Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Trouble With Yoga

Practicing a martial art, as a woman, comes with its own set of problems.  I faced a lot of these as I worked toward my black belt, and continued to face a lot of them even after I had it.  They range from petty things, like working out in an all white uniform during my period or having trouble finding a uniform that actually fit over my hips, to things that I consider more serious: dealing with my fears of fighting and maybe hurting other people, yelling out loud in front of other people, being told I need to be tougher and/or quit acting like a "baby" ("baby" in this case probably meaning "girl").

I generally try to understand these problems in the greater context of martial arts.  I put up with them all because I feel that the trade off benefits me.  In other words, I like the best parts of martial arts so much that they make up for the annoying or bad parts.  Even the worst day the dojang (and I've had them) is better than the best day on the elipical machine, at least for me.

But I do complain about the problems to my friends and family on occasion, usually after yet another person gets hurt in class when it could have been prevented, or when another woman in class says she feels uncomfortable around one of the more macho black belts, or when I put my uniform in the dryer and suddenly it's too small.  For years, I have listened to my friends and family offer solutions, and one comes up more often than any other: Why don't you just switch to yoga?

Ah, yoga.  No matter how genuinely and gently the advice is offered, I usually hear it as "martial arts is for boys and yoga is for girls, so you should switch."  I'm sure this comes from my own neuroses after conversations with my mom when she kept asking, "Now, remind me, why did you pick taekwondo again?"  My answers -- I like it, and it's fun -- were never good enough, not until I had my black belt.  After that, I guess she stopped wondering when I was going to change to something saner.

I guess people make the connection between martial arts and yoga because they both involve some kind of spiritual component in addition to the exercise -- so, if I had chosen taekwondo for its spiritual side, maybe they would have a point.  But I didn't.  I did it to be more like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.  Other than the meditative/spiritual thing, the comparison kind of falls apart.  Taekwondo is very active, a high impact, very cardiovascular exercise, while yoga is the only exercise I have ever tried where they offered a nap at the end of class ("Go ahead and relax, meditate, and if you fall asleep, that's ok").  In taekwondo, you use the various training methods to gain flexibility and strength so that you can defend yourself if/when the time comes; in yoga, while you're also working for better flexibility, I'm not sure I understand what it leads to.  Maybe so that afterward you feel more at peace with yourself?  I find the concept of "hit this, you'll feel better," works a lot more for me.  When I'm done with a yoga class, I feel fine, but not like I actually worked out or accomplished anything.

Or, to boil it down to the basics: taekwondo is fun and interesting, while yoga is just s-l-o-w-l-y frustrating and kind of boring.

Having said that, I'm pretty sure that yoga is, in fact, easier for girls.  You can pick your own clothes instead of wearing a specific uniform. You never have to engage with anyone else in class. You never have to hit anyone or break anything.  If someone is acting like a macho jerk, you can probably get him thrown out of class.  There are no tests to pass or heirachy system to learn.  And when you're done with class, everyone goes to Whole Foods for some green tea, instead of the pizza and beer we have, right? (Kidding!  Everyone knows beer makes your unborn baby stupid [ok, that was sarcasm].)

But, am I only supposed to do things that are easier for me?  Am I supposed to decide which things I want to do by how easy and accessible they are?  Sure, it would be nice if someone, anyone (hint, hint, bored sewing machine user on etsy) would start making martial arts uniforms with grown up female bodies in mind, but that's only going to happen if more women start training instead of switching over to yoga when the going gets rough.  I'll admit, one of the benefits of studying martial arts is the little feeling I have when I leave class, when I know I've just done something other women won't do, or are too scared to do.  When I land a kick or a punch during a sparring session, there's always a little thrill of victory for me, even if I don't come out ahead at the end of the match.

Why the railing against yoga today?  Well, wouldn't you know it, but the one kind of exercise everyone (friends, neighbors, doctors, midwives, books) seems to think is the best is for a pregnant lady is pre-natal yoga.  I don't really want to do it -- I've spent the last six or seven years trying to convince everyone I know that yoga just isn't my thing, so the last thing I want to do is defect just because I have a belly.

But, in the interest of equal opportunity, I'm going to dip my toes in and give it a shot in addition to attending regular taekwondo class.  Maybe the nap that comes at the end of  pre-natal yoga class cures morning sickness or makes the baby smarter or something.  We'll see how it goes.

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