Things I’ve learned from doing yoga
I missed my yoga class this morning due to an upset stomach. I want to take a minute here while it’s giving me a break to talk about why I don’t like missing yoga.
Last time I posted about exercise, I’d lost 20 pounds and was feeling better every day. As I write this, I’ve lost 60 pounds an have maintained that for 6 months. I’ve been focusing on building strength and flexibility in the areas I was weakest, and that’s preventing all of the injuries I used to be most susceptible to. I’ve even gotten my carpal tunnel issues under control with daily wrist stretches and strengthening. And all of this is great, amazing even, but there are a few things about yoga specifically that have helped me in areas I didn’t expect.
These are things that they talk about in yoga classes, but as someone just coming in and trying to understand the moves, it’s hard to focus on the finer aspects. But it was worth it when the concepts finally clicked for me.
Breath is focus, and in yoga (and Tai Chi and other flow-based practices), breath is essential. You move with your breath, and it leads you into and out of each movement in the flow. Inhale into down dog, exhale into lunge, inhale up, exhale forward fold, and so on. Learning to focus my movements on my breath and keep my breath slow and even requires just enough concentration to clear my head of everything else.
When I go into a twist or stretch, it’s easy to find myself holding my breath. But once I’m in a position, exhaling slowly almost always allows me to move deeper into it. I’ve often heard the phrase “breathe into your [body part]” from instructors, which sounds corny at first but it’s a mental game that I’ve found very helpful.
In my daily life, learning to breathe has been a game changer. I’ve practiced multiple breathing exercises (Prāṇāyāma) and each has a different and surprisingly profound effect on my state of mind. Ujjayi breath, or whisper breath, is basically just constricting the back of your throat slightly as if you were going to whisper. It’s a loud breath that makes it easier for me to focus. If you have an Apple Watch bugging you to breath, using Ujjayi breath makes the little break more effective.
I learned Sitali Pranayama, or cooling breath, which is basically just curling your tongue into a straw (if you’re genetically disposed to that) and breathing deeply through it. It looks ridiculous, but I use it when running in warmer weather. It works.
I learned Sama Vritti Pranayama, or breath of equal holds, which has been what I use when I feel overwhelmed or even just frustrated by a bug in a program. The basic idea is to inhale slowly for a count, hold for the same count, exhale at the same rate, hold at the bottom for the count. Increase the count as you go, slowing your breathing, your pulse, and your racing thoughts.
Breathing is never a bad idea for animals of any kind, and Pranayama exercises require concentration, creating focus. It takes no special equipment, and I can do it anywhere I happen to be.
Holding Weight and Letting Go
The hardest thing for me to pick up was being able to tell where I’m holding weight in a pose. Most poses in yoga are supported by a finite group of muscles, but it’s easy to flex the wrong muscles for balance, or just because you’re not paying attention. Closing my eyes and scanning to see where I’m straining allows me to let go of the muscles that don’t need to be active. Which, if I’m being honest, almost always makes me lose my balance, but it gets easier with practice.
My neck has always been a problem for me, with tension in my shoulders and the base of my skull, leading to headaches (and a lot of grouchiness). There are a lot of poses in yoga (especially in Forrest Yoga) where you need to relax your neck. If you ever want to fall over, try getting into a position that requires muscular balance and then completely relaxing your shoulders and neck. It makes you realize how much you were using your upper body to balance, and as I developed core strength I was — literally and figuratively — able to take a lot of weight off my shoulders.
I find this applicable in my work, which is 100% in front of a computer. I’ve always had horrible posture in a chair. The most useful part of a standing desk for me is a reduction in lower back pain, but once my hands are on a keyboard, my shoulders tense even when I’m vertical. I’ve gotten good enough that I can just breathe into my shoulders and drop them, which relieves a plethora of physical ailments stemming from a long work day.
Obviously. As with any practice, whether it’s martial arts or going to cardio classes, just getting yourself there on a regular basis over an extended period of time takes discipline. For me, I had never stuck with anything like that for more than a few weeks. The difference with yoga is that it always felt good. Working out has never felt good to me. Yoga was peaceful, and I leave feeling better than when I got there. Which has made it easy to keep going, 3 or more times a week for over a year now.
Strength and Flexibility
As I mentioned at the top, developing strength and flexibility have reduced the number of injuries I sustain by tenfold. I used to strain my back for a couple days just shoveling a driveway (which is something I do a lot here in Minnesota). Hell, I used to injure my knees and back just walking for anything more than 10 minutes. Things have changed drastically.
Flexibility especially has been a big deal in my life. I increasingly enjoy physical activity the more flexible I get. I can straighten my legs all the way in poses like down dog and shoulder stand, wrap my legs and arms all the way in Eagle pose, and easily incorporate twisting warrior into salutations. That means that in daily life, I don’t lose my balance or hurt my back when picking up weight from awkward positions.
I’m not suggesting that yoga is going to be the answer for everyone else. There were a lot of factors that went into me regaining my health, and my weight loss isn’t directly from yoga, but the principles I’ve learned there have been key in implementing many other health and wellness practices. I’m willing to bet that everyone eventually finds something that has the same benefits. I can only talk about my own path.
One More Thing (for the boys)…
Here’s a free tip for guys. Eagle legs, where you cross one leg all the way over the other and wrap your foot around the back of the stationary leg, can be anatomically painful for males. It took me a long time to figure out that wearing looser clothing allowed me to use gravity (and a little hip jiggling) to get things out of the way. Looser, not tighter, because things need to move in different directions for cobra than they do for arm balance with eagle legs.
If you have the room to let gravity do the work, eagle legs are actually easier upside down…