Coming next week: Yoga for Athletes

A few weeks ago, I received a Facebook message from a friend inquiring about my Yoga for Athletes workshop. He said he had seen the flier, was interested in attending, but he had a few concerns. Not only was he worried that he wasn’t accomplished enough to be considered an “athlete,” but he felt anxious that he would feel out of place. “Unlike you and others in the class,” he said, “feeling better about me and working better with my body was something that came much later in life.”

First of all, let me be clear: you do not need to have earned any medals or set any records to be an athlete; if you know what Abby Warrior 3 Circlesore muscles feel like, if you’re familiar with pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, if you play or participate in a sport – no matter how un-competitively – you’re an athlete in my book. Secondly, “working with my body” and “feeling better about me” have not (and do not) always come easily to me.

It is true that I had an early start to athletics, and that I am, by most definitions a “good athlete.” When I was four, my parents enrolled me in dance classes in an attempt to burn off some (read: a lot) of my energy. When I was eight, they enrolled me in gymnastics in an attempt to preserve our furniture (which I had usurped as my own personal trampolines and balance beams). In middle school, I started running, hurdling and high jumping, and in high school, I ran cross-country and swam. Most of these things came naturally to me, and I defined myself largely by my athletic prowess. Then, at fourteen I was diagnosed with severe scoliosis, and sports were replaced by doctors’ appointments, back braces, and, eventually, surgery. My competitive energy had no athletic outlet, and so it turned against my body.

Before scoliosis, I had great control over my body. It did what I told it to do, and for the most part, it looked how I wanted it to look. With scoliosis, I suddenly felt out of control. I stretched, I strengthened, I tried to unbend, and still, my curves worsened. Back braces helped somewhat, but they were awful (imagine stuffing your torso scoli x-ray sideinto a section of PVC pipe each morning – then
staying there until you sleep). My parents and I read everything, tried everything, trusted everything, then cursed everything when none of it worked. So at age seventeen, I got surgery: eleven vertebrae were fused, and two stainless steel rods were placed alongside my spine, secured with 22 screws. Months passed, my bones healed, and soon enough I got back into sports. I took up Ultimate Frisbee, started running half and full marathons, and of course, started practicing and teaching yoga.

Most people who meet me now wouldn’t guess I have anything “wrong” with my body. Most people assume what my student assumed: that feeling good about myself and working well with my body came early and with relative ease. And when I tell most people about the rods, their first question is always, “Do you set off metal detectors??” (The answer is no, sorry.) Then they get more serious and ask, “So, can you feel the rods??” And while I always answer no, the answer is actually yes. But perhaps not in the way you think.

scoli x-ray backNo, I cannot touch the rods, and neither can you. No, you cannot look at my back and see outlines of metal debris. But yes, I can feel that my back doesn’t bend, and yes, I can feel what that means for my body.

When I take yoga classes with teachers I don’t know, I usually inform them of the rods. I also usually fold my shirt up – in case they forget, the scar is there to remind them: I might do my own thing, and this is why. I don’t do twists, I don’t do sidebends, and I don’t do backbends. It is not because I “have fear” as one teacher posited; it is because it is about as productive as you trying to twist or bend your forearm. And honestly, I am so used to the rods that they rarely frustrate me (just like you probably aren’t often frustrated by your forearm). I still have a “complete” yoga practice, my body still does what I want it to do, and for the most part, looks how I want it to look. I treat my body well, and it treats me as well as it can in return.

I am still a competitive person. I prefer winning to losing, and I prefer yoga poses that I can enter and hold gracefully to poses that I flail into and fall out of. But losing does not make me angry like it used to, and most of the time, flailing and falling just make me laugh.

When I talk about Yoga for Athletes with my friends and students, they are often surprised ragdoll pinkto learn that it’s not just a bunch of pushups disguised as chaturangas, or squat-thrusts disguised as vinyasas – it’s true that we athletic folk are often attracted to physically challenging classes, but perhaps that is not what we need. The same people are equally surprised to learn that Yoga for Athletes is not simply a collection of long-held stretches – indeed, too much stretching will leave the muscles slack and under-responsive. Sure, yoga taught me how to stretch my back and body in ways I thought I couldn’t, and that is useful. It also taught me that I can do a lot more things with my body than I thought I could, and that is wonderful. But above all, yoga taught me to pay attention, to find balance, to stop fighting against my body, and to start fighting with it. To me, this is what Yoga for Athletes is about.

Advertisements

Dear Abby

I received a “Dear Abby” in the mail yesterday; it was from me. I had written it on the last day of a yoga retreat I attended with my mother, just five weeks ago, and, like many things I do, I had forgotten about it. As I started reading, however, the feelings I had when I wrote the letter came back to me.

It was the end of a five-day respite from society, a break from my friends and family asking me, “So you’re done with grad school – what next?!” Prior to coming on the retreat, I had decided to move across the country to Portland, OR – big news, considering I had never lived more than an hour outside of Rochester, NY. I had thought this decision was momentous enough, but apparently everyone I spoke with wanted to know more: What would I do there? What if I didn’t get a job? How was I going to get to Portland? Was I sure I wanted to sell my car and most of my belongings? While I had once felt confident in my decision to move, these questions left me shaken. Perhaps I had not thought everything through; perhaps this was one of those ideas that sounded romantic and wonderful in theory, but in reality would leave me feeling foolish and desolate. But throughout the retreat, and especially as I wrote myself this letter, I calmed back down. Was every detail worked out? No. Was I sure that moving felt right? Absolutely.Dear Abby

To a degree, I wrote to myself, I revel in being unsettled – it gives me energy, keeps my looking forward, keeps me from falling asleep (literally and figuratively). But maybe, even in that unsettled state, I can find sure footing, and remember how soothing it can be to stand on the edge, water lapping at my ankles.

Three weeks into my Portland adventure, I have begun to find my footing. I am still what you might call “unsettled” – I spend the majority of my days job-searching, writing and rewriting cover letters and resumes, and asking myself what I want to do with my life. I have applied for Language Arts and Special Education jobs, jobs teaching yoga, am about to apply to AmeriCorps (again), and am considering applying for service jobs. I ask myself each day what my goal is: Do I want to work steadily toward my dream job now (owning and operating a yoga studio that caters to adults, kids, families, and athletes)? Or do I want to secure a steady, full-time income with benefits (through anything but self-employment)? Depending on my mood, my answer varies. And after reading my Dear Abby letter, I think this uncertainty is okay. I may not be settled, but at least I am not stagnant.

on the edgePsychologist Barry Schwartz discusses the idea of “The Paradox of Choice”: when we humans are faced with many options, rather than feel excited, liberated, and empowered, we often feel overwhelmed, paralyzed, and discontent. UrbanDictionary.com discusses a related phenomenon called “FoMo”: the Fear of Missing out, often exacerbated by seeing friends’ social media postings about what great lives they’re leading. And just last week The Telegraph took this concept further with the introduction of “MoMo”: the Mystery of Missing out – you know, when your friends don’t post their status every ten seconds and you’re forced to wonder if their lives are better than yours. With today’s barrage of choices and social media postings, it is easy to feel that we don’t have enough, that our lives aren’t exciting in comparison to someone else’s, that we should have chosen or acted differently. Rather than feel defeated by all this, however, perhaps we can feel exhilarated. The fact that there are so many jobs to have, goals to set, and people to meet is a beautiful thing, so why not take comfort in it? Complete stillness, like absolute zero, exists only in theory; it is the transitions, the restlessness, the uncertainty, that keep us moving.