Yoga is medicine. But I wasn’t always convinced of that.
I grew up running and horseback riding, and in my hometown of Baltimore, lacrosse ruled (I was fast, but otherwise terrible – no hand-eye here!)
When I first moved to New York after college I joined the YMCA in midtown near my apartment. After the zillionth slog on the treadmill, an experience I hated but felt I had to do – because what other kind of exercise was there? – I decided to branch out and try a yoga class.
The teacher was a 30’s something blonde German woman, compact and lean. She was everything I wanted to be at that age (21) and honestly, want to be now. Strong, clear, confident, and fit, no extra body fat but not emaciated. She was also something that was totally new to me: poised and comfortable in her own skin. The athletes I had grown up with were edgy and competitive – but her energy was totally different.
For me at the time, that last part – being comfortable in my skin – was a struggle. Being lean was also struggle – and an obsession. I was living on diet coke and protein bars, green apples and large cups of street cart coffee from outside my office at the United States Attorney’s Office, where I was a paralegal prosecuting securities fraud. I thought that’s what you did when you got a real job, lived in NYC, partied a lot and stressed out about boys more than work.
To me, the number inside the waistband of jeans mattered more than anything – 27, 26, 25. I wouldn’t buy a pair if it said 28. I had never been overweight, but my borderline perfectionist personality extended to my body. If I got straight A’s and graduated at the top of my class in college, how could I not figure out the perfect body game too?
What I had was an illness that dated back to high school. Not anorexia per se but more like body dysmorphia. I thought it was normal to have terrible digestion, and skin, and to feel hungry all the time, and to be mad at myself if I gained a pound, or needed to up a size. I don’t think this mentality was my fault by the way – between magazines, years of growing up at an all girls school, and a highly competitive Ivy League college – I had been programed to beat myself up for not achieving what I wanted.
Then yoga came in.
“Give yourself permission to not do work. Trust that the natural systems of your body will support you” – Jen Guaneri, Kula Yoga, April 1, 2016
The first time I went to yoga at the YMCA with my German teacher, I couldn’t even do downward dog. She kept calling it a “rest pose.” WTF?! My arms would start shaking in about 20 seconds, I couldn’t straighten my legs, and looking around the room I felt I would never be able to hold this crazy pose, let alone do even more insane things like a headstand.
But never one to back away from a challenge, I kept going, and found that after a few classes I could hold downward dog, at least for a minute, and that I slept better after a class, having always been prone to insomnia.
Eventually I found a yoga studio in Tribeca near my job at the US attorney’s office that I could escape to after work. It was a tiny hole in the wall, opened just after 9/11, a 4th floor walk up called Kula that had $5 first time classes. Being broke it was the first place I tried.
Fast forward a few months, I was taking class with a teacher named Kate, who was all the willowy, calm, poised things I’d come to find fascinating – and annoyingly unattainable – about yoga teachers. She read aloud during part of class from a book of philosophy.
I don’t remember the exact words – something about being here, being present, and finding now.
No one at lacrosse camp had ever talked about these things. No one in college had ever taught me to find peace in the moment. No one at my high school had given me tools to soothe the constant cyclone of thoughts in my head.
A light bulb went off and I realized I had been walking around with a concrete wall between my head and my body, totally out of touch with my own physical being and needs, seeing my body as a source of stress and something to punish, not something to listen to.
Because of that moment – and because of yoga – I am a doctor today and specifically a Functional Medicine doctor.
My new understanding of the world drove me to quit my job, get into health care, and go to Columbia for medical school. I knew what I knew from yoga was true, but I wanted the foundation of a top western medical degree so that no one could ever say I didn’t know what I was talking about. Ok – I know – the perfectionism thing might have been part of it. But I wouldn’t trade my MD and the work it took to get it for anything.
So how does yoga work?
Yoga is not a cardiovascular exercise although in certain forms it can be – like a fast vinyasa flow or a hot power yoga class. But mostly it’s generally anaerobic, and better for lengthening, strengthening, and detoxification.
Yoga does three things cardio can never do.
It teaches you deep slow breathing, called ujjayi breath, which stimulates vagus nerve, lowers blood pressure, inflammation, and the stress response, and stimulates motility, or movement, through the digestive tract – a huge help to relieving digestive issues from bloating to constipation to more serious digestive disease.
It detoxifies you through sweat, but also through the twisting, going upside down, and stretches that move lymphatic fluid out of the deeper tissues and back into the venous system, and from there back to the heart, so toxins can enter the blood and be filtered out by the kidneys and liver.
It forces you to slow down, be still, and be present. You can run for hours and while this can be a meditative experience, the endorphins that result allowing for temporary clarity, for most people that clarity fades when the high drops off, and most people let their thoughts spin and spin without awareness during a run.
Yoga asks you to deal with the hardest thing there is for most people today – being still in one place with yourself.
If this is really hard for you, that says something about how comfortable you are in your own skin, and the kind of underlying agitation you are constantly dealing with. If you always need to be moving, or working, or eating something, to feel ok, and a cocktail or a joint or sleep is the only thing that brings you calm, you need a new way because eventually these patterns will make you sick.
Yoga taught me awareness of the present moment, gave me tools to self-soothe and calm my mind, helped me detoxify from the way that I was eating and living, and broke through the concrete wall between my head and my body.
By the way, I’m also effortlessly leaner and stronger than I was when I was just running, and weight is no longer a mental struggle. Neither is being comfortable in my own skin.
Now, all of this didn’t happen in a couple of yoga classes – it happened over years of practice, eventually doing 2 teacher trainings, and doing a 10 day silent meditation course. Actually it’s still happening now. But when I hit a wall, am beating myself up for something I haven’t achieved, feel like I’m toxic or gaining weight in an unhealthy way – usually because I’m working and sitting too much – I know exactly what to do.
I turn to my practice, hit my mat and find my body in the here and now. If you can get out of your head and into your body instead of ignoring it or punishing it you will find a way to be what you want – for me that’s fit, poised, confident, and comfortable in my skin.