Thoughts from the Mat
WHAT STOPS YOU? BUSTING THE MYTHS BEHIND THE MENTAL BLOCKS
“I can’t do yoga. I am not flexible enough.”
Mythbuster #1: Yoga gradually increases flexibility and range of motion as it builds muscle tone safely through non-weight bearing and weight bearing postures. In fact, super bendy bodies are at a disadvantage. Often, for the very flexible, there is nothing happening around the bones and joints to create stability. Unfortunately, most of the yoga community prefers to promote “pretzel“ poses in the press and social media so our notion of what it means to “do yoga” and what yoga “looks like” are skewed. As an instructor, I am more concerned with what BODY is doing a posture and not at all concerned with the posture being Instagram worthy. The same postures can, and probably SHOULD, look different depending on what body is doing them. When approached thoughtfully, yoga is accessible for everyone.
“Me? In a yoga class?! No way, I’d make a total fool of myself!”
Mythbuster #2: Sorry, no one else is really paying attention to what you’re doing. Think of a yoga asana (the physical postures) class as a microcosm of the macrocosm of life: We are all just trying to breathe and get through it. Seriously though, it’s pretty normal for newer students to worry that messing up, being out of sync with everyone else, or just totally “not getting it” will call attention to themselves. (In the interest of full disclosure… I just described myself as an instructor some days! ) It is hard to imagine that in a room full of people anyone could be totally absorbed in what they are doing and NOT notice what’s going on around them. Yet, that’s ultimately the point of a yoga asana practice; to begin to train the mind to be focused on just one thing long enough to put a stop to all the incessant worries, self-doubts, and thoughts that creep into our conscious mind and rob us of equanimity. What, in Sanskrit, is called “Yogas Chitta vritti nirodhah” translates to “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.”
YOU on Facebook: “Yoga! That sounds so fun! I have always wanted to try yoga. ‘When are the classes?’”
Also YOU, when it’s time to get ready for a class:
Mythbuster #3: Beginning anything new is intimidating. Sometimes the story we tell ourselves about why we “can’t” is more about being stuck than is it about “not able”. A good place to start examining your story is to answer the question, “What stops me?”
“Yoga isn’t exercise; it’s just a bunch of stretching! Why should I go to stretch when I could do it at home just as easily?”
Mythbuster #4: Okay, so you are PARTIALLY right on this one. I won’t argue that yoga isn’t EXERCISE, because it isn’t. Yoga is ‘INNERCISE’. And while “stretching” isn’t technically what you will do in a yoga class, you will be creating some length, space, and tone in the muscles, organs, joints, and systems of the body. Yet, it is the length, space, and freedom you’ll experience in your mood, thoughts, and overall health where yoga has its most profound affects.
[And truthfully, ARE YOU REALLY STRETCHING AT HOME?? REALLY?]
“Yoga?! I don’t have the strength to make a decision, much less take a yoga class!”
Myth Buster #5: I can’t speak to your decision-making skills, but I can assure you that you are “fit enough” for my classes, regardless of your fitness level. As a yoga therapist, it’s my responsibility to see that if you choose to attend a class then the class you attend is appropriate for you. A yoga therapist is held to higher and more stringent standards of education, training, and experience, and has substantial additional training in the therapeutic applications of yoga. Together, we make your body, your breath, and your mindset work for you.
“Yoga classes just aren’t for me. All they do is stand up, sit down, fold over, and then start all over again. It’s monotonous.”
Myth Buster #6: There are many different styles of yoga. Some traditions, such as Ashtanga Yoga, require the same postures be taught in a progressive order. If you happened upon one of those classes, then it was intentionally repetitive! And truthfully, not all yoga classes are created equal. For instance, Vinyasa and/or Flow classes are intended to move on the inhalation and again on the exhalation, hold times may be a breath or two or not at all (continuous movement). Hatha Yoga, from which the other traditions evolved, is the style of yoga offered at Awake Yoga. Classes incorporate breath, meditation, intention, movement, and stillness. Postures are explored from supine, seated, and standing positions, with careful attention paid to the individual need of the student. The use of supportive blankets, bolsters, blocks, straps, chairs, the wall, and whatever else is handy brings intelligence into the body and makes postures accessible to anyone. Talk to some of my students, I think that they will assure you that I offer something uniquely different.
“Yoga has too much mumbo-jumbo for me. Just get to the workout part.”
Myth Buster #7: A therapeutic student of mine recently said, “I don’t really need all of that meditation and breathing stuff. I just need to stretch my back.” I told him that I begged to differ.
It is well documented that there are many health benefits derived from mindfulness practices, such as improved perception on quality of life. Statistically, 90% of the population uses less than 50% of their breathing capacity. Add to this that science has now validated that mindfulness and breathing techniques help improve physical health in several ways, such as helping to relieve stress, treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, improve sleep, and alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties. In recent years, psychotherapists have turned to mindfulness meditation as an important element in the treatment of a number of problems, including depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, couples’ conflicts, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
I gave him a shorter answer. Most of the small, intrinsic muscles of the back, especially the multifidi, do their job of stabilizing the spine based on unconscious thought, as does the breath, which is an involuntary process. If our minds are full of stressful thoughts, then these muscles are overactive, staying chronically tight, and the breath becomes shallow and ineffective. Quieting the mind and deep breathing may be more important than any other thing we do to get relief from pain.
“I don’t have any balance. I would fall over if I tried those postures!”
MYTHBUSTERS #8: Balance can be a “use it or lose it” kind of thing. Admittedly, some days are better than others as we age. There are many factors that contribute to a loss of balance, most notably vestibular problems, but balance can be regained. We often need to challenge our balance to improve it and to retrain the equilibrium receptors in the brain. Asanas that require us to intentionally focus on balance strengthen the body, build confidence and poise, and realign the centers of gravity. At Awake Yoga, we use props to make these postures more accessible as we work to retrain our bodies, minds, and nervous systems toward balance.
“Yoga teachers always act so zen, like they are never stressed out or mad. That can’t be who they really are.”
MYTHBUSTERS #9: We learn to run a good bluff when we teach self care practices. Sharing the love of yoga does reinforce it in the teacher but like everyone, we are a work in progress. Maybe I should speak for myself here. In my classes, we are eight weeks into a twelve week mindfulness practice. Last week, we talked about extending love and kindness to people who we may have some uncomfortable feelings toward. I’ve had to use that practice a lot in the past few days. It doesn’t feel good to sit with unkind thoughts or negative feelings. The usual reaction is to blame the other for “making” us angry, or sad, or any other unpleasant emotion. Recently, I discovered that someone has been copying my work as their own and accepting compliments on it without giving proper credit.
As inauthentic as it is to take someone else’s work as your own, it would also be disingenuous of me to ask my students to do the work of mindfulness if I wasn’t putting the work in myself. If my word doesn’t match my instruction, how can my students trust my teaching as authentic? Walking the talk is important to me. This week, I practice Mindfulness by learning to sit with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, to learn to own those thoughts and feelings so that I can change them into something more meaningful and positive.
One of the limbs of yoga is the Niyamas, the personal observances and practices that a serious student needs to undertake. Svadhyaya, or self-study, is one of the five Niyamas. Today, this means that I need to be scrupulous at ferreting out shadows of selfishness and uncharitable thoughts in myself. So I stop. I breathe, quiet myself, ask that the other person and I both be filled with loving kindness, and remind myself that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” As Ram Dass so eloquently put it, “We are all just walking each other home.”
“Yoga classes are so impersonal. People just sit around waiting for something to happen.”
MYTHBUSTERS #10: Part of what makes Awake Yoga unique is that we have truly created a “sangha”, the Sanskrit word for COMMUNITY. We get to know each other by name and joyfully play and practice together. New to class? Don’t be surprised when you are greeted warmly, asked your name, and helped to set up by other members of the class! We delight in each other, our progressions, and our new awareness. We laugh together, hold space for each other, and love one another. We discover that we would rather be in practice together than alone in a private setting. There is a Sanskrit word for this too, “satsang”, which translates as GOOD COMPANY, and is key to integrating what we learn and practice. Are you missing community? We are waiting for you to come practice with us!