I have a vision of myself that exists completely separately from reality. It is yoga me. I am strong and serene. Calm and capable. I am flexible and centered. Nothing fazes me. I am lean and sleek, physically and emotionally. I am Yoga Jules. There was a brief window of time – maybe five years and twenty pounds ago – when Yoga Jules was a reality. Well, not entirely, but far closer to reality than now. I discovered a hatha-based style of yoga called anusara and it spoke to me. For those of us with fibromyalgia, any physical activity can be problematic. One day, a certain set of movements is entirely possible; the next day, not so much. It requires flexibility and patience.
I found those things in anusara yoga. I liked its emphasis on proper alignment and understanding your body. I liked that it was rooted in knowing your own limitations, allowing me to move at my own pace, that it was gentle and forgiving. I liked its philosophy, based on the concept of intrinsic goodness and firmly rooted in a sense of gratitude and connectivity to the world around me. It made sense to me. I learned to do the best I could, listen to my body. I didn’t feel as frustrated or competitive as I had in other yoga classes.
I liked anusara yoga enough that, for a very short window of time, I developed a daily yoga practice. Not a strenuous one, but a somewhat dedicated one. I attended a 90-minute yoga class twice a week. I breathed a lot more than I am aware of doing now. I got stronger. Not strong, mind you, but stronger. I felt good. Not just physically, although the regular practice helped loosen up the muscles that plague me most. I felt quieter inside than I had in a long time, like my sense of purpose had shifted, my place in the world slightly redefined.
This lasted maybe six months. Then life changed. We moved to Ann Arbor, at first temporarily, for a very busy academic year in which there was so much going on that yoga simply fell off my radar. I focused more on cardio workouts and weight loss and waist size and dropped a few pounds. My knees ached and my shoulders hurt, but I ignored my body and barreled forward anyway.
Then this year came and I don’t know what it was that drove me back to yoga, but something did. I think it was probably whatever is underlying all this effort to change, whatever this sense of disquiet and seeking is. I found a beginner’s class at a yoga studio near my house and I even convinced Chris to go with me. (This is a brave thing for a marathon runner to do; runners are fit, but they do not bend. Yoga is hard for him.)
The thing about yoga is that – like most things – if you truly want to make any progress, really feel the benefits, you have to stick with it. I’ve been dabbling. A class one week, then a couple of weeks off. I needed a kick in the rear to be consistent. I needed to figure out how to get to a place where I would have a daily yoga practice. I decided the best way might be to have a daily yoga practice. For seven days in a row.
Yeah, you see where I’m going with this. Here, I share with you my yoga diary for the week:
Day One. I roll out the old mat, get to kickin’ around the floor. And I do. What I learn most on that first day is: I probably can’t be left to my own devices. I don’t know what I’m doing. Everything I think I know about yoga goes out the window and I find myself on my hands and knees, pushing back into a downward dog and wondering what comes next.
I have some yoga CDs, including one by John Friend, who created the anusara yoga movement. I pop that baby in. I get through about thirty minutes of the first hour-long workout on the CD. I bend. I stretch. I have zero stick-to-it-iveness. I’m riding on the fact that just trying counts, but it when I roll up my mat and stick it in a corner, it feels a little bit like I’m trying to get away with something. Which doesn’t seem that yogic.
Thursday is yoga class day, which is a good thing. It means dragging my ass to the yoga studio, committing to a full hour. It means facing the reality between Yoga Jules and who I actually am.
The thing is, I want Yoga Jules to be powerful and strong and capable…and dry. But when I do yoga with even a slight effort, I sweat like a hog. It ain’t pretty, but there it is. I have the double curse of being a head sweater with thin, fine hair, so it only takes about one and a half downward dogs until I look like I just stepped out of the shower. My hands get so sweaty, I’m practically flying off my mat while all around me, thin girls in adorable yoga outfits are bending and swaying like delicate flowers. Dry, unsweaty delicate flowers.
This will be my undoing, in yoga and in life: comparing myself to others. It is the gateway to my defeatism. I look at a young woman effortlessly coming into plank pose, and I don’t think about how she is younger than me, lighter than me, probably doesn’t have a disorder that causes her muscles to burn and weaken. I think, instead: I should be doing that. I should be able to do that. I suck.
This is the drawback of yoga in a group: the constant comparing myself to others around me. The benefit is that, because my ego is raging and competitive, I won’t give up. Whereas at home I might give in when my thigh screams in a high lunge, in a class environment, I will hang in there, really pushing myself. I will do that 53rd triangle pose, even when I think my quad will buckle. I will come down to plank, even if I think it might kill me.
During class, I’m thinking about all of this so much I’m quite certain I’m not being very yogic at all. After Savasana, the corpse-pose relaxation at the end of class, our teacher says we need to all remember to honor our own individual abilities. That we need to listen to our hearts and do what’s right for us. It seems like she’s talking directly to me. Point taken, yoga lady. We are supposed to name an intention and carry it through our practice with us. Mine is: gentle effort. Now I just need to try to carry it with me through the next five days.
I’m jazzed. Yoga Jules is strong and alive. I take the time to design myself an iTunes playlist of the yoga poses I want to practice, want to get stronger at. Even the ones I hate, which includes everything involving upper body strength.
It’s a one-hour practice and carrying my intention of gentle effort with me, I sweat and struggle through the whole goddamn thing. The warrior poses threaten to kill me. I try hard to remember this is something I’m doing for me, not an arcane form of punishment. I try to breath. Remember gentle effort. Gentle effort. I survive.
One hour of yoga. Lower body, mostly floor poses. I suit up and show up. I do pretty well. Right on.
Then life gets in the way. Life, and possibly the fact that I’m getting a little over trying to make a chunk of my day free for yoga. I’m clearly losing sight of the sense that this is a self-nurturing endeavor rather than an obligation.
I’m feeling rushed and pressured. I’ve got a potluck to prepare for, a house to clean. I don’t have much time. I do a different CD this time, with a different teacher. It lasts about ten minutes. She’s moving way too fast. So I regroup. I’m starting to hate yoga. I only do the poses I like to do. I recognize that I’m not exerting nearly the energy I would in class. I last about twenty minutes. Oh, well, I say. This is a very yogic thing to say. Oh, well.
I am so not feeling this. I feel like I’ve lost track of what made me want to do yoga in the first place. It’s becoming decidedly un-yogic, heavy with obligation. Even the part at the beginning, the breathing, the centering, it all feels fake.
Plus, my quads are done. They hate me. They’re not even speaking to each other, let alone me. I decide to try for ten minutes. Ten minutes of anything yogic. Some breathing. A few cat tilts, dog tilts. A little downward dogging. The phone rings. I see something shiny. I get distracted. Yoga is over for the day.
Yoga class again. I confess that, on some level, I have been looking forward to this all week. It is day seven of yoga and I’m pretty sure that, as a result of my diligence – apparently I’ve chosen to forget the previous two days – I will be able to perform yogic feats of unparalleled magnificence. I doubt I’ll even break a sweat.
This is not the case. But there is progress. Definite, undeniable progress. I find the little confidence I’ve gained during my week’s practice makes it easier for me to remember not to compare my abilities to those around me. And that’s not about my physical accomplishments, I don’t think. I think it’s more to do with the daily reminder I issued at the beginning of each day’s practice to honor myself.
My downward dog is stronger. My heels reach the ground on the first pass. My hands are steadier. Yes, by the third one, I’m still a bit shaky. The warrior poses cause my quads much consternation, but I do them anyway. And, yes, I sweat like a hog the whole time. Only, I don’t care as much.
Perhaps more than anything, the class seems over really quickly to me. An hour of yoga used to be torture. It’s not easy for me, but I can hang. I can hang!
Of all the changes I’ve attempted, there’s a big part of me that really wants to hang onto this change. Maybe it’s just because it’s tied to an idea of who I want to be. I wish I had confidence that I’ll maintain a daily yoga practice, but maybe I can take some of the yogic principles into my everyday life. That it’s the pausing and the breathing and the bowing to my own heart space, so to speak, that I need in my life. And I can make it to yoga twice a week. And I can practice my poses a little here and there at home. Yeah. I can do that. I’m practically a yogi, after all.