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.

Our Over-Scheduled Lives

My husband was lamenting today the fact that nothing can be spontaneous anymore.  Everyone is over-scheduled.  He called some friends of ours to see if we could manage to get together some time next week.  Of course, he first had to check with me to see what my schedule would allow before suggesting potential dates and times to our friends.  It probably will not surprise you to learn that we could not find a time next week that was available to all of us.  In order to get together we would need to make a plan and find a date and time at some point in the future.  We would need to put the event into our calendars and make sure to generate reminders so we would not forget about it.  Then we would need to hope that we could get to that date and time without unforeseen obstacles intruding between now and then.

Short of finding an available future meeting time, my husband noted that since someone had answered his phone call, they must be home now.  So would it be possible for him to stop by now or some time this afternoon?  Once again, not surprisingly, the answer was “Sorry!  We’re expecting company this afternoon”.  Yikes!  What complicated lives we all live.  It’s no wonder that so many of us are plagued by the constant notion that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything we think we need to do.

All of this can create stress.  By now all of us have heard that stress can create all sorts of health problems.  In a recent edition of the Daily Insight newsletter from Yoga Journal, physician and Yoga Journal medical editor Timothy McCall warns that stress may also fuel chronic illnesses, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. “If you are continually stressed, you leave the door open to a variety of health conditions,” McCall says.

But then he goes on to say that a regular, consistent yoga practice can help.  Another edition of the Daily Insight gives the following related suggestions:

. . .  as we become busier and busier, even the activities that bring us joy can feel like just one more thing to do.

So, how do we bring balance into our hectic lives? Often, we look for some external solution that can make us better, stronger, more spiritual, or happier. But the search itself can leave us feeling busier, more stressed, and ultimately, less fulfilled. The real key to finding balance is to focus internally and listen to what’s inside.

Achieving balance can be as simple as taking regular moments to connect with yourself. Do something that turns your awareness inward.

So how about making an appointment with yourself.  Give yourself time for your practice and treat it like you would any of the other obligations you’ve created in your life.  And – yes – you have created most of these obligations.  Of course, some of them are related to caregiving, employment or other chores, but you can still make time for yourself.  Consistency is key.  The more you stick to it, the more you will find that not only can you stick to it, but the rest of your life may even benefit.

As you do this, try dropping all judgmental terminology.  If you choose to join a class (always a good choice!) as your means of focusing on yourself and giving yourself some time to just be, avoid comparing yourself to others.  One more pearl of wisdom from the Yoga Journal:

. . . comparing yourself to others in the room or expecting unrealistic results from your body can cause suffering—but as the yogic sage Patanjali said . . . the pain that is yet to come can be avoided.

By gently allowing your body to discover . . . through different poses or variations, you remind yourself not to mistake who you are for how you should look in a pose—opening both your muscles and your mind along the way.

Each of us is unique and, although “one size fits all” solutions are offered to us on a daily basis by various media outlets, we are each an experiment of one.  No can tell you what will work best for you.  But tools can be offered.  How you choose to use them is up to you.   And your method of using a tool (or pose) may be totally different from someone else’s even when it is the same tool (or pose).  There is no right or wrong way.  There is only what works for you in this moment.  Subject to change at any time.  Be open to the possibilities.  You may surprise yourself.