Articles

Down Dog Through the Downswing

Megan Cindric, 129 YinD

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions.  To me it seemed silly; why wait until a certain date to make a change in your life?  Isn’t one day as good as any other?  What makes the New Year so special? Well, this year was different.  In mid-December I started increasing my running distance too quickly, and wound up with tendinitis in my right leg.  I never liked rest days, yet here I was with doctor’s orders to take a one month rest from running.  As someone who relies on a scheduled workout for stress relief and peace of mind, this was a nightmare.  So I figured why not give yoga a try?  It was one of those things where I always thought I should do it, but never quite found the time.  And yet the timing seemed perfect: After New Year’s I would be at my site for an entire month, and would have ample free time to practice (even more so than running, since I had to finish my run by 6 PM to be back by sunset).  I set my parameters: Every day in January I would practice at least 40 minutes, morning or night, and on the weekends I would do a full hour.  Well, here we are in February, and I have returned from my adventure to share the lessons I have learned.

Breathe through the discomfort

January was hard.  Even back in America, the month after Christmas and New Year’s always dragged on.  Suddenly there were no holidays to look forward to, and I was facing the feeling that, despite being here a full year, I had almost nothing to show for it.  More than once I sent out a message starting with “I’m not seriously going to leave but…”  

In training we talked about the 1-year mark being a low point, but nothing had prepared me for how low this would be.  It felt like I was tumbling from one failure onto the next with no time to recover: classes cancelled without notice, co-teachers disappearing during classes, and students being as rambunctious as ever.  Suddenly being here was once again exhausting and stressful, even more than my first month at my site had been. 

In yoga you will always hit a point of resistance, a point where you feel the pressure and strain start to build in your muscles.  When you hit that point, the impulse is always to pull back, to return to a position of comfort and reduce the stress.  However, if you are able to sit with that pain, to breathe deeply and let the heat build, slowly the strain will ebb away.  It may take one minute, it may take five, but if you sit with your discomfort, feel where that pain is coming from and find peace with it, the pain gradually stops.  In many ways, this is how I got through January: by expressing my pain and struggle; by not shying away from it but instead feeling it in its fullness.  Sometimes this meant taking an hour to write out what I was feeling, to dig down to the root of why I was feeling this way, and other times it simply meant powering through my lessons even if I really wanted to quit.  I could hear the voice of the yoga app “feel the heat build and breathe deeply” every time situations got stressful.  It helped me realize that despite my best efforts, the low points were going to come, and here there is no option to pull back from the discomfort.  When these moments come, I’ve learned to sit with that feeling, be it stress, exhaustion, embarrassment, whatever, and be okay with it.  The longer I sit, the less these emotions drag me down.  Slowly, gradually, the feeling ebbs, and suddenly I am back at a high point, astounded by the situations I’ve been able to overcome.

If it feels good, stay here, or maybe…

This is a phrase you hear often in yoga, and not often enough in Peace Corps.  Many yoga poses are able to be modified to suit your own level.  For instance, if you’re doing a side plank and it feels good to keep your legs stacked on top of each other, you can stay there.  If you’re looking to challenge yourself more, maybe raise your top leg up into the air and feel the stretch a bit more intensely.  This quickly became my mantra for this past month.  There were so many times where I’d be hard on myself for not doing what I had done the week before, particularly with running lessons at my school.  One week I’d be able to run a life-skills activity, yet the next I’d be so tired I’d fall asleep during class.  I used this as my way of checking in with myself and asking “what feels good for me this week?” Instead of comparing myself to how I’d been on other days, I based my decisions on how I was feeling in the here and now.  Sometimes this meant I’d play soccer with the kids, sometimes it meant a movie day instead.  

Once I established this baseline, I was able to push myself in ways that were appropriate for my energy on that day.  I stopped judging myself for the days when maybe I couldn’t handle running a class on my own, and then was able to ask myself “what’s the next step from here, and do you want to take that step?”  This was an incredibly freeing decision to make.  It transformed how I viewed myself and my service here.  Instead of constantly holding myself to this impossible standard of the “ideal volunteer,” I was able to be the best volunteer I could be, which varied from day to day.  

All too often we are worried as volunteers that we are not doing as much as we should.  We should teach more, talk more, play more, and always feel that we are coming up short.  This was the feeling that dominated my January, and I know many other volunteers felt the same way.  The standard we try to hold ourselves to is impossible.  This job is too hard to be “on” 100% of the time, yet we still feel guilty when we get overwhelmed and need a break.  The goal should be to remove this standard of who we were in the past, or who we believe we should be in the future.  Instead, we should focus on how we are here, in the now.  Do a mental check-in:  Where are you at today?  What does your level of comfort look like?  Don’t worry about tomorrow, don’t worry about last week, just be here now and go from there.  Trust me, you’ll thank yourself for it.

“Full Practice”

For those of you who are new to yoga, a “full practice” is the sort of thing you’d expect at a yoga studio.  You begin doing stretches on the floor, then move into a flow sequence with standing positions, then cool down with deep stretching and finally end in shavasana (lying on the floor, sometimes called corpse pose).  When I started doing yoga, I really hated doing a full practice.  I felt like I was wasting valuable workout time doing low-impact stretches.  Then one day I suddenly realized my flaw: my deep-rooted desire to maximize efficiency.  When I would go running, it was without fail a 40-minute process – 20 minutes out, 20 minutes back.  No warm-up walk, no stretching, it was like I punched a time-clock for my workout and when it was over, I was done.  This was the mindset that caused me to develop tendinitis in the first place.  When I went for my run that day, I could feel pain in my right shin, and I could tell it wasn’t going away.  Instead of giving myself a break and cutting my run short, I tried to push through it.  I was so stuck in my routine that I wasn’t listening to what my body was telling me, and as a result, I seriously damaged my right leg.  It made me aware of the relationship I had with exercise, and how that relationship needed to change.  Every time I felt frustrated that there was so much time spent on warm-up stretches, I reminded myself that this wasn’t a workout for the sake of punching a 40-minute time clock, this was a lifestyle.  

As much as I was trying to convince myself otherwise, I was still viewing my service here the same way I would view a job back in America, and the same way I was viewing my exercise routine before yoga.  I wanted to go in, push myself as hard as possible for as short of time as possible, and then be done with it.  I had a very clear set of hours I would work, and I had a rigid way of measuring my success.  Only now have I begun to realize how much more Peace Corps life is like a full practice in yoga.  It is not the sort of job where you go in, power through several hours of work, and are finished.  It is a round-the-clock sort of job, and as such you don’t always need to push yourself to your max while you’re here.  

My greatest example of this came from my B4 students.  This term, I added an extra afternoon to spend with them, and was so excited to have more time to run activities with them.  For the first two weeks, however, both of my co-teachers were nowhere to be found, and as a result the kids were…less than enthusiastic about listening to me run a lesson.  I felt so discouraged and frustrated that I wasn’t getting any additional work done, despite putting in extra time.  I decided to give myself one more week, and to take a new approach: instead of coming in with a lesson, why not ask the kids what they wanted to do instead?  I spent that week playing soccer, dancing, and making origami with the kids.  Was it my idea of a life skills class?  No, definitely not.  Was it a fun and engaging afternoon with the kids?  Absolutely.  

All too often we get wrapped up in trying to reach the supposed outcome, both in our jobs and in our lifestyles.  We need to hit a certain number of check marks, or a certain number of minutes of exercise before we feel successful.  I’ve finally realized that it doesn’t matter how much you do, what’s important is that you do something.  It’s given me a sense of peace and stress relief.  It no longer feels like a struggle to ensure that I get my full 40 minutes of exercise in by a certain time, just as I no longer feel stressed if I haven’t gotten through a particular number of lessons in a week.  Progress here is measured differently, and a full practice has helped open my eyes to all of the unique and meaningful ways one can achieve success.

At the risk of sounding too cheesy, doing a month of yoga has changed my outlook on life for the better.  It came at a time where I was struggling at site, both personally and with my role as a volunteer.  It forced me to slow down and reassess where I was and what I wanted the rest of my service to look like.  The effects have been tangible: I feel myself being much more present at site, instead of constantly thinking ahead to my next weekend or next vacation.  I am finally able to be at peace with what my service will be, be it life skill classes or quick games of soccer with my students.  For the first time in my life, I feel the standards that used to control my life have slipped away.  I know yoga isn’t for everyone, and if you have a routine that works for you, stick with it.  However, if you’re feeling a little bit stuck, or wanting a change in your viewpoint, give yoga a try for a week or two.  Whether you’re another volunteer or someone back home in the states, this can be a chance for you to turn inward and check in with yourself, get to know what you need, and move forward in the most positive way possible.  No pressure, no expectations, just you, your practice, and your mat.


 

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