November 16th, 2006

It’s been a while since I’ve talked much about yoga. I’m still taking yoga from the same lady I found shortly after I moved here. She’s great, and I love her, and the yoga I take with her is greatly beneficial. She also conveniently teaches classes through the local community college’s continuing ed program, which means that her classes are extremely reasonably priced. But her classes are basic classes. That’s all they’ll ever be. So I talked to her after class on Tuesday and she strongly recommended I take classes from other instructors, and look for a more challenging class than she offers. Also, her classes generally follow a semester timeline, so there’s huge gaps around Christmas and in the summer.

I mentioned here that I tried a yoga class through my city recreation center. I was glad I did it because I discovered that Kundalini style yoga is not for me. I don’t much care for firebreathing, and I hate being told when to breathe. I don’t mind at all if a yoga teacher occasionally reminds me to breathe, but all this “in/out, in/out, in/out” business was driving me crazy. One of the things I have concentrated on in the last year or so is Pranayama, specifically sustaining Dhirga Pranayama throughout the whole of a practice (that would be somewhere between an hour and ninety minutes for you non-practitioners). In addition to full, deep breathing, I also tend to practice 2:1 breathing, making my exhale twice as long as my inhale. This relaxes and focuses me fully. Breath of fire completely upends this and though I came out of the sessions with the same level of relaxation as at any other yoga I’ve been to, during the session I felt like I was always struggling to breathe and like I couldn’t get into a rhythm. I’ve been working on Ujjayi Pranayama in the last year too (which complements Dhirga nicely), but I wouldn’t really say I have that mastered; I tend to constrict the throat a little too much.

I should mention that I did like some things about Kundalini yoga. I surprised myself by truly enjoying the chanting aspect, for example, which with my completely western upbringing I thought I’d find weird and uncomfortable. ‘Sat Nam’ is just beautiful to repeat, especially long and drawn out the way we did in class. There were also different ways of getting into poses that I enjoyed, such as stepping back into Warrior II Pose, when in most other classes I’ve stepped forward into it.

The second time I went to the rec. center yoga class, the teacher twigged to the fact that I was not a complete newbie and asked me if I’d been taking yoga a long time. I added it up and said,”About five years.” She asserted this was a long time. I’d not said it aloud before, or thought about it, and didn’t realize I had been doing it for half a decade. It does seem like a long time. I still feel like quite a newbie at it, though, so I was glad for the encouragement of my primary yoga teacher to branch out and go for something a little more challenging. She says if she were me, she might be bored in her class. Sometimes I have a mild wish during class to try new things or old poses I haven’t done in a long time, but it had not occurred to me to be bored. I guess that means I have a pretty good practice, at least in terms of being in the moment.

When I think about having taken yoga for five years already, it makes me reflective. What have I learned exactly? What have I accomplished? I have increased my muscular flexibility. I am sometimes astonished at the things I can do. In a seated forward bend, my nose is sometimes on my knees. It’s kind of exhilarating. I am stronger as well, though not as strong as I’d really like to be. My balance has improved. When I find myself struggling with the balance aspect of a pose I am invariably surprised, until I remember in the beginning this was always very hard for me. My posture continues to be improved by my regular practice, and though I spend many hours a day at a keyboard, I suffer from much less shoulder and neck tension than I used to. I’ve learned that I have to bend my knees slightly always, because my mental idea of straight knees is hyperflexing. This, perhaps, is the cause of some of my childhood fainting episodes. My knees lock too easily. Well, that and the low blood pressure.

I’ve also been doing this long enough that some of my poses have altered. Just in the last three weeks I had a revelation about down dog. I had for months been focused on my shoulder blades and shoulders, and my teacher made a small adjustment that made me see I had completely neglected the front of my body. I was overarching my back because I was so focused on it, and I needed to have been seeking a balance instead. It was like getting to a new level in the pose. And that’s one of the reasons yoga doesn’t get boring for me, even if it’s just repetition of basic poses. There’s always some part of the pose that can be done deeper, or that can be better aligned or that can be adjusted for intensity. If everything else in the pose is fine, then there’s breathing to focus on, or engaging the abdominal muscles. I’ve become convinced that down dog is the most fundamental yoga pose there is. I mistrust instructors who don’t rely heavily on down dog. A practice without a single down dog is a flawed practice. I’m probably starting to sound militant, but really, it’s that critical.

I’ve discovered that there’s not a total correlation between poses that I love and poses that are easy for me. Nor is the converse true. I’m pretty good at bow pose, but I don’t really care for it. I love Supta Baddha Konasana, but if I stay in it for longer than thirty seconds or so I have to use my hands to push my legs back together while my hips complain. I love poses that put my head on the floor: wide legged forward bend, headstand, rabbit. I’ll also take any chance I can get to put my hands and my feet together. I feel like I’m closing a circuit when I do that. So my favorite arm variation in forward bend is to stand on my hands, if a teacher doesn’t explicitly tell me I have to extend my arms for child pose I’ll grab my feet, and regular Baddha Konasana is always a delightful chance to cradle my feet with my hands. In short, through yoga I have discovered things about my body and my preferences that I don’t think I’d have found out any other way. I hope, in another five years, to be looking back on a decade of yoga practice and a deeper knowledge of my body and my self.

If you are in or near St. Louis and know of a yoga studio or yoga instructor who regularly teaches an advanced class in any style but Kundalini, let me know in the comments, please.

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