Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Yoga Stretches You

While it is a common belief that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, what happens in Yoga is under no such restrictions. When you leave a Yoga class the experience can sometimes linger for hours, if not days. You see while it is common knowledge that Yoga improves flexibility, what they don't tell you about Yoga class is that is more an exercise in how well you can handle your buttons being pushed. This is one of the fundamental differences between mere static stretches and Yoga and why you shouldn't refer to the two activities interchangeably. That's because Yoga classes, the good ones at any rate, often take you right up to, and sometimes just a little beyond, your own personal mental, physical and emotional boundaries. When you find yourself on your edge holding a particular pose beyond what is comfortable, you may not particularly like what you see there.

It is very common for people to describe or see themselves in one way, say successful, easy going, happy, strong, or forgiving only to have a particular Yoga pose show them they are none of these things -- at least not when the pressure's on. And that is where some of the similarity to triathlons comes in. How you respond when the pressure is on says a lot about the results you ultimately get. And it can say a lot about who you really are as a person.

One day I went to Keith's Vinyasa class at Dharma Yoga here in Austin. The class started with Keith calling our attention to the words he'd written on the whiteboard at the front of the room from a Leonard Cohen song:

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."

The message of the class was to forget about doing things "perfectly." Most people come to Yoga (if they explore it at all) with the expectation that it is just a bunch of stretching. But over the past year I've discovered Yoga as being so much more. Yoga is about your body and all of the expectations and beliefs you hold regarding it and learning to live in and in concert with it gracefully.

This particular class really didn't involve much actual stretching at all. It was all about headstands, handstands, and arm balances. These are some of the more challenging intermediate to advanced postures you can do in a Yoga class. But what I also discovered was these postures focus more on alignment and core stability than actual "flexibility." There was very little in the way of actual stretching. So in that regard this one class was totally outside of the expectations of what most people would consider to be Yoga. And as such "the edge" we were exploring that day had nothing to do whatsoever to do with how "flexible" I was. In this case there was the more profound and direct edge of fear to deal with. Floors in Yoga studios are typically hard except for where your mat is placed so falling out of one of these poses and smacking myself on the floor is what I was confronting with regard to both my edge and my fear. This would be in addition to the fear of people actually seeing me smack myself on the floor if I fell.

As I moved through the poses, focusing on my breath and my body alignment, I became aware that my fear, though still present, had receded. And as my fear receded, I discovered my previously carefully guarded and highly respected edge (the point at which I balanced on my hands while upside down) had expanded by the an almost equal amount. After class I considered what had occurred. It was within the space surrounded by my own imperfections and fear that I found I could play with both. Like the words of the Cohen song suggest, it isn't by ignoring or attempting to cover up our imperfections and fear that we grow as human beings. We grow as people by accepting our limitations whatever they might be and then working with them. This one of the reasons I find Yoga and triathlon similar and complementary. In both triathlon and Yoga we find ourselves engaged in a meaningful process of self discovery and patient exploration which allows us to deal honestly with fear and discover where our edges truly are. They are spaces that stretch and extend us as people allowing us to come to terms with our imperfections so that we may ultimately shine brilliantly through them.

1 comment:

Mike @TheIronYou said...

I'm a strong supporter of integrating yoga practice in triathlon training routine. Some of the benefits are improved flexibility, stronger core and reduced rick of injury; just to name a few.
I have enhanced my performance dramatically since I started practicing yoga 2 years ago!