Today* was my four-year yoga anniversary. My first yoga class ever was exactly four years ago, the Saturday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, at the YMCA, with the same instructor who still teaches my Tuesday and Thursday evening yoga classes.
On that Saturday my friend Jenifer was visiting from Boise and she basically forced me to go to the Y with her. After spending a very long time on a treadmill (walking, I didn't start running until a year or so later), I followed Jenifer upstairs where the yoga class was starting.
Chris was the instructor. Like so many yoga instructors, she has a gentle, soothing voice and as she explained and described each pose she encouraged us to modify the poses if needed or use the props, foam blocks and straps, for assistance.
There are a couple of things I remember most clearly about that first yoga class. First, I really needed to pee but I didn't want to leave for long enough to go back downstairs to the bathroom. Second, I absolutely could not do the side plank.
Still, I must have connected with something, because I kept returning, using my January guest passes and then signing up for a YMCA membership at the end of the month.
As the months passed, I became familiar with the various yoga poses (warrior poses, triangle, and so forth) and found myself improving at the poses I could not do before. I don't know when exactly it happened, but I remember my triumph at mastering the side plank. It was around that time when I also accomplished a full body pushup. That's not something we did in yoga class, but one day I just decided to try it. (Nowadays I can do lots more pushups.)
One thing that took a lot longer to master was chaturanga, slowly lowering your body from the plank pose until you are hovering above the floor. It's kind of like a pushup, but harder, at least in my estimation.
I've improved a little in balance poses, at least the tree pose, although ever since I began having trouble with the achilles tendon and ankle on my right side, I have not done so well with balancing on that leg. And I'm pretty darn certain that since I have been running so much, I am far less flexible (particularly in the hamstrings) than I was even in the beginning!
I am not the most balanced yoga student. (And I don't mean just because I have trouble standing on one leg.) My mind tends to wander, and I think about non-yoga things. I check the time. Sometimes, a lot of the time, I treat it more as a physical exercise than a spiritual or mental one. I am more interested in the strength and flexibility benefits than the psychological ones.
But in spite of myself, I suspect that I get more out of yoga than simply strengthening my shoulders, arms and core, or stretching my tight hamstrings, calves and hips. I am sometimes tempted (and sometimes succumb) to skipping yoga class to spend extra time on the elliptical, wanting the additional cardio and calorie burn rather than the elusive benefits of yoga practice. I do try to avoid doing this. Balance must certainly include a fair combination of cardio (and running), strength, flexibility, and a tranquil mind. For that reason I try not to abandon yoga to pursue only cardio, in the same way that I would not give up running and do only yoga.
And I have to admit, one of the things that I do love about yoga is that rest periods are a mandatory component. Every yoga practice concludes with shavasana, a rest period in which you lie quietly on your back and relax for a few minutes. Sometimes the instructor will lead a guided (spoken) relaxation, or go around the class and do a shoulder or leg adjustment. My instructor Chris also inserts short rest moments into the yoga session, in which we lie prone on the floor for a few seconds after certain poses.
Some of my favorite non-strength poses open the hips or relax the back. My favorite hip stretch is pigeon, in which you bring one leg in front of you bent at the knee, stretch the other behind you, and relax forward into the stretch. You can do a similar stretch lying on your back, crossing one ankle across the thigh (as if you were sitting with your legs crossed), and pulling the lower leg toward your torso. And there are many variations of twists, seated, reclining, even standing (not my favorite type), where essentially your hips and legs go one direction and your shoulders and torso go the the other. I frequently do a type of twist lying in bed, rolling my bent legs to one side and looking in the other direction.
Another favorite simple pose is the sphinx. Gentler than cobra or upward dog, it has an amazing effect on the back. You simply lie on your stomach and prop your body up on your elbows. It is often done after plank and chataranga poses, and in addition to gently relaxing the back, it is a nice stretch for the abs, particularly if you have stressed them in a Pilates class the day before.
These days I go to yoga classes a few times a week. There are actually five classes I like, but most weeks I don't make it to every one of them. On Tuesday** and Thursday mornings (at 6 a.m.!) the class is pretty intense and strength building. The instructor seems to really concentrate on working the shoulders, and I think her goal is to build us all up to doing head stands. (Not. Gonna. Happen.) Tuesday*** and Thursday nights I go to Chris's class. As with the first class I attended, she mixes traditional poses, strength, stretching and balance work. It is still my favorite. (The picture is me with Chris after Thursday night's class.) A third instructor teaches the Saturday morning class that I attend when I can.
If I weren't already sure that yoga was a good idea for me, I would probably be converted by the articles I've seen in Runner's World and other magazines recommending yoga and core strengthening to enhance and improve running performance and recovery. So I'm validated. Plus, I hear, yoga will eventually make me look like Jennifer Aniston. (Well, I can hope, can't I?)
*Yes, I know this wasn't posted until Tuesday. I got too tired to finish on Thursday night.
**No, not this morning. Inauguration!
**Again, not going tonight. I'm still too wrapped up in the inauguration.