Sunday, September 18, 2011

Yoga Bodies

One quick search of the web for yoga classes turns up a whole host of options: “Yoga for Seniors,” Yoga for Men,” “Yoga for Over-50,” “Yoga for Plus-Sizes,” “Yoga for Kids,” and the list goes on. There’s a yoga class for just about everyone and everything now, even dogs.

The average student many find this quiet baffling. If you’re a 50-year-old man with a dog who has never done yoga before, you might wonder which class you should attend; the men’s class, the beginners’ class, the over-50 class or the dogs’ class.?

The answer, with a few exceptions, has more to do with preference really than anything else. Who would you rather be around during your class?
I’ve known some students who still consider themselves beginners even after five years of practice but would be too advanced to attend a beginners’ class and many so called “plus-sized” yogis who can do beautiful poses without needing any modifications. I’ve also seen plenty of super-flexible seniors who would balk at doing yoga in a chair and 25-year-olds who could really use one.

As an instructor, I’ve always shied away from labeling my classes. I don’t like the idea of excluding anyone because of age or lack-there-of or categorizing people by body-type or gender. I of course have the luxury of teaching in a smaller setting so I’m able to help my students when they run into challenges with poses. This doesn’t always work on a larger scale such as in a gym so it’s much more appropriate to label classes in those settings so students know what to expect.
Likewise, there is certainly value in having a class just for beginners, or more specifically those students who have little or no experience with yoga. It’s also a good for students to know beforehand if a class is particularly active or challenging. Specialty classes such as restorative yoga or prenatal yoga are also beneficial because the whole class can focus on a particular topic or issue.

But classes that are labeled something like “Yoga for the Rest of Us,” imply that yoga is inaccessible to most “normal” people and that it’s only the super bendy among us that can do it.

One of the worst things I hear from students is that they think I’m able to do certain poses because I’m thin and still youngish. Or because I’m thin and young I wouldn’t be able to teach students who aren’t as thin or young. An instructor who is knowledgeable about both yoga and the body doesn’t have to be a particular physical type to understand different challenges various students face. A good teacher can and should be able to teach a variety of students.

Sure, I felt a bit conspicuous when I walk into to teach a class of seniors or men, but it doesn’t mean I don’t understand that they have different needs or face different challenges than I do. I’m certainly not going to show-off in front of a group of seniors by doing side-crow or touching my nose to my knees in a forward bend.

The beauty of yoga is that it is not one-size fits all which is the reason I believe various types of people can practice together and still benefit from being in the same class together. The important thing is know your body and your boundaries and be willing to use a prop or do the modified version when necessary.

I think it’s good for students to practice with people who are different from each other. There’s so much more that can be learned in a diverse group. It encourages you to let go of your ego when you see someone doing a pose that you aren’t able to yet. Or that you need not be limited by your body type or age.

Over the years, I’ve learned so much from working with students of all abilities and ages and even cancer patients. I’ve learned creative ways to modify poses, humor in the face of body-boundaries, graceful aging and the value of simply waking up one more day.

My philosophy as a teacher is that I will work with anyone who is willing to work with me. It doesn’t mean I have all the answers but I’m willing to be patient and find creative solutions for challenges that might arise.

Sorry, I don’t teach dogs though, I’m a cat-person.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Age of Anxiety

You are not alone.

It's estimated that 19.1 million people in the United States suffer from some form of anxiety, be it panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias or generalized anxiety. World-wide one in four people are likely to suffer some form of anxiety at some point in there lives. Approximately $42.3 billion, or nearly one-third of all mental healthcare costs, is spent annually to treat anxiety.

As a society we are more anxious than we've ever been at any point in history and yet we are the safest we've ever been. So why are we so anxious?

Because we are surrounded by a constant stream of information via the internet, television, radio, friends, and family. We are subjected to more stories about mishaps, accidents and illnesses in one week than our great-grandparents were in their entire lives or there about.

With all of us running around scared why are we still ashamed and embarrassed about it? We do we go to such great lengths to pretend we're OK when we're not?

Not too long ago, a student came to me for yoga to relieve her back pain but it turned out she had much more going on than just her back. She had spent many years cooped up at home due to debilitating anxiety she didn't want anyone to see. Years of her life had been spent away from other people because she was too afraid of what other people would think if they knew about her condition. While yoga eased her back pain some, it did more to help ease her anxiety.

Lately, I've had similar conversations with other students suffering from anxiety who find it hard to open-up and share their stories. The more stories I hear, the more they all start to sound the same. Worse than fear itself, we're afraid of others seeing it.

Our culture values the person who doesn't even break a sweat when confronted with knee-knocking, gut-churning circumstances. Maybe that's why extreme sports are so popular. Everyone wants to prove how brave they are by jumping off bridges with giant rubber-bands tied to their ankles or surf the waves using a kite.

Anxiety disorders are near and dear to me because I've suffered from one or another kind for the last 14 years of my life. In fact it was anxiety that lead me to become a yoga teacher. I thought that if I just immersed myself in a calm and relaxed atmosphere I could rid myself of it. Turns out that there's no way to completely eliminate stress from life. Anxiety will always follow you even into the calmest most serene environments if you try to run from it.

Since we live in an age of anxiety it's impossible to run away from anxiety but there are ways to manage it. Yoga is one of the best methods I've found. Study after study confirms this finding.

Yoga teaches you calming breathing techniques, how to relax in uncomfortable situations instead of resisting or running, and releases physical tension through stretching. It also teaches you how to calm and quiet your mind and listen to your body.

More specifically, many yoga poses stretch the psoas muscle which is considered the second most emotional muscle in the body next to the heart. The psoas is innervated by the Vagus nerve which controls the fight or flight mechanism in the body. By relaxing the psoas you are able to relax the rest of the body. 

The biggest lesson practicing yoga taught me, wasn't how to get rid of my anxiety but how to accept it and even befriend it. I learned that my happiness didn't depend on how calm I was or how calm I could pretend to be. Instead I realized how capable I was of managing it and it became a much less intimidating. Learn to manage it instead of fleeing from it and it won't be as big of a monster.