Ray Does Yoga (Guest Post)
By Ray Noonan
Years ago, I got a lecture from my dad after he caught me trying to do it in my room.
"Men in our family can't touch our toes. It's genetic - we're not flexible. You'll hurt your back."
It turns out that bad backs are genetic too (you know you're at a Noonan Thanksgiving when the men watching football have foregone the couch in favor of a row of stiff-backed chairs), so maybe I had nothing to lose. But his warning would echo in my mind for years to come, especially on those occasions when I was confronted most starkly with this family curse. A negative double-digit performance on the “Sit and Reach” during my sixth grade Presidential Physical Fitness Test comes to mind.
And yet as I write this today, I am able to stand up and touch those toes that eluded me for so many years, with little discomfort and no preliminary stretching. I’m sure by now you’re wondering, “What’s the big secret?” and “Can I get my hands on it for five easy payments of $9.99?”
Before I get to that, let me back up a little. Megan's passion and talent for yoga impressed me as soon as we got together, particularly because it was so foreign to me. Even after a few years of living in Brooklyn surrounded by folks toting mats to class, I didn't know the first thing about yoga. Maybe I had heard of something called Downward Dog or Sun Salutation, but that's it.
After a fairly sedentary 20-odd years I had finally found a form of exercise I enjoyed in strength training. Hitting the weights a few times a week taught me a lot about how to achieve difficult goals through dedication, and it certainly kept my ego in check (I like to say that we all need one hobby that we're really bad at).
Overall it's had a huge positive impact on my life, but one downside has been an early onset of those hereditary lower back problems that my dad warned me about so long ago. Strengthening the muscles that protect and support the spine with exercises like squats and deadlifts has helped me bounce back from injuries caused by exercises like squats and deadlifts, but I still experience discomfort from time to time, and on rare occasions even have flare ups that can be fairly debilitating for several days.
As soon as Megan heard about my inflexibility and back issues, she obviously recommended that I try yoga. It made sense to me, as I had learned through physical therapy that stretching the hamstrings can alleviate back pain. I went to a few classes with her, but more often than not, I turned the guess passes down. My excuse was always that I wanted to wait until I could really commit to yoga, and not just dabble in it every few weeks or months.
I was sincere, as my experience with weight training has shown me that consistency is critical - I wouldn't go to the gym that infrequently and expect any results.
When I realized this spring that I would have close to a month off between leaving work in July and starting school in August, I suggested to Megan that I finally get my beginner's one month membership (Editor’s note: It was my idea!!). She thought it was a great idea and I promised that I would finally learn the benefits of yoga.
To my slight dismay she never forgot, and on July 4th weekend I found myself with a mat slung over my shoulder, signing up at Modo Yoga in Greenwich Village for a month of hot yoga. This summer has been a scorcher, and the fact that I was pouring sweat before setting foot in the heated studio didn't seem like a good sign.
That first class was indeed difficult, but I learned so much about yoga and myself during that month. Here are three of the biggest lessons:
1) Be Flexible
Barbell training is all about following the plan. A good training session often means walking into the gym knowing exactly what you're going to do and doing just that: the exercises, weights, numbers of sets and reps, and even rest times should all be predetermined. This mindset needed some adjustment when I started yoga - you need to walk into the studio ready for anything.
Each class type has a general flow, and eventually you get to learn the different teachers' styles, but no day is the same or planned out. A lot of the same poses show up, but you'll do them in different sequences and with plenty of surprises mixed in. There might be a focus on a particular skill or part of the body, which will affect each person differently based on their individual strengths and experience. And related to that is...
2) Be Humble
This is especially important when you're a novice like me, but Megan has emphasized that humility is part of even the most advanced yoga practice. It's not a competition; recognize and accept your limits. Know when to modify a tricky pose if your body isn't ready. Use an extra block to prop yourself up. And if you're just sweaty and exhausted, take Child's Pose and regroup for a few minutes, even if the rest of the class is standing on their heads or flowing effortlessly through Surya Namaskar after Surya Namaskar.
I’ve read that men are especially prone to yoga injuries, probably because of a tendency to have a macho, competitive attitude. Avoiding injury is paramount, but plain old frustration is a more likely consequence of taking on too much.
Besides, there’s so much to perfect in even the simplest pose. Tadasana might look as easy as standing up at first glance, but there’s a lot going on. Are your feet aligned properly and the right distance apart? Are you pressing down evenly throughout the area of each foot, or is your weight shifted to one side? And there’s always breath!
My month of yoga was intense, to the point that it sometimes became an exercise in staying calm in extreme discomfort, but I’m glad I did it. I have a new appreciation for Megan and everyone else who practices at such a high level, my back feels pretty good, and I can touch my toes. I call that a success!
I doubt that I’ll be able to go as frequently now that school is starting, but hopefully I have enough of a foundation that I can maintain my practice if Megan sends an occasional guest pass my way.
Maybe I’ve even inspired you to take a step out of your comfort zone for a while, whether that means yoga or something else entirely.