Thirty Days, Thirty Different Classes

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We just finished another 30-day challenge here at BYP. Every year, I keep saying, “Every challenge is different.” If I am really get down to the meat of it, every day is what is actually different.

The day before the challenge I got really serious with myself. If I can go to yoga, then I should. Don’t skip class just because the challenge starts tomorrow. So I practice Sunday and Monday before we started.

Day One: Man, I am strong.

Day Two: Ugh. I am so glad I know that I can do this. That I’ve done this before. That I will get through this month.

Day Three: Gahd! Why do I do these every year?

Day Four: I usually take six classes a week. Why am I sore after just five days?

Day Five: I’m fine. I’ve got this.

Day Six: I don’t like to do yoga on Sundays. I want to sit in bed drinking tea. Wow. This Sunday morning class has great energy. No wonder people take the Sunday classes.

Day Seven: Holy heavens, I am SORE.

Day Eight: I mean, I’m really sore. Like my joints hurt. Tender to the touch.

Day Nine: Is this yoga even good for you? Maybe this challenge is damaging my joints.

Day Ten: EVERYTHING HURTS.

Day Eleven: Worst class I have had in years. YEARS. More tired and sore than when I had morning sickness.

Day Twelve: Come on. Is this a joke? Yesterday was my worst class in nine years and today, it was breeze. Everything felt 100% do-able. I guess that quote, “Don’t give up before the miracle” is true.

Day Thirteen: I think this yoga is killing me. Or maybe it is my kids who are trying to kill me. Why don’t they ever sleep? Don’t they like sleeping? Feeling rested?

Day Fourteen: As I drove in to the parking lot to the first tender rays of sunlight, I thought to myself, “If I weren’t on the challenge, I would honestly turn around and drive home right now. I don’t even care that I dragged myself out of bed at 5 am and drove all of the way in to town.” After class, I felt like a million bucks.

Day Fifteen: Why are there so many people here at six am? It is dark and cold.

Day Sixteen: Hey, my hip doesn’t hurt anymore. I can actually kick in Standing Bow.

Day Seventeen: Standing Bow feels great, but my Hands-to-Feet has gone backwards a couple of years. I haven’t locked my knees in weeks.

Day Eighteen: I think the yoga is the only reason I am surviving right now. Seriously, could someone sleep past 2 am?

Day Nineteen: I started this morning at -10, by Half Moon, I was back to zero. I am at least a +10 now.

Day Twenty: We have reached cruising altitude. I must say, I also learned a big lesson this week. During the challenge, I’ve had to take and teach a lot of the early bird classes. I usually stay up until about 11 pm each night and am exhausted and miserable the next day. Last night, I took a melatonin at eight o’clock, was asleep by nine and, get ready for this, was refreshed in the morning! I guess I’ve been creating my own personal hell. Not sure why it took my three weeks to figure it out, but I’m grateful for the lesson.

Day Twenty-One: Single digits, baby. By now, it’s gotten easy. It’s just what we’re all doing. #everydamnday It also helps that I’m getting more than five hours of sleep at night.

Day Twenty-two: I floated through today’s class. I wasn’t always 100% present, I know that, but we started breathing and the next thing I knew, we were doing Stretching and laying down for final Savasana.

Day Twenty-three: I worked 63 hours this week and was still able to make it to class every single day. I think coming to class is how I survived this week with grace.

Day Twenty-four: Full-on space case today. I started Standing Bow while the whole class was setting up the second set of Standing Head-to-knee. I set up Floor Bow instead of Full Locust. I kept hearing people laughing and wondering what the joke was about. Whatever it was, I didn’t have the mental grit to stay present today.

Day Twenty-five: I felt so strong today. From the first breath, I could feel how strong my abdominal and chest muscles were. I worked so hard in each set up to nail my alignment and depth that I spent most of each posture just holding it in stillness and listening to my breath. What an incredible feeling!

Day Twenty-six: I’m sleeping, I’m eating well, I’m stretching. Life is freakin’ grand.

Day Twenty-seven: I woke up and had a long conversation with my husband about how we could take today off and just do a double Tuesday. Thankfully, we came to our senses and got up off the couch after the Pats game and took the Sunday Sermon.

Day Twenty-eight: Right on time, two days before the start of my cycle, I walked into class with one of my normal outfits on. It didn’t fit right. The top was rolling down. I felt like I had a wedgie. “What makes you think this is a good outfit? It looks awful.” My stomach was sticking out. I felt terrible.

As we started the breathing, all I could think of was how uncomfortable my clothes were. And then we started Half Moon. As my body created those familiar shapes, I could see myself in the midst of all of my hormonal discomfort. It reminds me of this scene from Hook. “There you are, Peter.”

Day Twenty-nine: She-ra, Princess of Power is back! I worked so hard in this class I was high for hours after. My legs locked immediately in Hands-to-feet. I felt like Standing Bow was finally getting higher. I was rock-solid in Standing Head-to-knee. Yoga is SO FUN!

Day Thirty: Wow. This was a hard one. Sore, stiff, tired at the crack of dawn. In a funny way, I can’t believe it is already over. Where did 30 days go so quickly?

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I am Not Good in the Heat and Other Excuses

“I’d try hot yoga, but I’m not good in the heat.” I’ve heard that at least a hundred times or variations on the theme.

“I hate heat.”

“I can’t handle heat.”

“No, really, I hate the heat.”

“I tried it and I couldn’t handle the heat.”

I am the bearer of both good and bad news.

These are not reasons. These are excuses.

The good news is that now that you understand it is an excuse, you can take action. The bad news is that this is just an excuse and not a reason not to go to class.

The human body has a tremendously efficient and responsive thermoregulation system. Except in cases of illness, it does a wonderful job of constantly adjusting to changing external and internal temperature changes.

Your body is no different than any of billions of humans on the planet.

All along the equator, humans live in climates with a heat index much higher than a Bikram Yoga class. People survive Texas in the summer. Just a few decades ago, most did it without air conditioning. You, too, could survive there.

“But I am a special case….”

My friend, John, has a spinal cord injury that severed communication with his sweat glands. He cannot sweat. He uses a spray bottle to mist his skin when he gets hot and the water causes evapotranspiration to cool his body, just like yours. John can do hot yoga. You can, too.

Being in a hot yoga class is uncomfortable.

It’s hard to do yoga. It’s hard to look at yourself. It is hard to feel a body you have been trying to ignore for decades. You are hot and you think you might suffocate. You think your body just can’t handle it. These are thoughts. That doesn’t make them reality.

The secret to it all is, you can do it. You can show up and learn to breathe and focus on your body and not your mind. You can acclimate to the heat and take it one breath at a time and become more comfortable in your body. You can learn to do what you can today and not what you think you should be able to do by now, goldangit! You can become more comfortable in this moment, even if this moment is uncomfortable.

“I am not good in the heat” is a phrase that means “I am not comfortable being uncomfortable,” and this is normal. The human brain is designed to avoid discomfort. Within a fraction of a second, your body can classify any sensation as one to avoid or to seek. Before you even have time to rationalize, your mind will lead you toward avoidance.

If you are chased by a tiger, Avoid! Avoid! Get away and get safe. If you don’t want to take out the trash, well, its time to learn to control the mind and get the job done.

Reason, logic and patience are all gifts of our higher brain function. We can use our brains to either help ourselves in the moment or to hurt ourselves. It is the self-awareness that yoga brings that helps us to experience the present moment and act from a place of understanding and reason.

This is one of the greatest gifts of a hot yoga practice. We train over and over, pose by pose, to pause and to breathe in conditions of challenge and discomfort. We learn to quiet the mind, control the breath and listen to the body. “Am I safe? Am I okay?” we ask our bodies over and over in class.

When the answer is yes, we induce neuro-plasticity and retrain our brains not to fidget, hold our breath, or increase our heart rate under stress. This is why, in scientific testing, yogis have shown significant reductions in the stress hormone cortisol. This is why so many yogis report that yoga “reduces stress” even though their lives are as stressful as others.

Here are some other excuses, parading as “reasons”:

  • I am too old.
  • I am inflexible.
  • I am too fat.
  • I can’t.
  • Yoga hurts people.
  • I have __fill in the blank__ injury.
  • I am tired.
  • I have __fill in the blank__ disease.
  • I don’t have time.
  • My family needs me.
  • I don’t know what I’m doing.
  • I can’t afford it.

These excuses are all of the exact reasons that you need to do yoga. These are all factors in your life that yoga will help you heal from or deal with. I have never met a yoga studio owner who wouldn’t accept work/study or trade for yoga. If you are truly too busy to do yoga, you had better get to class before you die.

If you have seen yourself in one of those excuses, it may have started a diatribe in your head against me and how I don’t know what I’m talking about or, worse, about you and what a loser you are to have made an excuse.

You are not a loser; you are a human. While I take responsibility for saying some things that may have made you uncomfortable, I am not sorry in the slightest. That’s my job. I have made a career of helping people find comfort in their lives through uncomfortable acts and facts. I paid for the mirrors, but you’ve gotta do the work.

The payoff of all of that work is big. Peace. Well-being. Freedom from pain. Health.

In the words of my teacher, “You deserve to have the best life. I feel cry when I say that.” I feel a little cry myself, now that you mention it….

sara headshotSara Curry is the Owner and Director of Bikram Yoga in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She is Vice President of Seacoast Area Teachers of Yoga in Action, a non-profit that improves accessibility of yoga to traditionally under-served populations. She is also one of the creators of the Sober Yogis yoga and recovery program.

Why do some yoga poses hurt?

Yoga should never hurt.  

Your back is gonna hurt like hell.

Ask any teacher and they’ll give you a strong argument about why one of those answers is correct. With the myriad of bodies and experiences we see on a daily basis, a yoga teacher learns quickly that as we think there is only one right answer, we couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I like to say, yoga should never hurt you. It should never be damaging to your body. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt sometimes.

How do you know when yoga is healing or hurting?

We often confuse pain and stretching

Yoga is all about getting to know you.  Your body. Your mind. Your Self. Much of our daily lives revolve around ignoring the way we feel so we can get through the day and get our work done. We ignore our aching hips on the two hour commute as much as we avoid movements that remind us of what it feels like to live in this body.

When we first start to move every part of our bodies in yoga, the sensations are unfamiliar and we can frequently categorize the uncomfortable sensation of stretching or moving a joint through full range of motion as pain.

Backbending when you haven’t done it in twenty years hurts. Clearing mineral deposits from your elbows hurts. Tensing up when you are trying to stretch hurts. Bringing back full range of motion to a hip that only sits in a chair or a couch hurts.

Ask yourself, is this pain or the sensation of stretching?  As a general rule, pain means stop and discomfort means go.

Sore muscles become stronger muscles

Muscles need stress to become stronger. One of the side effects of that stress is delayed onset muscle soreness. While it is certainly possible to over-exert yourself in yoga, DOMS is a natural part of increasing strength. This form of discomfort initiates within 24-48 hours of exertion and should resolve itself within three days.

Tolerable sore muscles mean progress. Don’t be scared.

Cramps

Our brains are designed to seek avoidance of anything that causes us discomfort. Cramps are no exception to this rule. Inadvertent and strong contraction of muscles in a cramp can be abruptly painful. It causes us to immediately cease the activity and often violently avoid the sensation.

There are three main causes of cramps, excluding medications and preexisting conditions:

  1. Dehydration. This is a serious condition and is accompanied by a host of other symptoms like the inability to uncurl the fingers, vomiting, confusion and difficulty breathing. Individuals who are dehydrated need immediate intervention. This is not the cramp you get during cobra.
  2. Mineral deficiency. These cramps are generally not experienced during exercise. Nighttime leg cramps can often be attributed to a deficiency or imbalance in calcium, magnesium or potassium. Talk to your healthcare provider about an appropriate supplement if you experience nighttime cramping.
  3. Exercise intensity. Dr. Martin Schwellnus proposes that as you increase the intensity with which you are using a muscle, it can take time for the brain and body to synchronize, resulting in over-contraction of the muscle. This occurs particularly when the muscles are fatigued. This period is known as “altered neuromuscular control” and was originally theorized because studies have shown no correllation between hydration and electrolyte levels with muscle cramping in extreme athletes.

The first two causes of cramping rarely apply in a  yoga class. This leaves us with muscle fatigue and exercise intensity. We often seek muscle fatigue to get a muscle to “let go” before stretching it, so the cramp is a sign we are on the right track, just maybe a little to far too fast. Deepening muscle strength through increased length or intensity of contraction can, at times, be accompanied by cramps.

As unpopular as this may make me, I am a fan of cramps in class. It means I’m doing something new. Going somewhere I haven’t before. Finding new depth or strength I didn’t know I had.

Keep your breathing regular and slowly decrease your intensity and watch that cramp melt away. In a nutshell, cramps in class are not dangerous. Don’t panic.

Rusty hinges, adhesion and scar tissue

After we finish development, it is use it or lose it with range of motion and flexibility in the body. In our adult lives, we sit or stand in the same position for hours at a time, sometimes a majority of our day. It is a rare individual that uses their body through full range of potential movement each day. Most people use much less than even half of potential movement.

Joints that aren’t used through full range of motion are the perfect place for calcium oxalate crystals to deposit. This is a painful form of arthritis. As a rolling stone gathers no moss, so a moving joint keeps surfaces clear from crystalline arthritis. Clearing mineral deposits from the joints is not always a pleasant process. Take your time. It will get better.

Muscles that remain tightened in the same position for long periods of time can form hydrogen bonds between the muscle fascia that get more dense with time. Stretching those long-bonded filaments of connective tissue, like moving a crystallized joint, can feel much more intense than simple “stretching”. Again, move slowly, but don’t be afraid.

Scar tissue forms when the body heals from an injury. Scar tissue cannot be eliminated, but it can be remodeled. Through movement and stretching, one can realign the collagen fibers in the lumpy scar tissue so that it is both stronger and more plastic. Through this process, the scar tissue begins to act more like the original, flexible tissue that was in place before the injury. The older the scar tissue, and the more trauma to the area, the more uncomfortable this remodeling process can be.

On the mat, the yogi should practice with awareness and patience. When we want to achieve yoga “goals” too quickly, we can cause injury. Take your time. Move with awareness, and be patient. Start where you are and build strength and range of motion from there.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the condition in which the protective cartilage in a joint is worn down, eventually to painful bone-on-bone contact within a joint. Osteoarthritis generally forms from uneven tissue-loading or repetitive movement. There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but yoga is a great tool to help strengthen the soft muscle tissue around the joint and reduce the amount of painful bone-on-bone contact.

In the practice of yoga, individuals with this condition should focus on precise alignment of the skeleton in poses and building strength around the joint. Range of motion exercises are helpful because they help palpate the circulation around the joint, maintaining and improving joint health. Individuals with osteoarthritis must practice to tolerance only.

Once the painful bone-on-bone compression is felt, going deeper will only exacerbate the wear and tear on cartilage and bone. This is not a pain to try to tough your way through. Through practice and attention you will find the places where you need to stop before you reach the pain.

Chronic Illness

Fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other autoimmune disorders are often noted for unsourced, chronic pain. Practicing yoga with these conditions hurts. That’s the cold, hard truth.

The good news is that yoga also miraculously relieves the long-term pain. There is no clear explanation of why, but moving the body with awareness, increasing circulation, improving alignment and strength all help to eliminate the seemingly endless pain. Read more about Joseph Encinia’s inspiring recovery from RA.

Other forms of chronic illness are also notorious pain producers. Sometimes it is being unable to move for long periods of time or the way we hold ourselves in response to the illness that causes pain.

Take your time and move slowly, but get started with yoga. The body functions best when it is being used and yoga is one of the safest ways to find the limits of your body in any condition and begin to improve your health.

Chronic Misalignment

Duck-footed. Hunch back. Sway back. Ding-toed. Flat foot. Forward head.

These common misalignments are not in the original design template of the human body. “My father was duck-footed” is not a genetic precursor for you to turn your toes out. The human leg was not designed to be used in that way. We learn postural habits from our surroundings just like we learn syntax and social cues.

Some of these misalignments are caused by accident, injury or habit. You may have developed a habit of jutting the ribcage forward at the beach to appear thinner or have a forward head from working at a computer desk all day.

The most insidious component of chronic misalignment is uneven tissue load. Take this valgus, or abnormal rotation, of the heel below. Misalignment of the heel causes adjustment of the bones of the entire leg, hip and eventually the pelvis and spine. Uneven load in the tissues over time leads to failure of the muscle or tendon fibers. This flat foot might just be causing your migraine headaches.

As you work to change chronic misalignment, you may experience discomfort and pain. This is part of the process of realigning bones, strengthening muscles and healing connective tissue. With this type of pain, it is important to have a strong team of therapists helping you through the process to ensure you stay safe, progress at a rate appropriate for you and practice with a depth and attention to alignment that is not causing you further damage.

A good team includes experienced and educated yoga instructors, massage and physical therapists, maybe even a chiropractor, doctor or sports medicine specialist. Check out Dr. Mike Evan’s video on chronic back pain for more information on diagnosing chronic pain, creating a team and developing an attitude that will help you to heal.

You have bad alignment in class

I know it. You wanted me to say something nice. You expected something more supportive, and all you got was tough love. Get ready for more real talk.

Your alignment sucks.

I hope that is bold enough to get you to make a change. Your teacher said your foot should be pointing straight up over the top of your head in Standing Bow. Yours is pointing over at a boat moored across the river in Kittery and you are surprised your sacroiliac injury isn’t getting better?

You want to go higher in floor bow, so you leg your legs spread three feet wide. Yoga must be bad for knees.

You want to come down lower in half moon, so you turn your chin, twist your spine and collapse your chest. I guess yoga causes neck injuries.

You keep losing the grip, so you use a towel to augment your hand strength. Ah! It’s yoga, not tennis that causes rotator cuff injuries. Phew!

Or are your ready to take responsibility for your actions and use yoga to change your body and your life? There are very specific reasons for the way your yoga teachers cue the postures. The sequence of the cues is critical. The words we use intentionally to create specific actions in your body to keep you safe, and to help you maximize the therapeutic benefit of your practice.

Here are the steps to achieve a healing practice.

  1. Frequency: You have to show up. Regularly. Not once a week you show up and work so hard you pass out, puke twice and have to go home and take a nap. Regular, consistent, dedicated practice. You are worth it.
  2. Accuracy. Alignment is the first priority in any pose. Even if you can only move one inch into the pose. With no alignment, there is no therapy.
  3. Intensity. Only when you are showing up regularly, and executing the postures with accuracy and precision in your alignment, do you add the intensity and depth. Intensity is the privilege of the mindful practitioner.

Intensity is the privilege of the mindful practitioner.

Injury

Injuries happen in life. We slip on the ice, aggravate a shoulder playing tennis or get too aggressive in a pick up basketball game. With few exceptions, a modified practice can be continued with an injury, but pain will be an important guide.

Last year, we had a student practicing with a broken leg. She did her practice in a chair for the standing poses and elevated the leg on the floor. After two weeks, her doctors told her the leg was ready for weight-bearing. After four weeks, the fracture was invisible on an x-ray. Her doctors were blown away by the speed of recovery for a woman in her fifties.

One of the main reasons yoga helps you to recover from an injury is blood flow. Increased circulation helps support and speed repair and rehabilitation. The tricky part is not letting a misguided ego tell you to go for it in floor bow even though your shoulder bursitis is bothering you.

The most important action to take when you have an injury is speaking. Talk with your doctor or physical therapists when they analyze or diagnose you. Ask questions like, what types of movement should I avoid? And, what movement should I do to rehabilitate from this injury? Many students bring in a printout of the poses they have questions about. Get specific and don’t leave without an answer. You may be the first patient they have had who really wanted to know.

Talk to your teachers. Any well-educated teacher has yoga therapy and yoga for the infirm in their training profile. They can’t help you with your whiplash if they don’t know your neck is bothering you. You are not a yoga expert, so you may not realize that forward folds are aggravating your herniated discs.  You might be great at aerodynamics or flag football. Let your teachers share their expertise and experience with you.

I can’t tell you how many students have complained that an injury was not healing and when I asked them to take it slowly or avoid a particular movement temporarily have replied with, “Well, I like to push,” with a cheeky smile. Apparently, you also like to stretch a six-week recovery out to eighteen months.

Bones take four weeks to heal. Muscles take six weeks. Connective tissues can take up to eight weeks. The average woman recovers from a common yoga injury to the hamstrings tendon in eighteen months. Talk to your providers and listen to your body so you don’t end up in unnecessary pain for years.

Over-Aggressive Practice

This could be a sub-section of the injuries category. Like all physical activities, you can create injury in yoga. Yoga has tremendous therapeutic potential. It can also cause harm.

We see it and want to achieve it. We know if we work hard, we can pull ourselves up by our  bootstraps yoga mats and live the American yoga dream.

I hope you listen to what I am going to say next.

Too good is no good.

More is not always better for the human body. You might not be strong enough yet for headstand. Your body may not be genetically designed for full wheel. You can cause wrist injury by misalignment in handstand. Shoulderstand is not for people who have osteoporosis.

This kind of pain is the devil in the world of yoga. This kind of pain is not the walk-through-the-fire-and-emerge-clean kind of pain. This isn’t the suffering that leads to redemption. This is the antithesis of yoga: disunion of mind and body.

When you are in the posture, with healthy alignment, to the best of your ability today, that is the ultimate destination of yoga. It is meditation in it’s purest form: the mind in the body, one second at a time.

Take your time. Ask questions. Be patient. When we approach pain with awareness, we realize that in the words of the great Emmy Cleaves, “Pain is a gift.”

sara headshotSara Curry is a Bikram Yoga studio owner in Portsmouth, NH. A lifetime of back pain lead her to yoga at the turn of the millennia. The freedom and recovery she gained from yoga drives her daily practice and her determination to bring yoga’s healing potential to as many people as possible.

#findthe44percent

In 2012, Yoga Journal published the findings of their yoga market study revealing that over 20 million Americans practice yoga. This number represents less than 9% of the US population.

An astonishing 44% of Americans consider themselves aspiring yogis, or people who want to try yoga.

9% of Americans practice yoga. 44% want to try.

From this information was born the #findthe44percent project. After watching Kim Kardashian try to #breaktheinternet with her derriere, yoga studios all over the country decided to put the same effort into bringing awareness of yoga.

Driven by the therapeutic potential of the practice, yogis all over the country are using social media to try to #findthe44percent who haven’t found the time, the location or the courage to give yoga a shot.

Studios are running #findthe44percent promotions and posting articles on the web targeting new students.

Individuals in other lines of business have questioned the logic of competing yoga businesses promoting in tandem. Proponents of the movement beg to differ.

One of the foundational principles of yoga is aparigraha or non-grasping. By not trying to hold on to ideas, materials, wealth or possessions, one brings abundance to their life. “I have always believed that more yoga anywhere means more yoga everywhere,” says #findthe44percent founder Sara Curry. “I don’t care if it is at my studio or another or what discipline speaks to someone, as long as people are finding a way to a practice that can help them feel better and enjoy life more.”

“Maybe it is a little selfish, too,” said Curry. “People are a lot nicer after a good class. Can you imagine what traffic would be like if it was 50% post-savasana yogis?”

You can help, too. Ask your local studio about their 2015 #findthe44percent promotion.

Bring a friend to yoga and check in with #findthe44percent at your favorite studio.

Post an article you found suitable for fledgling yogis and tag it #findthe44percent.

Talk your mom into finally trying a class. Maybe you could win a month of unlimited yoga. #findthe44percent.