Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Yoga for My Emotional Body

I was often the last person to be picked for teams in high school gym class. It was always the same story. There I'd stand, my palms sweaty on my gym shorts, watching as the team captains would first pick their friends and then those deemed by all as the most athletic. I'd feel the pit in my stomach grow as I realized if I wasn't picked soon, I'd be the last. The default pick. Mortal embarrassment for a teen age girl who wants nothing more than to fit in.

If I was lucky, the gym teacher would select one of my friends as a team captain. If I was less lucky, the captains would both be non-friends, and I wouldn't get picked until last. If I was really unlucky, the captain would be one of my friends, and I STILL wouldn't get picked because I was bad enough at most sports to be viewed as a drag on the team, even by someone who liked me.

There's little worse than watching a peer look with resignation between you and the other last person standing, sigh, and then shrug a resigned shoulder as if to say "They both suck. Do I have to pick one?"

My lack of popularity when it comes to sports picks was understandable, even by me. I was clumsy and scared of getting hurt. I was the girl to dodge the volleyball. I was the girl to call out "yours" more often than "mine"! I was the girl who waited for the softball to drop on the ground in front of me before I scooped it up to return it to first base. It wasn't that I wasn't capable of being athletic. I was healthy, somewhat tall for my age and had decent aim. But I was non-aggressive and too afraid of making a mistake. I'd volunteer for referee or bat-girl any day.

This is why, as an adult, I love yoga. No one has to pick me. I don't have to worry about dropping the ball and letting everyone down. I can be strong. I can grow in my practice. I can perform at my level. And it's all about me. It's only about what I'm doing on the mat that matters.

I began practicing yoga about 8 months ago. With the exception of a short sabbatical while I was healing from wrist surgery, I've gone at least once or twice a week since then. Each time I go, I grow stronger. I bask in the praise from the instructors - when I hear "excellent expression" as my teacher walks by me, I feel strong, empowered, and far removed from the unpicked girl in the school yard.

I've learned a few things as a new yogi that I'd like to share. If you're afraid of trying yoga like I was afraid of dodgeball in school, maybe this will bring you to the studio:

General Tips

1. It's really all about you. There's no judgment. No one laughs if you can't hold a position or if you topple out of a challenging pose. There's an accepting nature in yoga unlike in any other type of fitness I've seen, even when working out alone at the gym.

2. Work at your level. No matter what difficulty level of the class, if there's a pose you can't do, don't do it. If you want to give it a try, only go as far as you can into the pose that it doesn't cause you pain. If needed, signal the instructor and whisper a request for a modification or alternative exercise. For example, with my healing wrist, I can't do Hero pose, which requires one to balance on their hands using two blocks, lifting the entire body off the floor. Chances are, I might not be able to accomplish this feat anyway - but I can't put weight on my wrist right now to find out. So I do a completely different pose. I do Boat pose, which works the core of the body without using the arms at all. I found out to do this by talking with the instructor before class and letting him know my area of difficulty so he could make recommendations ahead of time.

3. Enjoy the meditation. It's hard to remember to breathe when you are exerting yourself in a tough pose, but breathing really does help you get through it. It gives you something to focus on and comforts you with the thought that no one is watching what you are doing as they are meditating on their own breathing, too.

4. Don't get frustrated. I don't care how athletic you are in normal life, yoga is something different. There will be poses you can't do right away, that you can't do all the way, or that you can't hold for an extended period of time. Some yogi wrote in an ancient text 2500 years ago, "Practice where you are" or something along those lines. It holds true. You will get better, even if it's just in being able to reach your toes a little better or remembering to keep your shoulder blades together while trying a new posture. But it's okay to only do what you can do and if you are stressing about your lack of progress or your inability to twist your leg behind your head, you're not receiving the full benefit of the experience.

5. Do a little research before you go. My first class, the instructor would say the names of positions and I didn't know what they were. Everyone else would be moving into position and I was taken out of my own meditative practice to watch others for cues. This isn't how every teacher does it. I've since found an instructor who guides us into the poses by telling us where to put our parts and then tells us the name of the pose we're in. But if you have a teacher like the former, it helps to know the "basic" poses - such as Downward Facing Dog and Child's pose. Just do a little Googling. If you can't do that, position your mat at the back of the studio and watch others the first few times. You won't get the self-focused meditative aspect of the practice, but you'll learn quickly. Just remember, you don't want others to judge you, so don't judge those you observe while you are learning. Everyone is in a different place in their practice.

6. Observe yoga studio etiquette. Yoga isn't about being popular, but you don't want to be the jerk either. If you are using a studio mat instead of your own, clean it off when you are done. Most good studios have a bottle of disinfectant and paper towels. Don't put your mat too close to others mats. Clean up after yourself - the yoga instructor isn't your maid. Put any bolsters or blankets you use away when you're done. Refrain from conversation in yoga unless the culture of your class seems to encourage it.

7. Don't be afraid. If I can do yoga, you can do yoga! There are special yoga classes for certain limitations, including yoga for the back, yoga for the emotional body, yoga for the neck and spine, yoga for pregnancy and many more. Start with a basic class and avoid HOT vinyasa classes at first. Hot vinyasa is when they heat the room up to sweltering temperatures. I find that extra sweating means extra slippage on the mat which isn't the best for someone just learning.

8. Yoga is not against your religion. Yes, there is some stuff about balancing shakras and ancient words for the positions, but you don't have to attend a class that's heavy on that - and every teacher is different. It's really about finding your own peace, not about worshiping anyone or anything.

Some Not So General Tips

1. Don't worry if you smell. If others can smell you, your mat is too close, but it's okay to sweat.

2. Wear comfortable clothes that cover your body. I like to say, if I can see your vajayjay during Downward Dog, go shopping.

3. Don't eat a huge meal before yoga. A food baby will make it harder to get in the poses. Also, your teacher will keep telling you to pull in your stomach and won't realize you ARE, it's just not obvious with all that food in your belly.

4. Breathing deeply in yoga is expected. Tortured groans are distracting. If you are groaning aloud, you are doing a position you shouldn't or trying to push yourself too far.

5. I highly recommend what's known in my circle as "detox/retox". Nothing tastes as good after challenging yoga as a Cosmopolitan or other drink. Going to yoga with friends and having a drink after will incentivize you to keep going. It's probably not something your yoga teacher would recommend, but I'm not your yoga teacher. Drink up.

6. When your teacher says "You may find that your body is speaking to you more strongly in this pose" the interpretation is "You might notice this hurts. And you will notice it hurts even more tomorrow."

7. I've been told that when you lose your balance during a balance posture (read: a posture where you are doing things while standing on one leg), it's not your fault. It's the earth moving on its axis that caused you to bobble. I love to blame things on the universe, so I embrace this reasoning.

8. If your class is described as "serene" or "calming" yoga, don't interpret that as easy. I don't think there is any easy yoga, especially when you are a beginner, though it does get better.

Hope these tips help! Remember, yoga is all about you. No judgment. No school yard picks. Though you never thought of yourself as fit or as an accomplished athlete, yoga has something for everyone - even me.


  1. I especially love #7!! I've been dabbling in yoga with a beginner's DVD and sometimes think I may be having a stroke (my balance is THAT bad!) At least I can blame it on good old Mother Earth now :)

  2. Yep, the first time I heard my instructor say it, it all made sense. THAT's why I fall over all the time. Damn rotation of the Earth! LOL

  3. Great article, Jen! Another thing for beginners to note is that not all classes/instructors are created equal, find the one that you like. Pay attention to where the class is and what you are looking for, i.e. a 'fitness yoga' class at a YMCA or Bally's is different than a traditional yoga studio and vice versa.

  4. Jen - That's very true! Even within the same studio, every teacher is not created equal. It took me a while to try out different ones and find someone who spoke to my body.