Thursday, September 18, 2014

Yoga for curves

Quick - when I say "yoga" what's the first thing that pops into your mind?

A guru seated on a mountaintop?  A group of nuts-and-berries hippies saying "om" on a beach?  A room of 100 leotard-clad fit freaks showing off their cores in their lunch hour?

Whatever it is (mine was the first one), yoga is a word everyone knows, whether or not they practice it.  The word itself: "yoga" is a bit like the Hawaiian word "aloha" in that it seems to mean almost anything.  Its origins are Sanscrit, and can mean "listen", "unite", "connect", (but not "invitation to fall asleep" as some would have it). There's also evidence to suggest the word derived from the word "yoke", as in yoking horses or oxen, and became synonymous with yoking mind and. The activity of yoga (i.e., "the practice")  is designed to bring your physical, spiritual and mental worlds together with the goal of elevating both your brain and body. 

It's pretty old.  Older than your mother.  About 5,000 years old it seems. And for something that crawled around the world person to person and community to community, it's not overly surprising to know that there is no one type of yoga.  Try over a hundred!  Since appearing in the western world in the late 19th century and flourishing since the 1980s, these types have been distilled to a few main ones: Hatha, Iyangar, Ashtanga, Tantra, Bikram, Kundalini. Then there are the ones that have crept up much more recently: Power, Prenatal, Yin, Restorative, etc. but it's pretty clear to what these devote attention.

There is more, much more to know about Yoga and its origins etc. and I do not pretend to be any kind of expert on it - I can only speak to my own experience.

When I thought I had a IT band running injury, one of my running mates suggested yoga as a way to stretch and strengthen it beyond pilates.  I love in Vancouver, and there seems to be about 18,000 yoga teachers in town.  Everyone seems to be a teacher or practicing to be a teacher.  I'm quite surprised I'm not one myself.  And just like anything else, there are yoga teachers and yoga teachers. Some teach in huge classes with everyone crushed into mat-sized space.  Some teach it like an aerobics class.  And some wander around the class (good) but get distracted by someone's problem with an exercise (bad) and forget everyone else in the room is holding some whacko pose for what seems an hour of pure hell.

But persevering pays off.  I finally found the teacher for me. She has small classes and each pose moves smoothly to the next one.  She has humour and grace, and her cueing is perfect - she always seems to say "relax your jaw" or "soften your gaze" at the exact time I am doing whatever it is I should not be doing. She also can pull out a modification for every single move and for every single individual's struggle. 

It is different than pilates in that it moves slowly and is more devoted to holding a position rather than moving though it with repetitions.  With all the strengthening and stretching, I find it a perfect complement to pilates and have gained benefit from both.

For scoliosis the benefits are clear, especially when you have the right teacher and the right exercises with the right modifications.  The muscles that need strengthening get what they need and the muscles that need stretching get that too. No teacher would ever say "only work on the side of the body needing work" but I always add a few extra seconds to whichever side needs more of whatever particular exercise as needed. 

And - and this is a big AND - the practice of yoga has a special gift for those suffering scoliosis (and any body issue really).  In yoga you are in the moment.  You concentrate on your breathing and your body in the space it operates in.  If some other thought enters your busy mind, you are directly to let it pass through and out, so you are always brought back to the here and now, and accept your body as it is, at that moment, in that place. 

This was big.  Huge.  When I was going through depression due to a supposed running injury that would not heal and no one knew why and then it was determined that it was really caused by my scoliosis and that wasn't doing to get better but rather worse, that one hour of yoga class a week kept my mind focused on what I was doing right then. Not about the scoliosis or the doctor or what my future might be, but about right now.  All those thoughts were stilled and I just listened to my breath in the body I have.  And accepted the wonderful body that I inhabit.

Because everyone has stuff.  My stuff just happens to be scoliosis, but it's surprising to find out that everyone has stuff, at some point in their lives and maybe all their lives.  Yoga is not about fixing our body in any way, but rather making the best of it as it is, in tandem with our minds and spirits. 

If you come out of any yoga class feeling jazzed, or exhausted or jittery, then you have the wrong class and/or the wrong teacher.  I exit my classes feeling calm and yet energized, open and at peace with myself, and my body. It's a wonderful feeling to forget the negative and embrace the positive, even for just a little while, and I highly recommend it.
Photo source: royalty free stock photos at dreamstime

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