I’m Going Where?!

“I’m going to yoga tomorrow morning.  Want to go with me?”

The words are foreign.

There was a time in my life, like, 12 years ago, when “yoga” and “Lauren” were synonymous with one another.  Purple sticky mat and lithe little Lauren were one and the same.

I had my certain spot in the yoga room I veered to whenever I opened up the mirrored doors.

I had my select yoga gear (it was actually just a handful of ratty shirts and long pants that I reserved for asanas) that got more mileage than my beat-up Corolla.

I had my favorite postures, namely camel and forward fold, and felt a ridiculous amount of giddiness whenever approaching these movements.

Yoga was my life.  And that is no simplification.  I was a posture, the posture was me.  Funny how today when my friend and I attended a class in the wee early hours of 9am (My body creaked!  My joints cracked!), it was the first time I set foot into a studio in, oh, hmm, maybe, was it 6 months?  8 months?  My daily attendance has dwindled to a bi-annually event.

What happened?

I could say that I gave up my yoga mat because I was getting tired of doing the same postures over and over again.  I was a Bikram and Ashtanga devotee, and those of you who know those two styles of asana can attest to the fact that there is always a set flow to each practice.   Every time.  No deviation.

Part of that is true, that the rigidity of going from pranayama to half moon to backward bend and so on was making me feel complacent.  But in reality, the expectations of being a yogi were getting to me.  Seriously getting to me.  And not just physically, but mentally as well.

Some background:  I was a long distance runner for as long as I can remember and took up Bikram yoga because I needed my body to heal from all the pounding and abuse I racked up from the miles on the road.  After my first sweaty class I was hooked because I realized I was a natural yogini.  Shorter legs, longer torso, extremely flexible–I could already do the splits without much prompting and in a heated room I could do even more.  Being the perfectionist and goal-oriented person I am, I continued my yoga journey in hopes of creating THE PERFECT ASANAS EVER.  When teachers proclaimed to “let your body guide you, only do what you can do today,” I internally scoffed.  No, I was going to push the limits of my flexibility.  I wanted to mimic the Chinese contortionists fellow yogis claimed I looked like.

After five years of continuous classes, hitting the hot studio once or twice daily, I was close to achieving the “I have no bones in my body” ideal.  Full camel.  Standing splits.  Full backward bends.  Guillotine.  Nothing was off limits.  But for what?  My joints ached because I was actually over stretching the ligaments.  I was constantly thirsty because I wasn’t drinking enough water to hydrate after being inside a 100 degree room for 90 minutes everyday.  Physically, I was tired.  My body was crying out for me to stop.

Mentally, my brain was also crying out for me to stop.  My identity was wrapped around how flexible I was, how “cool” it was that I could do splits on command.  Yeah, it’s a fun trick once in awhile, but the pressure to be “that uber flexible and so amazing yogi gal” was mounting.  I didn’t know who I was apart from my purple mat.

So I just stopped.  I threw away my yoga clothes.  I cut up my yoga mats.  I cried.  And cried.  And Cried.  It felt like I was discarding a part of myself.  It was cathartic and necessary, yes, but also very similar to the purging process alcoholics go through when weaning off the bottle.  For many months after I was an emotional wreck trying to figure out what my next sports mission would be.

I tried other activities.  I saw a CrossFit video and thought Fran seemed easy, so I tried doing a pull-up and realized all I could do was just hang there.  I tried rolling around in a jiu-jitsu gi and became dizzy after warm-ups.  I felt like I was failing, failing in being a powerhouse in some other kind of sport.

That was when God showed me this:  Is my body really just for sport?  To receive medals and acolades for?  Or is my body meant for more–to honor Him, to do His will, to do His work?

It was a total paradigm shift.  Yoga was not my life.  Sport was not my life.  Jesus was my life.

So I approached new activities with no expectations, no restraints, no labels.  And you know what?  I HAD FUN.  I didn’t have to be “that super strong girl” or “the girl that runs really far and really fast.”  I could just be me.  I laughed with my husband as he tried to teach me how to put on gloves and box.  I jumped around with excitement when I was able to do 10 push-ups in a row.  I cheered with friends when I finally achieved a 1.5x bodyweight squat.  I was having fun because I didn’t need to have my sense of worth, who I am, wrapped up in a certain number, asana, or label.

And by bi-annual yoga class today?  All I can say is, it was fun.  My friend and I ended up being the only two in the room with the teacher.  We laughed during the last savasana (I know you’re not supposed to, but whatever!), we breathed into alignment with the postures, and after, we had a great lunch together and enjoyed one another’s company.

It was fun.  It was grand.  I got to hang out with a friend, work on my spinal alignment, and basically spend some time just being me.  Have I already signed up for my next 90 minute asana session?  No.  I have no idea when I’m going to another class.  Maybe next week?  Maybe next month?  Either way, I’m entering that room with no expectations and no asana bar I have to reach.  It will just be fun.  Pure fun.

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Breathe in. Breathe out.

By faith, I did it.

I couldn’t believe it.  Was I dreaming?  What was I doing?  Was this for real?

Take a journey with me, back to a week ago.  Picture it:  It was a warm summer Saturday night, and the hubby and I were winding down a dinner date where we munched on burgers (venison for me, beet and veggie patty for him), breadfruit fries, and cheesy cauliflower at a local downtown burger and pub-style restaurant.  After the meal, we decided to take a walk around the local shopping area, where there were numerous dessert shops and boutiques.  Maybe it was the two glasses of adult beverage I had at dinner or the fact that I was feeling sublimely relaxed with no motherhood responsibilities (the kids were sleeping over at the in-laws), but either way, I saw it on the shelf in one of the shops we were walking through, picked it up, and bought it.

“It” was a nondescript yoga mat.  Nothing incredibly special, as in this day and age, yoga mats are a dime a dozen.  But purchasing that pale pink-purple rectangular piece of cushion was a signal of some sort.  I was ready to venture back into the yoga routine.

As described in my previous posts, I was an extremely addicted long-distance runner.  Well, “addicted” is one term to describe the hours I spent hitting the pavement, trying to whittle my thighs down through miles or jogging in the beating sun or hailing rain.  “Obsessive” may be a more accurate term to highlight how marathons took over all my thoughts and cognitions, as I owned close to 10 running shoes, scoured “Runner’s World” magazine daily, and spoke about Deena Kastor like she was my best friend.  Eventually I saw the err of my ways in regards to long-distance running, but similar to what many individuals battling eating disorders figure out, they trade the one addiction (restrictive eating, purging, obsessive exercising) for another addiction (alcoholism, cutting, excessive shopping).  Following suit, I decided to turn in my running shoes for a yoga mat.

Ironically, it was at the suggestion of my eating disorder dietitian almost 10+ years ago that I take up a new sport, one that did not require me to be outdoors in running shoes, one that had a definitive beginning and end, one that was in the company of others.  She suggested Bikram Yoga, as doing Hatha yoga postures in a heated room for 90 minutes would conjure up the same type of sweat and euphoria that running for 90 minutes would induce.

Little did she (or I) know that Bikram Yoga would become take the place of long-distance running, and in due time I’d end up doing two classes a day everyday, showing up to the studio at least 30 minutes early to do extra postures before, spend up to 30 minutes after class doing extra postures and crunches, and having a fit if I were unable to make it down to the hot room.  I distinctly remember one such incident, when my husband’s good friends from Japan were in town, and he made last minute dinner plans with them.  My initial reaction?  No, I can’t go because I have to go to yoga.  My second reaction?  Well, maybe I can meet everyone late for dinner after I go to yoga.  It took a lot of argumentative conversation between my husband and I (well, about 30 minutes of him talking and me crying a toddler-like tantrum) before I rescinded into saying that yes, missing one class would not be the end of the world.

My addiction to Bikram Yoga, however, eventually spilled into my eating habits, and I created rules around what I could and could not eat.

I couldn’t eat at least 3 hours before yoga.  And I couldn’t eat anything with fat in it.

I couldn’t drink any liquid of any kind during or after class.

I couldn’t eat anything right after yoga.  I had to wait until I could feel my stomach growling before consuming any type of food.

Needless to say, those rules plus all of the extreme amounts of yoga I was doing made it so that I was doing a heck of a lot of output and barely getting any input.  And so I started to lose weight.  And then I lost more weight.  And then more.  Granted, part of it was probably dehydration as I didn’t drink a lot of liquids before, during, or after class–on weekends, in fact, I would try to not eat the whole day if possible, take a steamy afternoon class, and then have 2 glasses of wine at dinner.  Why 2 glasses?  I’m not sure.  But the fact is, I was already sucked dry from no water plus a heated yoga class, and consuming alcoholic beverages soon thereafter did not help my hydration levels.  It got to a point where the owner of the studio I frequented actually put a hold on my membership, as she and many other individuals noticed my disintegrating weight and compulsivity.

Needless to say, much like the obsession with running, I eventually realized that I needed to stop.  Stop yoga, stop the compulsion, stop the insanity (ha ha, throwback to Susan Powter right there), and find balance.  I am a person of extremes, and although now I am much more balanced in my approach to, well, everything, the times when I do swing from one end to another results in my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual demise.  At a recent sermon, the preacher reflected on how what our minds are focused on, that is what our “god” or “God” is.  Thankfully now I do not wake up thinking about yoga postures, nor do I sit in traffic daydreaming about how to perfect my camel posture or headstands.  Yoga is no longer my “god”, but back when I was constantly in the hot room, the 26 Hatha postures WERE.

So how did I stop?  Basically, it was all God.  Philippians 3:15 states, “So let’s keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us. If any of you have something else in mind, something less than total commitment, God will clear your blurred vision – you’ll see it yet!”  It could only have been by God’s sovereign hand that I was able to resist packing my towel, mat, and clothes, driving down to the studio, and partaking in a 90 minute session.  Sure, my membership at a studio was put on hold, but I very easily went to another Bikram place, took class, and no one besides me knew that I was “breaking the rules.”  Eating disorders and addictions are very crafty, and they know how to get a person to be stealthily sly and conniving in order to continue growing the obsession.  My husband couldn’t police me during the day, and neither could my family or friends.  In the end, it was only a supernatural God that could have released me from the bondages of compulsivity.

Since that time when I prayed to God to help me overcome my yoga addiction, I had no real compulsion to take a class. Stretch after working out?  Sure.  Try doing some postures with the hubby for fun?  Yeah.  But no formal classes, since the drive to WANT to go to a class wasn’t there.  After a few years of focusing more on weightlifting and getting stronger, the numerous yoga mats I accumulated throughout the years became stained with oil as they were used when my hubby fixed the cars.  One mat was cut in half so that my daughter could use it as an exercise mat in our garage.  I relegated yoga to “that thing I used to do back in the day”–it was in my past, something that I didn’t give a second thought about.

It wasn’t until I started training with a new powerlifting coach, that he recommended that one day a week I focus on stretching.  Internally, I laughed at the idea because I’m naturally hyper-mobile and can touch my toes with straight legs even after not taking a yoga class for the past 5 years.  Stretching?  What for?  And then after working with this coach for the past three weeks (ironically, he pointed out my lack of ankle mobility after our first video conference, which I didn’t realize was an issue when I squatted), it dawned on me why stretching was so important.  Like anything in life, there needs to be balance.  Monday through Friday I work my major muscles HARD, tearing down the fibers in hopes that they grow back stronger, denser, and bigger.  Come Saturday and Sunday, my body wants to recover.  It’s cool to be able to heft gigantic weights overhead or squat way more than my bodyweight, but what good is it if I can barely move after because my knees are stiff and my back aches?  The body needs a chance to recuperate, and what better way to achieve a mind-body balance than yoga?

So I did it.  I bought a yoga mat, and with that purchase, it solidified the fact that I am going to give myself that weekly refreshing and give my body a break from the barbell.  More importantly, it broke a fear I had for numerous years, that if I happened to return to a yoga class, the same compulsivity that haunted me years ago would start to echo in my thoughts, and I’d soon end up living in the yoga studio doing inversions all day.  But therein lies the difference between the yogini I was versus the yogini I am:  I know that while yoga can become competitive because I’m a natural Gumby, yoga is actually a relaxing and calming practice that gets me more in touch with my breath and alignment.  My main purpose in practicing is to feel my muscles lengthening, to be astounded by the wonderful body God created–it’s not for pride to be able to say I can wrap my foot around my head in lotus or bite my toes in a seated forward bend.

Here’s another disclaimer too:  I appreciate all styles of yoga, yet I am a strong Christian, and I don’t believe in the religious aspects of the practice.  I am certified in sports yoga, and know all about the importance of meditation and the definitions of the different limbs and such–but I don’t chant.  I don’t pray to any other god other than Jesus.  And I don’t find my god in yoga.  As much as I know meditating and chanting in yoga are a part of bringing together the spirit, mind, and body, I don’t do it, merely because I don’t believe in it.  I believe in Jesus as Lord, and that His peace transcends all understanding.  Don’t get me wrong–I love savassana as much as the next person, but while laying there on my mat, I’m not thinking about Vishnu.  Instead, I am feeling the breath go in and out of my lungs, and I’m thanking Jesus for the body He gave me and His strength in my being.

So the mat I bought two Saturdays ago?  It was put to use yesterday at a friend’s new hot yoga studio.  And can I just say, I loved it.  My yoga teacher friend is a wonderfully down to earth gal and her classes are always remarkable (look it up–her new studio is R3d Hot Yoga on Kapahulu Ave.), but what I loved more was that I wasn’t competing with anyone in class.  I was breathing.  I was feeling my spine move in ways it hasn’t moved in awhile.  I felt my hamstrings lengthen with each forward fold, and I felt the oxygen rush in and out of my lungs as I moved in and out of camel pose.  It was lovely.  It was peaceful.  And in the final relaxation pose, I thanked God for the health and life He has blessed me with.

I felt no compulsions, no addictive voice trying to pervade my thoughts.  And by faith, I know that finding balance in my training (and in life) is making me a more sound and whole person.