Yes – Yoga is for You!

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Peace and Freedom

As a strong advocate of yoga for all, I am somewhat disturbed by the proliferation of images that portray yoga as more like gymnastics than the cultivation of a mind/body connection.  Yoga was originally developed as a contemplative practice to assist with the physical demands of seated meditation.  Somewhere along the line certain branches of the practice have taken a turn to the athletic.  In fact there has been a movement in recent years to make yoga a competitive sport.  This is fine for some. Unfortunately, however, this tends to intimidate people who think they are too old or infirm or inflexible or whatever to do yoga.  That, of course, is completely untrue.  One does not need to be flexible to do yoga. Although yoga will not alter genes or inherent physical attributes, it can improve flexibility and encourage greater mobility in regular practitioners.  Fortunately, there is also a growing segment of the yoga community that is advancing the practice of yoga as therapy, expanding on its roots as an inner as well as outer practice.

The keys to experiencing the benefits of yoga, both physically and mentally, are letting go of expectations and maintaining a consistent practice.  It is entirely possible that you will never be able to touch your toes in a forward fold.  But here’s a revelation – it doesn’t matter!  If you practice forward folds consistently, they will become more comfortable and you will experience their benefits.  These include calming the nervous system, quieting the mind, and helping to relieve stress and anxiety. Forward bends also stretch the hamstrings and calves, notoriously tight areas for most of us that can lead to additional problems in the hips, knees and lower back.  And now for another revelation: according to a Yoga Journal article by long time yoga teacher Baxter Bell “90% of people [need help] doing [forward bends] safely”.  So if forward bends are a problem for you, you are certainly not alone.  This is what props are for.  Using props is not a sign of weakness.  It is a sign of self-love, self-compassion and finding the joy that accompanies true acceptance of reality.   Remember also that today’s reality is transient just like everything else.  So accepting and accomodating the reality of today doesn’t have to mean forever.  Just for today practice they way that feels best for you.  That may change tomorrow.  Or it may not.  But today is the most important day.  It deserves your attention.

It doesn’t help that we live in a culture that does not value aging.  Youth is celebrated to the extent that we are constantly bombarded with images that implore us to deny the natural – and inescapable – reality of changing physical bodies.  Instead we are encouraged to follow the next great product or procedure to the impossibility of eternal youth.  We find ourselves falling into the trap of denying reality and living with the false hope that we can avoid change or return to some magical time when everything was perfect.  It’s amazing what hindsight allows us to believe.  The fact is that just by virtue of having lived longer than younger people we have accumulated a certain amount of wisdom simply through experience.  Sometimes the noise of the youth culture becomes so overwhelming that we, too, forget to value this wisdom.  Here are some quotes from one of the founders of modern yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar:

“Do not look at others’ bodies with envy or with superiority.  All people are born with different constitutions.  Never compare with others.  Each one’s capacities are a function of his or her internal strength.  Know your capacities and continually improve upon them.”

“Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement. . .”

Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance recently completed a study titled 2016 Yoga in America.  Highlights include documentation of the increase in yoga participation throughout the U.S. even in remote and rural areas.  This is not exactly big news to most of us, but some of the statistics are surprising. Among them, more men are practicing yoga.  Also the number of participants aged 55 and older has increased by a whopping 10 million people in the 4 years since 2012 (from 4 million in 2012 to 14 million in 2016).  The article anticipates that this population “may usher in a wave of softer and more meditative practices.”  Fortunately, this is already happening.  Those of you who are lumping all yoga classes into some broad category of sun salutations and arm balances would do well to take a second look.  Most studios offer a variety of classes.  Check out the descriptions or speak with an instructor before making assumptions about what you can and can’t do.  The study also points to the increase in the number of trained yoga teachers.  For every current teacher, there are 2 more who are training to be teachers. This means that there is a choice in teachers.  So if you try a class and don’t like it, my first suggestion is to try again.  Everyone has a bad day and your own anxiety could have been part of your judgment.  If you still don’t like the class, try a different teacher.  American yoga has greatly expanded on the original methods of yoga that came from India.  Today there are so many styles and teachers bring many different backgrounds and interests to their classes.  So don’t give up.  With a little patience and persistence you will likely find a practice that works for you.

Finally, the study cites all of the benefits enjoyed by yoga practioners.  These include a more positive self-image, increased likelihood to be active in other ways, relief of stress and overall health improvement.  Those who take classes also have the benefit of community.  So if you are new or returning to yoga after an absence, be kind to yourself.  Let the past go.  Just for today, accept where you’re at right now.  Don’t try to push yourself beyond your capacity.  Pay attention to your own body and listen to what it is telling you.  Use props and make adjustments as needed.  And accept support.  Ask your teacher for help with whatever accommodations you might need.  Don’t compare yourself to anyone else.  Regardless of what you think your poses look like, you are a real yogi just like all other practitioners.  Relax and enjoy!  You, too, deserve the benefits of yoga.

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“Good” Workout Vs. “Bad” Workouts

This week I read a post in the Wildmind Newsletter about meditation, but I think the concepts can also apply to our practice of Pilates, yoga or any movement discipline we undertake.  So I’m taking the liberty of paraphrasing:  What is a “good” workout vs. a “bad” workout?  We waste a great deal of time making these judgments and worrying accordingly. The judgment is ultimately not about the workout, but really about ourselves and how we perceive our own efforts and abilities.  Maybe we think a “good” workout is one during which every exercise is performed to whatever specifications we demand of ourselves that day.  So it’s a workout that goes according to some preconceived notion or prescribed plan. But how many things in our lives actually go according to plan?  Or perhaps a better way of looking at it is how often does a well-layed out plan go awry? And what do we do when that happens?  When a workout doesn’t work out, we create stories about how we are not good at ______ (fill in the blank) or this practice isn’t the right one for us, or something similar. But this story is our own invention, so maybe we need to invent a different one:

With a bit more experience (assuming we don’t give up in the face of all those judgments) we may start to think that it’s the effort we put in that defines what is “good” or “bad”. We take into account that the conditions we’re working with change; sometimes they make [our practice] easier and sometimes harder. Imagine you go running. Some days you’re running on flat ground with the wind at your back. Sometimes you’re running uphill against a stiff breeze. The first of these runs is going to feel more pleasant (it’s a “good run”). But which of these runs is going to help you develop more fitness and stamina? The second one, right? So maybe it’s the [workouts] we struggle in that are really the “good” ones . . .

Think about how good you feel when you’ve completed something that you perceive as difficult.  It may take some time and effort to make that happen, but with a little determination you can find a way to your goal that works for you. Try being kind to yourself and have a little patience.  It is rare that anything worth having comes without at least some struggle.  But when you have that “aha!” moment of accomplishment, it is the best feeling!  Dangle that carrot.  You can reach it.

Expanding on the concept of patience with yourself and your goals, here’s something from Yoga Journal’s Daily Insight:

Yoga was originally developed to lead the practitioner to freedom from suffering and to realization of his or her Divine Nature. . .. It can be helpful, though, and even necessary, to set lesser goals along the way. . . These goals can help you to move in the right direction and provide you with valuable mileposts.

On the road to attaining your goals—in yoga and elsewhere in your life—you will inevitably encounter obstacles. Patanjali [recognized author of the Yoga Sutras, considered the guide book to the philosophy of classical yoga) refers to these as vikshepas and enumerates nine of them: illness, listlessness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, cravings, delusion, inability to progress, and instability in maintaining progress. Depending on your nature and the goals you have set, you will run into some of these more readily than others; but sooner or later you will come up against them all. How you meet these obstacles will affect how well you surmount them and what your state of mind will be in the process.

One does not need to understand the Yoga Sutras to recognize these obstacles. We all experience one or more of them on a daily basis.  That’s life!  It’s full of obstacles.  But you don’t have to give in.  Try being as patient with yourself as you would be with a child or a friend or family member that you care about.  We are often so much more willing to give others the benefit of the doubt than we are to allow ourselves the same leeway.

So next time you are tempted to skip your workout because you are worried about how you might perform, my suggestion is to just show up.   To echo a further sentiment in the Wildmind post, I would assert that

any workout “you turn up for is a ‘good’ [workout]. Sure, there are some days it’s easier than others and there are some days you have to put in more effort. But I’d suggest that you regard the [workout] you do as being infinitely better than the [workout] you don’t do.”

If your performance doesn’t meet your expectations that day, chalk it up to experience.  Whether or not you realize it, your body learned something.  Allow your mind to learn something, too.