Yoga Is For Every Body

As my interest in and personal practice of yoga has increased, I’ve noticed something peculiar about images of yoga. They send a message that you have to be young, slender and unnaturally flexible to be a “real” yoga practitioner. That seems daunting to anyone who doesn’t fit that mold.

I noticed something similar after I became certified as a personal trainer. I myself loved the feeling of strength and freedom I got from exercise; however, many people I spoke with were reluctant to go to a gym because they felt they needed to be in a certain physical condition before they even started. At the same time, they were daunted by the idea of striking out on their own. Even worse, in personal conversations with experienced exercisers and even other trainers, I found many would poke fun at those who were just starting out.

Come on, everyone has to start somewhere. An expert is just a beginner who stuck with it.

This is unavailable to me.

I thought yoga would be different, given the emphasis on one’s inner state. But I had to get over my apprehension about trying to fit an older creaky body into the unbelievable positions modeled by the yoga teachers I saw online. It was daunting. While I still felt strong, I seemed to lack that which yoga demanded. There were many poses that my old injuries and life-long inattention to flexibility would prevent me from doing.

I mean, google Flying Dragon pose and you’ll see why. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be as exotic as that. Go to Pinterest and search for yoga images – the results seem almost outrageous, with every yogini outdoing the one before them. Is that what we’re supposed to aspire to? I don’t see anyone even close to my age. Are they all in physical therapy? Or traction?

My spine doesn’t bend like that.

This is more my level: still challenging, but quite doable.

But this is yoga, right? There are quite enough poses that most everyone can learn and use to build a regular yoga practice, no matter what the images on the Internet suggest. More importantly, there are modifications for whatever your own body will allow. Can’t put your forehead on your knees in forward-fold? Then how about a ragdoll variation. Guess what, it’s still yoga.

That doesn’t mean that what those super-bendy instructors are doing isn’t impressive. But I view them much as I view someone free-climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan. With awe and admiration for their abilities. And then I delight myself by finally being able to touch my toes again, thanks to my yoga practice.

Revisiting Yoga After Cancer: Finally Coming Around

Decades ago, my introduction to yoga took place in my parents’ library, a small paneled room with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling books. There I found an illustrated guide, replete with black and white photographs of odd contortions and strange nasal flossing. It seemed weird.

Oh, the moves I could do!

I had barely begun elementary school, and at that age was a natural-born yogi, as many young children are. Lotus pose? I could get my legs into position without using my hands. King Pigeon was no big deal, and nothing hurt when I folded myself up. I didn’t have a regular yoga practice at that age, but I would get occasional exposure to yoga moves at school, and I imagined all yogis wore diaper-like pants and lived on mountaintops.

High school provided an opportunity to do more. One of our French teachers practiced yoga, and I took a season of classes with her. Really, I remember little from that time. At that point, I was still limber but not as lanky, and yoga wasn’t particularly exciting. Volleyball was my game and I had no appreciation for how yoga could improve my playing. Had I practiced it properly, yoga could have helped immeasurably and prevented many a lost serve. But I lacked introspection and so barreled on as before.

Yoga resurfaced in my life now and again, but obsessed with more active ways of sweating, I steered away from it. I swam, ran and eventually strength-trained my body into shape. Yoga didn’t have a place in my view of what fitness should be.

Holding poses for a prolonged time? Not for me. Sweating through hot yoga? You’ve got to be kidding. A friend sustained a serious back injury from a yoga teacher who tried to force her into a pose. That was it; I was done with the idea of incorporating yoga into my already packed fitness routine.

Then I got cancer.

And I realized that my mind was victim to free-ranging anxiety. Desperate, I immersed myself in learning to meditate. I know they say that you need to find calm in the midst of chaos, but being thrown into chaos is not the best place to learn to be calm. I limped through cancer treatment and clung to the hope of peace. The only relief came from my love of fitness and drive to exercise as soon as the worst side effects of each infusion had passed.

Still, I pushed yoga away. Not interested. I needed to get my body back to where I’d been pre-cancer, not do slow movements that might tweak something and burned too few calories.

But the more meditation I did, the more mindfully I moved, yoga kept coming up, like a refrain in a song. Movements paired with breath.

I have made space in my life for yoga.

And then, it hit me. Movements paired with breath. I was all about the breath by then. Yoga provided the movements. And I found bliss.

When I opened myself up to yoga and invited it into my workout routine, something magical happened: my body started stretching out. All that tension that I’d carried for decades that had gradually tightened me up started releasing. My fingers found the floor in a forward bend again, and gently brought my palms with them. My heels easily pressed against the ground in a downward dog, with little peddling required. Moves that I could once do became available to me again.

So here’s the thing about breast cancer: after surgery, you lose some mobility in the affected side. Even now, side bends stretching my left side “pull” uncomfortably compared to my right side. Anyone who’s had lymph nodes plucked out of their armpits knows that that area stays tender for a good long time. Often, this brings an imbalance to the body.

My workouts had consisted of pounding myself through rowing, conditioning intervals, strength training with heavy weights and swinging kettlebells around. But without yoga, something critical was missing. Initially, I was afraid that “sacrificing” exercise sessions to yoga would result in faster decline of my physical ability and a push towards a more sedentary existence. Oh, how wrong I was! If anything, yoga has moved me towards vitality, flexibility and a sense of youthfulness that straight strength training had never allowed. Yoga opened up my whole body and allowed it to breathe freely.

What this has offered me is another way to look at how my cancer journey is progressing. After the aches and pains associated with never-ending adjuvant therapies, I admit I felt it was all going to be downhill, and that all I could do was desperately cling to my workout routines as my abilities gradually slipped away. Yoga brought back an element of fitness that I’d forgotten, and now, even though I know that I will be lifting less and rowing slower as time goes on, there is a new, perhaps more gentle world of fitness that I have yet to fully discover.