Summer Yoga Experiment – Week Two

Two out of four; I’m half way to the completion of my summer yoga experiment. I’m embarking on this journey with an open mind, to discover how weekly yoga may impact my mental, physical and spiritual health.

Following Last Week’s Practice

I noticed a bit of stiffness in my neck throughout the same day, but none following that.  I also felt less back pain and joint stiffness at the end of the week.  Last week was what we call “Launch Week” at my gym, when brand new choreography is released in a branch of fitness classes we offer.  I am a fitness instructor, and on Launch Week, I typically teach upwards of twice as many classes as my usual amount, which leaves me very sore by the end of the week.  I can’t say I wasn’t stiff at all, but I can say that I noticed a marked improvement in how I felt, just by slotting that one Yoga class into the middle of the week.  I should not be surprised; I’ve been well educated on the benefits of proper stretching!

This Week’s Practice

If you recall, there were a few things I wasn’t fond of in the class I attended last week, namely the late instructor, and the overly full room of loud, bad-breathed breathers.  I purposefully chose a different class this week, so that I could experience another teacher’s practice, and a fresh environment.  I’m pleased to report that the teacher was early, stayed late to chat with me, and there were no loud, bad-breathed breathers.  The only breathing I heard today was when the instructor asked us all to exhale forcefully, and we did it as a group, which had a nice sense of comradery to it.

I came into the class slightly more comfortably after having just done Yoga last week.  I began my morning in a similar fashion, getting up early and heading to the gym with ample time to warm up and get acquainted with the room.  I also don’t have my own yoga mat (yet?), and there are only a couple of spares, so I wanted to make sure I got there early to get one.

I was tired today.  I had lots of sun this weekend, and a restless sleep last night.  I seriously considered turning the alarm off and just rolling back over, but then I remembered I made a commitment to myself, and the blogging community, to do four classes this summer, and I needed to get my lazy butt out of bed.

My experience today was entirely different than last week.  I’m discovering that this is something that intrigues me about Yoga.  I never know what to expect; no class is ever exactly the same.  There are so many poses a teacher can choose from, based on the experience level of the participants, requests, or simply what he or she is feeling inspired to practice that day.  In some classes, like the ones I teach, predictability and patterns are keys to success and the development of better cardio-vascular fitness, strength and stamina.  In Yoga, predictability doesn’t seem to matter as much. There’s lots of time to sink into each pose, adjust, and re-adjust.  I can see how familiarity with the poses would add value, but Yoga truly is a practice, and there’s always room to keep practicing and growing in the many facets of what it offers.

Some of the poses were familiar today, but some were new, and the order surprised me.  Not knowing what was coming forced me to be mentally engaged in the class, and to pay attention.  In Yoga, I have to listen and heed the instructions; I must be aware of what I’m experiencing in my body.

The Instructor Matters

I specifically appreciated three things about the way the instructor taught this morning (on top of her timely arrival and personable manner).

First, she made an effort to remind us to be aware of our mental state.  She started the class with a relaxation time, in which she brought our attention to all parts of our bodies and our breath; she challenged us to let go of worrisome thoughts or our to-do lists of the day, and be present in the class.  I needed this.  Throughout, she reminded us to focus in on our breathing.  At the end, she encouraged us to be grateful for something, and to set a goal for our state of mind for the rest of the day, whatever we each wanted it to be.  She wasn’t specifically spiritual, but I was able to make it spiritual for me, in the way I wanted to.

Second, she gave detailed instructions, in a calm voice.  She explained all poses with care, and reminded us to tighten up tiny details in our postures that would have altered their effectiveness if we’d forgotten them.  She taught us how to breathe deeply, to the top of our lungs, into our belly breath, and within our body’s natural rhythm; she cued which types of breathing to do in each pose.

Third, she came to me when she noticed I was struggling, and whispered the question, “Would you mind if I offered you some assistance?”  I gladly accepted, and she helped re-align my legs and hips into the proper placement, which in turn enabled me get the most out of that stretch.  I clearly needed this too, and she acted on it.

I felt more satisfied after this class than last week’s.  That could be partially caused by simple familiarity, but I imagine it mainly had to do with the room being less full, and the instructor’s style.  I will certainly try to make it to one of her classes again.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts last week on how Yoga has impacted you.  Any tips on choosing a Yoga mat?

Namaste!

Summer Yoga Experiment – Week One

The discipline of Yoga, an ancient spiritual, mental and physical practice, was a taboo topic in my church upbringing.

I feel I have to be very careful in verbalizing my stance on Yoga.  I’m part of a circle of people who are extremely divided on the subject.  I’m not promoting Yoga for everyone, nor am I judging it all as evil.  I’m simply embarking on an experiment to see if it can help me as much as it has helped others I know.

I made a goal to attend Yoga four times this summer.  To dedicated Yogi’s out there, I bet that seems like a small number.  To me, it seems like a huge, but manageable goal.  As a fitness instructor, who does weight training, I have muscles that are often tight and sore.  I’m at the gym regularly, and I seldom feel like making time for extra stretching or Yoga.  My flexibility is not increasing, and my recovery time is becoming longer, hence the Yoga experiment.  I was in a car accident in the fall, and got whiplash that persisted for months, despite the more than weekly massages and physio.  Many claim that Yoga has helped them manage pain, and heal from various injuries.  I am also in a season of big life change, and could use some focused relaxation time to de-stress.

In the church, Yoga has been seen as anti-Christian, too new-age, or even demonic.  A simple Google search on “yoga and the church” brings up titles such as “Church Bans Yoga because it is Non-Christian,” or “Should Church Buildings be used for Yoga Classes?”

Here’s what WebMD says about the fitness benefits of Yoga:

“Workout fads come and go, but virtually no other exercise program is as enduring as yoga. It’s been around for more than 5,000 years. Yoga does more than burn calories and tone muscles. It’s a total mind-body workout that combines strengthening and stretching poses with deep breathing and meditation or relaxation” (www.webmd.com, July 25/18).

Hmm.  As a Christian, do I participate in Yoga for the physical benefits, or do I steer clear altogether, just in case?  The answer to this question isn’t simple.  Rather than a black or white, yes/no decision, I believe the answer is very grey, and is different for everyone.

I signed up for my first Yoga class while I was in University.  I was talked out of going to it by some well-meaning family members, who convinced me that it wasn’t right for me.  Ironically, those same family members now practice Yoga as they’ve discovered how much it has benefitted their health.  They’ve experienced relief from nerve problems and other ailments, through Yoga.

About a decade ago, the church I was attending brought in a practice called “Holy Yoga.”  I practised my first yoga class there, and found it to be mentally and physically relaxing; it increased my flexibility, and I was able to connect spiritually with God.  I continued to attend Holy Yoga, until the church cancelled it, due to the overwhelming amounts of negative feedback from several members; people were leaving the church over the fact that Yoga was happening on a weeknight, in the building.

A couple of years later, I tried Yoga again, when I got a gym membership, and discovered it was included at no extra cost.  In the first Yoga class I went to, the teacher had an idol at the front, and he encouraged participants to pray to it.  I respectfully refrained.  As that isn’t something I’m personally interested in, I chose a different teacher the next time. That class was very fitness focused, and helped me loosen up my tight muscles and joints, and relax.

Today, I embarked on the first class of my summer Yoga experiment.  I woke up early, got warmed up a bit first, and then entered the Yoga room and waited patiently.  The teacher was seven minutes late.  That wasn’t a great start, but I put it out of my mind and prepared myself to be open to the experience.

She began by taking requests for certain areas people wanted to work on.  Several participants asked to focus on lower back, so we spent the first part of class loosening up the lower back with a variety of stretches, lying with our backs on the floor.

I was a bit distracted by the lady next to me, who was breathing so loudly, I’m sure everyone in the room could hear it.  She also fell over a couple of times, but that’s okay; I’ll probably fall over one of these days too!  I tried to tune her out and focus on relaxing my own body, and enjoying the relief of my lower back tension.

We spent the remainder of the class opening up our hips, shoulders, and hamstrings.  I wouldn’t consider myself to be very flexible, but I was surprised at how much I was able to move after an hour of being in a warm room, committing proper time to each stretch, breathing through the movements, and slowly relaxing into them.

How do I feel now that it’s done?  Physically, I feel looser, and more relaxed, for sure.  My hips and hamstrings aren’t as tight as they normally are.  My neck cracked at least a dozen times during the class, so I’ll be interested to see how it feels throughout the day, and tomorrow.

As for the mental and spiritual aspects, I was able to focus my mind on my body, instead of letting it run away with anxious thoughts about things I can’t control.  I found moments to pray, and be grateful for the blessings I have in my life.

I wouldn’t say this was the best Yoga class I’ve ever been to, but it’s only week one.  However, I would say it was worth the benefits I got from giving up a bit of sleep, and an hour and a quarter of my time.

I’m curious to hear of your Yoga experiences, and any benefits you’ve found in those experiences. Thanks for reading, and “Namaste.”