To: The New Yogi - Student Feature
Student Feature - Sue Burkart
I can relate how difficult it can be to try something new, especially in a difficult time physically or emotionally when the impulse is to be protective and retreat from the world...
When I first met Sue, I saw someone with a strong spirit and fragile body. I noticed that 'stretch your arms up by your ears' wasn't a movement that was going to happen right away for her so yin and restorative was the perfect entry point to yoga for her to move slowly and delicately. Her gentle effort and personal awareness allowed her to progress very naturally and noticeably. I can never know everything someone has gone through to get where they are but watching Sue now in active classes doing planks, warriors, and most importantly taking a rest when she needs one confirms that patience, perseverance, and a willingness to try something new and adapt when needed will produce growth.
In Sue's words:
"In June of 2017, I was diagnosed with hyperparathyroidism, which stole calcium from my bones. My doctor speculated I had it for at least a decade given how severe my osteoporosis was. It also caused me to lose a tremendous amount of muscle tone, severe muscular pain, loss of motion, severe weight loss, degenerative discs, and dire thoughts of quitting life. I became so weak that I couldn’t carry my infant grandson upstairs and I couldn’t even do small tasks like push a vacuum.
Endocrine surgery removing 3 of my 4 parathyroids corrected my high calcium and parathryroid hormone levels, but I was now left with an aged body with very little range of motion. I worried about falling as my balance was affected as well. What was I to do? My dear friend Jeni suggested I try yoga at Breathe Yoga and Wellness Studio. Jeni, bless her heart, accompanied me to my first class; a gentle restorative yin yoga session. Kristin, the owner of ‘Breathe’, stressed at each session that this is “your” practice and do only what your body feels comfortable doing. It was a forgiving form of exercise and Kristin helped me adapt movements to accommodate my limited amount of motion.
When I first began, I was unable to sit on my knees (hero’s pose) without two large blocks stacked beneath my bottom; stretching my arms behind my head with the yoga belt felt as though I was going to snap like a dried out wishbone; and getting up and down off my mat was a real struggle. As I continued to attend yoga, something began to happen. I began to tap into an inner peace, focus on what my body was saying to me, and most importantly learned the gift to simply breathe.
Fast forward two years later and I am now attending slow and active yoga classes. I’ve gained so much more stamina and happy to report that my body is very rarely cranky. I am determined to continue to improve. I’ve met some of the nicest people through my practice and we cheer each other on as fellow yoga buddies. I can’t think of a better way to spend an hour of my day than to be in a flow moving and stretching my body, sending my breath to an area that may need it, and focusing on my inner self. My only regret is that I didn’t discover yoga sooner, but being a late bloomer is better than never blooming at all." ☺
To New Yogis:
First of all, I want to express how grateful I am to everyone before me who has blazed the trail for yoga in the United States and made it possible for people like myself to carry out a sincere passion for yoga and people the way that I get to. From the the Selfless Swamis and spiritual teachers who relocated from the East to spread ancient teachings as well as the modern day Youtube Yogis who provide wellness from the digital stratosphere.
Where my heart lies is in the small, hometown studio where people know and care for each other and you can count on the comfort of a safe and sober place to retreat - Sort of a 'Cheers' for yoga, minus the booze. :)
Throughout the last three years of yoga studio ownership in downtown Janesville, I have seen people heal from physical injury, overcome deficiencies in self esteem, pave a diverse new path of wellness for themselves, surpass their teacher (me) in physical ability, have meaningful realizations about their own thinking and decision making, and form authentic friendships based on support and positivity. The more I think of all the ways yoga practice can influence your perspective, life, and well being, the longer the list gets. Which brings me to the purpose of this post...
I recognize that people make their way to their first yoga class for a variety of different reasons. Maybe your doctor suggested it for stress relief, maybe you moved to a new town and want different ways to meet people, maybe your aging body is telling you to keep moving, maybe a friend convinced you to try their favorite yoga class. Whether you're seeking spiritual guidance, pain relief, emotional healing, flexibility, physical strength, community support, or any other possible result of regular practice, here are some more in depth responses to common inquiries about the culture of Yoga -
- What does it mean that 'Yoga is a Practice? Well, if you're beginning a fitness routine, for example, you must remember that you are beginning right where you are. You're not in competition with others in the room or previous versions of yourself. You're not inadequate for your limitations or inferior for lack of ability. When we first begin a new activity or hobby it's natural to crave immediate results that were promised to us by our doctor or friend. What might happen instead is that addressing the muscles (physical or mental) that haven't been flexed in a while perhaps doesn't feel as 'good' as we expected. It may even remind us of our aches, inflexibility, and bad habits. That is no reason to turn away. In fact, as my teacher, Baba Hari Dass, wrote, 'If you can see it, you can change it.' Becoming aware of the parts of you that are in need of attention is the exact precursor that growth and healing requires. Practice also means that from day to day, you may have a different experience. You may struggle more with balance, for instance, and feel calm in meditation whereas the next day your mind may be filled with worry in meditation but your legs feel strong like tree trunks. The aim of yoga is not for life to become easy, it's for life to become more real. It's not about becoming a perfect person, it's about becoming a better person. With that, we can face a challenge with conviction in our beliefs and a strong awareness of our ability to get through it, not with the expectation that challenging times are supposed to be behind us. Yoga is a practice - some days it's rough and some days it's a joy. With the right aim, it is always worthwhile.
- What is a Yoga studio like? Yoga studios tend to be quiet, clean, positive places often with sacred objects or images decorating the space. Etiquette guidelines are observed such as removing shoes in the practice space and not using your phone. The atmosphere of a yoga studio bares a stronger resemblance to a temple than a gym. This is by design. A fundamental tenet of yoga is intention - also referred to as mindfulness, deliberateness, purpose, or aim. The controlled environment we create is for two reasons - 1) Eliminating distractions. In order to examine the teachings of yoga and yourself, we must practice detaching from the senses so we can focus inwardly. We come here to open to new ideas and changes for ourselves and to find our personal strength. If we continue focusing on our stress from the day, politics, negativity, complaining, noise, etc - it will be very difficult to break new ground. So, we acknowledge where we are at and then move on to our purpose. 2) Reminders of timeless teachings. Objects from nature, deities, sacred symbols, and tools for ritual are all used to remind us of who we are at our core, for returning to a place of calm and clarity, and for look to for divine intervention. If you ever wonder about the objects on a Yogis altar, just ask - she'll probably be happy to tell you about them.
- So, is Yoga a religion? No is the simple answer. There is an important distinction between religion as we understand it in the West and philosophy as it's taught in the East. Yoga has a great deal of theory and philosophy that is the root of the ancient teachings. These teachings are subjects for contemplation and introspection and what bring substance and fulfillment to the practice. They are, unlike institutionalized religion, not prescribed beliefs or rules for achieving enlightenment. So the references to Hindu deities are symbolic to their teachings of overcoming obstacles, servitude, transformation, etc. How you choose to interpret and integrate these messages is completely personal.
- Why does Yoga seem so serious? Admittedly, I have been accused of this so I have been giving it a lot of thought. First I consider why people might think this. There's a lot of quiet to begin and end class and instruction is often given with a lot of technical physical queues. Yoga classes are unlike other fitness classes in that the emphasis is not on high energy, loud music, and purely physical. Class begins with centering and intention so we are moving with purpose, and it ends with relaxation so we can integrate our efforts and restore the body and mind to balance. During movement, you're reminded of ways to be more aware of yourself and what you're doing so you have opportunities to adapt, grow, and make good personal decisions.
My personal response to this question is - Baba Hari Dass wrote, "Yoga is not one particular method. The moment one decides 'I want to be a better person,' that is the start of yoga." I take being a better person very seriously. For me, Yoga revolves around a set of ethics called the Yamas and Niyamas and I unapologeticly take these guidelines very seriously. That said, just like everyone else, there are many different sides to me. There's a time and place for dropping into deep self examination and difficult truths, and if you know me you've learned, there's a time and place for loud music, colorful language, and getting funky - but not at the expense of my morals. Since I've begun to embrace both the serious side of myself, and the part of me that cuts loose and grooves, I have seen others do their version of the same.
You're invited to do either or both.
You do you. I'll do me. :D
~ Peace and Perseverance ~
Your Fearless Leader,