"I like the stretching, but not all the spiritual stuff."

Even though statements like that make me cringe…. or at least sigh, I must admit that I came to yoga for the stretch.  Well, originally I tried it to help with a stressful work situation (late 90’s).  However, my efforts weren’t consistent and only lasted as long as the situation took to resolve.  When I came back to yoga in January 2006, it was for the stretch.  

I had been experiencing moderate to severe leg and foot pain for about a month.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was my first experience with muscle spasticity.  I had received a bookstore gift certificate for Christmas and while looking to spend it, I happened past the yoga DVDs.  Maybe a routine of stretching would help?  I bought two that looked doable.  

They were a little tougher than I expected.  Then again, I was overweight and the pain in my legs had reduced my activity. Still, I instantly fell in love with both DVDs.  To this day I recommend Yoga Conditioning for Weight Loss from Gaiam to beginning students.  There is nothing about it that will cause weight loss — unless you count the research that says a consistent yoga practice can change the way you view your eating habits. But its flexibility is perfect for beginners.  The same routine is done at 4 levels of ability. And there are no Down Dogs to be done (a challenging pose for many beginners).  I began doing the videos a few times a week and then trying other videos ON DEMAND.  Yoga didn’t always soothe the pain, but something was changing.  

As my interest grew I bought a couple of books and the occasional copy of Yoga Journal.  Through YJ‘s “Wisdom” columns and the books’ discussions of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, I began to understand that yoga was more than stretching.  As I focused on my breath while moving through Sun Salutations or the sensation in my spine during twists, the chatter in my mind began to slow.  As I breathed into and out of places of resistance in my body, I also began to experience loosening and healing in the tight and wounded places of my heart.  It was this adding of mindfulness — staying present and focused on what was happening with compassion and non-judgment— that moved my practice from one just for the body to one for my mind and soul.

Yes, yoga provides a great stretch.  Faster moving classes like Ashtanga and Power Yoga can provide a great cardio workout.  But if you are open to it, yoga can take you beyond this vessel of muscle and bone.  It can bring you home to the Self you never met during a childhood of abuse.  It can teach you to work with your pain or illness rather than against it.  Most importantly, it can bring you closer to whatever it is that nourishes, sustains and inspires your soul.  

In my experience, if the only reason you are doing yoga is for the stretch, you are missing out on the best parts.



You CAN Do Yoga

When you hear the word “yoga” what image comes to mind? 

Someone balanced in a way that seems impossible?   

Or wrapped into a pretzel shape? 
If so, you aren’t alone.  When I suggest yoga to someone their first response is often “Oh, I’m not flexible enough for that.”  Thing is, no one starts in these poses.  Okay, maybe a former gymnast or contortionist could.  But the vast majority of us will step onto the mat for the first time with a less than perfect body.  And that’s okay.

It doesn’t matter if you have tight hamstrings, poor balance, or a chronic illness.  It doesn’t matter if you are overweight, underweight, in your teens or in your seventies.  Yoga meets you where you.  Of course, you have to be willing to set aside your ego and practice the form of the pose that matches your current abilities.  This is possible through the use of yoga props such as blocks, blankets and straps.  Or maybe you won’t need a prop, but the version of the pose that works for you will differ from the one pictured in books or being done by the person on the mat next to you in class.  Can you be okay with that?  For some, being okay with a “less than perfect pose” will be the most challenging part of their practice.

Variations of Uttanasana (Forward Fold)

There is a saying “If you can breathe, you can do yoga.”  Inherent in this quote is the fact that yoga is more than poses.  It also involves breathing techniques, meditation, and guidelines to help practitioners live in healthy relationship with the world around them and the inner self. I’ll expand on this in a later post.  But, I wanted to mention it here to make you aware that yoga’s accessibility extends even to those with very limited movement.  Take, for example, Matthew Sanford, paralyzed from the chest down at age 13 when his spinal cord was severed in a car crash.  He began doing adaptive yoga at age 25 and later became a yoga teacher.  For more of his inspiring story, check out his website http://www.matthewsanford.com/.  

Finding the yoga class or teacher that’s right for you will require some effort on your part.  Most studios have descriptions of their classes on their website.  Some even include the qualifications of their teachers.  Take time to select a class that sounds like it will be appropriate.  Look for words like beginner, basic, gentle or slow.  If you have health problems such as back problems or a chronic illness, looks for class titles that include: therapeutic, adaptive, or specifically mention the back.  If you are still in doubt, call the studio and ask questions.  Get to the studio 10 to 15 minutes early so that you can complete any necessary paperwork and have time to introduce yourself to the instructor.  Let them know you are new to yoga and tell them about any health issues that will impact your practice (balance problems, back issues, the fact that your right knee hurts when you bend it, etc..).

Lastly, remember that only you know what a pose feels like in your body.  Never stay in a pose that causes pain.  Never let a teacher force you into a position that doesn’t “feel right.”  If you aren’t sure how to know if a pose is right for you, check out Sensations to Watch https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B4ABTuaWRaD7R3dGMHQyTE5naTA/edit?pli=1


I’ve been teaching yoga since 2007 and in that time my business cards have had a variety of names for the work I do:

Yoga for Health
Yoga for Survivors
Healthy Transformations Yoga
Yoga for Healing

But nothing ever felt right.  Nothing encompassed all the classes I teach or the reason why I teach.  And then, one day, I read this:

“When, by meditation [or yoga], we withdraw restless thoughts from the lake of the mind, we behold our soul, a perfect reflection of Spirit.”
— Paramahansa Yogananda

These two dozen words blew me away.  So simply it encompassed the reason why I practice yoga, the reason why I teach, what I hope those I teach will experience both on and off their mats. 

As both a survivor of childhood abuse and an individual living with multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia, I know how illness, trauma and stress can change the way a person sees him or herself.  I also know that when we can calm the mind, releasing concerns, limitations and the stories we’ve been told, we see a clear reflection of our True Self — good, peaceful and whole.  

I’ve decided to write this blog to share the role yoga played in helping me heal from the violence of my youth, as well as the many ways the practice helps to keep me sane and moving in a body challenged by chronic disease.  I hope it will encourage those who think they can’t do yoga to give it a try and inspire those already on a mat to expand their practice beyond the poses.

Thank you for stopping by.  I hope you visit again.