Deep Breaths, Everyone

Me, a yoga instructor? What could go wrong?


Quite a lot, according to William J. Broad in The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards. The chapter called “Risk of Injury” talks about strokes from extreme neck contortion, disk ruptures in the neck and back, ribs popping out, rotator cuff tears, torn Achilles tendons and even bone fractures. According to one survey of 1300 practitioners, “The largest number of injuries (with 231 reports) centered on the lower back. In declining order of prevalence, the other main sites were the shoulder (219 incidents), the knee (174) and the neck (110)”

My women physicians’ group, Balance for Women Physicians (no pun intended), holds a yearly conference in Colorado. We always start the day with yoga. This year, our long-time (and marvelous) yoga teacher couldn’t join us. The group knows that I have been doing yoga for almost twenty years. So, they asked me to lead the practice.

Downward Dog

But, I do yoga, not teach it! Doing yoga and leading yoga are two very different propositions. As a practitioner, I keep fairly focused on the instructions, But sometimes, even as my body is in Downward Dog, my mind is on what I need to buy at the grocery store. When I zone out, I can always get back on form by looking at what the teacher is doing.

As someone just doing yoga, I never need to say anything. As the instructor, I will be the only one talking. I am used to the back and forth of conversation. My style as a doctor was to crack jokes with the patients. I am a bit lost without feedback to what I say.

My normal speaking style is to talk loud and fast. During the yoga session, I would have to speak in a calm, soft, soothing voice and, at the same time, with enough authority so that people will do what I say. “Begin on all fours.” “Slacken your jaw.” “Bend your knees, put your hands on your hips and slowly come up.” “Lift your arms above your head.” “And breathe.” I am giggling even as I write this. I’ve never had to modulate my voice this way.

Then we come to the poses, the asanas. I know what to do when I’m told to do a Bridge Pose or a Boat Pose or a Cat/Cow or a Fire Hydrant. (You don’t really make a pose like a hydrant. You start on all fours and lift a bent knee leg up and down. It should be called the Dog at the Fire Hydrant Pose). See, this is my problem. How am I going to concentrate and not let my mind be distracted by inappropriate asides?

I have never paid much attention on how we transition from one pose to the other. I need to organize sequences of poses to make logical transitions so I don’t make people sit, stand, lie down, get on hands and knees repeatedly. My teacher is very creative, and flows in and out of asanas as smoothly as a magician handles silk scarves. She’s gotten us into Triangle Pose from a Warrior Two Pose, and from a Wide-angle Standing Bend and from other poses too.

Warrior Two

I’m not sure I know how to explain to a room of people where to place your feet and arms to get into Warrior Two. (Something like: “Put your right foot toward the front of the mat. Bend that knee. Move the left foot back in line with the instep of the right foot. And shake it all about.” Oops, wrong activity! Let’s try again. “Lift your arms parallel to the ground, right arm in front, left in back.”) I need to explain the poses in short, concise phrases, which I should memorize. And in between, there are those calming reminders: “Soften your neck.” “Relax your shoulders.” “Breathe.”

I always chuckle a little when the yoga teacher confuses her right side with her left. Now, making this mistake has become my worst fear. From a supine position, cross the right leg over the left. Then, move both legs to the right while turning the head to the left, or is it the other way? Is it the right index finger and thumb around the left wrist and then lean right? Or lean left? My teacher, like Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire, does everything backwards. She mirrors us. She tells us to raise our left arm while raising her right. I am so not gonna do that.

An underappreciated aspect of teaching yoga is the balance of extension and flexion poses. When we do a extension pose, like Bridge Pose, which involves a back bend, the good teachers will immediately follow with an opposing pose, like Child’s Pose, in which we bend forward. I have visions of my twisting people up without remembering to have them do the opposite stretch. They’ll just get more and more pretzeled.

So why don’t I do a Nancy Reagan and just say no to my group? For a bunch of reasons. One is that the program already promises that we offer yoga. Another is that yoga is such a positive thing—good for the body, mind and spirit. The Science of Yoga debunks a lot of false yogic benefits such as increasing the oxygen level to your brain and promoting weight loss. But even that book talks about enhancing flexibility and lifting mood.

In my own life, I’ve experienced two benefits of yoga. The first is body awareness. If I need to step on a series of stones to cross a stream, I am confidant that my legs and feet can cover those spaces. The second is mindfulness. To spend an hour a couple of times a week focusing on my breathing and my body movements is a meditation. As a Harvard Medical School scientist said in the Science of Yoga, “Yoga brings you into the moment. It brings a feeling of joy or energy with activity, a kind of mindfulness.”

Actually, I am looking forward to learning a new skill, especially because my yoga teacher has graciously offered to help me. I also know that my colleagues will appreciate my efforts and enjoy doing yoga with me. My fellow women physicians are really good at friendship.

Tell me: Have you ever agreed to something that was outside of your comfort zone?

By Cathy Luh

I am a doctor, a writer and Grammy to Edin and Caleb. I live in St. Louis with husband Bill.

4 replies on “Deep Breaths, Everyone”

After reading this post, l just learned that you have been doing yoga for 20 years! Next time we meet, I’d love to learn a few moves and poses from you for the benefits of health and mindfulness. As to doing something out of my comfort zone, this year I have started reading books not in my field (education, literacy). The most difficult book that I have read is The Master Algorithm. Learning from this type of books has helped me understand better the interconnection of various field and a range of writing styles.


I was working as a proofreader on a small-town daily newspaper. Everyone else working in the newsroom had attended journalism school. One day an editor handed me a news release received from the local hospital. “Here,” she said. “Turn this into a story. Five grafs max.” I had no idea how to begin. What was important? What to leave out? Whom to interview, & what to ask? Within 10 minutes of receiving the assignment, I was having a panic attack. I was way outside of my comfort zone, but I figured it out.


Every time I learn something new or travel someplace unfamiliar, I am outside my comfort zone. I hope I will always push myself to do so. Like yoga, it keeps us flexible and more aware of ourselves and others. Just hard to be at the bottom of that steep learning curve again!

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