It’s official. I’ve well and truly fallen head over heels in love. My new hot and sweaty love affair is with Ashtanga yoga. Some of you may remember that this was a desired outcome for my most recent 30-day challenge. The challenge was to exercise every day for 30 days in August and the result I was hoping for was to get back in touch with my body and to start and maintain a daily yoga practice.
It went well. I didn’t exercise every single day but I did a hell of a lot of exercise. I’ll break it down for you. The exercise I did consisted of running, yoga, swimming and strength training.
I ran 11 times
I did yoga 11 times
I went swimming 3 times
I did strength training once.
I took 5 days off
In total I exercised for 25 days in August.
At the beginning of the month I was mainly running and swimming and I was struggling to get into my yoga, which was somewhat worrying because it was the whole point of the challenge. This all changed when I went to my first Ashtanga class on Tuesday 21st August. Something clicked and I knew in an instant that I had found a new and intense passion.
As an ex-hardcore runner, I always thought about doing yoga but if I’m being truthful I honestly believed, like many others, that all yoga really consisted of was striking a few poses and learning how to focus on the breath. I didn’t doubt that yoga would help me get more flexible, improve my posture and give me a sense of calm but I never in my wildest dreams thought that yoga could make me sweat the way I have done recently or bring about the other benefits I detail here.
When my knee got injured back in 2009, I struggled to find any other sport that gave me the same feeling of momentum and power as running had. For me cycling was boring, swimming was more hassle than it was worth, plus vanity prevented me from wearing a swimming cap to prevent damage to my hair and little else interested me. With time I unintentionally fell out of the habit of regular exercise.
This week is my third week of doing Ashtanga yoga 3-4 times a week and I wanted to share the benefits I’m seeing in such a short space of time.
1. I feel like a goddess
Seriously I do. There is something about doing Ashtanga yoga that makes me feel powerful, graceful and damn right goddess like. You’ll never read that in a class description but it’s totally true. What I can’t guarantee is that feeling like one means you look like one, that I’m fairly certain is not true in my case.
In my humble opinion, getting through an Ashtanga series requires not only effort and energy but grace. Often at the beginning of a class when my teacher reminds us to set an intention for our practice, mine is to remember to move through the two-hour class with as much grace as I can muster. Doing so helps me to remember to hold my lines, It stops me slacking off and encourages me to keep my yoga poses active (striking a pose is not as easy as it sometimes looks!). In poses where I initially struggled to keep a straight line with my arms, I’ve now noticed that I can now do so with ease.
2. A new awareness of my body
Despite seeing numerous physiotherapists over the last three years each with a different theory as to why I suffered from knee pain (turns out in the end that the cause was just my 9-5 job), I feel as though I’ve learnt more about my body in the last few weeks than I did in those three whole years.
Just through doing yoga I now know where I have muscle tightness, where I’m flexible, what the differences are between the right and the left side of my body and also where there are current physical limitations that I have every intention of exceeding.
Not only this but already I’m noticing changes in my body, I’m feeling more toned, more slender and believe it or not I even feel taller, which no doubt comes from the improvement in my posture that now sees me walking tall, instead of hunching.
Another obvious but great side effect of yoga is a desire to eat more healthily. When you are doing as much exercise as I’m doing at the minute, the last thing you want to do is undo your good work by eating junk food.
3. A greater appreciation of the power of my mind
One of the things that I love most about my Ashtanga teacher is his constant reminders that my inability to do advanced yoga poses is all in my mind. It’s exactly the kind of attitude that I respect and believe in. Right now I am having serious issues with getting from a downward dog position into handstand. I, as well as others in the class, am fully aware that it is my mind that is stopping me rather than a lack of physical capability. Despite knowing this, getting my mind to play ball isn’t always easy, but I’m loving the daily challenge.
As well as holding me back, my mind can also enable me to do things that I previously thought impossible. When I tell myself that I can do something, then I am more able to do things that three weeks ago were only aspirations to me. When holding poses that require balance, the only possible way to stay in balance is to focus the mind, get distracted or start to think too much and you’ll fall over every time. The mind is much more powerful than we ever give it credit for.
4. Sense of achievement
When I first got to Chiang Mai, I purposely avoided the Ashtanga class at Wild Rose Yoga Studio, precisely because I got a sense that it was too advanced for me. It was only through a Vinyasa class with the same teacher at a different studio, that I was encouraged to give it a try. There have been more than a few occasions back in my early classes that I burst out laughing at what we were being shown to do. Not only did I think it impossible, but I honestly believed that my body just wasn’t made that way. I still find reason to laugh in my class sometimes, but it’s never because I think what I’m seeing is impossible. In fact it’s seeing what is possible that makes my new practice so exciting.
The progress I’ve seen in such a short time proves to me that with time, effort and some serious self-belief, one day before I leave Chiang Mai, I’ll be able to get through the whole class comfortably, with grace and hopefully a little less sweat. In just three weeks, where there were inches between my forehead and my knee before, now there is no space at all. Where there was tightness in my forward bend now I ease into it comfortably. Where my elbows bent in my warrior 1 pose, now there is strength and straight lines. Day by day I can see my abilities increase and it’s exhilarating.
5. Life on the edge
One of the things my teacher often says is ‘find your edge’ and it always makes me smile, not least because my coach also talks a lot about living at my edge. For me the edge represents that thin sliver of space that lives between the end of your comfort zone and the place that for whatever reason, is simply a step too far. In yoga, my edge is a place where I feel challenged physically but not in pain. In life it’s when I feel challenged mentally and emotionally, but not in pain. It’s a good place to be.
Finding and living at your edge is to push your edge, to expand it so that what you are capable of increases day by day. Finding my edge on the mat and seeing how that allows me to progress and improve physically, reminds me how important it is to find and live on my edge off the mat.
Today I read a great post about 30-day habits by Alissa Finerman. In it she challenges her readers to look at what they will do on day 31 as she reminds us that “short-term changes get you in the game. Long-term shifts elevate the playing field. You have to decide where you want to play.”
I’m loving the changes I’m seeing in my life as a result of my 30-day challenges, but as Finerman points out, “the challenge is maintaining the results you want after the thirty days or initial time frame is over.” So far, I seem to be managing to do this with both my exercise and my writing habits. What habits would you like to create in your life. If you ever want to ask me anything about 30-day challenges, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have never tried yoga, I urge you to put aside any preconceptions and give it a go and if you are ever lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai, be sure to look up the lovely Rose at Wild Rose Yoga and try a class with the kick-ass Vari Morales.