Psst! Hey, wanna hear something shocking? I’m taking yoga.
Relax, I haven’t grown my hair out and gone hippy (well, the hair has grown out, but only because I haven’t had it cut in a month and a half), nor have I become a Stepford Wife. It’s the result of having talked to so many people about how good yoga is. I know, this kind of sounds like a "If Timmy jumped off a cliff..." thing. But admittedly, anything that’s been around for about 5,000 years and been practiced by countless millions of people can’t be all bad.
So when the rumour of a new yoga class starting up at work started running around, I make sure James kept me in the loop. Sure enough, when word officially came out, I forked over $80 and signed my life away (basically, a "I won’t sue you for anything stupid I do" form), bought a yoga mat (about six feet long, two and a half feet wide, and about 1/4 inch thick), and tried to prepare myself for something I’d never done before.
The first class was a week ago yesterday. We had a class of about nine people (the full class will be about 10, but we have yet to have a full compliment), with participants from either Project Management or Technology, with one person from Creative. We all sit in the Theatre (chairs removed), while our instructor, Lori, leads us through the various motions.
The first thing you need to know is that there isn’t just one yoga. In fact, there are 40 different kinds, such as Agni, Bhakti, Japa, Mantra, Tantra, and Hatha. The one we’re doing is called Ashtanga, which is "the unitive discipline of the eight limbs" ... whatever that means. The easiest way to think of it is as the aerobic version of "regular" yoga (that’s "Hatha" yoga, in case you’re interested).
The second thing is that yoga isn’t just standing (or sitting) in various poses. (Some yogas can be, but ashtanga definitely ain’t.) Each pose is for stretching, flexing, meditation, or a combination of all three. Especially with ashtanga, you’ll work up a good sweat, too. By the time you get to the end, you’ll either be dying for more, or thankful that it’s over for the day.
And the third is a bit of an odd one: Breathing. Yeah, kind of an important one, I know. But it’s key to being able to ensure you’re getting not only enough oxygen to handle the workout, and block out the "discomfort" (as Lori puts it). The breathing manner is specific: Always through the nose, and using the ribs to breathe, not the belly (your abdominals should be contracted as much as possible). Inhaling, you try to make the sound "suh" (with your mouth closed, of course), while making the sound "ha" while exhaling.
Sounds strange, I know. The reason is clear once you get into it, though. It’s not easy to do. In fact, when you’re in a particularly awkward pose — say, Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat Pose) — you can concentrate on getting your breathing correct and not so much on the fact that your legs feel like they’re about to rip your stomach muscles apart.
Generally, each yoga session starts off with a series of three poses done in succession: Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), which moves into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog), then into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), which is held for up to two minutes at a time. This is to help get the body ready for the lesson it’s about to receive. It’s a bit of stretching, a bit of strength, and done just fast enough to get the blood flowing.
After that, it’s up to the instructor to define their pattern of torture for the day.
The rest of the class has done this before. Some of them are long-term veterans. I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. Lori’s kind enough to explain the breathing thing to me, since it makes no sense to me at first. She then suggests that I just try to concentrate on the breathing and not worry too much about getting the poses right.
I spend a lot of time looking at her or others in the class, because I don’t understand a thing. Many of Lori’s words are in Sanskrit (the ancient Indian language used 5,000 years ago when yoga was first defined), and it’s traditional to use the Sanskrit words. I have no idea what "bondas" are, or what she’s saying when we’re supposed to "Svanasana".
At the end of the class, we assume a pose which is, well, laying down with eyes closed. It’s supposed to be for relaxation, but a few of us (not me) fall asleep. I find yoga, as experienced, a lot easier than I thought. So I gather, Lori took it light on us.
This time, I’m ready. I’ve got an idea of what yoga is, I sort of know the motions (well, some of them), and I’m prepared for the run. We do the opening, and then start trying a few new poses we didn’t do the week before. Some are easy, some are not. Lori also kicks it up a notch, and the class is bit harder than the first one. In general, I’m able to keep up.
The breathing is difficult, and I often find myself remembering how I’m supposed to breathe. It helps me concentrate on something other than the severe wobbling on my legs in some of the poses. (The wobbling, incidentally, is partly due to the position that I’m in, and partly due to trying to keep my balance without falling over.)
About halfway through the class, I realized I could get into full lotus pose. (Sitting down, it’s where your feet cross, heels near or touching the hips.) I haven’t done it in about two decades, but not for lack of trying — I just never thought to. I was quite amazed with myself, actually.
I realize that the final pose is actually a pose, and not just us lying down. It’s called Savasana (Corpse Pose) and is designed as a relaxtion and meditative state. The idea is to calm the body and the mind after doing countless things to it. I think I’m going to start practicing this every night when I go to bed — I always want to fall asleep.
I’m keen, but a little hesitant. Why? Well, the day before, I did a fairly strenuous leg workout at the gym. Lately, this hasn’t been too much of a problem, as the protein powder I now take seems to keep the recovery period extremely short. However, having missed most of last week to schedule and exhaustion, my legs took a little longer to heal up.
Based on the previous class, I figured I’d have a good chance to stretch out my quadriceps (the troublesome muscles in question). What I didn’t figure on was Lori deciding to crank up the difficulty and really put us through our paces. And, I hope by complete coincidence, really focus on our legs.
One particular pose she put us into, the name of which I don’t know, pretty much put me over the edge. Basically, you’re bend forward at the waist, feet hip-width apart and bent at the knees. Keeping the feet flat on the floor, you feed one arm between the legs, and the other wraps around your back, linking somewhere around your rear end. Normally, this isn’t a problem for me to do. However, the pain in my already-sore thighs was ... exquisite.
Ever felt like your quadriceps were going to physically separate from your femur?
I had to drop out of the pose twice, especially after my left thigh started cramping. Not a good sign.
We also did a pose that I found quite enjoyable. It goes like this: Sitting, bring your feet in as tight as you can to your groin. Then have the instructor stand on your knees while forcing your head down so that your forehead touches your toes.
Now here’s the kicker: I liked it. (But then, I have a very flexible groin.)
Another new position we was Bakasana (Crane Pose). It’s a bit of an odd one. You start with hands placed on the mat, shoulder-width apart, fingers spread widely. Then lean forward onto your arms, and place your knees just above the elbows, and roll forward until your feet come off the ground. Ideally, you’ll be standing on your hands, with (surprisingly) little stress on your wrist.
It’s a hard position, partly due to upper body strength, but also due to balance. I was actually quite amazed that I could even get into it. Unfortunately, while my strength seemed to be agreeing, my balance wasn’t as cooperative. I muttered in my thoughts:
"Don’t fall ... don’t fall ... don’t fall ... oh, crap ..."
Right on my head, too. I had laughed at my friend because she, while doing the same pose at her class, had landed on her face. She quite rightly returned the favour when I told her about my limited success.
Then we moved onto headstands. I hadn’t done one since I was in high school. I need a little practice. Surprisingly enough, getting up wasn’t really that hard. It was staying there. I thought I’d had it balanced well. But when I felt my feet having gone past the point of no return, all I could was do a tuck and roll out of what would have been a complete collapse.
By the end of the class, my legs were hamburger formed into two bulky bags that somehow supported my torso and allowed me to walk. Walking down the stairs was difficult. (Heck, walking on a horizontal surface was a bit of a challenge.) I fully expected to pay for it the following morning.
But despite how badly I hurt, I woke up relatively pain-free this morning. Somehow, all the stretching cancelled out the muscle shredding, and I was able to move without a wheelchair. I’m looking forward to the next class on Tuesday, without a clue of what Lori is going to do to us next. It’s going to be an interesting set of classes, and I’m sure I’m going to get a lot out of yoga.
The only drawback? I feel like going into Savasana during meetings...