BUYER BEWARE: BEGINNING YOGA
Santa Feans love yoga. If you live here, chances are you’ve been told to try it — as a fitness regimen, as a spiritual practice, or as a way to heal from injury, chronic pain, or psychological trauma. It’s not terrible advice, but for people with serious physical or emotional issues, finding the right class is crucial. It’s easy to injure yourself in yoga, especially if you have structural problems, and yoga practice is also known to trigger deep emotional responses that can be very scary. There is no doubt that many people have used yoga to take charge of and regain their health, but if the person in need of healing winds up bolting out of their first class in tears, or with increased pain, the recommendation isn’t very useful.
I went in search of a yoga class appropriate for those who function below the bar of what would be considered average health. Any kind of high-impact, rigorous exercise I try tends to result in injury, but my at-home routine was getting stale, and I wanted to find new ways of moving my body. I called around to a few studios for recommendations. The consensus was to look for “restorative” yoga classes, which are designed to open the body up to healing. I convinced a friend with very little exposure to yoga to come with me. Neither of us had ever taken a formal class in a studio. Let’s go ahead and refer to our first restorative yoga class, at a popular local spot, as a false start. It was definitely not a class for beginners. The poses were held for long periods of time, in silence, with no advice from the teacher about what to do if we were unable to remain in position. My back issues flared up something wicked, and my friend suffered a severe flashback to childhood abuse. We left not knowing if yoga was actually going to be possible for us, but the next day, despite feeling wrung out, we decided to try again.
Our next stop was Santa Fe Community Yoga Center, the city’s only nonprofit yoga studio. It operates on a policy of making yoga a viable option for as many people as possible, and instructors tend to teach to the lowest ability in the class. Before we set foot on the premises I had a detailed conversation with Anjali Paige, the studio’s assistant director, about what I was really looking for. After listening patiently to my story about our first class, she offered to lead me and my friend in a private session. I had not known people did private yoga, but it turns out this is probably the best way to ease into a practice if the idea of a group class is daunting or you are not sure what your body can handle.
Paige did yin yoga with us, a style that emphasizes poses that stretch the body’s connective tissues to create release. Though the poses were similar to some of what we’d learned in the restorative class, we didn’t hold them as long, and Paige did plenty of talking so that we would stay connected to the present moment. She offered numerous suggestions for modification, which allowed me to adjust when I felt pain or discomfort. She also did a guided meditation in which we considered the mind as a clear blue sky, with thoughts drifting past like clouds. “You are not the body,” she said. “You are not the breath.” I felt thoroughly stretched by the end, calm, just a person lying on a mat.
The next day, however, my friend was in crisis-level panic. She was so unused to the feeling of relaxation that it terrified her. I found this so alarming that I called Solace Crisis Treatment Center (1-800-7217273, 505-988-1951) to find out if there is such a thing as yoga specifically for post-traumatic stress disorder. I was referred to Melissa Spamer, a licensed counselor who has been teaching yoga for 20 years and has a private practice working with body-centered approaches to psychotherapy, most often with people who have been sexually abused or assaulted.
“A lot of yoga teachers don’t have the appropriate skills to manage what shows up in classes, especially in terms of trauma or emotional release. They don’t have the skill set to support students in feeling safe,” she said. “The way that studios are structured now, there are all levels and anyone can come in at any time. You don’t know your students very well, and you don’t have a health history on them.” She said some clinical research is now being done about how yoga affects the nervous system and the brain, which she considers very exciting. “Learning to breathe more effectively and encouraging that relaxation response is one of the most helpful things for resetting your body. If people have acute trauma, we hold poses for just 30 seconds or a minute, so you’re just slowly wading into this capacity instead of diving.”
Spamer had plenty of advice about how to find the type of yoga and a class that is right for you. Beginners should not expect to drop in on a class full of experienced people and be able to keep up. It’s best to find an introductory class series so that you can learn the basics of how to align your body, get comfortable with a teacher who is consistent over a set number of sessions, and find out how your body reacts to yoga. As yoga’s popularity has increased over the last 20 years, the names of styles, as they are taught in the United States, have less and less to do with traditional definitions, which means a restorative class at one studio could be very different from one at another studio. It’s best to carefully read the biographical information about teachers available on studio websites. Look for people who mention using an integrative approach, staying in tune with the needs of the body through verbal instruction, and any reference they might make to having gone on their own healing journeys. Hatha-style yoga tends to be somewhat gentle or at least easy to grasp and follow, because the poses are held individually, unlike vinyasa yoga, which connects the poses into a flow that can be very strenuous. Be wary of “hot” yoga, especially vinyasa done in rooms heated to one hundred degrees or more. “I’ve seen plenty of symptomology come out of practicing hot yoga, like getting eczema, acne, or migraines,” Spamer said. “You’re warming the muscles up in a superficial way so that people can go deeper than they ordinarily would. Vinyasa is very fast, and doing that in a hot room is where you’re most prone to injury.”
As for me, I’ve found my class: yin and deep release at Santa Fe Community Yoga Center (826 Camino de Monte Rey, 505-820-9363). I even invested in a new yoga mat. Now I just have to prevent myself from becoming one of those people who tells everyone how they simply must try yoga, or try it again.