5 Benefits of Yoga and How it Changed Me
Written by: Geneva Damico
Photography by: Sean Naugle
When I ask others if they have tried yoga the response is usually “I can’t because….(insert excuse here).” I think back to when I was a brand new yogi. There were a lot of things I couldn’t do. I played organized sports most of my school career, although I had passion and worked my butt off, I didn’t always make the team. In the end I never gained true strength or stamina, my flexibility was severely lacking, I was always just athletic enough to hang in there and to have fun.
I decided to try yoga because I was broke and needed something healthy in my life. I bought an instructional yoga DVD, not knowing much about what I was getting myself into. My mom made me go with her to yoga and pilates at our local gym a few times when I was a teen, my memories were vague. An incredibly muscular and limber man appeared on my laptop (turned out to be a very well known teacher, Rodney Yee) and began to give very slow, steady instruction. I had such a hard time paying attention and everything was so difficult, I couldn’t even make it through a whole practice. I couldn’t catch my breath, my muscles were shaking, I was miserable and I was pissed it was so hard. I kept doing it anyway…every once in awhile when I was feeling extra frumpy and over worked I’d make an effort.
When I was financially able I began to take classes in a studio. Along with feeling completely out of place in a new environment I remember my severe low back discomfort in Savasana, my stiff bent knees in Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) and my pure agony in Pigeon (swear words would fly, usually directed at the instructor, not verbally of course, I just really thought they enjoyed torturing us). I have come pretty far since then- like I don’t cuss people out in my head anymore, winning, I can actually sit easy in Sukhasana (easy pose) and now Savasana feels more natural than ever before. I am here to tell you that there is a light through all that pain, discomfort, tremors, sweat and self doubt!
Here are only a few of the things I struggled with before I started practicing yoga;
1. Paint my toes
You know at the end of class when the teacher instructs you to hug your knees to your chest and make yourself into the smallest ball possible?
“Touch your forehead to your knees!”
What!?!? No way, grown adults can actually do that?…I could barely reach my toes to paint them but I’ve definitely been blaming that on my freakishly long legs. I would sit in a chair, prop my foot up on a stool across from me then move my foot around until I could get a good view, unable to ever get quite close enough to see or reach all that well. It would kind of work as long as I was squinting my eyes and coming up for air every so often. Or I would cross my foot over my opposite knee painting practically upside-down since my foot could only twist so far. Either way I’d get more polish on my skin then my nails!
Over time I noticed my body ball becoming smaller and when the teacher said to be the smallest you’ve ever been, I felt like it was happening, not only that it was starting to feel GOOD! Then I began to notice my toe painting skills were off the charts. Now I can sit in a chair with my knee hugging into my chest/armpit, place that same foot on the same chair and beautify those overworked toes! Now I’m just working on the patience to allow my nails to dry completely before moving on to the next task…
2. Do a “boy” push-up
No matter how much I wanted to I could never pass the president’s fitness challenge in school. Why? Because I couldn’t do a pull-up or a “boy” push-up, you know the ones where you have to keep your knees lifted off the ground. I have very loosely built shoulder joints that had lead me to believe my anatomy would not support either of these movements. In fact I could barely do more than a couple push-ups on my knees. Turns out this was not necessarily about strength. Muscle and body awareness and control are the driving forces behind strength. My muscles needed to be woken up, turned on, I had to learn how to use my body.
Rock climbing helped my strength body awareness to be able to do pull-ups (I’m up to three in a row!). Yoga made the full push-up possible. These were both huge accomplishments for me!
3. Lay flat on my back
As a child I’d sleep on my back with my knees bent and my feet on the bed, weird. It was always uncomfortable for me to lay flat on my back. My low back would ache and I’d feel pulling/pinching. Now it’s my favorite! I am most comfortable in savasana and I even enjoy sleeping on my back sometimes (no bent knees). Through yoga I gained the correct strength and flexibility for my spine to be at ease while in the supine position. Backbends/twists/side bends/forward bends….how often do you move your spine in all of those directions?
4. Spread my toes
I know this doesn’t sound like a big deal but it kinda is, especially in the yoga world. Toes are used to help us balance and move gracefully in everyday life but my toes had been long neglected. For one, I didn’t even know you should be able to spread your toes until I started yoga. Secondly, those rock climbing shoes are TIGHT…the tighter the better they say and since I was climbing a lot I wore them more than any other shoe…my feet were beginning to shrink (not in a good way), my pinky toes were becoming non-existent, hiding behind it’s neighbor and it’s neighbor’s neighbor. Soon my feet would only have one great toe. As my practice expanded so did my toes! My left toes now separate completely into 5 beautiful, individual, stubby little toes. My right pinky toe still needs a little work but it’s slowly coming out of hiding. I still can’t believe how exciting it was when I began to take back control of my toes!
5. Control my breathing
Have you ever tried to control your breathing? I’m sure you have. Holding your breath, slowing your breathing, speeding it up. We’ve all played with our breath and felt how little control we seem to have over how we breathe depending on the situation. I remember the first time I did a breathing exercise that involved counting. Exhale, 6….5….4….3….etc then inhale to 6….once your comfortable there begin to increase the number as tolerated. My inhales were, to me, phenomenal! I could easily last to 6, 7 and even 8. Oh but my exhales were strenuous. I could barely make it to 4 without having to gasp for my in breath. This was both intriguing and worrisome to me. I love a challenge so I developed a love for this exercise. What was worrisome was that at 25 I couldn’t complete a full exhale, to me that meant my lungs were not working 100%. Overtime my inhales and exhales have equalized, they’ve eased and it no longer feels like I am in a rush for my next breath. Now I challenge myself to count as slow as possible to 8 or more and I do this without feeling anxious or like I’m going to suffocate. I use this tool in daily life, when I notice I am breathing fast or shallow for no reason or when I am feeling stressed or when my brain is racing or sometimes just to feel my breath, a few rounds will bring me back to center.
Even when I was yoga-ing sporadically I began to notice small improvements in my flexibility, spacial awareness and overall body control. The more consistent my practice became the faster these improvements happened. These improvements are constant and not always obvious so patience is important. If you ever think to yourself “I can’t…” or “I could never…” remember that if you really want to do something YOU CAN. Yoga on!
What has yoga made possible for you?
What are your struggles in yoga now?
Post your answers and any questions below!