This winter, I started taking a yoga class each Saturday morning at my church. The instructor is this uber energetic woman who has a full-time job, but also teaches and attends numerous yoga classes in her spare time. I am amazed that she can fit all this into her schedule, but I am also grateful that she has the time to teach us inexperienced but hopeful yogis.
The class only has a few regular students. What that means is that each of the students gets a lot of personalized attention. That is such a plus when you’re trying to learn some of these yoga poses that defy flexibility and the limits of the normal 60-year old human body. Our instructor even gives us handouts to show what the poses are supposed to look like in case we want to practice at home. I bet you have already figured out that Type A Melanie definitely wants to practice at home.
As I am sure you have observed after reading previous blog posts, even with a weak heart, I want to be as active as possible. But because I cannot run anymore, I figured maybe I needed to mix up my exercise routine a little. So I added in some Pilates moves, added some core exercises that I learned during personal training sessions on my vacation last year, and continue to do extended planking sessions. As I mentioned in a recent post, I want to throw in some boxing moves, and am looking for some guidance on that. Would you expect anything less from a recovering overachiever?
With all my emphasis on exercise, you may wonder why it took me so long to stumble onto yoga. You may even recall an earlier post describing the time in the winter of 2013 when I blacked out on an exercise bike in a fitness center. As I came to, the security guard was taking my pulse and telling me that the ambulance was on the way. There were a few other apartment residents in the fitness center on that early morning. I remember one of the regular attendees standing to the side of me saying “Why doesn’t she just try yoga?”
Well, I will have to get in touch with him and tell him that even though it took me 4 years, I have taken the plunge. And to answer the question why did it take this long, I guess I had always perceived yoga to be one of those exercises that was a little too tame. I mean, people usually did yoga to learn how to meditate and relax. In my mind, it just seemed like a boring exercise activity. But then I remembered that I had taken a few yoga classes in the 1990’s. I remember the instructor wanted her beginning yoga students to do headstands, which I thought was a little advanced for people who had taken just one class, so I dropped out. I didn’t want tame, but I didn’t want to hurt myself!
I also remembered talking to a former colleague at a party. She is my age and has taken “hot” yoga classes for years. Apparently hot yoga is very intense. I thought that while definitely not boring, that might be too much for my damaged heart. But maybe just normal yoga would be okay. There are some yoga studios in the area, plus they sell cute yoga clothes – which always attracts the fashionista in me. Still, I hesitated and did not sign up for a class.
But then in the winter, our instructor approached our minister’s wife about offering a class at the church on Saturday mornings. The instructor did not want to be paid, as she saw this as her gift back to the community. So how could I say no given that (1) the location is convenient, (2) the students are people you already know, and the (3) price is free (but we do take up donations each week for a charitable cause).
At first, we practiced vinyasa yoga. According to several a yoga website, here is what Vinyasa yoga is all about:
I realized as soon as our instructor came to teach us that I really related to her. Just like I think I used to do, she moves with boundless energy. She also has a very active mind, and apparently suffers from the same problem I do – how do you stop the mind from wandering around when you need to relax and meditate. She told us that when she first started taking yoga classes, she couldn’t stand shavasana. She kept thinking – why don’t they just let us go? I have so much to do. Then one day it occurred to her that this is like the greatest highlight of the class. After doing all the poses, which can be strenuous, you have the permission, even the encouragement, to just relax.
I told her that I really related to what she was saying. As much as I have tried over the years, I just can’t learn to meditate and relax. I have been using prayer to find my calm center and my focus. But that is still a little different than meditation.
The instructor has a term that she uses for the mind that just can’t remain still. She calls it monkey mind. I love that term because when I hear it, I envision a little monkey, climbing all over the monkey bars in the mind’s gym, going from one subject to another without stopping to reflect. It is the perfect term to describe what is going on in Melanie’s head. I think I have long been searching for something to help the monkey in my mind focus and let the thoughts go. Shavasana got me part of the way there.
So what got me the rest of the way there? One day, the instructor asked us if we wanted to do something called yin yoga. A yoga website advises that yin yoga is based on the Taoist concept of yin and yang, opposite and complementary principles in nature. Yin is the stable, unmoving, hidden aspect of things; yang is the changing, moving, revealing aspect. According to a description I found on the web, a yin yoga class usually consists of a series of long-held, passive floor poses that mainly work the lower part of the body—the hips, pelvis, inner thighs, lower spine. These areas are especially rich in connective tissues. The poses are held for up to five minutes, sometimes longer. We hold our poses for three minutes.
I like yin yoga because I am required to focus very closely on what I am doing to hold the pose for an extended period of time. What this means is that my mind stops ricocheting off the wall and just comes to a very focused state. It is really pleasant when I have finished the class. I feel much more peaceful. Plus, it appears to be relaxing me enough that I sleep better at night. I have even noticed that my vivid dreams are starting to subside.
But the very best part of yoga is that research has shown that yoga is good for the heart. Here is what an article I found on the Johns Hopkins website says:
I found one recent article that said in patients with heart failure, a sympathetic nervous system in overdrive can exacerbate the disease. The article noted that beta blockers help to address this overactivity. So a nurse practictioner and her colleagues wondered if yoga could be used as an adjunct to beta blocker medication. They recruited 15 patients with stable heart failure to participate in an 8 week course of yoga specially modified for patients with heart failure. Two experienced yoga instructors, who were also registered nurses, led the classes. None of the participants experienced adverse events. Patients had significant gains in strength, endurance, balance, and quality of life after the class. They are looking at performing more studies to test their theory.
All I know is that after a number of months of doing yoga, I am feeling more energetic and am sleeping better. That to me is an awesome victory. I know that I have to be patient because my heart victories can sometimes be short in length or overcome by events beyond my control. But for now – I’ll take any victory I can get!
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.