Saturday, November 16, 2013

Things I Have Learned from Yoga

The picture does look like me, but it is not me. It is Jeannine Saulnier, yoga instructor at Mount Saint Vincent University.

Yoga turned everything I knew about fitness and training on its head. Yoga is about awareness of where you are now, how you feel, what you need, what your strengths and limitations are. In yoga, the idea is always to feel comfortable with yourself. Comfortable but also challenged because growth comes from challenge. In yoga challenge is not confrontational or competitive, it is about personal growth. Yoga is the most non-judgemental activity I have ever tried. Here is my idiosyncratic list of some things that I have learned from yoga (so far).

Setting an Intention for the Practice
One of the teachers always began the class with the following questions: Ask yourself, how do I feel? What do I want? Set an intention for your practice. The intention may be physical, emotional or it might be related to a personal circumstance in your life. Sometimes my intention was simply to breathe healing into the soles of my feet when I was having arch pain. Sometimes it was to have a good stretch. Sometimes it was to focus on finding inner strength.

Learning To Trust my Instincts
Yoga is about doing what feels right. Each stretch, each balancing pose, holding a position that requires strength, has limits. Those limits may very, depending on how we feel that day. Connecting with my physical instincts opened the door to allowing me to connect with my gut feelings about what felt right and what felt wrong in my life. It was the start of learning to trust those feelings and listening to the inner voice I had been ignoring.

Not Having a Voice
Maybe it was because I was not paying enough attention to the inner voice that my outer voice was gone. In one yoga class, the group vocalization of Om was positively booming. I found it disconcerting that I could not even hear my voice. I could feel the vibration in my throat but I made no sound. I had no voice. I had stopped expressing, stopped sharing. I've hardly written at all this year. I needed to find my voice again.

Strength, Balance, Flexibility
In yoga I discovered that I had more strength than I knew and less balance than I thought. That was a revelation. I hadn't realized that I was so strong when in a stable position. My balance however, pretty much sucks. When I don't trust my grounding, I lose my confidence in my ability to hold it together. We learn to compensate for weakness. Instead of falling over in life, I'd twist and bend. My spine is exceptionally flexible and I have a wide range of motion and I was aware of that.

Yoga is infinitely forgiving. It doesn't matter whether or not you can get into all the poses, it is all about how you feel. Are you swaying in the tree pose (standing on one leg with the sole of the foot supported on the other, with your arms over your head)? It doesn't matter that you sway: Trees sway in the wind. Once the inner winds have calmed, you will find stillness.

Second Chances
Did you tip over while trying to hold warrior three? It doesn't matter. You get another chance, and another, and another. That is what the practice is about. Every practice is another chance.

Giving Up Competitiveness
Yoga is about how you feel and what you need to explore. What someone else can do doesn't matter. When I was just starting, I had to watch other people all the time because I didn't know what the instructions meant and I was comparing myself to others, but once I began to learn the cues then I could focus more on what I was doing.

Feeling Strong and Grounded
I feel infinitely strong and stable in poses like warrior one, warrior two. I love the feeling as my spine elongates in triangle. The stability and stretch of downward dog. These poses feel natural and they give me strength and confidence. I love the flow of movement and breathing in the sun salutation.

Savasana: Corpse pose
The position for final relaxation is corpse pose. Lying on your back, legs apart, feet falling gently out to the sides, arms relaxed by the sides. It is a final moment to refocus on the breath and to let go of any residual tension that might remain. Corpse pose is the death, the letting go. After the stillness, slight movement is reintroduced back into the body, moving fingers, toes, wrists, ankles, then stretching out. Rolling over onto one's side in fetal position, we pause for another moment before sitting up and taking a new breath. Death into rebirth, the process that repeats over and over, every day of our lives as we put things to rest and then start again.

It's all about the breathing
Yoga starts with breathing. Focusing on the breath moving in and out of the body. Not changing the breath or judging it, just observing it. Once we have acknowledged it, then we can work with it, deepening the breath, being aware of where we send the breath in the body (three-part breathing), playing with it as in alternate nostril breathing which is surprisingly calming, or layering sound into a pose with ujjayi, ocean sounding breath, another way of calming and focusing. Breathing with intention and consciously sending oxygen and energy increases concentration and awareness.

Things I learned from different teachers

Nancy did a lot of balance work. Her class challenged me in a way that made me step out of my comfort zone, but it made me grow and showed me an area where I was much weaker than I had realized.

Kathleen helped me the most in terms of making adjustments to achieve correct alignment in the poses. She also teaches yoga with children and has a beautiful, playful, childlike spirit.

Suzanne radiated positive energy. There was one guy who came to her class who was always stressed out and complaining. I am sure that he came mainly to absorb some of her positive energy and tranquility. She had no trouble dealing him. Sharing her peace was her gift.

Debra was the most spiritual in her practice. Her teachings about stillness and listening resonated with me and I keep referring back to them.

The namaste greeting/farewell is lovely.

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