My Post-50 Yoga Journey: The First Step

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In January I started training to become a yoga instructor. I thought I would share my transformative journey as it unfolds. For fellow yogis, my stories will remind you of why you practice. For non-yogis, come along for the ride maybe I’ll entice you to try a class or two.

Welcome to yoga training Methods & Techniques I,” said my instructor B as she addressed our first weekend class at Lourdes Institute of Wholistic Studies in Camden, NJ. “We come together as strangers, but we leave as a tight-knit community. These are your sisters.”

There are five women, or should I say five yoginis (female yoga practitioners are called yogini, male are yogi), in the YTT200 program this year and by May 2016, after 200 hours of training, we will be eligible for our first yoga teacher certificate from Yoga Alliance.

Discovering My True Self

I was excited and anxious to begin training. I started practicing yoga about seven years ago, after my husband passed away. It helped me heal my “mind, body, and spirit” and work through my grief. It continues to provide an outlet for “letting go” and “slowing down” – which is an on-going challenge for me since retiring from my fast-paced full-time job.

“Explore your own creative expression as a yoga teacher, “said B. “Don’t worry about anything. I’m looking at your growth during this training.”

Om, om, om, I breathed in and began to relax on my mat. This journey I am embarking on for the next nine months is sacred. Am I ready to discover more about my own true self? Am I prepared for what lies deep within?

It’s a bit scary delving deep, yet at the same time freeing. Plus, I’m eager to improve my own strength, flexibility, and balance during my life after 50 and share all the benefits that yoga has to offer with others,

Why Do I Love Yoga?

I began my yoga practice about seven years ago, shortly after losing my husband. It was a way to physically and mentally focus and relax. Yoga and mindfulness meditation helped me heal through stages of grief. According to Yoga Sutras of Patanjali , as interpreted by Mukunda Stiles, “Yoga is experienced in that mind which has ceased to identify itself with its vacillating waves of perception. When this happens, then the Seer is revealed resting in its own essential nature, and one realizes the true Self.”

In some ways you could say I lost my soul mate and found my “soul mat.” Yoga was my ticket to wellness after many months of dealing with my husband’s progressive illness and eventual death. It helped me to stop, breathe and be in the moment.

During the past two years since leaving my full-time job, I’ve grown to love going to my weekly yoga classes.Instead of resisting, I am more open to change. Yoga has shown me how to slow down and find greater balance. I have developed a sense of gratitude for all that I can do.

I am growing and improving each day. An inspiring quote touches my heart. A fellow yogi strikes up a conversation. A perfect pose or an imperfect pose invigorates my body. Plus, I’m starting to take the goodness of yoga off the mat and bring yogic philosophy into my overall lifestyle. (My friend W says I’ve become very “zen.”)

Last fall, I decided to take a big leap. I went to an open house at Lourdes Institute of Wholistic Studies and signed up for its 200-hour yoga training program.

Welcome to Anatomy + Physiology

I’m proud to say that I just finished my first 20 hours of anatomy and physiology. I learned a whole lot from my amazing instructor N and her skeleton companion, Raja. It was much better than my high school or college biology class. Perhaps I am a more eager student during my life after 50.

Ooh, ooh, ooh, there’s a ton to understand about the body’s muscles, bones, joints and connective tissue and how they all work together. There’s Sanskrit  language to grasp from asanas (poses) and bandhas (respiratory locks for proper energy flow)  to ujjaye pranayama (breathing exercises), mudras (hand gestures), mantras(words, sounds or prayers to focus and change the mind) and more.

The Eight-Fold Path

B explained the “Eight-Fold Path” Of Ashtanga Yoga according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, who lived and wrote a long, long time ago between what is thought to be 200 BC – 200 AD. The guidelines start at the base with Yamas (restraints such as non-violence and truthfulness) and Niyamas (behaviors and observances such as contentment and cleanliness).

The path moves up the hierarchy to Asanas (postures), Pranayama(controlling your breath), Pranayama (where you close your eyes and be with yourself), to Dharana (concentration), to Dhyana (meditation), and finally, to Samadhi (a blissful state of spiritual freedom).

“It is a roadmap to get to Samadhi,” said B. “It can be a life-long journey. There is always a deeper experience.” Am I ready to walk this spiritual path? Yes, I am. I have a strong desire to live a balanced lifestyle mentally, physically, and emotionally during my second act.

7 Tips for a Healthy Lifestyle

While I clearly am on the first step of my journey, I left my first class with a greater conscious awareness of  my body. Here are helpful tips I learned for a healthy lifestyle:

  1. You only get one body (at least in this lifetime), so be good to it.

The late, great yogi B.K.S.Iyengar said, “The body is my temple.” Are you treating your body like it is your temple?

  1. Good posture is important as we age.

Go ahead, put those shoulders up and back and widen your diaphragm. My instructor says, “You want to expand throughout your life.”

  1. Joy is found in the hips.

If you’re lacking joy in your life, then maybe you should try some hip-opening yoga poses. Want to know which muscles to stretch? Here goes: psoas, gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, hamstrings. (Go, Judi! Go, Judi! Go, Judi!) There’s more, but stretching these four will get you on the path to a joyful life.

  1. Resistance causes stress.

BTW, that stress hormone called cortisol is stored in the mid-waist area. Got that? Yep, the more stress, the greater your middle-aged middle. Whatever’s bothering you today, let it go!

  1. Your digestive system includes some long tubes.

The small intestine is about 22 feet, and the large intestine is about 5 feet. (Wow-o-wow, that’s a long way down.) Seated or standing yoga twist scan help move food through the digestive tract.

  1. Your body is made up primarily of fluid.

Stay hydrated and drink water.

  1. Be kind to your knees.

Raja’s kneecap fell off quite a few times during classes.

Sequencing A Yoga Lesson

During our Saturday session we learned how to create a lesson plan. “Follow the three fold sequencing approach,” said B. “First centering, next content, and finally relaxation/meditation.”

1.) Centering

I sat cross-legged with my body in alignment on a blanket on my mat. Centering can be done lying down too. “It’s about becoming more aware of your body and your breath,” said B. There was much to learn about the breath experience or as a yogini says “pranayama.”

“Ask students to set an intention and read a quote or piece of poetry or blessing for the beginning or end of practice,” said B. (My intention lately has been gratitude for all that I can do in each moment.)

2.) Content:

This is the main portion of a yoga class. As a first step, we learned warm-ups, including the joint-freeing series to massage all the joints in our body from head to toe. Then we studied and practiced the six movements of the spine – back bends, forward folds, side stretches to the right and left, and twists on both sides.

B showed us ways to ensure that our students are safe during all of these poses and we learned how to marry movement with breath. “Breathe steady,” said B. “Whenever you expand your chest, you inhale. Whenever you round your chest you exhale. When you are going up you inhale and when you are going down you exhale.” (I hope my menopausal brain can remember all these steps. It’s a practice Judi! It’s a practice I reminded myself.)

Following warmups, come energizing poses, such as the Warrior series and Sun Salutations. Then cool down poses, like Happy Baby, Legs Up the Wall, and Supported Bridge. There will be many poses to learn in the coming months.

3.) Relaxation/Meditation

At this point, it was time for Shavasana,one of the most important poses in yoga. It’s when your body takes in all the goodness of the practice and totally relaxes. I reclined on my back with my arms in an A-frame and my legs straight out about shoulder width apart and my feet flopped outward.

B taught us how to do a guided relaxation with an “Awareness Check.” “You take people through each part of the body,” said B. “Begin with the head and go to the feet. Or, start with the feet and go to the head. It takes you away from everything else and allows you to focus on each area.” We formed buddies and led each other through total body awareness.

Before we left for the day, B guided us with Zen breath counting meditation. “Keep your spine straight and your feet grounded if you are sitting on a chair,” said B. “Don’t lean on the back of the chair or your spine will not be straight.”

Instead of using a chair, I sat cross-legged on my mat with my bottom firmly planted on the earth, spine straight, and the crown of my head towards the sky. Slowly I counted to 10, inhaling on the odd numbers and exhaling on the even. “Then focus on the third eye (the spot between your eyes). Focus on the soft belly. Release and let go,” said B.

To close, we learned a mantra using our hands and our voice, bringing thumbs together at the third eye reminding ourselves to “see the truth,” then index fingers to the mouth reminding ourselves to “speak the truth,” and to the heart center to “always know the truth deep within your heart.”

We bowed our heads and honored each other for what was truly a fulfilling first day of yoga training, with many more lessons to come.

Om shanti, shanti, shanti, namaste.

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