My Love Affair with Yoga!
Adapted from Healthy, Sexy, Happy: A Thrilling Journey to the Ultimate You
Like a lot of great love affairs yoga arrived in my life when I finally broke off with my first love, running. My first love began right after I quit smoking at age twenty-four. I’d been sedentary all my life. As a girl and teenager, I wasn’t a fan of anything that required coordination. I was awkward and clumsy, always bumping into things. I’m still that way. Back then I was a teenage bookworm, hanging out in Tokyo coffee houses and, later on, smoking ganga in India. There was nothing about me that indicated I would be athletic. But when I quit smoking, my sister coincidentally started running. Being competitive, I thought I would try it too. I didn’t know about training, stretching, or really anything about exercise. The first pair of running shoes I bought were men’s, because they didn’t make running shoes for women back then. (We’ve come a long way, baby.) It wasn’t socially acceptable for women to sweat, and people really looked shocked when they saw me with wet hair and sweat running down my legs. I ran six miles nearly every day for twenty years. Every year on my birthday I’d run ten miles. My life pretty much revolved around running.
Sports like running are addicting because the pounding creates micro injuries to the body, and your body reacts by secreting endorphins, which are internal opiates that reduce the sensation of pain and heighten pleasurable emotions. Dopamine follows, an excitatory, feel-good neurotransmitter. You can raise dopamine levels by using cocaine, marijuana, sugar, cigarettes, alcohol . . . and exercise.
I loved running, and I’m sure on my deathbed I’ll revisit fond memories of my very first runs around a track in San Diego, and later running in Burbank at 4 a.m. and passing coyotes picking through garbage, running the Central Park and Hollywood reservoirs, or the times I ran through Detroit in the snow, the hills of Pacific Palisades, the median on San Vicente in Santa Monica, the foothills in Santa Barbara, the surf in Manhattan Beach, Cabo San Lucas, and Sydney, the cities of Zürich, Paris, Rome, the chaotic streets of New Delhi, and on and on.
I made the conscious decision to stop running before I totally ruined my knees, because I looked at the bigger picture of my life, and I saw myself as athletic until the end. Quitting running turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because I ultimately discovered yoga. Among its other attributes, yoga can create the same micro injuries to your tissues as running does, thus you end up with the endorphin and dopamine high—even if you’re a beginner. In other words, it’s addicting too.
The yogi scholar Patañjali who lived about 150 years B.C.E. compiled the yoga sutras, which lay out the basic tenets of yoga philosophy and practice. In 1888 the Brahmin Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was born in southern India. He was to be the most influential yoga teacher of our time as he took the ancient yoga sutra texts, as well as teachings from the Hindu bible, The Bhagavad Gita, and breathed life into the practice of yoga, effectively creating a movement that has enchanted the modern world. Both B.K.S. Iyengar and the late K. Pattabhi Jois were his students.
“Yoga,” a Sanskrit word from “yuj,” meaning to control, to yoke, or to unite, is a combination of physical and meditative disciplines. Those who practice yoga are called yogis or yoginis (but most American women go by yogi). Yoga was developed to prepare the body for the higher state of consciousness in meditation.
In the thirteen years I’ve been practicing, I’ve been influenced by several significant masters of yoga, who formed my practice and my attitudes about yoga. I see my yoga experience as a metaphor for accepting what life—in this case your body hands you. Yoga can do quite the number on your head if you let it—especially if you’re competitive. For various reasons (age, injury, accident) people have to accept limitations and find new ways of practicing.
My very first yoga teacher started me with Hatha Yoga, guiding me through the first excruciating six months. My muscles, ligaments, and tendons were tight from all my years of running. I couldn’t touch my toes, and the idea of doing a foreword fold seemed like an impossible dream. Today I can fold in half, but I am still working on grabbing my wrist around the bottom of my feet. Someday.
After Hatha, I graduated to another much higher level of yoga called Ashtanga. I have to be clear that as I didn’t start until I was fifty, so I had built-in limitations. I kind of knew what Ashtanga was. But it was memorably intimidating to walk into a yoga studio and see people doing stuff that looked like part of a Cirque du Soleil performance.
Ashtanga is the traditional form of yoga from which commercialized “hot” and “flow” yoga practices are derived. It’s taught as a system that begins with the primary series—the same poses in sequence—and works through six series. I am not sure is there is a living person doing the sixth series, but I’m fairly certain that it involves levitation and becoming invisible (just kidding!—but not really). Suffice it to say, if you’ve reached that level, you are no longer mortal.
The reason the practice is referred to as Mysore-style Ashtanga is that Mysore was the home of the late Pattabhi Jois, also known as Guriji, who as a young man learned the Ashtanga sequences from his guru, Krishnamacharya, and carried out his teachings in his hometown at the Ashtanga Research Institute. Westerners flocked there to learn the practice under Guruji. In the years before his death at 93 on May 18, 2009, Guruji regularly traveled his “final” world tour. I’d been practicing Ashtanga for almost a year when I attended his led classes at the Puck Building in Soho. It was two weeks after 9/11, and the positive energy was palatable in the room with 200 people doing headstands together, zoning out of the tragedy. A few years later I practiced at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and actually got a few memorable adjustments from Guruji.
Ashtanga focuses on the breath calledujjayi pranayama, which is coordinated with movement and asanas (the Sanskrit word for “postures”)that lead you into a meditative state. Ujjayi breathing is concentrated, controlled breath that makes a sound like the ocean. Of all the types of yoga practices, Ashtanga is perhaps the most injurious, and when the body is injured, a flood of opiate neurotransmitters is released in the brain, and you end up with a fairly significant high that lasts all day and into the night.
In Ashtanga the eyes focus on a drishti, a meditative point of reference, or gazing point, whether it be your hands or navel or somewhere above you. This helps develop the meditative focus throughout your practice. Bandhas, energetic locks, are practiced to foster awareness and generate internal energy and heat. During practice the lifting of your pelvic floor, called mulabhanda, and the drawing up of your lower abdomen, called uddiyana bandha, also provides strength, heat, and energy. These techniques provide stability throughout your practice.
Practicing Ashtanga, even in my own limited way, has enriched my yoga practice by giving me a foundation from which to explore other types of yoga. Krishnamacharya’s legacy extends beyond Hatha and Ashtanga. For example, I’ve practiced Yin yoga on occasion, which requires a strong yoga practice, as it keeps you in asanas for long periods of time, which both strengthens and stretches you to the max. It’s designed to open up the deepest, rarely visited areas of your body to prepare you for long periods of meditation. Iyengar yoga was devised by B.K.S. Iyengar, another disciple of Krishnamacharya (who’s now in his nineties and does a thirty-minute headstand every morning). Iyengar places emphasis on body alignment with the use of props: cushions, benches, blocks, straps, and sand bags. There are many other types of yoga—and covering them all would be a book in itself.
When I went to India in the late sixties and was exposed to the trippy world of yoga, mysticism, and nirvana, it was all deliciously exotic but also insanely complicated. Since then, countless Westerners have swarmed to India and poured over ancient texts, studying, learning, and cherry picking the stuff that they wanted and tossing back what they couldn’t assimilate or understand. Western yogis have devised their own forms of practice. Today it’s not just Hatha, Ashtanga, or Iyengar. It’s anything goes. I’ve practiced all over the country—and the world—with masters of their own types of yoga, men and women who studied, usually beginning with ashtanga, and then paved their own way.
I write about healing your brain through nutrition and meditation. Yoga can contribute to healing your brain and turning off demands and cravings that lead people to unhealthy eating. I know from thirteen years of practicing yoga that no matter how much chatter is going on in my head, within a minute or two of practice my mind is serene and focused. And it’s stays pretty much dead calm throughout. There was a reason that ancient sages developed the practice of yoga to prepare the body, mind, and spirit for meditation. You are simply in a state of meditation without mental effort. This is the yoga phenomenon that helps people with weight management. During a yoga practice you experience tapas, which is Sanskrit word that means “purification through burning.” It’s a purging or dying of old patterns and thoughts, by surrendering through your yoga practice. Weight management occurs naturally through a gentle connecting of your mind, body, and spirit, without all the strife associated with dieting and “weight loss.” When equanimity is sought, the body adjusts to a pleasing, optimal body weight. I’m a lot curvier than I was when I was a runner and didn’t eat very much. I want people to reject the prison-camp thin ideal and see where your body will take you.
There are times when my practice sucks, but I’ve never said, “I hated it.” I’m doing things with my body that I couldn’t even do as a child. I can go into a yoga class feeling exhausted and come out energized. Yoga makes me feel the way I felt when I got my second wind running. So the point is, even if yoga is not for you, you may find another type of movement that you love. Then you may reach a point in that it doesn’t work for you anymore. Then you’ll have to evolve into another type of movement. There are plenty of other options. Find something you can fall in love with, and your body and brain will reward you, with health, sexiness, and happiness.