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.