Sunday, February 24, 2013

Yoga -- try it, you'll like it


My doctor looked at me over her glasses and frowned slightly. You should really try yoga, she admonished me, not for the first time. It has so many benefits, including fitness and stress release, she continued, why on earth did I not even give it a try?

Actually, I had given it a try and in my estimation, failed in an epic way at the start. But like Goldilocks, I finally found a yoga practice that was just right for me. Ahhhh.

 At the very beginning, I took a class with a friend who is a fitness fanatic and could pass for 30 instead of her 50ish years. We were creating triangles with our bodies, twisting legs, then raising one arm and finally eyes to the ceiling. I could not stop thinking about pretzels as I used my hand to manipulate my uncooperative knee into the right position. My father loved pretzels, the thin crunchy kind. He would eat them along with a cold Coke while watching the Johnny Carson show. I would be allowed to join him for just a few minutes before I was sent back to bed. Which brings me to the other component of yoga that escaped me completely: concentration.

The instructor was telling us to focus on our breath and empty our minds. Let the mind chatter disappear into blissful meditation. I was really trying to do this but knew I was fooling no one when an upside down face appeared before mine and said, “you are not even trying to concentrate.” She was right. I was enjoying the view out the window and thinking of the things I would buy at the grocery store when the torture session, er yoga lesson, was finished. This class was definitely not for me.

A year later, I was encouraged by another friend to try yogalates, a combination of yoga and pilates. While I did not love pilates, I thought I would at least enjoy trying this class which was held in an historic barn. Cool. When I entered, I was pleased to see a few students who looked more like me: not too thin, not decked out in perfect yoga attire, and wearing the same hopeful expression. The teacher was excellent and I found myself enjoying the class, except for the incense she burned. I suppose this was intended to infuse our lesson with good karma. Here I learned about my heartspace and being grateful in the moment. I kept up with this for a few weeks and found true mastery when she added head stands to our routine. For some bizarre reason, I have always been able to do this. I was inspired.
Scheduling and money stopped this experiment. Years passed before I tried again.

This time, I was persuaded by the class description as “gentle” yoga. How hard could that possibly be? When I arrived, I was the youngest person in the room by far, but was soon impressed by everyone else’s flexibility and dedication to the practice. Here, I finally got the breathing thing down for the most part and began to understand how to slow down the hamster on the wheel in my brain. It took me months to join the group when they ended the session with three “oms”. This is a long-winded sound emitted in a breathy growl somewhere between agony and hunger. When I tried it, however, I found it felt great. Expressing all of the air from your lungs is oddly liberating.

My favorite part of the session is at the end. It is called shavasana. This pose is extremely simple. All you need to do is lie on your back, spread eagle, eyes closed and listen to beautiful, tingly Eastern music. The room is darkened and you actually can sleep sometimes. It is a great way to finish the twisting and stretching and it is strangely energizing. While I can’t define what personal enlightenment would be, I certainly feel lighter when I’m finished with each session.

I suppose yoga is called a “practice” for a reason. You really need to experiment a bit and try out different instructors and styles to find the right fit. There is one type of yoga that I will not try under any circumstances. It is Bikram yoga where students do their poses in a superhot room. I cannot think of anything more unpleasant and counterproductive than sweating in a sauna and trying to find inner peace. My husband tried it and said he burned his tongue on his water bottle, forgetting that this would get hot too.

According to the American Yoga Association, more than 16 million people practice today in the US. The history of this activity stretches back thousands of years but only the last hundred or so have been chronicled. Yoga is evolving as its proponents do and that is why there are so many varying interpretations and styles.

We joke at our house about our 12-year old beagle when he stretches out his back legs and tucks his front paws under his chin, eyes up and watching everything around him without moving his head. We call this the “bored dog” pose because he sure looks like he is waiting for something more interesting to happen.

Without knowing it, we are actually at the edge of a new yoga trend: doga. I am not kidding. Somewhere in New Jersey, there is a yoga studio set up for people and their pets. According to the owners of this establishment, dogs get stressed too and react to their people’s stress as well. By doing downward dog, known as play pose for the four-legged participants, they are emptying their minds too. I can’t even imagine what cat yoga would look like.

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