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We’re often asked by people skeptical of yoga, "Can it really help me {lose weight, get fit, heal an injury}?"Of course, we always say yoga can do all that and more. So we decided to put our money where our mouth is and give three novices a yoga makeover. No, we won’t be putting them in the best booty-boosting yoga pants or applying the newest to-die-for vegan mineral makeup. We’re talking about a soul-transforming makeover; one that will introduce the participants to yoga while addressing an issue that’s affecting their quality of life.

After puttingout a call for volunteers, we found three brave souls who fit the bill. They are Leah Castella, a lawyer who wants to lose weight; Edith Chan, a triathlete who wants to prevent injuries and burnout; and Mark Webb, a lawyer with a knee injury.

Please read their stories in the Feburary issue of Yoga Journal (on newsstands now), and follow their progress by reading their weekly blog entries here.

Injured

June 04, 2007 by Leah Castella

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I'm not sure I could precisely call my pains injuries, but they sure are making yoga difficult. The first is a constant, aggravating heel cramp. It pretty much hurts all the time but it really hurts after about ten seconds of any standing pose. Which has made my practice a wee bit challenging. While I've tried the grin-and-bear-it approach, it's just painful enough that it's not really an option. So, my practice has been a bit restrained. It has, however, made me really focus on some of the backbends that I've been working on, since they don't involve my heel. Backbends make me nervous, since I'm constantly convinced that I'm going to permanently injure myself in the process. I have to think hard about how I'm rolling my back and what parts of my spine are activated.

Backbends are, I think, the hardest for a relative beginner like myself to incorporate into a home practice. My back (and, I suspect, many of the rest of you out there) is just in a constant state of stress courtesy to sitting hunched over in front of a computer for most of the day. So any out of the ordinary movement triggers a pretty quick response . . . and not usually a pleasant one. At any rate, hopefully this heel thing will heal itself soon. Which brings us to injury two . . . a swollen, painful finger.

I have to laugh at the fact that the only two injuries I've sustained during this entire process are to my heel and my finger. It's also equally telling that such seemingly minor injuries have such a substantial impact on my ability to practice effectively. It is, I suppose, the flip side of the fact that yoga engages your whole body. When any piece of it is out of whack, you can feel the impact in your whole practice.

That doesn't mean that I can't practice. I can, and I do. And I'm excited by the fact that I've come far enough on this journey to be able to roll with the punches and keep moving forward, albeit in a modified way.

But it's still a pain in the heel.

My Fifteen Minutes

May 30, 2007 by Leah Castella

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The week that the article about my yoga makeover came out, I first found out from my friends who have subscriptions to Yoga Journal. I got a few phone calls and some e-mails, including one from an old friend who I hadn't seen in a few years. It was a little shocking, to say the least. Having an article about you in a national publication is a pretty exposing thing. And, having that article focus on a private struggle is even more daunting.

While I wouldn't call myself a particularly private person, this was a lot even for me. In the spirit of the project, I turned to yoga to try to deal with my disquiet about the article. It turned out to be an effective tool. I spent a couple days focusing on restorative poses. I did a lot of forward bends and other seated poses, and spent a long time in Savasana. I was really trying to use the practice to obtain a sense of peace and balance with myself, which worked really well. Ironically, much of my disquiet was anticipatory. It was actually a few weeks after the article came out that I actually was able to get a copy for myself. By then, the yoga had calmed me down and I was able to really enjoy the article.

Running on Yoga

May 25, 2007 by Edith Chan

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I ran a marathon last week and discovered just how little endurance training one can (or cannot) get away with when it comes to running a marathon. In preparing for this event, my run training has been extremely minimal. For the last two months, I ran only twice a week—one longer endurance-building run on the weekends, and one short interval-style workout midweek. The longest run I did was 18 miles. While the running has been minimal, I maintained a consistent yoga practice throughout this time—public classes 1-2 times per week, home practice 2-3 times per week, and then a longer private lesson with Jason once every two weeks. From the perspective of conventional marathon training programs, I knew I was grossly under-prepared. But I was also eager to see if yoga might enhance my performance.

A marathon is 26.2 miles, and the longest training run I did leading up to this event was only 18 miles. As it turned out, I had a superb race—that is, until about mile 20. That's when I completely hit the wall. I was holding a consistently fast pace, feeling fit and strong, and running better than ever. But fatigue started to creep in during mile 19, and at mile 20, I bonked. My legs started getting extremely sore. With 6.2 miles still to go, I suddenly felt like I had nothing left in me.

Luckily I was accompanied by three excellent friends—my training partner Ryan and my friends Craig and Jim who are both highly experienced marathoners and ultra-distance runners—who used every trick in the book to keep me going. Craig is doing a 100-miler ultra-marathon later this yea, and Jim is a true veteran more than 40 marathons under his belt and finish-times under 2 hours 50 minutes. Craig and Jim had both taken time off from running and were just "easing back into training" by doing this marathon at my snail's pace! So when I started to get extremely fatigued, Craig and Jim gave me pep talks, mile after mile. They motivated me all the way to the finish-line. Thanks to them, I had no choice but to keep going even though my legs were screaming in agony.

After the race, my friends remarked on how my running form looked excellent and relaxed, with efficient biomechanics even when I was in complete agony. For this reason, they kept coaching me to pick up the pace because they were convinced that I had more left in the tank. And despite the fact that I had bonked at mile 20 and crawled at what felt like a snail's pace for the final 6 miles, it turned out I still broke my personal record by several minutes! (With a finish time of 3 hours, 42 minutes.)

Hindsight is 20/20. If I could prepare for this marathon all over again, I would have started training two weeks earlier to allow for two additional training runs of, say, 20 miles and 23 miles. My endurance fitness was simply insufficient leading up to this marathon, and yoga is not going to give me that extra fitness. But I would not have traded the yoga for anything. I believe the training plan of running and yoga was an ideal balance. I attribute my greatly improved running biomechanics entirely to my yoga practice. Now more than ever, I am convinced that yoga will be an indispensable part of my training program for my first Ironman triathlon.

An (Almost) Daily Dose

May 22, 2007 by Leah Castella

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Since I've started doing yoga, I've wanted to have one week where I practiced every day. It doesn't seem like such a big goal, but, as I'm sure many of you can appreciate, carving out space to practice each day is challenging when you have so many demands on your time. Despite the challenge, I really want to see how it feels to get a daily dose of yoga. I was hoping that this week I would do it. Things started out on the right note. Monday and Tuesday I had a vigorous home practice and Wednesday I met with Jason. We worked on taking the Sun Salutations and flowing from them straight into standing poses. I loved it. I really felt like I could put together the pieces of what I've learned into a fluid, almost dance-like series of movements, and for the first time I understood the concept of flow as it applies to yoga. It also made me see how much each yoga pose fits into other yoga poses. I think I realized that in concept, but my home practice has always been a bit choppy. I do one pose, then stop and adjust and move into the next pose and I continue on like that for the rest of the practice. It's rewarding, but this was something entirely different.

Then I missed Thursday. I can't even recall precisely why. I'm sure it was some combination of friends and wine and food, but whatever the reason, I couldn't bring myself to practice. And on Friday, I was so bummed that I hadn't accomplished my goal that I skipped again. I got it back together on Saturday, and tried to really incorporate the flow methods that I had worked on with Jason. And on Sunday, I took a class so it ended up being five out of seven days. Not bad, but not quite what I was going for either.

One of these weeks, I'm going to practice for seven days straight. I'm not sure why I've fixated on this as a goal, but I have. I want to prove to myself that I can do it, but more importantly, I want to see what it feels like. Yoga brings to the surface misalignments that I wasn't aware of. The more yoga I do, the more awareness I achieve. But the memory fades on the days in between the practice. I think that if I remove those days, at least for a short period of time, my awareness will be heightened and I'll be able to pinpoint the things that push me off balance. Maybe not.But I won't know until I try, which is why each week on Monday I start with the intention of including in my week a daily dose of yoga.

Yoga Is for Every Body

May 16, 2007 by Leah Castella

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I'll say straight away that I shamelessly stole this title from an article that a friend of mine sent me about yoga. When I read it, the article really resonated with me but after a few more months of yoga, I think I've finally started to really understand what the author was getting at. When you're heavy like I am, self consciousness about your body permeates everything you do. In truth, that statement probably applies to almost every women I've met, whether she's heavy or slender, but the difference for the heavy person is that you feel like you're being judged in a less-than-postiive way all the time. So when you feel like you can't do something because of your size, it's like being cut off at the knees. That happens in yoga more than I would like. There are certain poses that I just can't do. It has nothing to do with tightness—it's about the size and shape of my body. Seated twists, for example. My legs are short and they're wide so getting one leg all the way over the other leg with my foot on the floor, and then putting my elbow on my knee just won't happen. When I realized this for the first time in a class I was mortified. It wasn't just that I couldn't do the pose, but that I couldn't do the pose because my body was all wrong. It brought back every size insecurity I've ever had because, of course, in my head the fact that I couldn't do the pose means there's something wrong with my body.

One of my biggest struggles has been to come to grips with this and to recognize that not all poses work for all body types, and that there's no shame in using props to compensate for short arms or tight hamstrings. Or that sometimes, certain poses aren't for you. The truth is, the "proper" yoga postures don't work for everyone.

I read somewhere that one of the goals of yoga is to push your body to the edge, and then relax into that edge. How you get there can be subtly different depending on your shape. If that wasn't the case, then yoga would only be for the select few who happen to have the body type that's most amenable to the poses. And I suspect that even for those folks, some poses don't quite work the way they'd like them to. Admittedly, it's not always easy to embrace this wisdom in the moment. When I attempt a pose that my body just doesn't want to do, I have to fight off the insidious sense that yoga just isn't for my body and remember that yoga as a discipline doesn't judge. It's benefit is for everybody and every body that wants to embrace it.


Yoga in Oklahoma

May 02, 2007 by Edith Chan

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This week my partner Dave and I have been visiting his parents in Stillwater, Oklahoma (home of Oklahoma State University). I went online to search for yoga in Stillwater and found the website of a teacher named Carol Bender ( www.benderyoga.com). I giggled and thought "Bender. What a great name for a yoga teacher!" Then, I decided I had to try her classes.

Since San Francisco is sort of a mecca for yoga in America, I've been spoiled by our choice of wonderful studios and brilliant teachers of every flavor of yoga. So I was curious to see what one could find in a small town like Stillwater, Oklahoma. There's not a whole lot to do around here. So beside raiding Dave's parents' very well-stocked fridge, and helping with small tasks in his dad's beautiful organic vegetable garden, "Bender Yoga" was to be my big adventure for the week.

To my pleasant surprise Carol's classes were absolutely superb! She has a wonderful presence and energy about her. The small class size (5 to 7 people) created an intimate environment and opportunity for individual guidance. I attended two of her classes (at two different locations) and loved both of them. It appears that her classes were attended by a small loyal group of regulars. Carol welcomed this out-of-town visitor with warm open arms, and I had the most wonderful practice. Then the big shocker was the low-low price—the Tuesday class was $5 and the Wednesday class, regularly $7, was free for first-timers!

Afterward, I reflected on what a labor of pure love it is that Carol teaches these phenomenal yoga classes for such tiny fees. In San Francisco, her classes would be $12-15 or more each and probably attended by many more students. Clearly Carol does not teach for the money. (As it turns out, thanks to my google-stalking skills, she is a professor and research scientist at OSU with a rather impressive Curriculum Vitae.) Money aside, it occurs to me how much easier it is to maintain a high level of yoga practice in a place like SF with its popularity and abundant choices of studios, workshops, conferences, teacher-training programs, etc. Yoga is clearly thriving in San Francisco, but not nearly the same in Oklahoma. To me, Carol is a hero for bringing such quality yoga instruction so lovingly to this small town.

Carol, if you're reading this blog, thank you for having me in your wonderful classes and thank you even more for bringing the joy of yoga and meditation practice to your community! You're a gem!

The Upward Trend Continues

April 26, 2007 by Leah Castella

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Well, since I titled one of these blogs The Downward Trend Continues, it seems only fair to call his one the reverse. And it's true. I think I've finally re-found my confidence. Some of it has to do with integrating new poses into my routine. In doing the new poses, I realize exactly how far I've come with the poses that I've been doing since the beginning.

My standing poses are solid enough that I have become aware of more basic alignment issues that impact me in any poses. Like the fact that my left foot really doesn't like to stay planted on the ground. It seems to be planted, but I've always wondered why on that side of Triangle, I sometimes have trouble with my balance. When we did Half Moon Pose, it was even more pronounced and I realized that the reason was that my whole body was ever so slightly leaned backward. And, after drilling that down a little further, I realized the reason for that was that the front part of my foot and my big toe were ever so slightly lifted up off the ground. So this week, that's been my focus. Jason's advice was to visualize a (painless) nail drilling my big toe into the ground. While it hasn't worked perfectly, it has helped. But more importantly, I realized that the ability to be so nuanced about my practice is a product of becoming more comfortable and more competent.

Some of the confidence has to do with going to class again. I've tried out a variety of different classes, and while they are not always easy, my sense of being out of place has definitely lessened. I wish I'd pushed past my class paranoia sooner. I think that I'd see more changes in my body if I had gone to class more, since yoga class is definitely more of a workout than my home practice. On the flip side, though, yoga on my own is something that I think will be more sustainable after this six months is over. While it has a workout component to it, much of the home practice is about centering my mind and body. My energy comes down a few notches and I let my mind rest, which is something that I rarely do in my life. And I like the feeling—so much that I know that after this "Yoga Makeover," I will unquestionably continue with my home yoga practice.

Armed with Ego

April 20, 2007 by Edith Chan

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For the past month, Jason and I have been working on arm balances. He's patiently helping me improve my handstands, forearm balances, and headstands. He has also introduced me to poses such as Tolasana (Scale Pose), Bakasana (Crane Pose), and Parsva Bakasana (Side Crane Pose).

Because my lower body is well-conditioned from years of cycling, running, and rowing—and also thanks to Jason's precise teaching style—standing poses have come along smoothly thus far. While there are always more subtle layers to study, I find I can respond quickly to instructions regarding the lower half of my body.

The arm balances are a whole different story! They are a lot of fun, but they don't come to me naturally at all. I find myself alternating between enjoying the fun new shapes and getting frustrated with my obvious ineptitude at the poses! When we practice arm balances, my scrawny upper body gets tired more easily compared to my big legs in the standing poses. I also notice that arm balances and inversions are a great challenge to my core strength. Often my body fails me before my mind does. So I cannot just push myself harder, which is still my initial response as a competitive athlete. It is a serious lesson in patience.

Also, since these poses are unknown territory, I find myself coming face-to-face with quite a bit of fear. In Crane Pose I am not even two feet from the ground, but somehow not being on my big sturdy legs is a scary proposition. Or, perhaps, I'm scared of looking like a fool and falling on my face (or butt). The point is I'm encountering fear—a totally irrational kind of fear. (Jason even put a bunch of blankets all around to soften the landing if/when I fall. Too bad he can't pad my ego with blankets too!)

So it has been both interesting and surprising to discover these emotions. Jason says that my Bakasana technique is good enough to just practice at home and get more familiar. As it turns out, it is with frequent practice that these emotions are being dissolved away as we speak.

At this point, it has become evident that the learning process is never-ending. For me, the physical benefits of yoga are being outweighed by the emotional/spiritual benefits of gradually letting go of expectations, the drama, and the competitive ego. Whether it be lessons for the mind, body, or spirit, the journey appears to be infinite. If this is what a beginning practice offers, I can only imagine what a lifetime of study could bring!

Back To Class

April 14, 2007 by Leah Castella

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If there's one thing that I haven't done throughout this journey, it's go to class. I had every intention of going. I blocked out the time and bought cute yoga outfits so I wouldn't feel like a slob. I looked at schedules and figured out which classes I thought looked interesting. Then I went, and I hated it. I went again, and hated it even more. I went a third time, and thought this just isn't for me. For those of your who've been reading this blog, you know why. The Shoulderstands that I couldn't do combined with the general feeling of inadequacy just killed the feelings of calm and centeredness that I was looking for.

So, for a few months I practice yoga at home. I have a good home practice. But, the truth is, I'm never going to push myself as hard on my own as I'm going to be pushed in a class—a fact that Jason has pointed out to me on more than one occasion. So, after much prodding, I went to Jason's 12:00 Thursday class at the Bay Club. To my surprise, I liked it. I could do everything. In fact, I even felt like it might be too much of a beginner class for me. It was a revelation. The energy was good and I was able to concentrate on my own practice. There were still things that I didn't understand immediately, but in each instance it didn't take long for me to catch on.

So hopefully, at long last, I can insert the class component back into this experiment.

Marathon Training and Yoga

April 05, 2007 by Edith Chan

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We're almost three months into this yoga "makeover" now, and there have been countless little "ah-ha" moments during the practice. In private lessons and group classes alike, there are always new difficulties and challenges to face. This is clearly a never-ending learning process, so I decided early on that I'm in no hurry. Interestingly, the more I maintain this unhurried (but curious) attitude, the more wonderful and juicy the practice becomes! Yoga is teaching me to approach difficulty with a more peaceful mindset. With that perspective, I'm starting to see just how much unnecessary drama and suffering we create for ourselves in daily life! I'm realizing how much easier everything would be if we could practice that inner peace as we navigate life's challenges.

Originally, I worried that yoga would be yet another element added to my already jam-packed training schedule. Now I see yoga as a path of simplification, a shedding of unnecessary parts. It's a return home to a more natural way of being. Pure, simple, and blissful.

There are so many interesting experiences in this practice, sometimes I am not sure where to begin with my blogs. Being that I am the "athlete" in this makeover program, perhaps the readers might like to know how yoga is affecting my current marathon training.

With yoga practice four times a week plus full-time work, I am now only able to find time for my run training twice a week—one shorter interval-style workout and one longer endurance-building run. Despite such minimal training, I am experiencing some rather obvious improvements my running! My hips feel more open, my torso much more lifted and elongated. I am discovering a better sense of leaning with my body weight and using the field of gravity to work for me during the running stride.

I also find myself more able to incorporate subtle changes in technique inspired by a variety of running books I've read over the years as a curious athlete. Micro-changes which only made sense intellectually now suddenly make sense experientially. The result is an overall feeling of increased ease and fluidity. Even during my longer runs when I am extremely fatigued, it seems my running form is not falling apart the way it used to. Yoga is truly great stuff for athletes!

Another interesting piece is that my left knee has been feeling slightly tweaked during my yoga practice at times for months now. It's just a minor discomfort, but it never felt uncomfortable or painful during any of my sports training just during yoga. During a few of my private lessons, Jason taught me modifications to relieve the discomfort. Then, finally, last week when I ramped up to a 2.5-hour long run, the knee was suddenly painful during the last half hour. I was limping by the end of that run. In the past, I might have left it alone and ran a couple more times, only to seek treatment if it continued to stay painful. This time, because of my increased awareness from months of noticing the knee being slightly off in yoga, I got acupuncture and bodywork treatment immediately, followed by repeated self-treatments. The knee healed quickly and hasn’t acted up again since.

So as an athlete, I am finding that yoga practice is an extremely valuable way to check-in with the body, to experience it in a full range of positions and notice if something is out of balance. In the future if something feels slightly off, I don't need to wait until it becomes a pain or injury to actively correct the problem. Prevention is best, and with this recent experience of my knee pain, I now see yoga as an excellent tool for BOTH early diagnosis and self-care in the context of preventative medicine.

Finding Center

March 29, 2007 by Leah Castella

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For the first time in a few weeks, I'm feeling good about yoga. I finally met with Jason again, and we did some new poses, which was fantastic. I love balance poses. I'm not that good at them, but there's something about them that makes me really conscious of the kinks and twists in my body. In principle, I know I should be able to hold these poses. And when I can't, I know it's because I leaned too far forward or too far backward, or because my alignment is not quite right. So I strive for perfect balance in the pose, which is tremendously centering.

I'm hoping this newfound sense of calm stays with me. This whole process is a search for me. And it's having a profound impact on me. I had a long conversation with some friends the other day about my yoga funk, and I realized that it's actually more of an overall funk. I know what it's about. I've always been a person who (I thought) had a pretty clear sense of myself and how people perceived me. But that is leaving me in part because my sense of myself isn't as clear. I became a part of this project because I wanted to address some fundamental components of my life that were unhealthy and unsustainable. I'm too frenetic and too impatient. I can't sit still, and I have trouble with the concept of enough. Yoga is impacting those traits, but it's not conflict free. I can't help but subconsciously resist the transformation out of fear that I'll come out on the other side having not just altered those things that I want to change, but having lost traits that make me who I am.

But for now, I'm not going to think about it. I'm going to stop typing and attempt Tree Pose instead.

Olympic Distance Triathlon

March 23, 2007 by Edith Chan

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After taking months away from racing, I did a triathlon last weekend, and it was on extremely minimal swim/bike/run training. For the past two months, I've done only three workouts a week—track practice on Tuesdays, indoor spinning class on Thursdays, and then either an easy run or bike outdoors on Saturdays. Swimming has been virtually non-existent (twice in 2 months). However, I have been quite consistent with my four-per-week yoga practice—group class once a week, private lesson once a week, and home practice twice a week. Naturally, I was a bit nervous about competing in a triathlon on such a tiny amount of swim/bike/run training. So I arrived at the race with no expectations for myself, except to simply enjoy the beautiful weather and a fun day outdoors swimming, biking, and running with many friends.

To my great surprise, I had one of my best performances in years! The most significant change was how much smoother my swimming stroke had become. I had planned to just "get through" the one-mile swim with minimal effort, as if it were a gentle warm-up or cool-down. I even paused occasionally to alternate from freestyle to breaststroke. Perhaps because of my non-competitive mindset, or perhaps because of yoga-induced physical changes, it was truly remarkable how different my body felt in the water—so comfortable, free, and easy.

I thought back to my lesson with Jason on Down Dog a month ago, the way those micro-adjustments gave me the sensations of a straight line of action from hips, to torso, all the way to the arms and hands. Combined with other commonly practiced poses like Parsvokonasana (Side-Angle Pose), it seems I've learned how to integrate my whole body in a more intelligent way. Previously, in my effort to reach for a longer freestyle swim stroke, I would lose power and feel disjointed. Now I understood how to reach from my hips and torso (rather than from the shoulder socket) and create more length without sacrificing power. When I finished the swim, I was shocked to see that I had achieved one of my fastest one-mile swim splits ever, with seemingly no effort whatsoever!

The bike and run legs also went smoothly. Overall my times were quite respectable and far faster than I had dreamed with such minimal training. Better yet, all three sports felt smoother and more effortless than ever before. While my muscles did not feel as strong and powerful as they did years ago when I trained and raced more competitively, I found the sensations of swimming, biking, and running more enjoyable with the new changes in my body. At the end of the race, I felt I could have easily continued for longer distances without fatigue. This is especially encouraging as I prepare for an Ironman Triathlon next year.

As I write this blog, I am overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for this opportunity to integrate yoga into my life. Yoga fits so beautifully into my sensibilities as a practitioner of Holistic Sports Medicine. Already, this experience has greatly enhanced my ability to help both myself and my patients. Looking forward to my Ironman training, I am now convinced that yoga can (and will) play a vital role in creating a smart, well-rounded training and self-care program.

A Lesson in Detachment

March 22, 2007 by Mark Webb

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Still craving 4 hours of yoga a day, I went to try Sivananda in Grass Valley, California and also practiced in a few other places that didn't work out for me. Jason encouraged me to try new things, a lesson in detachment. It was like he knew I would return to the simplicity and truth of his teaching. Of course, I did.

In other news, I recently found myself back in court. It was another jury trial. This time I was scared, but I knew I had nothing to lose. It was a tough case, unlike the easy one I lost against Wal-mart. This time I won—the jury goes 12-0 for me and my injured client, who had a back fracture from a cab driver allowing his passenger to carelessly open the door into traffic.

The jury gave me what I asked for, but I asked for it in a strange, new, detached way. Is this how a yogi would try a case to a jury in court? I think so.

The Downward Trend Continues

March 19, 2007 by Leah Castella

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I wish I could say that this week was better than last. But again, no Jason. And again, no class. And again, the same thirty minutes of poses that I've been doing for months. And I'm caught in a quagmire because the classes scare me so I don't go, but then I don't learn anything new so my home practice bores me. It's a ridiculous cycle, made all the more ridiculous by the fact that I understand it so well yet don't do anything to change it.

So I did yoga. Three times. And each time, immediately following the practice, I felt good. But despite that, the next time I thought about doing yoga I dreaded it. Wished I didn't have to. Felt like it was an imposition. All of those emotions cloud the practice and make it not what it could be. Which isn't to say it's bad. It's not. But it's blah, and that's not enough to keep me committed past the six months that I've already committed to. People keep asking me how it's going and I smile and say fine when underneath I really want to say it's going horribly (an overstatement, but still.) I want it to be over, and I wonder why I ever thought that this would be a good idea.













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