Ten Years of Yoga

Rain Tree

Murakami in his fantastic book about running “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” says that a gentleman ought never talk about what he does to stay physically fit. I kind of agree, but if I am being honest I love reading about what other people do to stay fit. I assume most of these people are gentlemen. I am always slightly worried about not being a gentleman so I will write at the outset that this writeup is not meant to extol the virtues of yoga and how you should definitely be practising it to be a better person, but more a letter of gratitude to yoga.

I started doing yoga properly and regularly in 2014. It was some time after my first (and likely last) half-marathon. Running the half-marathon taught me that long distance running was excellent for character building, and therefore, not much fun at all. I don’t think anyone truly finds it to be fun, but some people just tolerate it better. I was told real men run the half-marathon in a sub-2 hour time. I managed to do it but in the process my iliotibial band (all runners know what and where the IT band is) got destroyed and for a couple of years after that I could run for precisely ten minutes before it started to hurt. Thus, I abandoned running for a while and was looking to replace it with something when my friend Apurva suggested we try out the yoga classes at JHU Rec Center. Growing up in Pune (home of BKS Iyengar) yoga was present in some form or the other at home and school. I was a part of my school’s synchronized Suryanamaskar performance team. Yes, this was a real sports event. I was not very proficient at it but it did get me introduced to yoga as an exercise form. After tenth standard however, I lost touch with yoga completely for the next eleven years until I rediscovered it at JHU. The JHU Rec Center had daily morning and evening classes run by professional and student instructors, that were free for grad students. My first class was with a teacher called Amber, who was very nice and friendly, but what happened next was anything but. It was a vinyasa flow-based class so the asanas were arranged around the familiar Suryanamaskar order that felt like meeting an old acquaintance after years. I felt confident of tackling this. Five minutes in however, the first adho-mukha-shvaanasana aka the downward-facing dog burst my bubble in spectacular fashion. I could hear Amber saying that this was a “resting pose”. Nothing about it felt remotely like resting. Within ten seconds of holding it my shoulders, arms, and hamstrings were on fire and started wobbling. I was barely able to hold it for the five breaths I was asked to. Asanas that looked simple to the eye like trikonasana (triangle pose), veerabhadrasana (warrior pose) variations seemed to test my runnning-tightened muscles. I was glad to make it to shavasana (corpse pose) alive. The shavasana felt great though. My endorphins had never given me the mythical runner’s high but the high I got in that shavasana that day was undeniable. The successful shavasana nothwithstanding, everything before it was rather embarrassing and rude shock to my ego. I had scraped through the class without dying, but to fail at a “resting pose”? That could not be borne. That was enough motivation for me to come to the next class.

A random rule I have found about my body is that it takes about three months of sustained application to see the effects of any intervention. Three months in I did find objective changes in my flexibility and strength, but more importantly, I just started enjoying the classes more and that had nothing do with either of those. I especially liked the “class” aspect of doing yoga. There is something about working out in a group that makes the workout far more fun. The mildly competitive aspect of performing the asanas well in front of fellow practitioners definitely drives me to put in the extra effort. I know it’s not supposed to, but I can’t help it. Watching other students attempt difficult asanas inspires me. Watching them fail at it is entertaining too. The teachers always urge us to focus on the breath and the the body but I know for certain that a big reason for why I managed to practise daily at JHU was the social aspect of being in a class with others. Along with my degree and education, yoga was a gift JHU gave me and for that I am very grateful.

After JHU however, in the cold, real world (aka Boston, USA), I discovered that yoga classes are actually very expensive and unaffordable on a postdoc salary. But by now my body had gotten addicted to the “yoga feeling”. If I stopped practising for a week, most of my muscles, ligaments, tendons–probably neurons too–felt rusty and unusable. I was forced to find an alternative to the real life instructor-led yoga class, which led me to discover the amazing world of YouTube yoga. Many top-notch teachers had put up 60–90 minute classes for free on YouTube. I was now familiar enough with yoga that I could do the poses by only listening and not looking up to screen from time to time. I was happy that this option even existed but doing yoga alone is no fun. Doing hard asanas and achieving perfect alignment can give some pleasure but I am not a mature enough practitioner to be motivated by that alone. My practise frequency fell to about one-two classes per week, which was just about enough to placate my body.

When I moved to California and started earning a real salary, for a glorious month I joined a class near my home and practised almost five days a week (with an hour of tennis added in!). But that was March 2020 and the world closed down fast because of COVID. Our teachers gamely continued on Zoom and although a listening, watching, responsive teacher was way better than a YouTube class, the classes did lose a significant part of their charm, atleast for me. What it did get me used to was zero-commute exercising. Today, after having a kid and moving back to India, time has become a precious commodity. Driving to and fro for twenty minutes to attend a one hour class now makes no sense to me, especially when I can plop down a mat, open Zoom or YouTube and just begin. It is clearly not as fun but I will take it for now. Practising at home also has its delightful advantages. My three year old will sometimes join me during a class and be amazed that despite being an omnipotent big person, my head does not reach my knees during paschimottanasana as easily as his does. On the days when chaturanga dandasanas feel easy (never), he climbs on my back for the ride and adds some challenge to it. So I cannot complain too much about yoga from home.

Practising yoga reasonably regularly has indeed gotten me tangible benefits. Core strength, flexibility, balance are some properties that I can objectively confirm have improved significantly. Some things that I feel have improved but cannot confirm objectively are my reflexes; especially while playing sports. I also feel that I have an increased awareness of the straining limits of my muscles when performing any activity. While doing non-yoga workouts I can “feel” if I am about to overwork a muscle. My rate of getting injured while running or weight-training has reduced and I am guessing this is why. The effect I am most happy about however is that I am no longer bothered by economy seats on domestic flights. I know I can contort myself to occupy an even smaller volume. Bring it on budget airlines! In general I feel that yoga has acted like a lubricant ensuring smooth motion in my post-thirties, rapidly deteriorating bodily systems.

All of these advantages are great, but I suspect the real benefits are the intangible ones. People say they feel calmer, more focussed, less anxious, with an improved ability to think, and more because of yoga. It maybe true but I haven’t noticed a significant difference in myself. It is difficult to measure changes in the mind when the mind is also the observer. My guess again is that the mind just feels better because the body feels better. A bonus of attending classes regularly is the philosophical fundae that the good teachers bestow in a class. These can and probably have changed my perspective to many things in life. Many of them did not make sense to me initially as I was struggling with the geometry of the asana itself, but now I kind of get what they mean. Reading BKS Iyengar’s autobiography would not have made any sense to me if I had not actually practised yoga. So I imagine there is some philosophical growth in me too. In one of my classes (at the YMCA in Charlestown of all the places) the teacher asked us to imagine our daily life situations as the asanas we were in. Uncomfortable, unbalanced, seemingly close to medieval torture. She explained that most of the discomfort in the asanas can be managed if you are focusing on the breath. Then after a while, you can even start to enjoy the asana. Same with life situations, just find something to focus on and carry on. You might even start enjoying them. I get reminded of this excellent advice every time I have practised since.

Now that I am back in Pune, my long term hope is that my schedule opens up enough to allow for a weekly class or two at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute set up by BKS Iyengar and learn from the very source of this magnificent tradition. Until then, even after a decade of yoga, I know I have more than enough to learn and discover on my own.

Amod Jog
Amod Jog

My research interests include medical image analysis, computer vision, and machine learning/artificial intelligence.