Lessons from a Yoga Challenge

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I recently completed a 30 Day Challenge at my beloved yoga studio. (I’m using the title yoga challenge somewhat loosely as I was allowed to mix it up and take dance and Pilates instead, but yoga is my first love at Sacred, and it’s mostly what I did).

I loved the 30 Day Challenge and the feeling of community that came with seeing fellow challenge undertakers day after day. There were days when I pushed myself in every posture, breath deep and even, heart soaring, thinking I was going to do yoga every single day for the rest of my life. There were days when it was challenging to drag myself to the studio, only to find my spirits lifted the moment I walked through the door. And then there were the days when I limped along with ragged breath, mental chatter imploring my ribs to please expand so I could get a freaking breath, begging muscles to lengthen, wondering why I’d signed up for this. But I was pleasantly surprised by how few of those days there were. I can count them on one hand, in fact. There were four of them, far outweighed by the 26 days of yoga immersion love.

I learned a lot in my 30 Days, but a few things came up for me over and over again.

Trying New Things Gives You More Choices.

OK, Duh. This is total common sense, and yet so easy to forget. Before the challenge, it was easy for me to cop out of going to class because the schedule was less than ideal. I had never taken a 7am class, because I (over)value my morning sleep, and getting up at six in cold, dark winter is not my idea of a good time. But there were some days during the challenge when that was the only class I could get to, and, though I sometimes felt a little sorry for myself as I schlepped to the studio in the dark (uphill both ways, mind you, freezing rain one of those times) I was surprised at how liberating it felt to create that space in my day. It meant that I really could do yoga every day, and it meant already being wide awake when I’d normally be rolling out of bed all groggy and having more hours for productivity. When you try something new, it gets added to your running roster of “things you do,” puts another option on the list. How refreshing!

Facing Fear Makes You Stronger.

This is a continuation of the first point. The schedule at my studio has changed recently to incorporate more Pilates classes. I will admit to not liking this change on paper. When yoga or movement classes have focused on core in the past, I’ve noticed a tendency in myself to wimp out. The idea of spending an hour (or more) in a hot room doing core exercises was daunting and not something I was into. Even though Pilates at Sacred is called Hot Mess, the implication being that we are all a hot mess from time to time and that we really can work it out, and even though I have faced far greater fears in my day and it sounds absurd to say this, I was afraid of Pilates. Afraid that my stamina wouldn’t hold up, afraid of facing my own weakness (at 7am, to boot), afraid that I would never get stronger. I would have avoided it for a while longer had it not been for the challenge. You could probably see this coming, but the class is amazing. The teachers incorporate so much self-care, humor, grace, and love that it feels positively indulgent. And I was shocked — SHOCKED! — to discover that, by the third class, I did not cheat at all. My abs worked. The whole time. Some growth is slow, but this was fast. I’m still wobbly, and I might need to take a little rest in future classes, but I am notably stronger than I was. When we finally do the thing we’ve been putting off, the thing we’ve feared, it’s remarkable how effective the action can be.

When in Doubt, Go Work Out (unless you’re injured, of course).

Sometimes I don’t want to go to class. Sometimes I am tired, and a rest seems like a better idea. Sometimes I am not totally hydrated, and choosing to sweat sounds dumb. I have been known to go to morning classes and to question, the entire way there, whether I was going to make it to class or veer off at the last minute to Bedford Hill or SCRATCHbread for a cushy breakfast instead (Once out the door, I’ve always made it). I have a tendency to baby myself. But, simply put, I have never, ever regretted going to yoga. Same goes for a long walk or a trip to the gym. Moving is always good. If you’ve got an actual injury or illness, listen to it. But there were days during the challenge when I felt sore or tired, and going back to yoga helped pretty much every time.

No One is Making You Do Anything.

During a particularly challenging class, in the midst of collectively testing and pushing limits, the teacher said “I am not making you do anything.” He offers similar reminders on a fairly regular basis. One of my classmates said after that particular class that she’d shot him a dirty look that she believed had prompted this talk.

“I didn’t bring you here. I’m not forcing you to do this. You can take a rest at any time.”

It was a useful reminder. At face value, during classes that feel hard, it can sound a little bit like “not my fault it’s hard — don’t blame me,” but it goes much deeper than that and taps into one of the big things that yoga is about. There are people in our lives who have some objective power over us — parents when we’re kids, employers when we’re grown, teachers at various points along the way. But not in yoga. We’re not being graded. We’re not being judged. There are no requirements. While I have sometimes ascribed the discipline required to participate fully to the teacher, that’s not right. It’s all about self and self-discipline, honesty about whether or not you need to drop a knee.

Life is a balancing act, and the negotiation between ease and challenge, between being in comfort and pushing for something more, is constant. Recognizing that negotiation in yoga, taking full ownership of that process, can make it easier to take responsibility in other areas, to acknowledge that we move from our own choices and to choose more wisely.


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