Today’s post is one that have been thinking about a great deal, and I will probably spend a lot of time writing it. Because it is about something that is extremely near and dear to me. And that something is my yoga practice.
When I tell people that I practice yoga daily, they make a few assumptions. They assume I can do this:
Or maybe this:
Or at least this:
They will tell me, “You’re so lucky to be flexible! I could never do yoga.”
But the first time I walked into a yoga class, I could touch my knees when I folded forward, if I were warmed up. My shoulders were hunched forward, my left leg was shorter than my right leg, I didn’t even know that you were supposed to be able to move your hips, and I was unable to sit or stand up straight. I not only lacked flexibility, but strength as well.
I had intended to lose weight before going to my first class, but that did not seem to be happening quickly, and my curiosity finally won out. My best friend in Michigan loved yoga and kept talking about how great it was, and how nobody judges you. So I had to see for myself.
Adventures at the Gym
I wrote about that first yoga class, and a very inexpensive gym, here. I made my baby steps for over a year, going through spurts of consistent practice. After I moved from the apartment to the boat, I missed class for quite a few weeks.
When I went back, we had a different teacher. She moved a lot faster and did more complicated poses. I was unable to keep up, and unable to figure out how to modify them. She did not offer any suggestions, and I felt like I did not belong. When I got home, I texted our previous teacher, who said that she was no longer teaching at that gym. She suggested that I try the gym where she practiced, which happened to be very close to the marina.
The good part about living on a teeny tiny boat is that you often have more disposable income. So we paid to join this very fancy gym. They had a separate room just for the yoga classes. They had mats we could borrow–which was great, because the cat had destroyed mine–and something I had never seen before: props.
There were blocks that brought the floor up to my hands when I could not reach it, straps that helped me hold my legs up in the air, and these weird wedge things. I asked a girl in the class what those were for, and she said she thought they were for sitting on (they are not). So we both began every class by sitting on a wedge thing.
I don’t think the teacher had any idea what to do with me, but she often encouraged me to be creative with my use of the props. I felt welcome, and my flexibility improved a little while I was going there.
Then that teacher moved to Arizona, and the gym reduced their yoga classes to one evening a week. We had one teacher I really liked–a young new mother who passionately taught us about something called vinyasa. She encouraged us to practice with our eyes closed, which I loved and still do, and to move at our own pace. As we did those first sun salutations, I felt like I was dancing. She had no individual advice for me, but we often talked after class, about listening to my body, not being self-conscious, and about letting go and moving with the breath.
Motherhood quickly called her away, and we had an older lady teaching our class. I set up my mat in my usual space, in the front of the room, off to the left. The teacher–she never even told us her name–came in and set up her mat to the left of where I was sitting.
“We face this direction in my class,” she told me. I nodded and turned my mat to face the left side of the room.
“I am telling you, in case you don’t want to be in the front,” she said.
“Okay,” I replied, and continued setting up my props.
“You might want to go to the back, so you can watch everyone else,” she said.
“Thanks, but I’m okay,” was my response.
“Go to the back of the room,” she insisted.
Embarrassed, I took my mat to the back of the room. I did not watch everyone else, because I preferred to practice with my eyes closed. Being in the front of the room was important to me at that time, because I was still working through body image issues. It was my way of telling myself that I belonged. Maybe this teacher was just trying to help me, but I did not take it that way at the time.
I was acknowledged one other time during the class. We were supposed to clasp our hands together behind our back and lift our arms. The teacher suggested that we might want to use our strap for this. My shoulders were extremely tight at the time, and I had a previous injury to my left shoulder. I tried it with the strap, but it hurt a lot. It was much more comfortable without it, even though I couldn’t lift my arms very high.
The teacher walked to the back of the room and told me to use my strap. I said that it made my shoulders hurt, but she just handed it to me and repeated that I needed to use it. So it did, even though my shoulders complained, loudly.
The funny thing is that I didn’t even stay until the end of class. On the schedule, the class was supposed to be one hour. Iliana was allowed to stay in the childcare room for up to two hours, so I had come and hour early to run on the track.
When we first started, the teacher said that, by the way, her classes were always 90 minutes. I did not have that much childcare time left, so I was not unhappy to pack up my mat and props and leave the class 30 minutes early.
That was the last time I set foot in the yoga room at that gym.
I went a few months without yoga, and after we bought a new boat, we could no longer afford the fancy gym membership. So when I decided to start working out again, I was looking for less expensive options.
I found a free Zumba class at a nearby apartment complex, and I began pricing out yoga classes. There were a lot of studios in our area, but they were all more expensive than the gym had been. I googled “donation yoga class,” and much to my surprise, got a hit. A small studio, not far from the marina, was temporarily offering class for a donation, one night a week.
I had no idea what to expect at a yoga studio. I had such mixed experiences at the gyms, and I wondered if someone as tight and weak as me would even be welcome somewhere specifically dedicated to yoga. I pictured a room full of people doing handstands. But the price was right, and I was eager to start practicing again.
So on February 1, 2016, I ventured in to Moonlight Yoga and met the person who would change my life forever.
I was used to being invisible in the large gym classes, and I really did not want to draw a lot of attention to myself, since I didn’t exactly have a “yoga body.” So I quietly made my way into the studio, deposited my money into the box, and was drawn like a moth to a flame, over to the vast prop rack.
It was like Christmas! I grabbed myself a blanket, a strap, a couple blocks, a strange-looking cushion to sit on, a bolster, and a sandbag. The mysterious wedge was also there, but I left it. I found myself a spot kind of in the middle of the small room, next to a table that I could use to help me balance.
As I was getting settled in, a petite woman with the bounciest curly hair I have ever seen, approached me with a disarming smile, and introduced herself as Cass. She asked me my name, and if I had practiced before.
I said, “I look like a beginner, but I’m not. My muscles are very weak, but there is nothing wrong with them.”
Cass said we could work with that. I told her the names of the gyms where I had practiced, and said the problem was that the teachers I liked kept leaving. I joked that I had yoga teacher abandonment issues!
Cass laughed and said, “Well, I have been here for years and I am not going anywhere.”
Maybe it was because only one of my previous teachers even knew my name, but I felt anything but invisible during that first class at Moonlight. Cass very quietly helped me to modify nearly every pose we did, using my multitude of props. I didn’t just feel like I was not in the way–I actually felt welcome.
That night, Cass messaged me on Facebook, thanking me for coming to class. We chatted a bit, and discovered that we both had experience working in special education. She didn’t say anything about my wonky muscles, and I came back to class again the next week. And the week after that.
One time in class, my shoulders hurt too much for me to hold downward dog at all. Cass stopped the flow we were doing, and had all of us do shoulder stretches. It felt amazing, and I had no more pain for the rest of the class. I tucked that away in my mind, because I knew that I now had a tool I could use, whenever my shoulders were sore.
One night on Facebook, Cass posted that she had helped someone get into a handstand. I jokingly commented that I wanted to do a handstand. Cass surprised me by responding, “If you are determined, then I can get you there.”
She messaged me and said that her favorite quote was, “She believed she could, so she did.” I got that printed on a tank top, upside down, so it will read rightside up when the time comes!
Well, if I wanted to do a handstand, then I would need to find it in my budget to go to class more than once a week. So I told Cass that I would be going on Thursdays too. She said, “I don’t teach that class, but CJ does. You will like her.”
So off I went, not nearly as defensive as I had been at my first class with Cass. CJ was very quiet and calm, and I told her all about my wonky muscles. She said that was fine, and throughout the class, she encouraged us to be curious about what we can do, rather than being judgemental of our bodies or focusing on our limitations. Every time she had the class do a pose, she would work with my individually to help me modify it.
After class, I noticed that CJ had a book by Ekhart Tolle. I asked her about it, and we ended up spending the next 30 minutes discussing our favorite books and authors. I only left because I was almost late taking Iliana to her scheduled activity that evening!
What evolved was a friendship defined by books, coffee, smoothies at the food co-op, and tales of unusual misadventures (that we both seem to have!). CJ introduced me to yoga nidra, which did more to teach me about my own mind, than anything else.
Increasing Awareness and Beginning to do the Impossible
As I began attending yoga class 3 days a week, I learned more about my wonky muscles. I built strength and learned that my challenges with flexibility were due to tight shoulders, hips, and hamstrings. With regular practice, I made slow but consistent progress.
One of my first major milestones happened during the summer of 2016. A lot of people liked ending class by going “legs up the wall.” My legs did not want to go up the wall, but I could kind of convince them to, if I put something under my bottom.
Then one day, I happened to be sitting in front of the room in class, right next to Cass. I mentioned that I was able to get my legs up the wall more easily there, probably because I was in a corner. Cass said, “No, the corner has nothing to do with it. It’s easier, because your hamstrings are lengthening.”
After savasana was over, I noticed that all of my props had been put away. Cass gave me a huge grin and said she was proud of me.
The shape of my legs changed. They had always been square on the back, like Ball Park hot dogs. Now they were becoming more rounded, as my hamstrings became more defined.
From a very early age, I had been told that my legs were 1 1/8 inches uneven. I wore a lift in my shoe for awhile. But one day that summer, I noticed that walking felt different. More balanced. I sat on the ground, stretched out my legs, and noticed that they were the same length. I had stretched out my hip muscles a lot, and that affected the way the length of my legs appeared.
My legs were looking different, feeling different, and hurting a lot less. I decided it was time to have another go at a goal of mine: running a 5k.
I began training with my neighbor and best friend, Deanna. We would wake up early, run around Clear Lake Shores island, shower, then ride to yoga together. We noticed that we felt a lot more limber during yoga class, after running.
And so I ran my first 5k…and second, and third. Each time I set a new personal record.
Tools for the Journey
I faced a lot of growth and challenges during the past 2 years, and yoga was my rock through all of it.
During the 2016-17 school year, I lost contact with a very close friend and mentee, and yoga helped me to sit with the difficult emotions, rather than stuffing them down or numbing. During a yoga nidra class with CJ, after the guided meditation was over, I found a way, using visualization, to say good-bye to this friend. After class, I told CJ about it, and she sat with me, holding my hands, while I cried. Not trying to fix anything, not worrying about coming up with words, but just being with me while I processed. It was one of the most beautiful things anyone has ever done for me.
After Hurricane Harvey, Cass got the studio open as soon as possible, and a large group of us met, with fans still running to dry the flood water. Cass lovingly led us through a restorative class, and at that moment it seemed to all of us that everything was going to be okay. Being back with my second family was a return to normalcy.
As soon as Harvey ended, my challenges begun. Yoga was the one constant through my difficult year. There were evenings when I spent most of the class in child’s pose, with a blanket over my head. I felt safe. I felt protected. And I knew that I could sit with my emotions, undisturbed. Other times, I threw myself into my sun salutations and felt strong.
Yoga saw me through a shoulder injury that put me on leave for 3 weeks. I took off my sling when I got to class, and promised not to put any weight on my shoulder or do anything that hurt. Cass and CJ both helped me do stretches to relieve the pain and to maintain my range of motion. In spite of constant fighting with my insurance company and doctor’s office, which led to me getting neither a diagnosis nor treatment, my shoulder recovered fully.
The most important yoga class during this past school year, was the 6 am class. This class met twice a week, and during the school year, I was the only student, at least once a week. Cass and I had many conversations during these classes–sometimes while doing poses and sometimes while sitting on our mats. She absolutely refused to let me fall into self-pity, even when it could be argued that I was entitled to it.
It was from these conversations that I learned to count my blessings, even when the world felt like it was falling down around me. I learned to find reasons to be grateful, regardless of my circumstances. I learned to stay hopeful, and I learned that I still had choices. I always had choices.
The most important lesson I learned from those early-morning conversations was that I had value. I saw how a pattern of not valuing myself had led me into my current situation, and that if I was going to get out of it, I would need to see my own worth.
When I look back on the past year, what stands out is not the pain and abuse I suffered, but the love I experienced. It was a rare time, when I was able to see how many people loved me, and how much. I will always remember those 6 am conversations with great fondness.
The most beautiful part of the story is that after I was able to get out of my situation, when things improved for me, the 6 am classes began filling up again. I don’t know what you believe about God or anything being at the center of the universe, but it seems like more than a coincidence to me.
Triumphs and Victories
I still had a Facebook account when I started going to classes at Moonlight, and it was helpful if we checked in. I tried to do this frequently, but I always wanted to say something different and witty.
One time I said that I was training for the Yoga World Championships. Then I googled it and found out this was a thing. It seemed so wrong, since yoga is my nature non-competitive. I then decided that my event would be savasana.
One time when I checked in, I said that I would be triumphant. Another time, I was excited that I was able to do deer pose in class. Deer is a restorative shape, but at that time it was challenging with my tight hips.
I posted on Facebook that night that I was victorious for accomplishing this. Cass responded with, “Everytime you come to class, it is a victory.”
Truer words have never been spoken.