When I first began practicing yoga in 2011, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought of yoga as stretching, and I definitely didn't think of yoga as anything more than exercise. I quickly learned that yoga can be so much more than just stretching, and now, if I wanted to describe yoga as exercise, I would be describing it as exercise for the mind, and maybe not so much for the body.
Over the years, my yoga practice has evolved into many things. I was drawn to the practice of Ashtanga Yoga and have been practicing Ashtanga almost exclusively since 2015. Practicing Ashtanga was the first time that my yoga practice felt mindful and meditative, which was a welcomed surprise, and perhaps the main reason why Ashtanga became my main practice.
For most of my adult life, I have been sleep deprived, and I know I'm not alone. Our society thrives on Starbucks coffees, sugar-filled energy drinks, and burning-the-candle-from-both-ends types of lifestyles. Over committing, over promising, and under delivering. That's the American dream! ...Right?
There was a period of my life, mostly from my late teens to mid twenties, when I never slept. When my life was one big party and the only way I made it to the next party was by napping. In college, I thrived on procrastinating my school work by pulling all nighters. I once wrote a 25 page paper on the night before it was due from 1am-4am. I got a B+. It's what I did, and really, it's all I knew.
Although I have always really enjoyed sleeping, there was a long period of time where I wasn't getting much of it. As a result, I was sick a lot. I regularly felt like shit because I was always tired and always sick. I was so sick that I actually had my tonsils removed at the age of twenty because I was getting strep throat so often, my tonsils had swelled so large that they were touching to the point that I was having trouble swallowing and breathing. It was as painful and gross as it sounds.
Whenever anyone (and "anyone" was usually my mom) questioned my lifestyle and lack of sleep, I would always respond the same way: "I'll sleep when I die."
This year has been an interesting one. Interesting is probably the only word that really describes all of the highs and all of the lows that I have experienced. There has been a whole lot of loss and a surprisingly balance of gains. Some moments have been traumatic and depressing, while others have been wonderful and amazing.
Truthfully, I am still processing everything, so I’m not here to write about it. Instead, I’m here to tell you that my body is fucked up. I’m here to tell you that my practice has suffered. I’m here to tell you that I have contemplated quitting teaching yoga all together on several occasions this year.
There was a period of time this year where I didn’t practice at all for over two months. My body didn’t allow it, and my mind missed it. When I finally got back to my mat after my time away, it was like my first time ever practicing. My hamstrings and calves felt as tight as they did during my first year of practicing yoga. My upper body and core felt weak. And my bandhas? Well, let’s just say they took a long term vacation and haven’t returned yet.
Recently, a few of my students have approached me with injuries wondering if they should still be practicing yoga. Wrist injuries, shoulder injuries, knee injuries, ankle injuries -- all kinds of funky things! My answer is almost always, "YES, you can absolutely practice yoga. Let's find a way to modify your practice."
The general rule of thumb to practicing yoga, or any exercise, is it pay close attention to your intuition. If you are feeling pain, you should immediately stop whatever you are doing so the pain stops. Intense stretching is great. Pain is not good. Please do not ever put yourself into a position that feels painful. And really, isn't that something we should practice in all areas of our life??
As a yoga student, you have a lot of choices when it comes to your yoga practice. If you live near a city, you probably have dozens of yoga studios within just a five mile radius. There are various styles of yoga, not to mention thousands of yoga teachers ready to teach you.
With so many choices, I find that there are few consistencies among teachers and studios, even within the same lineage. Each teacher has their own unique style and their own preferences, and the same goes for studios. I often receive questions from students along the lines of, "This teacher said to do it this way, but you said to do it that way. Which way is correct?" For that question, I almost always have the same answer, which is that both ways are correct, because usually they are. I encourage students to try whatever their teacher suggests, as long as it doesn't cause pain or put the student at risk for injury. At some point, you'll find the method that's preferable, at which point you can stick with that.
When I think about how to be a great yoga student, I don't really think about what shape your body is making while you practice yoga. Instead, I mostly think about how you show up on your mat. I think about how you respect your body and your mind. I think about your ability to be mindful and your ability to breathe. I think about your ability to just show up -- which for most of us, is usually the hardest part.
When I think about how to be a great yoga student, here are a few things that I consider "good practices" for ensuring that you have a great yoga experience.
I love the practice of yoga because every single time I step onto my mat, I experience something completely unique. With Ashtanga, my practice looks similar from day-to-day, and of course I experience my share of consistencies and progress, but my body and mind always feels just a little bit different during each practice.
Some days, I show up on my mat and have to convince myself to complete just one sun salutation. Once I've done one, I can usually convince myself to do five sun salutation A's and five sun salutation B's. Before I know it, I've practiced every pose in the primary series and am ready for savasana.
The days that I get on my mat with no expectations are sometimes the days when I have my best practices.
I am a yoga teacher.
What does this mean to you? Perhaps it means nothing.
To me, it means everything.
I think the message of yoga has been lost over the years. The American idea of yoga is a fitness class, or as I've heard it been called before: "ass kicking stretching". The yoga that I know and love is a time to be alone with our thoughts. A time to be alone with ourselves to connect with ourselves. A time to breathe and be still.
I think the idea of being still, of disconnecting, of actually being present, is incredibly intimidating to most people. Not only is it intimidating, but it's also very difficult.
One of my favorite places to grab a quick and healthy bite to eat is a cute little restaurant called The Juice Room. It's a very simple menu of made to order items, including juices, smoothies, soups, and sandwiches. It's fantastic! There are many restaurants offering meals on the go, but few of them offer healthy, vegan-friendly options. I love The Juice Room because I can order a soup and a smoothie and feel completely satisfied while knowing my meal was 100% nutritious.
I few months ago, a friend of mine stopped by there and had the most amazing soup. Her soup eating experience was documented in a series of text messages to me, most of which were about fifty "licking-the-lips" emojis combined with "OMG THIS SOUP!". I knew I had to get over there and try it. I stopped over the very next day, and sure enough, OMG THIS SOUP! It really was incredible. Creamy, yet made without dairy. Delicious in a way that you might describe Thanksgiving dinner. And filling, so damn filling! Chickpeas, rice, and vegetables -- oh my!
In early 2011, I met a friend for dinner and we we talked extensively about our training for an upcoming race. I mentioned that all the running I was doing was making me feel really stiff, and she mentioned that she had started taking yoga classes recently to aid in her recovery time between runs. I always wanted to try yoga, but never knew where to go for a class, and with all the running I was doing, it seemed hard to fit it into my schedule. I was curious though, so I found time to fit in a yoga class the very next day.
On the night of Tuesday, January 18, 2011, I walked into Dana Hot Yoga to practice yoga for the very first time. About half way through class, I remember feeling incredibly challenged. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, it was blazing hot, and I wasn’t as flexible or strong as I had once thought I was. In summary: I was getting my ass totally handed to me!
For the last year and a half, my yoga practice has been almost exclusively Ashtanga. Some days it's feels amazing and other days it's a hot mess! Lately, I have been working into deeper backbends, including dropping back from standing into urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose) and standing back up.
Although I'm not quite there independently, I am very comfortable doing this with the assistance of my teacher, Caroline. For whatever reason, there is a lot of fear in this movement for me, so it was a pretty big deal when I dropped back to floor all by myself last week! The first time was witnessed by my teacher (yay!) and the second time was during my home practice.