Learning from the physical practice

Photo: yogi folds forward over leg
Glenn Buco folds forward at a workshop.

Don’t let anyone tell you that yoga is for wimps, for slackers who don’t want to work up a sweat or for those who are only interested in the spiritual side.

I’ve gone through three weeks of yoga teacher training (YTT) at Thrive Yoga. That translates into a daily 1.5 hour hatha/vinyasa practice, additional work when we’re doing asana labs or practice teaching. Five days a week, plus the first weekend.

It has taken me a full 36 hours to recover this weekend (including celebrating my daughter’s birthday and taking my wife to Frederick for her to pick your exhibit space for Artomatic). My body felt as if it had been put through a wringer while my mind was put through the rinse cycle. My hips and shoulders still ache. Maybe, a 63-year-old guy, overweight by 30 pounds according to my BMI, is not meant to put his body through this kind of regime. I don’t have the recuperative capacity I used to. I’ve been practicing for almost 10 years, so I know the ropes, my muscle know many of the poses instinctively, though that can be detrimental to practicing mindfully — no asana is ever the same each time you do it as your body changes dynamically. I had been trying to get in shape before YTT because I knew it would test my conditioning.

Over these past three weeks, there was no drill sergeant yelling in my ear to keep pressing past my edge (“No pain, no gain!”). Quite the contrary, I was told that not being able to breathe evenly and smoothly was a signal that I needed to back off. I’ve dropped to me knees into child’s pose many times. My teachers alerted when a pose might put me at risk and to modify it to match my skill level, flexibility and strength — or I knew that already and took precautions. I can still aspire to express each asana more completely.

In brief, I usually get home in the evening depleted energetically, my muscles buzzing and my mind swimming in a wind noise of sensation. I try to write every evening, in this blog or in my journal, to log the data and explore any strand of meaning that might break through the chattering of body and mind.

YTT’s point is not to test our limits in terms of stamina or myofascial health. If I had wanted to max out, I could have gone to an intensive week-long (or more) workshop with a master teacher in which I just do yoga the whole time, and not deal with the YTT “distractions” (It would have been suicidal).

The kicker

Yoga meets you where your body is: a beginner can be challenged in basic poses; an intermediate student can step up the pace; and an advanced practitioner can explore the stuff that puts you on the cover of Yoga Journal.  In my YTT class, we are six, ranging from 19 years old to nearly 64; our previous exposure to yoga also varies widely, from first-flame curiosity to intermediate/advance level practice. We’ve all been taxed physically to keep up.

Unless you have a home practice (and a really intensive one), it’s extremely hard sustain the equivalent of what we’re doing in YTT in real life. A monthly unlimited pass will give you access to all the yoga you want, but other matters (family, work, unemployment) get in the way. Aerobic conditioning can be attained with 20-30 minutes of jogging or biking (or whatever fun thing that gets your heart rate up).

Beyond the physical challenge, the real test in yoga is mental, dismantling the obstacles we throw up in our practice, recognizing the kinks in our mind and sensing the barricades of numbness separating body from awareness. The physical practice is merely the body map to the mental practice.