This post has been brewing in my heart and mind for a while. It’s one I haven’t really wanted to write, because deep reflections and looking at my own stuff is never easy. But several people have asked me for advice in this regard, and since I can speak to it personally, I wanted to share my experience. If you just want tips to get started, skip to the bottom. Otherwise, here’s my story:
I recently came back to yoga after a long absence
I don’t know many yogis or yoga teachers who have practiced for any length of time that haven’t taken a break from their practice from time to time. I know my experience is not uncommon. But sometimes it really did feel like I was the only one. So what happened? In April of 2012, I moved away from the yoga community that I had been part of. Before I moved, I had a weekly class at a great studio and I was teaching in other nontraditional spaces like the public library. I had a strong practice, and attended several classes a week. After I moved, I was a lot more isolated than I’d planned, for a variety of reasons. At first I kept up my practice, even teaching through Skype and my blog.
Then a series of injuries happened. First, I fractured my ankle and tibia, and shortly afterward, I had severe back and hip pain (I’d dealt with low back pain for years, but it became a daily thing that I felt with every step, every position). I gained some weight due to my lowered activity level. Personal life pressures and worries about money and career caused me stress. The weight gain caused me stress. The injuries caused me stress.
Stress makes me gain and hold on to weight. I was at an uncomfortable weight for my body, having gained it quickly. The extra weight on my injured ankle and back was felt every day. I blamed my body for the pain I was in.
I felt isolated from my community, alienated from my own body, and felt the culmination of three years of radical change in my life circumstances. I had done a complete 180 in career, going from a stable job to self-employed. I’d moved three times (different cities). I’d become the sole breadwinner and was supporting my husband while he was in school. And while yoga teacher training had changed my life in many positive ways, I had enormous emotional upheaval from “my stuff” that I’d been working on, and I felt everything crashing down on me at once. Maybe I blamed yoga. I certainly blamed my body. The body is easy to blame, especially when it’s injured, in pain, tight, closed-off.
For a long time, almost a year, I held still. I would work at the computer. Sometimes I’d hike or walk or swim. Most days I did some form of “yoga” or mobility work. But legs up the wall, wiper legs, and rolling around on the floor is not a yoga practice. I didn’t take my body through all the possible ranges of motion. I didn’t work on building strength.
As I held still, my range of motion lessened. My back pain and hip pain got worse. My shoulders and neck got incredibly tight and I started having neck pain for the first time in my life. My weight was still the highest it had been in about a decade. My relationships suffered, my moods were low. I had several more failures or false starts with my career. I felt depressed. My creativity and spark felt like it might not come back.
A turning point
In May of this year, I went to New York City for a conference that I was awarded a scholarship to attend. The conference wasn’t really worth the trip in my opinion, but something else was. I ended up finally getting to meet and hang out with (and stay with) Annie of Supportive Yoga. We had been talking online, sharing each others’ blog posts and such for almost two years, and it was so awesome to get to finally meet a kindred spirit. We were fast friends. While I was with Annie in Brooklyn, we had some conversations about yoga, why my practice had flagged, how crappy I felt about my weight gain and about the tremendous psychological effects of pain. I also shared my frustrations about not being able to find a yoga community where I was living. We had plenty of studios but I had not found “my people” yet.
She listened and asked questions like, “Well, have you been to every studio yet?” I admitted that I hadn’t, and left Brooklyn determined to find at least one class that I liked. I remembered that I missed yoga. I saw how strong her practice was, and wanted to feel that freedom in my own body again. I needed to connect with my body again.
Slowly returning to my practice
So I came home and went to classes. I probably tried 15 classes or so over the next couple weeks, and finally landed in Jen Waine’s class. It was a slower paced hatha class, and exactly what I needed. I also felt at home at Opal Yoga, the studio where the class was held. It just gave me a good vibe and was a beautiful space. The people were warm and friendly.
Instead of trying to do ALL THE YOGA, I went to 1 class a week. Then 2. I allowed myself to return slowly. And I started changing my environment to support daily movement. I have some ideas about that below.
As my daily practice came back, so did the desire to teach. Local friends had been bugging me for months to teach them, and so I piloted a 3-week beginner series that sold out at 20 students. We met at a local fencing gym. I started doing daily posts to my Facebook page as part of an Instagram challenge, and it seemed that it inspired others to be visible as well.
Now I’m teaching at a new studio in town and am working on a huge project with Annie: Yoga Without Exception – a ton of resources for yogis in bigger bodies. And I’ve got some other stuff in the works. It feels amazing to be back. I am still at a heavier weight, but I feel myself getting stronger. I feel healthier. My back pain is gone (as long as I practice every day), and my moods have done a 180. I think my body will release some of the weight as I bring my life back into balance. But if it doesn’t, that’s okay too, and I will practice ahimsa toward myself.
5 tips for coming back to yoga after an absence
Let go of the story. Okay, this might seem silly to say after I just told you my story. The “why” – why I left, what happened, what kept me from practicing, why I came back. I mostly wanted to post all that just so folks know they are not alone. That even those of us who have been practicing 10 years or more struggle with these things. Life gets in the way. People get hurt, people have babies, or deaths in the family, or huge life upheavals. But if you want to come back, letting go of why and just moving forward is important. Changing your perception and the story you tell about yourself (I’m getting stronger vs. I haven’t done downward dog in a year, I am so weak) makes a difference.
Find your inspiration. I don’t mean “fitspiration”. Photos of bendy people doing king dancer pose on the beach or a handstand in the sunset are lovely and all, but they aren’t very relatable to me. Find someone who inspires you with their movement practice or fitness that you can relate to. For me, that was Annie. Maybe it’s a friend or a teacher, or someone you’ve seen walking around your neighborhood. Make friends with them if you can. Talk to them about their practice.
Change your environment to help you succeed. I put a label on my phone alarm that says “Get up. Do yoga.” I added lots of local classes to my Google calendar and set them to repeat forever, that way I know what classes I can go to every day. I set out my yoga clothes the night before, and put them on in the morning. I have the Time Out app on my computer to trigger yoga/stretching breaks throughout the day and I set up a standing workstation to encourage more movement breaks and lessen the impact of so much sitting. Jimmy noticed the change in my mood from practicing more, and he cleared an area for me in the office, set up my mat, and put all my props in one corner. I also subscribed to YogaGlo, so when I want to practice but don’t want to think about what to do, I can just go to a class, even if I can’t leave the house.
Find your community. Find a class or studio that feels like home. Find a buddy if you can who will go to classes with you. If that’s not feasible, then find community online. Facebook and Instagram are full of yoga friends. Check out the #yogaforall #bodypositiveyoga #supportiveyoga and #sizedoesntmatter hashtags for inspiration.
Honor where you are today. If you’ve been absent for a while, your body will not be the same as it was. You’ve probably lost some flexibility or strength. Maybe you have a noticeable loss of range of motion in a joint or two. Allow yourself to return slowly, and let go of the expectations you may have placed on your “former” body. Be real about the body you’re bringing to the mat today. Honor the integrity of your body and don’t push or injure it. Give it time. Put in the hours on your mat and reclaim your practice.
Do you have other ideas?
If you have other suggestions for how to come back to yoga after an absence, please post them to the comments.