"Change is not something that we should fear. Rather, it is something that we should welcome. For without change, nothing in this world would ever grow or blossom, and no one in this world would ever move forward to become the person they're meant to be." B.K.S. Iyengar
I have been thinking about change, and personal growth in the New Year, and have been greatly inspired by one of Live Oak Yoga's regular students, Greg Shamitko. Below is a conversation with Greg, about one of my favorite topics, yoga.
When did you first try yoga?
My first experience with yoga was not a great one. My wife and I had just started dating at the time. She signed us up for a couple’s yoga class. I was fine with trying it though I had never practiced yoga before. I figured how bad could a one-hour class be? It turned out it was a 3-and-a-half-hour class! Savasana was a full 30 minutes long. People were snoring everywhere. Some people walked out. The instructor pushed some of the more esoteric aspects of yoga too far for an introductory class. He ended the class with a “gift” by singing us a song he wrote on an organ in a made up language. I found it bizarre to say the least. Talking to other participants afterwards, nobody was interested in a second class.
My next experience was entirely different. I was completing the P90x workout series with some friends while going back to medical school. One workout a week is 75 minutes of yoga. I was not overly excited given my first experience, but welcomed what I thought would be a nice easy break from the otherwise intense workouts. I was wrong on all accounts. For one, it was anything but easy. The videos are vinyasa-heavy with long deep holds in warrior positions. It’s a pretty well rounded video complete with inversions and balance poses. I found myself sweating more and more exhausted after the yoga video than any of the others in the series. Additionally, I found myself more centered and able to focus on studying for that day than any others. There is heavy emphasis on focused breathing and mindfulness, but without being too out there for beginners. Though it came in video form, it was a great intro to yoga. Anyone who is skeptical to try a yoga class because they think it will be too easy or it’s “just for girls” should try that video if you don’t want to go to a class.
What made you want to try yoga (again)?
In the intervening seven years from the P90x introduction, I completed a difficult residency and had two kids as well as started working nights as an ER doctor and it was taking its toll. I hadn’t worked out or exercised in a long time. I had gained weight, became constantly stressed and exhausted, and my back and joints hurt every morning when I woke up. I was taking ibuprofen daily for low back and hip pain. I had a small squamous cell skin cancer develop rapidly and I began to wonder where things were headed. One of my wife’s friends had recently opened a yoga studio and she suggested I try it, both for my health and to support our friend.
What were you nervous about in your first class?
Would I make an idiot of myself? Would I look stupid when I can’t come anywhere close to touching my toes? Am I going to be the only male there, and is that going to be awkward? Is it going to be a repeat of intense Chakra talk with made up songs and made up languages? I was pleasantly surprised when it was very different from my first experience. Physically challenging, meditative without being hokey, and both intense and relaxing.
Why do you continue to practice yoga?
I have lost twenty pounds. My back and joint pain has disappeared. My blood pressure, slightly high previously, has normalized. I have more energy, focus, and patience than I had before. Not only has it helped my physical and emotional well-being, but I think it has helped with my family’s as well. I think I am more patient with my wife, kids, and coworkers. I feel better than I have in years.
What has been the biggest surprise for you in the practice of yoga?
It hasn’t gotten old or boring even though most classes are similar in structure. There are always ways to improve even the basic poses. Each instructor has a different feel to their class that keep things fresh and challenging. Each class is different and can be as hard or easy as you prefer and can be adjusted for all levels. I add a pushup in my vinyasas between up-dog and down-dog for added strength building. There are some poses I may never attain, and frankly, I don’t care if I do. Reverse prayer is just something my shoulders will probably never be able to do, and I don’t have a problem with that. But they are more flexible and less painful than they were before. There is no age or skill level that can’t be accommodated and each class is a different day to challenge and improve.
What is your favorite pose?
I have to pick two, because I like them each for different reasons. Interestingly, after my initial introduction of never-ending Savasana, I’ve found this to be my favorite non-strength pose. Some have called it the most challenging yoga pose. I can say I find it to be the most rewarding. Often times after work, my mind is racing and stressed. It’s a final way during a practice to calm my mind and remind myself to live a little more in the moment. It’s the best way to start or end my day.
My favorite active poses are any of the inversions: forearm stand, crow pose, handstands, etc. They are poses that are challenging and require strength that were initially very hard for me to do. I can see week-over-week improvements on them which is very satisfying.
What other sports or exercise activities do you participate in?
I’ve recently started running again recreationally. I used to run a fair amount when I was younger, nothing excessive but probably 15-20 miles a week. Attempts to restart that were often hampered in part by hip pain due to proximal hamstring tendonitis from an old injury. I’m running again pain free because of the increased flexibility and range of motion I have. I’ve done half marathons before, but my goal over the next year is to train for and complete a full marathon as it’s something I always said I would do.
I also try to do some additional upper body exercises during the week. Yoga is great for all of your core and the muscles related to extension of your arms and legs (triceps and quadriceps) but less so for flexion (biceps and hamstrings). I try to do pullups or chin-ups on my way to or from yoga class to help keep balance to my arms and back as well as a few other strength training exercises like lat-rows. I’m considering starting cross-fit a few times a week, but timing and my schedule hasn’t allowed that yet.