My husband and I stumbled into a yoga class in the early 80s, way before it grew into the $6 billion industry it is today. Our instructor held a bi-weekly class for five or 10 of us in the living room of her apartment. She was hands-on and taught us a carefully curated course — a form of Hatha yoga called Iyengar, plus pranayama (the breathing discipline at the heart of yoga) and meditation. The class was transformative for me.
I’d always been athletic, so the physical aspects of yoga were not daunting. It was the mind-emptying, tuning-in parts that felt kind of scary. Although a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I was also a child of a keep-your-nose-to-the-grindstone-don’t-make-waves-do-what’s-expected-of-you kind of Catholic upbringing that made me skitter away from any sort of reflection on my emotional state. Self-reflection was aggressively not part of my family catechism.
It was through yoga in my 20s that I believe I found the courage to flex the muscles – mental, emotional, philosophical – necessary for self-reflection. My yoga practice delivered on its promise — the integration of mind and body — in spades. The quiet focus during the hours of class helped me through the birth of kids, the building (and perpetual renovation) of a marriage, the death of parents and the vagaries of multiple career zigs and zags. But unfortunately along the way things happened that tempered my love affair: My teacher moved out of town, I got old(er) and yoga got popular.
Losing my beloved first teacher was rough. I was never really able adequately to find a teacher who could replicate her intimate, careful, almost parental instruction. The subsequent classes I attended — and there were myriad ones in different studios over the years — were too loosely supervised, too rigidly doctrinaire, or too competitive to suit my needs. And as more and more people started practicing yoga and as the rooms became filled to capacity, it became impossible for a teacher to notice whether or not I was holding a pose correctly, let alone whether it was appropriate for my aging body.
When the Body Starts Saying 'No'
Yet despite not finding a perfect fit, I kept practicing, because I knew how good even a mediocre class made me feel. Until the day, in my mid-40s, when I glanced in the mirror after a particularly rigorous class in which we’d done lots of handstands and headstands, and discovered that multiple blood vessels in my eyes had burst.
I was horrified. And worried. Google was little help — on community boards and yoga discussion sites, the consensus was that broken blood vessels were no big deal, and that the same kind of thing could happen to a person who sneezed too hard. My physician, on the other hand — having recently diagnosed me with high blood pressure — had no trouble connecting the dots. He was concerned that the upside-down poses increased the flow of blood to my head, which in turn increased pressure on the blood vessels in my eyes, which, when coupled with my increasingly inflexible vascular system and the blood-thinning properties of the diuretic that he'd prescribed as my first course of treatment, put me at too great a risk for blood vessels to rupture. He told me to stop doing inversions.
As it turns out, my post-yoga symptoms are not unique. A recent piece in The New York Times Magazine by William Broad, author of the new book, The Science of Yoga, quoted the medical editor of Yoga Journal, Timothy McCall, as saying that the headstand is “too dangerous for general yoga classes." He further elaborated, “the inversion could produce other injuries, including degenerative arthritis of the cervical spine and retinal tears (a result of the increased eye pressure caused by the pose).” As a layperson, I have no idea if the injuries McCall was citing could be caused by inexperience, a lack of proper supervision by an instructor, or a lack of knowledge by most instructors and students about our individual diverse health issues and potential drug interactions that make each of us vulnerable, possibly in different was, to injur while holding various yoga postures. But what I do know is that in my 20 years of practice, prior to developing high blood pressure, I had not experienced broken blood vessels in my eves.
The Brain Rebels
So it should have been easy for me to modify what I was doing, right? For those of you who practice yoga, I’m sure you’re imagining how simple it would have been for me to lie flat on my back with my legs up the wall while everyone else was doing handstands. But peer pressure is a powerful force. As pitiful as it sounds — shouldn’t someone who had practiced yoga for decades be more enlightened? — I wasn’t happy being the only person in my large classes who opted for what I considered the sissy pose. Obviously, I have issues with seeming physically weak, but I had loved the feeling of strength I felt when I did my handstands, and it was galling for me to not be able to participate. It felt like an epic fail.
I simply wasn’t emotionally ready to admit that my body was changing. That I was aging. And almost always being the oldest person in my classes, I felt even more vulnerable, exposed, and angry. I wanted to shout out, letting my fellow students know that I’d been doing free-standing handstands before they were born. But instead, I quit yoga.
Maybe I copped out. There’s every reason to believe that I would have benefited from learning to manage my ego in the group classes, and grown emotionally by coming to terms with the limits of my increasingly creaky body. But closing that door opened new ones for me. I’ve continued to explore Eastern mind and body disciplines — learning tai chi and qi gong, and, this past year, working with a teacher trained by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, to develop a sustained (finally!) daily meditation practice. I have learned to listen to my body and to be okay with its limitations, and I’ve found new ways to generate physical well-being without risking blood vessels rupturing.
Here are some tips for exploring mind-body awareness:
Listen to your body. If it hurts, stop. Try not to feel embarrassed by it – we’ve all been there. Sit with the awareness.
Experiment to find what works for you. If yoga feels too vigorous, speak up and share your concerns with your instructor and, together, devise a practice tailored to your needs. Or explore other disciplines, like some of the less demanding forms of tai chi or qi gong.
Learn to let go. Clinging rigidly to “what you’ve always done” isn’t healthy. The cliché is true: It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.
Embrace change. We are different at different times of our lives and what was perfect at 20 might not be perfect at 50.