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December 5, 2016

Health : Ashtanga Yoga

During my two month surgery rotation in medical school, I kept myself sane by running for an hour every day. This impact resulted in a strain on my hip that ultimately made it uncomfortable to just walk. Yes, my hip.  I didn't realize that could happen to people in their late twenties, but as I tell my patients every day, I'm older than I look.

I rested for months and did physical therapy without much change.  It wasn't until I started practicing yoga that I got better, and haven't had any joint issues since, despite running and climbing much more.

So by "practicing yoga," I mean doing the yoga workout that's a weekly part of the p90x workout.  The one that people hate on as not-real-yoga.  It's true that it brushes over many nuances of yoga, and focuses more on being "extreme" than precise.  But I give Tony Horton a lot of credit for putting so much emphasis on yoga in a workout program otherwise mainly focused on cardio and strength.  At 90 minutes, it's the longest workout in the program, and he credits yoga--not lifting or running--for keeping him fit as he ages.

There are so many reasons to love yoga, and I'm not describing anything new.  But one thing I'm particularly appreciating right now, and really the thing I love about all physical activity, is its meditative quality. 

I've been trying to meditate more in general.  I'm a natural multi-tasker, which I'm not convinced is very efficient, and type A planner which lends itself to continually thinking about next steps.  Medical training really drilled in me the need to take advantage of every minute, because there were always so few minutes to spare and so many tasks to do.  It's hard to get out of this sometimes unhealthy mindset, and I find it often disrupting my enjoyment of things, my sleep, and my patience. 

For someone who's naturally inclined to think about a million things at once, then was additionally trained and rewarded to function this way, it's pretty hard to sit in silence and center my attention. 

Yoga is a nice bridge to what we conventionally think of as meditation. For me this is especially true of ashtanga.  Unlike the more well known vinyasa where the teacher varies the order and flow of poses, ashtanga consists of the same set of poses in a specific sequence.  So the ashtanga class I go to is the same exact class each time, and it's become my favorite yoga class.  Since it's on Friday, I look forward to it all week and it's the nicest thing to re-focus after a long work week.

I love that there's a thoughtful progression through poses, and that the sequence is the same each and every time.  This way, I mentally and physically anticipate what's coming and it becomes natural to stay attentive.  The inhalation and exhalation tied to each movement has become intuitive, and this anchors me to the present practice.  I find my mind wandering less during this practice than in others. It's not to say that I don't often still think about something that happened at work, or planning for the weekend, but I'm able to return from past and future more easily.

 And because you do the same poses over and over, it's easy to feel yourself changing in your practice, notice the difference from week to week.  With any yoga, I value the emphasis of commitment over achievement, awareness over ego, accessibility over strain.  But it's also nice to see the changes in flexibility, strength, and balance over time.  And it gives me the confidence I imagine comes a little inherently to tall people, because the ability to move makes me feel like my limbs are longer.

It took some time for Asthanga to grow on me, and I think it's often these things that take the most effort and growth that sustain me longest.  With 2016 being a rough year for me and all of us, I'm trying to take December to reinforce and commit to healthy practices for the new year.

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