It’s Not Life and Death – It’s Yoga!


It continues to sadden me when I hear people say that they are afraid to try a yoga or Pilates class because their inexperience or perceived inability will hold back the rest of the class.  This is a topic I have addressed before but because it so frequently recurs, it is worth another look.  When these kinds of thoughts get stuck in one’s mind it can be difficult to dislodge them, but here are some possible strategies to try.

A recent article in Yoga Journal cited anxiety disorders as the most “common mental illness in the United States”. Although anxiety experts often recommend yoga and other mindfulness practices as an antidote for anxiety, the paradox of anxiety over “doing it right” and can create an insurmountable wall.  Here’s a possible solution:  keep it simple!  Remind yourself that you don’t have to do everything included in the class just because it’s there.  Pick and choose.  Skip parts that make you nervous.  Simply take a break and rest.  Or try watching and listening to the instructor so that you might be able to try that move another time.  You can also speak with the instructor after class and see if there is another way to get the same benefit.  The purpose of a mind-body practice is for each person to develop their own inner connections.  This requires practicing individual internal focus.  When you’re focussed on yourself it is difficult to pay any attention to what anyone else is doing. So chances are no one else is watching you.

Another strategy I use frequently is the 15-minute rule.  This can be applied to any task that seems overwhelming. Tell yourself you will only do whatever it is for 15 minutes.  Then if you’re still really uncomfortable or unhappy you can stop.  You can either choose to take a break as discussed above.  Or you can leave.  The doors to my classes are never locked.  Anyone can leave at any time.  If you’re still feeling OK at the 15-minute mark, give yourself another 15 minutes.  Before you know it, you’ll have made it through the entire class and still be OK.  Amazing! If 15 minutes is still too daunting, make it 10 minutes. Set your own rules.

Allow your curiousity to flow with your practice. Instead of forcing a particular pose because you think it’s supposed to look a certain way, try experimenting.  Maybe an approximation can feel just as good.  After all that is the goal here – to feel good!  Recently I have been leading an exercise class in a local nursing home.  Among other things, we have been practicing getting up from a chair without using our hands. One lady was so successful she could even come to standing.  I told her that regular practice of this technique would keep her strong.  She said, “Why do I need to be strong?  We’re all going to die.”  No argument there.  But the fact is that we are engaging in these practices because we are all currently living.  And every day that we feel good and live well is a good day.  While we’re here we might as well feel as good as we can.  Life can be a mine field.  Whatever we can do to assist with navigation is worth doing.

Change is another powerful force to keep in mind.  Everything changes all the time.  Ourselves included.  Even when we don’t notice it, each one of us changes every day.  That means that each day you are starting from a different place from the day before.  And always you have to start where you’re at.  Some days you may feel great and everything comes easily with surprisingly few obstacles.  The next day may be totally different causing you to get down on yourself for having lost the capacity that seemed so available yesterday.  But the reverse can also happen. Something you’ve struggled with seemingly forever can suddenly become accessible.  This is a great feeling that can make all the pain of getting there fade away.  But even this is subject to change.  So leave the past behind where it belongs and instead explore the wonder of who you are today.  Then go from there.  Take it slow if you need to or dive in if you need the challenge.  Once again, you’re in charge.  Do what works for you.

Of course, there is also my favorite concept – practice.  That is my mantra.  Remember the old saw – what does it take to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.  That does not mean that any of us will ever be perfect.  And there may be other people who will always be better at whatever it is than we are.  But regular practice of will result in improvement.  And improvement feels good!

Finally, it is worth reminding everyone that this is not a matter of life and death – it’s yoga.  Lighten up, folks.  Don’t take yourselves so seriously.  Do you know what children do when they fall out of a balance pose?  They giggle.  And then they try again.  There’s a lesson there. This is all about having fun.  In my ultrarunning days I would often arrive at aid stations and hear the volunteers there comment on how cheerful I looked even in the worst of conditions.  My response was always, “I’m in this for recreation.  When I stop having fun I will stop doing it.”  And, in fact, that’s what I did.  Yoga and Pilates have been my mainstays ever since.  You are all welcome to join me any time.

Still on the Fence? Here’s some Good News!!

Mickelson Trail, Custer, SD Photo:Peg Ryan

Here’s some more good news about the relationship between exercise and health as we age.  Although distinctions are made in these articles between physical and mental health, we all know about the interrelatedness of mind and body.  So if your body feels better, most likely your mind will work better, too, and vice versa.  A study published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity showed that “exercise is associated with significantly lower depression severity”.  In fact, the article goes so far as to suggest that exercise may be a more effective alternative to antidepressive medications. Especially in older adults for whom antidepressants often don’t work that well.  Turns out, too, that it doesn’t matter what kind of exercise and that the beneficial effect was apparent across different age groups.  

Another article in the same journal showed a link between improvements in balance and any type of exercise.  These results showed up in as little as 4 weeks.  So it doesn’t take long to begin to register improvement.  It also did not matter what type of exercise was done by study participants.  Improvements were seen over all modes of exercise.  As you know I have long pointed out that consistent practice of yoga and/or Pilates will improve one’s balance.  Of course, I am also a strong advocate of consistency.  Practice improves ability and regular practice improves skill.  These articles also further reinforce one of my favorite concepts:  it’s never too late to start and it’s never too late to improve.

Which is a nice seque to another article from the same journal which examines adherence to yoga practice among women with osteoarthritis.  The study participants in this case were women, but I’m sure the results would extrapolate to men also.  The article starts with the premise (already established) that “yoga is beneficial for osteoarthritis management”.  But, of course, this is true only if one sticks to a regular practice of some type.  Another quote: “Higher yoga adherence was correlated with improved symptoms, physical function, sleep quality and quality of life”.  Wow!  That’s a mouthful.  The study also suggested that there are two important factors contributing to the ability to maintain a regular practice.  The first is, not surprisingly, the ability to see and feel improvement in any of the symptoms listed above.  But there are also social factors involved.  Taking classes can be a social event.  Experiencing the social connection and feeling the support and camaraderie of a group can be a huge motivator.

So, in case you don’t yet have enough reasons to try a class or just get outside and move on a regular basis, perhaps these results will help convince you to start. Each of these articles reinforces the main benefits of yoga and Pilates which are improvements in strength, flexibility and balance on both mental and physical levels.  Getting started is the hardest part.  Once you take that leap you’re halfway there.  Then if you want to really see improvement, stick with it.  You can do it!!