“New Kid on the Yoga Block” is a new series written by writer, designer and Yoga novice, Matthew Coles. Matt's column will follow his experiences in beginner yoga. Please welcome Matthew to our stable of bloggers.
“Can you touch your toes?” I’ve been asked many times over the years.
I reach and reach and don’t usually get past mid-shin.
Sometimes, I hear laughter or I’m asked if I was really trying.
“Wow,” they often say. “You ought to try Yoga.”
I should try Yoga. I’ve thought about attending a class for more than a decade. But now, as a 40-something man, I’m going for it—and allowing you to read how it goes.
You’ve probably already guessed my hamstrings are tight, super-tight. And, as you anatomy experts know, the hammies pull on the back. I’ve had various back issues over the years; most of us face them at one time or another. But I stay active and try to keep my abs strong. Even as a guy who sits in front of the computer all day, I stay mostly pain-free with simple stretches and regular exercise but I also slump and compensate in my posture.
Let’s just say, I don’t sit up straight. In fact, I can’t (physically impossible) get all the way straight against a wall. Part of the problem is due to Scheuermann’s disease, a deformity of the thoracic spine—some of my spinal discs are more like wedges than pucks. I was diagnosed in my early 20s and I naturally asked what I could do about it. It wasn’t severe enough for surgery or a brace, so the doctor said to get flexible and just make the muscles around my spine strong—and sit up straight. Easier said than done.
Later, a nurse suggested doing some Yoga or attending a stretching program. She said regular practice may elongate my spine and relieve pressure. I was dubious that stretching could actually lengthen my muscles and spine but it couldn’t hurt, right? I figured my compacted spine and hamstrung hamstrings needed some kind of work.
So a few years ago, I tried a stretching class to deal with some neck and mid-back pain I was experiencing. It actually helped when I went to class and did my “homework.” But something was missing. The class was held in a dusty, oversized high school gym that was dark, cold and uninviting. The teacher wasn’t invested. She came and did her thing, but often forgot what stretches we had done and what might be up next. I could tell she was counting minutes until the class ended. I didn’t sign up again and soon lost what little flexibility I had gained.
Yoga has to be better than that. I like the spiritual, mindful idea of Yoga, even when approached solely as a form of exercise. Friends have told me it forms new connections in the soul, the body and the mind. I read some studies that showed Yoga measurably reduces stress and pain, increases flexibility and makes you look better. I want all those things, that's for sure.
Am I expecting too much? I’ll let you know.