I like learning new things, as long as there is not too much risk involved. When the Wellness Committee at work sponsored a four-week yoga class in June, I decided to give it a try.
The invitation said it was for people who had never done yoga before, or who just wanted a chance to relax in the middle of the day. When I was a little girl, my mother tried yoga for a while (one of many health-related things she tried for a while), but I don’t think my attempts to imitate the yoga poses she tried were really “doing yoga.”
Like many people, I could have given several reasons why yoga wasn’t for me.
- I’m not very flexible, and I saw nothing relaxing about contorting my body into strange positions.
- Yoga’s roots are in Hinduism, and some Christians warn against the subtle spiritual effects of an apparently harmless exercise class.
- I was doing a good job staying in shape already with my running and workouts at the Y. Taking the yoga class meant missing my daily lunchtime walk.
But as I say, I like to keep myself open to new things. There was no cost except my time, and the possible embarrassment of not being able to do it very well. (I’ve never been good at anything that requires balance and coordination. I do OK at running because all it requires it that I keep pushing myself forward.)
I was relieved to discover that I wasn’t the only middle-aged woman who couldn’t bend nearly as far as the instructor or our younger co-workers. But I was apparently the only newbie in the class – everyone else showed up with their own yoga mats and seemed to know what they were doing.
I had expected the first session at least to start with explanations of what to do, how, and why. But no, the instructor just started right in with the usual sequence. (I say that because the next three weeks were similar, with some variations in what poses were included and in which order.)
The instructor occasionally had to correct my stance, but for the most part I seemed to manage the various positions. I couldn’t really see what was supposed to be either relaxing or particularly healthy about it, though. If I felt better at the end of a session, it was mostly because I knew it was a whole week before I had to go do it again.
As for any spiritual aspect to it, all I could point to might be at the end of each class, as the instructor exhorted us to go through the day with “joy in your heart and peace in your soul” (I’m not sure of the exact words, but it was something like that, plus something about laughter).
It would be a stretch to find anything to criticize in that. Yet somehow I felt slightly bothered by it. I guess I feel that I should feel more joy and peace, with or without yoga. But there are certain aspects to my job that I find stressful, and peace and joy are not words that generally characterize my workday.
Perhaps yoga could help me in that regard, if I did it regularly and got the hang of actually doing it right instead of just trying not to look too ungainly. I read some articles on why people do yoga, and was intrigued by some of what I read.
Part of my workout at the Y is doing stretches, after I’m done with the aerobic and strength-training exercises. I had looked on the yoga as just another way to do stretches. Yoga does improve flexibility, but it also improves balance, which is something that I’ve never been good at. According to the articles I read, it also improves circulation and stimulates the immune system.
More than the purely physical effects, however, all the articles I read make a point of how yoga helps the mind and body work together. I have always been much more interested in my mind than my body, though I have tried to follow reasonably healthy habits in terms of food and exercise.
The mind and the body are inextricably linked, however. It’s easy to think of examples of how my mood affects my body (tense muscles when stressed, or slouching posture when discouraged). And I know how hard it is to think clearly when my body is overly tired or in pain or I’ve just gone too long without eating or drinking.
Exactly how yoga helps mind and body work better together I’m not sure, based on my brief experience. But I’m sure it’s something that involves practice. I tend to avoid paying attention to my body because its various aches and pains distract me from what I’m doing. But if I learned to reduce the stress-related tension I imagine a lot of that physical discomfort would clear up, and maybe it would be pleasant to notice how I was feeling.
One thing I did tend to ignore in the yoga sessions, because I had no idea quite what I was supposed to be doing, was the instruction to take “yoga breaths.” I don’t like having to think about how to breathe – I’ve been doing it since I was born and I prefer to just keep doing it without having to relearn how. But from what I read, a lot of the benefits of yoga are related to the breathing.
Interestingly, there is another way to get some of those same benefits without doing yoga. While I was working on this post, someone on Facebook posted a link to an article about how singing provides the same effect as yoga breathing. I certainly have noticed, over the years, how singing in a choir regularly improves my breathing – something I notice mostly by its absence when I have not been part of a choir for some time and have to gain back when I come back to it.
If I had to choose between singing and yoga, there’s no question I’d choose singing. But I will have to give some consideration to the potential benefits of both.