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What I Learned From a 30-Day Yoga Challenge

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When it comes to fitness you can rest assured that I’m no Ronda Rousey. I’m the kind of person that likes to think that I am athletic; I was a cheerleader, ran track in high school, and taught power tumbling and gymnastics for a few years. But sometime after college I fell off the fitness bandwagon and I haven’t been able to get back on since.

When a good friend of mine named Jessica took the plunge and opened up her very own  yoga center, I attended the grand opening and the words she spoke inspired me to give yoga a try. She challenged us all to participate in a 30-day yoga challenge. She told us that the heart of this challenge was commitment not just to the studio, but to yourself and your practice. This meant making a promise to yourself and following through on it. This meant letting go of all excuses and fears of failure and promising to set aside time to practice each day. Despite never having done yoga before, I signed up for the challenge.

This was in part because anytime we hung out Jessica would always tell me about the benefits of yoga and partly because I’d always been curious. And with the challenge to hold me accountable I felt ready to give it a shot. The rules for the challenge were simple: come in at least once a day, take a class, and place a mark by your name for the day you came in. Instructors would check you in as well (so there would be no cheating) and at the end of the challenge there would be a celebration for everyone. Those that completed the challenge would receive a yoga mat.

I didn’t know a damn thing about yoga but I did know I wasn’t a quitter.  My ability to do even the simplest pose like downward-facing dog was embarrassing, but I had faith that I would only get better. I booked a yoga-in vinyasa class for the morning and went to sleep feeling excited about starting my practice.

Day 1:

I enter the bright studio and pick a place near the back door. I’m hiding but also placing myself strategically in case I embarrass myself and need to make a quick exit. Our instructor asks us to hold a plank for ten more seconds. Sweat drips from my forehead, staining my new yoga mat, as my body shakes uncontrollably and I struggle to hold the pose. I quickly glance over at the girl next to me—she’s composed and looks totally Zen. I’m wondering if I can make a quick departure without anyone noticing.

As we rest on our mats I’m realizing this is only day one of my 30-day yoga challenge and I may have made a terrible mistake.

Day 3:

This time our instructor is focusing on poses that open up the shoulders and back to accommodate all the desk-sitting we do at work. At one point in the class I struggled to get a good grip, my mat began to feel like a slip-n-slide and my eyes began to burn as the sweat that poured down my face quickly clouded my vision. The one good thing about this class was that it was made up of mostly newbies, so I felt like I was on a level playing field. The flow was challenging enough but I was definitely keeping up. I left feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day.

Day 5:

Today I waddled into the studio feeling a little stiff. I looked around and saw a good mix of people of all ages and hoped that meant there would be a mix of abilities as well. Today we focused on holding deep stretches and pairing them with breathing. Our instructors voice was extremely soothing.

Her instructions were clear and well paced, and she said that with yoga it’s more important to feel – not see – how a pose is supposed to work. Her words gave me the confidence to try out some new poses and finish the class on a strong note.

Day 7:

Holy crap. My body is TIRED. Even though I was feeling strong and confident in last night’s class, I’m feeling so exhausted today. I have to admit that I was intimidated by the names of all the poses I couldn’t pronounce but now I feel like I’m getting into a groove. I’m starting to feel like it’s not important if I can’t do certain poses. I’m proud of myself for even showing up! From the time I started this class my arms are shaking, and I start feeling like this is not going to go well. I start to wonder if I am going to be able to complete this challenge. Despite my shaking arms and legs I make it through the 60-min class.

Week one reflection:

To state it politely, the first week of this challenge was hell. I used to consider myself a fairly decent runner, but I definitely wasn’t accostumed to stretching and bending. “Listen to your body, don’t push it past your limit or force it to do what it’s not able to do,” instructor Liz Susong told me after a particularly grueling class. It was a piece of wisdom I would hear again and again:

Forcing your body into yogic submission invites injury and it won’t help you become stronger or more confident on the mat.

Day 9:

After being so sore for a couple of days a friend of mine suggested I do a restorative class. I’d never done a restorative class, or really anything slower than a beginner’s Vinyasa class, so when we started pulling out all the props (two blocks, bolsters, and even straps) I was seriously confused. Our instructor dimmed the lights and started to conduct the class in the dark, lit only by a few tea candles in the windows. It was absolutely glorious. I felt so peaceful. Being in the dark with nothing to focus on but yourself was one of the best feelings. Five minutes in, and I quickly realized this class was all about comfort and relaxation. After sweating profusely all week I was more than happy to unwind and go with the flow. The next 60-minutes were spent with my eyes closed as we transitioned slowly into relaxing poses. So peaceful!

Day 11:

It’s 6:00 a.m., and man does it feel early. I head out before sunrise to try a sun salutation class. I’m feeling much looser after the restorative class and starting off with slow Vinyasas allowed my body enough time to wake up. After a few sun salutations, we did some great spine twists and hip stretches. When we moved to savasana I lifted my neck and pushed my computer-hunched shoulders back – really getting into the stretch. It felt like I had gone to a chiropractor to get my back realigned. So good.

Day 15:

Since starting this journey my friend Jessica told me that eventually downward-facing dog becomes as comfortable as child’s pose. Up until this point I’ve been skeptical. I have a love-hate relationship with downward-facing dog. I have yet to fully own the pose and feel comfortable. Usually the longer we hold the pose the more my arms and shoulders are punished until my entire body is shaking uncontrollably.

But today something truly magical happened. About two-thirds of the way through the class, after several Vinyasas, I found myself in downward dog and… I was comfortable.

I wasn’t shaking or holding my breath trying to focus on my lack of oxygen as opposed to the pain my body was feeling. I felt the stretch in my calves and for once I embraced it. I was finally starting to see what everyone was talk about: down dog really is a resting pose when you do it right.

Week two reflection:

I’m happy to report that I officially know enough poses and their names (some even in Sanskrit) to not have to keep my eyes glued on the person in front of me so I can know what’s going on. Which is refreshing. When I focused on doing the poses in ways that worked for my body, as opposed to trying to simulate the person in front of me, something amazing started to happen. This was week two and I could easily touch my fingers to the floor. My arms and shoulders were getting stronger, my clothes fit better and my abs were tighter. I could keep up with the rest of the class. I had stopped comparing myself to the people that were around me and focused on myself. And crazy as it sounds I was really enjoying myself.

Day 21:

Today when I went to set up my mat, I looked around and realized the only space that was available was in the very front row. And instead of being scared I embraced it and took my place as class began. I wasn’t bothered or feeling self-conscious at all. Which was amazing. Especially since on day one of this challenge there was no way I’d be caught like a deer in the headlights struggling to do yoga in the front row. But today I think something clicked. I was starting to get it.

Yoga isn’t about how good you are compared to other people, it’s a progression that allows you to compare the progress you’ve made. With this revelation I completed the class at a sweaty, steady pace and reflected on this during our mediation.

 

Day 27:

Time for a confession: My body needs a break. It’s not like I should be surprised. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything with as much commitment as I’ve put into this yoga challenge. I find myself wanting to go to class, I am actively seeking out new classes to try and googling poses that I can ask about the next time I see my instructor. I feel different – lighter I suppose, and more balanced. Meditating daily in class has helped tremendously with my mood. I don’t find myself getting stressed out as often and my back is stronger in addition to my abs deciding to make a comeback. I know that I’m tired because my muscles are still aching, but it’s a good kind of ache. The kind that keeps you coming back for more.

Day 30:

Walking into the studio today I felt the love of this community gathering space. This class was excellent. There was a good crowd, and a good range of ability levels. Best part? I was able to successfully stay in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana posehich, which is essentially balancing on one foot with one leg outstretched as you grab your big toe. I’m sure for most Yogis this isn’t exactly rocket science but I have had a hard time with this one, especially since I had lost a lot of my flexibility. I’m definitely no pro, but it’s a good starting point. No matter what your shape or size may be you can still be strong and kick some tree pose ass!

But most importantly, like any workout routine, you have to stick to it. You have to make yourself show up and put the work in everyday to see results. It’s mind over matter. As I meditate and reflect on my final class I can’t believe that one, I’ve completed the challenge and two, that I’m sad this is coming to an end!

Participating in this yoga challenge taught me that yoga is a practice. From the time I started this challenge I would always hear my instructors say thank you for sharing your practice with them, or that they wanted you to reflect on your practice. This is something I never really understood until I began this journey. The term “practice” is all about your particular experience and how it evolves over time. I mean, we’re all practicing together right? Taking this challenge and pushing myself past my limits is what I loved most. 30 days in  and I don’t think I could have succeeded in this challenge unless I took a yoga class every single day for 30 days. It was an enlightening experience. My savasanas got me to another level of relaxation that no massage or deep sleep could achieve. I loved how alive my senses were after I left each class. It helped me begin to discover my practice and what I want to achieve out of yoga. I plan on continuing my practice and discovering what new poses bring to me.

Completing your own 30-day yoga challenge will require commitment and focus – but it’s not unattainable. Completion of the challenge won’t guarantee that yoga will become a habit for the rest of your life (you can fall out of good habits just as easily as you can fall into bad ones), but it will definitely be a step in the right direction. SO…what are you waiting for? Take the leap, start a 30-day yoga challenge and enjoy the journey.

By Amarie Baker