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You Can Go Om Again

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When I was expecting our first daughter, and then our second, what I’d always loved about yoga proved true. As long as I kept doing it, everything ran smoothly. My pile of pregnancy books warned of sciatica, lower back pain, and varicose veins, but I escaped these difficulties—thanks, I believed, to my time on the mat. A Pigeon Pose each morning, a few Cat/Cows before bed, a weekly class at my favorite studio, and my pregnancies hummed along.

Two years ago, when I became pregnant a third time, I again planned for my asanas to get me through with nary a stretch mark. But this time, things were different. Hip pain made it nearly impossible to move from one position to another. Standing hurt; so did sitting and lying down. I still made it to class each week, but as the baby grew, the pressure she exerted increased to the point where I couldn’t do many of the poses, no matter how gentle they were. Finally, with several more months to go, I couldn’t practice at all. I spent my Tuesday evenings with a physical therapist instead of a yoga teacher. Facing a third C-section and the subsequent recuperation period, I wondered if I’d ever make it back to the practice I loved.

Such setbacks are common. A difficult pregnancy, as in my case, or an injury or illness or emotional upset can take the steam out of a once-joyful practice. There are times, too, when life just gets in the way. With children to raise, aging parents to care for, and jobs and chores to do, committing to yoga isn’t always easy. But even those of us with lapses of months or even years can make a successful return to the mat. By taking time to examine the reasons you stopped and your motivations for returning, you can ensure that this time around, your practice will prove fluid and flexible enough to remain a permanent part of your life.

The Obstacle Course

Stephanie Rose Bird can remember a time when yoga fit seamlessly into her schedule. A serious dancer in her New Jersey high school with a keen interest in movement, she’d quickly taken to the practice when a teacher introduced it one day in class. “This woman was already an elder, and she did so many incredible things with her body that we teenagers couldn’t do,” Bird recalls. “I did yoga regularly with her, and after leaving high school, those breathing techniques stuck with me for years.”

Her enthusiasm remained strong during and after college, as she pursued a master’s degree in art and started a family. But as she took on more responsibilities, finding time for yoga proved increasingly difficult. Eventually, as a published author who managed to write between teaching art classes, painting, and caring for her four children, she rarely practiced at all. “With all of those responsibilities, I had to pull in my energy and focus on what I needed to do each day,” she says.

Bird’s experience represents a major hurdle that’s faced by many practitioners who lose interest in yoga amid the demands of an already full schedule. “Yoga is often something we really want to get back to,” says registered yoga therapist Barbara Harding, director of the Cambridge Yoga School in London. “But when faced with the responsibilities of an extremely demanding job, for instance, or a new baby, we just can’t find the space for it.”

But plenty of busy people still find time for yoga. For those who can’t, emotional issues often underlie their reluctance or inability to return to class. “The beauty of yoga is the freedom it offers you,” Bird says. “But I seldom felt free enough, or gave myself permission, to take this kind of adventure with everything else I had to do.” Setting aside precious time for yoga can sometimes seem selfish, especially for caregivers, since that’s time away from others in need.

Disenchantment, apathy, and ambivalence can be further stumbling blocks. Many onetime yogis find that they’re not pining for their former practice, having left yoga on an unsure, or even sour, note. “I’ve had friends say they tried yoga and didn’t like it because it was too vigorous, like running or gymnastics,” says Sarah Swersey, a Kripalu-certified instructor in Northampton, Massachusetts, who is currently studying Anusara Yoga. “Others tried a class and said they were falling asleep. Even within each yoga tradition, there are so many different styles of teaching based on each teacher’s experience.” While there probably is a yoga discipline out there for everyone, as Swersey believes, finding it can take time. In the process, some simply lose their motivation to keep trying.

In addition to teacher-student mismatches, personal conflicts such as body issues, self-doubt, and egocentric concerns can stall a practice, too, leaving a residue of negativity that dampens any desire to return. Joe Bilman, a business owner in the San Francisco Bay Area, has started and stopped his yoga practice five times during the past 20 years. “I first took classes as a young man, just out of high school. I pushed myself, doing show-off poses,” he recalls. “Then one day, while in a backbend, I heard my lower back pop. I was sore for weeks.” He returned to yoga and kept going back every few years. But each time, the competitive attitude he brought with him led to the same negative result. “I pushed beyond my limits,” he admits. “My ego kept writing checks my body couldn’t cash.” As Bilman discovered, if your practice stalls because of an internal conflict, it will most likely remain stalled until you can uncover those deep-seated issues that continue to impede your progress.

The Comeback

Like Bird, you may have abandoned an otherwise fulfilling practice due to life circumstances, or perhaps you found your own particular mental constructs too hard to get past, as Bilman did. But no matter what your reasons, it’s possible to make a permanent return. The journey back begins with identifying the factors that caused the break then setting attainable goals that can get things back on track and get you back on the mat, step-by-step.

Take Stock: Identify and address your reasons for having left yoga, so those same issues won’t thwart your attempts to return. Bilman, for one, says he wouldn’t be the regular practitioner he is today without the benefit of self-examination. “I finally realized that my mind had to let go of the reins,” he says. “Yoga is about learning to be content with what already exists and leaning up against your limits, rather than being a cop banging down the door.” This understanding not only helped him stick with yoga but informed other areas of his life too—”other types of exercise, the way I throw dinner parties, the way I do business, everything,” he says. Similarly, Bird came to see that the responsibilities that crowded out her yoga practice were the best reasons for resuming it, which she eventually did. “Doing yoga is a gift for my family,” she says, “since I’ll live longer and be more agile.”

Adjust the Bar If a major life change precipitated the end to your yoga routine, you may have to make significant adjustments. “I once had a woman call me, wanting a private lesson,” recalls Baxter Bell, a physician in Oakland, California, who divides his time between teaching yoga and practicing medicine. “She’d had an advanced yoga practice, and then she gave it up entirely when she developed multiple sclerosis.” Bell suggested she practice the standing poses lying on her back, with her feet at the baseboard of a wall. “Suddenly, she had a way back into the practice,” he says. For people with illness and chronic injury, modifications can facilitate the transition back to the mat.

Set Goals: Once you’ve explored your history, you can begin to specify your present intentions, whether this means greeting each morning with a Sun Salutation or attending a weekly studio class. Try not to be overly ambitious. Keep your goals modest, realistic, and achievable. “If you tell yourself you have to do yoga for an hour a day, you may fail,” Harding says. “Even 10 minutes done consistently in the morning will make a huge difference long-term.”

Add a time frame to your goals once you’ve identified them. Commit to a series of classes that lasts a certain number of weeks, or try to do a set number of poses by a specific date.

Find Your Community: Discovering a place to call home can bring joy and longevity to your practice as well as increase your chances of sticking with it. This includes finding a teacher, a style, and even a community of yoga friends that will support your return to the mat.

To start with, actively search for a different teacher or yoga tradition if the class you were attending fails to inspire you. Seek a gentler style if you found yoga too vigorous, and a more active class if you found it too gentle. Also allow for the fact that your abilities, goals, and interests may have changed since the last time you practiced regularly.

The experience of Valeria Lombardi underscores the extent to which a yoga community can influence your practice. A textile and landscape designer, Lombardi practiced faithfully for five years with a teacher in Berkeley, California, until a difficult divorce drew her attention elsewhere. By the time she was ready to return, her favorite teacher was unavailable. She tried others but couldn’t make a similar connection. Her practice would have stalled if a friend hadn’t introduced her to a new teacher, one trained by her initial instructor.

Accept Support: Make good use of your personal network by accepting any encouragement that friends and family offer. Julie Havens, a high school French teacher in central Connecticut, temporarily abandoned yoga when she committed to attending foster-parenting classes. Once she got out of the habit of going to yoga, it was hard to get back, even after foster-care training was over. “I would think of it at 2 in the afternoon, and then forget about it until 6, when it was too late.” But with prodding from her husband and stepmother, she rekindled her practice. “Their interest in me keeps me going,” Havens says.

Just as the domino effect of multiple conspiring factors can plunder a practice, it can help build it up again. Once you get yourself going to class each week, Harding says, suddenly you may find you have five minutes or so to stretch every morning. You may even meet others in class who will help motivate your efforts, or find you want to try a weekend retreat. Yoga then becomes an effortless and natural part of nearly every day.

As for me, I did make my way back to yoga, and faster than I had hoped. With my hip pain gone after the arrival of my daughter Genevieve, I took a friend up on her suggestion of visiting a new studio in town—and trying a new style of yoga. Whereas I’d always resisted the idea of practicing in heated rooms, I grew to love it. The heat loosened my muscles, giving me confidence in the face of the challenges that arose from my long hiatus.

I now turn to yoga on a regular basis, valuing it more and more as my husband and I adapt to the exponential increase in laundry, diapers, and general chaos that came with our new addition. I’ll admit I don’t always make it to class. Often I have to snatch asana time when I can, doing poses here and there in quiet pockets of the day. But I’ve learned that no matter what injuries, responsibilities, or internal sabotage conspires to draw me away from yoga, I always return. The door is always open. No obstacle is insurmountable, especially when I draw such health and happiness from yoga’s gifts.