Friday, April 09, 2010

Before there was Yoga...(and After)

I have been very impressed with the tenor of recent discussions. A lot of really smart (a compliment, as far as I'm concerned), thoughtful responses, with much additional information to put in the mix. Very cool.

I'm struck by the variety of experience out there. Not that it should surprise me, but there are a lot of interesting back stories that I'm just getting a glimpse of: college majors, past career tracks, enthusiasms, impressive reading lists. It got me to thinking (don't it always) about what leads up to one's yoga "career" and what it was about yoga that was so compelling that we stayed. Some of it is obvious (stress-relief, fitness, improved health), but--of course--yoga moves in deep and subtle ways and there must have been something more personal that each of us responded to. Before there was yoga, there was something else and I want to know what it was...

So, I'll go first. My first yoga class was in the fall of 1989, in Philadelphia with Joan White, a long-time Iyengar instructor. It was also my first semester of grad school in Art History at the Univ. of Pennsylvania, and my first Big City experience as an adult. I was quite overwhelmed by Ivy Leaguers and the City of Brotherly Love and I'd heard yoga was good for stress, so I thought I'd try it out.

Of course, it was good for stress, but what caught my attention was Joan's rigor and her attention to detail. I liked the soothing pace of the class, but I also liked the right-way/wrong-way dichotomy. That I was there to learn "how" to do a pose and--even though it could be modified--there was a correct version and an incorrect version. Some of this came from Joan's adjustments, but some of it came from the fact that if you're out of alignment, you can't hold Tree Pose. Basic enough.

As a fish-out-of-water Midwesterner, I found this fairly strict presentation of the discipline very appealing. Here was something clear-cut, secure and regular. I could go to class, expect a straightforward sequence, and would feel better when I was finished. None of the "do I belong here" or "can I keep up" voices from the rest of my life at that time.

I guess that's why the basic Iyengar approach continues to resonate with me, altho I've found it a bit inflexible at times. I like the logic and structure. I know one thing will lead to the next and, as this progression unfolds, I will move deeper into the practice and into calm. I can rely on it. It's not that the rest of my life is super-chaotic, but my yoga practice feels like my protected, quiet center.

Before there was yoga there was a lot of nervous, unfocused energy. First Art History and then Costume Design. High-pressure deadlines out of my control, unpredictable personalities, excitement, drama, over-thinking (can you imagine?!?). Sequins. And that is still my tendency, but I have a remedy for the worst of it. And, when I moved back to Wisconsin, I replaced the really crazy life of show biz with that of a yoga teacher (and mother--but that's a bit more of the out-of-control drama).

So, for me, yoga offers Structure. A Voice that reminds me not to over-analyze and helps me focus the energy and settle down. Nothing fancy, not too much dogma, just asana and pranayama and the calm that follows. Common-sense yoga, if you will.

Your turn.


YogaforCynics said...

In a word: marijuana.

Anonymous said...

Interesting question.. I wish I could remember my first Yoga class.. but I don't. What I do remember is doing Yoga at a very young age with my mum in front of the T.V. with Karen Zebrof (ring a bell for anyone??) Then my mum would take me along with her to the classes that she taught and sit me in a corner of the room with some coloring books and toys and tell me not to make to much noise and sometimes I would do the posses and sometimes I would play. We would also spend many week-ends at the Shivanada Yoga center in Montreal which was SO beautiful and peaceful. They also had a children's summer camp that my brother and I attended a few times for the whole summer. The camp was wonderful but they did scar me a bit with a film about the slaughter house that all kids HAD to watch (ages 5 to 10), which depending on how u look at it was a good thing ( I think??) B/c I had never giving much thought to where our food came from ( as most kids don't ) but once I knew.... I've been a vegetarian ever since. I took a break from Yoga in my teen years but found it again in my late teens. I took 4 years of Iyengar Yoga but eventually I too found it a bit inflexible. Then a friend mentioned that they saw an ad for Yoga teaching certificate and it just made sense to me. That was in the late 90's when Yoga started to go "mainstream" and I've been teaching ever since. I've taken many different styles of Yoga so I find it hard to answer my students when they ask what style we are doing. So thats my story.. I am at a cross roads now as my Yoga classes are not doing as well as they once were and am considering going to teach for a large Yoga franchise that has recently open in my area.. I'm not thrilled with the whole corporate Yoga franchise ( any thoughts on that??) but they are doing so well that they are going to open a second "store" in the area.
Can't wait to read the other stories..
Love this blog... is one of my favorites!!

Jen said...

Great topic! I don't remember the name of my first yoga teacher or the style, but it was in a women's gym in Madison, Wi circa 1995. I had been a dancer until I went to college and realized I wasn't "good enough" to dance at the college level but wanted a creative way to be active with my body. So for awhile there was the rave scene. But when I wanted something more sane, I came back to yoga.

La Gitane said...

I remember yoga being vaguely on the horizon of my life for a long time... A friend in high school raved about it, and I tried it once then. It was definitely on the fringes of my awareness in University, I vividly remember someone taking me through some poses on a camping trip.

But the moment I really connected with yoga was after University, when I was volunteering in West Africa. I was staying with a friend in a tiny, mainly Muslim village, the kind of place where a white woman couldn't just put on some shorts and go for a jog. I was going a bit stir-crazy, and my friend gave me Iyengar's Light on Yoga. Crazy pictures and all, right?

So I got up early, rolled a straw mat on the cement floor, and started one of the beginner's programs at the back of the book. At that time I couldn't even touch my toes and everything was so difficult for me. I remember trying chaduranga and being completely unable to get my body off the floor. ;) Little did I know that I'd be working on that for the next 6 years or so!

That was pretty much it - I did yoga every morning for a few weeks up there and I was hooked. I took classes until I was going 3 times a week, then started a home practice, then kind of fell into teaching.

Before there was yoga, there was body-image-illness, insecurity, depression, pot-smoking and drinking too much. Many other things have given me a push along the way but yoga has been a huge part of the journey. Now I feel emotionally stable (still a scatterbrain and prone to that Vata anxiety though), and connected with myself physically and spiritually.

The best thing about it all, for me, is that every day, I'm still evolving. My physical evolution is only a tiny reflection of the mental and spiritual evolution that is taking place thanks to yoga.

Lovely post!

Brenda P. said...

In that first yoga class I remember thinking "what the hell?!" as we attempted Half Moon away from the wall. How can anyone be expected to hold that?!?

What is also interesting is the evolution of one's practice. The high energy times, the quiet times, the I-am-so-sick-of-this-sequence times. And then there is that single, brilliant hour practice that resonates in so many ways and helps bring you back to center. I love those.

And weird realizations that come during meditation and pranayama. For me the the stillness is much harder than the work and, therefore, probably the most useful.

yoga/weed/yoga/weed...hmmm. At least you don't have to pre-order pizza for yoga munchies...

La Gitane said...

Amen to the comment about the stillness, Brenda... I am soooooo still struggling with that. Sigh. As you say, the work is harder so it must be more worth it!

Emma said...

I took my first yoga class three years ago. I was the typical cant-do-yoga-cant-touch-my-toes-not-flexible-enough person, but when I got a flyer for new classes in my neighbourhood, I thought "Why not give it a shot?". Signing up for classes was a huge step for me, I mean, me of all people, the shy, exercice hater, solitary book lover, in a yoga class with PEOPLE WHO MIGHT LOOK AT ME?

My teacher's name was Caroline, she used to be a dancer, and she taught Sivananda yoga. She had to cancel her Monday classes (mine) after a few months, docter's orders, but I kept practicing at home, once a week, dabbling in hatha and ashtanga. That was not a lot, but if I didn't do I would feel something was missing...

And I don't know what happened, it's like when you meet someone, you become friends and it's nice to have him (or her) in your life, but you're just friends. And then one morning you wake up and you realize you're actually madly in love with that person. That's what happened with yoga.

Since last year I have deepened my practice, not sticking to one style in particular but practicing mostly vinyasa flow, and I can't imagine going back.

Of course I am more flexible (I am amazed at the body's possibilities and potentiel), and more toned, but I am also calmer, more optimistic, more detached, I'm just more :-)
I have come to realize that Caroline was a great teacher for me, in the few months I had classes with her I have taken more than I thought I had at the time, and although I am not in touch anymore, I am sending her now all my gratitude and thanks.

Becky said...

I'm from Philly & it was nice to read your yoga journey started there. Mine also did in college, and it's taken me to India.... :) I practice Isha Yoga now. It's so much more than I ever could have imagined yoga to be.

It's A Yoga Thang said...

I started with yoga philosophy as a pre-teen in the 80's and then in 1992, lit some insense, turned on some zen sounds, and put in a Kathy Smith Yoga Video. This was my practice until 2001 when I finally lived somewhere with a yoga studio. Iyengar resonates with me the most because my Vata craves grounding and stability, but I have enjoyed many other styles as well. OX

Christa Avampato said...

Hi Brenda,
I love the way you framed up this topic. For me, before there was yoga there was a lack of confidence, a feeling that I had to run faster and further so that I wouldn't miss out. Yoga helped me live comfortably and beautifully in my own skin.

Lisa Wallace said...

Oh wow, what a question...(and a hearty laugh to some of the really is a diverse group...)

This one is fairly easy for me though: meditation brought me to yoga. Ask what brought me to meditation and, well, I'll ask you if you've got time.

Basically, what it boils down to is that I've been going to yoga on and off (mostly the rec center/core won't say "bs" persay...but ya, you get the idea) for years. Then, about a year and a half ago I moved to a meditation and yoga center in Thailand and started to really focus on my meditation practice. It was a pretty heady practice to say the least, and last year we hired a yoga instructor-ashtanga-and I've been fortunate to have daily classes right outside my room. How could I pass it up? I started it because I was going kind of crazy just sitting, looking at a wall all day, I've stuck with it because it's grounded me (i.e. put me in my body) in ways I never dreamed I could ever be.

Interestingly enough, with the grounding/embodiment has come glimpses of the stillness. (Just say'n as one stillness-struggler to many others... :-) ) The yoga has seriously transformed my sitting practice in so many ways. You really can't have one without the other...well, you can, I'm just not convinced you'd get very far.

Among other things, it's also helped me get back on track (granted it's been a year, but still) after I damaged some nerves pretty badly in my leg.

Now I'm addicted and I don't see myself looking back!!

Yoga Thailand

Rosetta said...

Before there was yoga, there was an extremely stress-filled career as a publicist, then an attempt to use my powers for good and not evil as a publicist for non-profit organizations (which never paid the bills), and since I already wasn't paying the bills, I figured I'd sell everything I still owned and train seriously as a dancer (though I knew I was far too old to ever be taken seriously). But, shockingly, I ended up making a living as a flamenco dancer and flamenco dance teacher at the same time that I began studying yoga (to try to rehabilitate myself from the dance injuries that inevitably ensued). Followed by yoga teacher training, and now teaching yoga at my dance studio. Whew!