I taught myself yoga when I was 13 years old. This was back in the 1960s, in a suburb of Philadelphia, where most people thought yoga was that strange pudding-like food that health nuts ate. There was a wonderful old bookstore in my neighborhood – what would now be called an “independent” bookstore — back then, that’s all there were – independent owners of independent, quirky bookstores that reflected the tastes and passions of the owners and bookstore employees.
I can’t remember the name of this store. It was in the Lawrence Park Shopping Center in Broomall, Pennsylvania. It was a miraculous place for a young, introverted and poetic young girl. Not only was it where I found this yoga book that changed my life – it was called Yoga for Americans by Indra Devi – but I also found books by D.T. Suzuki on Zen Buddhism, poetry by Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America, In Watermelon Sugar, A Confederate General from Big Sur…this was heady stuff for a 13-year old.
So, I suppose it makes some kind of sense that, when I think of yoga, I think of a huge time of awakening in my life. A time of poetry, spirituality and the discovery that there are people out there in the world who care about the things I cared about, unlike those people who made up the rest of my family.
No matter. Back then, bookstores were portals of mystery and magic, where young solitary girls could go to discover that the world was bigger, had more possibilities, than anything contained in the minds of her parents.
There I was, 13 years old, reading through the chapters of this yoga book, learning hatha yoga from the writing and the pictures – Gloria Swanson was one of the models, no lie. The positions were all about patience, breathing and holding. The value of these postures was in your body’s ability to hold the positions while you breathed deeply and relaxed into yourself. Many decades later, that is what yoga still is for me. It’s about slow, patient holding and breathing. It’s about flexibility and strength found in the ability to balance, to stretch, to bend, to breathe. Yoga breathing is crucial to the process; it reminds us to breathe more deeply, more fully, more slowly. It helps us to oxygenate our bodies and our brains. It calms us and centers us.
I’ve never understood ‘hot yoga’ or ‘aerobic yoga’ — I do cardio, weight training, pilates, ballet training. But yoga, real yoga, as far as I’ve always been concerned, is the yoga of slow and intentional movement. Slow yoga.
That’s why I was not at all surprised when recent studies out of UCLA indicated that yoga is a “stress-buster”. In fact, I’m surprised that anybody finds this surprising. Other research, in the journal called Psychoneuroendocrinology (no, I’m not kidding), talks about yoga’s ability to reverse dementia. One of the most exciting things the medical community has recently discovered is that yoga reduces inflammation, which is considered one of the primary causes of much illness, including dementia, multiple sclerosis, cancers, heart disease. The list is not a pretty one. By the way, another thing that causes inflammation? Processed food. Another shocker, right?
Many people believe that yoga won’t work them out hard enough. They believe that sweating and straining is proof of a healthy workout. While there are plenty of benefits to cardio, and I practice it regularly — a blog for another time — there are many benefits to be had from the kinds of workouts that require balance, strength and holding. Pilates comes to mind. Ballet. And, of course yoga.
Yoga is in a class by itself, since it is not only an exercise practice. In fact, one of the big errors of American yoga can be found in this enormous misunderstanding. Yoga means “yoke” – and yoga is a practice that brings together the mind, body and spirit of the individual, creating greater harmony among our various aspects of being. One of the other big errors of American yoga? The belief that you have to buy and buy and buy — yoga mats, yoga clothes, yoga DVDs, yoga books and magazines and equipment. For heaven’s sake, people. Take off your shoes and your clothes, put on a comfortable pair of pajamas, and with bare feet just do the damn yoga. Seriously? Does someone really have to TELL you that?
Anyway, bottom line: try slow yoga. If you’ve never done it, you might be appalled to find yourself to be stiff, inflexible, awkward. But trust me. Keep trying. Slowly, your body will stretch, your movements will become more graceful, your ability to balance and breathe will not result in you falling onto the carpet. It’s about patience. It’s about intention. It’s about learning your body, quieting your mind, learning to listen to the “self” inside, about making discoveries regarding the truths your body holds for you.
In addition to all these physical benefits, some of the most important benefits will come through an increased and prolonged sense of calm, even in what used to be stressful, hot button situations. Yoga, put simply, will change you in many ways for the better. It’s a valuable practice, which is why it has lasted for thousands of years.