Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Yoga like a Turtle

“Where did the turtle come from?” a student asked. No, the hard-shelled reptile didn’t come crawling into yoga class one day. It’s actually a question I’m often asked in reference to my studio’s name Tranquil Turtle Yoga.

It’s a good question, especially with all the much cooler yoga studio names out there that inspire grace and strength. Turtle’s don’t inspire either. Turtles are generally thought of as slow with cumbersome bodies. We often say “She’s come out of her shell,” when talking about a shy person who opens up finally.

Turtles are slow but persistent. No doubt you’ve heard the story of the tortoise and the hare numerous times. The hare rushes off in hurry but quickly loses steam. Thinking he has the lead he stops to rest while the tortoise lumbers on to beat the hare. I’ve seen many students who practice like hares at first; taking multiple classes a week, buying all the latest yoga clothes and DVDs. However, after a few short months their yoga mats gather dust in the closet when they realize yoga is more work than they thought.

Turtle yogis practice with patience and persistence. Though they may only attend class once or twice a week or sometimes take a month break, they always come back. They are in it for the long haul, realizing that yoga isn’t a race to the finish but a life-long practice. It’s not about toning up your butt for swim-suit season or dropping a couple of extra pounds. It’s a lifestyle.

Turtle yogis make long term diet changes, instead of hopping on whatever crash diet is the fad of the month. They make the effort to slow down and enjoy the current season instead of wishing it was over. They turn off their Blackberries and iPhones once in a while and make time for tea with friends.

Turtle style yoga also translates into slower moving classes. That doesn’t mean they are less challenging than more rapid styles, it means the poses are held longer.

When I first started practicing yoga as a college student, I was into all kinds of sports and activities. I didn’t really need any more exercise but I was in desperate need of flexibility and relaxation. Classes that moved quickly from pose to pose only frustrated me because I would often feel like I had just gotten into a pose properly when the instructor had already moved on. I didn’t find this to be relaxing at all.

When I discovered Iyengar yoga, I realized it was a perfect fit. It was much more therapeutic with emphasis on correct alignment in the poses and it moved much slower. A traditional Iyengar yoga class can sometimes practice just five poses in a hour with all the moving of props, aligning of bodies and staying with the pose.

Staying with the pose is another benefit I find to a slower style of yoga. So much of our culture these days involves hurrying from one place to another. Our brains are constantly flittering from thought to thought to our phone, our email, and back to our phone again. Staying with the pose enables great relaxation and presence.

There’s a physical benefit to staying longer in the poses as well. Our muscles have what is called the Golgi tendon organ which regulates the amount of muscle extension. It helps protect the muscle for over-stretching. It takes a full six seconds for the Golgi tendon to completely release allowing the muscle to go into a fully lengthened state; after that is when the real, flexibility creating, stretch takes place.

Later, after I began teaching, I discovered Anasura yoga. This style combines both the alignment and slower pace of Iyengar yoga with the natural progression and sequencing of poses that flow yoga styles of yoga offer. This felt like an even better fit for me and for my classes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking styles such as Ashtanga and Viniyoga. It’s true that I often borrow bits of Viniyoga from an instructor friend of mine whenever we lead retreats together. But for a runner, cyclist, swimmer, hiker, rollerblader and snowshoer, I need my yoga to be still and slow like a turtle. I get enough cardio-exercise from my other activities. I need yoga to balance me out with strength and flexibility.

So don’t discount the turtle as a lowly, bumbling creature. She may have a lot to teach you about yoga.

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