Last updated: 11/16/03:Now into a steady home practice since embracing Yoga 3 years ago, I am still eager to share what I've learned. By documenting my impressions here, I hope to demystify it for those wholike a tentative inline beginnerare intrigued but missing out by standing on the sidelines.
Over-achievers might appreciate my "words to live by" to the right, a self-prescribed Yoga and personal philosophy for serenity and less injuries. But be careful to leave room for the imperfections that make us all human!
Here are my impressions about:
12/1/01: For the last 18 months or so, I have been semi-consciously planning what I hope will be a dramatic entrance into my second half-century (new glasses, new hair, new clothes, new personality--the usual mid-life crisis!). Yoga will continue to remain an important cornerstone, but I really need to make more time for weight training. I still like what I see in the mirror, but it's gotten harder and harder to keep this physique without further reducing my already restricted caloric intake. Simply put, doing more Yoga than weight lifting in the last two years has decreased the muscles that burn my calories.
Based on 23 years of fitness focus and having to admit that my body is aging anyway(!), my goals now are to:
My committment to the above is strong, mostly because I've already started doing it. A couple of months ago I began adding aerobic training and Pilates work (for core stabilization) to my non-gym days. Realizing that physical movement is a big part of what defines who I am, I now think of this not as adding exercise so much as adding more opportunities to move my body.
- increase the time I spend on activities that improve my cardio fitness (for sports performance, burning calories and heart health)
- do more resistance training (weights at the gym, elastic tubing at home) to regain strength in all of my muscles
- increase my flexibility safely through Yoga
- reduce flare-ups of back pain using Yoga, torso stabilization and strengthening exercises
- engage in weekly balance activities (wobble board, skating, skiing, sitting on a ball, one-foot Yoga poses)
- take Yoga classes and also use it as a post-exercise stretch and cool-down activity
Doing these workouts will not be my biggest challenge. The downside to my high-energy personal style is that enthusiasm often leads to injury. I am hoping, though, that my improved body awareness and knowledge about injuries and rehabilitation will protect me from Boomeritis in the second half of my life.
If practicing Yoga didn't enhance my fitness lifestyle, I simply would not be interested. Good physical fitness is the foundation that supports just about every other aspect of my life. Strength and cardiovascular training at various gyms for the last 20+ years have allowed me to take up and enjoy skiing, week-long backpacks and inline skating to the fullest. But as I approach 50, painful joints have become more frequent and harder to ignore. While reading Barry Publow's Speed on Skates and my friend Susanne Nottingham's Fitness Inline Skating (listed in the Get Rolling Bookstore) inspired me to better skating technique, both books also stressed the importance of warming up and stretching intelligently to prevent injury. Boy, am I ready for that! As a victim of Boomeritis, I think it's about time I found a more gentle way to stay fit.
So that's where Yoga enters the picture. My first taste was at a weekend clinic with Eddy Matzger. He used several twisting, bending and balance poses as a pre-session warm up each day. I could feel those stretches deeply in my spine and hips where I needed them most. That weekend marked the beginning of my Yoga research.
Although I still cannot get my head to my knees with a straight back (and probably never will), my entire spine feels wonderful every day and I'm beginning to see improved range of motion in my asymmetric hip joints. More importantly, I am still as physically powerful as I ever was, in spite of less time spent pumping iron. My proof? Those 10 strict, unassisted chin-ups I do once a week. I was worried about the reduced sets and reps, though. Because I had to find time to fit Yoga into my weekly routine, I had to back off weightlifting, limiting it to 2 half-hour and 1 one-hour full-body session every week.
One final benefit: in order to heat my connecting tissue enough to safely stretch without injury, I'm starting every workout with a 15-minute (minimum) session of cardio training. For me, a little extra time doing aerobics is not a bad thing.
3/16/01: I can still do my 10 chin ups! And the extra cardio training really paid off on our week-long helicopter ski trip in Alaska last month. Didn't lose a single run--but then we were rarely above 2000 feet above sea level! The one negative fitness aspect I must report is that a shoulder injury is making it painful to do certain chest and deltoid weight lifting. I fear my strength is dropping but I don't dare push myself to test it.
4/15/01: My weekly fitness routine now combines Yoga and weight training. For my home Yoga practice, I prefer to warm up with 6-8 sun salutations to get my heat and heart rate up in order to protect myself for the stretches. I can spend an hour or more on the mat at home, starting with standing poses, then seated, then lying. Every morning before I get out of bed I do pidgeon pose, child pose and a lumbar spine twist. If it's a TV night, I do seated hip or reclining hamstring stretches. On Tuesdays, I attend a Yoga center's "sunrise yoga" class from 7 - 8am. Very nice atmosphere!
10/28/01: The chin ups have decreased to 6 and a half, a reflection of the decrease in weight training as I've increased my Yoga. The class at my gym now starts half an hour earlier, straining my ability to cram in a decent amount of aerobics and move some weight with my major muscle groups.
I started getting bi-monthly deep tissue massages last spring and changed to a new chiropractor for monthly maintenance. I feel like the three of us are a team, working to correct my lifelong structural imbalances to prepare my body for an active, pain-free and supple future. Sometimes it's very hard for me to "relax and allow," accepting that this is going to be a long and slow process. At least half the time, I suffer from a spasm behind my left waist--my "team" thinks its a ripple effect from the correction I have made in my right hip joint: I'm no longer pidgeon toed on the right! Otherwise, my flexibility is slowly but surely improving, and so is my balance--great for skating and skiing!
My resting heart rate has gotten lower this year and my anaerobic threshold higher (I can work harder longer). I find as long as I'm physically active, I don't stiffen up. But work days--where I sit for 2 and 3 hours straight--make me very stiff. When I do get out of my chair, I try to remember to do simple stretches or take a brisk lap around the building to stimulate circulation. I use a stretch break software program on both my home and work computers to remind me to get up.
10/28/01: I started a beginning home Pilates program, learning the basics on the mat. My source is a book recommended by a skate student: The Pilates Body by Brooke Siler. So far, I'm slightly sore in my torso which is exactly as it should be when one is starting a "core stabilization" program. Earlier this year I underwent physical therapy to stabilize a shouder injury (Yoga), and self treated a pain in my right hip through high rep/low weight sets of hip movements at the gym. I believe my long, volitile torso needs stabilizing through focused attention, too!
11/16/03: After three years, I am quite a bit more flexible and have a whole new kind of strength than when I started. While I am not lifting as heavily with free weights in the gym these days, I have better core strength and balance than I used to. I am very close to achieving a free-standing handstand. I can now raise my hips and feet into a headstand in very slow motion with full control. This is called functional fitness, and it's more useful to me and my skating goals than my previous ability to do bench presses with 135 pounds or 10 chin ups. But my ego still smarts from that because I used to be very proud of those accomplishments not so long ago.
I actually changed the orientation of my right hip socket so that my footsteps are parallel rather than the right foot toeing in. But the effort has caused persistant pain in the inside of my left knee. Whether that pain is the result of overuse or from changing a skeleton I've been walking on for 50 years, I really don't know.
I'll keep you posted here as more benefits emerge.
The Meditation Thing
In literature, in conversation and on the Web, we are hearing more and more about the benefits of meditating, from simple stress relief to extending longevity. Although concentrating on a sequence of Yoga asanas (poses) is considered a meditation in itself, many Yoga practitioners set aside time for extended periods of quiet meditation. But you should also know that with or without Yoga, there are countless ways to gain the benefits of meditating.
Where do the benefits come from? Think of meditating as taking a brief vacation from your own ego. When you can set aside your desires, fears, anxieties, and other ego-based feelings for even 15 minutes, you are going to return to your life refreshed. That's why an intense workout, a long jog, a romantic dinner, a captivating novel or a nature walk can make you feel good: because for a few moments you've left your ego behind and are concentrating all of your attention and senses on the current moment. Not the past and not the future--not on what you believe or hope, but on what actually is. A few minutes of meditation is one purposeful way to gain that fresh perspective. Taking a well-instructed Yoga class is another way. While concentrating on learning how to let go with certain muscles to master each pose, you are also letting go of emotions that can cause stress.
I've noticed a 15-20 minute sitting meditation just after I change out of my workday clothes eliminates the anxiousness provoked by my nightly, seemingly endless To-do list. It's also a great appetite suppressant when I'm tempted to snack out of boredom or other emotional reasons. Someday I hope to be able to sit cross-legged comfortably for 20 minutes, a feat that stiffness in my hips and back doesn't allow today.
Anybody can meditate. The beginner's goal is not to achieve Nirvana (the ultimate self-realization) but to just learn how to focus your attention on NOW. Practically speaking, that means find a comfortable sitting or reclined position that keeps your spine in its proper curves but allows you to stay awake. Set a timer if you must (I must). Then, simply pay studied attention to all of your senses: what do you hear?; what do you see with your eyes open? closed?; what do you smell, taste?; how do your knees feel right now?, your neck?, your hands? Every time a thought sneaks in, notice and banish it but don't punish yourself for drifting. Simply resume concentrating on total awareness. That's meditation at its most basic level. My favorite guide book on this subject is the profoundly simple yet eloquent Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck.
3/16/01: I just ordered a copy of the Krishnamurti Reader, another book of compiled talks from an eastern philosopher. These comments just make sense to me, and ease my daily angst about being a perfect human. Reading them feels as soothing as I hope my attempts at meditation might some day be.
3/21/01: It has become a problem trying to be as perfect as my little mantra encourages. Yesterday I came up with a potential solution (I never stop thinking). Failure got me depressed, but I realized that it's my big old ego (pride, fear, control-freak, sensitive, perfectionist) that will always be there, getting between me and perfection. Thinking about that made me think of our beloved cat, Whitney. She's often right where I want to be: between me and the bathroom sink, under my feet in the kitchen, sitting on my keyboard. I don't hate her for it--I love her all the time for what she is, no matter how inconvenient sometimes. Other times she's all loveable qualities. If I can just accept and love my own deepest self at that level and work around my grey, fuzzy ego, I could be much happier!!
10/28/01: My internal journey continues, my self-awareness grows and I'm still trying to change my imperfect self instead of accepting it. When I find the time to sit quietly for 15 - 20 minutes (rarely), I can now actually meditate cross legged. However, I've discovered I am also very much "here now" when I'm tidying up in my garden. Warm sunshine in our back yard draws me outdoors like a magnet. As I work, my eyes and hands are busy and my brain is coasting in sublime peace. But it is through reading or doing long aerobic workouts where I get my best personal revelations.
11/16/03: I still have not developed a steady meditation habit, although I believe it would help me deal with stress and many of my behavioral tics. When I do force myself to sit, I focus on counting breaths to keep my mind from whirling as it so often does. I keep a journal where I have documented an amazing array of self-help affirmations and tools that help improve how I react to the world and people around me. I am not reading so much now (it was making me too self-involved), but I believe that Buddhism is the perfect form of spirituality for me.
Balance and Cross Training
Mostif not allof the standing Yoga poses engage balance in varying degrees. The one-footed poses are especially useful for inline skaters, both for stretching and strengthening and for improved balance on wheels. Other twisting stretches for the torso and shoulders require balancing over a deep lunge position.
Because excellent balance is so integral to our favorite outdoors recreations, Dan and I now own a wobble board, a "Disk o Sit" and a Swedish ball. We're both still trying to achieve a Yoga "tree pose" on the wobble board, but Dan's gotten to where he's looking in the catalog for the next balance toy. I like to watch TV while standing on one foot on the inflated Disk o Sit. Stay tuned for further reports.
A most incredible Yoga cross training revelation occurred during my first weekend on alpine skis last winter. I realized that thanks to my Yoga practice I now have complete awareness of my lower back and pelvis and what tension there feels like. To my delight, I discovered that by consciously relaxing my lower back on a fast-turning mogul run (getting loose!), my hips fell into proper alignment over the "sweet spot" on my skis. Whenever I made that correction I felt like I was lightly skimming over the mogul field. What a glorious feeling! 10/28/01: Now I know that feeling is the foundation of the Pilates program.
3/16/01: Last weekend I tried my new "relax and allow" philosophy on skis while pretending I had an invisible lower body--way loose! That reaped magical results in the moguls. I finally know what Dan meant when he used to say years ago, "you've gotta stay loose and let go" to ski bumps well. It's new for me to use relaxation instead of force as a tool in my physical activities. This is definitely a Yoga thing.
11/16/03: Pilates is my personal secret weapon for a spectacular ski season every year! I now know how to protect my lower back by compressing my abdomen, and the side-benefit is that this fully engages all of my core muscles (obliques, transverse abdominus, the six-pack muscles and others deep inside). When I do that, I can stay in full, solid control of my center of gravity as my arms and legs fly in response to the ski terrain. This level of control and smooth elegance on skis is pure bliss!
Yoga instructors seem to be a wiry and flexible bunch. One wonders, do you have to be born to do Yoga or can anybody be good at it? In spite of the fact that most photographs in magazines and ads show these wiry, flexible bodies (but at least the women are my age!), there is a style of Yoga for every type of person, including specialties for the elderly, pregnant, disabled, overweight, klutzy, or muscle-bound.
At first I believed that the strength I've gained from years of weight lifting gave me an aptitude for the Ashtanga Yoga program offered at my local gym. Also known as Power Yoga, this style appeals to me because it actually works up a sweat and results in a whole-body strengthening and flexibility regimen, partially justifying my diminished time for the weights.
But beware! It's possible to be too strong for your own good, or at least for your joints. Because I have the strength to overpower many of the stretches, my first months of Yoga have resulted in a strained hamstring and injured shoulder. I can't seem to quell the enthusiasm that causes me to push too hard! My instructor told me that people who come to Yoga as "real" beginners (without the strength of weight lifting) are much less prone to injury. (3/16/01: Relax and allow!)
Whatever you do, get started with a competent instructor, and make sure you disclose every skeletal problem you ever had. That way, you're more likely to protect those as well as prevent new nagging injuries that hurt every time you practice Yoga and take months to heal.
Where to Begin
It's very important to ease into a new Yoga practice as you are advised to do when taking up any new physical activity. When you start out with more zeal than skill, you risk working around a strained ligament for months thereafterexactly what Yoga is supposed to prevent! If you have back problems, taking up Yoga can help, but both your family physician and your first Yoga instructor need to be clued in from the start.
Dare to attend one Yoga class just to get a feel for it. The attendees of all three of the Yoga programs I've sampled ranged from experienced to first-timers. The best instructors learned each new person's name and took care to describe getting into each of the poses in understandable terms, using students' names or hands-on guidance for specific but gentle adjustments. The worst instructor, however, simply mumbled the names of the poses as he went through the sequence, expecting the students to have them memorized well enough to follow along even when positioned so they couldn't see him. To prevent this, be sure to introduce yourself before class and tell the instructor you are new to Yoga. Station your Yoga mat front and center.
I also encourage you to look into a Pilates class or sign up with a personal trainer to learn about core strength exercises. Functional fitness is key to so many of life's movements!
If I've intrigued you, and I hope I have, your next step is to find out where to find Yoga classes or instructors in your community and what types of Yoga they offer to see which appeals to your own goals. See the Resources section below for a list of printed and video publications and web sites I've used and found to be helpful.
Pilates + Yoga: Magical!
The darling of my fitness plan these days is Pilates! I started practicing mat exercises in October of 2001. By February 2002, the strength gains in my torso were paying off big-time in my skiing endurance and agility. I regained a lot of upper body strength lost during the year I did more Yoga than weight lifting. This increased is very noticeable in several Yoga poses and advanced Pilates moves.
I finally broke down and paid for a Pilates class at my gym that uses the Allegro machines. Although I found moving the pullys and cables familiar from my experience weight lifting, I was disappointed in the instructor, because she focused on muscle isolation and machine-based joint alignment, things I already do in strength training without paying extra for a special machine. After one 8-week session, I went back to my own routine of Yoga and weight lifting with my Pilates Powerhouse engaged: "drawing my navel toward my spine," contracting my hip rotators and kegel muscles, and squeezing the backs of my thighs together.
Besides during my workouts, I try to use that same stance while skating, skiing, and even while driving! I have also stabilized my loose right hip socket through Pilates core strength exercises on a mat. For more about my Pilates experience, see Core Strength: Your Secret Weapon for Better Performance. You'll also see a 2002 close up of my "six pack," abdominals nicely toned and defined by my torso work via Pilates (and my Dad's genes).
If you plan to practice Yoga at home, you should purchase your own "sticky mat." This gives you the best footing when doing standing poses barefoot (advised) and reduces the hardness of wood or tile flooring during seated poses. Established Yoga classes provide sticky mats as well as straps, blocks and bolsters that are used with some poses. So far, my favorite online source for such items is the Gaiam catalog, but these items are often for sale at a Yoga center.
Find a world of great core strengthening and other fitness "toys" at my favorite online store, Perform Better.
Books, Magazines, Videos
Ever the reader, I have subscribed to a magazine produced in Berkeley, CA called Yoga Journal. Each new issue has had answers to several of my burning questions. One focused on Yoga for chronic back pain, another on meditating. Every issue describes one basic and one advanced pose in detail. Besides its fascinating content, this magazine is very professionally produced and photographed. Their web site is also an excellent resource for books, videos and back issues of the magazine.
10/28/01: I am quoted extensively in an article about inline skating and Yoga, published in the Dec/Jan 2002 issue of Yoga Journal. At the time of the interview I was scheduled to co-present Yoga to an inline instructors conference on Sept. 14. The terrorist attacks resulted in my flight cancellation. The other presenter, Kris Simeone, also quoted in the article, is the Director of the Inline Certification Program.
To find out exactly what I'm supposed to do and feel with each Ashtanga pose, I bought the book Power Yoga by Beryl Bender Birch. Except for the first chapter, it was way beyond my capabilities early on, but as I continue to practice at the gym and at home, the back chapters now seem more attainable.
Two entry-level videos I still enjoy are:
- Power Yoga for Strength (vol. 2 of the Power Yoga for Beginners series); Healing Arts Publishing, LLC. Distributed by Livingarts. 1-800-2-living.
- The Method Precision Yoga; Parade Video of PPI Entertainment Group, Newark New Jersey.
Yoga Teachers and Centers
Search your state in Yoga Journal's annually updated directory to find a listing of Yoga teachers and centers near you.