that it is NOT. If I were to ask students why they show up to class every week, their answers would be quite diverse: “It’s the only hour I can get to myself”, “I want to improve my swim times”, “ My doctor told me my blood pressure was too high”, “ I want to play on the floor with my grandkids and not have to worry about getting up afterwards”, “this is the only activity my doctor will allow me to do with my heart condition”. YOU set your intention for your yoga practice – not the outside world. Yoga is so much more than just a movement practice. Which leads me to:
Breath is life:
Would you believe me if I told you that the majority of people have forgotten how to breathe? If you’re conscious while reading this, then you are likely scratching your head right now. I like to walk around before leading a class, where all the students are lying on their backs, and observe their breathing. Most people breathe through their chest and clavicles (collar bones). This type of breathing is associated with the fight, flight and freeze response, which means that the brain is feeling stressed. I get it: you fought traffic to get there, your work deadline is looming, your child is fighting a bug, and life is happening around you and never stops!!! North American society has the ethos of more is more: that if you work more, have more things, do more activities, you will amount to more. And it is burning out as a result of this. Stress is the most common denominator in most diseases, including cancer! Have you ever watched a baby sleep? Lying on their backs like a starfish, you observe the steady rise and fall of their bellies in an almost hypnotic rhythm. This is the breathing pattern of blissful ignorance, of rest and digest, where recovery and growth happens. This pattern is usually restored after a yoga practice. The belly doesn’t lie: you are officially calmer. When your brain relaxes, your body does as well, and begins to heal. Inflammation and blood pressure lower. Your digestion improves. And yes, you sleep better. And well rested individuals are able to tackle the small stuff of everyday life with aplomb.
Let’s face it: it’s hard to go over your grocery list or your work presentation while you are standing on one leg or while you are trying to remember a movement sequence! Slowing down allows for better awareness. Awareness fosters focus. Focus means you’re not thinking of anything else rather than rhythms of breath and maybe maintaining balance. We are so used to multitasking that we are no longer attending to what is important. When was the last time you gave someone or something your undivided attention? I mean, who even poops without their phones anymore? Yoga is the vacation that you can take anywhere.
Yoga is humbling because it highlights your vulnerabilities. It is difficult to lose your balance. It is taxing to hold a pose for ten breaths. It is challenging to lie in stillness. Your shoulders “have never moved that way”. I get it. You want to move away from that which makes you uncomfortable. And therein lies the Lesson. How you react when confronted in yoga is often how you will react in Real Life. Do you buck the instructions and do what you want? Do you give up? Do you berate yourself or put yourself down? Or do you try to scale the activity? Are you patient when learning a new skill? Do you celebrate the small successes, like actually making out of the house to dedicate some time to yourself? The strategies that you develop in that controlled space will serve you off the mat as well. Rather than moving away, sitting with that discomfort will teach you better coping strategies in your everyday life.
In addition to the known health benefits such as lowering your blood pressure, improving flexibility and endurance, improving your strength, lowering stress, improving digestion, maintaining bone health, and improving your sleep, yoga asks you to step out of your comfort zone. By learning a new skill, it asks you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, challenging you both physically and psychologically in order to experience growth gaining valuable skills that will serve you outside the studio. It demands that you turn your attention towards something you have likely been neglecting for too long: YOU! I’m not saying that yoga will cure all that ails you, but I am saying that it is a step in the right direction if you want to nurture a transformative practice that will allow you to live your best life for years to come.
Try a class and let me know what your experience was. What have you got to lose?