Monday, April 30, 2012

Yoga 101

Samskara saksat karanat purvajati jnanam. Through sustained focus and meditation on our patterns, habits, and conditioning, we gain knowledge and understanding of our past and how we can change the patterns that aren’t serving us to live more freely and fully.” ~ Yoga Sutra III.18

I didn’t do my first downward dog until sometime in early 2005.  That’s when I found yoga, in the most unlikely place, my crummy Bally Total Fitness in a strip mall in Studio City.  A gym that could be relied on to provide an endless stream of muscle-bound meatheads from the dungeon-like underground weight room, but was not known for a stellar group workout program.  Twice a week I went, trying to coax a body that had become unyielding after a year of stress and neglect into abstract poses I did not remotely understand.  My teacher was gentle, persuasive.  At about sixty, she had the lithe, flexible body of a twenty-five year old.  Her hair, a sparkly mix of blonde and silver, hung lush and long.  Her skin glowed.  She was radiant.  I wanted to be her.  We all did.  If this was what yoga could do, I was all in. 

It was slow going.  I knew that yoga was a practice of finding mental stillness within physical vigor, but it took at least three months of twice weekly, hour and a half classes before a quiet space first appeared in my mind.  They were fleeting at first, but as my muscles grew strong and my flexibility increased, I was able to find a little silence.  I stopped thinking about the things going on in my day, and started to think about the poses.  Stack my hips, knee in line with foot, shoulder blades down.  In an effort to be deliberate, to do it right, it happened.  Suddenly yoga became something that was both challenging and peaceful. 

Over the last seven years, it’s a practice that has been in and out of my life.  Finding the right teachers, I discovered was not always as easy as wandering into your gym on a rainy Tuesday and seeing the class schedule posted.  When Devin left Bally’s a year and a half later, I did too. But it would be a long time before I found another teacher like her.  A spine surgery in late 2009 would further complicate things.  When I first returned to yoga, six months after, it was nerve-wracking.  I felt fragile, off-balance.  A slight reduction in neck mobility meant that I could no longer reach the full expression of plow.  A headstand of any kind was out of the question. 

The thing is, when it comes to athletics of any kind, I’ve always been an achiever.  I know I’m terrible at hand-eye coordination, so if there’s a ball involved, I usually stay far away.  But with anything I do try, my goal is to do it well.  I like good form.  I like to do it right.  I like to win.  My yoga practice was broken.  When I moved to Dallas in 2011, I started taking class at a little donation-based studio called Karmany.  And there I found a new teacher.  Amy’s energy is infectious.  She invites you to try, to fall, to try again.  I found a new type of practice.  One where I couldn’t do all of the things I used to be able to do, but I could be okay with it.  Over the past year, I’ve tried to make it to Amy’s class at least once a week.  That plan didn’t always work so well.  I had other goals.  I was busy becoming a runner.  I had miles to cover and races to finish.  And then the beginning of April rolled around.  My knee and my hip needed a break from the pounding.  I was back to being about as bendy as a telephone pole.  So I cashed in a Groupon for 25 classes at another nearby studio, American Power Yoga, interestingly enough, the place where Amy did her training.  Three days a week for three months was the new plan.  One at Karmany and two at APY.  I would be silly putty.  Or at least silly putty-ish. 

This past week, about three weeks in, something pretty cool happened.  I’ve been doing downward dogs for seven years now.  I always understood that it was supposed to be a resting pose, but much like the mental focus eluded me in the beginning, the resting part of a down dog had always been a bit of a mystery.  I was always focused on so many things, shoulders down, heels down, head in line, fingers and toes spread.  I was always working at the pose to make it better, to improve.  Like there was a contest for the best down dog.  And one day last week, in the midst of a more regular yoga practice than I’ve ever done before, I just let go.  And everything between my hands and feet pressed against my mat began to float.  It was effortless, and I have no idea how it looked, nor did I care, because in that moment, it felt perfect.  And then I did it again.  And again.  It took me seven years and a down dog, something that would look wildly inappropriate anywhere public but in a yoga class, to crack the code. 

I’m a typical first-born.  Overachiever.  Serious.  Goal-oriented.  I’m always trying to do too many things at once, which generally results in me getting nothing done of real consequence.  I needed a reminder.  That sometimes, all you really need to do is stop thinking about every little aspect of whatever it is you are doing, and just let go.  That’s when you can really fly. 

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