My little sister Betsy has always been very athletic. However, ever since she’s been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and Sjogren’s Syndrome, many activities she enjoyed before she got sick have become difficult for her.
Betsy has been taking yoga classes regularly for about six months now, and she’s hooked. She finds that it’s the best way to ease the physical pain from her illness, and it’s also allowed her to stay strong and limber despite how much being sick has curtailed her activity level. Plus, she’s lost at least 20 pounds and she now has muscles where I’d never noticed her having muscles before. She loves her yoga classes.
And then there’s my pal Denise, who took up yoga in the last year or two, and who will now tell you that it’s totally changed her life – not just physically but in all kinds of other good ways as well. Denise even had her birthday party this year at the yoga studio where she and Betsy take classes.
The studio is called The Glowing Body; it’s located in my neighborhood, and it’s owned by a good friend of mine (What can I say? Knoxville is a very small city). My friend is a very successful lawyer by day, but after becoming hooked on yoga herself, she decided to take her interest to the next level by investing in the studio.
Beyond Betsy and Denise, I know many, many other women who swear by yoga. That’s been the case for a while now, but in the past year or two, it seems like everyone I know has fallen in love with getting down on the floor and twisting into painful looking shapes with funny names.
As for me, I’ve tried the occasional yoga class here and there in the past, and frankly, I found the experience both intimidating and dull. However, seeing how much my sis is loving it, and how committed she’s become to her personal yoga practice, I recently decided to give yoga another try.
When I say that I have found yoga intimidating in the past, one of the specific things I am referring to is the issue of what to wear. I am not confident enough to feel comfortable wearing cute little yoga pants and strappy tank tops. but on the other hand, the times I tried a class wearing gym shorts and a t-shirt, I felt sloppy, plus the t-shirt kept falling over my face when I attempted various poses. And my glasses kept falling off as well. Because I cannot see past the end of my nose without my glasses, keeping them on my face when doing an activity that requires watching how the instructor moves his/her body is necessary.
However, in the last year as I’ve started doing some running and biking, I have for the first time invested in some cute, specific sport-agnostic spandex and lycra clothing items that actually fit me, and I also finally found a grippy string thing that keeps my glasses on my face when I exercise. So when I started thinking about trying yoga again, I no longer had to worry about what I would wear.
After several weeks of almost going to a class, two nights ago I decided to just go for it, and hit the 6pm “Mindful Hatha Yoga” class at The Glowing Body. The description of the class made it sound like it would be about the right speed for a total beginner, so I threw on some running tights and a tank top, hopped on my bike, and pedaled the mile or so over to the yoga studio. I locked my bike up outside, went in and paid my drop in class fee, and was about to walk into the class space when I heard my little sister ask, “What are you doing here?”
I hadn’t told her I planned to try a class that specific night because I sort of decided at the last minute to actually do it, and I also hadn’t heard her mention that she was going to this particular class, so I had no idea I would run into her, just as she was surprised to see me. But I was glad that she was there so she could show me where to get one of the mats to use, and where to put it in the classroom, and all of that. Plus, having her sitting next to me made me feel less anxious about not knowing what I was supposed to do during the class because I figured I could just do whatever she did (only not as well,)
So we settled down on our mats and waited for the instructor, Judson to arrive. Betsy did a few stretches and I tried to do what she did. She watched me as I got on all fours and lowered my back and then rounded it again, just as I’d seen her do a moment before. Soon Judson arrived and greeted all his regular students by name, including Betsy. He then went around and introduced himself to the few people who were new, including me, asking each of us whether we had ever done any yoga before, and also whether we had any particular challenges that he should be aware of in working with us. One woman explained that she had had a very painful neck surgery, while another mentioned that if she’s not careful, her knee can pop out of place. When Judson got to me, he asked whether he needed to be aware of any issues.
“Nope,” I answered cheerily “Nothing.”
“Actually, my sister has monkey mind. MAJOR, MAJOR monkey mind,” Betsy interjected. “That’s her challenge.”
Judson laughed and said he’d take that into account in his teaching, and the class began.
The thing is that my sister is correct; I do indeed have monkey mind. And frankly, as the class started, I was already feeling antsy at the idea of being trapped in a room for NINETY WHOLE MINUTES without my iPhone, or any other distraction. Trapped with myself, my stiff body, and my own brain. Would I be bored? Would painful thoughts that I try to avoid bubble up without any distractions to make them go away? Would I be able to do the moves that everyone else did? Would my glasses fall off? What if I had to go to the bathroom during the class? I mean, ninety minutes is a LONG TIME.
I actually whispered to Betsy as the class started what I should do if I had to use the ladies room during class. She looked at me and said, “just don’t. Sit still and listen.”
So that’s what I tried to do. I looooved Judson’s way of teaching, which was warm and relaxed but also focused on helping people (mostly me) get into the positions in the proper way. I tried to do what Betsy did on her mat beside me, and I found that I could do about 80% of the poses. Now don’t get me wrong; I am not saying I could do them correctly, but at least I could do them. For the other 20% that my body simply couldn’t stretch itself into doing, I laid down on my mat and rested, which Judson told me was just fine the first time I did it.
My favorite moves were the ones that opened up my chest and lengthened my spine. The ones I really had trouble with involved making one side of my body go in one direction while another was supposed to go in another. I felt like my brain didn’t know how to make left limbs do one thing as right limbs did another. It felt a lot like trying to pat my tummy and rub my head at the same time, which I have never been good at. The biggest surprise I had was when we did tree pose, which involves balancing on one foot. That seemed like an incredibly simple thing to do…until I tried it, and found out to my chagrin that I couldn’t do it for even 10 0r 15 seconds. I realized that it’s been years since I balanced on one foot – probably since I played outdoors as a child. I assumed that because I could do it when I was 12 years old with no problem that I could still do it, and I was very wrong. Realizing just how off kilter my basic ability to physically balance myself has become was a real eye opener.
I did struggle with boredom at various times during the 90 minutes. More than once, I found myself staring at the door and wondering whether I could escape. In those moments, I felt antsy and yes, kind of trapped in there. I didn’t like not knowing how much longer I would be there, and because I’d never been to the class before, I had no idea what order poses were taught, meaning I was unsure whether we had 5 left to do or 50. Additionally, since Henry died, there are things that I don’t really want to think about in a quiet, focused setting with strangers because I am afraid I will start crying and be unable to stop. Distractions of daily life help me not to do that. But there were no distractions in this quiet, spare room, and I found myself having to focus on my physical body at certain times to try to keep the unwelcome thoughts from intruding. After I did this a few times, I found that this worked pretty well, and I realized that I could use this sort of body awareness at other times when I don’t want to be sucked into the grief vortex at that particular moment. But I won’t lie; I felt like getting up and leaving more than a few times during that 90 minutes. Having Betsy there was really great because I knew she wouldn’t let me bolt, so any inclinations I had to do so were quashed.
After class, as I rode my bike back home, I thought about whether I had enjoyed yoga or not. I decided that “enjoy” wasn’t really the right word. I really did find it kind of boring compared to my usual state of monkey mind distractedness. But before I left, Betsy made me promise to try it at least five times before making a decision, and she encouraged me to come back to Judson’s class each time so I could know what to expect, allowing me to focus on what I am doing in that moment instead of what I don’t know about what will happen next. I told her that I would.
Two days later, I have a very pleasant soreness in muscles that haven’t heard from my brain in quite some time – muscles deep in my rib cage and in the backs of my thighs and even in the soles of my feet. I like feeling those parts of my body as alive and active rather than stagnant and unused. And in retrospect, the idea of going back to Judson’s class doesn’t sound quite as boring as it did right after I left that day. He’s an awesome yoga instructor; just being around him during those 90 minutes made me feel more like smiling. I suspect he’s just a generally wonderful person beyond his ability to teach.
The two days of reflection on my yoga class have also made me realize that maybe I need to be what I define as “bored” and “stuck in one spot” with no escape more often. Having unlimited mental distractions as escape valves can lead to a diminishment of focus and clarity all around. I can definitely see that. But even as I am sitting here thinking about whether I will indeed head back to The Glowing Body again this week for another class, I can hear the monkey who lives in my mind screaming for fresh bananas.
Do any of y’all do yoga? What got you started? What is it that keeps you coming back? On the other hand, have any of you tried yoga and decided that it wasn’t for you? I’d love to hear your own yoga stories in the comments below – Katie
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