Your legs will hold you, and other lessons from yoga

Yoga has been so rewarding psychologically, as well as physically. No doubt you are imagining a middle-aged mom putting on expensive Lycra gear to meditate on the wisdom of “live laugh love.”

It’s not quite that! It’s more that the things that yoga demands of my body are instructive, and I can’t help extrapolating them into larger ideas about life. (Laughing and loving are on their own, however.)

Here are some of the more useful ideas that yoga has been helping me internalize, even during the last few weeks when I’ve been too sick to do anything more physically challenging than open a cough drop wrapper: 

It’s okay to take up space. This addresses two struggles: Being okay with taking up space, and being okay with finding value in an idea so clichéd as “it’s okay to take up space.” Every single female friend I have needs to learn both these things. This is where shavasana comes in handy. My goal is to lie there until the dog feels uncomfortable, and at least temporarily not to care about the crud on the rug, the grime on the ceiling, or the floaters in my eyeballs. It’s hard. But it’s made it easier to sit in adoration and do nothing. 

Your life is more interrelated than you realize. Very often, we’ll be holding a pose and the instructor will suggest turning your toes up, twisting your quads outward, or just looking up. And darned if it doesn’t turn on some entirely other, apparently unconnected part of your body. You can almost see the anatomy chart with the affected area traced out in red, all connected. And this happens in life, in general, more often than you may expect, if you have enough mental stillness to recognize the connection. Change one little thing — how you respond to some habitual irritant, whether or not you challenge thoughts that come into your head, what you do first thing in the morning — and it may light up whole, apparently unrelated areas of your life. It’s our own life and our own bodies, and our own mind/body connections, and yet so much of what goes on is mysterious to us. It’s worth it to do some experiments and see what seemingly small adjustments you can make. You may have more control than you realize. 

Transitions don’t have to be graceful. A lot of yoga is about getting from one position into another, and the instructor makes it look easy, but I do not, because it is not easy for me. But why should it be? Transitions are the hardest state to be in. They are inherently unstable. It’s too much to ask of yourself that you should be changing from one thing to the other and also look good doing it. Just focus on getting there without getting hurt, and you’re doing well.

Shaking is normal and functional. The instructor I follow often says “you may feel shaking and quaking,” either when we’re in a difficult balance pose, or when we’ve held a pose for a long time and it’s starting to be a strain. Then she says, “This is good news. It means your muscles are doing their job.” It’s always a relief to hear this. The shaking and quaking is your muscles rapidly compensating for you almost falling over. It’s not actually a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of functionality. It’s your body catching you, over and over and over again. Sometimes that’s how staying up happens: By almost falling over, over and over and over again. 

Relatedly: Balance comes from strength. I used to associate things like compromise, composure, and moderation with weakness and a lack of passion. Sometimes that’s the case; but sometimes it’s much more about strength, and about having built up a whole set of little, interdependent muscles which work together to maintain balance. Sometimes part of that strength includes knowing that other people see you as unfeeling, but continuing on in what you think is best, because it’s how you can maintain balance in your life. That also comes from strength.

Sometimes you push, sometimes you pull, sometimes you just let gravity do the work. When we’re in a pose or in a stretch or release position, the instructor will give us various directions for how to get the results we want, based on what we’ve been doing, what kind of shape we’re in, and how it feels. She acknowledges that, for some people, simply sitting in a certain position is an achievement, and should be honored. But for some people, or on some days, you can add more pressure, and there are various ways of doing this. It’s not about getting into a certain position; it’s about what’s actually happening in your specific body. This in itself is a useful lesson, especially as I recover from covid, and things that were easy last month are very hard again. And I appreciate the reminder that, sometimes, if you want to feel a stretch, you don’t have to exert effort or pressure. Sometimes you don’t have to do anything but wait, and circumstances will stretch you. (Catholics sometimes talk about working on accepting difficult circumstances they can’t change, rather than taking on new penances for Lent, but it’s a principle that can be applied anytime.) 

Flexibility comes in stages. I’m not very naturally flexible, in any way: physically, mentally, or otherwise. But I’m often more flexible than I realize, as long as I take it slowly — and I don’t just mean “over the course of months, with practice.” For instance, if I bow over my legs and breathe with that for a few breaths, then maybe I can creep forward a few inches, then breathe, then gain a little more ground, and so on. I’m more flexible than I think, as long as I don’t try to get there instantly. If there’s somewhere you need to get (or somewhere you need someone else to get!), you likely need to let yourself do it in increments, gradually, patiently, a few breaths at a time, with rest in between.

You can try again next time. The first time I tried crow position (standing on your head, with your knees balanced on the back of your arms), I couldn’t do it at all, and I was so upset and discouraged. But it kept turning up, and I kept trying it, and . . . I’m still pretty terrible at crow, but I’m much better at being okay with not being great at crow, which is a much more useful skill than standing on my head. There are very few things that we truly only get one shot at. There are many, many things that we can get better at if we accept that it will take time and practice and patience and a sense of humor to learn. 

Strength comes from endurance, persistence, and resistance, not violence. I used to think cardio was everything, and if I wanted to be strong and fit, I had to throw myself around and end up sweaty and exhausted, or it wouldn’t count. That never worked, but I kept trying. Well, I think I have built stronger muscles in six months of yoga than at any other time of my life. And I do sweat, but it’s been mostly a matter of carrying my own body weight, maintaining poses for longer than I want to, and pushing back against the ground and the wall in my own living room. Make of it what you will. 

Your legs will hold you. Frequently, when we’re in a difficult pose and want to get out of it, the instructor will reassure us that our legs will hold us. Raise your hand if you’ve had a rough year, and a rough other year before that. Yeah. More than once, I’ve had this phrase come into my head: Your legs will hold you. It acknowledges two things: That what I’m doing right now is hard; and that I am already strong. I can look down and see that, indeed, I have not fallen down. Sometimes just seeing that is enough to keep me going a little bit longer. 

I have tried several different yoga instructors, including the fabled Adriene, and I vastly prefer Julia Marie Lopez. I talk more about her approach here. I did her 30 Day Yoga For Weight Loss course twice, which is on Amazon Prime, then her Couch to Confident 14 Day Yoga Challenge, also on Prime, which hones some yoga skills, and smattering of a few other courses, and then, after  sampling several other free yoga instructors, I started paying the monthly fee to subscribe to Wellness Plus by Psychetruth so I could do her 30 Day Power Up! For Strength and Confidence. These are mostly longer classes, some almost an hour, and I was doing great until I got covid, boo. I’m slowly, shakily starting up again and taking lots of breaks. She’s a very good teacher. 

I can’t believe how much I like yoga

Yoga story! Who wants to hear my yoga story? 

The short version is: I used to be a runner. Then some muscle and gait problems caught up with me, and my hip started to hurt so much, I could barely walk. So I was looking for something non-jarring to keep me active while I slowly healed with physical therapy. I randomly chose yoga because it looked easy, and was amazed to discover I love it, it’s the perfect exercise for me, and I hope to do it for the rest of my life. 

Disclaimer: I’ve only ever followed one instructor, someone named Julia Marie Lopez whose videos are currently on Amazon Prime. (They are also on YouTube.) All my experience with yoga are from her classes, and I’ve only been following them for a few months.  

Here’s what I like about yoga:

It is a challenging, incredibly efficient workout. It uses every part of my body, and has made me much stronger, improved my posture, and has also improved my balance, which is something I didn’t realize needed improving (apparently it seemed normal to tip over while putting on pants or socks). I noticed a big difference during my recent renovations projects that involved a lot of getting up, getting down, reaching, scrambling, ducking, etc. I have so much more control and elasticity in my movements, it’s just easier to do all kinds of work. I expect gardening will be a different experience in the spring, too. 

It is just as effective as running for losing or maintaining my weight, together with my loose plan of modified intermittent fasting and counting calories. I started doing yoga just to do something, anything, until I could get back to “real exercise,” by which I meant something violent and sweaty. Changed my mind! I do often break a sweat with yoga, and I’m clearly building muscle and losing fat. But a lot of it a subtle, isometric, and efficient, so you don’t necessarily feel like you’re being wrung out like an old rag. 

It has shaped my body amazingly quickly. I’m 47 and was kind of resigned to just becoming more and more sack-like even if I lost more weight, but it turns out that I’m still kind of cute. And that’s all I’m gonna say about that. 

It’s been awesome for my mental and emotional state. I sleep better, and I feel energized and invigorated when I do yoga regularly, and it’s as effective as running for keeping migraines away. I have better posture, which feeds into a better mood. I apologize in advance for this, but at the end of a class, I feel like all my fluid-filled sacs have been replenished. Seriously, it’s just easier to be chill and even-tempered and confident when I get my yoga in regularly. I feel more put together as a person. This probably has something to do with lymph, but who knows. 

It’s fun, which I was not expecting. There’s lots of variety, lots of different modes of action, and the class flies by. It keeps my attention in a way that no other form of exercise has (and I have tried MANY many different kinds of workouts).  When I was running, I always craved that state where I would forget I was running and my body would enter a lovely automatic flow. With yoga (at least as I’ve done it so far), it’s kind of the opposite: You’re hyper-focused on the physical experience, and you get a lot of satisfaction out of achieving it. And you know, it’s kind of like playing. How often does a 47-year-old housewife get to be a warrior, or a cactus, or a swan? This is not something I realized I wanted to do, but now I know. I also very much enjoy how non-western some of the poses feel. It’s cool to be doing things with my body that just aren’t part of my normal body movement vocabulary. I also like learning words in a language that I’m completely unfamiliar with. 

I have not gotten even a single demon. (Yeah, this was a bit of a concern for me. More about this later.)

Now some specifics about this series. 

As I said, the videos I’ve been following are by Julia Marie. First I did her 30 Day Yoga for Weight Loss challenge, and today I’m finishing her Couch to Confident 14-Day Yoga Challenge, both of which are on Amazon Prime. They are thirty-minute classes, and there is quiet mood music playing throughout all the class. She has several more courses on Prime as well, but I may just go back and re-do these when I’m done. I think you can pay to follow live videos on her site. The classes are half an hour each, and the Weight Loss ones have little bonus chats with advice about losing weight (which I skip, because it seems to be stuff I already know). The Couch to Confident series is about getting more proficient at various yoga practices. 

I like her overall approach very much. I went into it never having done a single bit of yoga in my life, and she does an excellent job of easing you into familiarity and proficiency with the various poses, and explaining exactly what you’re supposed to be feeling, and how to correct if it you’re experiencing something amiss. Some of the poses are pretty subtle, and it looks from the outside like you’re doing it right, but you need to make an interior, isometric shift that makes a significant change in your experience. 

This is fascinating to me — because of the newness of the practice itself, and also because of her skill in describing bodily gestures and sensations. I don’t know what most yoga instructors are like, but I’ve certainly tried taking classes from other fitness instructors who are not this articulate, and it’s so frustrating, trying to play catch-up to what you see on the screen. I have a lot of trouble following left/right body commands. With this instructor, though, I rarely feel confused. Even if I can’t perform the pose, I understand what it is. (She does occasionally fill up some long spaces with talk, probably to take your mind of the discomfort of holding the pose, and a few times I’m pretty sure I caught her starting a sentence that she had no idea how she was going to end. It was suspenseful for a few seconds, but she pulled through!) 

She’s encouraging, but not patronizing, and it’s more or less a dignified experience overall. That means a lot to me, because I get embarrassed and discouraged easily.  She’s pretty open about not liking certain poses or actions, and being okay with that, but also honoring your body’s limitations, and being content with doing what you’re ready to do on any particular day. There’s no “oooh gurl, feel that burn, it hurts so good” stuff, but I still end up feeling motivated to try hard to do the best I can, because I usually end up feeling so dang good at the end of the class. She gives brief pep talks about the importance of making time for yourself, and allowing yourself to take up space, and I didn’t think I needed to hear that, but I did. I also kind of rolled my eyes at the part where you spend a few seconds in fetal pose before getting up and starting your day again, but you know what? Now I do it. Because if you can be a fetus for thirty seconds, why would you not? I even did the class that was just about resting, because I figured she must know what she’s talking about. (My normal approach would be “aw, screw this, lady, don’t waste my time!” so the fact that I listened to her will give you some idea of how much respect I’ve gained for her.) 

There is some stuff that is too hard for me. She’s very good about suggesting a modification, if you’re not feeling up to it (or, as she phrases it, “if [such-and-such] isn’t available to you today”). In a few cases, I just skipped a whole class and did an easier one, and then returned to the challenging one when I was feeling more ambitious. 

For instance, she started doing this, and I just noped right out of it, stopped the video, and went back to an easier class. A few days later, I was ready to try this pose, and I did it! I didn’t look cute, but I did it.

I was joking when I said earlier I was afraid I might get a yoga demon, but I am also Catholic and do not want to participate in something that could be an expression of a different religion, whether that’s Hinduism or Buddhism, or some kind of nameless New Age spiritual practice. What I have learned is that yoga, as it’s practiced in the United States, is actually a quite recent invention, and not an ancient religious practice at all. However, modern or not, there is most certainly such a thing as yoga that invites you to participate in spiritual practices that are foreign to Christianity. What we do with our minds matters, so I get a little annoyed at Catholics who scoff at the idea that any yoga class could possibly be spiritually harmful or inappropriate. I would not take a yoga class that included a spiritual element. (That includes yoga classes that try to be explicitly Christian yoga, because that’s just weird. Just exercise! Or, do whatever you want, I don’t care.) 

This particular class, though, is almost entirely about physical exercise, breathing, and occasionally spiritually neutral emotional things like gratitude or calm. She very occasionally slips in some quasi-spiritual stuff, and I just ignore it. She says bring your thumbs to your third eye, I think, “Forehead, though.” She says to close your eyes and express gratitude toward the spirit of whatever, I think, “Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But it honestly very rarely comes up, at least in the classes I’ve done so far. It’s usually just about breathing, muscles, where to look, where to shift your weight, what to do with your fingers and toes, and so on. 

She also mentions some stuff that may or may not be medically accurate. I don’t know what she means by “shadow side of the heart,” so I just ignore it. She mentions what effect breathing and stretching and being upside down has on your body, and I have no idea if she knows what she’s talking about or not. I’m not in it to learn about biology. I see that it’s making me feel better and be stronger, so if she says get on the floor and be a pigeon, I’ll do that.  

The weight loss classes incorporates some HIIT (high intensity interval training), so you will be doing mostly yoga, but also some classes that have terrible things like bicycle crunches and mountain climbers and even burpees; but she keeps it quick and doesn’t make you do endless repetitions. She also tends to count in breaths, rather than in repetitions, which makes it more tolerable, somehow. And I have to admit, it works really well. 

Anyway, about my hip. The physical therapist said that my glute and core muscles were weak, and I was compensating for them by using some muscles I wasn’t supposed to be using, which was putting strain on my hip. Or something. The solution was to do some boring, unpleasant exercises to strengthen my glutes and my core. 

WELL, guess what yoga does? At first I was doing my PT exercises and then yoga, but now I’m just doing yoga, especially yoga with a lot of planks, and my hip is feeling fine. Yoga is not a substitute for real physical therapy, but it’s great for maintaining the gains I made in PT.

I use an exercise mat and occasionally a yoga block. The “Couch to Confident” class has one session where you need a roller, which I don’t have; but you could easily get along through both classes just using a mat. I recommend wearing a close-fitting top, because you spend a lot of time upside-down.

And that’s it! Happy to answer any questions, although I only know what I’ve seen and learned in these videos. 

Image is a screenshot from Episode 31 of 30 Day Yoga for Weight Loss with Julia Marie