Yoga is so much more than bending and breathing, as shown by this wonderful guest post by Leanna.
There is a quote on the website for my yoga studio that says: “Yoga is not about touching your toes, it’s about what you learn on the way down.” – Judith Laster. This post is about what I learned on my way up.
1. Start where you are. (And how you are.)
I restarted my yoga practice almost a year ago out of sheer desperation. I had had a couple of months of almost intractable insomnia and anxiety. I was waking up most nights between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m., and finding myself unable to fall back asleep. I had tried sleeping pills, exercise, going to bed earlier or later, a glass of wine, no wine, and desperate prayers to whatever God of sleep exists – and nothing was working. At some point during one of these midnight awakenings, I discovered a nearby yoga studio that offered a 6:30 a.m. yoga class. Since I was already getting out of bed at 4:00 a.m., resigned to no sleep, I figured I could easily make that class.
The studio had just opened and the first time I went there was one other woman in the class. She was lululemon ambassador who had lived in an ashram, and I was an overanxious, under-sleeping, out-of-shape lawyer. I could barely hold warrior pose in that first class. I remember the teacher telling me to bend my leg to get deeper into warrior pose. I let him know that it wasn’t going any further that day, but that they could proceed with their poses and I would do what I could. I was on my mat and that was enough for me.
2. Yoga is a practice. (Which means you have to practice.)
I returned to the studio regularly and after a few weeks I noticed that I was no longer awake and able to get to the 6:30 a.m. class. I was finally sleeping. Week by week, I could tell I was getting a little bit stronger and at some point I set a goal for myself of getting up into Pincha Mayurasana pose (forearm stand) by the end of the summer.
My wonderful teachers spent a lot of time with me in those early days. Since the studio was new, sometimes I was the only person in class and was therefore getting essentially private yoga lessons. With belts and straps and blocks and bolsters, we worked on my form and my strength and my flexibility. But the inverted pose continued to elude me. I could not imagine how I could get my hips (which felt like cannon balls) up over my head. I thought my shoulders would collapse and I’d fall on my head. I thought handstand would lead to my wrists and forearms snapping in half.
So I worked on my foundation. Over and over at home and at the studio, dolphin pose, downward dog, plank. Practice, practice, practice, practice. Building the foundation of the house I wanted to live in.
4. Jealousy will not get you up. (But sometimes you might feel it anyway.)
About a month ago at a backbend workshop, everyone around me was getting up into forearm stand. Over and over, there they were. Tall and short, fat and thin, old and young. All achieving the pose I so badly wanted. Part of me looked at them and thought, “Well, she has her elbows splayed way out and that one is collapsing into her shoulders. I could probably get up if I used that poor form, but I want to get up into a good forearm stand.” Jealously is not attractive and yet it followed me. After a few minutes of self-indulgence, I turned back to my own mat. I stayed in dolphin, practiced lifting my legs, taking up little kicks, pulling my shoulder blades onto my back, working on my form and trying not to worry that I was one of the only people not in the pose.
4. You have to believe in yourself (and it helps if someone else believes in you, too.)
I figured the pose was still another six months off and that maybe by the end of this summer, I would get up there. Then about a week after the backbend workshop, I was in another class and the teacher announced that we would all be going up into forearm stand. I was comfortable with the fact that I would be doing my dolphin preparatory poses and said, “I can’t do that pose yet,” to no one in particular. One of my fellow students looked at me and said, “You can do this pose,” like she was putting a spell on me.
I turned back to my mat and I got into dolphin, I found my drishti (my gaze) between my arms on the floor, and next thing I knew, my hips were above my shoulders, my knees were above my hips, my ankles were above my knees, and my feet were above my ankles. I was at the wall, my arms in beautiful form, and I was up in Pincha Mayurasana. It was as wonderful as I had imagined and I stayed there, breathing. I may have also let out a “woo hoo!” and announced to the class that I had just gotten up for the first time.
5. The hard work begins once you get up (which they forget to tell you.)
Now that I can get up into pincha mayurasana (and handstand) at the wall I am working on balancing away from the wall. It class my teacher puts her fist between my ankles and rests her hands gently on my heels to encourage me to hug my legs in and up, and she pulls my feet away from the wall. I breathe, and I balance.
At home, I put a tennis ball in my yoga pants at the knee to hug into but it is much harder to pull my feet away from the wall. I hug in towards the midline, engage uddiyana and mula bandhas, claw the ground with my hands, and still I struggle. I need to remember that just as getting into the actual poses took time, effort and grace, so will the balance away from the wall. I need to keep practicing and I need to return to class for my foundational work. And I need to practice non-attachment to the outcome.
6. A home practice is a must (and it can look however you want it to look.)
Going to class a few times a week is very good. But to really move your yoga practice forward, I think a home practice is essential. I used to think this meant I had to start out with sun salutations, and move through a class-like structure. This led to my rarely practicing at home.
Then one day I realized that my home practice could be whatever I wanted and needed it to be that day. If I was out biking 49 miles, my home practice would be hip openers and downward dogs during my breaks. If I’d had a long day of sitting at the office, maybe just some pigeon, twists and forward bends before bed would do. And on the weekends after strong classes I come home and work on handstand and pincha mayurasana for an hour or so, taping myself and analyzing the tapes (and posting the good ones to Facebook, of course.)
A home practice is where you spend time on all the poses that you don’t get enough of class. I can spend 5 minutes in paschimottanasa (seated forward bend) if I want to, or do plow and shoulderstand if those have been left out of classes recently. I can fiddle around with eka padaraj kapotasana (one legged king pigeon) and never, ever do parsvatonasana.
My home practice is also where I can read books to deepen my practice like Light On Yoga by BKS Iynegar, or the master class columns in Yoga Journal. I can study my Sanskrit words and read about the bandhas. I can watch videos of other people doing the poses I’m working on so I can see what adjustments I might make. And I can just relish in having the tools I need to keep my mind, body and spirit happy and present.
And because no blog post is complete with out some sweet videos…
Leanna Hamill is an attorney by day, a yogi by night, and a hiker and biker by weekend. At 39 she proves that it’s never to late to start (or re-start) a yoga practice. She is a big believer in the power of yoga to improve everything about one’s life. And a big believer in the power of wonderful friends and teachers to do the same thing. She blogs about her adventures at lainesotherblog.blogspot.com.