How yoga works, according to Ms. Kathryn Jonina Duane

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Health / Yoga

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A while ago, I wrote about coming back to yoga after taking several months off and even hating the practice altogether. In the months since writing about my return, I’ve found myself glued to physical and mental wellness in a way I simply haven’t before. And it did not happen the way it was “supposed” to happen, according to various trainers and yogis who take a more purified approach to yogic practice.

I suppose, before I get myself into any more trouble, I should preemptively abandon the “pure” approach to anything. It has never worked for me; I think I’m simply the kind of person who likes to get dirty, and, for better or worse, create my own way into things.

While I did come back to my yoga practice with positivity and excitement back in December, it didn’t really stick until recently. It started with horse-back riding. Then I joined a website that uploads a thirty-minute cardio workout everyday (one or two of which I do each week). Then I started running again. I found that the more physically active I was, the more I was drawn to yoga–for its physical benefits, of course, but also for its quiet, for its gentleness, for its repose. I found that, while taking a gentler approach, I was also somehow more able to challenge myself, which, at first glance, makes little sense.

About a month ago, in the shower, I noticed a peculiar bulge in my inner thigh. I gasped. Was that–was that a muscle!? I was ecstatic. I could feel it, and I could SEE it. For a moment, this paused me: memories of my yoga teacher training flew through my mind as if on a film reel. Was I being vain? Was I working out only for the visually pleasing results instead of the health benefits? Were my priorities skewed? 

Then I hit pause again and realized how silly I was being. It’s OK to admire the “side effects” of taking good care of your body. They might be physical, and visible, like newly defined hip adductors, but they may also be invisible, too: like feeling more balanced and energetic, more confident, more body-aware, happier, and healthier. These are other side effects of working out, and they can’t be squeezed into a smaller dress size or admired in a mirror. Further–seeing the muscle was not merely visually pleasing; it also symbolized my more concerted efforts toward being healthy, strong, and fit.

I used to enjoy working out. Back in high school, I’d design little workouts for my friends who were interested. I was on the varsity swimming and track teams, I did yoga and liked going to the gym. This continued through college, for the most part, and into adulthood. I only started to dislike working out when I was told, during my yoga teacher training, that it was bad. I only believed it because it made sense and ample evidence was provided: yoga helped the body because it was designed to work with the body, not against it, and working out wasn’t. People destroyed their bodies working out, and here is everything that proves it.

And this is where my real love for yoga comes in. Because this is what I’ve realized: people can and do destroy (or even just hurt) their bodies while working out or participating in sports. But they make that choice, and they don’t have to. You can work out more safely, and you can take precautions or make adjustments in what sports you play to prevent injury (I for instance, can no longer row, despite how much I absolutely love it, my body hates it, and loves to remind me with slipped discs, hip issues, and a sliding sacroiliac joint causing horrendous sciatica.) To be totally honest, even working out or playing sports safely can pose risks–and yoga, in all its beauty and intelligence, can help us out by being the weight on the other side of the scale. It’s active, but in a quiet way. It can help repair or prevent injuries. It can challenge us, but it doesn’t have to be physical, or straining: it can challenge us mentally or emotionally, or it can challenge us to sit at the edge of our limits, such as stretching (my) excessively tight outer hip muscles in pigeon pose and trying to keep my jaw relaxed and breath soft throughout.

My goal in yoga for the summer is simple: do it quietly, and with utmost care for my body and its limits–the ones that need to be accepted, and the ones that can be pushed and expanded. Specifically, I want to focus on lengthening and strengthening hip flexors (including my insanely tight quadricep muscles),  and lengthening and strengthening my hip abductors. These muscle groups have caused me myriad physical problems over the years, from knee and hip pain to debilitating lower back pain and instability, and I want to make a change. I also want to better understand my specific body mechanics to prevent injury, exercise more mindfully, and understand why I have the limitations I might.

Looking at it from this perspective, it appears that my approach to yoga is entirely physical, but I’d have to disagree. I’m not doing yoga to look good: I’m doing yoga to feel good. The focus might be on physically feeling good–but how can one focus on deepening their understanding of their body without also deepening their knowledge of their self? I can’t approach my body without also examining how different things make me feel or think, or what they make me think about. I think that if your approach to yoga is mindful, even if highly physical, you can’t get away from its more mental/emotional aspects. Perhaps that is why its so beautiful: you go in looking for one thing and end up finding dozens of others.

I would never have arrived here if I hadn’t started doing those cardio videos. If I hadn’t started running or horseback riding again. When I divorce myself from the physical aspect of yoga, I lose touch with it altogether. Each of us is different, and each of us who approaches yoga does so for different reasons. For me, it’s very physical. For others, it’s highly spiritual. But my practice is no cheaper or less genuine–I simply have other activities that are more spiritual for me: writing, drawing, spending time with horses, or on/near the water, or in the woods. I have always been dedicated not only learning about the history and philosophy as yoga as a whole, but to learning about the poses, their purposes and anatomy and even their stories or myths, and I am dedicated to doing them well, and safely. I am dedicated to practicing yoga to enhance my physical experience of the world, but also for quiet time spent alone with just myself–my skin, bones, muscles, and nerves, and my racing mind and often intense emotions. Yoga brings me into my body unlike anything else, and my thoughts and emotions are a part of my body, and they might feel different than a tight hip flexor, but they still produce a sensation–just as long as I’m quiet and attentive enough to detect it.

When I approach yoga in a way aimed to make my body simply feel and work better, I am more able to assess what I need to challenge and then go ahead and challenge myself. I have my cardio videos and running for physical fitness. I have horses and woods and water and art and poetry  for my spiritual fitness. I have teaching for my service and mental acuity. I have journaling for deep reflection. So when I simplify yoga, when I make it about just one thing–that’s when it becomes about so much more. When I approach it softly, I’m more able to make it challenging. When I make it physical, my mind and heart relax and open and feel things in new ways. When I make it about feeling better, I want to keep doing it, and everything else that comes along with it. And this is what makes me healthy, varied, creative, energized, balanced, and more willing and able to approach challenges and grow both as an individual and a collective member of the human race and planet Earth.

How could I not love this practice? It is so many things, all rolled into one, and coated in a delicious, sticky buttercream frosting that helps keep me attached to other healthy practices, be they physical, mental, or emotional. Sometimes, I am certain there are also hundreds of multi-colored sprinkles, everywhere. This is my philosophy. Yours or hers or his might be totally different than mine, but as long is works for you or them, then it doesn’t matter. I’m no expert, but I think this ideology can even be applied to books written by experts. We all share so much, and yet we all differ, always. We can learn from others, but we don’t have to adopt everything they say–there are, after all, thousands of different ways to be and do anything. If we are always too busy trying to do things the right way, then we deny the world its experience of us, doing things our own unique way.

This philosophy, of course, does not apply to everything 😉

That’s all for tonight!

Love, KD

(Above photo taken in Forsyth Park, Savannah Georgia, March 2016!)

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