Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Don't forget to breathe again

As a yoga teacher and massage therapist I'm well aware of the importance of the breath and it's effects on the body. However, a recent NPR story about the effects of the breath amazed even me. Research has begun to show that the breath might actually affect the expression of our genes. 

 While the research hasn't shown that cancer can be prevented or cured by breathing, the implications are startling. How well we breath could determine what illnesses we suffer from as we age.

It's already well known that the breath affects hypertension and that those who regularly practice diaphragmatic or three-part breathing have lower blood-pressure. Other illnesses such as asthma, anxiety, depression and heart disease have also been shown to improve with breathing techniques. What's more, is that since many illnesses are stress related and breathing helps combat stress, it stands to reason that breathing could possibly help stave off some illnesses.

The story also said that the breath is the body's natural stress reducer. The breath directly impacts the vagus nerve which is the on/off switch for stress. When we practice diaphragmatic breath we send a signal to the nervous system to turn off the stress response. Yes, it's that simple.

The bad news is that we don't naturally breath using our diaphrams, especially during times of stress and tension. It has to be learned and practiced.

Most people are chest-breathers meaning that the breath comes from the chest and not the diaphragm. Since the lungs don't move on their own they need the diaphragm to help pull air in. If you're not using your diaphragm you aren't getting much oxygen in and your body begins to feel deprived. Tiredness can result.

As the holiday season is upon us and many of us are moving at a frantic pace trying to get all the shopping, baking etc done with all the other usual tasks we have on our plate, it's a good idea to stop and breath for a moment. Chances are if you've been rushing about, you've been breathing shallowly in your chest. These means that your body will remain in fight or flight mode until you tell it otherwise. This will make your frantic pace seem all the more frantic.You might remember to take a deep breath here and there but it takes more than a couple to truly calm the nervous system down.

A Christmas song on the radio I've been hearing lately sings about needing "a silent night. A break from all the chaos and the noise." It reminds me that we sometimes need more than just a moment to breathe but a quiet evening. It can be hard during this season but worth the effort. I'm planning to give myself an entire week off this Christmas so the studio will be closed from Dec. 22-Jan. 1 with class resuming Jan. 2.

Don't forget to breathe and don't forget to create space for the breath this holiday season. I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy, healthy New Year full of many calming breaths.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving and thankfulness

As I write this I am, like many people today, snowbound. I'm stuck at home, unable to drive my little car on the icy roads. No students or clients seem to want to venture out either so I have a day off. Tomorrow looks to be the same as the temperatures will remain below freezing. Rather than fret over the lost income or my lack of productivity, I've decided just to enjoy the day. As I often remind my students, be where your at. Besides, it's Thanksgiving week after all and I have much to be thankful for.

This year, instead of suffering under the flagging economy as unfortunately many small business have, I've watched my business grow and expand. Even August, which is usually a dead month for the studio, did well. I didn't need to cancel any classes during the summer as I have in times past due to low attendance. I've watched some classes even get too full for a time and then balance out. I've learned that there is always an ebb and flow to my classes so when one gets extremely popular, another begins to drop off a bit. (Bear this in mind if you find yourself in a class that gets too full or too empty. Most likely it will change in a couple weeks time.)

My massage practice particularly blossomed this year and I've been blessed with a steady flow of regular clients. Even more exciting is watching their health and lives improve and the opportunity to be a part of it. I've learned so much for each client and feel that everyone I work with has something to teach me about my work. I am always happy to get good feedback from my clients which helps me become a better therapist.

Likewise, my prenatal classes are continually packed. It's hard to believe that a few years ago when I first offered them, only two or three students ever showed up at a time. Now, I have a waiting list for the class and hope to be able to offer more classes in the future as my schedule allows. What I love best about this class though is getting to see the all the cute baby photos and hearing about how the class helped during labor and delivery. It's always a wonderful feeling when I can help ease someone's discomfort.

As I've said many times before, I love my work. I am so blessed to have a job where I am able to help people and get to be part of their healing process. As a fellow yoga teacher and friend of mine says, "We can't really call this work, can we?"

I'd like to say thank you to all my students and clients who have supported me this past year. I am so grateful to be a part of your lives and wellness routine. I thank God for his provision during this past year as well. Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Blackberry Blues

Recently, a student reminded me that multitasking is the art of doing many things poorly. I find this to be so true. A series of blunders this past week on my part showed me that I'm not good at multitasking or wearing several hats at one time.

I love teaching yoga and being a massage therapist, but I don't enjoy doing the administrative work that goes with it. It's not a hat that fits me particularly well. Honestly, the only job I've ever been fired from (though technically not fired, just my end-of-work date moved up because neither of us were happy) was a job as an office assistant. Right now, if I could, I'd probably fire myself as my own office assistant.

If I fire myself, then who do I hire? I can't afford a secretary or personal assistant, though I've often dreamed of having one. I get calls weekly from companies wanting to sell me elaborate and expensive software programs that do way more than I'd ever need. However, these same programs don't clean the studio, answer the phone or respond to the ever growing number of emails in my inbox begging for my attention.

Three years ago I broke down and purchased a Blackberry. I always joke about the irony of a yoga teacher with a Blackberry. It seems antithetical. Isn't one of the ideas of yoga to simplify life and be more present, not more wired? Yet it was an evil necessity. I was tired of constantly running upstairs to the computer to check my email. Or run home if I was out somewhere to make sure I hadn't missed something important. Now it seems my Blackberry has become a Crackberry. I feel the frequent need to check it and respond instantly to any waiting messages. What was supposed to make my life easier has actually made it more stressful as I feel almost too available.

I often hear the same complaint from friends and students. Technology that is supposed to simplify our lives has made it more complicated than ever. Sometimes just to give myself a break I leave my Blackberry at home while on a walk. Or if it's Saturday, my day off, I intentionally ignore messages until Sunday. This week I decided that I'm going to give myself one hour or so in the afternoon to respond to emails all at once instead of responding to the constant trickle of them all day long. (Unless it's something time-sensitive). I also don't check email after 8 PM so as to give myself sometime to unwind in the evenings. My hope in setting such boundaries is that I will be more present, efficient and less scatterbrained.

You may have heard the term "tyranny of the urgent." Our attention is constantly being hijacked by whatever urgent, important, crisis of the moment which usually isn't an urgent, important, crisis after all. Perhaps it's time to set boundaries. Turn off your cell phone once in while and go smell the flowers so to speak. Something as simple as limiting email in the evening as I've done can create more breathing room. Even media-fast for a day a week might be a nice break from the constant stream of information we are bombarded with. I definitely recommend turning off your cell phone during yoga class. It should be at least one hour where your attention (and the rest of the class's) isn't being drawn elsewhere.

I'm not suggesting that all technology is bad and we should go back to the Stone Age, but we do need to be more intentional about how we use it. It should help us be more organized and less scattered. We should decide when we wish to be available and when we want to be off-duty so to speak. A healthy balance of work and downtime is badly needed in our society. Technology can help us achieve that if we use it correctly and not let it run us.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Thoughts on the flap over religion and yoga

I'd say I'm getting out my can-opener for this one, but it seems the can of worms has already been opened. Recent flaps in the news lately have prompted me to write this post. It's a post I've been thinking of writing for a while since it is a question I'm often asked in class; "Is yoga religion?" However, I know this issue is very contentious and just about everyone has an opinion one way or the other. I don't like to step on toes or start arguments but I felt it was time to speak my peace, hopefully with grace.

The debate over whether it's OK for Christians to practice yoga is nothing new. Now, Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler has called for Christians to stop practicing yoga or at least acknowledge its Hindu roots. There's been lesser publicity about Hindus complaining that yoga has become too westernized and has lost its mystical side. Does this mean that yoga is religion?

Yes and no. Yoga does have its root in the Hindu religion but it is usually maintained that yoga is a philosophy or an accessory to your own spiritual practice. That said, yoga certainly can be spiritual or it can be secular.

Just as poses can be modified to fit the individual so can the spiritual side of yoga be modified for individual needs. I often tell my students if they aren't comfortable with a pose then they shouldn't do it. Or at least practice it in a different way. I think this is also true of chanting or any other spiritual practice in yoga that make you uncomfortable. For the record I don't chant. I understand it's purposes and the meaning behind it but once in the middle of a chanting practice I felt God say to me "please don't do that." I've honored that request ever since.

I am Christian or more specifically a follower of Jesus Christ. I'm also a yoga teacher. I don't think this is paradoxical in any way. The two are not incompatible. In fact, it was yoga that made me want to be spiritual after I had wandered away from my faith in college. Yes, that's right, it was yoga that lead me back to church. While I was studying the spiritual side of yoga I had a desire to be spiritual but some of yoga's philosophy didn't work for me. I don't believe that I can reach God through my own efforts but rather God is reaching for me through his mercy and grace.

As a yoga teacher I am well aware that the students who walk through my door hold many different beliefs. I've had discussions about some of them and have even shared some of mine when asked. My goal is to create as comfortable, healing environment for everyone regardless of their religion or spirituality. I so believe in the healing benefits of yoga that I wouldn't want anyone to miss out because they felt it might compromise them in some way.  I don't think anyone of any religious background would disagree with the idea of a healthy, balanced body and a relaxed and focused mind. These are the two key things that yoga offers and can be achieved without moving into the supernatural or mystical realm.

Does this mean my practice has become westernized? Probably, but I'm OK with that. The very first yoga class I ever attended was called "Yoga for Westerners" at the University of Washington. It emphasized making the poses more accessible for inflexible western bodies. It was also a bit light on philosophy. This helped make yoga less intimidating for people who weren't familiar with it.

By "westernizing" yoga and removing some of the traditional spiritual elements from my practice, some yoga purists might argue that makes me an asana (the physical postures or pose are called asana) teacher and not really a yoga teacher. If that's the case, then so be it. I'd rather be a really good asana teacher than a really good yoga teacher and make my students feel uncomfortable.
A yoga teacher friend of mine says that there is a teacher for everyone but not every teacher works for everyone. I think this is true. Perhaps I'm not the right teacher for the someone who wants to delve deep into the philosophical side of yoga (though I have studied the Sutras and other ancient text related to yoga) but I just might be the right teacher for the student with lower back pain who wants to feel better. Wisdom has taught me I can't be everything to everyone.

There is a well known quote in the yoga world (I believe it's attributed to B.K.S. Iyengar) that states yoga makes you a better Christian or a better Jew or a better Buddhist or a better Muslim or a better Hindu. I don't know about the other four but I definitely feel that yoga has brought me close to God by learning to be still in his presence and focusing my thoughts on him. I can't believe that's a bad thing. Jesus is my guru.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Celebrating 8 years of teaching

September marks my eighth year as a yoga teacher. Where did the time go?

I still find it hard to believe that what started out as a tongue-in-cheek comment turned into a long-term career. I don't think that many friends and family ever thought I would truly make teaching yoga into a career either. I used to be asked regularly "what else" I planned to do with my life. Happily, I don't get asked those questions now. 

Even after eight years I still think I have the best job in the world. Or if not the best, certainly one of the best. Sure, there are mornings when I don't really feel like teaching. If I haven't slept well or am grouchy about something, I find it a bit challenging to motive myself to teach. But once I'm in class, I'm always glad to be there.

It's not just yoga that makes me feel better, it's my students too. If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be where I'm at now. My students are what motivate me. Sometimes, I feel like they teach me more than I teach them.

One of my favorite compliments is when a student tells me her life has been changed because of my classes. I'm not saying that to brag that I'm a really awesome teacher or because I think that I have some sort of special gift. If I do, it came from God and it isn't mine in the first place. I know where the glory belongs. The point here is, that knowing that people are not just enjoying my classes but growing and changing because of them, is rewarding beyond words.

As I've mentioned before, I started teaching yoga after leaving a very stressful and hostile job environment. I confess I loved my title but didn't like the people around me. All I ever heard was negative comments about what I was doing wrong and why I wasn't good enough. I began to wonder if that really cool title was worth it or not. It wasn't. Honestly, the most common reaction people had to it was raised eyebrows and incredulity.

No, I didn't become a yoga teacher so people would say nice things to me and like me. I did it because I wanted to be a positive part of someone's life, not a source of ire. I wanted to change lives for the better. Yoga is one way that I've been able to do that.

Every time as student becomes pain-free or less anxiety prone, I know I made the right choice and I am following God's purpose for my life. This is where I am supposed to be.

For all of you that have attended my classes during the past eight years, thank you. I've enjoyed being your teacher and I am excited to see what the next eight years brings.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Seasonal Yoga

"There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven," says Ecclesiastes 3:1 and so is true for yoga practice. Yes, yoga practice should ebb and flow with the seasons because our bodies do. It's no wonder since the creator of our bodies set the seasons into motion too.

As the summer begins to wind down and the weather shifts to cooler temperatures, I have heard more complaints from students about stiff muscles and achy joints. The summer warmth offers a reprieve from many body aches and many students find that they can go deeper into poses or get into poses they couldn't during the winter. I often joke that the only time I do the splits is in July. However, fall can be rough because of the shifting weather patterns. Fronts affect our bodies because of the transition from high to low pressure. Likewise, the increased moisture next to the skin cools the muscles even more.

Mentally too we shift as the seasons change. In the summer we often feel more energetic and bright. Depending on work and family schedules, we might find that we have more time for leisure activities and exercise during the summer. Fall tends to bring more busyness as kids head back to school, vacations end and we feel more of an urge to accomplish our work and tasks. I tend to think of fall as more serious and contemplative especially on cool foggy mornings. In winter we might feel more lethargic and gloomy because of the lack of light and colder temperatures. Spring can bring more anxious energy as the need to be outside sets in and our bodies like the earth wake up. We can have a tendency to want to accomplish more and do more during the spring. 

With this idea in mind I find that it's helpful to structure yoga classes around the seasons.

In the winter I like to do more movement in the poses to increase blood flow to the body and help students wake up a bit. Rising cobra, cat/cow, flowing crane, swinging table top, the morning series are good examples of poses that increase circulation and warmth in the body. Often yoga is more therapeutic and restful during this time to help cope with the body aches and pains. Sometimes if students are particularly tired and grumpy I might spend the entire class practicing restoratives. Winter is a more restful time for our bodies.

In the spring, sun-salutations give outlet to our new found energy. A combination of forward-bends and back-bends are also good to help us stay grounded and ease lowerback strain associated with gardening and yardwork. Since spring in the Northwest tends to be rainy it's sometimes nice to do more of a workout to make up for the inability to get outside to exercise.

Summer is a great time to try poses that you haven't before or perhaps go deeper into poses you've been reluctant to. I really enjoy arm-balances during the summer along with inversions such as headstand. I also enjoy holding the poses longer than I typically would in the winter. Summer often feels like a quick season, especially here in the Northwest, so it's nice to slow down a bit and enjoy it. On really hot days it's better to slow down even more and do some restorative work. Palm tree, fish pose, boat pose and pigeon are all good summer poses as their names suggest.

Fall is the time for battening down the hatches so to speak. I still like to hold the poses longer, but classes tend to become more therapeutic again as we work out the last kinks of summer. Spinal twists and poses that promote stress relief such as supported child's pose, forward bends and half moon are very appropriate for the fall.

As the seasons change try to become more aware of how they affect your body. The above is a generalized example and may not necessarily be true for you. If you know what your body needs you can better adjust to the changes the seasons bring.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

"But I'm bad at yoga"

In conversations when I mention that I'm a yoga teacher people often respond "Oh, I can't do yoga, I'm not flexible." Or occasionally I get a new student with some experience who classifies herself as "bad at yoga." Both of these statements are completely untrue and should not be uttered by anyone.

No one practices yoga because they are flexible but rather to become flexible. Or for those rare folks who are bendy, to become more balanced in their flexibility. Besides, flexibility is only one component of yoga, there's also strength, balance, breathing, relaxation and concentration. 

More importantly, yoga isn't about being good at it but rather doing something good for your body and mind. I like to remind my students that yoga is journey and not a destination. You'll never get to the point where you can say, "Yep, I've mastered yoga, I don't need to practice anymore." Yoga is ongoing because our bodies are constantly changing. As we age our needs change too. Younger people may need yoga to stay in shape and unwind while older folks may need yoga to help deal with everyday aches and pains. You won't be doing the same poses at 60 that you did when you were 20 or at least not in the same way.

I find it a bit troubling when students label themselves as "bad" because it means that the judgments that plague them in life have followed them onto the yoga mat.Your yoga mat should be at least one place where you can let those judgments go and simply be as you are. I like to ask my students at the beginning of class to let go of their ambitions toward their poses. I think when you set the tone of your practice this way it is much more enjoyable and frees you from expectations. So much of life is performance based why not make your yoga practice one place where it's not?

Besides the mental frustration and stress judgments create, they can also lead to injury. When you want to be good at a pose or try to force yourself into a pose you risk hurting yourself. Listen to your body, it will tell you when it's ready for something more challenging. I like what B.K.S. Iyengar says: "Challenge yourself, don't abuse yourself." One minute of glory isn't worth the three months recovery if you attempt a pose that you aren't ready for. Accept where you are in your practice and be content with it.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Funny things said in yoga class

Since it's summer I thought I'd take a break from "serious" writing and offer up something a little more lighthearted. Over the years I've collected a series of funny incidences that have happened in the classes I've taught. That collection is actually where the name for this blog originated. I've often thought that when I retire would write a book chronicling my life as a yoga teacher with the same title. However, with the advent of blogs I can share some of those stories a little sooner. Enjoy!

(I won't use any names or any identifying characteristics, but if you recognize yourself here, just know you will be forever etched in my memory and that I appreciate your good humor and willingness to laugh at yourself. This is all in good fun.)

Before I taught prenatal yoga, I would occasionally encounter pregnant students in regular classes. Usually I would just offer them modifications and alternatives to poses they should not do. One time when the classes was doing boat pose I motioned to a pregnant student that she should not do the pose. A man in the class, who hated boat pose, asked why she got to be excused from the pose and I said "Well, she's pregnant." He replied, "Then I'm pregnant too." I said, "If you can get a note from your doctor saying you're pregnant, you can skip boat, until then, you have to do the pose."

Speaking of modifications, I often tell students with back-injuries or those who are just not comfortable with cobra or upward-facing dog to do sphinx pose instead. During a very small class I had two women who both agreed that they preferred to do sphinx instead of cobra that day. One looked at the other and said, "I guess we are sphincters today." When the other woman and I cracked up laughing the same woman said, "Is that bad?" I had to explain what a sphincter was.

Another time in an exceptionally large class, I had the class move from hunting-dog into a core strengthening pose that involves moving the extended leg to the side instead of pointing straight back. The class was very quiet and serious but one student said very loudly, "I feel like a dog at a fire-hydrant!" The whole room dissolved into laughter. Thus was born fire-hydrant-dog pose.

Laughter in yoga class is always welcome because it shows that you are willing to not take yourself so seriously. However, there was a time when I subbed an early morning class that a student, who apparently felt rushed to get to class, complained afterward that I had started class a minute early. Truthfully, I thought she was joking and when I laughed she glowered at me. I said, "Really?" She said, "Yes, and I don't think that's fair that I've been late all week and and the one day I'm not, you start class early!" So she had sat through an entire class mad about a minute. Please, don't let a minute ruin your entire practice.

While students often say and do funny things in class, the teacher isn't immune to gaffs and blunders. It wouldn't be fair to point out my students laughable moments without mentioning a couple of my own. Going back to boat pose for a moment, I recall during another very large class of about 40 students that I was trying to show the different versions of the pose when I lost balance and rolled backward, still clinging to my toes. The class got quiet the kick out of that because usually they're the ones falling out of poses. See teachers aren't perfect either.

I also recall during downward-dog telling a class to instead of shrugging their shoulders down their back, to shrug their legs down their back. Usually, I catch myself when I say weird things like that but this time I didn't. Someone in the class said, "Huh? Can you explain that again?" I looked up to see the confused expressions on everyone's faces and realized what I had just said. I confess that teaching multiple classes in one day means that I repeat myself a lot and I don't always listen to what I say.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

yoga and zzzzzzz's

Ah sleep, wonderful, elusive sleep. It's not uncommon for students to ask me about yoga poses to help them sleep. In answering I often feel a little like the blind leading the blind as I too occasionally suffer from insomnia. In fact, as I write this I'm a bit sleep deprived. The insomnia fairy has paid me a visit this week.

Experience has taught me that often the major cause of insomnia is more mental than physical. Often it's our desire to get a good night's sleep that suffocates our ability to sleep. In other words, we try too hard and think of sleep as something fragile that requires effort to produce and maintain. You might go to bed early thinking that you will sleep better only to find yourself awake long after your normal bedtime. Then frustration sets in and you've doomed yourself to a night of sleeplessness. Or perhaps you didn't sleep well one night and the next you're anxious to get to bed then lo and behold you're wake all night again. The following day you scour the Internet for solutions and ask your yoga teacher for advice because you think something is wrong with you.

Here's my best advice; accept it and don't worry about it. If it's transient and not caused by physical pain, grief or depression, you're fine. Trust that your body knows how to sleep and will do it all on it's own without your intervention. There's nothing wrong with you.  If you don't sleep well for a few nights it won't hurt you and insomnia isn't dangerous. Sure, there are plenty of health and wellness articles about how important sleep is for the body but those are directed at people who intentionally don't sleep. Those of us who are occasionally visited by the insomnia fairy should ignore them because you'll only fret more about not sleeping.

While you are waiting for your body to do it's thing, avoid focusing on the problem. Don't try to sleep, instead rest. Avoid watching the clock, hide it if necessary. Don't get up and down all night thinking it will help. A lot of doctors recommend getting up after 20 minutes if you don't fall asleep right away but I find that only adds to the problem. Keep the same bedtime each night and get up at the same time every morning. Don't watch TV before bed or spend time on the computer. Read something boring before bed.

And yes, there are a couple yoga poses that do help. "Legs up the wall" is a wonderful pose to help ease stress and anxiety. Lay on the floor with your legs up the wall and your hips as close to the wall as possible. Put a pillow under your lower back. This lowers your blood pressure and heart rate and has a calming effect on the body. Laying in savasana before bed is also very helpful to put your mind and body in a state of rest and relaxation.

The breath can be a key component in helping you rest as well. Make your exhalation twice as long as your inhalation such as a 4 count inhalation to a 8 count exhalation for 20-30 rounds before bed. This should calm you down and make you sleepy.

Finally, I'm reminded of a story about Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant movement. He was apparently confronted by a demon in the night. Luther looked at the demon and said, "Oh, you again," and rolled over and went back to sleep. Perhaps we should do likewise.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Don't Forget to Breathe

We take breathing for granted. In, out. It happens so naturally and without any thought that we hardly notice our normal breathing patterns. In fact, most of us breath very shallowly because we don't pay attention to our breath. This leads to both physical and psychological stress. The reality is we need to learn to breath properly.

The diaphragm, the muscle that surrounds the base of the ribcage, is designed to move the lungs up and down for respiration. It is the only muscle that originates on itself and attaches on the inside of the ribcage. Since the lungs can't move on their own, the diaphragm is necessary to move them.

However, many people chest breath and don't use the diaphragm. Chest breathing creates feelings of anxiety, doesn't fully expand the lungs and doesn't allow for ample oxygen to flow in. In chest breathing the diaphragm is used as a lid to hold down emotions. Notice the next time you are stressed where your breathing from and how tight your diaphragm feels. Simply moving the breath down to the diaphragm can create a calming sensation.

In a diaphragmatic breath, the base of the ribcage expands out and the lower ribs flare to the sides. The chest and the lower abdomen remain still. In the three part breath, taught in most yoga classes, this is also true with the exception that the top of the chest lifts. Because students are often unfamiliar with diaphragmatic breathing, many teachers, including myself, will say "let you stomach expand out when you breath in." This is also referred to as belly breathing. It's actually inaccurate. It's the diaphragm that should expand not the stomach. However, to keep things simple we say stomach.

Sometimes when we become aware that we need to relax we try taking a deep breath. This is a good idea in theory but most likely we inhale too deeply and forget to exhale fully and slowly. The breath comes out more like a sigh. Deep inhalations are stimulating. It's the exhalation that calms the mind and the body. The slower the exhalation the more the body move away from the flight or fight response.

The breath should also flow in and out through the nose. Mouth breathing can create panic, feelings of heaviness in the body and dehydration. Some forms of exercise do require exhaling from the mouth and that's fine, but the inhalation should come through the nose. The nose is designed to filter the air we breathe, not to mention to avoid swallowing things like bugs and germs!

The breath is a very powerful tool for changing both our emotional and physical response to stress and life events. It also has very profound spiritual implications too. I love that the spirit of God is sometimes referred to the breath of God. When God breathes on people they come to life both physically and spiritually as in the case of Adam. When we recognize that the breath is God-given, breathing becomes not only a physical act but a spiritual one as well.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

It's a miracle! Well maybe not...

I suppose by now it should cease to amaze me every time a student comes to me and says they've been healed by yoga. Yet I still marvel over every success story; back injuries that were once debilitating become manageable, frozen shoulders thawed and sciatic relieved. I've also seen cancer patients' mobility improved by yoga and anxiety eased. One might say it's miraculous but I don't think there's anything supernatural going on here.

Perhaps yoga works because of it's emphasis on body awareness and holistic approach to healing. The focus isn't just on the injured body part but on the whole body and the mind too. Students learn where they carry their tension and about imbalances in their posture. They also learn where they are weak, where they are strong and how to balance the two. They learn how to relax and how to breathe properly. They are taught not to compete and to let go of expectations and results oriented goals.

Or maybe yoga works because it feels good and therefore students are more likely to stick with it. It's simple and easy to do. It's also a lifetime journey rather than a month long prescription.

I'm not trying to suggest that yoga is superior to other modalities or engage in an east versus west debate over medicine. In fact, I think that yoga works very well in conjunction with other treatment options. I also believe that people are so uniquely individual that what works for one person might not work for another and that needs to be taken into consideration. Some people respond well to pills and surgery other people are hesitant to try them without first exhausting other options. I think a person's mindset about their treatment plays a bigger role than we know.

A couple years ago, I attended a therapeutic yoga training and the instructor mentioned that there is a movement afoot to get yoga teachers and physical therapists in the same room to hopefully begin speaking the same language. I hope this happens soon. I am always pleased when I inherit students from physical therapy because their therapist was savvy to yoga's benefits. There are many yoga poses that are very similar to physical therapy exercises.

Ten years ago, before I started teaching yoga, my husband was in a bad car accident and spent several months in physical therapy. It definitely helped him. When I saw him doing his prescribed exercises, I said, "That's yoga!" and convinced him to take classes with me. He found that the poses were very similar and liked whole body approach of yoga. While he eventually stopped physical therapy he continued with yoga (even if he doesn't often come to my classes.)

I'm not promising any miracle cures with yoga, you'll have to speak to God about that. However, yoga might be worth trying if other options have failed or aren't working as well as hoped. Even if yoga doesn't cure you, just learning to accept and work within the boundaries of your body goes a long way toward healing both physically and mentally.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Cost of Yoga

Yoga can be expensive. Lululemon pants run about $85. Eco-friendly mats cost about $35 (I won't even tell you what I paid for mine it was so outrageous, but then for a teacher it was an investment). The average studio charges between $15-$20 per class. Then there are the accessories; mat bags, props, waterbottles, videos etc. All of this expense seems a bit counter-intuitive to the minimalist yogic philosophy of non-attachment.

So why does it seem the cost of yoga keeps going up?

The answer is yoga is popular and therefore profitable. However, there's a new wave afoot in the yoga world. A recent article in the New York Times (4/26) profiled low-cost yoga studios starting to crop up New York and San Francisco, the places where all yoga trends start.

Except in this case, I'm one step ahead of New York and San Francisco. Yes, Everett, Washington beat them to the punch. Sorry, but I have to gloat just a little. I've been trying to hold down the prices at my studio since I opened it in 2006 with only small, gradual price increases to keep up with the cost of living.

Having my studio as part of my house keeps my overhead down and therefore I don't have to charge a lot. I suppose I could but I don't want my students to stress out about the cost of relaxation and good health. I also want everyone to be able to have the experience of yoga in a studio, not just those who can afford it.

Sure, I've thought about moving my studio into a bigger space and offering more classes, but honestly I don't want the stress. Bigger is not necessarily better. In that situation I would have to charge more to make rent and pay other instructors. Besides, I also don't want to go back to teaching large group classes where I only know the students who sit in the front row and not the ones hiding in the back.

I also don't want to look at my students and see dollar signs. This is probably one of the most conflicting issues for a yoga teacher; how to earn a living from yoga without making money the central goal. I've always tried to charge what I need to put food on the table so to speak. Often what seems like an awesome hourly wage, when broken down into the actual hours I can both physically and logistically teach, becomes much less impressive.

I know I'll never get rich teaching yoga, (unless of course some famous person wants to hire me as their personal yoga teacher) and I'm perfectly fine with that. I didn't become a yoga teacher to profit off of yoga's popularity. I became a teacher because I love sharing yoga with others. I'm content in where I'm at as a teacher.

There's freedom in contentment.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Yoga and Longevity

Working in the health and wellness field I've heard it all when it comes to health and longevity claims. Every week it seems there's a new product, study or claim; green tea, pomegranates, blue-green algae, coconut water, raw diets, sleep, stress reduction and the list goes on and on.

Recently, POM Wonderful created an ad campaign suggesting that its pomegranate drink can actually help you cheat death. A few months back I heard and radio ad for a Group Health website that will help you "find more minutes" to add to the length of your life.

With all these claims and products swirling around it's easy to develop a neurosis trying to fashion the best plan to live longer. You may even be worried that stress from it is shortening your life. It seems we've created the belief that the length of our lives is determined solely by our actions.

We go to yoga class thinking "OK so there's 1o minutes added to my life but subtract 15 for the burger I ate before." Life suddenly becomes an a ledger of additions and subtractions and nothing more.

I'm reminded Jesus' words to the people 2000 years ago who were apparently worried about the same thing; "Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?"

And maybe we shouldn't be worried. With every claim comes a counter claim. A recent study cast doubt on the effectiveness of eating five fruits and vegetables a day to ward off cancer. Apparently the people in the study who ate them were almost as likely to get cancer as those who didn't. (Yahoo Health) So while you were worried last night that you hadn't eaten enough vegetables yesterday, it probably wouldn't have mattered anyway.

I'm not trying to stoke a fatalistic attitude and suggest that we might as well take up smoking and eat as many cheese burgers as we want. Instead, we should be focused on enjoying every moment we're given rather than worrying about how many moments we'll have later.

If you leave yoga class thinking of how many minutes you just added to your life and get hit by a bus (forgive the morbid thought) how much good did yoga really do you? But if instead you savor the relaxed feeling you received from class and get hit by a bus, well then at least you died happy.

These are probably bad examples, but the point is for all our efforts to live longer, we may be shortening our lives. When we worry about a future problem, we are not in the present and therefore missing out on the current moment. Instead looking for more future minutes, how about finding more minutes now? This after all is the real point of yoga, not longevity.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Grace, healing and prenatal yoga

No, I'm not pregnant. I thought it best to get that out of the way first. For some reason though, there's an assumption that because I teach prenatal yoga I must, therefore, be pregnant. The question isn't always asked directly. Usually the person I'm speaking with gets a funny look on their face and does a quick scan of my stomach to see if there's a baby-bump. Trust me there's not. All those plank-poses have kept my tummy in top shape. Anyway, having taught prenatal yoga off and on for 5 years, it would be an awfully long time for me to be pregnant.

Being pregnant isn't necessary to teaching prenatal yoga. Neither is having had children. It's knowledge and expertise that count, not a personal experience. There are plenty of male ob-gyns and obviously they haven't given birth.

But being a woman the question of how many kids I have invariably is asked at the beginning of each new prenatal session. Since I technically don't have any, the next question is of course, "When?"

The answer to this question is much more complicated which is what I usually say and leave it at that. Notice that I said "technically" none. This is where it gets complicated.

Four years ago I had a series of miscarriages. It about did me in. Some women can suffer loss after loss and keep going. I couldn't. Rather than face more potential losses with no explicable reason except a diagnosis of "bad luck," I decided that I'd rather not have children. It was an agonizing decision but it was the only one I felt truly peaceful about.

I don't usually tell my prenatal classes about this fact since they've all heard enough horror stories from other people and don't need to hear mine. My job is to make them feel relaxed about their pregnancies not anxious. Besides I don't want them to feel sorry for me or have my sorrow detract from their joy.

Yet those who know my history wonder how it is I can still teach a yoga class for pregnant women? Some might find it masochistic or just plain weird. The reality is I find it healing. It forces me to face my fears and grief rather than run from them which will only prolong them.

As friend after friend has entered the journey of parenthood, having been around so many pregnant women, I've been able to face all those baby showers with a brave face. Likewise, many of those same friends have taken the class from me which allowed me to be a part of their pregnancies in ways I might not have otherwise been.

Still, the biggest help I've had has been the grace that I've received from the same God I once blamed for taking away my chance to be a mother. I can only say that this grace is miraculous because I don't know where else it could have come from. Despite my anger, sorrow and self-pity, it appeared unbidden. Now, I can honestly say that my prenatal class is one of my favorite classes to teach.

There but for the grace of God go I.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Will yoga make me lose weight?

Emphatically, yes! Yoga will make you lose weight just as any exercise will make you lose weight if you haven't previously been exercising. That said, the real question is "How is yoga different from other forms of exercise?" or "How is it better?"

Yoga helps you relax which reduces your cortisol levels or stress hormones. When your cortisol levels are high your body tends to retain fat in expectation of famine or other calorie shortage (i.e. if you are working more you might have less time to eat.) When your body isn't stressed out any more it will then decide it's OK to stop storing fat. By the way, this is the reason small meals throughout the day boost your metabolism. Your body thinks there's a greater supply of food on hand and won't try to store as many calories.

While running and other aerobic activities will burn calories and are great for your cardiovascular system, these activities tend to increase your cortisol levels. Running to your body is flight, of the fight or flight response in the sympathetic nervous system. In other words, your body thinks you are running from a bear or other threat even if mentally you are enjoying your run. It does over time dissipate that same stress and causes your body to release endorphins which are the feel good hormones, (i.e. the runner's high.)

Yoga also produces endorphins without raising your cortisol levels. It may burn fewer calories and might not raise your heart rate to aerobic levels, (though some studies have shown yoga can burn between 250 and 300 calories per hour) burning calories is only one part of weight loss.

Pairing yoga with a good diet and aerobic activity is an excellent way to lose weight. It's a very balanced approach to exercise. Yoga will help you stay flexible and release muscles that have become tight from running etc. It will also give your body some down time and rest which is needed to avoid plateauing.

Plateauing happens when your body is no longer challenged by a particular form of exercise. (This is the reason I'm able to teach 2 to 4 classes a day. My body has adapted.) In the yoga classes I teach I try to consider how hard I've been working a class from week to week. If we've been doing a lot of active poses in the recent weeks, I try to incorporate some more restorative work. Likewise, with beginners I try to build them up to the more challenging poses little by little so that they don't get stuck with just the basics week in and week out. There are some 605 poses that are considered humanly possible so there's lots to chose from.

All things considered, yoga on it's own yoga is great for weight loss especially if you haven't been exercising regularly. It tends to be gentler on your body than pounding the pavement and will prepare your body from more challenging forms of exercise in the future through breath-work and muscle strengthening.

In my own life I've had to give up running and more aggressive forms of exercise due to bad knees. I overused my knees playing tennis and running when I was younger. Brisk walking, hiking, biking and rollerblading are my main forms of aerobic exercise. I don't weight train any more either as I found that yoga alone was enough to keep my muscles toned. (Yoga vs strength training is another blog topic altogether.) Overall, I feel I'm in better shape now than when I was twenty and running four miles or five miles a day. I also weigh less and I definitely notice the difference in my body which feels less run down and achy.

Friday, March 5, 2010

What's the point of Savasana?

"Why do we lie down at the end of class?" It's a good question. I think students should understand the purpose of this exercise. Laying down at the end of class is known as Savasana or corps pose. It's the relaxation portion of the class and usually done for 5-10 minutes.

Some people claim that Savasana is the most important pose in yoga. I agree. I've heard it said that Savasana is like hitting the save button on your computer after you've just completed a bunch of work you'd like to keep. Your body reacts the same way. It needs time to assimilate all the work you've done with it and incorporate the changes made to it.

Besides, it feels really good to just rest. So much of our day is spent being active both physically and mentally. Savasana is a natural recharge for your mind and body. How often do you get a chance to simple "be?" For most of us the answer is very rarely. So enjoy it!

Savasana can be problematic for some students though. I've often watched students as they lay in Savasana and observe that there are some who just can't lie still. They fidget and fuss instead of enjoying the stillness. Some students don't even try; they just roll up their mats and leave. This is usually a sign of over-activity. It's a warning sign that you have been doing too much for too long. Your mind and body no longer know how to relax.

Unfortunately the inability to relax, or hyper-vigilance, is quiet prevalent in our culture. We keep our muscle tense because of constant stress so that they remain in that state. In a sense, we've trained them to be tense. This training of sorts leads to a whole host of problems such as bad posture, muscle and joint pain, vulnerability to injury, insomnia etc.

Our minds work the same way. If you train your brain to constantly run, it will. Then it's a challenge to slow your thoughts down and concentrate on your breath in Savasana. Instead you'll most likely be thinking of what you need to do after class or whatever problem is confronting you at the time.

Think of Savasana as relaxation training or practice. It's a 5-10 minute gift of just being and having to do nothing. There's no obligation or "shoulds" during Savasana. Even if you don't manage to lie still and relax, don't count it as a failure. Instead, be aware of why you couldn't relax and remember that it's a practice. You are relearning how to relax.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Yoga Olympics? Say it ain't so!

I used to tell my students that yoga is not a competition and that there are no yoga Olympics until I was proved wrong. A couple years ago during the summer Olympics a student came up to me after class and told me that he had seen yoga in the Olympics. Initially I thought the poor man was confused by the floor routines preformed by the gymnasts. Often many of the acrobatics look like yoga poses.

A couple months later however, my husband brought home a letter to Coca-Cola, the company he works for, from a Bellevue based yoga studio. The letter asked for sponsorship or product donation for their Asana competition that would determine the finalist to be sent to a regional competition in California. I about died laughing. Yoga, soda and competition are very incongruous things. They just don't to go together.

Recently, I saw a poster here in Everett for another Asana competition held at a local studio. Apparently, yoga competitions are very prolific now and yes, there is an actual Yoga Olympics. The next one will be held 2012 in New York City.

I still maintain that yoga is not a competition and that competition goes against the very nature of yoga. Yoga is about doing something good for your body and mind. Yoga should improve your wellbeing, not draw you into comparisons against your fellow students.

Sometimes it feels like we have too many judgments in our society as it is; judgments against ourselves and judgments against each other. Whatever happened to Biblical advice of judge not less you be judged? You shouldn't go to yoga class and feel more judgment. You shouldn't ask yourself, "Will I ever get this right? Do I look OK?" Most of us ask ourselves these questions anyway and not just about our poses. Why put more unnecessary pressure on yourself during the time you should be relaxing?

Yoga class should be at least one of the places where you can practice self-acceptance. A place to stop looking around the room and comparing yourself to everyone else. It should be a welcome break from the rat-race we seem to insist on running. Let go of your ambitions toward your poses and accept that you may never get your leg around your head. I promise the world won't come to an end if you never achieve the perfect downward-dog.

Hopefully, this new attitude toward yourself and others will transfer off the mat and into the rest of your life. When you stop looking around at everyone else you actually see that really we're all the same; a mixture of strengths and weaknesses in various areas.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Why you hate bow pose

Everyone comes to yoga with either muscular strength or flexibility as their strong point. What our bodies naturally excel at we tend to gravitate toward. For instance, if you've done a lot of strength training in the past you'll most likely tend toward arm balances and warrior poses. If you've done a lot of gymnastics, dancing, etc. you'll probably like sundial and firefly poses.

Some people come to yoga with a combination of the above. They might have more lower body strength and can do warrior poses all day but struggle to hold plank for two breaths. Or some have really long legs and tight hamstrings but very open shoulders. I've learned over the years that there are no hard and fast rules about our bodies except that we all have weakness and strengths in various areas.

It's also very normal to have one side of the body that is stronger than the other or one side that is more flexible. Beginning students often find that they are able to balance better on one leg than the other in tree pose. Over time the disparity will be less noticeable. Years of tennis created a twist in my pelvis that has gradually worked itself out since I began practicing yoga.

It's because of our weaknesses and imbalances that I often tell my students that the poses they like the least are the ones they need the most. (This statement is usually followed by loud groans.) This is bad news if you hate bow pose as I do. Yes, I confess it's not my favorite. The twist in my hips means that I struggle with my hip-flexors.

The exception is if you have an injury and shouldn't be doing certain poses or if the pose hurts. There's a difference between "hurts so good" and "hurts not so good" of course. The "hurts so good" feels like a really good stretch whereas "hurts not so good" feels like it's actually damaging your body. Often tendons and ligaments feel like they are about to pop out of the joints when you've gone too far in a pose.

The hurts so good stretch is also known as the edge in yoga. Teachers sometimes instruct their students to find the edge. This is the place in pose where it almost feels like it's too much but not quite.

The breath is a good indicator of how far you should go in pose. If your breath is even and effortless, you are probably at ease in the pose. If your breath is rapid and forced, you might be too deep.

The breath is also a good indication of how challenging a pose is for you. If you are consistently able to maintain a normal breathing pattern in pose it might be one of your strengths. Conversely is true also.

Since one of the goals of yoga is to bring the body back into balance, it's good to be aware of which poses come easy for you and which ones challenge you. Practice the challenging ones more often and you'll probably notice more changes in your body. I'm not suggesting that you can skip the easy ones but just don't avoid the ones you don't like.

Monday, February 1, 2010

No mannequins, please

Several years ago, I asked one of my classes what they would like to focus on that day and a woman piped up, "I don't come to yoga to think, I want you to think for me!" I found this statement disconcerting for a variety of reasons, the first of which it conjured up an image of mannequins set before me ready to be posed.

Granted, you shouldn't go to yoga class and proceed to plan your day or worry about what's in your inbox at work. However, you should be present during class and focused on your body and breath in the poses. I want my students to ask themselves, "Can I go deeper or should I back out? How is my breathing? Is it rapid and labored or slow and easy?"

I also want my students to learn to "pose" themselves. In other words, learn what the correct alignment feels like and to adjust as needed. I'm there as a reminder and to help make adjustments but like I'm always saying, "I'm not in your body." I don't know how the pose feels to you. I can tell you how it looks but I don't know if it's hurting somewhere and needs to be modified.

When I teach a class I want to teach, not lead. However, most of us are used to listening with our eyes and not with our ears. This is evident by the number of people who make the same gestures I make when I'm talking with my hands during a pose. Or when I go to move a piece of hair from my eye several hands invariably move toward faces until their owners realize what's really happening.

Likewise, how many times have you been alone at home and heard a noise downstairs and began looking around the room? I do it too. Obviously, the noise isn't in the room but the instinct is to look and not listen.

In yoga class it's imperative that students listen with their ears because yoga poses have many nuances. Most have to be explained verbally. When you merely mimic the teacher you miss out on many of the pose's benefits. It's hard to ever reach the deeper levels of a pose or begin to understand the purpose of the pose by just following along. With just the feet alone, there are several minor adjustments that can change the whole dynamic of the pose. A simple turn of the toes in triangle can deepen the stretch or take the pressure off the hamstrings.

So yes, yoga requires a lot of thought, but it does turn your focus away from your hectic day and allow you to do something good for both your mind and your body.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's the rush?

I'm often told by students that it's hard to practice yoga at home for a variety of reasons. The phone rings, the dog barks and wants to lay down on the mat, there's not enough room, family interruptions, and just plain lack of motivation are common excuses I hear.

I confess I'm not always able to do my own practice at home either despite having an open studio at my disposal. My excuse is I've already done 15 downward-facing dogs in one day and I usually am not in the mood to do more. Besides, on my day off I feel it's important to give my tired body a rest.

Still, I enjoy the time I get to spend alone doing the poses I like most without having to explain them to someone else. There's a restorative feeling that comes focusing on my body for a change. For that reason I try to make a point of doing my own practice at least once a week.

Yet I can relate to my students who tell me they'd rather come to class than practice at home because there's no one there to hold them accountable. It's easy to rush through a series of poses and call it a practice. I too notice that I don't hold my poses as long as when I'm in a class.

As a remedy I began watching the clock to time myself in my poses. But that backfired. My practice became series of self-imposed time constraints and more about the time I spent than simply the awareness of my body in the poses. Once it was an issue of time, my practice became a check mark on my to-do list.

More and more I realized I was taking this same attitude toward my life, always ready to move on to the next moment, the next event.

In our culture we are wired toward getting things done. Instead of being in the moment we are always thinking about and preparing for the next moment. If we are at work we long to be at yoga class. During yoga class we long to get home to dinner to satisfy our hungry stomachs. During dinner we long to finish and get to the livingroom to watch our favorite TV show. During the show we long to be in bed asleep. And while trying to sleep we long to be at work to finish up the project we started earlier in the day. We never get to where we want to be because we are always wanting to be somewhere else.

Brennan Manning, in his book "Ruthless Trust," writes about the "geography of nowhere." He says, "Now/here spells nowhere. To be fully present to whoever or whatever is immediately before us is to pitch a tent in the wilderness of Nowhere. It is an act of radical trust- trust that God can be encountered at no other time and in no other place than the present moment. Being fully present in the now is perhaps the premier skill of the spiritual life."

Maybe instead of measuring our practices by the length of time we spend at them, we can start measuring them by how present we are during the time we practice. In doing so, we might as Manning suggests, be now-here instead always off somewhere else. To not be fully present to this moment is in reality to be no-where.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

So you want to be a yoga teacher?

If someone had told me when I was in college that I would end up as a yoga teacher and massage therapist I wouldn't have believed it. At that time in my life I was a high strung, stressed out, perfectionist, just trying to figure out what to do with my life. My two choices then were athletic trainer (not to be confused with exercise trainer, I mean one of the people you see running out on the field when an athlete goes down) or journalist. I chose journalist and thus began my short lived career.

I was actually pretty successful as a journalist and that was the problem. By age 25 I was the editor of a decent sized, weekly newspaper in Shoreline. But I confess I had no idea what I was doing. I spent most of my time trying to prove that I deserved my position.

I thought that when I received my promotion balloons would fall from the sky and people around my would jump-up and applaud. They didn't. In fact, I received nothing but headaches and negative phone calls from very upset readers. You wouldn't believe the stuff that people think to complain about. I actually had a woman nearly punch me once because I didn't have room for an article about her that week.

To combat my stress, I took yoga classes at the Everett Parks and Rec. I would often joke with my husband that someday I was going to quit my job and become a yoga teacher. One day he simple said, "Why don't you?" I scoffed at the idea at first because it seemed so absurd. Yet the more I thought about it the more I felt called to it.

I completed my first teacher training in Aug. 2002 and was hired as an instructor at the Mukilteo YMCA. Everything seemed to fall into place, until the night of my first class...

The fact is I wasn't well received as a teacher by my first students. It's safe to say the hated me. They wrote nasty letters about me and asked for the return of the previous instructor who left to go back to school. She had been very popular and my style was very different from her's. All I could think was "what have I gotten myself into?" as my dreams of a stress-free life dissolved in front of me.

I stuck it out and 6 months later they loved me. Over the next few years, class eventually grew to 60- plus students. This presented it's own set of problems. I couldn't teach them, only lead them through a series of poses and try my best to get everyone to fit in the room.

During that time I picked up several more classes, 15 total and was running to-and-fro around town. I always felt like I was going from 5th gear to 1st without any downshifting. So much for that perfect life. That's when I decided to start my own studio.

Even with me as my own boss, calling my own shots, there are still problems and hang-ups that have to be dealt with. When my students look at me dreamily and say they wished they had my life, I laugh, and say "There's no escaping stress. Even yoga teachers have bad days."

What I've learned however,is that though stress is an inevitable part of life,it's how you manage it that matters. Breathe deep and accept that things will never be perfect (sometimes not even close.) Just as your poses will never be perfect, neither will your life and that's the beauty of it. God gives us challenges to help us grow and lead us to where we need to be. If my career as a journalist hadn't been so taxing I would have never become a yoga teacher. I would have missed out on one of the best blessings of my life.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


I can’t count the number of fretful phone calls and emails I get from nervous beginning yoga students who all say something like; “I’ve never done any yoga before at all, is that OK?” Well if it wasn’t OK no one would be practicing yoga. We are all beginners at some point.

This repeated question makes me wonder if there’s a vicious rumor swirling around the yoga world of classes filled with contortionists wrapping their legs around their heads and balancing on one finger. For the record, I’ve been practicing yoga 12 years now and will only attempt the splits on the hottest day in July and after about an hour of practice first. I still cannot get my legs around my head and doubt I ever will. In fact, this may bit hard to believe, but I couldn’t touch my toes in a seated forward bend when I first started yoga. I wasn’t born flexible but I became more flexible because of yoga. This is why I often laugh when people tell me they can’t do yoga because they aren’t flexible. I say, “You need to do yoga because you aren’t flexible and flexible people need to do yoga for strength.”

I think the fear of the first yoga class comes from the perceived difference between a class at a gym and a class at a studio. Many people believe that yoga studios are only for those serious students with more experience.

Having taught at both venues, I’ve seen the advantages and disadvantages of both. Gyms tend to have class sizes around 15-30 students (occasionally I’ve seen classes upwards of 60) and the instructor often leads the class from the front of a very large room. Students follow along to the best of their ability as the level of the class varies. However, gyms do offer the anonymity of the back of the class for those who just want to watch and see.

As an instructor, I think that the smaller studio classes are the safer place for beginners even if they aren’t as anonymous as some might prefer. In a studio the instructor can help students with the correct form and modify poses more easily. There’s less a question of “am I doing this right?” in a studio.
At Tranquil Turtle Yoga studio, there are no designated classes for beginners because classes are never bigger than 8 students. This is small enough that everyone gets personalized attention from me.

Likewise, most students are beginners for a number of years before they move on to more advanced poses. This means that everyone tends to practice the same poses even if they’ve been attending class for some time.
I like to remind my students that yoga is a journey, not a destination. A student will never be perfect because there is no perfect in yoga. It’s a life-long process of learning all the nuances of a pose and holding it for just a breath longer than the last time. Over time the poses will begin to feel more and more comfortable. Also, students will become more and more confident in their ability to do the pose correctly on their own without instructor assistance. Muscle memory will take over and the body will start to automatically know what to do in a particular pose.

I remember the first time I ever attempted triangle pose. I thought there was no way I’d ever be able to do the pose and not feel as though my hamstrings were about to pop out of the back of my leg. Gradually, with the help of a yoga block and lots of practice, I was able to do the pose without pain. Then, with more time and practice, I was able to do the pose without a block. Now, I’m still working on turning open my hips without jamming up my spine and feeling the freedom in the pose. I’ll never get to the point where I’ll say, “Triangle, go t that down, don’t need to practice that anymore.”