Go Where the Body Leads: Starting a Yoga Practice

At last November’s Philly Bike Expo, I moderated a panel on endurance cycling. Many topics were touched on over the session, but the one that stood out to me was a conversation Todd Parker led about the importance of activities other than cycling in order to strengthen the body overall and to avoid injuries.

Months after the Expo, Todd’s comment stuck in my mind. Over the last couple of years, I had reduced my cross-training and focused pretty exclusively on running and riding. I was burning out a bit on both, in addition to feeling noticeable, though minor, aches and pains. I thought maybe a structured stretching regimen would help me, but could never find or make the time to actually do it.

Around this same time, one of my friends started going regularly to yoga and expounded on the powerful effect it was having on her. I didn’t really understand it, but I connected to her enthusiasm. I remember her saying that last year she was drawn to running, but this year her body called her to a yoga practice.

My body was also calling me to something new. I’ve always talked about trying yoga, but flexibility is a weakness of mine so I was reluctant to try. The idea of being part of a group yoga session – which I was certain would be full of flexy plexy people – was uncomfortable. But finally I thought why not? I’m a 40-something person and surely I have enough courage to show up at a yoga class.

Intimidated though I was about the whole idea of a new and unfamiliar activity, I reticently joined a local studio. I have been attending a combination of Vinyasa flow and Yin classes regularly (with a goal of four times per week) since May.

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Riding home from yoga

I began yoga with one goal – increased flexibility – but I see now how limited and even unrealistic my expectations were. Flexibility is certainly one element of yoga, but it is far more expansive than that. Through these classes I’ve learned about linking movement with breath. I’m developing a new awareness of my body and seeing how all parts of it work together to hold poses.

I am finally starting to glimpse that yoga is more than the poses. While other activities seem to foster competition and comparison, yoga does not do that. Yoga is about my body, movement, and breath on any given day.

Regular yoga practice has helped focus my mind on the current moment. It’s a time when I disconnect from work, the news, and my cell phone. It’s me in a room with others – working our bodies and minds individually and also as a community.

Yoga also promotes awareness, self-love, and appreciation for the body. This is unlike any other activity I’ve done in a group setting where it seems like competition and who is best, fastest, or whatever win the day. I admit I have days where I lose focus and look around, seeing everyone gracefully sliding into poses I can only dream of doing. But that is misguided thought.

Namaste, friends

When outside of class, I laugh at how my gangly body flounders. I can’t touch my toes, my back often seems unbending, my breath gets away from me, and occasional frustrations with my own progress arise.

Yet over the last few days, I’ve noticed beauty in my own movement and felt appreciation for the differences in all of our bodies – and even the changes in my own body from one day to the next. I don’t know that I’m actually flowing through class any differently, but my perception is changing.

What I’m learning through regular yoga practice is a long way from my initial intentions. My body was craving yoga, but not just for flexibility’s sake. I could not have imagined all the ways it has counterbalanced my other activities. Yoga is a far more complex journey that I understood – have yet to understand – so  I’ll keep traveling down this curious road and see where it takes me.

For those who practice (or practiced) yoga, I’d love to hear your stories! 

21 thoughts on “Go Where the Body Leads: Starting a Yoga Practice

  1. My wife has been practicing yoga for decades. When I had back problems she guided me through Richard Hittleman’s yoga book. At one point the two of us were doing head stands in the middle of the living room. She was about 6 months pregnant. Quite a sight. After a few months I stopped. I started doing “back exercises” daily. Of course, they’re nearly all yoga asanas. When I do them with focus and patience and calm, I actually enjoy them instead of endure them.

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  2. And that is the beauty of yoga. We’re all still discovering what it truly means for us and our bodies. I love to read about other people’s journey with yoga and how it has helped them in ways they didn’t expect 🙂

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  3. I love reading this. We may no longer have the lunch run but I think we’ve both found something to keep us energized. I get to a yoga class at the DOL gym twice a week and it is the most most refreshing and energizing part of my day. The progress I’ve seen in my overall balance and strength and physical comfort over the last year has been amazing.

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  4. “Yoga is the restraint of the fluctuations of the mind-stuff” Patanjali. Welcome to the practice, and I’m glad you discovered that it is about more than being flexy-plexy. Yin is an excellent addition to a strong physical practice, but yoga is so much more than the poses as you have noticed. Has Felkerino joined you yet? Work on him. I started after age 50 at the suggestion of my doctor to relieve the stress of middle school math teaching. The benefits became obvious very quickly and I loved the practice. Took teacher training at Kripalu in Stockbridge, MA and now teach 6+ classes a week.
    Paul Webb, E-RYT200/RYT-500

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    1. Very timely post for me. I have been struggling through a lower back injury for the last few months. I started yoga about 4 months ago which seems to help. Ultimately, I need more help and start physical therapy this week. However, I need to find a better to balance things out. Maybe yoga is it, maybe it isn’t. Like you, I am still trying to figure it all out.

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    2. Yes! I remembered you were an instructor. I’ve just started my yoga recruitment strategies on Felkerino, recommending Yin as a place to start. I also think it is helping me manage day to day stress. Subtle but powerful

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  5. Hello MG, and thanks for that post. 25 years ago, at age 40, I survived a catastrophic wreck. Lots of surgeries and then physical therapy. My therapist was a yoga instructor and encouraged me to explore that along with the pt. Still dealing with the issues, but am fairly content with where things are. I will never be especially impressive on the bike or on the mat, but still manage.

    The important thing about yoga is to remember that it is your individual journey that matters. Explore all the options with an open heart, and find what works for you. Be careful with flow yoga when you are starting out, there is a slightly higher incidence of injuries in that discipline.

    The benefits for me seem to be maintaining a degree of flexibility, core strength, balance, and perhaps most of all, focus. Like cycling, it’s 90% mental, and the other 90% is mental too.

    Namaste,

    John

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    1. Wow I did not know you practiced yoga, too! I am glad I started when I did because I am definitely better at listening to my body. If something doesn’t feel like it will work for my body I don’t do it…

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  6. this is a most enjoyable post!! i had been in an active yoga practice, one developed for my abilities [and limitations!] by a dear friend who is a teacher. then i had to cease practice, due to a required surgery and healing period. reading your post gives me reason and encouragement to get back into it, because i think i can, and i think i shall!!
    keep it up, dear mary!!

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  7. I think that if yoga has taught me anything — and it is an attitude that my Iyengar teacher reinforces constantly — yoga is above all something you must approach without ego, with humility. My practice teaches me about my limits and accepting them with grace (and with humor.) Doing that ensures my safety, and improves my attitude.

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  8. My wife and I have been practicing ashtanga yoga for over a decade. We’re what yogis would call yoga tourists going 1-2x/week, mostly for maintenance purposes. Our primary teacher is a former ultra marathon runner so he knows the issues of endurance athletes. Early on it helped my joint issues from years of volleyball, and in addition to the flexibility gains it also helps strength and breath endurance. I could do without the 4:30 am wake ups for practice but it’s always worth it once you start.

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    1. Chris, I want to know more about ashtanga. There’s a studio near my office, but I have no idea what ashtanga is all about… if you don’t reply here I will send you an email for more info! Thanks!

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  9. Really interesting to read about your yoga experiences MG. I first became aware of it back in the 60s with the Beatles and have often thought of giving it ago as a keen runner & cyclist. I am now 66 so best try it soon I suppose. Like you however I’d feel a bit self conscious of going to a group session, all those young and lithe bodies, so I think I will go down the self help books route like one of your other followers have done.
    Clearly I would love a less achy body but for me what I would really love to achieve is an inner peace.
    Hopefully your post has been the spark I needed to set off down this route.

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  10. Yoga is truly amazing and I think everyone really needs it. I’ve been going to Bikram yoga for years off and on. I always feel good, look good, and am at my best when practicing regularly. I started to get in some exercise when I had a back injury and couldn’t run. I was astonished at just how weak I was overall despite regular core work and some weightlifting. But most of all I love the benefit of the meditation/mindfulness part.

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    1. I also have started feeling better doing yoga. My core was (is?) way weaker than I thought and I had no idea how tight my shoulders were! I wanted to ask you about Bikram. There is a studio in Dupont I’m curious about, but my first exposure to Bikram was not positive…

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