Weights and Yoga

Exercise is usually one of the first things suggested to people with depression. This advice may or may not be welcomed by a depressed person. I think as a non-depressed person I would have assumed I would have told any well-meaning person with that advice where to go but surprisingly when I got depression myself I thought it was worth a try. Exercise did not cure my depression but it helped me to boost my mood on good days. The key word there is “good”. On bad days feeling I had to exercise to cure my depression just gave me another stick to beat myself with.

Since starting exercising I’ve always used weights. I like weights, they make me feel strong and capable. In the early days of my yoga practice I would use my strength training to increase my strength in order to do more yoga… which in hindsight seems weird.

Early this year I hurt my elbow and had to stop my weight sessions. At first I thought it’d be fine, I’d get back into it no problem… after all I’ve regularly trained with weights for 4 years now.

Months passed…

I realised that my muscles wouldn’t just waste away and so any incentive to weight train again was quite low. My yoga practice kept me strong enough. Plus I was loathe to get my muscles all sore and tight… how would that impact my asanas?! I could kiss sliding in the splits goodbye for at least a week. It was a price I vainly wasn’t willing to pay.

But I missed that feeling I get in my weights workouts… the one of getting stronger… and finally managed to do a workout today. Points of note: my arms and abdominals are definitely stronger than last time I used weights. This is welcome. Less welcome is the realisation that my legs are much much weaker and not used to squats and lunges with 8kg weights like they used to be.

This is interesting. My asana practice used to involve much more standing poses but then all the “advanced” poses are non upright… eg headstand, handstand, arm balances, backbends… so I stopped doing so many standing poses. So now I have weak(er) legs!

More weights I think…

 

Body image and yoga

As it may be noted from my post about my bottom I do have some “issues” when it comes to body image and yoga. I don’t tend to want to blog about body issues because in terms of BIG ISSUES in my life it rates pretty low.

Now I have never had an eating disorder, of any kind. I am not overweight (my BMI is about 24) and I am not particularly large. When I am with my family and friends it is accepted that I am the “thin, healthy one who does lots of exercise”.

But in my yoga class I have labelled myself “the fat one who can do backbends”.

I am not joking! In my yoga class I am huge! There’s full length mirrors down one end of the studio and once I’d got over the fact that I could watch myself doing yoga and my asanas looked pretty damn good, if I do say so myself… I thought “I am the fattest person in the room, I have the biggest legs and ass in this room”. How skewed is this?

This is not helped by the pronouncements of people, women who are 40-odd who can fit into 10 year old’s shorts, that their bums are “too heavy” to lift into purvottanasana. As I can easily lift into this pose I know the problem is not that their bums are “too heavy”, it’s that they are too weak! How do you think it feels for me, who has already assessed the bodies of everyone in the room and realised I am the biggest yet again, to hear thin people proclaim that they are fat?

I had a terrible realisation that if I hadn’t done all that home practice when I started, I would not have got very far in these classes. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to be in a room with all those thin women and do yoga. I only have the confidence now because I know that everyone can do yoga, because I spent a couple of years on my own learning as much as I could. If those classes had been my only experience, I wouldn’t have got past the first one.

The strange thing is also realising that a lot of these women who come to yoga do it because it’s right for their “type”. I don’t think that a lot of them struggled with the stiffness that I had when I started yoga, for example. Also society would have us believe that the women with the thinner legs have “earned” their thinness, through hard work. But those of us who know better realise that those women would have been that size anyway! I would probably be this size if I didn’t do any exercise at all. So where does that leave us?

My teacher said that I would be good at teaching beginners. I think she said this because I am quite a gentle, sensitive person but part of me thinks that the way my body looks would be an advantage too. I don’t look like no yoga superstar, I look like a regular, non-threatening person. I would not intimidate anyone with my rock hard body! I comfort myself by hoping that in my classes in the future no one will be excluded, or think they have the “wrong body” for yoga. There will be no fat talk tolerated in my classes!

A Counterbalance

My home yoga practice has not been the sanctuary of peace I would like it to be recently. I find myself fuzzy headed and disorientated, craving stillness but unable to decide what to do in order to find it.

Yoga international has an article about home practice, complete with contributions by my favourite long distance teacher Jason Crandell. Two of the tips I have found interesting and integrated into my practice today, to great effect.

Firstly I started in stillness. It makes sense if I want to find stillness in my mind I start with stillness in my body, lying in savasana taking a few deep breaths. It is there I found what I wanted to do in my practice today, by learning how my body was feeling.

The other valuable thing I took from the article is the idea of your yoga practice counterbalancing everything else that’s going on in your life. This makes complete sense to me… if your day has been under stimulating and sedentary then you need an active practice to balance this out. If, on the other hand they have been mentally and physically exhausting (maybe after travelling), you need a quiet restorative practice.

My week has been physically inactive but mentally very active. My mind just won’t shut up. So I did a very Shiva Rea-esque practice, using the breath and arm movements in and around poses. For example: high lunge with arms parallel to the floor, inhale and straighten front leg and bring arms overhead, exhale arms back to side and front leg bent. I find this kind of movement soothing and it stops the mental chatter.

For too long I have been using the stick in my practice and I need to use the carrot, to use the analogy in the article. I have been using my home practice as the place to “work on things I should do”, ie things I say I am bad at. I am going to use this knowledge and use my home practice as a time to balance myself out. In the same way that some yogis use a forward bend to “counterbalance” a backbend (not that I necessarily do that specifically in my own practice…) so we can use our yoga practice to counterbalance our lives.

Bottom heavy inversions

A while ago I wrote a post called “Is my Bum too big to do yoga?” and I remember it got more reads than my other posts at the time. I think this issue is of perennial interest to people doing yoga… or should I say women doing yoga?… or just women fullstop??

I have been practicing yoga for 4 and a half years now. For the first 2 and a half I was too scared to do any inversions save shoulderstand, because that was the only inversion done in the class I went to at the time. This changed when I started to go to a new *dynamic* studio where everyone handstands everywhere all the time. You can’t move for legs flying everywhere! On my very first class I was treated to the spectacle of a yogini warming up with pincha mayurasana. I say warming up but maybe she was just showing off. Anyway.

I have always struggled with handstand and headstand (“pincha” is off the cards for a long time I think, stiff shoulders) It took many many months to be able to even think about how it may be possible to even attempt to try to get into a headstand. Turns out I had stiff shoulders. A year later I still have to hang out in my shoulder openers to get into a headstand and I’m building up slowly, not straightening my legs until I can hold my knees into my chest for a good while. I practice several times a week doing this and my whole practice has to revolve around readying my body for headstand on these days. I cannot just *pop* into it in a class, and at the end of the Primary Series my shoulders are so stiff from all the chaturangas that it is a laughable concept.

The thing is, I’m fairly sure that it’s not such a difficult thing for other people. I am told that it’s about core strength… but I’m fairly sure I’m stronger in my core than other people who can just magic up effortlessly into the pose… or maybe it’s about fear… but I’m scared at home and I still do it. It seems to take a lot more effort for me to lift into headstands and I think I can begin to understand why…

It’s my bum!

Or more specifically, my whole lower body. I am short: 5 foot 3, and about 5 feet of that is leg. I exaggerate but my proportions are a bit out of whack. I have very long, very substantial legs. I have wide hips, big thighs and… how do I say this politely… an ample bottom. To balance in inversions one must get ones’ shoulders over ones’ pelvis… but the pelvis is a big structure so this takes some effort. Surely it doesn’t take much of a leap to think that maybe it takes more of an effort for me? My upper body is tiny, my lower body is big… my body doesn’t like being that way up. Also any supine abdominal exercises involving leg lowers or the like have always been very very difficult for me. This also makes sense.

I can work with this, and I already am. I think that far from being discouraged at this realisation I feel reassured that I’m doing the right thing in building up my abdominal strength and not rushing into straightening my legs in headstand yet. I’ve started practicing half handstands at the wall but I have accepted that I may never be able to handstand the way the former gymnasts do in my class.

On the plus side right way up balances are substantially easier for me, judging by the amount of wobbling I see in classes. I have a big ballast you see.

Light on Pranayama

For the past few weeks I have been following BKS Iyengar’s pranayama course in his book Light on Pranayama. I am naughty because I do not have a teacher helping me and also because I haven’t read the book yet… I just skipped straight to the course.

I wanted a clear, easy to follow and in depth course of pranayama exercises. I am on week 6… of 200 weeks. That is almost 4 years so I would say that is quite in depth enough.

First week it was following your natural breath, then adding on extending the exhale and then the inhale in a preparation for ujjayi breath. Week 5 introduces the first non-ujjayi pranayam- viloma which is interrupted breath. So that is either inhaling in 4-5 parts before exhaling in one continuous breath or exhaling in 4-5 parts before inhaling in one go. All of the exercises so far are lying down, I have not progressed to sitting pranayama and will not until week 9.

One thing I’ve found interesting is that lengthening the exhale is substantially more difficult for me than lengthening the inhale. I’ve found with viloma that I can easily inhale in 5 parts of 2 seconds, but with the exhale I can only do 3 parts. I just run out of breath! I found it with the ujjayi too, inhales are long, smooth and deep, exhales short and strained.

It’ll be interesting to see how it develops, and also to see if I stick with it for the full 4 years.

Well what else do I plan to do with my life?

Phases of the Moon

Today was my last Ashtanga class, my introductory course is now over. I have been exhausted today but I dragged myself to it and actually found some surprising peace within the practice before dragging myself home and collapsing on the sofa. Turned out I was not the only tired one there and I was told it was because it was the new moon yesterday. Now I would be the first one to dismiss this but is there anything in this idea? Do people get tired around the new moon and are filled with boundless energy at the full moon? It’s a nice idea and I would never dismiss the truth that our energy levels change with the placing of the sun, so maybe I should consider the phases of the moon more carefully.

Just too damn tired for Ashtanga

This week has been refreshingly easy and productive after weeks of dragging through the mud of low moods and disappointments and illnesses. I have painted everyday, gone on runs, meditated and practiced yoga.

Today is the exception.

I got some half-hearted painting out of the way (currently composing a ridiculously overcomplicated painting that is taking eons and I’m not entirely happy with) and then decided that I was going to practice me some Primary series instead of going for a run. I was a bit tired but there was no rush, I had hours of free time- bliss!

I got some headstand and handstanding preparation out of the way as well as lunges and pigeons for my tight hips before standing at the front of my mat and starting the Sun salutations. I whimpered my way through the first one and then promptly burst into tears in downward dog. I tried again. I collapsed in more tears. I thought “I haven’t practiced this all week and I said I was going to and I won’t be able to this afternoon and what else am I going to do now and I was really looking forward to it and I should be able to practice my way through it and I should find something else that will “cure” my mood but I don’t know what that is and I just want to go to bed and do nothing…” I promptly started hyperventilating. With no signs of low mood, just tiredness, I can still get this reaction.

I think this is my body way of saying “not now”.

So I’ve gone to bed. Just because.

Why I have not been meditating as much and why I must do more yin yoga

I have been finding it hard to keep up my formal seated mindfulness meditation practice. Ideally I would want to be sitting for 30 minutes a day, preferably everyday but realistically every weekday. Recently I have done good to get 20 minutes in, and none at all at the weekend.

Partly this is because, shamefully, I have been happier and therefore have not “needed” the calming meditation practice as much. I got busier and ignored all the signs that I should be meditating more, not less, to combat possible overwhelm.

Bizarrely sitting for meditation is usually easier when I’m feeling depressed (not too depressed though, in which case sitting down still is unbearable and I must pace like a caged animal), it’s like my brain knows it’s good for it. My depressed, easily confused, overwhelmed brain enjoys the point when I sit and turn my attention inward. But when my mood is better, I get antsy and impatient. My back aches, my knees hurt, my hips complain, my mind complains and I give up.

And then a couple of weeks later I realise that I’m not meditating as much and I realise why… because it’s uncomfortable to sit still for that long. Then I feel a pathetic and unworthy meditator, what “proper” meditator complains about physical comfort? You’re supposed to live with the discomfort, and do it anyway because it’s what the practice is about. The idea that I’m not keeping up something which helped me 90% recover from depression because of an achy back is depressing in itself.

My body is not made for sitting cross legged on the floor- my hips don’t rotate externally easily, my feet have been so stiff all my life I didn’t see the soles of my feet until I was 25. So me sitting on the floor without cushions= knees sky high and achy back within minutes. But I find my mind likes that position the best. I get a clarity and degree of concentration sitting cross legged that I don’t in other poses… on good days. I have a good zafu and I put cushions under my knees but it still isn’t enough to keep my body quiet and comfortable.

I’ve found that the best time for meditation is (unsurprisingly) after yoga, or after stretching post-run (which usually takes the form of yoga asana) but the problem is if I don’t do an extensive yoga practice or run then that also means I don’t meditate. I’ve been ill a lot lately so that has been a problem.

Enter yin yoga!

I used to do a lot more yin yoga, when I was more depressed and lacking in energy and flexibility. I craved the stillness and the massively impossibly deep hip stretches only yin can deliver. There’s something about those long holds…

Yin is supposed to stretch the tissues around the joints, not just the muscles (there is debate about whether this is possible) It’s also supposed to be a fantastic preparation for seated meditation- both physically and mentally. Physically because it prepares your hips to be in a still position for a long time, and mentally because it prepares your mind to be in a still position for a long time. Paul Grilley, one of the founders of yin yoga, apparently struggled with comfort in seated meditation despite his intensive vinyasa yoga practice so I’m in good company.

So I have been practicing a short yin sequence every day. I may alternate predominately backbending and forward bending days. For instance

Forward bending:

butterfly: 3 minutes

half butterfly: 3 minutes each side

dragonfly: 3 minutes

Back bending

high dragon: 2 minutes each side

low dragon: 2 minutes each side

swan: 2 minutes each side

sleeping swan: 2 minutes each side

seal: 3 minutes

 

These are quite short holds for yin, I know but I thought I should make it manageable. I also have to make room in my day for all that seated meditation practice!

Balancing home practice with classes

I started off doing yoga 4 and half years ago solely as a home practitioner. I liked it, I did exactly what I needed to do for my body and I learnt many invaluable lessons about my body and mind during that time. It was what I needed during a very low point in my depression and from that I could begin to heal. A year after I started I was brave enough to start going to 1 class a week. I was so incredibly nervous going to that class but by then yoga was such an ingrained part of my life that taking the class wasn’t much different from following a DVD. Plus I was in a room with people (not that anyone talked to me much)  and it gave me a boost to “come out” as a yogi.

I went to that class for a year and a half before the limitations of the teacher got too much and I left for a different studio. It got to a point where the class was something I dreaded and it put me in a bad mood for the rest of the day.

The new studio has a monthly fee for unlimited classes, so I feel it is worth my while to go to more than one class a week. The problem is I find taking classes quite draining. I’m so stubborn I find it hard to give control of my beloved practice to someone else, who may not sequence the poses I want, when I want. I am working on some quite “advanced” backbends in my home practice, among other things, and time at a class is time that I can’t be working on those. Plus what if I want to rest, or go faster, or just stop altogether?

On the other hand I have met a load of people at those yoga classes, no bosom buddies yet but a few I can small talk with. This is huge for me and would be impossible in my little lonesome attic studio. I have started work on poses- mainly inversions- after doing them in classes. I get new ideas and encouragement from classes. Plus going means I will get my 90 minute practice in guaranteed. That is fantastic, especially on days when I can’t be bothered sequencing myself.

I know that I am in a tiny minority (some of the teachers publicly admit to not having a home practice which I find quite shocking), to most of the people there that room where they go to do yoga is the only place in the world where they do yoga. Yoga is in that room and nowhere else. I do find it strange, if I’m honest with my judgmental self.

So my dilemma is, do I schedule days when I go to classes, and days when I home practice? Do I go with the flow (risking the classes getting the most of energy and the home days being when I have to rest, thus being the “dregs practices”)? Or do I say I will do 30 minutes home practice on days when I go to classes?

At the root of it, my yoga practice IS my home practice. Any classes I take are just to feed my home practice. That is where the value is for me, it’s my laboratory and my sanctuary.

Ashtanga

I’ve been very busy the past few days so I’ve been struggling to keep up with my August Blogging Challenge but I’m trying my best!

My yoga practice has been generic vinyasa since I started 4 and a half years ago. I use the cues and needs of my body to tailor a skillfully appropriate sequence each time I come to the mat, bearing in mind that the needs of my body and mind change depending on circumstances. Basically it means I do whats I feels like. This has led me to have a highly personal practice which I depend on and has always given me a lot of joy and opportunity for excitement and growth. But I’ve always felt inferior to Ashtanga people. Especially since I started reading yoga blogs. I fear that many of the blogs I read would view my practice as weak, non-committal, not serious, shallow… etc.

I had no desire to practice the Primary Series but I had many desires to work on poses that are included in the primary series: the half lotus, kurmasana, the extensive surya namaskars, dropping back into urdhva dhanurasana and of course the oft-repeated jump throughs and jump backs. I played with these in my general practice but I was not committed enough to make any kind of dent. Then my yoga studio advertised an Introductory Ashtanga course and I was kind of interested so I committed to practicing 3 times a week.

By the first week my right leg felt strange- stiff and achy around the knee and hamstring. I found myself unable to even practice half lotus which was part of the reason I wanted to practice the Primary Series in the first place. In the second week I hurt my wrist jumping through so was unable to practice those, or the surya namaskars. In the third week my inner thighs and hip flexors tightened up so much my outer hip rotators got a bit strained. I was unable to practice anything with much external rotation. Today during practice hip flexors got very tight and sore and I was unable to practice half lotus, janu sirsasana, navasana and I just generally felt like my comfy yoga pants were a tight pair of just-washed jeans, restricting my every movement.

At first I thought it was just bad luck, and some of it is but the thing is, when I felt a bit off before I would change the practice to heal. I am beginning to realise why my practice has been very injury free since I started yoga: I do things that are appropriate for my body. Over the years I have gravitated to deep lunges, pigeon poses, anything which stretches the inner thighs, and backbends. These poses were most beneficial for my body, I practice them for a reason. And I’m beginning to think that the Primary Series, with all its forward bending and hip flexor contracting, is just not suitable for my body. So as much as I was looking forward to investigating the Primary Series unadulterated, I think I might just have to modify it and practice it in parts.

I’m just such a rebel, I don’t like anyone telling me what to do. Especially in yoga.