Story Time: Getting a Win in Yoga

Sometimes you need a win. Yesterday, I got my win.

One of the background pieces to best understand this story is the idea of not knowing you weren’t supposed to be able to do something. Randomly, this idea popped up into a story and a podcast in the last couple of weeks. The story was related to about the math grad student who showed up late to class and copied down two homework assignments. They were harder than the assignments usually were, but he finished them eventually and turned them in. Turns out they weren’t homework. They were unsolved proofs, and he’d solved them thinking they were homework.

The second story came from a Nerdist podcast with Hakeem Oluseyi. As a kid, he liked to read, including reading the encyclopedias his mother owned. Here, he ran across Einstein’s work on relativity. For his high school science fair, he developed a program on an old-school computer that ran special relativity calculations. He was modeling special relativity without even knowing that’s what he was doing.

And what do these two stories have in common? Students doing extraordinary things because they didn’t know they weren’t supposed to be able to do them. It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have limits artificially placed on you. You go out and do stuff.

We’ll come back to this thought later.

But let’s switch to my yoga practice. I started practicing yoga 7 years ago (and I didn’t start pretentiously call it practicing until a year or two ago). This is longer than any hobby except playing guitar, reading, and running. For the first 5 years, I practiced on my own out of a book. It’s not ideal, but DVDs weren’t going to cut it, and I sure as hell wasn’t putting myself into a class at that point. I just wanted to do something to help my back pain. While I didn’t keep a good consistency in my practice, I did do it often enough, especially in the beginning, to get an idea of what worked and didn’t for me. I had poor core strength, flexibility, and balance, but I could do the power poses that relied on the bigger muscles.

Flash forward 5 years (or 2 years ago, depending on your mental perspective), I went to my first true yoga class. A friend of mine is a fitness buff. Runs 8 miles casually, does yoga regularly, likes the boot camp-style fitness classes, and goes to a rock gym weekly.

They’re in better shape than me. By far. But they invited me to the yoga class they attend on a guest pass so I could try it for free.

And it kicked my ass. Class was absolutely brutal. The longest yoga sessions I had ever done on my own were 45 minutes and were at a slow pace that involved staying in poses for extended periods of time. This class was 60 or 75 minutes (I forget), was a vinyasa class that involved a lot of quicker movement (including entirely two many sun salutations for my taste at the time), and I was coming off a cartilage injury that kept me from any non-physical therapy workouts for almost 5 months.

Not an ideal situation, to say the least.

But I hung in as well as I could. I dripped sweat on my friend’s yoga mat. I’ve told this story before, but this is the time I tweaked my back doing a wheel pose. When we had hit that point, I knew that I could, even if I shouldn’t. What really threw me off was when we hit crow. First we did crow, but then the teacher gave side crow as an option, except they couldn’t do it. They had a student demonstrate. That was so weird to me. I’ve since come to terms with the fact that teachers can’t do all the poses after all, but I though side crow wasn’t really that bad in the grand scheme of yoga poses.

But let’s get back to my history. I learned out of a book, and that was my first 5 years of yoga. The book had 3 levels, with two sequences a piece. I mostly stuck to the first two levels (I may have tried the last level once or twice). For my purposes and due to my lack of consistency, that was plenty. Whatever the book said to do, I did. The only time I deviated was when I finally gave up on doing eagle. I have too much muscle in my upper legs (humblebrag alert) to be able to do it comfortably, and I was just bruising my legs because I couldn’t get in the right position as I got into the convoluted pose. Otherwise, what the book said, I did to the best of my ability.

And here’s the thing, the book did a terrible job of allowing for adjustments. There were poses I just couldn’t do, and I couldn’t even get close to where I was supposed to. But there were also poses that I’ve found to be considered slightly more advanced than should have been available to a beginner. This included wheel, shoulder stand, crow, and side crow. I could do them all; I just didn’t know I probably wasn’t supposed to.

This gets us back to that first yoga class where I’m dying. I did wheel because I knew I could, and I realized in the context of the situation, that it wasn’t available to everyone. Same with crow. I don’t think I went for side crow that day because I was too sweaty, but I could do. I knew damn well I could do it.

And let’s jump ahead another couple of years to yesterday. I was in class, and we hit the crow portion. If we had side crow, we were allowed to go for it. While I can do side crow, I’ve never particularly liked it. I have the aforementioned flexibility issues, and it was always a touch awkward to get into. Two weeks ago, the teacher told us to drop into chair first, then twist, and finally try getting into side crow. It was magic. I wish I’d known that method 7 years ago. I felt solid in side crow for the first time ever. Yesterday, we did the same thing, and again, I was able to stick it.

As we were getting into it, we were given two main options. put our weight on both arms (knee over one arm, and hip over the other) or put our weight on one arm (both arms on the ground still but only putting you knee over one arm, no hip contact). The latter was considered the more advanced, but I didn’t know that all these years. I’ve always put my weight on one arm. This was mostly because I wasn’t flexible enough to twist my hip down but it was also partially because I didn’t realize what I was doing was considered more difficult typically.

And that’s where we are. I got into the side crow with my weight going through one arm, which surprised the teacher. She hadn’t realized I wasn’t putting my hip down, so I got a compliment for a solid pose. And you know what? Everyone needs a compliment every now and then.

I hope you’re having a great day.

-Q

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