Yoga is one of those wonderful, obscure and exotic things that were once shunned as something for contortionists or hippies, that’s now gaining popularity among people you’d never expect. Everybody’s doing yoga, tried yoga in the past or at least knows a suspiciously whole lot about yoga. Your girlfriend does yoga, because she prefers this to lifting weights. Your cousin does yoga, because she’s pregnant and there’s a special prenatal yoga class. Your aunt, the one who always dyes her hair something bold, wears strong make-up and a lot of golden jewelry, also does yoga, because… well, maybe let’s not delve into that one. Some things are better left undiscovered. Like your relatives’ sexuality.
Now, why do I personally do yoga?
There are many benefits of yoga, and this text is not about them. This text is about what I take away from the practice, why I started and why I continue, with bigger or smaller breaks.
1. Back health.
I have scoliosis. It’s the one where the lower part of my spine is unnaturally curved. Aside from making my ribs and stomach stick out a bit more than in a normal person, it also causes some pain in the lower back area. It started becoming an issue some time during my elementary school years. I’d go to doctors, who’d give me a permission to skip my PE classes or a note instructing the teacher to go easy on me, along with a series of printed, very easy exercises written for old people. They also always recommended swimming and told me to avoid backbends of any kind, as they could deepen my unnatural curve and also make the pain worse. Sometimes I’d get physical therapy, but the thing with that is that it helps for a couple of months, and then the anesthetic effect wears off.
Heeding my doctors’ advice, I avoided any exercises that put strain on the lower back, but there was one issue with that: it was a vicious circle. Avoiding these exercises meant I wasn’t using these muscles, causing my spine to have very poor support and no flexibility, and that actually made the pain worse. The pain, in turn, made my everyday commute on public transport very, very difficult.
I picked up yoga, because I guess I just heard about its vague benefits somewhere. I went to a bookstore and bought a book entitled Yoga At Any Age, something like that. It was meant for older people. The reason I got it was because it showed modifications for each pose to accommodate a number of issues, back problems being one of them. There was even a sequence specifically for alleviating back pain. I was excited!
Some of these poses really did help me with my back pain, especially the twists. Later, I started finding yoga instructional videos on the internet. At some point, I realized I was doing pretty well, so I said, fuck it. Let’s stop with those modifications, they don’t seem that helpful at all. And I dove in! I started doing regular yoga videos – for all people, not just for people with back issues. The harder I went, the more “dangerous” poses I did, the better my back felt. Interesting, huh? It seems like the exact thing my doctors told me not to do is actually the one thing I should be doing!
This taught me to stop limiting myself and that going outside the comfort zone might bring me exactly what I need. This is why recently I decided to stop being afraid of backbends in yoga. Sure, they feel really awful for my back. But not the dangerous kind of painful that means you should stop and consult a physician. It’s just the discomfort of an area that was completely neglected for all my 22-year old life (because that’s how old I was when I first tried incorporating backbends for real). And guess what, another thing that the doctors told me not to do – bend backwards or use my lower back muscles – is working out pretty great for me.
Now, with most things in life, I go through phases. I get really excited about something, and I do it for weeks, maybe months, and then my interest somehow wanes. I go back to that thing later – again, weeks or months later – to relive another few month-long bout of enthusiasm. Unfortunately, it was this way with yoga, too. This year, especially since getting my gym membership, I got really into yoga. Instagram challenges, weekly yoga classes at the gym, everyday practice at home. But very recently, due to a combination of factors, I neglected yoga a bit. I can’t always make it to the yoga class these days, and aside from compulsory stretches after a weight workout, I stopped doing yoga at home. Three weeks later I noticed how much older I started feeling. I noticed how I was unable to stand straight anymore. I noticed the discomfort in my lower back that had been gone for months. So, last week I got back into yoga. The difference was pretty instantaneous, though I was a bit sad about losing some of the flexibility I had gained.
Due to my back pain issues and being a very tall girl, I always hunched. Not having enough physical activity because of doctor-imposed limitations, as I wrote above, weakened my back muscles and had me sit and lay down more than I should. Also, most of my peers were shorter than me and I was literally looking down on them. I’m also not the type of girl who likes to be noticed by everyone… It’s stupid, but my shyness made me hunch even more.
There are many exercises for posture out there, and don’t think I haven’t tried them all! Yoga is, in my experience, the best method. I’ve never felt my chest to be so open and my back to be so strong and maintaining proper posture to be so easy. The best way to improve posture through yoga is to do some chest-opening poses and – of course – backbends. I also started focusing on stretching my shoulders recently – they’re so ridiculously tight! Un-tightening them definitely makes a difference when it comes to posture – it helps you open the chest more.
3. Freedom of movement
Yoga makes my entire body feel better. Or, to be more specific, it helps me NOT feel my body at all. Sounds weird? Alright, so do you know when you have a discomfort somewhere, be it your stomach or any of your limbs? Sometimes it’s not pain, it’s not even discomfort, you just… become aware that you have that organ or that limb. Uncomfortably aware. Normally you don’t notice it’s there, but sometimes it feels less-than-great and you just… feel it.
When I neglect yoga for a few weeks, I start feeling my body when I do basic stuff, like sit down on the floor and then get up, or when performing certain exercises. Practicing yoga gives me that feeling of freedom. It makes all my movements effortless. It lets me use my body in whatever way I want.
After I realized that doing yoga actually helped my back a lot, even though my doctors had advised against such activities, I said, fuck it. (Yes, again.) I signed up for something I had always wanted to do, but never thought I could – karate class for college PE. Sounds like something a kid with back issues should not be doing, right? Well, wrong! I had the best sensei, who believed in doing karate for physical well-being, rather than murdering his students. But that’s a story for another time. Point is, there was a lot of yoga-like elements in my weekly karate sessions (flexibility for the high kicks, duh), and I also stretched here and there outside of the class to further improve my flexibility. As a result, I felt badass, got an actual belt in karate, had a great time and I felt no painful consequences in my lower back at all! Quite the opposite: because we were working on all muscles, my back muscles got a bit stronger in the process.
So yeah, I do yoga because it gives me an immense freedom to do anything I want with my body and forget about my limitations.
Now, there’s of course a lot more good stuff that happens when you do yoga: you become more mindful, you relax, connect with yourself… All that good stuff. It’s just not the main reason why I practice yoga at all. It’s just something that also happens and I’m very glad it does.
Do you do yoga? If yes, why? If not, why haven’t you started yet? 😛