Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Everyone else is doing yoga, so should I?

This post has literally nothing to do with The Cranberries but I've always liked this song and haven't listened to it recently. Musical introductions to a post should be a thing.*

A few weeks ago, I shared my thoughts on my fitness regime and what wellness means to me. I've spent a lot of my life listening to others tell me how they thought I should get in shape or diets that I should go on or dozens of other "helpful" tips for being a better their eyes. I have struggled with this most of my life as have most people who are "too fat" or "too thin" or "too (fill in the blank)" for whatever societal norms we've created. There are a lot of great writers out there who talk about these "standards" in more concise and eloquent ways than I ever will be able to do. Check out Lindy West, Caitlin Moran, Roxane Gay, Lena Dunham, Jessica Valenti, Rebecca Solnit, to name a few. The body positive movement is great (when it doesn't turn on itself which is often) and I'm glad to see retailers embracing diversity in body type as much as they have ethnicity or gender identity in recent years. It's refreshing and gives me hope for the universe (most days).

When I got back from my cousin's wedding in Detroit, I made the decision to add some new activities to my workouts. I go to the gym five to six days a week and as much as I like my treadmill routine (y'all, I've read so many books this year), I realized that it was time to mix it up. My gym time works really well for the work week since I naturally get up early and I have a finite amount of time in the morning before I need to be at work. The convenience factor of having a fitness center in my building means I don't have to go anywhere but downstairs, sweat it out, and come back to my apartment to get ready. I know myself well enough to know that adding travel time into this mix would mean I wouldn't actually do it. However, I also know I need the variety to stay dedicated to this plan. One of the areas I want to focus on is toning my arms so I'm currently looking for some arm workouts I can either do in my apartment or in the fitness center since there are already weights there. The other choice I made was to try yoga.

I've never done yoga before. As a theatre major, I had to take a movement class in college and there were what I'll call "yoga adjacent" sections within the course. Frankly, yoga always seemed to be one of those things that bored, entitled 20 somethings do mostly so they can buy cute clothes and be able to say "I have yoga and then a detox facial. Can we move that to 2:30?" Yes, that's stereotypical and mean of me but sometimes I'm mean. I'm sorry. Anyway, being "yoga adjacent" in class sort of turned me off from yoga as a whole. Honestly, I think my yoga aversion had more to do with not feeling comfortable in my own skin than yoga itself. There's something about being in a class in public, whether it be yoga or Zumba or something else, that raises my anxiety and self-consciousness.

Anyway, I decided that this is stupid and I need to get over it and give yoga an actual try. My friend, Emily, recently started taking classes at a studio in Crystal City that she raved about. With this recommendation, I signed myself up for a month-long pass to take as many classes at the studio as I'd like. I figured I could try a few different types of classes and see if any of them would stick. I bought a yoga mat, a yoga towel, and prepared for my first class. Emily, being the pal that she is, accompanied me to the first (and second) class to be my yoga sherpa.

I had no expectations, not really, going into that first class. I set up my mat and then Emily gave me a bunch of props (blocks, blankets, pillows) as directed by our instructor. I get the blocks but all the other stuff was foreign to me; I had no idea yoga had so much equipment. My first class was a bit rocky; I didn't really know what I was doing, the instructor was good but seemed a little scattered (she was subbing and late that day so I get it), and it hurt. I realized I have muscles I didn't even know existed and every single one of them hated me so much on that day (and the day after). If muscles could secede from a body, mine would have that weekend. By the end of the class, I was a little sweaty and finally getting the hang of different asanas, the poses or postures of yoga. There are 84 classical asanas said to have been revealed by the god Shiva, founder of hatha yoga (what most of us just call yoga). I'm going to stop my history of yoga there because that's as far as it goes. I admit that my research into yoga has been limited which is a little weird for me. I'll probably remedy that sometime in the future.

I didn't love the first two classes but I liked some aspects of both. The biggest takeaway was the idea of focus for my yoga practice. Both of the instructors started class by having everyone focus on the goal of their practice for the day; it could be a personal goal or something that you want to send out to the world or another person. I liked the idea of focusing a class or the larger practice of yoga on a goal. I'm not doing yoga to appropriate another culture nor am I on some sort of spiritual journey. For me, the practice of yoga is about focus, strength, and balance. I like being able to not think about anything but being in the moment of my yoga practice. Focus can be hard sometimes and being able to just breath and focus for an hour or is really magical.

My first two classes were not the classes for me. The instructors were good but neither class filled the yoga void. My third class, Warm Gentle Hatha, would be the game changer. Both hot and warm yoga use increased temperature to help increase flexibility (or so I've read). In warm yoga, the studio is heated to 90-95 degrees (hot yoga is usually 100 degrees). I figured I spent a large portion of my life in New Orleans so 90 degrees would be nothing. I was pleasantly surprised that I was right. Here's what I learned in my first warm yoga class:
  • 90 degrees is really not that bad - I didn't focus on the heat as much as learning the poses. It was hot but not unbearable.
  • Glasses and warm yoga do not mix. Hell, glasses and yoga are challenging in general. I don't see well without them so I make it work. 
  • Drinking when the instructor says to is a must as is coming to class hydrated. 
  • Yoga makes me hungry (this is probably because my class ends at 12:30). I make better lunch/snack choices when I come out of yoga so that's a plus. 
  • Listening to orchestra/yoga appropriate versions of "Shake It Off" and "Livin' On a Prayer" makes the class even better. 
  • The instructor makes all the difference. I didn't dislike my first two instructors but I love my third. She gives clear instructions, models the pose well, gives options to the group since we're at various levels, and made yoga accessible to me.
I left the class feeling exactly how I wanted - strong, more balanced, and in control. The second I thought "my body can't do that," it just did. Boom - here's the millionth Downward-Dog pose of class. What? Did I just do five planks in a row and not die? Yes, yes I did. Why is it called Awkward Chair? Because it's awkward and chair-like. Let's Warrior it up some more because I'm amazing at Warrior I and II. I also realized that I've been doing two poses forever - Shavasana (Corpse pose) and Vriksasna (Tree pose). When I'm stressed or have any sort of back or neck pain, I lay on my floor with everything relaxed which is Shavasana without the intention. Shavasana is about resetting at the end of practice, giving the body time to reset and rest after the workout you've just gone through. It's meant to focus a person and reduce tension. I love Shavasana both in class and at home. I sleep in Tree pose. Obviously it's not the same but that's what it is. I've always described sleeping in a four or nine when I sleep on my back but it's basically Tree pose. I also tend to stand this way when I'm chopping vegetables or cooking so there's that. Tree pose is all about balance, posture, and concentration. It's one pose I really need to work on since I do tend to lose my balance after a few seconds. I need to follow my instructor's advice and focus on a fixed point (called drishthe) which should help with this.

All in all, I've loved the first month of my yoga practice. I figured out what the intention of my practice is and found a class that works for me. I even own three pairs of yoga pants I don't sleep in! I feel like I'm improving; I'm able to hold poses for longer, am more aware of my breath in and out of class, and I was able to do more complex combinations of poses in my last class. I may not stay with the studio long term (yoga is expensive) but I feel like by the time I get to that point, I will be able to do the things I need to do at home without the heated studio but with the same intention in my practice.

One important observation: Even if I hadn't found my class and had given up after my month, I'm comforted by the idea that for 75 minutes 10-15 people in arguably one of the busiest, high stress regions in the country, come together and shut off their lives. For that time we are quiet and still (meaning not bustling about being busy). I'm fascinated by this idea and hold onto to it when I'm not in the studio and need a moment of calm.

*This song appeared on the band's debut album Everyone Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We? which is the inspiration for this post's title. #90sgirl

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