Ten years of yoga


A fragmented start

I've been doing yoga with varying regularity and intensity for the last 10 years - Ashtanga for the most part, a tiny bit of Iyengar and a little bit more of Hatha. Ashtanga has been the dominant form of practice during these years mostly due to its athletic and energetic nature. I grew up doing gymnastics and spend most of my free time pursuing rock climbing so the Ashtanga sequences always fit my body quite well. Iyengar was honestly just too slow for me at the time. And the Hatha yoga I did was a bit too unstructured and maybe not challenging enough physically - but these details are of course heavily influenced by the teacher and their style.

But even though I have practiced yoga for many years my involvement with the activity has been much more fragmented than any other activity I do. Cycling, skydiving, rock climbing, skiing - in all of these things my involvement and practice has always been much more consistent. In comparison to those things I've never, until recently, been able to make yoga my own. In other words I've only very recently (in the last year or so) been able to own my practice of yoga. I find this quite curious since it does not match up to all of abovementioned things I do. And so I want to clarify how, after 9 years of fragmented attempts, I was able to own my yoga practice.

Some gripes with yoga

These are not so much problems that I have with yoga as a set of ideas but rather examples of issues I have had with most of the yoga practices I experienced. The experiences and opinions are necessarily my own.

Fake spirituality

The most recent set of Asthanga classes I attended in Norway were great for the most part. I really liked the teachers - they were friendly and helpful. But I couldn't help but be annoyed by what I felt was the promotion of a fake spirituality.

The classes customarily started and ended with the chanting of a mantra. There I would stand surrounded by a bunch of mostly middle class Norwegian women, probably all of them as secular as can be repeating a Sanskrit rhyme after another Norwegian woman on a Monday afternoon after work. I am willing to bet that more than half of the people there have no clue what the mantra means. I had a look at a translation and it is mostly harmless irrelevant nonsense. It probably meant something a couple hundreds or thousands of years ago if you were a Hindu living in India but really, in contemporary capitalist Oslo it makes no sense.

Additionally I am willing to bet that more than half of the people in the class don't want to repeat the mantra but only do so because of social pressure. So there I would stand, in silence, not repeating the mantra wondering why the hell we were doing this. I am not about to start chanting things that mean nothing to me just because other people are doing it around me - I grew up as a church going protestant, I've been there, I've done that. I've gone through the process of realising that I can do what I want and what makes sense to me and that I can respectfully reserve my involvement from other people's traditions. In the end this mantra chanting just got on my nerves.

On another occassion I heard one teacher say that one shouldn't do yoga on a full moon because it is more likely that you can get injured then. Show me the evidence baby. Show me the evidence...

Absent social scene

Attending yoga classes has almost always been completely devoid of social interaction: arrive, unroll mat, do yoga, roll up mat, depart. Maybe there would be a little opportunity to ask a question or start a conversation afterwards but I never managed to make a yoga friend. In theory this could be explained by my lack of sociability but I have never had issues with making friends in cycling, skydiving, climbing or skiing so I doubt it.

What I would have liked is if the teachers encouraged interaction between the students in some way. Everything is more fun when you can discuss and discover along with other people; when you can share experiences. Maybe it has been the luck of the draw or maybe only people who are really into yoga manage to make friends that way but alas it was a bit boring socially for me.

Taken together

My irritation with fake spirituality and the lack of any social scene meant that I naturally found it easy not to attend. And practicing alone is difficult.

Other difficulties

Two other factors explain why I found it so difficult to maintain a steady practice: 1) life is busy and 2) yoga got in the way of climbing. What I mean by "life is busy" is that sometimes you just don't have time to do everything you want. As simple as that. But yoga getting in the way of climbing is a bit more complicated and specific to me.

Of all the things I do (apart from family life and work) climbing is probably the most important to me. It gets me out in the mountains and allows me to interact with nature in an intimate way. And I get to share this with some of my favourite people in the world. Part of the game of climbing is to improve - to be able to do more difficult routes. And in order to do this you need to train. The main form of training for climbing is climbing itself (whether indoor or outdoor) but it can (and should) of course be supplemented by other forms of physical training. This will help ensure balanced development. In some very obvious ways practicing yoga can benefit your climbing and so I happily embraced this synergy. But the problem is that an intense session of yoga often left my body sore for more than a day which meant that I couldn't train properly when climbing. And so from this rather specific point of view yoga got in the way of climbing. Being unable to resolve this conflict and in combination with the factors already mentioned I opted to not practice yoga.

Towards a steady practice

About a year ago I decided to try in earnest to improve my climbing. Previously my strategy to accomplish this was very simple indeed: just climb more and try harder. This can get you quite a long way especially if you are young (in your teens) and talented. But being older means that recovery takes longer and your tendons are more vulnerable to injury. Improving your climbing in the long term means staying injury free and it means balanced development of strength through a large range of motion. Climbing better is not synonymous with getting stronger in a large range of motion but it is built on top of that. Developing balanced strength through a large range of motion can be seen as an adequate base for improvement.

I knew that yoga could help me understand my relative strengths and weaknesses, that it could increase my awareness of my body in space, that through practicing I could increase my strength in a larger range of motion. I had learnt enough in the previous 9 years to make a simple enough beginning and bootstrap my way to more complicated and specific sequences of postures. I also knew that practicing consistently requires discipline and that it would be difficult to actually get up before work and do it.

So I started deliberately small: my initial ambition was to do 5 minutes of yoga before work twice a week for a month. After managing that I gradually increased the target time by 5 minutes until I managed a steady practice of ~35 minutes which contained a sufficient amount of movements and positions. A year later and I have managed to develop my own routine and pratice it at least twice a week. This adds up to more than 50 hours of practice throughout the year. That makes me deeply happy.

Developing the routine

Another frustration I had and didn't mention before was that the Ashtanga primary series was too standardised. I needed a series of movements that would push my body in the right direction in a strategic way. And I knew that I was going to have to figure out this series by a combination of talking to experts in movement, reading, experimentation and self-analysis.

Over the course of a few months I spoke to as many physical therapists about my relative weaknesses as I could. I read countless blogs on calisthenics and other body weight disciplines; I read gymnastics training books, body weight training books, climbing articles and overdosed on youtube videos. My mission was to understand how muscles work in combination with joints to produce movements and to use this knowledge to analyse my own climbing performance. This analysis would then allow me to understand the areas where I needed to improve. These areas would then serve as guides to develop a yoga routine.

The single most valuable contribution to my understanding of my own body and of yoga during the last year was provided by a book authored by H. David Coulter called The Anatomy of Hatha Yoga. This book deserves a whole series of blog posts to capture the praise I have for it. It is the only fully unpretentious book on yoga I have ever read. Written by a lifelong practitioner with a Phd in anatomy it provides you with a deep understanding of the anatomical details of the main postures in Hatha yoga. For each posture Coulter explains how to progress from the basic version to the advanced version, which muscles to activate, in which order, in which way, which tendons and joints are involved in creating the posture, how to breathe for optimal stability and benefit and how consistent practice of the posture will benefit different aspects of your body. Without a doubt this is one of the most valuable books I have ever read in my life.

Coulter's book has given me a language and framework which I can use to understand and analyse every movement in my sequence of postures.

What kind of yoga then

A friend recently asked me what kind of yoga I do and I immediately realised that I had no answer. The sequence of movements and postures that I do at the moment does not correspond to any of the formal systems out there. The progression that I am following does not conform to any of those systems either. That is not to say that what I do is completely unrelated to the yoga systems. Not at all. I do my best to learn as much as I can from them. And I don't restrict my input to yoga systems either.

My principle is that I will not use any equipment other than a floor. This means I can do it anywhere. Another constraint is that I should be able to finish within 40 minutes. This means I can do it before work if needed. And the movement or posture should be demonstrably beneficial and have a clear path of progression. As long as I can keep my breathing steady and strong and as long as I can understand why I do it, it's all good :)