Having recently crossed that ephemeral line where I can no longer say I’m in my mid-forties I’m beginning to think about my body. It is not that I’m suddenly losing my capacity, but I’m conscious that the window of physical potential is getting smaller, so it is time to look after what I’ve got.
Thus, I’ve taken up Yoga.
Last spring the first twinges of plantar fasciitis sent me to the running store to get proper shoes and the yoga studio in search of disciplined stretching.
I chose to do hot yoga, which involves practicing in a room heated to 90 degrees. You sweat. I sweat heaps, but I like getting a sweat up; it makes me feel like I’ve exercised. It is the same reason my father preferred tennis to golf. I’ve tried other types of yoga on my travels, thanks to the very handy MindBody App, but I still like returning to the warm room. Hot yoga seems like yoga for men.
My wife doesn’t like yoga. She lives and breathes, and now works in fitness, but she has never taken to it. Recently, a friend asked if it was because she was competitive, and it clicked. She doesn’t like yoga because she can’t WIN.
I get that. Competition is the antithesis of yoga. It is all about your practice, and sharing energy and being grounded and giving thanks. I’ve seen men fart and go shirtless, when I wouldn’t, but that is all accepted. There is no Nasty in Namaste.
But that doesn’t stop me feeling like a LOSER when I’m on the mat.
And often I’m on the mat; in child’s pose, in a pool of perspiration, panting like my lab on a hot day. Downed dog.
At the end of the class the yogi will often direct us into child’s pose to take a moment and recover. Then she will offer this as a time for people to do anything in their practice that might not have been covered in the previous 50 minutes. The first time this happened, I looked up and the woman next to me was recovering by standing on her head. It was hard not to feel like a loser in that moment.
I returned to my child’s pose, which at least has the benefit of somewhat sheltering one from the outside world, but my mind still wandered to the fact my pose is far from textbook. If I rest my sit bones on my heels, my limited spine curvature means my head is sticking up. It is usually the only one.
If I’m face to the mat it feels like there is a 45-degree angle at my knees and my bum is 24-inches away from where it should be. That it is an open invitation to the instructor to come and press down on the base of my spine. She is working under the assumption my pose needs correcting. So I have to go through the additional ignominy of letting out a little squeal to inform her I’ve reached your maximum elasticity.
It is the same with most of my poses. My downward dog is very oblique. In pigeon my folded leg is very acute.
I dread the phrase “and the full expression of the pose is”. A feeling akin to what the concert-goer feels when the 80s band declares they are “going to play something from their new album”, but worse. More than a buzz kill. It is like a buzz saw to my body image.
“So you think you are a fit and healthy guy, try this buddy!”
And by this I mean squatting without falling over backwards as opposed to crow pose, which is what people who can squat do to challenge themselves.
My balance is terrible. If I arrive to class late and can’t get a spot next to the wall, I have a moment of panic. My tree pose is more coconut palm in a hurricane than stately oak. If, as the yogis like to say, we are all contributing to the energy in the room, I fear I’m inflicting chaos theory on the people next to me.
As for the breathing; the one breath, one movement mantra is beyond me. My practice is totally disassociated from my breath. If I’m not flat out panting, I’m breathing double time. I’m usually breathing out when I should be breathing in. Focusing on the breath just adds stress. At this point Yoga is hard enough without having to manage my oxygen intake.
I get it in principle. If I was using my breath my vinyasa might actually flow like a gentle river. I can visualize that languid stream, but I imagine my movement resembles a body plunging over a series of waterfalls.
And let’s face it if you are going over a waterfall, you are probably not winning.
Like the chest to straight-legged forward fold, the balance and breathing will have to wait. As will the spiritual dimension. Gaining awareness and reaching a zen state; that is post-grad yoga. I’m still doing YOGA 101.
Right now, yoga is just a glorified stretching regime and to that end it is working. I keep telling myself that I’m undoing years of neglect; that each session is unwinding a day of backpacking or a ten-mile run. It is a very arbitrary measure, but it accounts for my incremental progress. There are no shortcuts in life.
I just completed a half-marathon up a mountain, racheting up my hamstrings with every step! Throughout the marathon-level training I put myself through for that race I used yoga to keep me limber. So what, if I still can’t touch my toes, the plantar fasciitis didn’t get any worse!
After around 60 yoga sessions I still feel stiff and sweaty when I compare myself to my classmates. But most of that is in my head. The vibe much less intimidating than the environment on the weights floor at the gym. I’m getting better at accepting that I’m not going to win any yoga accolades and just moving on … awkwardly to the next pose.
I’m giving myself plenty of practice.
Thanks to Lauren Porat of Yoga Spark for posing with me.