I’m meeting my friend Leah in New Orleans tomorrow for a yoga class. She’s down for a teacher training class, and the classes are open to the public. It’s an Iyengar style class, and that’s the type of yoga I immersed myself in when I first discovered my love for the practice. The practice is alignment-based which means that it pays particular attention to proper alignment. Some yoga practices are more fluid or more dance-like or more strenuous in nature. They are all yoga, but they are all pretty different. In some yoga practices, you hardly move at all except to breath. There is a practice for every body.
My first experience with yoga was at an Iyengar studio in Seattle. I had an overuse injury in my shoulder from carrying a laptop all over the country, and I was so stressed out that I could hardly sleep. I traveled about 90% of the time, and most of it was air travel. It was a grueling schedule, and, with all the attention I had to pay to travel arrangements, training details, customer needs and my own personal needs, I was a mess. I had no idea what yoga was, and I really don’t even remember how I found out about it. I just know I ended up going. I walked into the first class, and there were literally 50 people crammed into a small room. You could hardly move without touching somebody, but the mats pretty much carved out a nice little space. There was a wall on one side of the room that had holes in it like one of those storage grids you see in garages. Ropes and straps fit into the wall, and we would literally ties ourselves in knots and hang from the wall. I thought that was yoga. I always felt really good after I left, but I was gone so much that I never developed a habit.
When I moved to Michigan after receiving a promotion, I made a pact with myself that I would no longer work all the time, and I was going to do some things to take better care of myself. I ran into a friend of mine who had just attended a yoga teacher training, and she invited me to come to her class. It was Bikram Yoga. She held it a the local Nature Center, and all proceeds went to the Nature Center. Bikram Yoga is practiced in a heated room. It’s a series of 26 yoga poses that are practiced in the same order, for the same amount of time and with the same teacher instructions. The premise is that the yoga never changes. So, if you feel different one day than the next, the only thing different is you. I LOVED this yoga. In the cold winter months in Michigan, I’d go into the yoga room which had a glass wall that overlooked the woods. Squirrels and chipmunks would come up to the window and peer in at us while we twisted and reached and sweated. She heated the room with a wood stove, so the temperature wasn’t consistent, but it was warm, and it always got warmer before the hour and a half practice would end. We’d walk out into the cold Michigan woods soaking wet but warmed to the bone.
After practicing once a week for about a month, I began to notice something. I had always been really tense in my shoulders. I mean, I had been unbelievably tense. My shoulders were rock hard, and I was starting to get knots in my neck. When I would finish yoga practice, I felt loose and my shoulders were relaxed and soft. I had never experienced that before, so I didn’t even realized how it felt to be relaxed. I could literally feel the tension start to build after practice was over. I also started to notice my posture. During the poses, I learned the correct way to align my pelvis. We practiced bending from the hips instead of the waist and lower back. We pulled our shoulders back and opened our chest. I started walking differently. I started checking my posture, and I could tell how to correct it by feel. I was starting to feel better.
Kathy, my friend who was also my teacher, invited me to a four day retreat with Bikram, the found of this type of yoga. Five of us flew to Stockbridge MA to the retreat. I immediately had a distaste for Bikram. He dressed only in a Speedo and a Rolex which was distasteful enough, but he yelled at practitioners calling them fat pigs and insulting them in ways I couldn’t believe. He didn’t stay on time for the workshop, and it was taking forever. Sweating in a 110 degree room with that nasty man was really wearing on me. At one point, I decided that I spent good money to come up here for 4 days on vacation, and I wasn’t going to spend it this way. I walked to the front desk and asked if I could do a different program. I got into the Kripalu yoga retreat, and I fell in love with yoga. By the time I got home, I was so rejuvenated and filled up. Now, let me say that Bikram’s yoga is fantastic, and there are people who love, love, love it. It just wasn’t for me. When I got back to work, several people asked me where I’d been on vacation. They remarked at how rested I looked. One person even walked by once and did a double-take. I was visibly different.
Thus began my love affair with the practice. I found a lovely little studio in Long Beach IN where I traveled every Saturday and Sunday morning for practice. I took my teacher training courses there from two instructors who had over 30 years of experience in teaching yoga. They knew so much. One of the instructors had studied in India with Iyengar several times. They taught an Ashtanga-Iyengar fusion. I made friends at that studio, and it became a big part of my life. At that point I had a daily practice, and it made such a difference. Yes, I could do all of those pretzel poses including putting my feet behind my head. I had more trouble with inversions. It took me about 7 years to get up into a headstand without using the wall for support. I was capable of doing it, but I was afraid. It was all about conquering fear. I have learned so much from yoga. I learned how to be gentle with myself. I learned how to be patient while I’m learning. I learned to take risks and how exciting it felt to do something that I never thought I could do. I learned how to process emotions and how my body works. I learned how to observe and not be so attached to the world around me. It helped me learn how to live.
I believe that my practice of yoga is what started me on my healing path. Once I started moving through yoga, I started opening spaces that held repressed feelings. I started moving stuck energy that helped me start moving forward in a lot of areas. It was like I was a baby who had finally learned to run, and there was no way I could go back to crawling. I had to keep moving forward, and with each forward movement, I was compelled to take the next step. Growth had begun, and, once I started, I couldn’t stop growing. Yoga creates awareness. I learned what didn’t work for me anymore because I could feel how it impacted my body and my energy. Drinking had to go. My abusive marriage would eventually have to go. All of the habits that dragged me down energetically fell off one by one. It wasn’t quick, but it happened. And, when I couldn’t just stop them, I was compelled to get help to stop them. I believe yoga awakened the desire to heal inside me. It awakened my spirit.
They say yoga means “to yoke” the body, mind and spirit. It did that for me. I’ve been practicing since 2000. I don’t teach anymore in a formal fashion, but I still teach when people need help. It’s a powerful way to start opening people up to change in a very gentle, non-threatening way. In our teacher training, we used to fret about whether or not we knew enough to teach. We were learning from two 30+ year instructors, and we were just learning the basics. Kathleen told us to stop worrying about it. She said that it didn’t matter what we said or what we did, the magic was in the poses. As long as we moved people through the practice, their bodies would learn from the poses. I believe that. Our bodies are so wise. They have been evolving for millions of years, and there is wisdom there that we can never understand intellectually. Yoga helps me be still so I can access that wisdom inside. All I have to do is breathe. The body speaks. I can’t wait to learn something new tomorrow.