Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My Yoga Experiment

Everyday, I pass by a yoga studio called Down Dog Yoga. The sign for the studio has a cute puppy on it. As an on-again, off-again yoga-doer (yogi?), I was happy to see a yoga studio within walking distance of work. I checked out the studio online for class offerings and pricing, ventured in the doors to observe the facility itself, and ultimately decided to enroll in a one-week free trial session.

That cute puppy is very, very deceiving.

That cute puppy is a devil dog in disguise.

I left my office fifteen minutes before class was scheduled to start. It was raining, I was walking. I lugged my gym bag, yoga mat, and ashtanga mat through the rain to the studio, filled out the requisite paperwork, and headed to the changing room. That was somewhat of a misnomer--the site claimed the studio had changing facilities and showers. The studio had, in fact, what amounted to one oversized bathroom designed to handle someone in a wheelchair, with cubbies attached to one wall. There was one toilet stall, and one shower tucked into the corner. At least it was clean, if not private.

Normally, I wouldn't care about the shower situation, but I was heading back to work after my "power hour" class.

I should have stopped myself at the words "power hour." I should know better than to try anything that mixes power and yoga. But I couldn't help it. I took Jennifer Gleason's yoga class at the YMCA in Dayton twice a week for almost a year, and Jen had the mix of power and yoga down to a science. There was enough vinyasa, or flow, to make it count for a cardio workout and enough ashtanga options to keep it interesting and keep me working. But the core of yoga--the idea of moving with breath and intention, becoming mindful--was still front and center in Jen's class. I keep trying to find a replica in this area and I keep coming up short.

I should add here that I have been practicing yoga for more than nine years off and on. I would hardly consider myself an expert, but I have been through my fair share of teachers and styles. My introduction to yoga was via VHS tape: Patricia Walden's Yoga for Beginners produced by Gaiam. My foray into yoga was solid, and I recommend the tape and all of its offspring for anyone looking to begin a yoga practice. Walden is a follower of Iyengar yoga, which focuses on making sure you understand the pose, how to get into it, how to get out of it, and most importantly, how to align your body correctly and use props if you need to.

After countless hours working on poses in my family room, and kicking the couch over and over again, I decided to try a class at a now-defunct studio in Cincinnati. I cannot remember the instructor's name, but I remember being floored that the doughy woman in front of me had the strength and flexibility to wrap her body in specific ways and complete advanced poses. The classes were not expensive, but they weren't very convenient.

The second class I attended was at my high school alma mater. It was taught in the old wrestling room by a woman that was probably as old as the mats that cushioned our bodies beneath the poses. Her name was Winnie, and she was wiry. I think I found the class through the continuing education program at the school; it regularly drew more than fifty participants, which could have been because Winnie was a great teacher, but was probably most likely due to the fact that she never took attendance, and thus we were never charged for her class. We were supposed to be on the honor system, signing up on some website, paying by the quarter. I don't think many people did.

I was probably my most flexible under Winnie's tutelage. She pushed us gently but firmly to find our edges and roll through them if we could. She also believed that all of life's ailments were due to the body's basic elements being out of whack. She regularly said to her students: "That belly? That's because you have too much fire in your being." She was older so people let it slide. It was in Winnie's class that I learned that farting can be a big part of yoga. The smells of the old wrestling room and its mats, with years of high school boys' sweat ground into their fibers, along with the sweating and occasionally farting bodies of the fifty plus people in the class, made for a mix I won't forget in a hurry.

I wanted more so I attended a class at Winnie's condo, but the experience creeped me out. Around that time, I became pregnant with my first child, and decided that rolling over my edges probably wasn't such a great idea.

I found Cincinnati Yoga School (which appears to have changed hands since I attended classes there) across from my gym at the time. The classes weren't cheap, but I wasn't sure how to go about exercising while pregnant, and the prenatal yoga class instructor seemed to have it all figured out. I loved my prenatal yoga, with all its props and gentle stretches. It was the only time in nine months that I got to lie on my back, and it was heaven. Unfortunately, the advice I got while practicing there was not to do any cardio--that yoga would be enough to keep me in shape while I was pregnant. Um, not if you have oreo cravings. I continued throughout my pregnancy and even took my infant daughter to postnatal, Mommy and Me, yoga classes, but I found that I really wanted the time I spent on the mat to focus inward, not to glance over my shoulder from triangle pose and wonder if my infant was about to wake up or needed a diaper change.

I continued to try to take classes at CYS when I could find the time. I also tried other classes, including power yoga at Bally Total Fitness (the gym I was a member from about 1990 to 200something). I hated the power yoga at the gym because it was more like an exercise class with yoga poses thrown in once in a while for strength training. It wasn't yoga. I tried a pilates mat class there too, and I felt too uncoordinated to do my body any good.

I started running, and yoga fell by the wayside. I would occasionally practice a little to relieve aching, but I didn't make it a regular thing. I got pregnant with my second child and kept doing as much cardio as I could, determined not to gain as much weight as I did with my first. I dropped into the occasional prenatal yoga class at CYS, hoping to regain my bliss, but it was hard to find the time to do it, what with writing and parenting my two-and-a-half-year-old.

Then we moved to Dayton, and I found Jen and the right balance between running and yoga. And writing. I was writing a ton. All was well in my world (as well as could be expected with two children under the age of three).

Then we moved to Fairfax.

I tried to find a  yoga studio that would give me an experience like Jen's class. Fortunately, there was one a few minutes down the road from my house: Sun and Moon Yoga Studio. They also had a work-exchange program, which fit right into my lifestyle at the time. I worked a shift on Sunday night, from 5:45 to 8 or so, and in exchange, I earned two hours of class time. I dropped into different classes, trying to find one that fit. Sun and Moon is a Hatha studio--it is more like Iyengar than anything else I've seen, so I thought it might be a good fit and bring me back to my roots. The first class I tried was just boring--I almost fell asleep. I clearly needed something more challenging. I ramped up to a higher-level class and found the arm balances and held inversion poses to be too much. I wanted to be challenged but not feel like I was completely out of my depth.

I found Audra's class--a Vinyasa class that was a good fit, providing me the flow I wanted with the stillness and introspection I needed. Unfortunately, her schedule changed and I was no longer able to make her class. I decided to throw myself into an adult tap dancing class instead, but my husband's schedule made regular attendance next to impossible. And I was the most advanced student in the class, which is really saying something (not a positive something either).

To sum up, Down Dog appeared and I walked around the idea for several months, wondering if I was ready to get back to the mat. Some days, by the luck of the schedule, the only time I have to work out is actually during work. So I haul my bag into work, change, and do a couple of laps outside around the building complex. How cool would it be, I thought to myself, to be able to fill in with a yoga class on nonrunning days? And a yoga class that's across from work, that I could walk to, and not have to schedule a babysitter or make sure that my husband was available to watch the kids.

I squared my shoulders and entered the studio. And was hit with a blast of hot air. Not warm air--hot air. Apparently, this trend--adding heat to exercise to make it cleansing--it not new. I have several Facebook friends who practice Bikram yoga and profess to love it. Bikram is hot yoga. In this case, the studio was between 90 and 95 degrees. I took a few minutes to try to acclimate myself to the heat, wondering if it was dry or wet heat, wondering if I would be able to do regular yoga breathing in the room.

I decided to give myself over to the practice and not judge. I would adapt. I'd been with enough instructors, tried enough classes and styles--whatever it was, I would be fine.

Not so in evil Down devil Dog world.

The tiny blonde teacher, Alison, entered the room with a smile on her face. Her lean body didn't betray a wiggle as she lowered herself to her mat and turned off the music. "Why so serious?" she questioned the woman next to me, who had clearly been through this before. There was no centering, no cleansing breath. In a word, we were up on our feet and reaching for the sky.

Alison looked small and mighty but sounded like Jack Kerouac teaching yoga:
"Go with it, man."
"Just dig where you are."
"Open your body. Feel the flow."
"It's now. It's right here, in this room."

If you haven't already, go back and reread those lines in a surfer/stoner voice in your head. For sixty minutes.

She alternated this monologue with calling out poses, rapid-fire. "Bend and fold. Back to plank. Lower to shattaranga, hold, BREATHE. Up dog. Inhale. Exhale. Down dog."

"Five!" she would bark. "Lift the right leg and roll the hip open. Four! Open your body to the breath flowing through it. Three! Feel the stretch between your two legs, grinding into the floor, man. TWO! Feel it, feel it... ONE! Release your leg back to the mat." Her voice deepened with each descending number.

On and on it went, through vinyasa after vinyasa. Sweat poured off my head, and rolled down into my eyes or onto my ashtanga mat. We covered sun salutations and the warrior series. We moved from triangle to chair to high and low lunges, side angle to revolved triangle, eagle and tree. Seated poses provided no relief--bow, pigeon, wheel, bridge--each pose four times or more. Alison's voice droning, counting off, pushing us to find more stretch in our bodies, reminding us to breathe.

Finally, after a series of core strengthening crunches that had nothing to do with yoga, alternated with progressive bridge and wheel poses, and an inversion thrown in for good measure, it was time for savasana--corpse pose. Aptly named. Five minutes of silence, five minutes of breathing. Five minutes of wondering why in the hell I walked through the door of the studio in the first place.

And then it was over, as quickly as it began. Students were clapping, applauding the torture. The woman behind me told me that she taught classes there on Tuesdays and Thursdays, that the "Power Hour" I had just finished was a 90-minute class crammed into 60 minutes. The instructor wandered over to me and told me that I did a great job, and then held my gaze. "And you're coming back on Wednesday, right? And Friday?"

I entertained the notion. After all, I had a free week. Despite the sweat and the grunting and the general insanity of the class, I felt pretty good. I was a survivor.

And then I woke up the next morning (yesterday). When the alarm went off at 6:20, I decided to go for a quick run--again, the only time during the day I could squeeze it in--and I failed. A mile and a half in, I bagged it completely and crawled over to the bike, hoping to finish my cardio there. Just getting on the bike hurt. It hurt to lift my towel and dry my hair. It hurt to sit, it hurt to stand. Even my feet hurt, begging to be released from the confines of my shoes (as I write this, my sandals are under my desk and my feet are reveling in their open-air freedom).

Today, I gave myself a pass. As it stands, my triceps are rebelling against the length of this entry. I am "resting," hoping my body comes back for my run tomorrow. Saturday is my first race in almost 18 months. I figured a quick yoga class on Monday wouldn't interfere. How wrong I was....

What have I learned? "Power" and "yoga" do not belong in the same sentence if I am going to be a happy camper. Tiny people can have huge, army drill-sergeant voices. And never, never, ever trust a cute dog on a logo.

That is all.

1 comment:

ecstatic cafe said...

As I walked out of the Bikram Yoga studio toward my car after my first class, I found myself declaring, "If I can actually do this yoga, it will totally change my whole life." I had only been able to attempt half the postures, with the rest of the time lying down, just dealing with the heated, humid room. But it was a revelation as to the sorry state of my body's condition, and the pathetic condition of my mind-body connection.
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