Two Years of Yoga – Part 1: the Physical Journey
This past Thanksgiving marks the second year anniversary of my yoga journey. It’s been an exciting year, lots of milestones and lots to be thankful for. At the one year mark, I decided to write a blog about my first year of yoga, so now that another year has come and gone I’d like to share how this transformational journey continues to evolve. For those of you who don’t know me, or didn’t read my first blog, I’ll start with a condensed version of how and why I got into yoga and then I’ll get into some of what I’ve learned during the second year (halfway through the writing of this blog I realized that it really wanted to be two blogs, one about the physical practice of yoga, and one about the mental and emotional benefits, so let’s start with the physical journey).
Throughout my adult life I’ve gone back and forth between two professions; music and construction. In 2011 I decided to go back into construction after many years of working as a touring musician. I was 43 years old and hadn’t worked in construction for about 15 years. Ouch, I was quickly reminded of how hard this work can be! Within a year I was having chronic shoulder and neck pain as well as relapses of tendinitis in my right arm from an old injury. Sometimes, after a few hours of work, my left shoulder would begin to hurt, the pain and stiffness spreading into my neck, ultimately limiting my range of mobility and causing intense pain. Once my shoulder and neck were “tweaked”, it might take several days to a week to subside. It was getting so bad that the condition could even be brought on by simply coughing or sneezing. I tried stretching, ibuprofen, lifting weights, but nothing worked, the condition was worsening.
Then one day a friend told me how he had used yoga to self heal an injury. I was intrigued. I began practicing with a yoga DVD (P90X Yoga) as well as putting together a few of my own short routines. I wasn’t consistent at first, but the ball was in motion. Then one day my wife, Kelly sent me a couple of YouTube video links. One was a 30 Minute Morning Yoga Class by Ali Kamenova (if you’re interested in exploring some great yoga videos, check out Ali’s YouTube channel). Almost instantly, this routine, and Ali’s style clicked with me, and soon this YouTube video had become my new best friend.
By one year into this commitment to self healing I was practicing Ali’s yoga routines almost daily, and the neck/shoulder pain and tendinitis were, for the most part, gone! Although they occasionally did show their face, the problems were minimal, and usually gone by the next day. There were a lot of other changes over that first year – a whole new sense of body awareness, breath, connectivity, improved attitude – I was stronger both physically and mentally, and had a growing sense of inner peace – all this from a 30 to 60 minute daily yoga practice at home. My first year of yoga was very exciting; self-healing my own injuries was very empowering. One of the biggest things I learned was the connection between the body, mind and breath, and I definitely felt an increased awareness of my physical and emotional state.
Figuring out what the body needs
When I first started practicing yoga, I was typically hitting the mat three times a week, occasionally four. By the end of that first year it was almost daily, and I often found myself struggling to figure out what my body needed on a daily basis, which class to choose, what type of flow, how to alternate routines to target different parts of the body, etc. Maybe a certain area of my body was holding extra tension and required specific attention. I was also exploring how to build my day around my practice (to ensure it happened daily) and what clothing was most comfortable. Over the second year of practice, I gradually found answers to many of these questions.
Creating a space for yoga
In order to practice yoga every day I believe you have to build it into your daily routine in a way that is sustainable, and this is different for everyone. I’ve learned that I don’t have the energy or focus for a challenging yoga sequence by the time I get home from work, so it’s pretty much a morning practice or nothing. For a while, I tried hitting the mat shortly after getting out of bed, and this was a struggle as my body was too stiff and I seemed to lack energy. Gradually, my schedule evolved into waking up around 5:00 AM, eating breakfast, doing a few other things around the house to kind of wake things up a bit, and then starting my practice at the last minute possible before leaving for work (allowing maximum time for digestion). On the weekends I find myself practicing much later in the morning and my body seems to like that a little better, but the compromise during the work week is essential. I think the key is to make a commitment to a daily practice, and then build the practice into your daily routine.
Types of routines:
I love a strong, moderate paced power yoga class, 50 to 60 minutes in length, with lots of warriors, backbends, twists, hip openers, and core work, and I do these as often as possible. However, sometimes my body wants something different. On some mornings I feel a little beat up from the workday before, so I might do a less intense routine that focuses on flexibility. I use these classes to take the edge off of whatever pains and tweaks I might wake up with and to prepare my body for another day of life’s abuses. Do you ever wake up feeling really tight, achy, and just really beat up from head to toe? Well even with all this yoga I still have days like that, too. On those mornings I try to do very easy, therapeutic routines, maybe 20 to 30 minutes in length with mostly seated poses. And then some days the body just wants a complete rest! Our physical state seems to fluctuate, going from higher to lower points of energy and stability, so it’s important to listen to your body; it is speaking to you and will tell you what it needs.
Loosening up, tightening up, loosening up, tightening up…this seems to be a pattern in my life. I get all stretched out with a wonderful morning yoga class, and then sit in my car for an hour drive to work. Sitting in traffic sucks, and boy, will that tighten you up! Then there’s the repetitive motion of the job itself. Throughout the day, I’ll throw in a few poses, almost always right before lunch, and then again at the end of the day right before the afternoon commute. Even just a couple of forward folds and a standing side stretch can work wonders.
Making the body more efficient and workplace yoga
My job as a painter and drywall repairman is very physically demanding and requires a lot of sustained, awkward body positions. Working over head, crouching, kneeling, climbing up and down ladders, painting with a brush or roller for hours…did I mention sitting in traffic? No matter what you do for work; it will take its toll on the body. This is where yoga comes in. For every task that stresses the body, there’s a pose or group of poses that will counter it.
Painting and/or repairing ceilings place more stress on the neck and shoulders than almost anything else I do. Over the last two years I have greatly increased my flexibility in that region with backbends, twists, and shoulder openers. This work still takes its toll, but much less so because of my increased range of motion. Work that is low to the ground, like painting baseboards, is also quite taxing. You’ve either got to sit, kneel, crouch, or lie on your side. I find myself sitting crosslegged to do a lot of this work, kneeling (with knee pads), or even squatting, and this requires open hips and loose hamstrings. Hip openers and hamstring stretches improve the ability to sit or kneel for extended periods of time. I’m constantly going from standing, to crouching, to climbing ladders, and this is where all the core work really pays off. Working over head or standing on a ladder requires the ability to balance and an awareness of my body in space. Balancing poses greatly help (if you want to get a sense of where you’re really at, try closing your eyes during tree pose!). When I perform music, I might be playing guitar and singing continuously for an hour or more, and this can be just as demanding as painting a house. All the muscles that get used and abused by performing music are stretched and strengthened by my yoga routines.
Breathing is the only way to deepen our practice
Anyone who has delved into yoga, even just a little bit, knows the emphasis placed on breathing. When we breathe deeply, with complete inhalations and exhalations, our body receives this as a signal to relax and to let go of tension. Sometimes I become aware of growing tension, and a few focused deep breaths almost always help to relieve it. If I do something that aggravates or tweaks a muscle, breathing can help to minimize, or even reverse what might otherwise become a runaway problem. As a chronic sufferer of migraines, I’ve learned that deep breathing can be a very powerful tool. And deep breathing can be especially helpful in dealing with the simple stresses of everyday life, arguments, traffic jams, etc.
I’ve learned so much in these last two years about how my body works, what it needs, how to use yoga to become less prone to injury, self heal injuries, and to optimize my physical and emotional well-being. My yoga practice, along with healthy eating is my own personal healthcare system. I believe it can have a powerful effect on anyone, and the best part is, it’s never too late to start. The transformational effects of my practice go way beyond increased strength and flexibility, and part two of this blog will delve into the positive effect it can have on mental and emotional wellness. As my initial exploration of yoga was centered on fitness, as it seems for many, I wanted this blog to partly serve as an inspiration or catalyst to those who are curious about it, or just getting started with their own practice.
Yoga practice seems to be dominated by women, and I think a lot of men don’t get into it because they don’t really understand what it can be. A big misconception among many who have never practiced yoga is that it’s all about meditation, or just for “stretching”. While it does include those things, the right kind of yoga routine can be as ass-kicking as any workout you’ll ever do. At its core, yoga is really about self exploration, and the breath, but it can also be an amazing physical fitness program. And with that, I’ve got to get going. It’s almost time for work and I’ve got to go hit the mat!
Here’s some photos my wife took during one of my recent yoga sessions (click or swipe the arrows to see all the photos): the before and after shots show my progress from one year ago.
A Year of Yoga – How I Self Healed Injuries Using the World’s Oldest Healthcare System
Namaste, friends and fellow Yogi’s! If you’re not a regular yoga practitioner, you’re probably not familiar with this greeting, don’t worry, until recently, I wasn’t either. Almost exactly one year ago from the time of this writing I embarked on my journey into yoga, one which was prompted by an almost debilitating battle with chronic shoulder and neck pain. A year later, after making a serious commitment to try yoga as a holistic approach to self healing, the injury is healed and I am relatively pain free. Before I delve into the healing and transformation that happened over this life-changing year I’d like to tell you how I arrived at this place.
For most of my life I’ve been a musician, having earned a living as one for most of my adult life. I’ve been playing professionally on and off since 1989, having played thousands of night club gigs before moving from my native New England to Nashville, TN in 2002. Since my arrival to Nashville, I’ve played another thousand or so gigs, most of them as a professional touring musician. I even wrote a book about the Nashville music industry in 2011. About three years ago, the artist I was touring with decided to stop touring, and I used this moment to make a change. Having seen the country from a bus window several times over, I also decided to stop touring. I had no idea what I was going to do next.
A fellow musician whom I had played a few local gigs with owned a painting company, and one night on the way home from a local show said “If you ever feel like swinging a paint brush, let me know, I’m always looking for good help”. I took him up on his offer, as painting and drywall is something I’ve also done at different points of my life. At first I just worked a couple days a week, but a year later, now up to four to five days a week and still playing music part-time, this pace began to kick my ass! Not having done physical labor in over 10 years, I soon began having regular pain in my left shoulder and neck, as well as some relapses of tendinitis in my right arm from an old injury. The shoulder pain sometimes caused my neck to stiffen up, often to the point where I lost mobility and could barely turn my head to the side. It was getting ugly!
Like many Americans, I didn’t have health insurance, I haven’t for most of my adult life. So I knew I had to go about this holistically. I was already eating pretty well, as I had been for several years. I’m not vegan but I do eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, healthy oils, nuts, and lots of water, with meat and dairy only being a small part of my diet. I avoid processed foods and almost never eat in restaurants. As far as exercise, at the time these problems began, I had been doing the P90X workout program on an off for about two years, and sometimes went on hikes. I was relatively fit, but my exercise habits were inconsistent. I started doing the P90X stretch DVD on a regular basis, and while this seemed to help, it wasn’t enough. I started doing the resistance exercises again, and sometimes they seemed to help, other times they seemed to aggravate the injuries.
By the end of this second year of construction I was at my wits end, the nagging shoulder problem now an almost daily occurrence and the tendinitis not far behind. I was determined to remedy the situation holistically; I knew it could be done as my wife had just conquered a bad neck injury from a car accident through regular exercise. I needed a new approach, as it seemed like everything was just too tight and getting tighter – shoulders, neck, and a whole bunch of muscles I didn’t even know the names of. I had some earlier experiences with yoga, mostly from the P90X yoga DVD, and, remembering how good I felt after those workouts, I began exploring it again. Around the same point in time a friend of mine told me how he had used yoga to heal a chronic injury. For the next few months I began doing yoga, mainly using that DVD or just putting a few poses together on my own. I wasn’t doing it with any real consistency or plan, but I was doing it.
Then one day a bulb went off in my head. I remembered something that a Soft Tissue Specialist once told me about my tendinitis. He said something to the effect of:
“The tendinitis in your forearm is the result of inflamed tendons and muscles rubbing. There’s an overlapping series of tendons and muscles that go all the way from your wrist to the back of your shoulder. So the problems in your forearm are also related to tightness in your triceps, and shoulder. You can’t just work on the one area of inflammation, you need to stretch everything around it, lengthen everything.”
Realizing that my shoulder and neck problem likely worked in the same way, I figured that yoga might be the perfect choice for something to stretch and strengthen my whole body. Right around this time my wife sent me a couple of links to some yoga classes on YouTube, one of them was a 30 Minute Morning Yoga Class by Ali Kamenova. I’m not sure if it was the unique and challenging flow to this class, or maybe her soft, steady and almost hypnotic voice delivering detailed explanations of form with a cool, Bulgarian accent, but something just clicked for me when I did this class. This was the beginning of my serious commitment to yoga.
For the first couple of months into my new commitment I did this same 30 minute routine 3 to 4 times a week, basically every other morning. I noticed the shoulder pain was diminishing and I was becoming less “tweak prone”. I started experimenting with some of Ali’s other classes and honed in on a 66 minute Vinyasa sequence that covered all the basic poses, adding this to my weekly rotation. I also began doing regular cardio, the “run-walk–run” method, basically, interval running about 2 to 3 times a week. By the time six months had passed from my initial commitment I realized I hadn’t had any major flareups in a while. I found another challenging Ali video that resonated with me, “Arm Balances Emotional Release”, and added this to my weekly regimen of yoga and running. Ali’s style of yoga, “interval yoga”, is not your traditional yoga. Many of the videos add elements of strength training and cardio, making the classes challenging on many levels.
It’s not about the hour a day that I do yoga, it’s about the other 23 hours.
During the second half of this transformational year, I began to notice a lot of other changes happening. Not only was I in less pain, I felt stronger and noticed having more energy throughout my days. I noticed feeling less beat up when I awoke in the morning. A lot of other subtle changes were happening – better posture, body awareness, deeper breathing, I even noticed that my attitude was becoming more positive. I began to make the connection between negative thoughts and tension and pain. It was obvious that my exercise routines were improving many aspects of my life.
The intermittent shoulder and neck pain that started me on this journey was often triggered by many different things. Sometimes it was from looking up for extended periods of time at work, turning my head to the side in an unsupportive way; even sneezing could trigger a spasm. These spasms would escalate to the point of constant pain and tension in the shoulder, eventually working its way into my neck and causing a limited range of motion. Once a spasm began, it would take anywhere between three days and a week to get under control. It’s not like I’m invincible now, but I haven’t had a major spasm in over six months, and if I do have a tweak, it’s much smaller now and typically gone the next morning. I am certain that it was this serious commitment I made to myself that allowed me to self-heal these injuries, as my physical problems were worsening before this intervention and I never once went to a doctor for any of this.
The benefits of Yoga in everyday life
Life can be challenging, work can be hard, and nothing is ever easy. No matter what you do I’m sure there are moments throughout some of your days when you are in physical or emotional pain. Here are some of the concepts and practices I’ve learned from yoga that seem to help ease some everyday struggles.
Breathing – It seems ridiculous that fully grown humans would need to examine their breathing. But the truth is that many of us use shallow breathing much of the time. If you haven’t been doing yoga or another exercise in which breathing is integral, then you’ve probably never given it much thought. “Deep inhalations followed by deep exhalations”. Throughout my days, as often as possible, I check in with my breath. Am I breathing deeply or have I gotten lazy. Breathing deeply seems to help the body stay loose and the mind, calm and centered. Whenever I have to climb way up high on a ladder, I’ll take a few deep breaths first. I’ll do the same thing if someone cuts me off in traffic, if I feel an argument about to ensue, or if I’m getting nervous before a performance.
Posture – one of the best things about yoga is the emphasis on body alignment, and this transcends into posture. “Shoulders back and down, tuck your butt, lift through the crown of your head, relax your shoulders, don’t hyper extend your knees” – hearing these phrases repeated over and over in the workouts has helped me cultivate better posture even when I’m not working out. I can’t think of how many times throughout the day that I catch myself faltering when suddenly one of these phrases just pops into my head. I’ve also re-examined how I sit, often now choosing to sit crosslegged in a chair, or even on the floor. I believe good posture is half the battle.
Body Awareness – the more I do yoga, the more I become aware of how my body feels at any given moment in time and space. Now that I’ve got my two biggest ailments under control (the shoulder and tendinitis), I’ve become aware of other minor discomforts that have been there all along, possibly going back years. These are not a big problem; they are simply areas of tension or limited mobility to work on long-term. Also, if I’m pushing myself too hard throughout any given day or just getting tired, I become aware of growing tension and work to relieve it.
Stretching – a few times throughout my day, I’ll throw in a random stretching pose. I love to just hang in a forward fold for a minute or so right before lunch or driving home at the end of the day. Sometimes I’ll just do it if I feel myself getting tight. I’ll also do downward dogs, back bends, and other poses to counter building tension or tightness, when necessary.
Body mechanics – to me this is the art of efficient and safe movement, and I’m aware of this now more than ever. What is the easiest way to do any given task? Whether it’s playing guitar, painting, sitting at a computer, I’m always searching for the safest and easiest way to do it.
Attitude – Out with the negative in with the positive! Stress and tension can definitely cause physical pain, so it only stands to reason that having a positive outlook can make one healthier. One aspect of yoga is quieting and clearing the mind. Getting good at this seems to have a direct correlation to preventing injuries and living with less pain, not to mention, increased happiness. I find that the meditative aspect of yoga brings great inner peace and calmness.
Paying It Forward – Yoga has been such a powerful force in my life that I want to share with others, and I’ve already taught a few moves to a few friends. I have a long-term goal of becoming a yoga instructor, not to make a living from it (I’ve heard that’s pretty hard to do) but because I want to learn it on the deepest level possible and share that knowledge with others. Yoga seems to be female dominated, with many men shying away from it for a variety of preconceived notions. Seeing many of my friends living in pain has given me the desire to help change that and make yoga more accessible to men.
I can’t say enough good things about what yoga has done for me. I’ve learned entirely through home practice, almost exclusively using Ali’s videos. Ali has been a great teacher, responding to messages with advice and encouragement. She seems to do this for a huge amount of people all around the world. It’s an amazingly altruistic venture she has embarked on to make yoga so accessible to so many (she has over 200 free full-length yoga classes and tutorials on YouTube!), and to give such personal attention to everyone who seems to need help.
At age 46, I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life. No matter what fills my days – painting a house, performing music, spending time with my family, running at the park, or yoga – I don’t think I’ve ever been in a happier, healthier place. We all live in varying degrees of pain, be it physical or emotional, and I believe yoga is the best pain management program of all time. There’s a reason it was invented and used over 5000 years ago as the original healthcare system in India. I’m grateful to be a part of this tradition and thankful that it found me. There’s still so much to be learned, so I better get started. Namaste!
“The gesture Namaste represents the belief that there is a Divine spark within each of us that is located in the heart chakra. The gesture is an acknowledgment of the soul in one by the soul in another.
Nama means bow, as means I, and te means you. Therefore, namaste literally means “bow me you” or “I bow to you.”
Here’s some photos my wife took during one of my recent yoga sessions (click or swipe the arrows to see all the photos):