By Christopher Cudworth
Midway into a third-ever session of yoga, I glanced over to see the sculpted shoulders of the female companion who led me to try the whole yoga enterprise at a beautiful little studio called Shine, and I whispered a quiet “Thank you” to her without disturbing anyone else in the room.
Alternative forms of exercise are good for you. They take you out of your so-called comfort zone. Some of us have years, even decades of ingrained habits to work through in our exercise histories. These histories are our habits of mind. Habits of body.
But really they are the Habits of Hobbits. Some of us never venture out of the Shire to see what the rest of the world holds. We run and enjoy it. Ride and revel in it. Some even swim to see what that holds. But then it stops. It does not have to stop there. We can grow. And so it begins.
Looking back to see ahead
I used to go out dancing and drinking until 1:00 a.m. and then get up and run 20 miles on Sunday morning. It loosened you up, all that dancing.
Which is important, because typically runners have all the flexibility of a car spring in winter. That’s not good.
Inflexibility and particularly shortened muscle groups can lead to injury if you don’t do something to counter all that internal tension. Stretching for runners used to involve a set of exercises we all did religiously. One of them was called the “hurdler’s stretch.” It involved sitting on the ground with one leg bent back at an angle as if you were soaring over a hurdle.
Except that you weren’t. We’d bend forward in that odd way runners do when they’re actually very stiff and don’t really know what they’re doing, back bent, body twisted and trying to touch our toes but seldom succeeding. After that we’d get up and run until we hurt ourselves again.
The past is in inflexible thing
I was a hurdler of sorts. My race in college was called the steeplechase. It involved running 3000 meters, navigating 7 water jumps and leaping over 35 intermediate hurdles built from 4” X 4” solid chunks of wood. You either made it over those barriers or you did not. Flexibility was at a premium. If you dragged your back leg it would knock on that barrier and it hurt. Tons.
There was just one problem with my steeplechasing career. I have a long torso and that’s not ideal for hurdling. Think about it. The taller you are from the waist to the head the more you have to bend forward while reaching toward you toes with the opposite hand while dragging the opposing leg behind you. All at 5:00 per mile pace. Yet I managed to run 9:19 even though my left calf was chronically strained from using it as the lead leg on both the hurdles and the water jump, which involves jumping over a pit that begins at 2.5′ deep and angles up to zero depth. Usually you landed with one specific foot to keep the other shoe dry. Does that make sense? Don’t know. That’s how we all did it. So you tended to abuse the hell out of one leg in that race. Those injuries add up. Sometimes they last years, or never go away at all.
The sad, sick thing is that no one knew a damn thing at the time how to increase your flexibility for real. Stretching involved bends and twists before you went out and ran. But that never made any real sense. You can’t stretch muscles that aren’t really warmed up. So we’d run 3 miles and then stretch, which was marginally better, but still didn’t increase our actual flexibility.
A whole new world
Enhancing flexibility requires a whole different strategy. And that’s where yoga comes into the picture. Yoga is basically an ancient form of physical therapy. Developed in absence of fancy tools or weights, yoga makes use of organic implements like firm pillows, an occasional strap for the truly inflexible and a mat on the floor so you can lengthen while you strengthen muscles and joints.
There are also fun foam blocks to use, like you’re in kindergarten, and small rubbers balls on which to stretch out your feet. Then there are low lights and a cozy room, instructors that guide you through the journey and help you ease out of the intensity when it’s all through.
The key word mentioned in the paragraph above is strengthen. It exists in parallel with the other important aspect of yoga, which is to lengthen. These are the yin and yang, as it were, of yoga.
Yoga strengthens your body through balance and natural course resistance. Many times as you go through a yoga session you can feel parts of your body in opposition to each other. That means you are out of balance in some ways. Muscles are too short in one place or another, made stiff by sitting in chairs or running dozens of miles at one pace or in one activity. Cyclists tend to build up tension in their lower backs, of course, and tightness in the hips from hours in the saddle. Yoga helps you work through all that. It calls you to a new place.
For years I’ve known that my left leg is slightly longer than the right, and that my pelvis slips forward on the right side as a result. Lower back problems including sciatica sometimes flare up from too much driving. You know the drill. We all have our biomechanical flaws. But if you let them persist, they can drag you down. So it’s best to find solutions rather than a runaround, as it were.
Hints of insight
It happens that during my own little history there came a turning point that was a good preparation for yoga. During an intensely busy period of life it became necessary for me to develop a set of exercises that built strength without having to go to a gym. So I did a little research and borrowed some exercises from the physical therapy routines I’d done to rehab a torn ACL and that became my morning or evening routine. It worked. The exercises involved a plank, pushups, knee exercises, lunges and other movements that gave me balance and raised the heart rate even when I did not have time to run or ride.
Then one morning it happened. While relaxing from a one-minute plank, I bent back into a “pose” where my butt rested on my heels and my arms reached forward like a stretching cat. For some reason that pose felt really natural and good. So I stayed there for several minutes, just breathing. In those moments the stresses that had been pressing down on me seemed to flow out onto the floor. My mind cleared.
The Child Pose and transformation
So it was much to my pleasant surprise in a first yoga class to find out that pose has a name, and a purpose. It is called The Child Pose. The name does not matter, and to people outside yoga the names sound silly. Like all things worth doing, the artifice of names and labels fades away when you’re in the moment, doing yoga.
It is a strange thing to be at once focused on yourself and yet not entirely in control of the next moment. You’re following instructions, or when more accomplished, inventing your own responses with variations based on their own body needs and expertise. Yoga is therefore not a “thing” as you might look at an exercise program, but a living thing. It transforms with you.
In the early stages where I stand tenuously balanced on one leg or holding a position where the muscles ask for relief but you persist for their own good, there is difficulty. But that’s the point. Yoga is a process of giving yourself over to a new reality, one in which your old body (both literally and figuratively) becomes transformed into something different.
That is why I’m there. To move beyond the crimped and limited flexibility of my past and present, and to lift my body and spirit into a new future. That required an activity that will keep me young in mind and spirit while complimenting the activities I love to do; run, ride and soon swim. That’s right, growth happens even though this blog still says “Sorry, no swimming.” That’s soon to change.
It’s all part of personal growth, this yoga thing. You either keep growing or you quit knowing yourself in the present.
Yoga is a way to reach for a better me, and a better you. Go ahead and reach. It feels good. Even when it hurts.