Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Yoga - hurts so good

*disqualifier - none of the people in these pictures is me.*

I am not a gym person. I have spent more time in gyms than I care to remember, and whether working on the weight machines, running on the treadmill, or climbing endless flights of imaginary stairs, I was always bored, exhausted, and ready to go home. I know that you're supposed to exercise to, like, live longer and junk, but if one hour of gym time gives you one more hour of life, that doesn't exactly seem worth it to me.

Trade one hour of bad times for one hour of good times! Or you could just skip the bad times and get the good times anyway! See what I mean?

Gym kitteh.

Plus gym people kind of freak me out. I love the little gym that I currently belong to, and everyone who works there and works out there is really nice, including the owner. But he is ALWAYS EXCITED in the manner of gym people. I do not understand having that much energy. Take a seat, read a book, at least blink once in a while. You do not seem to be blinking as much as you should be. (The parking lot of this gym is shared with a dentist, and the dentist has a Hummer with the personalized license plate NOVOCN. Leland thinks this is awesome. I think this is terrifying.)

Luckily for me, there is one gym thing that I not only enjoy, I crave. Yoga. And not just because Yoga teachers are rarely of the Jack Russell Terrier / Small Child on a Sugar Rush energy level. Yoga is like exercise, stress release, and therapy all rolled up into one.

I've had a sad break of almost six months in my yoga practice, but in late December I returned (with a vengance - dum dum dummmm) when I used some Christmas money for a gym membership. Currently the gym offers classes only twice a week, but there is an enthusiastic yoga community there and the gym owner promised me that they were at least moving up to three times a week. When I lived in Minnesota I belonged to a gym with classes every day, and I did usually go 5-6 times per week.

The instructor at my new gym, A, is probably the best instructor I've ever had. She's my age, tiny, blond, pretty, and from California, and she speaks in this calm, husky voice. It's a waste of time to hate, but you know, when A first came into the room, I thought, "I hate her". I can't help it! My culture has programmed me to constantly evaluate my own body in comparison to other women! But you can't hate A, even though she is better at everything than you. She's too awesome, and too great of a teacher.

This brings me to one of the Great Rules of Yoga, something you hear over and over when you practice. "Yoga is not a competition." This is something I often have problems with. I am very competitive, so competitive that competition isn't even fun for me because I take losing so hard. Most people don't realize that I'm competitive because I try not to place myself in situations where I need to compete. If I'm not competing with the person next to me, I try to compete with myself. This is very stupid in yoga, because then I get annoyed when the person next to me seems to have no connective tissue. I fail to realize how well I'm doing with what I've been given in my own body, and I push too hard.

No amount of over-competitiveness will ever make me able to do this.

If I would try, I'd look like this.

Being over-competitive makes me miss all of the great results. And yoga gives you great results.

I am extremely inflexible - or I was, especially in my hips and legs. I took ballet for ten years as a child, and I remember my teacher pushing on my back in frustration, trying to get me to set my forehead on my stretched out legs. I remember her saying, "you're not trying!" when in fact I was in a lot of pain. When I began yoga, I hated doing any kind of forward bend because I was so stiff. I could sit at a 90 degree angle, and that was it. Now, while I still can't rest my forehead on my knees, it is a manageable goal that I know I will reach within the next few months. Just the other day, a yoga newbie in my class told me that I was "very flexible". False, but I will take your praise!

Once I could only do this.

Now I can do this!

Yoga is a whole body workout, and there are naturally some things that we are better at and some things that we need to work on. Of course, I always want to do the things I'm already awesome at, but according to my teacher, that's not a good idea. I did get an immediate boost in yoga from my wonderfully flexible back. I also have broad shoulders and am easily able to build muscle in my arms and back. I was inordinately pleased the other day when Leland said, "I can see new definition in your forearms". Forget this stupid trope that girls shouldn't have muscles. I want Michelle Obama arms!

I can do this. Because I am awesome.

When I started yoga, I didn't really like it. I kept going because I had already paid for several classes and I was going with a friend. While doing yoga, I felt (in no particular order) weak, fat, confused, frustrated, uncoordinated, and uncomfortable.

After the class was over, I kept going mostly out of stubbornness and the fact that it was still better than the treadmill (where I felt weak, fat, and about to die). I had several DVDs, which I used without any real conviction. I briefly went to classes in England, which was a horrible experience. The teacher called out the poses like a drill instructor, then actually yelled at me for modifying a pose because I was uncomfortable, and called me a wimp in front of about 30 other people in the class.

I can't imagine any one of the other teachers I've had being so cruel. Or ineffectual! One of the other Great Rules of Yoga is that you need to listen to your own body and move at your own pace. I am stubborn and determined and I push myself harder than I probably should. If the teacher says, "you can stay here or..." I'm going to shoot for the "or" option if it kills me. If I am modifying a pose, it's for a reason.

So I was disenchanted with yoga. Then I met Shiva Rea. Well, I didn't meet her, I bought her DVD. And she taught me to love yoga. The DVD is neat in that there are many different little segments which you can stitch together in any order you want to create probably 50 different "classes" depending on what you're interested in working on. No DVD is as good as a real-life instructor, but doing this DVD everyday built up my strength and convinced me to return to an actual class.

Shiva Rea, Yogi extraordinaire

Day to day, yoga is about listening really hard to what the teacher is saying and being mindful of every inch of your body. Where is your weight centered? What are your toes doing? Is your hip tucked enough? Is your face relaxed? And, for me, Are you hyperextending your joints? It's when you have this control and mindfulness that you are able to make those wonderful connections. With the simplest shift, a pose moves from unimaginable to possible, from uncomfortable to natural.

I still remember the first breakthrough I ever had. It came in the transition between plank pose and chaturanga, where you slowly and with control lower your body with your arms, like a very slow reverse push-up. I plopped right from plank to the ground, every time. I thought, this is impossible. I saw everyone around me doing it and I just couldn't. Then the teacher said, "tuck your elbows tightly against your chest."

From plank...

TA-DA!! My arms were strong enough! Instant self-esteem booster! And every time I do this transition, lowering myself slowly into chaturanga, I feel like He-man.

... to chaturanga.

A few months later I had another success when I worked out that crow pose is mostly about where your weight is centered over your body, and less about your arm strength. Suddenly I was balancing my legs on my own arms.

I still can't believe that I can do this. It just seems so unlikely.

Another great moment was the first time I lifted myself into wheel pose (which on the playground we used to call bridge, but that's another yoga pose - confusing. Also A hates calling it wheel pose and always uses the Sanskrit name but I can't remember it). A went through the set-up for the pose with me about ten times, but I couldn't make the final push into the position. Finally, I moved my hands just a bit closer to my ears, and then lifted myself right off the ground.

Further evidence of my awesomeness.

Every day in class I see the disbelieving faces of new students when they encounter certain poses. There is no way, they think, that my body will ever do that. I always try and tell new students to stick with yoga until they begin to see results, because I know how many great things await them if they are patient and persistent. I know they don't believe me yet, but soon they'll understand.


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