Archives for posts with tag: yoga

As part of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program that I’ve been completing, I’ve been doing yoga.  One of the positions is  “the chair”.  It is basically adopting a near sitting position, using the air as a seat. This requires the use of my leg muscles, particularly the muscles on the backs of my thighs. The psychologist on the video does a number of repetitions of the pose. The last pose is held for the longest amount of time. She says a number of things at this time, one them being, “sit back into that easy chair…” As soon as I hear the word, “easy”, I start feeling the burn more in the backs of my legs. The word, “easy” made it harder! Then she talks about how we might be feeling fatigued or warm. That’s part of mindfulness, noticing the sensations in one’s body, even the uncomfortable ones.

I have been doing this yoga routine for a number of weeks now. At first, I thought, “Why does she have to say that? She’s making it harder.” I soon learned that if I tuned-out her words and focused on her body language, which was relaxed, it was easier to do the pose. I soon became mindful that tuning out the words also meant tuning out my attention to the sensations in my body. I was merely distracting myself, which can be an effective coping technique at times, but it is not in keeping with my intent to do a mindful practice. I redirected my attention back to my body.

Today when I did this pose, I felt the temperature of my body rise. I felt the fatigue in my legs. But I also felt something else. I felt strong, strong enough to be my own chair. Every moment in life is different. Some of them are actually easy. Many of them are very difficult. Most of them are somewhere in between.

I don’t always have to provide my own chair. It gives me great peace, however, to know that when I need to do so, I can support myself, by myself.

When I was still in my 20’s, I decided to give yoga a try. Maybe it was my age, but I had the idea that it was a bunch of gentle stretching and meditating. Yes, I’d seen photos of women doing challenging looking poses requiring great strength, balance, and flexibility, but surely beginning yoga would be a breeze. Plus I was young and strong. I signed up for a class at the student recreational center.

Oh, how wrong I was. Yoga, even beginning yoga, was hard! For one thing, it can be aerobic exercise! What????? I thought all of the deep breathing would be for meditation, not survival!!! It also required a great deal of strength. By the end of the hour, my arm muscles were in a spasm of fatigue. What was not surprising was my lack of balance. I am athletic but I am better at balancing while in motion than while still. I am also afraid of heights so the idea of doing a back bend freaks me out. That was true even when I was a much shorter and fearless kid.

The biggest surprise in yoga, however, was how incredible I felt at the end of class, lying in the corpse pose. Even though my body was exhausted, I felt a warm ease and comfort. I have returned to yoga a few times, but for whatever reason, I’ve had trouble making it a habit of more than 3 or 4 lessons, even though I very much enjoyed it each time.

I suspect some of my difficulty has to do with the fact that I need a class in order to get good at it and I am historically self-conscious about being “bad” at something for too long. Although I’ve flailed my way through many aerobic dance classes with my initial difficulties following choreography, especially trying to mirror a teacher whose right and left is opposite mine, I am able to get the steps eventually and by that time, I would be one of the stronger students in the class. Meanwhile, flailing is very effective at getting one’s heart rate up. Flailing will get you a good workout.

I don’t know what a yoga class would be like for me now that I’ve gone through cancer treatment. So much of it is flailing, trying to move forward, having everyone look at me in various stages of undress, and not knowing what the Hell I was doing except trying to follow directions and make some kind of sense. Everyone is different but I found having vulnerability and my body on display over and over as a person going through frequent and invasive medical treatments, I broke through some anxiety and self-consciousness. In clinical psychology, we call this exposure, meaning that I repeatedly put myself in anxiety provoking experiences, and each time with the world not coming to an end or anything, I learned to deal with it. But as I said, everyone is different and what is the appropriate level of exposure (literally or figuratively) for one person could be traumatizing to another person.

This is a personal blog and one of the things I try to convey is the fact that my life is highly fulfilling but also highly messy. My life is not an inspirational poster. I am not perfect and I am getting more and more okay with that. In fact, the more okay I get with it, the more okay I am with everyone else. So this is perhaps a very good time to give yoga another try. In fact, it is the latest practice in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that I am doing.

Knowing what I know about MBSR, I did not expect the yoga to be super hard. I mean, after all, MBSR is used frequently with individuals with chronic pain problems. Also, I learned that yoga as a mindfulness practice is more focused on being mindful of breath and bodily sensations than on doing fancy poses. The video that accompanies my program is taught by a health psychologist and if you are keeping score at home, she uses Hatha yoga poses.

The poses are mostly stretching with a couple of strength and balance poses. The stretches are sublime, hitting every spot in my body that gets tight and achy. My favorite thing that the instructor says after saying that her motto is “No pain, no pain” is that we are to find “the sensation that is delicious”. That is exactly the way those wonderful stretches feel, too.

The strength and balance moves are a bit more challenging for me though not frustratingly so. A particular challenge are the poses that rely on abdominal muscle strength. Historically, I had naturally strong abdominal muscles. With my TRAM breast reconstruction two years ago, I lost one of my abdominal muscles. I haven’t done abdominal crunches since right before my TRAM surgery. I was instructed to a lot of walking and daily crunches to prepare for the surgery. I was already walking three miles a day and I got up to a pretty high number of crunches, at least for someone who does not hang out in a gym.

Imagine my surprise, when I was lying on my back with my knees bent and my feet on the floor, and I was unable to lift myself to a sitting position without putting my hands on the floor. My core is not working the same way as the yoga instructor’s core. My core got gored. By the end of the 30 minutes, I got that same delicious sense of relaxation and time well spent that I got at the end of the more rigorous classes of the past. I felt present, engaged, and exactly where I wanted to be. In spite of my flailing, my bobbling, and my imperfect strength, I felt great.

I may need to learn this lesson of strength, peace, and balance through imperfection, a million more times. And how wonderful would be? To learn this lesson a million more times is to live a long and mindful life.

Yesterday, on my way to the car after work, I saw a woman in the parking lot. She was perhaps in her late 50’s or early 60’s and was significantly over weight. She was facing away from me, bending over to get a bag out of her car. Since she was wearing quite a flimsy pair of stretchy white pants, I was easily able to ascertain that she was wearing thong style underwear!

Although I had to salute her for the zingy way she was living her life, I must admit that my first thought was, “Eww, is she wearing a thong?” I was also not impressed with the pants or the cellulite that could be seen through them.

Then I felt guilty. I thought, “Look, she’s parked right next to the yoga studio. She’s probably going to a class there. She’s taking good care of herself. You are so very shallow.”

Then I started thinking, “But that is really gross.”

Then I started feeling guilty again.

Then I started to feel guilty because I didn’t feel guilty enough.

Then I started thinking about aesthetics. Why are things, living and non-living, beautiful? One could argue that overweight people are not considered beautiful because being overweight is not healthy. But being overweight is considered attractive in many cultures and in the past was associated with being wealthy, not having to do manual labor, and having ample food to eat.

Now this woman was also older and youthfulness is part of our cultural ideal. Now if I imagine a younger woman, of the same size, in the same outfit, I can’t say I would have been positively impressed.

So instead of offering this woman some of my famous granny panties, or riding on this sling shot of guilt I’ve created for myself, I have one thing to say to this woman.

Namaste.”

All people are worthy of my respect and this is not contingent on something as trivial as underwear choice.

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George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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