Last year I was awakened in the middle of the night by a searing pain in my belly and rushed to the hospital where an emergency appendectomy and hysterectomy saved my life. I had lived for a long time with uterine fibroid tumors, a common enough condition, but they grew urgent literally overnight and caused a painful swelling in my abdominal cavity that was precipitously life threatening. After a weeklong stay in the hospital, I went home to recuperate for many more weeks, restricted to long hours of bed rest. Nearly two months passed before I could sit up without support, bend over, or get behind the wheel of my car.
The sudden, extreme change in my condition took me by surprise. My daily asana practice evaporated overnight. When my doctor finally said I could return to my practice, nearly three months after my surgery, he admonished me to proceed with caution. He needn't have worried—the procedure had made it impossible for me to lie on my belly, stretch the front of my body, or bend forward with ease. I quickly realized that my Ashtanga-oriented yoga practice, with its tight twists and prescribed vinyasa, would serve me no more, and that I would have to rebuild my practice from an entirely new perspective.
I turned to Leslie Bogart, who has taught Viniyoga for nearly 14 years and whose classes are reputed to be especially good for those with physical limitations. A former registered nurse who spent a number of years working in hospital intensive care units, Leslie also once served as an aide to a physical therapist and possesses a Western understanding of how to deal with injuries, disease, and post-op care. She guided me through my healing process by showing me a gentler, more individualized approach to my practice. This was a new dimension, where breath was explored in greater depth and postures emerged from within, aligned with an inner sense of form rather than an external one. Through Viniyoga I did much more than recover from my surgery; I gained a relationship to my practice—and my body—that I had not known before.
Turning Attention Inward
Viniyoga is by no means only physical. The practice is deeply connected to the Yoga Sutra and meditation and is a means of balancing one's life. The principles of Viniyoga stem from the belief that it is possible for each of us, regardless of our individual physical limitations, to become adept yogic practitioners. The very physical limitations that bind us expand our understanding of our bodies and ourselves. We can learn to recognize the patterns of tension that create the conditions that plague us, not by trying to conform to some external picture, but by turning our attention inward to see what's there and allowing it to emerge. In time we come to appreciate that injury, limitation, and pain are our body's teachers. Returning to a yoga class for the first time after surgery, I was not sure what to expect. Beneath the incision in my belly, I felt a distinct sensation, as if a small reel wound tight with wire lay just beneath the skin, and with every step or lateral motion, the pressure increased and the reel became more tightly wound. Tension radiated throughout my body, and I was hesitant to try even the most basic movement. Such caution is not uncommon in those who have endured surgery, injury, or pain, and the need to relax and quiet the body before movement—before practice—is essential.
Rather than starting a practice by gently stretching to open the body, Viniyoga begins with the breath and treats it with a deference and reverence that make it the foundation for all movement. Using a metronome to set the pace, Leslie began every class I attended with breathwork, asking students to sit in a simple cross-legged position, or in my case to lie flat on the back with knees bent and feet planted on the floor. While we consciously lengthened each breath, my body got more still and quiet. With relief I realized it was OK to just breathe and do nothing else. All my apprehension over re-engaging my practice dissipated, and I was left with a sense of calm. Even if I didn't move a muscle during class, the breathwork allayed my fears and gave me an invaluable reference—a new entryway to the practice. Once I released my need to try and keep up with my old ways of doing yoga, I was free to experience a new approach, and with it a whole new practice. For some time breathwork was the entirety of my practice, and the postures themselves became secondary. The Viniyoga practice that Leslie teaches is easy to follow, which may explain why most of her students are either new to yoga, elderly, or carrying some injury, trauma, or pain. Here there is no fixed way to do a posture. Everyone is encouraged to find what feels right and not to conform to some precise, external picture of how they think a pose should look. "It's important for students to have this sense of working from the inside out," Bogart says, "and to connect to what they feel inside, so if their feet are not parallel or their bodies are not in perfect alignment, that's OK. I like to get people to relax and back off whatever routine they're into that may be causing a problem for them. I find that if I can simply get people moving in a way that's not stressful, they feel better."
Freedom of Expression
Giving students the freedom to find their own way of expressing a pose—working from the inside out—is pure Viniyoga. Anchoring one's attention to inner awareness gives rise to an individual expression of the outer form, which emerges from the practitioner's own physical abilities, limitations, and needs. Because of this, postures in Viniyoga often bear a simplified resemblance to the familiar forms of other approaches to practice, such as Iyengar or Ashtanga Yoga. In Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), for example, the stance is much shorter and the bend at the waist much subtler than the typical deep, lateral fold. For me Viniyoga postures were a more refined expression, like an essential oil. I experimented and explored, bringing as much energy as I could summon to doing whatever felt right in the moment. There was no teasing my edge; instead, I found an expanded space within myself and used it to my advantage. Like an artist in my own body, I embodied the pose according to what seemed right for me.
Because I carried a wad of tension in my lower belly after surgery, doing something as simple as bending over to pick a dog dish off the floor knocked the breath out of me. A basic forward bend like Uttanasana seemed beyond reach. Since repetitive movement of my abdomen would have created more tension, Leslie helped me distill the posture down to its very essence: Standing with my feet hip distance apart and my knees slightly bent, I exhaled deeply as I bent forward from the waist, exercising minimal movement. I held the position for three full breaths before inhaling and standing up straight once again. To an outsider it may have looked like I was trying inconspicuously to peek at my toes, but it was pure heaven for me: I had discovered the pose-within-the-pose, the seed that gives rise to the full form. The weakness in my belly gave me a refined sensibility by which to better calibrate my movement, and I became aware of the smallest adjustments and changes in my form. The more I dropped my concern for form, the deeper into the pose I went, dissolving tensions and tasting the sweetness of a quiet mind.
This progressive opening of the body and releasing its patterns of tension are a process that unfolds over time. Says Leslie, "With your own acceptance and awareness, you must gently explore the altered area of your body. Each cell has a memory, and you must work gradually toward a full posture; otherwise, the muscles and the body overall will contract and prevent you from opening and releasing the tension you're holding in that place. Postures evolve according to what's comfortable for the individual over a period of time."
In Viniyoga the breath serves as a kind of divining rod for finding the form of a posture. In my Ashtanga Yoga practice, I would move into a pose, sense its correct alignment, and hold for five breaths. In Viniyoga, however, the posture itself may be distilled into finer components, each of which is informed by the breath. There is not one form to a pose, but at least two—one shaped by the inhalation and the other by the exhalation. Going into and out of a pose through the breath gently prepares the body for holding a posture, which builds strength.
Although in some situations such repetitive movement may not be therapeutic—in my case flexing my torso up and down after abdominal surgery would not be wise—this approach can be effective for helping the body break down existing patterns of tension and opening new pathways of mobility. Leslie, drawing on her background as a registered nurse, understands that "contracting and relaxing muscles increases circulation to those muscles, repatterns your movement, and helps you increase your range of motion so that you can access greater parts of yourself."
Expanding the Well
Through my Viniyoga practice I was able to expand the well from which I gather my energy and self-understanding. Six months after surgery I could still feel the presence of that coil of tension in my belly, but I had learned how to ease it.
I returned to my much-loved Ashtanga Vinyasa class and tucked myself into the back of the room, where I would be less distracting to others and free to explore the practice in my own body. Although there was much I couldn't do smoothly, Viniyoga showed me how to find the form without compromising the integrity of a posture or my own needs. For months I did Upward-Facing Dog with my legs on the floor, the tops of my feet relaxed and pigeon-toed and my elbows soft and bent, breathing into and out of the pose. It wasn't exactly the "ideal" form, but it worked for me. While the rest of the class moved onto the next posture, I took my time, internalizing my awareness and allowing my body to tell me when it was right to move, and how.
A year after my surgery, I take Ashtanga Yoga classes regularly, loving the way the practice shepherds the tension out of my body, its precise flow directing my energy to higher ground. And I continue to take Viniyoga classes, which root me in a more interior experience and inform my practice with a new perspective.
Viniyoga removed the obstacles the surgery had created to my own sense of wellness and enabled me to renew contact with the essential reason for my yoga practice— to create a marriage of body, mind, and spirit and live from that soft, sweet space within. In the end, the surgery and long recovery were a small price to pay for such a rich reward.
Kathy Wyer is a freelance journalist and longtime yoga practitioner who lives in Malibu, California.