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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.