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.
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?
Every once in a while, I am brought so swiftly into the present by a moment. It can be a moment of great joy (a wedding or a birth) or great sadness (the loss of a dear friend). It can be a moment of quiet stillness (the sunrise shimmering over new snow). Or a time of celebration (when my son sets a personal best at a swim meet). But sometimes, it is as simple as a piece of wrought-iron.
Yogadate 2005, Detroit and vicinity
I am stuck in terrible traffic on the way to teach my first class at the Detroit Zen Center in Hamtramck (and yes, I spelled that right). I had really been looking forward to this addition to my schedule, but after having driven 1 mile in 20 minutes, I call the Zen Center to tell them I will not be there to start on time. Should I still come? Or should we cancel? "No, no, come. We'll wait for you."
They've told me not to worry about the time, but it is my FIRST CLASS there and I am not happy about being so late. When I finally arrive, it takes me a while to find parking, and then a while longer to figure out where to enter the grounds. A beautiful, tall wooden fence surrounds the outside of the old building and I find the gate. I am loaded down with a bag of yoga blocks, my mat, my bag, and I am still feeling pressure to somehow turn back the clock since it is now 30 minutes past when class should have begun. I set things down so I can open the gate and BAM!
The gate is framed by wrought-iron and there is a shin-high bar across the opening. I know it is shin-high because I just slammed my shin into it. Much cursing ensues, and I pick up my stuff and start moving slowly into the garden. Who knows what other traps lay in wait for me? I pay close attention as I walk a narrow brick pathway, careful not to snag something on the prickly thorns of the raspberry bushes, making sure I don't accidentally trample a flower or vine. At last, I get to the door.
My cautious walk through the garden has slowed down my racing heart. Yes, they had waited for me. One of the residents, Yasodhara (previously known as Hillary and later to become Myung Ju) with her shaved head and warm radiant smile, greets me and shows me where to put my shoes. She brings me into the beautiful hall where a roomful of buddhists sit on yoga mats. We start class. A very short class, but class nonetheless.
Afterward, I sit with Sunim, the monk who founded the Detroit Zen Center, and Yasodhara, and I retell my story about rushing to get here and then being called to task by that wrought-iron frame. "Once I hit my shin on it, I knew I had to pay attention," I said. Yasodhara laughed and said, "That's what we call it: the Pay Attention Bar."
Yogadate 2104, Minneapolis and environs
I've been rushing around trying to take care of too many people's schedules including my own. Too much schlepping, coordinating, cooking meals that I don't even eat because I cook then leave to teach. My sitting practice has waned with the cold weather and the crazy hours. I don't even have the long meditative walk with the dog because I will freeze if we're outside for more than 4 minutes.
I am heading downstairs to bring Q-tips to the lower level bathroom, and BAM! I find myself on my back several steps down from the landing where I just was. Q-tips are everywhere. My shin is banged and my elbow hurts from smacking the wrought-iron hand rail.
It's the Pay Attention Bar all over again. I have to slow down for the next several days as my aches appear (I puzzle over certain bruised areas, never knowing how I possibly hit my shin). I have to teach differently, and move more gently. And in slowing down, I not only get more accomplished, I become aware of my surroundings and am truly present for more of my day.
I would like to say I live in the moment every day. But for now, that is a goal, not a reality. The experience of slowing down and becoming more aware, well, I could certainly use more of that. I just hope that I don't have to experience bone-against-wrought-iron again anytime soon.
Maybe I can just pay attention ... without the Pay Attention Bar.
Roger Eischens always asked us to figure out what we couldn't feel and then we'd know where the work was. To figure out what I can't feel, I usually have to start by taking inventory of what I can feel: Where is my weight on my feet? Which muscles are engaged? And so on.
The next step, once you recognize that areas of your body aren't being stimulated, is to change the pose to start waking up what's sleeping. Changing the pose is often the hardest aspect of yoga for many students. When we're in a pose, we want to look like the rest of the class, like the teacher, like a magazine photo of somebody else doing that same pose. But if my shoulders lock up and I can't engage my arms in an overly flexible Downward Dog, maybe I need to back out of the pose to where my arms remain engaged and the shoulders don't lock.
And now, ego gets involved. We really want to do what every one else is doing. But the point of yoga is to practice with integrity, using our own imperfect bodies as the medium toward finding balance. Teachers will tell you to listen to yourself, but no one wants to go the wall to have the stability they need to do a more grounded tree pose, not if the rest of the class is standing and balancing in the middle of their mats. I watch students struggle to bend deeper in a fold, even as they have lost all extension of the spine and later tell me their back hurts. Doing what serves your body can be humbling, and humility is not what many people are looking for when they approach the mat.
This idea of looking at yourself closely and critically, and then making the changes you need to make is one of those on-the-mat/off-the-mat yoga teachings. Recently a friend asked me (apropos of my teaching) what I would do if I had five bazillion dollars at my fingertips. I didn't have an answer for her which surprised me. The next day, I heard myself say to a class "Figure out what you can't feel, and you know where the work is." I made what at first seemed like a strange connection to my friend's question. I couldn't answer my friend because I hadn't given that question any thought. I couldn't feel for an answer because I had none. And THAT, dear reader, is where my work is.
I've spent the past two and a half years just trying to create anything resembling a teaching career after uprooting myself (and family) to a new state. Struggling to make ends meet, I took on other work. My husband had a second job. The kids went without most extras, and I was grateful for in-laws who took them school supply shopping or I don't know how we'd have provided that either. Now, with my husband in a better job (no longer jobs), and with my teaching finally picking up to the point that I finally quit my barista job, we have achieved the goal of functioning economically. Not great, but not scrambling from paycheck to paycheck. And I realize I don't have idea one about what the next step will be for my teaching.
But since last Wednesday, I'm bringing it into focus and I know a few things:
• More classes for not much more money isn't the ticket.
• Workshops (local and out-of-state) require serious planning and research, and I now have time to devote to that.
• Teaching teachers is something about which I'm passionate.
• I am way behind the learning curve in using technology to expand my reach.
It is time to change the pose, and I can't approach it like anyone else. I'm not anyone else and I come at this from where I am today, not from where my mentor is, nor where my friends are. It is humbling to recognize where I've fallen behind, where I'm limited. But it gives me direction.
So, Suzanne, if you asked me that today, my answer is still vague, but I know that one thing I'd do with that five bazillion dollars is hire professionals, purchase equipment (laptop with a webcam, lighting), rent studio space or create it at home, all with the purpose of using the internet to teach and reach a wider audience. Another is to commit more resources to my workshops. And lastly, there are numerous avenues where I could be teaching teachers here in MN that I have yet to explore, and I hope to participate in some of them very soon.
It's a start. And a good one.
Today I taught a very small class. Just three of my regulars. (It has been below zero here for a couple days and not everyone is silly enough to leave the house for things like yoga class.)
I assumed our transformation work would go quickly, working with partners to remove/reduce rotation in the back leg in Side Warrior (Virabadrasana B for those of you who do Sanskrit). I should know by now that what I think will be simple usually isn't, and what I think will be hard goes easily.
So here we are looking at legs, and I'm aware that one of the women is not getting what we're supposed to be looking at. It isn't important to me that she see it --- it is the first time I've ever pointed this rotation work out --- but she clearly is bothered. When her turn comes, her emotions are at the surface from frustration. And she is already holding tight to every instruction I have ever given in this pose. I try to tell her this isn't intended to change any of that, just to refine it. No good. By the time we have done "helping" her in the pose, she is so disconnected from her body and quite upset.
Once, years ago, I had the same response to too many instructions and tweaking. So many that I ended up cranky and disconnected. I looked at my student and very quickly put her through the same transformation work she had just done, only with minimal instruction and staying in the pose for a very short time. She stood up, calm, content, one with her body.
Life lessons learned today:
For the very cerebral, too much time and too much instruction only puts you further into your head.
As a teacher, know your students. Do not feed their imbalances.
Which leads me to this: All those ways you approach life may have served you well, but when they get in the way, can you change your approach? If you keep pushing through challenges, are there times when maybe you should just ease up? Can you persevere if it is your natural inclination to walk away from difficulty? Do you know yourself well enough to know your patterns of approaching life's challenges?
Watching how you approach a yoga pose can teach you a lot about your habits and patterns of mind. Taking yoga off the mat can happen while you're on the mat.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.