Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Since seeing my 94 year-old grandmother struggle to get out of her wheelchair at a holiday party, I’ve been contemplating new goals for the time I spend on my yoga mat. My grandma is famously hearty, spunky, and self-sufficient, and up until a year ago she lived on her own and walked up and down a long flight of stairs multiple times every day. Last year at the holidays, I recall her bending down to pick up a tiny piece of lint on the floor. I should have known she’d slow down eventually, but she’s been healthy, active, and self-sufficient for so long, I was starting to think she’d always be that way. How could so much change in less than a year? 

Aging is invisible, made even more so by the fact that we want to deny it’s happening. As I’m approaching 40 I’m both grateful for my relative youth and irritated that I now have to think about my form when loading the dishwasher if I want to avoid a backache. 

Inspired by my amazingly tough grandma and my desire to continue loading the dishwasher pain-free, I’m rethinking my yoga goals. Yes, it’s awesome that each and every time I practice I come off the mat feeling like a million bucks (or as I sighed after class the other day, “I feel like a human being again!”). But that’s just not enough for me anymore.   

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I’ve been all over the map in my 20 year yoga career. Having come from an athletic background, I started yoga with an overly vigorous, push-push-push mentality. Then after a few years (and a few too many injuries) I swung in the opposite direction and pretty much refused to do anything that risked me breaking a sweat or didn’t involve a bolster. 

From what I’ve observed in my years of teaching, many practitioners tend toward the same black-or-white approach, sticking with classes that match their natural inclinations on the mat. If you’re a vigorous yogi, you’re probably a regular in challenging vinyasa-style classes that build heat, throw in a few arm balances, and just generally kick your butt. If you’re a gentler yogi, you’re likely a pro at modifying poses, your bolster is your best friend, and in your eyes there’s no such thing as too many restorative poses. 

If you’re looking to yoga to support your aging process, which approach is better: vigorous or gentle?  

The answer (at least for me) is both. 

There’s plenty of conflicting scientific evidence and absolutely no guarantees as to the secret formula for aging well. But my money’s on a balanced approach that combines the vigorous and the gentle. In this approach, yoga is not about trying to improve or impress, but more importantly, to maintain. Whatever I can do today, I want to be able to do tomorrow, next month, next year, next decade. 

It takes a delicate balance to figure out when to push yourself and when to take it easy on the mat. Too strict an approach and you’re likely to injure yourself or burn out; too lax and you’ll gradually lose ground.  

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Think of the last time you practiced a long hold in chair pose. In order to build muscle strength you need to hold the pose until you begin to feel some sensation in your legs, but if you go too deep or hold too long, you’ll probably hold your breath, create unnecessary tension, or even strain yourself.  

Chair is a love-it or hate-it pose for most yoga students. I used to be a chair hater, mostly because the pose was hard for me, but eventually I realized that if I wanted to stay strong and mobile as I age, any pose that’s hard should become my best friend. Now, even in my gentle yoga classes, I sequence in gentle strengthening poses and incorporate a little bit of challenge into every practice (interspersed with plenty of delicious restorative moments).  

Here’s a cool scientific tidbit: Strength, especially leg strength, has recently been proven to be an important factor in improving brain health and slowing age-related decline. And there’s plenty of evidence touting the benefits of triggering the body’s relaxation response to reduce the chronic impact of stress on the body and mind. 

Scientific studies (and awesome grandmas) are giving us the formula. We just need to implement it: work a little, relax a little, aaahhh a little. 

So how can you bring your own practice more into balance?  

You don’t have to ditch your favorite class or completely overhaul your approach. But you may want to take an honest look at whether your yoga practice is just improving upon your strengths and ignoring your weaknesses? 

Maybe you crave the muscle burn from a long hold in warrior I, but when it’s time to lie still in savasana you want to crawl out of your skin. Or on the other hand, perhaps you’re the person who just “comes for the savasana” and barely tolerates anything more vigorous than that.  

Observe the yogi that you are today and consider adding either a new class that focuses on the opposite approach, or simply challenge yourself to fully embrace the parts of your favorite class that are particularly hard for you. There are no guarantees, of course, but my hunch is that rounding your yoga out will serve you well as you age. 

May we all live to be spunky 90+ year-olds who bend down to pick up lint off the floor; may we learn when to challenge ourselves and when to soften; and may we use our yoga practice for the good of our aging selves, so we can unload the dishwasher without pain rather than waking up one day and wondering how our bodies have suddenly, over the course of so many years, betrayed us.

 

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Normally a 5 degree day would have been cause for grumbling and outright complaining. But after being polar vortexed twice in one month, the kids and I jumped up and down, tossing gloves, balaclavas, snowpants to each other, shouting, “It’s 5 degrees outside!”

Perspective is a funny thing. From the outside, depending on the angle from which you catch it, it can seem like blissful ignorance, delusion, or Pollyannaish optimism. But from within, from the viewpoint of the person who has emerged from not one, but two polar vortices or suffered a devastating illness, there’s a natural and undeniably sweet shift in understanding that comes from adversity.

Perhaps it seems crass to be grateful for what you have because you’re comparing it to how much worse it could be, like when you leave a funeral service feeling inspired to “live better.” But it’s also just a beautiful function of our humanness: we pay more attention when we realize just how much we have to lose: health, loved ones, a warm home.

Yoga is an exploration of perspective. On a literal level, you are consciously placing your body in different positions than you are accustomed to, looking at the room, the world from a different vantage point, seeing what life feels like with your heels over your head rather than the other way around.b2ap3_thumbnail_Kerry-Maiorca-in-Savasana.jpg

But you shift your perspective on another level, in a quiet reflective way, every time you come to your mat. Even if you were to just sit there, or do one restorative pose, or take a savasanap, the act of choosing something as slow, single-tasky, and low-tech as yoga is bound to be a counterpoint to whatever the rest of your day looks like.

Yes 5 degrees is still cold. Yes, it’s annoying that I still have a lingering sniffle from the cold our family contracted two weeks ago, but when I get on my mat to be still, then breathe, then move, then blow my nose, then be still again, a little voice in my head chimes in: “At least you are well enough to do this.”

This perspective voice is your friend. It does not intend to demean your life or its importance, but rather it serves to remind you that your life is so important  that maybe you forgot because you were so distracted with work, your marital spat, a demanding pet, or children who alternately profess their love for each other, then kick each other in the shins.

The kids and I bundled up dutifully, even joyfully, having been sidelined from our daily outdoor time because of cold that froze my eyelashes in a matter of minutes. My son patiently asked for help with his boot rather than flailing and screaming that he was dying because his pant leg had bunched up to his thigh. With the perspective of what -15 degrees felt like, what -15 degrees meant to our normal existence, we laughed and shoveled, and spent a bundled up hour outside in the 5 degrees making the best darn backyard sledding hill around. When we got cold, we went inside and put our wet gear on the radiator, then we lay down on the basement floor with our feet cozied up to the furnace.

I’d like to believe we’re cured of our winter complaining, just like after I’ve attended an inspiring memorial service I want to believe I’ll never waste another moment watching old reruns because I’ll be too busy knitting or volunteering or creating spontaneous poetry and finger-paintings with my kids.

But that’s not really how perspective works. Heels can’t perpetually stay over head, putting on snow pants and boots will sometimes make a small child feel like (and proclaim that) he’s dying. Perspective relies on the existence of the normal, the mundane, the overlooked, the underappreciated. It is defined by our base state of being ungrateful and unaware.

Despite how it has seemed here in Chicago these past few weeks, it will warm up again, the snow will melt, and our awesome backyard sledding hill will fade, as will our joy at the “warmth” of 5 degrees. Come February, we will surely grumble, flail, and claim we are dying from all this oppressive snowgear as we overheat on our way out the door into the cold. But that’s okay. There will be something else to remind us each time we forget.

Perspective can’t be bullied or faked, but fortunately it doesn’t take a -15 degree day or a terminal illness to access it. You need not channel your inner Debbie Downer. Perspective is just as sweet for the little things, just as uplifting when taken in small, consistent doses as when heaped upon you like a pile of snow.

Yoga is my sweet daily dose of perspective, the reminder that sometimes your quads burn in chair pose, but it’s okay. It ends. We breathe in, we breathe out. Snow comes, and eventually melts. It’s okay.

The further you get from the -15 degrees, the harder it is to appreciate the 5. But every time you come to your mat you have the opportunity to experience that state of grace called perspective. The stillness, the quietness the intimacy of breathing deeply with other human beings gives me the perspective to remember that despite all the details, hiccups, logistics, challenges, and irritations of putting on snow boots with bunched up pants, I am alive, I am healthy, I am okay.

And I don’t need -15 degrees to feel that kind of joy. Thank goodness. Brrrr.

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