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.
The Pay Attention Bar
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.
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.
Whenever I get the chance, I love to substitute teach a yoga class. Seeing as how no one else is teaching Eischens Yoga in the Twin Cities, I sub for classes that are normally much different from mine. I wouldn't presume to sub for an Ashtanga or Vinyasa class because, having once taught Ashtanga, those students are there for something that is very far from what an Eischens Yoga class is. But a class listed as Open or Hatha or Beginners can hold a variety of teachings and I consider it fair game to bring my practice to the class. This is usually a person's first introduction to Eischens Yoga and I take full advantage.
The first shocker is the use of the block between the feet. In an EY class, that block serves several purposes. One purpose is to bring the feet into parallel position in Tadasana (mountain Pose), lining up the inside edge of the foot against the long edges of the block. Many teachers use the outer edge of the foot to find parallel. Using a block to line up the inner foot can be disconcerting if you're accustomed to slightly turned-in footing. I can't say my way is right or the other way is wrong. It just is the way of Eischens Yoga to use the inner edge. (I do find some people have taken that turned-in footing too far and occasionally a person's knees might be pointing inward from too much inward rotation. A block can be a way to lessen that extreme positioning of "parallel.") Having a block between the feet frees the student from having to look down to check their feet. You can feel the block at your heels and toes. The block is parallel. The feet are therefore parallel.
I prefer the 4" x 6" x 9" wide blocks that are becoming more common these days. Given that the femurs (thigh bones) insert into the pelvis around 4 to 6 inches apart, placing the block on either its 4- or 6-inch side between the feet will give most people a sense of their legs being stable underneath their torso. The leg bones will stack up more parallel than if the feet were brought together. Such a narrow footing, with feet touching, creates a Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with legs that taper to a small point of balance. Not only does that create less ease for a beginner who is just learning yoga, but it is a nearly impossible stance for someone whose knees touch and feet are still apart. (We called that knock-kneed when I was growing up, but that has negative connotations and I prefer to say that the legs bow in.)
So we have a block between the feet in Tadasana. It teaches parallel footing and aligns the legs into two parallel towers of bones. But wait! There's more! What about the student who suddenly discovers their feet can't come in to the block because their ankles are collapsed in? Or one who asks if the ankles are supposed to touch the block but their legs bow out and the ankles aren't anywhere near the block? Congratulations! Those students have just learned about imbalance in their own body. That right there is worth the price of admission. "Why?" you ask. It is possible the students never knew that about their feet and ankles until this moment of interaction with the block. Now they have valuable knowledge about a part of their anatomy. Even if they already knew this imbalance to be true, the block will serve as a tactile reminder as Tadasana is returned to again and again within the class. The student can observe if the relationship between feet, ankles and block changes after any part of the practice. Do certain poses make the ankles collapse more? Do other poses bring lift into the joint, allowing the feet to approach the block? Are the ankles coming closer to the block in the case of the student whose shins bow out? All this learning from one prop in one pose.
As we move through the practice, some students have trouble accepting that we are going to use the block in any pose besides Tadasana. During Uttanasana (Forward Fold), folks leave the block in place, but then we come to Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog) and suddenly the feet step into a wider stance. Someone somewhere may have told them to do that, but I've never understood that instruction (except in the case of pregnant women who need belly room). In part, DWDog is a variation of that Forward Fold they were just in. They didn't need to widen the feet then, so why now? I ask the class to try bringing their feet back to block-width. Adductors (inner thigh muscles) begin to fire. And then I mention glancing back at their feet for a moment. Are the inner edges of the feet parallel? What if you bring them to parallel? Suddenly, as the class adjusts their heels back in line with their toes, everyone finds they haven't been using the outer hamstrings until just this moment of bringing the feet parallel. And yet, they've been told this pose uses the entire leg. The too-wide stance and the rotation in the legs have unintentionally undermined the use of the muscles that are supposed to be working. The block becomes a feedback loop. Find the block, discover muscles that have been neglected.
When it comes to lying down on the stomach (Prone Mountain) or kneeling (Table, Camel), students are convinced the block is no longer applicable. They promptly remove it en route to the pose. Apparently, it doesn't occur to most folks that the feet need to remain parallel here, too. It's tricky; you can't see your feet behind you in these poses. But most of us sickle the toes in, drop the ankles out (or some variation of that) when the tops of the feet are on the ground. And we don't know we're doing it. Why should that sickling matter? Imagine the feet curving inward at the toes and ankles rolling out to the sides. Now picture it from an aerial view and see what effect that has on just the lower leg. The shin bones are no longer parallel to each other. The outer muscles along the shins are getting pulled longer, the inner muscles are shortening, and the calf muscles are in disuse. Put a block between the feet (we usually turn it to 6" wide for the entire group), and bring the inside edges of the feet to the block. Funny how far your feet moved to come to parallel. That is how out of alignment your lower legs probably were. (I've seen it. I've also done it. I know.) Now keep your feet hugging that block in Bhujangasana (cobra), Salabhasana (locust), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (upward facing dog). Suddenly your legs are part of the pose. The legs are there to support the spine, but if they are disengaged from the work, the arms will take over; the spine may collapse; the lower back get pinched. Just because you're lying down, don't think the legs aren't supposed to do anything. Finding the block will help you begin to engage your legs.
Supine poses are another place to help keep the feet and legs aligned with the use of a block. While lying on the back, the feet and legs often externally rotate, rolling onto the outer edge of the heel. Placing a block between the feet here is similar to using it in Tadasana. You can feel when the feet are parallel when you can feel the block between your feet. Maintaining that connection of foot to block on the supporting leg when coming into poses that are one-legged (Supta Padagustasana, for example) reduces the possibility of rotation in the supporting leg. As in Adho Muka Svanasana, bringing the feet to parallel will also begin to engage the legs. Just because you are lying down doesn't mean the legs stop working.
Another place to use blocks while supine is in Setu Bandhasana (bridge pose). When setting up, place one block between the feet to keep them parallel, and another between the thighs. (I usually have students place the block 6" wide at the feet and 4" wide at the thighs. Sometimes I will suggest a 3" block if the knees are still wider than the ankles.) Most students lift into this pose using the inner thighs. The knees splay out to the sides, taking the feet out with them. Not only does this deprive the outer thigh muscles of their proper work and continue the strength imbalance between inner and outer thigh, it increases pressure on the lower back at the sacrum. Using blocks as described, rotations in the legs and feet become noticeable. Especially if that thigh block drops. By hugging the thighs to the block between them, you will start to use all the leg muscles in a more balanced manner, and ease tension in the lower back.
There are many more uses for the block in an Eischens Yoga class, most of which are not introductory and require a greater knowledge of the Transformational Work we do. But I hope this primer gives you ideas about how to begin playing with this simple tool. Many teachers and students use blocks underneath the hands in certain poses, or for supporting the pelvis while seated or kneeling. But when you begin to use them as a source of feedback about how your body functions in your yoga, blocks can become another teacher.
Don't Try This at Home.
I just taught my 10th and 11th classes of the week. We did transformation work about 45 minutes into each class, working on the shoulders and collar bones and how to better align them. Transformation work is a hallmark of Eischens Yoga classes. Today, we were looking at the shoulder blades: how far apart they rested on the back, whether they were on the same plane or angled, how symmetrical their placement. Then each group worked in Prone Mountain, one person in the pose with partners applying pressure on the triceps, wrists, and crown of the head. As each person did the work and then stood up, shoulder blades settled into better positioning. The change was frequently visible to the group. But better than that, each person stood up and felt taller, or less tense in the shoulders and/or upper back after receiving tactile feedback from their group. And then it happened. The Question.
I never know who will ask it. It usually doesn't even happen after everyone is done. Someone very excited by what they are seeing in their partner might ask it. Someone feeling pretty amazing after doing the work might be the one. But invariably someone will ask, "How do I do this at home?"
I am never surprised by this question. I have been the one to put this query forth myself, back when I first started studying Eischens Yoga. (We still called it High Energy Yoga back then.) I actually usually have an answer, an approximation of what we just did that can be done at home alone, but that is to lose the point of what happened. Why we do this work with partners in class is because we aren't home alone. We take advantage of each other's presence for several reasons, and these reasons why we do transformation work move from the obvious to the subtle.
Added weight increases the impact of the work.
If you want to develop your biceps, you can do simple bicep curls. If you do these over a long enough period of time, with enough repetitions, you will tone and strengthen your biceps. But if you really want to see your biceps change in strength, you begin adding weights, lifting smaller hand-weights and increasing the weight as the biceps get stronger. In yoga, ideally you can press into your own skin for resistance. But most of us can't feel our own skin, let alone press into it. So by adding a partners' hands' pressure, you can start to bring your body into better positioning. The partner isn't putting you into alignment; they are giving you a place to push into, which in turn strengthens the muscles that then hold your skeleton in proper placement.
Seeing another in order to understand yourself.
When you begin to look closely at other bodies, you have a chance to learn about yourself. As you watch your partner and notice one shoulder blade in a different place than the other, you also begin to glimpse how we all have imbalances. You can take that image of another back and superimpose it upon yourself. Then when it is your turn, and your partner says your shoulder blades are asymmetrical in the same way as (or differently from) the previous person's, there is a clear image of your own back through someone else's eyes and descriptions, but also through your experience of looking.
Working together to create community.
I cannot count how many times I have attended classes where no one talks to anyone else, where there is so much competition as students vie for attention, or struggle to perform the best pose. (Yeah, it may be called a yoga class, but that doesn't mean we all leave our competitive nature out the door.) But when you have to get to know a few others in class, really know them, you learn who has an injury. You discover that someone is struggling to get out of their over-analytical brain, or just overcame a difficult period in life. You see what other's challenges are, and you begin to cheer on Mel whose back hurt so much six months ago she couldn't bend very far, but now she has her hands on the floor in a forward fold. You applaud Sarah who has found increased endurance and can hold poses longer without locking her elbows. And you cheer on Nicki who lifts up into a tripod headstand from a Wide Angle FWFold, even though that is not in your own foreseeable future. Class becomes intimate and supportive and the competition gets left behind.
Learning to trust your own eyes and learning to trust your partners.
Trust comes from being willing to be open. Open to change, open to failure, to loss, to love, to acceptance, to success. Working with partners in the classroom broadens trust. You begin to trust your own eyes as you learn to see. You tell your partners what you observe and they begin to trust your words, your vision. And in that moment, you and your partners begin a new path. And this path allows for deeper connections between people. But transformation work is more than just observing and stating what is seen. It is hands-on, a place where hands meet with another person's muscles; where there is such matched resistance that neither person is moving, but both are working. It is a physical connection. It takes trust a step further.
Touch is essential between humans. Everyone knows about the laboratory tests using orphaned monkeys and placing one with a metal, robotic "mother" and how damaging the lack of touch is for that monkey's development. So we know touch matters. But Americans touch each other less than people in most other industrial nations. We deprive ourselves of the healing that comes with placing hands on a friend's shoulder, giving a hug or a kiss. We deprive ourselves of human contact. It doesn't really matter whether this reticence to touch comes from fear (of disease, of offending, of intimacy) or from indifference. What is important is to increase our physical contact, to break through whatever barriers we have to touching. Working with partners is a safe way to find those physical connections. Maybe you are placing your hands on someone's shins or triceps. Maybe you touch the top of someone else's head. Maybe you help move someone's toes. And in that moment, there is possibility. Possibility for change for the person you are touching, but possibility for you to change as well.
So how can you do this at home? You can't. You can practice yoga by yourself. You can use tactile memory to find the alignment you are seeking. You can move toward physical and mental balance. But the yoga that occurs when working in transformation, that is only done in concert with others. Come to class. Get together with a friend to exchange feedback. Teach your partner how to push on your shins (or forearms or heels ...). But find a way to work with people. Transformation work is essential. It happens in community. It makes community. And it is life-changing.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.