A time for yoga

by Patty Templeton

I bet you’re busier than mustard trying to ketchup. Everyone is. School, work, heightened political turmoil, errands, and the needs of family and friends take our attention. It can feel like you’re getting through life rather than living it.

Yoga can help.

I know, I know. You have a list of get-shit-done so long it gives migraines at a glance, and I’m telling you to add to it. Even 10 minutes of yoga a day, or every other day, can help build presence and positivity in your life. Don’t let me convince you. Let the experts. DGO spoke to Sheryl McGourty of YogaDurango, Sarah Klein of the Whole Health Lab, Susan Atkinson of Sunrise Yoga, and Kathy Curran of 4 Corners Yoga about people’s misconceptions, and the power of yoga to change people’s lives.

What brought you to teaching yoga?

Susan Atkinson: I had an injury that was because I was a step aerobics instructor. It was a foot injury and the step aerobics made it worse. I had to stop teaching step aerobics, but I wanted to still teach. By default I chose yoga. Turned out, yoga healed the foot problem. After that, I was really turned on to the power that yoga had. I’m 60. I started teaching when I was about 48. I feel like my body is younger now than it was when I started.

Sheryl McGourty: I’ve always been in a teaching position or occupation, for as long as I could work. I was an outdoor guide working with kids and then I taught middle school and high school. I was practicing yoga that whole time. My practice increased because I was experiencing stress. I went to India to travel and study at an ashram and to get my credential for teaching yoga. When I came back to Durango, within a year of teaching here, I opened up YogaDurango with a team … It started with wanting to connect with people of all ages and it evolved to this path. I never intended to open a studio. That’s just how life goes – you’re steered.

Sarah Klein: The benefits that I have found personally in yoga have been life changing. I know that sounds cheesy, but it is true. I love sharing the practice and the love of the practice.

I found yoga in college, maybe in about 2005. I went to my first teacher training in 2008. After I graduated, I knew I was heading west to do the ski bum thing. I had a hunk of time. I was like, “Well, I love yoga. I’m really interested in learning more. So I’ll take a training.” I’ve taken a form of training every year since.

Kathy Curran: Someone gave me a book when I was in my early 20s. Yoga just made such a difference in my life. After three years of practicing on my own, I took a class and I knew, “That’s it. That’s what I’m doing for the rest of my life.” It was a really challenging time in my life, dealing with things like depression and lots of life changes. Also the thing that appealed to me a lot, physically, was that yoga fit in a small space. Now, all these years later, I have been practicing for 45 years, and it was totally the right decision. I never look back.

What are misconceptions that people have about yoga?

McGourty: People gauge whether or not they should do yoga by if they can touch their toes. That’s not what it is. It is such a bigger practice than the shapes you make. It’s a practice of learning about who you are.

Klein: “I’m not flexibile enough!” It’s a meme at this point. Yoga is not for the flexible, yoga is for the willing. Or, “I can’t sit still enough.” Another misconception is that is it only postures. Ashtanga yoga means “the eight-limbed path.” There are eight pieces to this practice of yoga. One of those limbs is asana, which is postures. Another limb is pranayama, which is breath control. When you walk into your typical yoga class, you are maybe getting two out of eight limbs. There’s so much more to the practice.

Atkinson: I heard a physical therapist one time say, “I don’t do yoga, I’m not flexible enough.” That’s why you go to the yoga class! It’s not a discipline that is designed for people who are already flexible. People also think, “I’m not getting cardio so why should I do a yoga class?”

Curran: I think the biggest one is that physical yoga is only one of the eight limbs of yoga. The initial intention with the physical poses was to get fit enough to be able to sit and meditate. It is really all about mind training. I think a lot of people in this day and age view it only as a physical endeavor and don’t realize the profound effects it has for mind training.

How can a dedicated yoga practice change someone’s life?

McGourty: I think that any practice – could be yoga, could be meditation, could be time in nature, anything that allows us long, consistent periods of reflection, are going to lead toward personal growth and transformation. It’s not that it has to be yoga.

We are so busy these days and there is so much to take in and we can be witnessing a lot of suffering and when we give ourselves time and space to be reflective and contemplative, there will be transformation. I joke around at the studio a lot because you think you come in to stretch and it sneaks up on you. Someone comes in with the attitude of, “I just need to stretch it out,” which is fine, no one has to go on some long spiritual journey at our studio, but the majority of people who come in do tend to find more than just stretching.

Curran: One of the reasons I love this particular form of yoga (Iyengar) is because it’s not one-size-fits-all. If someone comes into an entry-level or all-level class, we have them fill out a form of their limitations. Then we can structure the class around giving them modifications that make it safe for them. I have students with all sorts of injuries. I had someone come back from a surgery in July with two new knees yesterday. I know how to work around that so she doesn’t get in trouble.

I also have students with emotional issues, depression and so on, who get relief. Some of the poses we call “nature’s mood elevators” because they bring relief. There have been a lot of studies over the past several years that have documented why yoga works. Amy Cuddy, the Harvard psychologist who wrote the book “Presence,” she documents a lot of how changing the physical shape of the body changes the brain chemistry … There’s another study that shows that certain positions, depending on where you put the heart in relationship to the throat, calm the heart and, now they’re finding out, calm brain waves. These are the kind of things I’m really fascinated by because people who have practiced yoga have known intuitively for years, but now it’s all getting backed up by science.

Klein: I don’t believe yoga is everybody’s work. For example, my husband is a runner. That’s his yoga. For others, it might be biking or walking. It’s finding your mindful practice where you can connect with your true self.

Yoga turns the volume down so you can see your true self. When your true self is revealed, even if it is for a millisecond every other week, then you can connect to your real desires and get yourself on the right path and into making changes. Maybe those changes are stopping smoking, getting out of dysfunctional relationship, switching careers, or starting to eat better. Whatever it might be … Community, accountability, strength, self-confidence. You’re lifting and spreading the prana (energy). Yoga is a path to self-exploration and self-realization.

Atkinson: Yoga is fitness not just of the body, but also the mind. Western exercise often totally disregards what is happening in your head … I have people say, “I wish I had a switch and I could turn my mind off when I go to bed.” Yoga gives you those skills to slow your mind down so that you are not so much at the whim of the happenings of the day.

What is happening in a pose besides the outer balance people can see?

Atkinson: When you’re in a pose, instead of focusing on your grocery list and what you’re going to do when class finishes, you focus on, “Oh, my leg feels pulled in the back,” and, “Am I bringing my breath more into my abdomen or is my breath more in my chest? How does it feel when my head is upright versus chin tilted down?” You focus awareness on what’s happening in your body at that moment and that brings you in the present.

Klein: Each posture you have three aspects (breath, energy locks, and gaze) that capture your mind. Where your eyes go, your mind goes. If you focus your gaze on one point, it draws in you inward. It slows down the mind. Then you have the breath which is audible. You can hear it. It’s cleansing. It creates heat and burns off impurities. It also creates a distraction because it is audible. It is the music of the practice. Then you have the energy locks which are intensifying the energy you are cultivating, farming, purifying in body. It looks like an external practice, but when practiced correctly, yoga is very, very internal.

Curran: I think the normal feeling, for most people, is that they get into a situation that is challenging and they want to get out. In yoga practice, we don’t. We stay. Sometimes we use the help of a timer or a teacher to stay in a pose. Really, to stay on the side of challenge, not torment. You can always back off or ease up or add a prop so you’re not feeling tormented, but you are challenged. With this day and age, people’s brains are so affected by technology, I think that people’s ability to stay put in any task where they are concentrating has gotten sabotaged. With the practice, you don’t have your cellphone on, you can’t answer a text, you’re just there in a pose, given instructions, paying attention to the external of the lift of the arm, the thigh, and so on, and, of course, while relaxing your breath. I think what it provides is this fabulous anchor for the mind so that you can linger long enough to discover how to relax in any situation.

What drastic good have you seen yoga work in people’s lives?

Klein: Showing up is important and step 1, but integrating the practice is important. It starts to shift the mindset of, “My body isn’t good enough,” to “Oh, wow, look how amazing my body is.” As a culture, we forget what a blessing it is to have hands that work or legs that function and yoga practice is a remembering.

Atkinson: I had a lady who was scheduled for back surgery. She didn’t want the surgery. She had an injured disk in her back. She told the surgeon, “I want to try one more thing. I’m going to try yoga and if that doesn’t help, I’ll come back and get the surgery.” The yoga healed it. That was amazing.

And there is peace of mind. Being able to have the joy and satisfaction of being able to come to a deep sense of quiet, to connect with spirit.

Curran: I think its most drastic change is that you get into these poses, or you could look at it as challenging situations in a controlled environment, a classroom situation or a safe arena so to speak, and then you train yourself to relax. You come into the poses and, usually in the beginning, you are not very relaxed. You’re clenching your abdomen or your jaw, but with some encouragement and staying and holding for a while, you learn to bring relaxation into a challenging situation. In life, when challenges come at you, you then have profound tools for experiencing equanimity no matter what life brings. In my life, that has been absolutely true. It’s not like the challenges on the outside ever stop, but what you bring to them makes all the difference in how much you suffer.

It changes all those neurological pathways. What we’re doing is – especially in this form because there’s so much attention to detail – you can’t just do the pose any which way. Part of that is to keep it safe and potent but a lot of it is to shake up behavioral patterns that cause suffering whether physically, emotionally, or mentally.

McGourty: Michele (Lawrence), my business partner, has been dedicated to yoga therapy, which is another branch of yoga. It looks at and works with how to accommodate more individuals through different transitions, like grief, like cancer. We have offered those classes at our studio, too.

Another thing I see is in people’s bodies. A lot of people will come in and they’re really disconnected from their bodies and move stiff, almost like they are a stranger in their own body. Through consistent practice you see it’s beautiful to see people move with grace and fluidity and to see how much easier that is on the self, to move that way through the world instead of guarded and stiff and sore.

I think we can be difficult on ourselves. When you begin to become present with yourself and your breath and you realize that you are the body but you are more than the body and you are in this room with people who are going through the same thing, we can become friendlier to ourselves and others. We can be hard on ourselves – what we look like, work, how we compare, and I know I try to state in classes that it isn’t a comparison. There is no prize waiting for you at the end of class if you did the best triangle. I have little concern for that. Let’s just have an experience together and when we do that we have more self-compassion. When we can become friendly and compassionate with ourselves we can start to do that in an authentic way with others.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.Patty Templeton


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