Taking a breath; getting back to yoga

This morning I decided to do a bit of yoga. Not a big deal, except I haven’t done any in months — and I was enjoying my prenatal yoga so much before I gave birth. I’ve made a lot of time for dance lately, but taking the time to slow down my breath and really focus on the asanas just hasn’t been part of the picture lately. (One exception has been Hala Khouri’s Yoga for Stress Reduction.)

But here’s the thing: there really is nothing like yoga. It got rid of my knee and back pains, and that deep breathing kept me going through a stressful year in my life. So yesterday I bought a copy of Yoga Journal, and today I got my husband to watch the little one while I did a simple, two-page routine for stretching and twisting the back.

I didn’t have the right equipment. I was on a carpet (really not ideal for downward dog), wearing bellydance pants. But that barely mattered. It was so, so difficult to slow and deepen my breath at first. I think this is partly due to the fact that my dance courses have encouraged keeping tight abdominals and breathing into the rib cage, so I had to remember what the belly could do too.

It was wonderful. My back felt longer, and I was more relaxed. More than that, at some point, I started to feel just happy — about life, being a mother, and so on. I’m always just a little bit skeptical when I read these Yoga Journal articles about bhakti and radiant joy and love and all of that stuff, but you know what? Sometimes it works. No altars or mantras necessary. Not even a mat.

Yoga for the miserable days

Under the very capacious category titled, “Things they never tell you before you get pregnant,” one of the entries has to be:

Sleep deprivation begins before the child is born, not after.

This is the result of a spicy cocktail of anxiety dreams, a big, uncomfortable belly, acid reflux, and the need to urinate every twenty-six seconds (give or take two seconds). Now to make this even more fun, try going to the hospital for a nine-hour “prepared childbirth” class, and you will ask yourself the following:

Why did no one show me lengthy videos of women in labour, oh, about seven months ago?

Why did no one explain to me the mechanics of the human pelvis, and the two corkscrew turns a child has to make to exit through it, at some point during my education?

But the sordid reality is, no one did, and now you are tired, scared, and wondering how you will deal with a baby who screams all night when just having your sleep interrupted already makes you miserable.
I’m fine, really, how was your week?

Well, the glorious thing is that I did manage to sleep for most of the night last night, and eager to get back to some modicum of sanity and productivity, started the day off with Yoga Journal’s Yoga for your Pregnancy. I didn’t have much time nor much energy, so I decided just to stick to the 30-minute “energizing workout,” which as I previously wrote, was not particularly vigorous. But I wasn’t ambitious — I just wanted to stretch everything out a bit, to feel my body move in a pleasant way, and to prepare for a longer program tomorrow.

The result? Magic. Seriously. I love the pilates and dance-based workouts I’ve been doing lately — and look forward to reviewing more — but there really is something special about yoga. And there’s something really special about yoga that you’re doing for yourself, when you don’t really care about looking good or pushing past your limits or impressing anyone with how you can balance on your pinky.

I took it so slowly today, but really focused on the deep, deep breathing, and on making each stretch and movement count. My old yoga instructor would have been talking about “intention” — without really knowing it, I did have an intention for this simple little yoga practice, and that was to centre myself again. And it worked. When I got up, I was sure that my body was wonderful, I was having the easiest pregnancy any woman had ever had, I wasn’t afraid of labour, and that wiping another human being’s poop for the next few years would be absolutely hilarious.

I’ve read it a thousand times, I’ve heard it said just as often, but I still have to learn it myself: yoga is not about “getting ninety minutes” in or setting a record. But to me, it’s not about spiritual awakenings either. It’s just about allowing myself to take an effective, cheap happy pill with no side effects.

Review of Yoga Journal’s Yoga for your Pregnancy

Yoga Journal’s Yoga for your Pregnancy is a great little video for a pregnant woman who is starting to feel the aches and discomforts of pregnancy and really just wants to get a delicious stretch. I bought it used a few weeks ago, and Sunday afternoon seemed like a nice time to do something not too strenuous for my body. However, after I finished the program, relaxed and pleased, I went on Amazon and found that many had rated the video poorly. I was shocked! It turns out, however, that many of them are regular yoga practitioners, and they, not surprisingly, found the program too easy. I didn’t. Here’s my take:

The video is composed of several segments: a 30-minute energizing routine, a 15-minute relaxation routine, and smaller videos on breathing, meditation, birthing-room yoga, along with a short postnatal yoga practice. One option allows you to do the energizing and relaxation routines along with the breathing and meditation all in a row, which adds up to an hour of practice. There is one glitch here, in that both the 30-min and 15-min routines set you up for a shavasana at the end, and playing the program in a row doesn’t skip this. Since I did the 1-hour program today, I wound up doing two short shavasanas and then continuing on with the breathing and meditation sections — a little ungainly.

As to the main practices: this is not flow yoga. The instructor sets up each position, instructs you quickly on the variations, and you then spend a brief amount of time doing the asana. There are three women on the screen, each doing a different version or level of difficulty. Now, I really liked the way they organized this. In most videos, the star instructor does the most difficult poses, setting them up as a kind of standard, while the other practitioners do variations that you can barely see in the background. In this case, the main instructor, Kristen Eykel, usually demonstrates a pose of intermediate difficulty, while the women in the back show a harder and an easier variation. Eykel also describes the modifications — up or down in difficulty — so that you do not have to look at the screen. However, the practitioners also switch it up sometimes — the one who was doing the more difficult standing exercise might do the easier bending asana. They are at various stages of pregnancy, but the modifications they do seem to be more based on their bodies and abilities, rather than on trimester.

This is such a small detail, but I really liked it — it simply seemed more real. After all, when I usually practice yoga, I’m not at the same level for all asanas. While I’m sure all the women in this video are advanced in their own practices, the way the video is set up makes exercise more approachable.

The asanas themselves are generally not difficult — really not difficult. You will get a good stretch, and you will build strength a bit, but you will probably not break a sweat or feel exhausted if you have done any yoga before. I did not see much of a difference in intensity between the “energizing” workout and the “relaxing” workout.

The breathing segment is particularly nice. I found it one of the more approachable breathing practices I’ve seen on a video, but it was still long enough for me to feel relaxed and refreshed. The meditation segment was not the most convincing meditation I have done, but I tend to think it’s hard to meditate with a video playing in the room anyway.

All in all, my body felt noticeably different — no more pain, no more stiffness — after doing the program, and I’ve been in a calm, happy zone in the hours since. I’m looking forward to checking out the birthing-room yoga segment and the postnatal yoga practice — both nice extras on the DVD.

Yoga Journal’s 21 day challenge

Airport stopover, and my usual treat: heading to the Hudson’s News and buying a variety of magazines, my guilty pleasures for the flight. They usually tell more about me than I’d like to have known: I think a combination of food magazines like Food and Wine and exercise mags like Yoga Journal really says everything about causes and effects.

The current issue of Yoga Journal (to which I used to subscribe, until it got a bit boring) did inspire me, however. They’re beginning a 21-day yoga challenge. The idea? Do yoga, any kind of yoga, for 21 days straight, and make a habit of it. To support this, they’re putting up free yoga videos on their website. There are supposed to be twenty-one, for each of the twenty-one days, but when I click through the three weeks, I see the same week’s workouts repeated.

I began last night, by doing the 20-minute evening sequence. It was a super-easy practice of gentle back stretches. Which was good, since I had a bit of back pain and was almost asleep as I was doing it. Kate Holcombe encourages you to do most of the practice with your eyes closed, which made it even more soothing.

Everyone thinking of doing the 21-day challenge should begin with the evening sequence, not with the more rigorous 40-minute practice. Why? Because the evening sequence proves it is possible to get a bit of yoga in even when exhausted and ready for bed.