I started going to yoga a few months ago, in a great forced push of courage because I hadn’t actually been to a yoga class since the mid-90s. The first time I observed yoga and its effects firsthand was when I was little and my mother brought me along to one or two of her classes. She used say she was going to the “health spa” when she did yoga.
Mom said she liked the yoga, but as a Christian, she felt uncomfortable with what she considered to be the “religious” aspect of yoga. Golden calfs (calves?) and all. But I do have vague impressions of seeing the yoga people, and my mother with her petite figure in her blue leotard. It must’ve been in the late 70s. Those initial impressions were positive. Mom seemed happy on the days she spent at her health spa.
Then when I was 18, I moved to Santa Cruz, California for the first time. I was basically an unemployed waif, drifting and unable to cast anchor, though I desperately wanted to build a home and a life there. It didn’t happen. I did attend a couple of yoga classes that must have been offered for free, as I was essentially penniless and near homeless at the time. The classes were fun, but I didn’t feel that they were the right fit for me. I think it was because they were more Kundalini style classes, with lots of meditation and less emphasis on the physical body. I remember something about the instructor there also didn’t resonate me. She didn’t smile. She was probably the same age as I was, but seemed to lack joy and friendliness. I don’t know what my basis of comparison was, but either way, it wasn’t something that I kept up with.
Then in college back in my hometown of Las Vegas, where I’d had to return in order to move back in with my parents, I found a wonderful teacher who taught a beautiful class right between Biology and Anthropology. UNLV has a large physical education sector with all sorts of gymnasiums and sports playing fields. It was in one of those gymnasium rooms, which held a dance studio, where the classes were held. The instructor at the college taught Hatha yoga. Her college students got a great workout for both mind and body. Once I stopped going to that college, I took a couple of classes by independent teachers who owned small studios. I bought books on the yoga and continued home practice for a few years in solitude. Then came the period where I really didn’t practice much- after my kids came along, when my focus turned toward caring for infants and finally finishing school, this time attending the local community college, which lacked yoga courses.
When I recently started to consider going back to a yoga practice, it was hard to believe that over fifteen years had elapsed, although it had. Of course, I had practiced occasionally over those years at home, going by memory and occasionally recording and playing back fitness TV programs such as Inhale, with Steve Ross (which was a really cool program but has, unfortunately, since gone off the air.)
However, the yoga-from-home method had a way of fizzling out quickly, when I’d become distracted by goings-on with the kids, etc., and so I fell back to using the treadmill a couple of times a week as my main fitness routine. Treadmill work has helped me to maintain at least a basic level of fitness over the years, throughout the lengthy course of three pregnancies, childbirths and the corresponding postpartum and infant care periods. Those of us who have survived postpartum years know that it is not easy to take premium care of oneself when one is thoroughly wrapped up in the care of another totally dependent, tiny and helpless human. Who really hates it when one sleeps.
But back to the present day and the somewhat recent development of pain. The pain seemed to descend upon my shoulder from nowhere and settled in. Made itself at home. It has been my constant, unwanted companion for the past 8 months. It was really tough for the first 3 months- completely limiting my movements and making it hard to do simple tasks like washing my hair, hanging clothes, or anything that required me to lift that arm above my head.
I haven’t ever had chronic pain before in my life. I thought I would just be one of the lucky ones whom it somehow skipped. Although I’d seen my father suffer since his early 30s with debilitating arthritis… I somehow thought that condition wouldn’t settle into my bones. I still don’t know if my newly acquired shoulder stiffness and pain is an arthritic condition or something else, but it was real and definite.
I am the type of person who really wants to do something about it. I don’t want to go to a doctor and get pills to mask the symptoms or have my joints injected full of steroids. Call me a DIY’er if you will. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a doctor to take care of all your health issues, and by all means if that’s what works for you then do it. It’s just that if I have any capacity for dealing with such issues myself, I personally would rather pursue that course of action. To that end, I suspected that returning to a yoga practice might help me, but I was scared. I felt timid, and in the back of my mind I thought that I probably couldn’t do it.
It was hard to admit that that was the truth.
I began to come up with rationalizations, explanations as to why I couldn’t get myself into a real yoga class… and I’d start concocting these excuses of sorts, in my head. I’m too busy. I won’t be able to find the time. My spare time should really be spent with my kids or cleaning house. The drive to the class is too long. It costs too much. On and on. Finally I forced myself to admit that I was, in a weird way, trying to lie to myself. The real truth was simple: I was allowing fear and intimidation to hold me back from doing what I really wanted, needed to do.
What if I was terrible this time around? What if I fell down? Repeatedly?* What if I looked stupid? What if one or more people were rude to me or laughed at me? The what-ifs nagged and prodded at my mind and I almost let them influence me to just stay home and forget about it. *I actually have since fallen down in yoga class, on more than one occasion. It isn’t really a big deal at all. The fear of it was far worse than the reality.
The pain continued to push me a little bit harder than the doubts and insecurities. I also realized I was mad at myself for letting fear rule me, decide for me. So I forced myself to go. To think as positively as I could about it. I had read The Secret around the time I started going back, and it reminded me of the power of visualization. So I started to imagine myself successfully getting through a class. I allowed myself to picture feeling good about it.
My yoga teachers of late are all really wonderful ladies, kind & patient. Able to find humor in most situations. There was an undeniable element of exhilaration and fun, even in those tough re-beginning days. My “main” yoga teacher, the one I’ve taken most of my classes from, is a total goddess. Also, though it’s no fault of her own, totally intimidating. Suffice it to say there is long list of experiences and talents in her rich and vibrant background. She is a rare person- multi-talented, beautiful inside and out and generous of spirit.
The enormity of my instructor’s amazingness was one of those things that freaked me out a little bit, so I just tried to somehow put it out of my mind. I simply focused and tried to inhabit the present moment when I spent time in her presence, in her classes. She has a calming ease about her so that helped me to slough off the intimidation factor. One of her many gifts is to help people who are a bit shy to lose self-consciousness, ditch the inner critic, and gain self-confidence.
Still, the first few classes were pretty tough. I wasn’t exactly fit to be a “pretzel person”. Despite the few years of yoga experience, I was almost like a beginner again. But an “older” beginner, because I’m in my late 30s now. I had stiff muscles in addition to the painful shoulder and the whole concept of yoga felt different than it had when I was in college. In my teens and 20s, I could bend and twist myself into almost any pose with barely any effort. There is a noticeable difference.
I took heart in noting that there were ladies of all ages in the classes, some younger, some older, some practicing with greater ease and some with less than myself. I reminded myself that yoga is never supposed to be a competition, and whatever level you are at, is OK.
Perhaps a bit of social awkwardness ensued here and there, which is simply part of the phenomenon of being me. If all my conversations and encounters flowed effortlessly, I would think I’d stumbled into an alternate universe. But no one was ever cruel or condescending about my yogic inability.
By the fourth or fifth class, I realized that some of the moves were getting a little easier. I could actually maintain some of the poses without collapsing into a sweaty lump.
I noted that I was finding the strength in the poses, relaxing into the sensation of the stretches, touching upon the mind/ body union.
The flow was getting stronger and I liked the flow. Liked it a lot.
The shoulder pain is still present, but no longer debilitating. I have pretty much 100% range of motion now, and although some shoulder stiffness is still there, it is compensated for by increased whole body strength, including upper body strength. In fact yesterday, after yoga, I stayed for a handstand class, and found that, as impossible as handstands used to seem, I can see how they are not really all that hard with the proper training, practice and alignment. I haven’t achieved the point where I can do handstands without a spotter. Headstands, yes. After one handstand class, I’ve progressed from not being to kick up into a handstand at all, to being able to kick up into one pretty easily as long as there is a spotter or a wall close.
Whether you choose to make fun of it or not, there is sometimes talk from the yogis, during class, of taking mistakes or negative circumstances and turning them into opportunities.
Pain, in certain forms, can be viewed as a message from the Universe, the Divine or however you relate to that infinite force (if you believe in that sort of thing) letting us know that some sort of change is needed. Silently, yet insistently telling us that we need to work a little harder at maintaining balance. Even if we don’t recognize it, at first, and it just feels like a major inconvenience.
Disclaimer: I understand that not everything that happens contains a lesson, necessarily. Sometimes, pain is just pain and some beings get unfair amounts of it for inexplicable and confounding reasons. For which I am sorry and I do feel empathy and/ or sympathy.
Still, when I think about it now, I have to say that in a way, I am grateful that the shoulder pain visited me in early 2012. If it hadn’t, I would have missed out on a whole new and exciting chapter.