Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Welcome to my cult.

Anyone who knows me even a little knows one thing about me.  I do yoga.  I practice yoga.  I love yoga.  Someday, I will be a yoga instructor.  I wish I could quit my job and just practice yoga all day long.  I commute for 7 1/2 hours per week, so it makes doing yoga difficult.  If I worked closer to home, I would probably implement a mandatory daily yoga-hour, starting at 4:00 pm.  That's my yoga time.

I have tried to convert everyone I know to yoga, because I really feel that the world would be a better place if everyone practiced this art (just like it would be a better place if everyone was a knitter).

I was reading a recent blog entry by one of my favourite knitters/photographers, Knitorious.  She mentioned that her back was acting up and talked a little bit about how she's been struggling with it.  People left comments about different therapies she should try and I chimed in with something really pithy like "yogayogayogayogayogayogayoga", which I thought was so witty and cute.  Lame-o.  Well, I guess it caught someone's attention and I got a message a few days later, from a woman named Melanie.  She wanted to know more.

I figured I would let you in on it, in case you could use the information:

"Well, hello there, Melanie-from-Boston!

You have no idea what you're getting yourself into, by asking me about yoga.  This is a subject near and dear to my little heart and I could go on and on and on and on and on.....and on about it (and I'm about to).  And don't you dare feel bad asking for medical advice from someone you "met" on the internet - if I didn't talk about my physical ailments with strangers, I wouldn't know that I have Celiac Disease and I'd be popping pills for the rest of my life, thinking I have Irritable Bowel Syndrome.  So, how's that for honesty?

Ok.  So.  Yoga.  Yes.  But first, I'm going to give you a bit of background (I'm sorry in advance - I am terribly long-winded):

I am an interior designer.  This is only important for you to know because of context: I work in an industry where we are expected to sit still for long (LONG) hours (like 10 hours/day, in many cases) and don't have the energy/time/money to do any sort of physical exercise on our down-time.  Plus, many of us are kind of artsy and don't like the physical stuff, even if we do have the time/money.  You see, I would prefer to peruse knitting blogs at home than go for a walk.  You also, yes?

Sometime about oh...6 years ago, I was helping a friend move and something "snapped" in my lower back.  It took a long while (2 years) to figure out that the damage was serious and that I really had to do something to fix it.  {I once hurt myself just reaching down in the car, for the lever to pop the front hood.  WHO does that?}  It wasn't just going to go away.  I wasn't very old and I refused to contemplate the idea that I was going to have to live with this for the rest of my adult life OR get surgery.  Nope.  Not gonna happen.  I saw a physiotherapist and it seemed to get better, but I couldn't stick with the exercises she prescribed me.

I moved to the country when I turned 27 and my life slowed down a bit.  I heard a story on the radio about "power yoga" and it was the first time in...ever...that I could relate to the idea of exercise.  I hate sports, I hate sweating, I hate sacrificing my craft-time for exercise.  Hate those things.  But, I figured I'd better get my health in order, or I would stop being able to enjoy the things I do.

So, I called up the instructor I had heard on the radio.  Joined her class and started attending two 90-minute classes per week.  I walked in, having ABSOLUTELY no idea what I was doing.   I also had no physical strength, was a good 40 lbs overweight and couldn't even REACH MY KNEES, nevermind my feet!  I had been too afraid to move for the past 4 years, that I had lost the ability to move. 

We started slowly and I was very conservative in the amount of pressure I put on myself.  I was just happy to work up some sweat (OMG, there is A LOT of sweat, but for some reason, I love it - for the first time in my life) and was ECSTATIC to find a form of physical exercise that didn't bore me to tears, make me feel stupid or turn me into a competitive psychopath.  In fact, I really really really enjoyed it.  I still really do.  I beg for the punishment.  It has helped me in so many ways:

  • I sleep better
  • I digest my food properly (see note about Celiac Disease above - my yoga teacher is the one who figured it out for me...after I spent 4 months seeing specialist-after-specialist, to no avail)
  • I am less stressed-out
  • I have energy
  • I am less emotional (I'm referring to the bad kinds of emotions, of course)
  • I WANT to move around
  • I have lost 20 lbs without even knowing how I did it
  • I'm not afraid of getting hurt anymore
  • I feel connected to my body in a way that I had not in a very very very long time
and, most importantly:
  • my back has only troubled me once (for a couple of days) in the past 3 1/2 years - other than that, not one little twinge
So, if you're serious about getting better, here is my advice to you (and these are just my opinions - please don't take offense to anything I'm suggesting):
  1. See a physiotherapist.  Physiotherapists are better than chiropractors - they teach you how to heal yourself.  Also, if you want to see someone, try to find someone who specializes in spinal injuries.  Get your acute pain in check before you even THINK of starting a yoga practice.  You won't get far if you're in agony.
  2. Do your research.  I didn't, but I was very lucky.  You will likely want to experiment with a few different types of yoga so you can find the one that's right for you.  You can also practice many different types, simultaneously.  And you may start out with one and evolve into others.  Yoga is all about evolution.  Here are some examples that I know of (and I've tried most of them):

  3. I study Ashtanga Yoga.  On the radio, they described it as "power" yoga, but I'm not sure about that description.  It makes it sound like a hardcore workout, but it's not about physical power.  It is an intense practice, but it's also incredibly relaxing.  It's more about mental focus, balance and alignment.  It's about using your breathing, your mental focus and your core muscles to move your body in intentional ways, instead of the wimpy flopping around that most of us do on a day-to-day basis.  Here's my teacher's website.  And her teacher's website. 
  4. If you have the opportunity, go and test out several studios.  Don't expect to luck out on the first try and don't get discouraged.  It's kind of like house-hunting, that way.
  5. Don't try yoga without an instructor.  I know there are a lot of videos and books out there that claim that you can learn it on your own.  I doubt that strongly.  There are so many ways that an uninitiated person could get hurt (especially if she's starting out with chronic pain, as it is), I cringe to think of the potential disasters.
Once you know where you're going:
  1. Don't spend a lot of money on gear.  A simple, inexpensive mat is fine at first.  Some snug-ish leggings/sweats/shorts are fine, and a long t-shirt (too short and you'll be tugging it down all the time - don't do that to yourself!).  Bring a towel.  Or two.  No additional gear is needed.
  2. Breathe, breathe, breathe.  Yoga is. All. About. Breath.  In the case of Ashtanga, it's one movement per inhale, one movement per exhale.  If you're out of breath, slow down.  Take a short break.  Get your breath back and then continue.  Some yogas require breathing through the nose, some through the mouth.  Ask the instructor before you start.
  3. Don't eat for 2-3 hours before class.  Drink a lot of water the day before and the day of class.  Stop drinking about an hour prior to class and ask your teacher about drinking during class.  If you're hydrated, you shouldn't need it (some types of yoga are different in this aspect - just ask the instructor).  Always drink plenty after class.
  4. Don't wear perfume or use scented (regular) detergent.  Use only unscented.  When you're working out like that (and breathing through your nose, most likely), your scent will be magnified.  You will irritate your mat neighbours.
  5. Don't be hard on yourself.  Yoga is a practice, not perfection.  Everyone is different and everyone's yoga is different.  You have to be honest with yourself and you have to forgive yourself for your limitations/challenges/weaknesses, just like you have to celebrate your strengths.  You'll stick with it a lot longer if you feel good about it.
  6. Listen to your teacher.  Do not do more than you are being asked to do.  Having said that, if the idea of doing something in class scares you, DON'T DO IT.  Wait until you feel ready.  {At the same time, don't be afraid to try small, simple things that might have a big impact on your practice.}
  7. Do NOT, under ANY circumstances EVER let an instructor push/pull/tweak/twist/yank you into position.  They will sometimes gently place their hands on your to correct your alignment or subtly guide you in the right direction and that is fine.  But, physically torquing you into place is incredibly dangerous and if anyone ever tried that on me, I would tell them off.  Loudly.  Right there, in front of everyone in class.
  8. Warm up and cool down properly.  At the end of class, there is often a posture called "Corpse Pose".  Self-explanatory, no?  You lie there for a good 10 minutes and play dead.  It allows your body to take it all in and recharge before you run off to do the next chore/activity/whatever.  Very important.  Don't skip that one.
I just Googled "Boston Yoga Studio" and there seem to be a lot of options available to you.  I've never been there, so I have no idea what you should try first.  I would call around and see if you can pick an instructor's brain for a bit before you commit.  A good instructor will want to help you, so you shouldn't have any issues finding some that will explain their form of yoga and help you find the one you need.  And don't get scared off.  Remember, I couldn't reach my knees, three years ago.  Now, I can *almost* get my feet behind my head.  Almost!  And I can do this.

Ok, so that's all I have.  OMG, I can't believe how long this e-mail is.  I'm sorry to talk your ear off like this - I just love this topic and it has completely changed my life, so I'm super keen to encourage others to do it, too.  So, go forth!  Yogafy!

And don't hesitate to e-mail me back if you still have questions or if you want my opinion about anything you've found.  As you can *probably* tell, I have no problem sharing my opinion.

Good luck!  And namaste!!



  1. I quite fancy giving Ashtanga yoga a go; I used to go to a weekly straight yoga class, and I probably did another couple of private sessions at home too. That said, I haven't done any for about, well, three years, I suppose. Is Ashtanga the sort of thing you can, er, pick up...?

  2. Yours was one of the most awesome emails I ever received! I know all yoga studios in my neighborhood now, although I haven't tried any of them because the back still hurts too much. I'm going to be in Ithaca, NY, all summer long, and Ithaca happens to be Yoga Central (in August there's even a yoga festival). So, the plan is to give my back one more month to become pain-free (as I told you, walking does wonders) and then start a three-month yoga class in Ithaca. I'm very excited, and I'm really hoping that I'll become as yoga crazy as you already are. :) I'll keep you updated! Melanie

  3. What up, Ladies!

    ew: As a person who showed up to her first yoga class having done exactly zero hours of research and having zilch experience, I would say that yes, one can "pick up" Ashtanga. I did. My sister is (at least she'd better still be attending class, if she knows what's good for her) and many of my friends did/are. It's very fast, in comparison to other types of yoga (Yin, for example), so it makes it interesting to follow along when you feel like a big sweaty whale, flopping about, grunting. {Do whales grunt?} But, you get into the groove pretty quickly and if you already know a good portion of the postures, you'll have no trouble keeping up the pace. I also forgot to mention that the yoga helps to keep the "dragon" (nudge nudge) at bay. No more "unspeakable woe".

    Melanie: YAY! Oh, New York... My dear, there is an awesome yoga retreat somewhere in NY (I have never been, but it's been raved about endlessly in my yoga group) and I will get the name/website for you and send you the info. So exciting!

    Now, I want my stupid sinus cold to go away so I can get back into my routine and kick arse. Metaphorically, of course.