Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Yoga: Lessons from the mat

Yoga: Lessons from the mat

March, 2014


When I was a little girl, I failed beginning gymnastics three times. I loved the idea of gymnastics—the way I saw the other girls float in the air doing their flips and handstands. The problem was I couldn’t get my legs far enough apart to do the straddle roll; I could not walk across the balance beam; I could not even touch my toes. So eventually, when I was about a head taller than any others in the beginner class, I stopped going.

            In high school, I found a sport that required neither flexibility nor upper arm strength—distance running. My too-long legs served me well and my non-muscular frame was actually very light to carry around for any given distance, providing me with an advantage in terms of endurance. No one asked me to touch my toes as I passed them in the final mile. My competitive running career ended in college, and recreational running took its place. For the past twenty years, aside from an occasional pick-up volleyball game or a bike ride, running is the only exercise I have done. Running is free and convenient, and I had never given thought to augmenting my almost-daily run with another form of exercise.  

            Until now. As part of an uncharacteristic New Year’s resolution, I decided to join a yoga class held over the lunch hour at my workplace. Yoga, I read, had similar benefits to meditation in terms of producing inner strength and peace. By the end of 2014, three of my four children will be teenagers. I decided that this year, I would need all the inner strength and peace available to me.

            So, dressed in my running shoes, tights and a free t-shirt from a local fun run, I arrived at my first yoga class. The instructor played soft, soothing music as everyone sat serene, barefoot and cross-legged on his or her mats. I suddenly realized that yoga is done without shoes. Struggling to sit cross-legged, with my knees closer to my ears than to the mat, I had a sudden flashback to my childhood days of failed gymnastics. As my colleagues breathed deeply around me, I concentrated on not rearranging my burning legs and wondered when we would move onto something easier.

            The rest of the class was a series of impossible poses. While the employees in the class had differing levels of bendability, strength and skill, each one of them could do a version of the demonstrated pose. Except me. With a mixture of embarrassment and horror, I realized I could not do even the most basic yoga pose properly. The more complicated poses looked to me like something out of Cirque du Soleil. I was so much more noticeably inflexible than anyone else in the class that the teacher approached as I was straining toward my toes, fingertips a foot off the floor, and whispered to me, “Runners have tight hamstrings. It’s okay.” I had never told her I was a runner. I wanted to fold up my mat and simply watch the class and applaud at appropriate times.

            But I kept going back to yoga, partly because Karen, a co-worker two cubes down attended each lunchtime session and would ask me if I was coming with her. Karen is as flexible as a warm soft pretzel.  When she bends over in the triangle pose, her hair grazes the mat. My own triangle pose looks more like a rhombus.

            As I showed up for yoga every other day, it got a little better. Not because I could do any of the poses, but because the instructor recognized that I was a special needs yoga person and began to bring me props—like a foam brick to put under my bottom while we did “Pigeon” or a long strap to attach to my feet and hold onto while we rocked on our backs in what they called “Happy Baby,” but felt to me more like “Cranky Toddler.”

            At home, my family delighted in my stories of my challenging yoga classes. I would explain a terribly complicated pose, and Jamie and Teenasia, ages 10 and 12, would immediately enter the pose on our kitchen floor and hold it for a minute before collapsing in giggles that I could not do it. Liam, 15, who inherited my non-flexibility, was more sympathetic, and suggested I just stick to running.

            But even as I measure my improvements in yoga in millimeters and nanoseconds, yoga is bringing me a gift that I had not expected. I am realizing, as I show up to yoga class, that yoga is making me more compassionate towards my children and their individual struggles. Childhood is a series of new and sometimes seemingly impossible tasks. From sitting still in church to complex word problems in math to managing emotions at home, each day Bill and I expect our children to try their best at tasks that may not come naturally. How often do we expect the same of ourselves? Adulthood brings the luxury of choosing comfort over challenge. I stay with my job because I’m successful at it; my home life and activities outside of work are usually within my reach. Yoga is different. Tipping over in the “Tree” pose as the rest of my classmates stand motionless reminds me that this may be how my daughter feels when she’s unable to do something than most kids consider simple. Yoga has made it possible for me to be kinder to my children when they flounder.


            So, for now at least, I’m continuing my yoga classes. I’m awkward and stiff and not graceful at all.  During the class I feel frustrated and wonder when it will be over. I’m doing something new and different and it’s so difficult. And I’m so thankful.

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