Category Archives: class

A formal session with a yoga instructor and fellow students

Aging carries a surchage

I took my first yoga class in 12 days. It was a simple hatha class at Thrive Yoga with Jane Stelboum. Some would consider it a leisurely paced class; others would walk out because it did not include any major vinyasa sequences. It knocked the bejesus out of me. We held warrior II and lunges for what seemed like ages. I took child’s pose in surrender. As I write this, my hips, groin and back are aching. It is a physical pain that would intimidate a novice because yoga is supposed to be exercise for wimps.

Because I’ve broken through multiple layers of hardened fascia and let the yoga poses and alignment seep into my muscle memory, I find that I sink into the poses deeper. Because I’ve maintained my range of movement with my maintenance routines of stretching and restorative, I dive into a hatha pose without instinctive resistance pushing back. So when I dig that deep, I’m exposing whole bundles of muscles that have rarely been extended like this from a posture of weakness.

For nearly two weeks, I’ve shirked yoga class for what seemed like valid reasons (work, family, writing projects, schedule conflicts, cancelled classes, laziness, and reasons that I don’t want to confess in public), and I never picked up the slack with my home practice. And I was already in a deep deficit of physical conditioning. I am not even talking about recovering my stamina to what it was a year ago, after yoga teacher training, or three years ago when my parents health started going bad.

I swear I will not let this happen to me again (he said for the umpteenth time since taking up yoga!)!  Only 10 minutes, 20 minutes of vinyasa or weight-bearing poses on non-class days would go along way to sustaining performance.

At work, on the yoga mat, in front of a computer screen or with a blank sheet of paper and pen in hand, wherever, I am discovering that aging carries a surcharge. I am going to be 65 years old in seven weeks. My body and mind degrade automatically, noticeably, relentlessly, unless I make a conscious effort to cultivate resilience and hardiness.

Postscript: the pain hurts less the morning after.

Missing my easy pose

Photo: meditators sitting cross-legged on the floor
Sitting cross legged in easy pose or Lotus.

Last night, I was practicing at Thrive Yoga and I felt as if I was fighting against a head wind. My balance was off and my feet did not seem to fall into alignment. My calves were tightening up.  My legs were heavy. With all these mixed signals from the ground up, my hips had lost their bearings. As I struggle through the class (great job, Dorota Preysnar), I tried to feel out where the problem was coming from.

Then, it came to me. The biggest change since the end of my yoga teacher training (YTT) last Thursday, has been a shift in my sitting habits. Yesterday, I had spent the full day working in front of my computer monitor and keyboard. During YTT, I would have been sitting cross-legged, propped up on a blanket or bolster, for at least three hours a day, maybe more. My hips screamed in anguish at times (learning Sanskrit with Pierre Couvillon), but I had experienced a major improvement in my hips (actually, an on-going shift accelerated by  YTT).

I used to have a kneeling chair at my computer, but I had to give it up because the pressure on my shins was cutting off circulation to my feet. Now I sit on the edge of a normal office chair. Now no longer working at an office, I broke my  habit of taking frequent breaks and stretching my legs.

Over the past five days, I have not been actively finding opportunities to sit cross-legged. I am going to have to switch some of my computer time (reading e-mails, web browsing, reading, using my laptop or a tablet) and TV watching  to a cross-legged position on the floor. I need to keep up the practice or my tissues will return to their old alignment — or worse.

How to recover from a kick-butt yoga session

Easy—take a class the next day from the same teacher.

Yesterday, I took the 2/3 vinyasa class at Thrive Yoga with Sarah Wimsatt, who was substituting for this class for the first time. We had requests from several people to go deep in the hips. I was able to keep up with the pace, but Sarah did introduce a couple of sequences that I had not done before and ignited some muscle combinations that had been dormant in me.

At 9:00 pm in the evening, I noticed that I was tapped out energy-wise, and gave up trying to do anything productive that required attention and focus. I slept through the night. When I got up this morning, I immediately broke my promise to go to the 9:00 am yoga class because I felt my body dragging and stiff. My hips and lower back were sore. Over breakfast, I debated whether to make it to the 10:45 am class or just chill out for the day. With some caffeine to speed up my mind, I packed my kit and headed to Thrive Yoga.

What do you know? Same scene as yesterday—there was Sarah W. at the front of class (1/2 hatha yoga) and several students asking for work on hip openers. I cringed inside. But Sarah knew she had a less experienced class with her today so she eased into the hip openers much more gradually. By the end of class, I had worked out the stiffness in my hips and back, re-energized my body and mentally tagged a couple of poses that I want to work on during the week.

We’ll see what time this evening I tap out of energy.

Sweating my brains out

Last night, I went to a hot yoga class (intermediate) with Krista Block at Thrive. Fewer people showed up than usual for an evening class at Thrive, only four, perhaps because it was one of the first hot spring days in Washington and daylight seemed to stretch on forever. Krista did not back off, though; she led her usual up-pace session, strong on repeated vinyasa sequences that grow longer with each iteration, adding an additional pose to extend and deepen the work. I had to stop a couple of times, but I did not get knocked completely off despite my lack of exposure to hot classes over the past few months. After 45 minutes of vinyasa, we went into inversions and mat work, with long stretches.

While we were in the final, restorative poses, Krista said that tapas (Sanskrit word meaning “heat”) in yoga practice is  the inner heat that helps us get the mental knots out of our system, in other words, a practice of purification. It also generates a lot of sweat. I walked out of the class without any muscle soreness or discomfort, just a sensation of whole-body exertion. When I got back in my car, I took a couple of long sips of water and some deep breaths before backing out because this intensity of practice can leave you in a more inwardly oriented state, not the best condition for driving in DC traffic.

I got home, had a light meal, took out the garbage, and showered. I realized that there was little chance of doing any writing or other work. My body and mind had been squeezed of energy and mental knots. I went to bed to complete the last phase of purification, a deep, restful sleep that purges the residue that the yoga practice had left.

Breath, vinyasa and restoration on a Saturday morning.

Today I went back to yoga class for the first time in a month. I had done yoga, pranayama and meditation practically everyday in my home practice and interspersed yogic moments during my work day. But I could not gird myself up to go to a class. I felt as if I was going to walk into the class naked, stripped of disguises, handicapped by a body that seems to  rebel against the abuses of work routine and the slow slog of a winter cold. I felt as if my personal melodramas were branded on my forehead, biceps and thighs, a yogic version of Scarlet Letter.

But today I attended Susan Bowen’s morning vinyasa class at Thrive Yoga. She was all bronzed and refreshed from her yoga retreat (and vacation) in Hawaii. She started out really simple, focusing on the breath, which was fine with me because I knew I did not qualify for a 2/3 level class. I was the perennial beginner, coming back to do remedial exercises, make-up work for all the time I missed.Photo: yoga class in Wwarrior II pose

But a curious thing happened. I laid on the mat and let the breath wash over me in small, delicate waves, that were contained withing the external sheaf of my skin, which was still  porous enough to absorb the prana bubbling up from the wellspring of life. I did the asanas sequenced together in vinyasas, that all seemed as familiar as a walk through a favorite park but different because the sun,clouds, wind, trees, grass and path shift experience into an immediacy of perception. I tested my legs in the warrior poses, I wobbled in the one-legged balancing poses, I skipped to the flying crow poses because my knees and hips have not loosened enough to make it feasible, much less comfortable.

I discovered an unexpected strength in crow pose, shift into three-point headstand, eased myself into the L-shaped transitional dismount and then stuck the drop down to chatarunga, followed by upward-facing dog and back to downward-facing  dog. I had never attempted that particular sequence before (indeed, I have avoided inversions so far this year), but I did not need to think about its novelty at the time; I did not even listened to Susan’s cues. It was just the natural flow of the poses unfolding on the mate.

The decompression phase of the class included supported frog and fish poses, which allowed for a grace-filled easing into stillness. It was a deceptively simple class that allowed me to participate at my own pace and with my own menu of discoveries.

Learning something from my daughter

Photo: headshot of female teacher at yoga studio
My daughter, the yoga teacher

I had a special pleasure today in my hatha yoga class at Thrive Yoga: the class was led by  my daughter, Stephanie. We’ve been going to classes together since 2004, and she went through teacher training in 2006-2007 at Flow Yoga and then took additional training at Thrive this past year. She’s been teaching community and kids classes and subbing at Thrive. She’s been bugging me for months (or a year) to take one of her classes, but her teaching opportunities and my schedule always seemed out of sync. Finally, she filled in on a Sunday morning.

I think that the biggest compliment I could give her was that after the first five minutes, I forgot that she was my daughter, and just cursed under my breath that she was kicking my butt in high lunge and Warrior II. It was still a hatha classes, strong on fundamentals and focused on breathing and body awareness, but it kept up a good flow so that I felt touched in my whole body at the end. It certainly was a test for my ego, allowing myself to be guided by my daughter through a yoga routine and holding back from taking a picture of her in the class.

Stephanie’s been teaching a lot over the past week or so because there have been a lot of class openings. Susan and Dave Bowen, the Thrive Yoga owners, led a group on a retreat in Hawaii (and taking some leisure time while they’re out there). Hopefully, there will be many other opportunities for Esteff (as she prefers to be called — it’s a long story).

Hatha yoga at a deliberate pace

After a work day full of bad vibes and negative loops, I was looking forward to yoga class as the standard hatha yoga class that would allow me to chill in my comfort zone.

But tonight, the scheduled teacher (Marylou McNamara) was absent so Karen Barlove took over. Karen is an experienced teacher who’s been at Thrive Yoga since the opening week. She led us through a habit-breaking hatha class and I was not chillin’. In fact, I was working up a sweat as we went through some slow-motion sun salutations. Warrior II was a deep step forward. Luckily, there was plenty of time at the end of class for restorative poses. I came out of the class having purged the emotional toxins accumulated during the day.

Fifth day in a row of yoga class and keeping on pace with my 40-day yoga challenge.

Four days in a row

Since Saturday, I’ve been able to carve out time to go to a daily yoga class, and also put in time at the gym to build up my aerobic capacity. It’s amazing how a dedicated exercise regime can improve my outlook on life.

Whenever I can string together three or four classes in a row, the cumulative effect is extraordinary, making the next class feel a little better than the previous one. Today, it was a Hatha Yoga class with Marylou McNamara at Thrive Yoga: it was less intense than the first three vinyasa classes and allowed me to settle into the poses and work on alignment. It also helped that my daughter, Stephanie, was on the mat next to me, just like in the old days.

Book cover art: Baron Baptiste seat in a yoga pose
Setting aside 40 days to dive deep into your practice

I’ve signed up for the 40 days of yoga and wellness at Thrive, starting on January 6, the first time that I’ve undertake the challenge of sustaining a rigorous program of six yoga sessions a week (a minimum of three formal classes, the rest can be at home), plus meditation and other activities. It’s based on Baron Baptiste’s 40 Days to Personal Revolution: A Breakthrough Program to Radically Change Your Body and Awaken the Sacred Within Your Soulso I will have one and a half months to concentrate on my yoga practice. Thrive Yoga has offered this program once a year for the past four or five years, so it has become a kind of rite of passage at the studio.

A soft landing on the mat

First class of yoga in weeks!

At Thrive Yoga, a hot vinyasa flow 2/3 with Susan Bowen, it was good to get back into the swing of things. Strength, stamina and balance are nowhere near what they should be.  Because my job hours have made me cut back and eventually out my time in yoga class and gym, that’s not surprising, but my daily practice and once-a-week therapy sessions have maintained my flexibility and range of movement. Of more concern, I had a couple of bouts of vertigo when coming up from a long, standing forward fold, a rush of blood to my head that made me do a double-take, and slip down into child’s pose until I had recovered.

Susan Bowen has been sick over the past two weeks so she took it easy on the class, less heat and less pace, so that her voice would hold up the whole class. I might have gotten off lightly, but it was a soft landing on the mat. I’m giving myself until the end of the year to improve conditioning and strength gradually so that I don’t overextend myself.

Restarting a yoga practice can mean breakthroughs, too

Photo: yogi folds forward over leg
Janu Sirsasana at Bryan Kest's master class at Thrive Yoga

As I mentioned yesterday, I have gone into beginner’s mode again, after a long lapse in my vinyasa practice due long work hours and family tragedies. I took Marylou McNamara’s hatha yoga class at Thrive Yoga as my remedial course in yoga basics so that I can start rebuilding from the ground up as I regain strength and stamina for a more vigorous practice.

When I got up this morning, I knew that I would be better served by a slower class because I was still feeling the aftereffects of yesterday’s class — sore thigh, hips, and chest, a crick in my lower back, and general fatigue. I grabbed an extra hour a sleep.

My biggest surprise was that in Head-to-Knee Forward Bend pose (I know, there’s no good name for it in English, that’s why everyone calls it Janu Sirsasana), I was able to get my folded right leg firmly down on the ground, with the aid of a blanket under my sit bones. For the past seven years, my right knee always popped up, and I had to put a blanket or a block under it so that it had some support. When I reverse the pose (right leg outstretched, my left left folded back), my left leg rests on the ground.

Over the past year, my emphasis on loosening up hips has meant that my leg has slowly been coming closer to resting on the floor, but this was the first time that I did not need to use as much as a towel to support my leg. Admittedly, I still need a blanket under my sit bones, but I am certainly headed in the right direction.