Monday, August 1, 2011

40 Days of Yoga: Week Six Recap -- The End?

Triumph. This was the theme of Week Six and the conclusion of our 40 Days of Yoga Challenge. I would say that we did feel pretty triumphant when we wrapped up our last yoga session on Friday morning, but we have some other reflections to share too. We thought it would be best if you heard each of our takes.

She Says

I was an easy sell when Brian suggested that we try Baron Baptiste's 40 Days to Personal Revolution. I had been practicing yoga on and off for almost six years, and for the last year had made yoga a far more habitual practice, particularly in the home I found at the Chicago School of Hot Yoga. But since coming to Nepal, where I did not have a go-to studio, I found that my practice had kind of plateaued; Brian and I were actually practicing at home fairly frequently, a few times a week, but we were rotating the same few podcasts and not doing much to shake up the routine. The idea of 40 days of yoga, then, seemed like a fun new challenge.

And it was, at first. But the novelty of the new routine wore off about halfway through the 40 days because of the routine itself. Each week there is a prescribed series of poses that builds on the last week's routine, so you never subtract, you only add. Because the poses make up a typical vinyasa flow, I knew exactly what I was getting into, but unlike teachers who shuffle the standard poses and throw in different challenges from day to day, Baron remains predictable over the course of the 40 days. This is my only real quibble with the program, which, frankly, gets old. Maybe you Bikram lovers out there would dig doing the same practice over and over again, but it did not suit me; I like yoga classes that keep me guessing, because these are the classes that keep me coming back.

We hedged against potential boredom by substituting some different yoga podcasts each week. Sometimes longer and sometimes shorter than the prescribed practice, these alternative sessions kept the whole endeavor from becoming too repetitive. In the process we also discovered some great teachers, including Dave Farmar and Faith Hunter (D.C. friends: please check out her studio! For me!).

But even though Baron's routine grew tiresome, I will give him this: thanks to practicing them over and over again, I significantly improved my form in a few particular poses. The hated half-moon pose? Now I can actually lift my face to the sky and manage to do so without grimacing. My chattarunga also drastically improved (and well it should -- how many chattarungas must I have done over the last 40 days?). I would like to think that I had at least decent form before the program, but I know that my core strength was not so hot because I would always be in a hurry to transition from low push-up to upward dog. Now, though, I think that I could hang out in low push-up for a good five minutes.

One pose that I have never been able to do is handstand. Baron incorporates inversions in the latter part of the program, and though I gave it a good honest try one day, I found that I still have a ways to go before I will be able to fly, gracefully and confidently, into an unsupported handstand. I have managed to more or less conquer my fear of going upside down by successfully doing a headstand against the wall (in fact, I did a headstand for the first time just last night, and it was, well, easy. Why did I make such a big deal out of it?). So, I am declaring here and now that I want to be able to do a freestanding handstand before my next birthday in January (hint: it's a big one). I've got a little over five months to get there. Yogi readers out there, if you have any tips for me, please share them in the comments!

Finally, I really enjoyed doing this challenge alongside Brian. It would have been much more difficult to do completely solo, as we motivated each other on those few days when we felt almost too exhausted to roll out our yoga mats. I did find, though, that even if I felt similarly tired by the idea of yet one more yoga session, I was quick to defend yoga and the program to Brian. I think this is because I feel somewhat responsible for roping him into this yoga thing, and I so want him to like it. To really, really like it. And I would get nervous that any complaint on his part -- even if I was feeling the exact same way -- meant that I was losing some of that hard-fought ground to convince him how awesome yoga is.

He Says

Despite my checkered history with yoga, it was in fact my idea to embark on this 40-day journey. I do not regret it one bit. For someone just tiptoeing into regular practice, the 40-day challenge was, as I hoped it would be, a great way to immerse myself in yoga enough to get a real sense of what it is all about and whether I would like it. In my experience, yoga is something you have to do for a while to get the hang of -- the better you get, the more enjoyable it gets. That is not to say that yoga is not enjoyable for the true virgin. Getting on a mat for the first time can be simultaneously invigorating and relaxing. For me, it was a bit humbling, but the only way to get some comfort and confidence with yoga was to keep doing it. Committing to 40 days was an ideal motivator.

The initial weeks of the program were really exhilarating. Yoga was new and exciting and I was really digging it physically and emotionally. With the help of our podcast yogis, Baptiste's book, and my talented wife, I was improving my poses and practice almost by the day. It was incredibly satisfying to notice progress in practice whether it was with my posture, flexibility, or strength. That I went from total novice to doing crow/crane pose and headstands and handstands against a wall is gratifying, especially for someone who never mastered the childhood cartwheel. Doing new things in yoga is like play time for adults with core work. What's not to love?

I noticed progress off the mat, too. It sounds a little crazy to claim that I had any noticeable physical changes in just a handful of weeks, but I swear that certain clothes fit better. At the very least, I realized I didn't need to beat myself up in the gym or on a running trail to keep myself in good shape. I had accepted the plateau my body has maintained for the last number of years despite regularly switching my routine through different variations of running (sprints, hill work, long-distance) and weight lifting (thank you, large corporate law firm for the free personal trainers on staff -- yes, that is what the exorbitant client bills are paying for). I did not, therefore, begin this yoga experiment expecting or even hoping to see any visible health improvements. Yet, to my surprise, yoga appeared to actually jump start some tangible positive results in my body.

I share this anecdote not to prescribe yoga as some kind of body transformation program, but to point out that yoga is in fact a legitimate form of exercise even all by itself. Many guys I know would not touch yoga with a ten-foot pole (and that is their loss), but others who are more open-minded would only consider adding yoga as a supplement to their usual lifting program or other workout routine. I am all for that, and eventually I do think I will return to lifting and running more regularly (or even trying other totally new activities -- rock climbing anyone?). But for those of you skeptical that yoga alone can keep you in shape ("Isn't it just stretching?"), I am here to say that in my case it has done the job just fine.

As Claudine mentioned, I struggled a bit with yoga fatigue near the end of the program. Forty days of anything can drive one a bit batty, right? In the opening weeks, I came to think of yoga as more than a workout. A yoga mat is a great escape, or, perhaps more accurately, a centering place to unwind and find some relief from the outside world and the chaos of the day. This effect is weakened when you begin your session for the day with your inner voice protesting, "Do I really have to do this right now?" In that sense, the 40 days began to feel like overkill near the end. Now that I am untethered from the constraints of the program, I am again embracing yoga as I think it should be: not an obligation, but rather a welcome and positive part of my day.

Forty days later, I look forward to the next forty days of yoga and, I predict, many more.

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