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?
I love when challenging questions from a student or client push me to explain better what it is I'm teaching.
Case in point: last weekend, my stepdad, Chuck, was asking me about walking. I've been helping him and my mom with their respective gaits. They both turn out their feet when walking (as do the majority of people you see walking around in the US). My stepdad is trying to rebuild strength in the back of his legs and in his butt muscles. By working on realigning his legs and feet, I can help him fire different muscles when walking than the ones he uses with his turned-out gait.
So here comes the question that I was struggling with at the time (I'm paraphrasing):
"If I work on the new gait and get more strength in the back of my legs, will that improve the strength in my walk when I use my more familiar gait?"
My initial response is that this is the wrong question, but that's not an answer, and I know it. He wants to know and I want to explain.
It is true that sometimes I use one pose or movement to build strength to prepare the body for a different pose or movement. But the question here is specifically about walking, not other poses or movements.
When you rotate the leg bones, it necessitates a change in muscle usage. Rotation of any bone will lengthen some muscles and shorten others. Walking with the feet turned out means the shin bones have rotated externally. In order for the knees to track forward, over time the thigh bones have internally rotated. This "turned out shin/turned in thigh" gait means all your leg muscles are affected by bone rotation. The lengthening/shortening of muscles.produced by the rotations of your leg bones creates a particular pattern of movement. There are lots of variations in this gait, but all these rotations of leg bones push and pull on leg muscles such that the back of the leg is not working.
When you walk with feet in proper alignment, then you have the possibility of waking up those back-of-the-leg muscles. (There are many other factors that may need addressing to achieve this such as ankle flexion, hip extension, etc. Not the topic today.)
Back to my stepdad's question: if he learns this new gait, will he have more power in the back of his legs if he returns to his old gait? No. They have nothing to do with each other. And I finally figured out an analogy to explain it.
Chuck is left-handed. Therefore his left hand is stronger, more coordinated, and more agile than his right. If I get him to start using his right hand in ways similar to the ways he uses his left hand, his right hand will develop more strength, more coordination, and more agility than it already has. His left hand will not be any stronger when he goes back to using it. Working on one hand doesn't increase the strength in the other. They are separate entities.
Translation: working on a new gait does not strengthen the initial gait. Chuck is already really good at walking with his feet turned out. His muscles, the ones called upon when the legs bones rotate, work very efficiently that way as he's been walking that way for decades. The muscles that don't work in that familiar gait will not work in that familiar gait, no matter how much he strengthens them in a new gait. Strengthening his right hand won't affect his left hand.*
*Before anyone calls me out, I know there are times when using one hand CAN teach the other hand, so read this analogy as specific to this question about walking.
~ The Management
Kneeling and squatting.
Two positions that are missing from the movement vocabulary of a lot of people.
There are numerous reasons why either of the above positions might be inaccessible. Your hips and knees could be the problem areas. So could tight leg muscles. But one particular factor is not having enough range of motion at the ankle. I still struggle with this myself. Notice there are two photos of me squatting. One of them shows my heels off the ground. That's how I squat without assistance. The only way I got my heels down for the bottom right photo was by holding on to the couch for balance.
Why the heck are our ankles so stiff? A good part of that stiffness is from the shoes we wear and from how we use our feet. Or rather don't use our feet. Stiff shoes keep your joints from moving to their fullest range of motion. Having the heel higher than the toes (even most "flat" shoes have a heel) shortens muscles that impact mobility. And walking on flat, smooth surfaces prevents us from exploring the variety of movements that the ankle and foot are capable of making. (And yes, injuries can also be implicated here. I did some serious damage to my ankles decades ago.)
"Who cares if I can't squat or kneel?" I hear you ask. "That is what chairs are for." Well, actually, not using all the range of joint mobility humans are designed for turns out to have overall health consequences. It is hard to miss all the headlines proclaiming that sitting is the new cancer. But it isn't actually just sitting that is the problem. It is not moving that is the problem. And the less you move, the less you CAN move. The ability to get down on the floor and back up with ease (the Sit/Rise test) is a predictor of longevity. Squatting in particular has implications for digestive health as well as hip, knee, and ankle health. Healthier joints = healthier you.
Given all the ways we create tight muscles and joints in the feet and ankles, it occurred to me to show you two simple poses that you can do anywhere. One brings extension to the top of the foot while contracting the muscles in the bottom of the foot and the calves. The other contracts the muscles on the top of the foot and the front of the shin while extending those on the bottom of the foot and the calves. Practicing one pose helps the other, as you'll see in the video. (NOTE: Chair pose is not squatting. If you want to add squatting to your world, you will need to strengthen those gluts in addition to loosening up a variety of joints. A whole other blog post coming soon on the subject. Meanwhile, you can check out this for a bit of squatting help.)
Tight muscles are not strong muscles. They limit your mobility, impinge your joints, and when stressed, they tear. Try these two poses. If your ankles and feet are tight, don't hold these for very long. Go gently. I use the word "Painful" in the video, but really I mean tender or intense. If it is painful to do the Top of the Foot Stretch, try the seated modification I mention. Alternate the poses and see how one pose affects the other. Watch your stiff ankles become a bit more flexible.
I hope this will encourage you to keep your body moving. Ankles are as a good a place to start as any other body part. As you have the ability to move more, move more. Use it or lose it is pretty accurate when it comes to your physical abilities. And improved physical ability leads to Healing and Balance.
I've been talking to my classes (and anyone else who gets me started) about minimal shoes. The more I learn about alignment and its relationship to overall health, the more I return to the feet and how important it is that feet be strong and mobile. Foot health is not a new topic for me. I've been getting classes and clients to roll their feet on super balls for about 15 years. I've been talking about the problems with flip-flops for at least that long as well. Recently, I've learned more about shoes that are designed for optimal foot health. They're call minimal shoes, and yes, you should want them.
BUT you may not be ready for them yet. Consider this a primer on what a minimal shoes are and how to transition toward them.
First of all, what are minimal shoes?
Minimal shoes meet certain criteria:
So many people tell me they need stiffer shoes or better arch support because their feet hurt without them. I thought the same thing. I gave up my beloved Converse years ago assuming I was just too old, that my feet needed more support as I aged. The truth is, like any other body part, if you don't use your feet to their fullest, they weaken. Feet have 33 joints in them (each). Yet our stiff shoes and flat, level walking surfaces mean we use very few of those joints. As feet get more mobile, the muscles and bones work as they should to support themselves. The arch no longer needs help to maintain itself. Depending on the kinds of shoes you've been wearing and how old you are, re-developing this mobility can take months or years. I gave up high heels years ago and have spent quite a bit of my time barefoot every day for most of my life. It took me about six months to make the transition. My feet no longer hurt wearing Converse (yay!) and I have minimal shoes that I love, that I can walk miles in. If you've been in stiff-soled shoes with a heel, if you spend most of your time walking on hard tile floors, this transition might take much longer.
All my talk of minimal shoes needs some qualification and some explanation as to how you begin transitioning. Don't go out and buy the most minimal shoe right away. Don't buy anything new for now. And don't try everything at once. Make one change that you can live with. When you're ready, try another. The following are some of the easiest ways to start:
If you are starting to think about making changes for your feet (which I highly encourage that you do), please go gently. Contact me for movements and exercises that you can add into your day. Those feet you've been standing and walking on need time to relearn their natural state. You may not have enough pads left in your feet to go to the thinnest soles. You may have nerve damage or conditions such as diabetes that will always require a bit more cushion. You may work or live where there is no choice but to be on hard, flat surfaces. (Trust me, you'll want more padding if you live in NYC.)
Without buying any new shoes, you can start making better choices for your feet. Check out your closet and see what you've been wearing and if you have better options. (You probably do.) If you do start buying new shoes, have fun. As a shoe-loving woman myself, it hasn't been easy parting with some of my favorite (unhealthy) shoes. But now, I have a whole new set of criteria. And a good reason to get new shoes. Next time you see me, check out my cool minimal shoes. They're pretty much all I wear. My whole body is happy.
Think of it this way: you're not transitioning to minimal shoes, you're transitioning to healthier, stronger feet.
Note 1: I link to several minimal shoe companies on the Resources page on this website. I personally have Otz and Unshoes now, to go with my Converse. EarthRunners, Softstar, and Lems are on my wishlist.
Note 2: For information on how feet impact your overall health, you'll just have to wait for the next blog post.
A few weeks back, I responded to a blog about "three exercises to do for back pain relief." There was no information about what kind of back pain would be helped by these exercises. As I read it, it was also clear that some back pain might even be aggravated by this work. So I commented saying as much.
Next thing I knew, I'd been invited to be a guest blogger. My piece was published today by Dr. Stefano Sinicropi, MD, and you can link to it here.
Students in yoga classes generally want to succeed. They want to try and do what is being taught. And culturally, we accept that in a group setting, we should do what the group does. But sometimes, trying to do what the group does is not in the best interest of the student or the teacher. Recently, I have discovered folks were holding poses that caused them great discomfort. This is a safety issue that frequently stems from trying to be a good student.
If you are that "good student," if you really want to please the teacher, here are a few thoughts. (Caveat: My Eischens Yoga classes often appeal to those with injury or limitations. I also encourage an informal environment in my classes. Some of the opinions presented here might not be pleasing to a teacher of another kind of class.)
Ways to Please the Teacher Before Class
Ways to Please the Teacher During Class
Ways to Please the Teacher After Class
So the next time, you are in class and you think you shouldn't be in a particular pose, stop doing it. Ask questions. Get help. Find other better ways to work. If a teacher doesn't respect you respecting your limits, find one who does. The annoyed teacher will probably be happy to not have you in class; the teacher who knows how to work with your issues will be glad to have you; and you will happily find your way to better health and self-care.
Your yoga is supposed to be YOUR yoga. So always, always remember, do as the teacher says ... except when you don't.
All through grade school, I was one of the shortest kids in my class. I hit 5' 6 1/2" sometime in high school. I grew late, with the boys. When I was a performer, we listed height and weight on our resumes. That 1/2" looked clunky on paper so I edged my height upward to 5'7" on paper. It wasn't true but my resume looked cleaner and no one ever put their honest weight either so it seemed minor.
On numerous occasions over the past decade, a student has come in to class after a recent physical and told me that they were 3/4", an inch, even 1 1/2" taller. The common factor for all of these folks was taking Eischens Yoga. Is it possible that yoga made them grow taller? Shoe sizes often change for folks as they begin working unrestricted by shoes or socks, and their foot bones start to spread more fully on the floor. But actual change in height? Why not? Over time, gravity and poor use of the muscles around the joints contributes to the compression of the skeleton, and with it the loss of height we expect with age. The practice of Eischens Yoga asks that we use the muscles in a more balanced way so as to better support the skeleton, and to allow energy to flow through the body. It also creates space between the joints. We see it often in classes after transformation work, someone who is visibly taller or has more space between their head and their shoulders.
I no longer am surprised by these moments in class or by the post-doctor appointment announcement. I love the joy in someone's face and voice as they tell me about their newfound height and that they "haven't been this tall since high school."
I have been pretty proud to retain my height all this time, even as my friends and peers are starting to lose height. I figured that was as good as it got, me not shrinking. Recently, I had my first physical in a couple years. I have been working on the mat over this same period of time on finally getting space between my pelvis and thigh bones. And you know what? I am now officially 5' 7". In my late 40s, I grew half an inch. Maybe that lie on my resume wasn't a lie, but a prophesy?
It seems like I've been saying this a lot lately: "Yoga classes are general. You are specific."
When General Is Good
When you first start doing yoga, you do what the instructor says to the best of your ability because you don't know anything else to do. The poses have great benefits. You've been told it'll be good for you by a magazine article, or a health professional, or a friend or family member who loves yoga. But moving your body in all these new directions is foreign so you trust in the instructor. You put your hands here, lift your leg like this, turn your toes that way, extend your spine. You keep coming back to class and the poses become more familiar. You start to pay attention to your breath. You realize you can balance better. You feel great after getting off the mat. In those first few weeks or months, just moving will have benefit. That is the general part. Yoga asana have general benefits and you begin to experience some of them. This pose is energizing. That one is calming. This one helps you breathe better.
And When It's Not
But saying a particular pose always has benefits is like saying almonds are good for everyone. It is absolutely true that almonds have protein and good fats and are high in calcium. But if you are highly allergic to almonds, they can kill you. That may be a bit extreme, but a yoga pose that is supposed to bring more dynamic energy into your being isn't worth it if it also pinches a nerve in your back each time you do it. This is when it is important to leave off working in a general way and become specific. You need to learn how you are not like everyone else so that you can learn to move more fully within your body.
The Lie of Listening
Yoga instructors tell students to "listen to your body and stop when you need to." Having taught for over 17 years, I can tell you that most people don't have any sense of how to listen to their bodies. It's not their fault. We ignore or numb ourselves to sensations of pain or discomfort for years because, as a culture, we have breathed in the limiting mindset of "No pain, no gain/Suck it up/Push through the difficulty." And now, suddenly, a new yoga student is expected to listen to their body and stop when needed. Riiiiight. When the yoga instructor encourages you to move into a modification of a pose, you're thinking, "Screw that! I'm doing the real pose," not understanding that the modification is not only a real pose, but may be the best pose for you. When he or she says to "come out when you need to," you're holding your breath and thinking, "I. Can. Hold. This."
How on earth are you supposed to learn to listen to yourself?
It Starts With A Question
As you wait for your next class to begin, observe how your body is different from your neighbor on the next mat. I don't mean in the sense of envy or critical comparison. Are you similar in muscular development? Are you the same height, weight, build? Are you comparably limber? Or stiff? Probably not. You also may have injuries that are not in common; life experiences you do not share. When you begin to practice, take stock of a few specific aspects of your body. How tall do you feel? What is your energy level like at the beginning? Is it easy to breathe? As class continues, take a few moments here and there to stop and see if anything you noted at the beginning of class is different. And is that difference a positive or negative change?
It is through self-awareness that you will be able to practice less generally and more specifically. It is in noticing how different parts of the practice affect you that you will begin to cultivate self-awareness.
Permission To Be Specific
This past week, I took a class. An old ankle injury has been bothering me as the weather turned colder. We started in Tadasana. I felt collapsed in my right ankle and in my right hip. I tried the first standing poses which usually feed my legs and make my whole body wake up. Not today, they didn't. So as the class moved into more standing poses, I laid down on my back and starting working in Supine Mountain (Supta Tadasana) and various other supine poses. I created the same actions I would have used had I been able to find them while standing. I wasn't doing the same poses as the class, but I was doing the same work. Every time the class came back to Tadasana, I stood up and joined them. I felt taller and more stable in my right ankle and hip. Every time I tried to join the class in a standing pose, that stability would disappear, and so I would return again to my supine practice. I was able to join the group in Prone work (Cobra, Locust, etc.), but anything up on my feet was depleting.
It has taken me years of experimenting and asking myself questions before, during, and after practice that led me to practice in class that way. I also knew the instructor understood that what I was doing was listening to myself. It wasn't a criticism of her instruction or the poses she chose to teach. My body needed something else. Something specific. I needed poses that would benefit my specific injuries that specific day.
Look, it is easier to not pay attention to your own needs, and to stay with the group. It is the path of least resistance. No one wants to be the different one in a class. But if doing a yoga pose causes you discomfort, then not attending to that discomfort means you have stopped doing yoga. In our "Just Do It" culture, it takes more strength and courage to NOT do what the group is doing if that pose is going to cause you pain.
You may be new to yoga, but you've lived in your body your whole life. Start paying attention to what poses make your body feel better, which ones help you breathe more deeply, which ones feed your energy. And next time the class goes into that pose that causes you discomfort (or worse, pain), try doing something else. The class is general; YOU are specific.
Click here to read my latest guest medical blog post.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.