Northern Nevada is a beautiful place to live if you enjoy the outdoors. With Lake Tahoe only a short drive away residents have the opportunity to be hiking, skiing, climbing, swimming, or biking within the hour. However, not everyone has the means or abilities for these specific activities or the desire to face the elements. If someone still wants to be active or is interested in living a healthier lifestyle there are other activities that can provide similar advantages. One perfect activity that provides great benefits to the entire body is yoga. While most people can recognize someone doing yoga, many are intimidated because from a distance yoga appears difficult. So, while I used to stretch years ago for sports, I wanted to see what my older body could still handle. I decided to challenge myself and set a resolution to attend 20 formal yoga classes in a month. My intentions were to see how my physical, mental, and emotional wellness changed by the end of the month.
I have been healthy and active for most of my life. Within the last few years however, I realized that things that used to be easy took a lot more effort and I started experiencing new aches and pains in places I didn’t know even existed. Though this was not my first experience with yoga, the commitment of five days a week was a first. To complicate matters, the only feasible way to take that many classes at my specific gym required a 6:30 am class three to four times a week. I personally am not a night owl, but I haven’t won any early bird races to get that first worm of the morning either. Reflecting on this goal left me with a few thoughts that hopefully will be useful to others contemplating a lifestyle change or working towards any goal. These thoughts might also resonate with thoughts found along the recovery path.
- Yoga is a practice – The first morning of class I walked in and instantly noticed how much more flexible and “better” the other classmates were at every move we performed. I pride myself on being a physically strong individual yet being in downward dog (a v-shaped pushup) for a mere thirty seconds had my entire body shaking. Later in class I came to realize that downward dog is supposedly a resting pose. Rather than be discouraged I realized that many of the students had been coming for months and looked exactly like me when starting. Moving away from self-criticism is an important focus of yoga (and recovery) so I decided to think of my yoga practice like any new activity: it would take many repetitions to build the skill and strength, but practice would help me improve. The instructor mentioned that she takes a yoga teacher training and continues learning and improving herself so if she can do that, so can I. This teacher cemented the philosophy of yoga as a practice by ending each class by thanking us for sharing our practice with her and for allowing her to share her practice with us.
- Yoga made me stronger – There are many different types of yoga from the popular Vinyasa to a hot yoga known as Bikram. While each type of yoga may have a different focus and distinct moves, the fundamental philosophy is similar. Students perform various postures while controlling their breathing to find strength and energy in the body, balance in the mind, and peace in the soul. Performing lunges and squats along with various core exercises greatly improved my major muscle groups. Yet the real gains occurred in my smaller stabilization muscles from practicing various arm and leg balances. It was amazing how tweaking an exercise, ever so slightly, works muscles that I never knew existed. Many people think of yoga as an extended stretching session, but depending on the class, it can be a full body workout or a peaceful meditation. Doing one push up is easy; holding that pushup for one minute is much more challenging.
- Yoga Heals— For the last few months I have been suffering from a shoulder injury. While the injury didn’t always hurt, I felt weakness doing many normal arm movements. Through the various poses of yoga and added flexibility gained from stretching, most of the pains have vanished. The physical healing, however, is only one aspect of the benefit of yoga. Exercising nearly every day first thing in the morning jumpstarted the morning. Over the month, I consumed less coffee, even though I woke up an hour and a half earlier. I also felt better during the day and started finding excuses to exercise in the evening as well. The biggest change occurred in my demeanor. Feeling better in my body led to positive changes in my mind. Similar to the way many of the movements in yoga all connect, the positives in one part of my life flowed into the various other aspects to make January a month where stress and other pains took the back seat to wellness.
- Commitment is easier in groups – Winning a free month membership provided my initial inspiration towards the goal of twenty yoga classes. However, at 5:45 am, saving a few bucks did not provide the necessary incentive to leave the warmth of bed. It took a higher cause plus sheer will power to muster the motivation. A core group of students attended class every day and made me feel like I belonged. The camaraderie formed from cheering one another during push-ups, head stands, and warrior kept me coming back. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association saw other benefits to group exercise. Participants in their study involved in group classes received a 26 percent higher drop in stress and reported an overall improved well-being when compared to those who worked out alone or not at all. Having an accountability buddy or team is useful for keeping the resolution and also getting the best result for yourself.
- Yoga is fun — The first time I did a headstand and managed to hold airplane pose for more than o I felt ecstatic. My hard work over the course of several weeks finally started paying off. Though I personally felt proud of accomplishing something that challenged me prior, being able to share that success with my fellow classmates made it all the better. Even though yoga is an individual activity, cheering others’ success made me feel part of that higher cause I mentioned above. The neat thing about yoga is that there is much room to improve. Every move can be tweaked for both the beginner and the expert. It is easy to witness your own incremental progress and challenge your body and your mind in a positive environment. With this individual focus, it is also easier to truly appreciate your peers’ improvements as well.
When I started this goal of twenty yoga classes I didn’t set too high of expectations. Some days the extra hour or two of sleep was more valuable than the early class. However, using the lessons I’d been learning in yoga such as listening to my body and treating myself with compassion, I accepted that I could miss a day. I just made sure I woke up the next morning. With any goals its only human to stumble, but the ability to get back up, as I had to many times in yoga, allowed me to successfully complete my goal. Starting my morning with yoga gave me an additional hour during the day to focus on exercise instead of wasting it on television or mindless internet browsing. More exercise also allowed me to sleep better at night, feel better during the day, and be more confident in my daily interactions.
The physical growth led to an improvement in my mental and emotional well being. During class I focused on slowing my breathing during difficult poses and calming my mind when I did not think I could do one more sit up. This internal focus during class carried on into the life outside of class. When times became tough at work or in other every day situations yoga provided me the ability to calm down my mind and respond in a much better manner. This yoga challenge helped me remember how my own thoughts and actions are all connected and improving one aspect of life can spread into others. Yoga also showed me the importance of persistence and being kind to myself. Clearly yoga is a valuable tool for keeping focused on the moment of now and for keeping on keeping on. I’m glad I tried this intense challenge. Now I want to just remember that every day of life, like yoga, is a practice where we can improve, grow, and achieve our goals.