Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Talky Tuesday: Yoga

Since the topic came up in my last Talky Tuesday post, and since Natalie has been blogging about it as well, I figured I might as well get around to spilling my thoughts on yoga. Honestly, this was a topic I wanted to cover pretty early on when I came up with my Talky Tuesday idea but other, slightly more urgent things always seemed to take precedence. Now those are all out of my system (mostly) so I can finally put my thoughts on yoga out there.

My (Brief) History With Yoga

I first became aware that there was this thing called yoga at some point in high school. I picked up Teach Yourself Yoga at some point—I have a memory of it being in a gift shop at EPCOT, of all places—and made a few efforts to read up on the beginner asanas included in there, and to follow the recommended routine at the back. That didn't really pan out.

It wasn't until my junior year of college that I actually took a class. While I was still curious about yoga, at this point I just wanted the lowest-impact phys ed class possible (and I had already taken golf). Hah! Even though I had the world's gentlest, most mellow instructor—a beefy woman's lacrosse coach who practiced for the "chill out" benefits rather than the "sick flexibility gains" benefits—there were days when it kicked my ass. Nonetheless, it was a positive and encouraging experience, and I kept with it afterwards. I have yet to attend another class, though; I just practice on my own.

If you're a yoga nerd and would like me to be specific, by the way, the class was just typical hatha yoga.

My (Also Brief) History With Rinzai Zen Meditation

A couple of years after that yoga class, I graduated college. (Woohoo!) In the weird in-between time I spent at home, wondering what to do next, I stumbled across a meditation Meetup organized by a local Rinzai Zen Zendo. I continued to sit with them as long as I was home, returning when I could in between stints overseas.

How These Two Are Related

Image courtesy Jonathan Natiuk
Buddhism, or more specifically Zen meditation, has been the hip thing in the US since (arguably) the 1960s, thanks to beatniks and Shunryu Suzuki. Since then, meditation (Zen or otherwise) has gained a small foothold in both medicine and psychology as treatment option with a surprisingly high level of applicability. (Though of course there has also been a fair amount of skepticism and controversy. But that's another post. For now, I refer you to Jo Marchant's Cure, particularly Chapter 9: "Enjoy the Moment.")

Essential to both practices, at least how I learned them, is the concept of breath. In yoga, you attend to your breath, moving from one asana to another on inhales or exhales. In mindfulness meditation, you draw your attention to the here and now by focusing on your breathing. The method I was taught was to simply count my breaths backwards from 10, over and over.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see how the two practices can be merged. Ever since my experience with Zen meditation, I have tried to apply the principles of focused breathing during my yoga sessions. When you live in close quarters with another human, it can be a little weird to announce, "Okay, I'm going to sit on the edge of the bed and do nothing for five minutes, please don't disturb me." But there's nothing weird about saying, "Hey, I'm going to do a bit of yoga now."

My Subsequent Yoga Philosophy

People have all kinds of reasons for starting a yoga program. Everyone's reasons are their own, and they're equally valid, but given the way yoga is marketed and promoted, I think it's easy to miss the point.

When YouTube channel after YouTube channel and class after class features lithe, flexible young women, we get an idea about what yoga can do and also who yoga is for. The same goes for images of yoginis maintaining asanas that require an incredible amount of body strength.

"Wow," we think. "I want to be able to do that."

And I get it. If I can engage in gender stereotypes for a second, yoga is a really attractive way to get women who would otherwise be intimidated by strength training interested in...well, strength training. Not to mention that yoga helps with flexibility and balance—two skills we have heard again and again that we will lose in our old age (if we're not careful).

In all of this, yoga is a tool to change (or at least maintain) the body. We want to be stronger. We want to be more flexible. Brutal honesty time: we want to be thinner. (Isn't that what "stronger" and "more flexible" are often code words for? #realtalk) Whatever it is, we want to transform our body, whether in terms of appearance or ability. We also (again, #realtalk) want to cheat death and prolong the inevitable as much as we can. The longer we stay fit and flexible, the longer we have on this Earth, right?

These are admirable goals, I think. To the extent that they don't become a competition with yourself, anyway. Increasing my own level of aerobic fitness and learning to master and enjoy an activity I thought was not for me is certainly part of my own motivation behind my running while fat plan, after all.

Maybe it's because I'm pursuing those goals elsewhere that I have an entirely different take on yoga. Of course part of my yoga practice is centered around what I can do to support my new running habit (lots of tree pose), but the reason I keep coming back to the mat is that I just want to chill the fuck out. I don't go to any great lengths to push myself (which is why you'll never see me holding a plank for 10 minutes at a go) and I don't particularly care if I never truly master some asanas. I just want to spend some time in my head, without stimulation, and breathe for a little bit. When I carve out this time for myself, I benefit. My mood improves and I can come back to my work (writing, editing, lesson planning, promoting, crafting) with fresh eyes. Once in a while, ideas that have been percolating for years suddenly all come together in one eureka moment after another.

I'm not entirely on track with my 101 in 1001 goal of "1001 sun salutations." Like I said, I have my ups and downs. But even if I were, I can't imagine that I would be anywhere near capable of performing fantastic yogini feats. My yoga victories, such as they are, are inconsequential. Teeny tiny. Maybe yoga on the daily for a whole week, or having a reeeaaaal niiiice streeeeetch in pigeon pose before I go out running. (Oh, and by the way: my ass hovers quite a few inches off the floor in pigeon pose.) That's okay! It's okay to be team Tiny Yoga Victories. I'm right there with you.


  1. Yay!!! After learning more about yoga and what I do and don't like, I think I'm also doing it mostly for "chill out" benefits. Although just holding myself up in poses so many times has also started some "sick muscle gains" so that is cool. Being more flexible would be nice but I've decided to stop letting that bother me. Finding other moves to improvise with has been helpful :D

  2. Pretty article! I found some useful information in your blog, it was awesome to read, tree pose thanks for sharing this great content to my vision, keep sharing..