As a fitness professional and yoga instructor, I’m always looking for the inside scoop on health and wellness. On my constant quest, I traveled to the west side of the state in hot pursuit of the key to women’s health. No small feat, I admit. Graycen Duffy, my very good friend and fellow yogi, joined me on this road trip to the fourth annual Northwest Yoga Conference, held in Lynnwood, Wash.
Graycen and I enrolled in completely different classes at the conference. So, each on our own paths, we set out. I was searching for the secrets to women’s health. I had 48 hours.
My first class was appropriate: “Writing with Movement: Yoga and Journaling.” The instructors, Gail Hudson and Silvia Mordini, are prolific writers, as well as dedicated yoga practitioners. The women led us through a series of yoga poses that were very playful and creative. They got our physical juices flowing and got us out of our over-analytical minds. Then, they asked us a simple question to which we were supposed to write the answer in our notebooks. From there, we began to write a personal essay based on our answers. The class wrote for a long time and the words, like the movements on the yoga mat, seemed to flow naturally onto the page for almost all of us attending the class.
The lesson I gleaned from this wonderful mind-and-body exercise was to loosen up. When we approach our lives and our jobs with unrelenting seriousness, it is hard to notice the nuances. I had my mind set that I needed to write an article on women’s health. It was another line item on my to-do list, to be checked off. However, at the outset, I had no idea of the twists and turns this job would take and how much fun it would be once I relaxed and just went with the flow.
My next class was called “The Bhagavad Gita: A Closer Look.” This class was taught by professional actress, teacher and yoga instructor Jeanne Heilman. Boy, did she bring this text to life! Like all great literature, this story is rife with power struggles, betrayal, war and a heroic figure who tries to rise above the chaos and prevail. This book has always intrigued me, and it poses a lot of spiritual and moral questions. Going to this class was like returning to a literature class in college or being in a really good book club. The text was challenging and stretched the mind, and put the participants’ hard-held life opinions into question.
The lesson here was to keep learning and challenging myself. Health is not just found in a gym or through physical exercise. We need to keep our minds and spirits sharp. Reading good books, learning a new skill or attending lectures are like lifting heavy weights for the mind.
My third and final class of the day was “Ayurveda Self-Care: Teachers and Practitioners,” taught by Melanie Farmer. Farmer is an Ayurveda practitioner who approaches healing through the alignment of mind, body and spirit.
What I learned from this lesson was very basic, but also pretty profound. The driving idea was to listen to ourselves and our intuition. We must trust our instincts, rather than pursuing the latest fad or following some regimen that isn’t in tune with what our bodies and minds are telling us.
For example, if you are cold, you should take the time to drink something warm. If you are sluggish, try something spicy. If your hair is brittle, put oil in it. If it is greasy, use an astringent. These ideas seem so very simple. But, honestly, how often do we take the time to listen to or notice what our bodies are actually saying, let alone respond to them? This class reminded me to listen to my body.
Graycen and I reconnected at the end of our long, but enlightening, day. We shared our experiences over dinner and slept very well that night.
The next day, feeling refreshed, we headed into our second day of classes. I skipped off to my first class. Yoga instructor Lynn Jensen was presenting “Yoga for Women’s Health: Balancing the Chakras, Balancing the Hormones.” What woman would deny herself the opportunity of learning how to balance her hormones? Jensen explained that the yogic energy centers, or chakras, are lined up with our endocrine system along the spine and in the skull. There are seven chakras, beginning at the pelvic floor and ending at the crown of the head. The glands line up from the bottom to the top, beginning with the ovaries and moving up to the pancreas, adrenals, thymus, thyroid, pituitary and pineal glands. Before hormone therapy or other ways to regulate the production of hormones existed, yogis used poses and twists to stimulate the production of hormones and to balance them.
Jensen took us through a series of poses and explained how we can stimulate and balance our hormones by practicing yoga, eating well and getting enough sleep. Some disorders cannot be fixed by just practicing yoga poses, so she recommended regular medical checkups as well. This class taught me to take responsibility for my personal health and use all of my wellness resources.
My next class was the only one that made me really nervous. I had picked this class specifically because it was way out of my comfort zone. With great hesitation I entered the classroom for “Acro Yoga” with Thomas Eagen and Robin Martin. This class was full of twenty-somethings who could contort their bodies into Cirque du Soleil-worthy positions.
The teachers started with a vigorous warm-up to get us ready to be “bases” or “fliers.” The bases were the people on the ground supporting the fliers, who would be gracefully balancing on the bases’ hands, feet or other body parts.
I went to cheerleading camp over 20 years ago, and I can tell you I am a base. My strong back was always at the bottom of the pyramid. There were no pom-poms in my hands at the glorious pinnacle of the triangle made of girls. My hands were gripping the grass, keeping everyone on the second and third stories supported. I am OK with that. That is basically my personality. I am the caretaker, the one who will support those around her. I would not dream of climbing on your back, let alone ask for help. Heavens, no!
However, I was paired with the nicest young girl. She and I started somewhat small. We were able to go into double handstands, supporting each other in the air with our feet. Think of an inverted V with hands on the ground and feet in the air. I was elated. I believe I let out a “Whoop!” I was having so much fun. But then it got serious. We were doing handstands and grabbing our ankles while balancing on people’s feet. Well, actually, I was the base and other yogis were balancing on me. The other yogis kept asking me if I wanted a turn as a flier. I kept turning them down until it dawned on me: It wasn’t that I didn’t trust them — I didn’t trust myself enough to let go and allow myself to fly.
So, finally, I did it. I climbed on top of my partner’s feet and I flew. I did “airplane,” like you do when you’re a kid. I went into locust pose and spread my arms out wide as I balanced on my abs on my partner’s feet. It was scary and great and I was so proud of myself. This class taught me to continue to take risks and allow others to help. I don’t need to jump out of an airplane just yet, but I can be one on my base’s feet.
My last class was “YoMa,” taught by Jill Knouse and accompanied by musician Jessica Siren. The “Yo” stands for yoga and the “Ma” represents massage. Oh, yeah! As the class moved from pose to pose, massage therapists came along and rubbed us while Jessica sang lovely melodies as we relaxed. Did I mention they also used gorgeous essential oils? The only thing that would have made this a complete sensory indulgence was if they had piped chocolate into our mouths. Indulgence: This is also important. Taking the time to give ourselves a treat now and again can totally lift the spirits.
As the conference concluded and Graycen and I drove back to Walla Walla, I recognized I did not find the key to women’s health — I found several of them:
1. Loosen up
2. Keep learning
3. Listen to your body
4. Take responsibility for your health
5. Take risks and allow others to help you
As I continue my ongoing quest, I hope I learn more.