Yoga by Smell:
Yoga part 2
How many of us have shouted, “Hey, watch this!” before they did something stupid?
There are over three hundred joints in the human body. We probably do something to mess one or two of them up every year while we are growing up and are too soft and malleable to notice. In our teen years, we add a few slips and trips that we will remember when we are older and a few of us add the epic “Hey, watch this!” injury that will bother us forever.
Each human body has its own story — how it was trained (football, cheerleading, ballet, video games), how it was strained (slipping on ice, crazy falls, dumb stuff) and how it was maintained (jogging, gym, McDonald’s, TV). Every single body is different. That is not profound, that is common sense. So why is it that when most people take a yoga class, they look around to see what other people are doing. That is like checking someone’s else’s bank account balance to see if you can afford to buy a new bicycle.
Yoga is all about you. Forget everything that you have read and heard. Start with yourself. It is your body, your breath and your mind. Only you can control it. Again, this is really pretty simple. If someone else can stick their toe in their ear, does that make your life any better or any worse? Probably not, unless it makes you smile and helps you relax enough to try it…
Hyde Street in San Francisco is beautiful in Autumn. The weather is finally warm and the shade from the trees dapple the sidewalks. The chairs outside the cafes actually have people in them.
Union Yoga is on the corner. I was in one of those moods where I could convince myself that it was a good idea to do almost anything. The sun was shining, birds were singing, it felt like a perfect day to buy roller blades that I could store in the back of my closet, or a gym pass I could carry in my wallet and never use or maybe a yoga card .
What used to be the main entrance to the retail space Union Yoga occupies was locked and there was a handwritten sign to go around the back. That entry was, and still is, “unassuming” in literary terminology, which is a pedantic way of saying that when you see it your are not sure you found it.
According to the schedule there was no class in session and the next one started in a couple hours. The guy at the desk literally radiated health and happiness. Bizarre, but he really did seem happy to see me. His incredibly calm mood was a perfect continuation of the birds singing and the sun shining. The place had a cool asian design going and the smell was incredible. Not strong. Not definable. Pleasant. I bought a ten class yoga pass.
“Yoga” is actually not really meant to be just form of exercise. In fact, the exercise part of it (asana) is just preparation to get you body so that it can sit still long enough for the cooler parts that come later. Seriously, if you just want to get in shape, cut down on your carbs and do calisthenics. You will save a lot of time and get results a lot faster. Typical of a most of things we do in the West, yoga got branded. It was given a coat of spandex, beautiful women were posted on Instagram doing insane things and Lululemon was off to the races. But I am serious, using yoga for exercise is kind of like propping a window open with Ming vase. It will work, but might not be the best use of the vase.
“Yoga” is an eight chapter book, but for some reason most people skip the first two chapters and open the story in the middle of the third. This might work for block buster movies like “Star Wars”, but it is a terrible way to read book. I mean seriously, how many things can you get good at if you start in middle?
The first two “chapters” or branches of yoga are called yama and niyama. Since I am completely confident that anyone that found this blog knows how to use Google, I will give my own very simple definitions of what these parts mean and you can read a more complete definition if you want later.
Yama is logical, rational social behavior that basically says “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, or more simply “Be a good person”.
Niyama is about personal discipline and how we treat ourselves. Basically what it says is “get rid of the negativity in your life, clean up your act and don’t eat crap.” Ask anybody that you know that has a good body what the key to getting in good physical shape is and I will bet you a bag of jelly donuts, they will tell you “diet”. That is an example of niyama. You figure out which part.
I will admit that all this sounds cooler in Sanskrit (whoa… “shauca”) and there are probably a few phrases will look great as tattoos, but it is pretty basic — be a good person, one moment and a time, and don’t poison yourself with excess. These first two steps are part of the whole. Doing yoga without them is like playing basketball without a hoop.
So there I was, in a light, bright place that smelled good on a beautiful autumn day on Russian Hill. Again I was lucky. We started from the basics. The teacher showed us breathing exercises and explained that each movement had a breath and each part of a movement or pose was done with either an inhale or an exhale. I was told to seal my lips and breath in through my nose for five even counts and then exhale through my nose while making a sound like Darth Vader.
Easy enough. Just concentrate on my breath for the hour and a half, keeping the breath even. Five in. Five out.
The sun was pouring in through the side window. There was a wonderful, but faint, fragrance in the air. And I was just breathing. The teacher gave options for most of the poses we did. I had to do the easiest ones every time or my mouth would pop open and I would start gasping like a guppy. It was very challenging, but it was also really amazing how hard it was to keep my breath even as class moved on, even doing the simplest variations. So much for being in good shape…
Let me cheat and fast forward to something that I have learned over the course of the time I have practices yoga: when you start your practice, park your ego at the door and just freaking breathe properly and do what YOU can that allows YOU to keep breathing properly. If you do this, you will make incredible progress and when you are done, you will feel absolutely fantastic. Seriously. That is it. You don’t need to buy yoga pants, mala beads or a brass Ganesh (but you can if you want). All you really have to do is breathe.
Breathe and keep the Darth Vader sound going in your throat to throttle the speed of the inhale and the exhale and to keep you focused on your breath. If you need to open your mouth. Check your ego. Slow down. You are pushing too hard. If your mind is wandering, crank up Vader.
(This breathing technique is called “Ujjay Breath.” I swear to God that I will spew kombucha on my new Manduka yoga mat if I hear one another instructor explain that Ujjay means “victorious”, but not explain why you do it and that if you are not doing it, you are now doing calisthenics.)
Everyone has stories about friends, who have messed up their knees or back or something doing yoga. Injuries mostly happen when you hold your breath. If you are rhythmically breathing in and out, your breath will say “WFT you doing?!” when you try to overextend yourself. Seriously, when you stop hearing Darth, you need to back off.
Yoga is a great equalizer. Each of our bodies is unique. We all have our own unique dings and boo-boos. We all got to yoga asana practice by different paths. Some of us are stretched out, some are not. Some can stand on their hands, others can not. It really doesn’t matter. We can all breathe and we can all move to a point where where we are gulping like guppies. Our ability to hold our bodies in a prescribed poses while breathing properly changes everyday. The pose is meant to challenge the breath, not break it. Yoga feels good and your breath will tell you with absolute clarity when you are doing it right. If “take a deep breath” is good advice, think about what will happen when you do it for an hour a day.
But I have to say that taking time to breathe right every day is more pleasant in a place that smells nice.