If you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome, there is an imbalance in your intestinal function. You have to learn what to eat to create balance in your gut. Once you have achieved balance, and your intestinal tract is working better, you don't get to stop watching what you eat. If you go back to foods that irritate you, all those terrible IBS symptoms return.
What does this have to do with yoga and movement, you say?
Daily activities easily bring your body into imbalance through repeated movement patterns. And most of those patterns are repeated over decades. I frequently hear that it takes three weeks to create a new habit. If you can stop biting your nails for three weeks, you can probably stop for the long haul. Shouldn't the same be true of movement patterns? Movement patterns are not the same as habits such as nail-biting. Picture the position of your shoulders and upper body when you drive, cook, read, work on a computer, pretty much everything. Arms in front of you, shoulders rounded. Do this for years, as we all do, and muscles get very good at maintaining this position.
I can teach you ways to rearrange your upper body, to build strength to counter the way you've been holding yourself. But doing that a few minutes a day can only do so much to counter the misalignment created when you spend several hours a day in that rounded forward, arms-in-front-of-you position.
Recently, a few different clients asked me how long until they don't have to pay attention to the positioning of their feet. All of them were relieved to discover that many years into this work, I still have to consciously place my feet throughout the day. It's not that I'm bad at the proper alignment. It's that my long-held patterns of turning my feet out are well-practiced. This is true for most of us.
Working on alignment isn't about restricting how you move. Nor is working on alignment a practice you can do for three weeks and then be done. Working on alignment is about becoming conscious of how you are moving, standing, sitting, and then taking steps to shift into other positions. It is about recognizing the ways in which your movement patterns create imbalances. The more often you shift out of the way you usually move, the more often you create new movement patterns. And the more often you do that, the more opportunities to bring balance back into the body.
Now, back to the IBS analogy. If you come to me with pain, I will give you work to do to relieve that pain. If you find that pain goes away after a few weeks of doing the work, that's wonderful. If that pain is due to movement patterns, you will likely do that rehabilitative work for a very long time. And if you stop, the pain may well return.
Without changing the culture of cars and chairs and flat, level surfaces to stand on, without limiting harmful footwear and sedentary-ness, restorative work will be yours (and mine) to do for the rest of our lives.
Keep doing the work. I'm right there with you.
Simple questions can lead you down interesting rabbit holes.
"What are you doing in this pose?"
I ask my students this question in many varying ways. Sometimes, I ask them to notice their breath, sometimes where their weight is on their feet, sometimes their energy level. Learning what you are doing in a given pose is a central premise of my classes, my teaching, and my personal practice. When you stop to ask that question, you start to learn.
I've written about paying attention before (here's one post on the topic), but it bears repeating. When you stop to ask what's going on, you begin practicing self-awareness. Let's try it right now: What position are you in as you read this? Where is your weight? Is there tension anywhere in your body? Are you breathing? How deeply?
You don't have to know much to ask questions. You don't need to know what to do with the information you glean either. Not right away, at least. It's in the repeated asking of questions and noting what you discover that you begin to learn patterns: what positions you sit and stand in most commonly, where you hold your tension, how you breathe, etc.
There are no inherently bad movements, but there is the problem of moving in habitual ways for many years on end. This leads to misalignment as certain muscles overwork and others become atrophied from lack of use. Muscular imbalance and skeletal imbalance feed each other. You can't just address one or the other.
As you notice patterns, as you discover imbalances, you have the ability to decide what to do with that information. If a movement still serves you, fine, but if a movement pattern is leading to or has led to injury, it's time to make changes. Imagine traveling a long distance in a car. You reach an lake and need a boat. The car is not suddenly a bad vehicle. But it no longer will help you on your journey. The boat is not superior to the car. But it is necessary now that you are going to travel by water.
When you start asking questions, it is probably because you need a new vehicle, a new movement pattern. Most people come to my classes with an injury of some kind or another. As they settle into the practice, get more comfortable with the postures, the questions finally begin. "I've noticed that my knee hurts when I do this pose." "I have trouble breathing in this pose." "My hips don't move in this pose." All these revelations are the beginning of learning. At this point in the process, I can do more than lead people through shapes. I can begin to teach. Specific teachings to specific bodies.
It all starts with asking simple questions, questions that lead you to notice habits. Once you discover those movement patterns, you can discover whether and how to change them.
That's a big word. We all know what it means, and it is certainly true that some commitments are easier to make than others. What does it mean regarding movement?
You can commit to walking every day or going to the gym or taking a class every week. Some of us prefer the community and gentle peer pressure that comes from moving in a group or class setting. Some of us crave solitude and find we prefer to move on our own without the eyes of others upon us. Either way, when you commit to moving on a regular basis, you will find you gradually get stronger or more flexible or have greater endurance or breathing capacity from the simple act of sustained practice.
I have decided to renew my commitment to building upper body strength and increasing my shoulder mobility. Twice a week, I plan to do a limited regimen of exercises with numerous repetitions. Then I'll practice yoga and other movements on other days.
Supine pullovers with weights 10x
Hanging vertically from a chin-up bar 10 seconds, 2x
Some variant of push-ups 10x
Using a blanket on the floor, pulling from Incline to Downward Dog 5x. (This will start much smaller, working on my hands and knees first and building to the bigger version as I'm able.)
This whole set will be repeated three times for now, eventually four times.
This is a goal. It is possible I cannot do this much three times through. But I'm throwing it out there and seeing what can happen.
It is almost Rosh Hashanah. I love the Jewish New Year. It always feels like the real start of the year to me. So I'm taking this High Holiday season to start a movement commitment.
I'd love to hear: if you decide to join me, what are you going to commit to?
In conversation with my friend and assistant, Kim, I started dipping into teaching principles I've drawn on for decades. Some come from my former dance teachers. Some from high school teachers I had. Some are ideas from my yoga teachers, Roger and Kari, and some from other yoga and movement colleagues.
So here goes. A few thoughts on pedagogy and yoga that I've adapted over 23 years of teaching:
Finally, I have taken a former dance teacher's ingredients for what makes a good dance class and transformed them for my yoga classes:
I have no idea if this list of ideas about yoga and teaching is of interest to you. But I have so many recent failed blog attempts because I had to get all this out of my head.
NOTE: Related blog post on my heretical yoga thoughts can be read here:
I often talk to my classes about taking what your learn on the mat off the mat. This has layers of meaning.
1) Discovering a movement pattern that is leading to/feeding an imbalance.
If you pay attention on the mat, you just might discover habitual movement patterns that are preventing you from recovering from an injury, causing an injury, or are creating an imbalance that may in time cause an injury. This information can be used in your outside of class time. Once you know that you externally rotate one foot, you might well spot that rotation in how you walk or how you stand when you are waiting in a line. And you just might be able to make changes to your physical habits that go beyond what you do in class.
2) Discovering an approach to your practice that may be reflected in other areas of your life.
Do you push hard through pain? Do you constantly readjust your pose? Do you move gradually toward a challenging pose? Do you poo-poo "gentler" work? Do you compare yourself to others? How much do you want to bet that you do that in other aspects of your life? (I personally wouldn't bet against that if I were you.) It's simple: If you are busy watching what everyone else is doing on the mat, you are probably doing the same in other spheres of your life. If you are pushing past your physical limits on the mat, overriding pain warnings, you probably take on too much and neglect your health off the mat as well. It is worth noting your approach in class and seeing where that same approach is showing up in the other arenas.
3) Cultivating self-awareness of one kind fosters self-awareness of other kinds
As you become more honest with yourself on the mat, don't be surprised if that spills over into your entire life. I'm not saying practicing yoga/alignment/movement will solve all your problems. It won't. But becoming clear about a fear you have or a catching a limiting way of talking about yourself can give you opportunities to change what no longer serves you on and off the mat.
Changing what no longer serves you.
That's the whole point of getting on the mat, isn't it?
We've been adding a little ground movement in all this week's classes. If you don't know what that is, basically it's movements performed sitting on the floor, lying on the floor, crawling, and transitioning from one to the other and even up to standing in all sorts of creative ways. (Click here to watch a fairly advanced series of ground movements.) We simply sat, leaning back on the hands with the knees bent and feet wide apart, and tried rocking the knees from one side to the other with a few variations added.
Because so many of us rarely sit on the floor for any length of time, most of us really struggle with this way of moving. Here's the thing: if you want to sit on the floor or do any of these ground movements, you have to do some version of them. Every day. And the best way is to simply make yourself sit on the floor.
When you sit on the floor, the first thing you notice is that you're not all that comfortable. You can't sit still for long without changing position. And that's a good thing! Humans are designed to move. Period. Moving keeps joints mobile, keeps muscles strong and flexible. That comfy couch may allow you to sit still for six hours binge-watching Atlanta (highly recommend the show), but when you finally get up, you are stiff and ache-y all over. From NOT MOVING.
Sitting on the floor for ten minutes may include as many as 10 changes of position: legs crossed, legs long, leaning on one hand or the other, legs tucked to either side, sitting up on a pillow or cushion, kneeling, and so many other variations. Switching from one to another is ... ahem ... movement! Switching positions puts different loads on your joints, extends and contracts muscles in multiple ways, introduces rotations. All those added movements change how other parts work, as well.
SITTING ON THE FLOOR IS GOOD FOR YOU!!!
As with anything else, the more you do it, the better you get at it.
So ... get down on it!
AUTHOR'S NOTE: If getting down and up off the floor is unsafe for you right now, please don't try this yet. Instead, try sitting on a hard chair and notice how you similarly will change position. A lot. Again, moving is good for you!
I'm from a family of educators and I'm a really good teacher. As a performer who sang, danced, and acted, there were certain expected paths for related employment: directing, vocal coaching, or teaching dance. I did direct a little, but that is as challenging a profession for women to succeed in as performing was. If I wanted to teach voice, I really felt I needed to go back to school which wasn't on my agenda when I had young children and was shifting away from performing. And I suck at choreography. If you can't put together good combinations, no one will take your dance class no matter how good you are at seeing bodies.
Around the time I was thinking of such possibilities, I found Ashtanga Yoga. It was helping my injured body get strong and healthy again. It had a set structure (no plotting out the class sequence), and I could get to know how individuals were progressing over time.
In my very first paying classes, I had a student with scleroderma. Her symptoms were mostly limited to her hands where the skin had no elasticity and she couldn't open her fingers up to place her palms on the floor. Could she participate? Of course! Yoga is for everyone. Or so I'd been told. But there was no manual on how to accommodate her needs. We eventually settled on a couple options (being on her forearms instead of her hands, and rolling another yoga mat up that she could curve her hands over when on all fours). That student attended my classes the entire two years I taught at that space.
I've been teaching yoga and movement for over 20 years now. The list of stuff I've made up to truly make a movement accessible to someone is long. I just figured out something yesterday for a private client who teaches figure skating. I had her bring her skates because she was experiencing a challenging and painful issue that was actually torquing her boot. I know nothing about figure skating, but I could see the difference in how she stood in the skates versus how she stood barefoot or in shoes. And right there, we figured out a micro-movement she could work on to ease the discomfort and to prevent torquing the new boots she will be purchasing next week.
As much fun as it used to be to watch someone achieve their first headstand, I find much more satisfaction helping someone not hurt at their job. When I hear that a student/client can now get down to and up off the floor which allows them to play with grandchildren, or that their back pain is gone, or that walking all day (at a museum, on a vacation, at an event) no longer makes their hips/knees/feet hurt --- when I hear of those successes, I feel my work is truly changing lives.
I don't want to diminish how exciting it is to help someone achieve a goal such as a headstand or a fancy yoga pose. It's really cool. But yoga should make your day better. So figuring out how that client could teach skating and not hurt is why I do this. It's why my classes skew older and/or injured. And it's why I still say, it's all yoga!
I often talk in my yoga classes about effort on the mat in order to have effortlessness off the mat. This could also be stated as working hard in one area of life in order to make other areas work more efficiently.
I also often expound upon building inefficiency into your day to create more movement opportunities. Paraphrasing biomechanist Katy Bowman, "efficiency doesn't save time; it reduces movement."
So which is it I want to instill in my students and clients? Efficiency? Inefficiency?
Honestly, it's both.
I recently got deluged with requests for information about private sessions, upcoming events, shoes, waiting lists, classes. It has been incredible to experience, but it also forced me to see where inefficiency was hindering my ability to function, my ability to help all these people. So many of them initially needed the same information. Rather than copy and paste the same content into 100+ emails, or try to send one email but need to add 100+ names to my contact list to do so, I finally figured out to put all the information into an Out-Of-Office reply. This allowed me to respond to all the individual requests (booking private sessions) in a more reasonable manner.
As I began meeting all these new clients, I also noticed that many of them needed similar descriptions of movement work in the follow-up emails I send. I finally realized I could copy much of that information into a large document, copy and paste specific exercises into individual emails, and then add the details relevant to the specific client. This saves me an enormous amount of work.
Each of the above is an example of effort now for effortlessness later. Each example created efficiency. On the mat, in a movement practice that looks a little different. If I teach a pose to you that creates strength or mobility where it has previously been lacking, that pose will not be an easy pose for you. It will be a lot of physical effort for a very brief period. But that effort, repeated over time, will eventually lead to you having the strength or mobility you have been missing. That new stability or flexibility or alignment will become unconscious work for your body because of the effort put in during the actual pose. This is creating efficiency in the body.
We count on our bodies to do a certain amount of unconscious work. If you had to consciously think about every muscle, every action required to do a daily task such as brushing your teeth, it would be extraordinarily draining. Do that for every part of your morning routine, and you'd be ready for bed before you even got to eat breakfast. It is clear then that a certain level of physical efficiency is desirable and necessary.
The flip side of that, however, occurs when we lose dexterity, strength, mobility, due to all the ways we've made our lives efficient. Much of the required movement our ancestors needed to do to get through their day has been eliminated in current Western culture. We do not have to spend all day in search of food or creating shelter. We do not have to walk anywhere. We do not even have to drive anywhere to buy the food we eat. Many, many people order groceries on line and have them delivered.
I have worked with clients who prefer slip-on shoes because then they don't have to bend over to put them on. They won't have to tie their shoes with fingers that don't work as well as they used to. That same person comes to me to relearn how to bend over. I give them exercises to rebuild dexterity and strength in their fingers. And then I tell them to bend over to put their shoes on every day. Buy tie shoes and use their fingers every day. That little bit of efficiency (slip-on shoes) has created weakness and inability in their bodies.
Most people put the most used items within reach in the kitchen, just above or just below waist-height. If an item gets stored down low, many folks choose to add roll-out drawers in the cabinets. Those same people have stiff upper backs and shoulders from never lifting their arms. They cannot squat down. So they start going to the gym or classes to relearn those movements. Or they simply give up on squatting, lifting something off a high shelf, etc. because they're "too old."
Tying your shoes may seem like a small action, but over days and months and years, that action allows a person to maintain specific abilities. Bending over, getting closer to the ground, reaching up high --- all these are part of how humans are designed to function. Stop using one body part and it stops working well. Over the long haul, these seemingly small deficits create bigger and bigger health risks. (Picture the Tin Man rusted stiff in the woods in The Wizard of Oz. Not a perfect analogy, but it'll do.)
Building in inefficiency is a way to undo the damage of our sedentary lives.
These two topics --- effort for effortlessness, and inefficiency for more movement -- actually can cycle themselves together. They are not strictly opposites.
Over the past few years, I have been gradually working on getting closer to a full squat. It started with working on some specific poses to increase the strength around my knee and hip joints, to increase my ankle flexion, and to lengthen my tight calves. It was a good bit of effort on the mat for a few minutes every week. While my heels don't yet reach the floor, I can comfortably get all the way down into a decent squat (AND get back up). It took a lot of effort in focused moments over a long period of time. Effort over time for effortlessness now.
Because of that previous effort and the resulting ease of movement, I can do the following:
I squat down in the early morning to get the dog's leash and a poop bag, then I squat to hook the leash on the dog, to put my shoes on, to pick up the dog poop, to undo her leash, to take my shoes off again ... if I do all that, I've squatted down six times before I've had my morning tea. Throughout a day, I easily squat 30 - 40 times. It takes me a tiny bit longer to get down and back up than it would to bend over or to store things closer to my standing reach. Squatting down is inefficient.
But here's where they connect: I don't need to find time to get to the gym to do 30 - 40 squats every other day. So ... inefficient = more efficient.
I fully encourage you to do the real work now to create ease in the future. Weak ankles? Learn what you need to do get more stability and strength at that joint. Stiff hips? Learn what you need to do to bring more mobility to the area.
And don't mistake ease/effortlessness for doing as little as possible. Build inefficiency into your daily life for better movement, better health.
(NOTE: I am aware that non-Western, non-wealthy cultures do not have the same problems. I am also aware that not all physical limitations come from inactivity. I am talking to and about the people I see most in my classes and private practice, people of a certain amount of wealth in a particularly sedentary culture who are struggling with aches and pains related to all of the above.)
"I can't balance."
"My knees don't bend that far."
"I'm too old to climb."
I hear these and many other statements from students and clients and even the occasional passerby who sees me walking along a fallen log or squatting down to get something. I understand the feeling. A couple years ago, I started to clean the gutters and I felt unsteady climbing the ladder. I though, "I'm too old for this." But then I realized, it wasn't age that made me unsteady on the ladder. It was the fact that I hadn't been regularly climbing anything for many, many years.
When my students tell me they don't balance well, I usually respond by asking how often they balance every day. The answer is usually "not at all." Why do we think we'll be good at something we don't do?
Trying to relearn an old trick takes time. Little kids challenge their balance all the time if allowed to play. They walk on the curb or low walls. They play games demanding hopping or freezing in funny positions. They simply opt to try and stand on one foot. When is the last time you did that?
Same with squatting down. If you have a limited relationship with the ground and choose to sit only on chairs and sofas, your hips, knees, and ankles have lost mobility and strength. Regaining ability in all those joints means starting very gradually with work designed to move your body a little bit more in the direction of squatting. It doesn't mean force yourself down into a squat today.
After that experience on the ladder a few years back, I made a point to climb up onto chairs and stepladders more often. I gradually became accustomed to how my body moved and how I balanced. And I can tell you that climbing a ladder no longer makes me feel old. I got better at it.
Whatever you do a lot of is what you get comfortable doing. If you want to move differently, you'll have to start moving differently. Give yourself time. It may seem as though balance or climbing or squatting come easily to young bodies, therefore you have to be young to do that. In reality, it comes easily to bodies that balance, climb, and squat regularly.
I teach classes, workshops, and retreats. I see private clients. I sometimes help out friends and family with pains or movement-related questions. People come to me with a wide range of abilities and limitations. Some folks are trying to run a marathon but getting stalled at 16 miles due to some seemingly new joint issue. At the other end of the spectrum, I work with people with chronic diseases or conditions who are struggling to stand without pain or build strength without exhausting themselves. If I don't pay attention to the particular person in front of me, they could get hurt. Alternately, if the student/client isn't clear about their limits or honest about their pain, they could get hurt. Either way, the only one at risk of injury in these settings is the person I'm trying to help.
For the long-distance runners, I'm looking at their gait, learning about old injuries or chronic issues, and discovering what isn't moving well. The new pain is probably due to an imbalance that could withstand a certain amount of use, but reared its head when asked to do more. Once I figure out the imbalance, the athlete and I can figure out what movement patterns are creating or exacerbating the problem. Then I help them create new movement patterns, using weight-resistance or introducing other ways to rebuild strength or mobility. The goal is to move better with less chance of injury.
My client who is housebound and easily exhausted (disease-related), I remind to look up. Lifting her eyes to the horizon brings her torso upright without the same effort as telling her to "sit up tall." Maybe we add wiggling toes or moving fingers. The goal is figuring out how to keep more of her moving and keep her energy up. Too much will deplete her.
With both of the above scenarios, it's one-to-one time. I'm checking in, seeing what's too much, what helps. I am ensuring, to the best of my ability, that no one gets hurt in pursuit of healing.
In a class situation, I can only do so much checking in or asking. I do try to attend to everyone, but there numerous people in a class and I can't see everyone at all times (though I'm quite good at recognizing who needs attention when after getting to know my classes).
It is the students' job to listen to their limits and stop or modify as needed. That can be hard when you're new and trying to figure out what the heck I'm teaching. You may not even be aware of pain signals in your body if you've been dealing with pain for any length of time. (Thank you, Nervous System, for numbing some of those nerve endings so we can function when we've been experiencing chronic pain.)
Another challenge inhibiting self-awareness is group dynamics. People really want to do what the rest of the class is doing. We don't always want to come out of a pose early or do a modification. We don't want to appear as though we can't keep up. If I teach a pose, that's the pose everyone assumes they should do. If I offer a modification to the group, very few will actually take me up on it. But many of us should be doing the modified version. As a result, I often teach the modification to the entire group. Last weekend, I suggested sitting up on blankets or bolsters at the start of a workshop. The people who most needed the added support wouldn't take the suggestion. Rather than call anyone out by name (which I have also been known to do), I changed the instruction. I made everyone get a bolster. The relief on the faces of those who needed it and wouldn't do it earlier was visible once they were seated in a better position. So much resistance to what's good for us.
I get it. Our whole culture teaches us to "Just do it," or to "push through it." Who doesn't know the phrase "No pain, no gain?" In yoga, teachers talk about working at your edge. Lately, this has come to mean working at the most extreme sensation. But working at your edge isn't pushing yourself to the point of pain. It's working at the beginning of instability or unfamiliarity. Stepping a toe outside of your comfort zone is a far cry from jumping off a cliff.
I often see students grimacing through a pose even as I have just told them, "If it hurts, stop." In my opinion, getting on a mat, on your own or in a class setting, but ESPECIALLY in a class setting, you need to be your own teacher, checking in and asking if this is truly okay, aware of your personal needs and issues. As a student, you need to own your shit. And if that means you don't hold a pose as long, then don't. If your arm doesn't go over your head due to a shoulder injury, don't put it there. even if I just told the entire class to lift your arms overhead. I work almost exclusively with grown ups. You don't need my permission to not hurt yourselves.
Following my general instructions when they don't apply to you personally could lead to injury. As much as possible, I teach to who is present. I try very hard to watch everyone closely. But with a wide range of experiences in the room, I can only do so much. I can't always tell if you've pushed yourself too far. Soooo I will offer modifications. I will give you permission you don't actually need to come out of poses early. If I don't offer any modification and you realize you need one, you can and should ask for one. It doesn't help me in any way if you override your own body's signals to stop. It does, however, have potential to harm you.
You have to go home in your body. I don't.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.