Off the Mat with Lily


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Who do you see coming to yoga class these days?
In my Vinyasa classes, I see an equal mix of men and women. People used to think that yoga was a gentle activity or that it was only for women. It’s not like that anymore. With over 15 million Americans practicing yoga today, Time Magazine has called yoga the “exercise cum meditation for the new millennium”.

Actually, I find that men sometimes come to yoga for the first time expecting it to be lightweight and then end up getting their butts kicked (and their egos checked a bit when they see the women around them sailing effortlessly into more advanced arm balances and handstands)! The reason why it is so hard for them, if they are used to a more traditional gym workout, is because yoga demands equally of your strength and flexibility. In sanskrit we call this sthira and sukha (effort and ease). Every single posture has a melding of these two qualities. Someone who is very tight and muscle-bound will find yoga an exhausting struggle until they start understanding how to work more efficiently, and until their bodies become more supple.

There are many paths to the heart of yoga, which is serenity and equanimity. Because my classes are pretty powerful and athletic, I attract the kind of students who need to do something physically intense and focused in order to quiet their mental chatter and arrive at that yogic state of mind. Sometimes I joke that the yoga really starts in Savasana (final relaxation pose) – that everything else was just a warm up! But really, there is a truth to this. In our culture we are so wound up – constantly running around trying to do more, be faster, stronger, better – that we can sometimes rob ourselves of the simple joy of being present in the moment and feeling gratitude that this is enough. This moment. This breath. This body. Just as it is right now.

Even if a strong vinyasa practice is not your pace, there is a class for everyone! You can literally practice yoga at any stage of life – whether you are old or young,injured, sick or well, the practice can adapt to meet you exactly where you are. Traditionally, the gurus said that there should be a feeling of joy when you are practicing yoga. It should not be drudgery! That is what keeps the student coming back for more — the curiosity, joy and feeling of the body becoming more intelligent as it picks up new postures and the serenity of the mind that comes from this practice is actually quite addictive!

How can yoga help a competitive athlete?
I’ve worked with a lot of athletes. I taught yoga in Oakland for the Golden State Warriors and for the UC Berkeley diving team, and also for many professional dancers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Regular yoga practice can help athletes increase performance, speed tissue recovery, cultivate mental clarity needed for high stress competitions and games, and foster team community in a non-competitive environment. Intensive sports training can leave athletes strong in certain areas of the body yet inflexible or even weak in others. For optimal performance, the athlete’s body needs to go through its natural range of motion regularly to avoid fascial adhesions and overdevelopment/underdevelopment muscular compensation patterns in the body that can lead to injury, poor body mechanics, and fatigue. Yoga helps athletes to improve balance, flexibility, stamina, mind-body concentration for peak concentration during competitions or games, and aerobic capacity. More and more you are seeing professional sports teams turn to yoga to help athletes in their game.

Also, before I taught yoga full time, I was a professional modern dancer, touring internationally with a San Francisco based troupe, LEVYdance. Once I committed to a regular yoga practice as a dancer, I saw a huge improvement in my dancing technique, I felt more grounded, more resilient and less prone to injury and exhaustion/fatigue.

What makes classes at Sanctuary unique?
It comes down to quality over quantity. At Sanctuary, there is a culture of really getting to know your yoga students – their names, their bodies, their practices. It is not a studio that packs students in. Students receive more individualized attention and can really develop a consistent relationship with their teachers, which is vital to helping a student grow. Students benefit much more by committing to a teacher who appeals to them and attending that teachers class regularly so that they will be steeped in that teacher’s particular approach to yoga. There are so many different approaches out there – if you just dabble and don’t commit to a style or a teacher, your progression will be limited.

How can I get started? How often do I need to go to see improvement?
Come to class a bit early and let the teacher know you are new! Keep coming. Try to attend minimum of two classes a week to see growth. Start practicing a little bit on your own at home as you become more familiar with the postures and sequences. Fall in love with those poses that you fall out of or you find most intense and challenging – they are usually the best medicine for your body and mind. If we just spend all our time on the postures that come naturally we go nowhere. It can be very humbling for adults to adopt this Beginner’s Mindset and keep working on postures that are a challenge for them.

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What are the benefits of yoga?
A clear mind, a healthy body, better digestion, increased energy and focus among many others!

Yoga acknowledges the mind-body connection. The experiences we have emotionally get stored into our bodies. As you experience your yoga class you are not just working on your hamstring muscles and your glutes and your abs – you are acknowledging and integrating all dimensions of yourself into what is at once exercise for both body and mind. It is truly a moving meditation!