Recently tried something that stretched well beyond my normal comfort zone:
I took a yoga class.
Like a lot of middle-age men (turned 47 last month, yikes), I’m about as flexible as petrified wood. Even though the benefits of yoga are obvious – strength, balance, calmness – I was always too petrified to give it a try. No one likes to be the schmo who when the teacher says, “Everyone bend down and touch their toes!” can barely scrape his knees.
This week the excuses finally ran out, along with the chickening. Probably because I just returned from vacation. Nothing like spending seven days in the remote California desert, away from the din of civilization and free from the shackles of cell phones (did I miss anything of significance?), to provide much-needed clarity of thought.
Or perhaps I mistook clarity for vacancy. Who knows.
COIL Yoga stands for Conscious Open Integrated Living, but my fear was leaving there shaped like an actual c-o-i-l.
So there I was Tuesday morning, at the Shaw Avenue studio of COIL Yoga, dressed in a T-shirt and baggy sweat pants. The class I signed up for online, “Mindful Flow for Beginners,” was declared to be “appropriate” for new students. Sure hoped so. The acronym COIL stands for Conscious Open Integrated Living, but my fear was leaving there shaped like an actual c-o-i-l.
The first relief came upon the discovery that only three people were in the class, two women and me. Both of them looked very nice and nonjudgmental. As did our teacher, Bethany Clague, even after I told her about my anxiousness and stiffness.
“No one’s judging here,” she said.
Still, stiff guys in their first yoga class need a little extra cushion.
No sooner had I unrolled the mat and assumed the sitting position that everyone of my generation grew up calling Indian style (the ’70s were not PC) than Bethany went over to the supply shelf and grabbed a thick rectangular pillow to slide underneath my butt. Instantly more comfortable.
As we sat cross-legged with the backs of our hands resting on each knee, palms up, thumbs and forefingers touching, I tried to relax, clear my mind and do as told, which was simply to breathe. Just sit there and breathe. In through the nose; out through the nose and mouth.
Breathe through it, and release everything that does not serve you.
Breathing is something we take for granted, or at least those of us with healthy lungs. It’s just something we do. It’s something we do while doing other things, usually lots of other things. But when breathing is all you’re telling your mind to do, that sucker wanders. One second you’re inhaling, the next you’re reminding yourself of the next thing on your to-do list or the text you shouldn’t have sent a couple of hours before.
“Breath is the link between mind and body,” says Dan Brule, a pioneer in the field of breath therapy.
Or in my case, a hyperlink that wouldn’t shut off.
We went through several basic poses, or at least poses that are basic to everyone who practices yoga. We stood in a lunge position and raised our arms over our heads while inhaling and down while exhaling (Warrior 1 Pose). We balanced on our knees and spread-out palms (“Use all five fingers”) while alternatively arching and rounding our backs (Cat/Cow Pose). We balanced on our palms and toes while arching our legs, butts and backs upward into what looked like a human hump (Downward Dog Pose).
There were others whose names already have escaped memory but my muscles won’t soon forget. I can still feel them burning six hours later while sitting at my laptop and tapping out this sentence.
Not sure how well I did any of the poses – besides the lying flat on your back, I can do that just like the textbook – but the feedback I got was always positive and encouraging
Not sure how well I did any of the poses – besides the lying flat on your back, I can do that just like the textbook – but the feedback I got from Bethany was always positive and encouraging. Still, there were times when my mind was swimming in instructions: where to put a hand in relation to another body part, what in the heck it means when she says breathe into your right thigh.
Even though I didn’t move more than a few feet in 75 minutes, by the end I was definitely fatigued and my poor hamstrings felt like they’d been stretched in a taffy machine. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as feared.
Toward the end we again practiced breathing, this time aided by aromatherapy after Bethany dabbed an essential-oil blend into our palms. Finally, it was time to get back into the cross-legged position and go into relaxation mode.
I certainly noticed a difference from the start of class. Calm might be the wrong word to describe what I was experiencing, but instead of racing at 100 mph my mind was coasting well below the posted speed limit.
So, yes, next week this stiff, fledgling yogi will be back on the mat. Provided by then his hamstrings return to their normal function.