5.8
June 9, 2020

Yoga: The Therapy I Needed (& Still Need).

 

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I’ve been doing yoga for a total of nine years now, and it was quite serendipitous.

I was having back issues (I had fixed sagittal imbalance, aka flat back syndrome, and some compression around the cervical and lumbar spine) and was going to a physical therapist at that time, but I’d used up all the sessions covered by my health card.

My doctor said I should try yoga. I brushed it off.

A couple days later, I received three months’ worth of Gold’s Gym membership as an exchange for a project.

They had yoga classes.

My life turned around so completely after the first class that I signed up for a gym membership. Eventually, I signed up for a nearby yoga studio.

Yoga was the first kind of exercise I’ve ever stuck with. Other than immediate relief from my back pains, the composition of my muscles started to change. I mean, I didn’t have visible muscles back then, and I was the fat kind of thin (my body fat was 38 percent, but my weight was 115 lbs; I was considered obese). With yoga, I noticed that I started to firm up a bit.

I physically and mentally struggled the first few classes, but I also rejoiced in my little achievements, like knowing what Warrior 2 was, or that I can reach a little closer toward my toes in Seated Forward Fold, or that I finally got to really relax (instead of pretending to) in savasana, or Corpse pose.

But other than these physical manifestations, I also learned so much about how to approach and view life in general. This is far more drastic than the physical changes I noticed.

And this is what I celebrate the most in my yoga practice.

So today, instead of merely listing what yoga has taught me and still continues to teach me, let me break it down by the styles of classes I have actually tried and that have remained more or less constant in my life:

Hatha Yoga

This was my first ever yoga class, taught by one of the most celebrated teachers in Manila—teacher Pio Baquiran. I finished my first class thinking, “That’s it? That was yoga?” The following morning, I couldn’t lift my arms because my body was so sore!

It is still my favorite type of yoga class, because it reminds me to take on a beginner’s mind—that in life, we never really become experts, that everything is a continuous practice, and that we can always go back and try again.

The foundational poses humble me and would usually present me with new ways of approaching a pose (and life): we can make it simpler, we can make it more difficult, or we can view it as a learning opportunity. I go to this class when I need to remind myself that it is okay to start as a beginner, and how things only go up from there.

Hot Yoga

I carefully planned on attending this class for the first time on a day when I was feeling courageous and fearless, because Hot yoga is really one of the more intimidating classes out there. Naturally body-conscious, I was wearing my leggings, sports bra, and a tank top in my first class, while the guys were wearing swimming trunks and the ladies were donning skimpy shorts and a sports bra.

I also almost blacked out in my first class (maybe because of what I was wearing!) and stepped out feeling relieved (or amazed!) that I even survived. I got addicted to it for an entire year after that first class and also learned to accept what my body looks like wearing fewer clothes and to not compare bodies with my classmates (and other people outside the studio).

Hot yoga is still my go-to class when I’m feeling bloated, imbalanced, or start getting haunted by my body issues again. I learned that every body is different and every body is actually beautiful in its own right.

This class is also the epitome of the tattoo on my shoulder: “This, too, shall pass.” Doing yoga in a 38- to 40-degree room makes one embrace the present pose and celebrate the quick transition to the next one.

Vinyasa Flow

Let me quote my 2016 self: “I can do Vinyasa for three whole hours.” This may still hold true.

Vinyasa literally means “to place in a special way;” technically, to “move from one place to another.” Vinyasa is almost dance-like, with continuous movements and minimal holds (and sometimes with some cardio-like movements), and is my go-to when I have the need to feel creative and spontaneous.

The most important contribution of Vinyasa to my life is focused attention—mindfulness—because there really is no other time but the present moment in this class. The second I remove my attention from the teacher’s ever-changing cues is the moment I feel my practice start to collapse.

However, every time this happens, I would find Vinyasa giving me a gentle smile and saying, “It’s okay, let’s try again.” In this class, I am encouraged to accept uncertainty (since every class is different) and move gracefully to what may come next. It’s not easy at first—in fact, it can get very frustrating—but even the ability to embrace uncertainty without frustration can be practiced, and we can get better at it every time.

Yin Yoga & Meditation

When I first attended Yin in 2012, I felt I wasted my time and my money. “I could’ve done that in bed,” was my first thought stepping out of the studio. Being the type-A person I was, I rejected anything that was supposedly calming and easy; I was always looking for competition and ways to nail whatever pose I was obsessing over.

But I kept attending those seemingly boring Yin classes, especially if it was right after a Hot class, and without me knowing it, its discipline silently permeated my mind and my entire being. I started being calmer, quieter, less judgmental. I started minding my own business, and I stopped looking at my mat-mates. Outside the studio, I felt my mood start to stabilize; I was “quite happier than usual,” a friend even chirped. I attributed it to yoga in general, but I knew it was Yin.

I learned to slow down, and that slowing down wasn’t such a bad thing. I learned to breathe more mindfully than how they would teach us in other yoga classes.

For the first time in my life, I was able to define my spiritual anchor, because of a meditation class in 2015 with Teacher Eileen Tupaz (I might expound on this in a separate post).

Yin and meditation classes have become a staple: if I can squeeze in only one type of yoga in my busy schedule, this would be it or a derivative of it, like Yin-Yang yoga or Restorative yoga. I am a firm advocate of mental wellness, and this one is one of the best healing spaces life has given me.

Ashtanga Yoga

The first Ashtanga class I went to (after three months of gym-based Hatha) happened to be a Mysore class: I may have looked like I was just flailing my arms and pretending to be a yogi. The teacher seemed quite distracted and slightly disappointed that I attended his class.

Needless to say, I had a not-so-good first experience with it. Until now, I chuckle remembering what the person I spoke with over the phone told me when I inquired. (She just said, “Yes, it’s beginner-friendly! It’s only Php 500 for first-timers. Come over!”—which makes me mindful with how I describe classes to people who inquire about Treehouse classes.)

But I still gave Ashtanga (led-classes) a try that same year, and I am still in love with it after nine years, so yes, even the class that made me feel humiliated and silly at first became something I probably cannot live without.

I attend Ashtanga classes when I want to experience movement meditation, to just feel my breath and my body really come together. This is possible because Ashtanga has a set sequence, and if, like me, you’re quite familiar with it already, then the flow of the whole 75 or 90 minutes becomes meditative.

Ashtanga has taught me to accept and, at the same time, challenge my body limitations.

Off the mat, my Ashtanga practice reminds me to push my endeavors to a healthy level and honor the circumstances I am in. It also reminds me that with practice comes progress: I may not perfect or master something, but I will surely get better at it. Practice, and all is coming, as Ashtangis would always say.

Look, I’ll be honest: I’ve cried in savasana and utkatasana (Chair pose). I’ve cursed at myself in tons of peak poses. I’ve hurled silent threats towards teachers on difficult days. I’ve deliberately dodged a hundred hellos from strangers at the studio.

But…

I’ve also laughed in savasana and utkatasana and in a hundred other poses, in hundreds of classes I’ve attended. I continually forgive myself for the harsh thoughts toward myself. I continually learn to accept myself fully —the good, the bad, and everything else in between — and refer to this lesson on days that I slip. I love my teachers and trust them with my practice. Some teachers and fellow yogis have become life-long friends, and most of them hold the realest, most honest conversations off the mat.

If you haven’t tried yoga yet because you feel intimidated, scared, embarrassed, ashamed, or because you have already bestowed your judgment upon it (i.e. “It’s easy, hard, boring, difficult…”), or because you have already defined yourself based on what you see on photos (i.e. “It’s not for me because I’m not strong/flexible/calm/[insert self-judgment here] enough”), I encourage you to be vulnerable and courageous just for one hour one fine day and try it out.

While the whole world is battling a pandemic, yoga teachers are continuing to hold space through online yoga classes. Yoga may guise itself as exercise, but, trust me (I do psychological counseling), it’s much more than that.

In counseling, we actually teach breathing exercises to help with anxiety, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance. We also educate our clients about mind-body connection and the awareness of it (i.e. how depression, anxiety, and other emotions can start to manifest in the body). The core of the therapy I use (dialectical behavior therapy or DBT) is anchored on mindfulness.

To be perfectly honest, you don’t have to pay a therapist to learn these skills. You just have to continue attending yoga classes (especially on days when it’s difficult to go) and hit two, maybe even three or four birds with one breath.

I still cannot do Instagrammable peak poses. I still cannot do a graceful backbend. I still attend beginner classes and those “boring” Yin classes. I still flinch in meditation. I still get sad and anxious and frustrated in life. But every class reminds me of all the lessons above and more, and every class lets me try again.

Maybe going to a yoga class for the hundredth time or for the first time ever is the missing piece of the puzzle we need for our mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness. The physical benefits of yoga really are just mere bonuses for me.

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