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Yoga: Push and Pull

I joined a yoga studio seven months ago, and I realized earlier this week that yoga has finally become a habit. I am generally not all that motivated about exercise as I have all the natural athleticism of a particularly ungraceful sloth, but yoga has managed to fit a niche for me, because it is physical practice combined with mental challenge and meditation. It is exercise for nerds.  No matter how many years I practice, I keep learning from it.

Me, thanks to fifteen years of yoga practice.
Me, thanks to fifteen years of yoga practice.

I do appreciate the physical changes in my body over the last seven months, during which I’ve committed to going to at least two yoga classes a week. I wear tiny runners shorts to class, which means that I spend an awful lot of time staring at my leg flesh, as half of a yoga class involves having your head significantly further south than it traditionally habituates. When I first started wearing these shorts, there was a lot more cellulite and lot less muscle than there is today. It’s a nice reminder that I have grown stronger, even as practice is still difficult, as I try harder and harder things.

At my studio, many of the teachers are under the mistaken impression that we’re all trying to achieve that ultimate yoga pose, the unsupported handstand.  If you’re thinking that you did handstands as a kid, you probably didn’t do them like this:

The challenge for me isn’t doing a handstand. The challenge for me has always been getting into the room in the first place. Once I’m in the room, anything I do on top of that is really just extra credit. So when I’m in a class that is trying to teach people all the preparatory motions for performing this acrobatic feat, my brain is laughing.  Acrobatics aren’t the reason I’m there.

All the same, I was raised to be polite, so when my teacher on Thursday had us take our mats to the wall and try the hops that are used to help teach a yoga student what the muscles need to feel like in order to reach yogic glory, I obediently put my hands down and hopped as instructed. I hopped again. And again and again and again, getting nowhere and not really caring, because I could die without doing an unsupported handstand and be perfectly happy.

But then I had a revelation. My hops were acheiving very little other than lowering my dignity, as I was going on the presumption that the hopping leg had to provide all the momentum. This is backwards. The hopping leg starts the movement, but it is the straight leg, the leg that appears to be doing nothing, that pulls the body upright. So as
long as I was only asking half of my body to perform the motion, I was getting nowhere. Once I engaged *both* of my legs, my hops got a lot higher.

Yoga is like that. Many of the poses seem difficult because it looks like only one thing is happening.  But yoga never has only one thing happening, because the body doesn’t move in isolation.  Plank looks as though you are holding the body up with the arms supporting your body weight.  And if you do it that way, plank is indeed horrible.  But if you remember to lean your weight back into your feet and have your legs and belly support your weight, plank becomes so much easier.  The trick is engaging the brain and remembering.

So with handstand, of course my one bent leg can’t push up the weight of my entire body! Why should it? It never has to act alone when I’m walking. As it pushes, my other leg has to pull the body upwards. And when both legs are working together, the movement flows and I stop looking so much like a demented frog and more like someone who might actually do a yogic handstand one day.

Once again yoga has smacked me in the face and reminded me of things that are obvious. If a problem is hard, it’s time to step back and approach it from another angle. If something is difficult with the resources on hand, find or develop more resources. And if you’re pushing somewhere, it almost always pays off to pull somewhere else, to make the burden easier to bear. When there is motion forward, something else has to move back. This is how balance is achieved — and nature loves balance.

I’m a writer. I should know this. People say that love is what makes the world go ’round, but I think that it is tension. It is tension that propels a story forward, it is tension that causes people to grow and it is tension that pulls and keeps us upright.  It is only when the tension is working in harmony and balance is achieved that the story is over.  And my story has a long way to go.

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  1. Yes! All of this. I am more in love with yoga every day. Maybe next year I can set aside some studio money. Like you, my goal is to just get there. To turn the DVD on, to get the mat out and begin. Once that happens, the rest is just bliss, handstand or no.

    And that breath work! Balance indeed.

    • Charlotte Charlotte

      It took me a long time to justify the money for a yoga studio membership, but I have to say that I do really get a lot of it. It’s not just the instruction, which is really moving my practice forward in a way that years of doing yoga in gym classes and off of TV/DVDs hasn’t (I’m an idiot when it comes to athletics — I need personal instruction ;), but the community is a hugely important part of my life. My studio also does a lot for charity and the local art and music scene and tries to be a community focused space, which is very cool. They’re doing a donation based class for cancer research today — just good people to be around.

      Yoga is good stuff – I always am so happy to hear of other people getting the same things out of it that I do. It’s been such a huge influence in my life – not just the way I move, but the way I think and approach the world.

  2. joanie joanie

    absolutely what I needed to hear today

  3. I love this – it reminds me of when I finally figured out standing-on-one-foot balance poses. I’d been doing it wrong – trying to make that one leg do all the work, and make all the adjustments. I was always the one person in class who was wobbling and dropping the other foot, time after time. Until one day while I was standing in the kitchen, waiting for the microwave to beep, and practicing my tree pose. All of a sudden, it struck me – I imagined being suspended from a string: I straightened my spine, stood tall, and let my upper body pull me into position. The foot that remained on the floor still had work to do, and needed to make constant adjustments, but it was no longer stuck doing all the work. Rather, my whole body needed to be part of making it happen.

    It was a revelation indeed!

    As a kid, I was actually quite athletic, and could manage several of the “advanced” yoga poses – handstands, headstands, lotus – no problem! Over too many years of being much too sedentary, my body has forgotten much of what once just came naturally. Now that I’ve been going to yoga classes for a few months, I’m slowly but surely beginning to relearn how to move my body – and experiencing the joy that goes along with that!

    • Charlotte Charlotte

      I believe I have a memory of you showing us how to do cartwheels when I was young — something I’ve never been very good at, though I’ve gotten a lot better since getting really serious about yoga this last year! I remember admiring the straightness of them – mine always tended to tip over. 🙂

  4. Really nicely written and makes me want to find a yoga studio! Can’t afford to just yet but fingers crossed!

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