If you’ve tried yoga and it didn’t work for you, return to its roots and find a practice that speaks to your body’s needs
Several years ago, I was in a horrific car accident. I survived, but I can’t say the same about my back, which was already suffering from scoliosis and the sweet burden of the two babies my body carried within just a couple of years of each other.
After extended physical therapy and numerous visits to a chiropractor and pain management specialist, I was able to achieve some relief, but the “don’t do’s” and “can’t do’s” list was long — with no end in sight. At one point, my doctor suggested I try yoga — that ancient art of mindfulness, body movement and inner balance. I had always been fascinated with Eastern civilization, philosophy and history, and this was an opportunity to learn the secrets of the yoga sutras and to satisfy my longtime interest while (hopefully) rehabilitating my back.
I bought a yoga mat, matching pants and a cute water bottle and headed to my local YMCA, which offered three free yoga class trials. Everything felt right — the dimly lit room, relaxing music playing in the background and people placing their yoga mats in perfect positions to watch the instructor’s every move.
“Namaste,” the instructor said, bringing her hands together in the shape of an ark, and we all followed suit, our voices a low-toned choir. As the lesson started, I tried my best to do the asanas (poses). But nothing felt right. I felt embarrassed and childish. Suddenly, I remembered how I had always hated any type of physical exercise. For all of its allure, actually doing yoga felt like yet another form of exercise. “Next time, it’ll be better,” my neighbor, an elderly lady with an enviably flexible body, said, smiling at me.
I returned to my second trial lesson, but it did not get better. For my third try, I signed up for a private class by paying a one-time fee. Each session, my mind raced through my list of chores instead of relaxing with the poses. And by the end of every session, I was exhausted, my body burning with pain.
I decided to give up yoga, but in this relinquishing I became more eager to understand it.
Back to the root
The word yoga derives from the Sanskrit word “yuj,” which means to unify or yoke. Practitioners say that yoga, then, is about integrating the whole self — despite divisions we may perceive internally and externally.
“Yoga tries to bring us to a place of mental stability,” says Arielle Silver, co-founder of Bhavana Flow Yoga, which offers classes daily via Zoom and in-person pop-up events around SoCal. “We get caught up in the weather of constant change. Yoga philosophy says that while the weather is changing, your soul stays the same. The practice connects you to what T.S. Eliot calls the still point in the turning world.”
Yoga — on your terms
In the U.S., we’ve come a long way since Indra Devi opened the first yoga studio in Hollywood in the 1950s. Once a place mostly accessible to a specific group of people, nowadays, yoga studios are attracting very diverse yogis with all types of bodies, conditions and ages.
“Yes, yoga is for all body types, but not all asanas are accessible to all bodies,” says Thea Pueschel, a yoga and meditation teacher in Long Beach. “However, there are some modifications that one can use to get the same benefit if a pose is not accessible,” she says. “For example, people with long legs and short arms likely cannot touch the floor — not due to lack of flexibility but personal anatomy. They can modify it by putting blocks under their hands.”
While she’s a teacher, Pueschel reveals that she, too, uses aids. “I personally have short arms and cannot do eagle arms because of the size of my chest, and soft compression makes it impossible for me to stack one elbow on top of another,” she says. “Instead, I can cross my arms and put my hands on top of my shoulders [like a self-hug]. Many folks struggle with more complex asanas that you see on Instagram, not realizing those poses are the exceptions to what the human body can do, not the norm. Only a small percentage of the population can get into those types of poses.”
People with special physical conditions, injuries or pain need an appropriate approach that is often not available in regular yoga studios. Niki Saccareccia, founder of Light Inside Yoga, specializes in a therapeutic and trauma-sensitive approach to yoga and wellness. For the last 14 years, in a class she named “BACK,” she has taught people how to enjoy yoga through self-acceptance, tolerance for discomfort and remembering that pain, like healing, is a process we must work through step by step.
“It’s about educating and reframing our mindset around experiencing discomfort and using the tools of yoga to help us feel safe, regulated and resilient, and to understand what we are still capable of in our practice,” Saccareccia says. “To trust our body and learn how to respect its limits, to become an ally in how it heals and adapts, rather than fighting with the fact that we aren’t feeling or moving the way we want to or used to prior to the injury.”
“BACK” is one of the classes in One Down Dog yoga studio, which has three locations — Eagle Rock, Echo Park and Silver Lake — and was founded by Jessica Rosen (who, with her son Max, is our cover model this month). One Down Dog not only provides various types of yoga classes in person and remotely, but also prepares instructors with 200 and 300 hours of training, continuing education and mentorship. During and after the pandemic, Rosen saw an increase in the number of people who want to be trained in one-on-one yoga practices with a focus on restorative and mental health aspects. Rosen started doing yoga when she was earning her degree in psychology in college. She was invited into the yoga class that her parents were teaching to release the stress she was in at that time.
“I danced my whole life,” she says. “So that was kind of my number one form of movement. I decided to take a class with them, and I loved it! It was a different way of dancing. It was moving, linking breath with movement, moving from one thing to the next.” As a graduation gift, her parents bought her a yoga-training class, which led to a successful career. While L.A. is saturated with yoga studios, Rosen says it’s important to find the right instructor and training for your body’s needs.
Breathing through it
During the COVID-19 pandemic, yoga studios had to shift their practices to online classes in order to keep their communities alive. By using Zoom, yoga instructors stayed connected with their students and helped them navigate through the stress and anxiety of the pandemic. Some studios, such as One Down Dog, still keep online or hybrid classes with a lower membership cost. However, remote practice also presents some challenges, particularly for people who have some ability challenges.
Pueschel noticed that her students weren’t as responsive to Vinyasa flow (a dynamic practice of linked movement to breath), but they were drawn to Yin yoga (a passive practice with long holds of yoga poses). This shift is an example of the right instructor meeting you where you are.
Silver, who has always conducted her classes remotely, is convinced that if instructors first teach students how to breathe, this will train their bodies to connect their breath with each pose, aiding them better through the session — even from the other side of a screen.
After listening to all these yogis, I suddenly had an urge to pull out my mat, which has been hiding in a dusty closet corner for a couple of years. “Maybe I’ll give it another try,” I thought. Perhaps I can revisit a yoga studio once again in search of inner peace and to work on this back of mine — this time with the right instructor.
Ani Duzdabanyan is an Armenian-American journalist based in L.A. She writes about diverse communities and cultures.