Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Have you ever been in a yoga pose that was so unbearably uncomfortable you started to resent your teacher for making you stay in it, only to look around the room and see a handful of other students who seemingly could happily nap in the same pose? 

I’ve definitely been there, and in my early days as a yoga student I always just thought discomfort in a pose was something I had to work through and that it would get better once I was stronger or more open. After almost 20 years of yoga practice, I now realize there’s another way to approach these sorts of challenges on the mat and I’m incredibly grateful to find that principle following me off the mat as I prepare for a very big year personally.

Some yoga poses just don’t feel right initially. This week with in teacher training we were exploring upavistha konasana, seated wide angle forward fold. Upavistha is a “love it” or “hate it” pose, one that either clicks for students or doesn’t, and when it doesn’t it’s exceedingly unpleasant. b2ap3_thumbnail_BloomYogaForwardBendSeated.gif

One of the themes we harp on over and over again in teacher training is the fact that every pose is completely different from one body to another. Your experience of loving or hating a pose is often a result of a variety of factors, including bone structure, limb length and proportions, and a lack of mobility in certain muscle groups.

Upavistha will give you lots of trouble if there’s any restriction in your hip flexors, groins, inner thighs, or hamstrings. Tightness in these muscle groups can rock the pelvis backwards in a way that causes overwork in the low back and makes it nearly impossible to sit up straight, despite your best yogic intentions and your teacher’s encouragement.

Here’s the cool thing – if you find yourself in this sort of struggle with a pose, upavistha or otherwise, there’s something you can do about it. That’s a relief, right? Many students just assume that uncomfortable poses are meant to be that way. Challenge has its place, but I’m a big believer in learning to distinguish between necessary and appropriate challenges, and those that can be alleviated, both on and off the mat.

My husband Zach and I have a very big year ahead between preparing to welcome our third child into the world this summer and renovating our home to accommodate our new family of five. Though upavistha and project New Baby/New Home present me with completely different challenges, I know my handy dandy yoga toolkit can help me in both cases. 

Rather than letting myself get overwhelmed when faced with a challenge, I can take a deep breath, choose to look at things rationally, and ask myself a few basic questions:

1.What IS NOT possible for me to change in this moment? 

On the mat answer - “My hips and legs are chronically tight.”

Off the mat answer - “I’m having a baby and doing a home renovation simultaneously!”

2.What IS possible to change in this moment? 

On the mat answer - “I can sit higher up to lessen the hip restriction I experience in the pose, or I can place my hands behind me and lean back instead of forward folding.”

Off the mat answer – “I can delegate more to my wonderful and very capable staff, and my husband Zach and I can commit to simplifying by saying no to any additional projects or commitments that are not absolutely essential right now.”

3.What is the impact of the proposed change? Did it help or hurt?

As a yoga teacher and teacher trainer, I’m always trying to model a willingness to be curious with my students and to acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes a suggested change makes the pose feel worse, sometimes it makes it better. Only the individual in the pose can know the difference, and my goal as a teacher is to empower students to honestly evaluate the impact of the change. If it didn’t help, we can always try something else.

In family life, acknowledging a busy time by making real changes in schedule and commitments is almost always a good move. But knowing that I can be a bit reactionary at times, I’ll have to pay attention over the course of the next year and make sure I don’t withdraw from everything and just head into the isolation of our baby-renovation bunker. Stay tuned for more news on that as plans (and my belly) develop….

Every Thursday night when I come home from teacher training I’m all smiles and chattiness. I tell Zach about some great new insight a trainee shared or something funny that happened in class, and I just gush about how grateful I am to have the opportunity to work with such fabulous people over the course of 10 months. I love empowering these dedicated yoga practitioners and teachers-in-training to trust what they already know and make changes that make the practice work for them. There’s nothing better than seeing the look on a student’s face when a “hate it” pose turns into a “love it” pose (or at least a “tolerate it” pose!). Thank you, upavistha and fabulous trainees. Thank you, project New Baby/New Home. Thank you, yoga.

 

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Last month's New York Times article "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" certainly threw the yoga community for a loop! I've given the article a lot of thought over the past few weeks and have written several responses to the reactions I've heard from students and teachers. In the aftermath I've had conversations with colleagues who have practiced daily for years, and for many dedicated yogis the question still lingers: is it possible for intermediate practitioners to find a challenge on the mat without "wrecking" their bodies?


To me, the answer is a qualified yes. If you are a beginner who stumbles into a Level 2 class and you try to crank yourself into a complex backbend or muscle your way through a long headstand, or if you are a continuing student who tries to pretzel your way into those poses at the back of Light on Yoga without the guidance of a qualified teacher, you will very likely do yourself some damage.

But if you have been practicing consistently in order to gain a deeper understanding of your body and mind, you have developed the intuition to help you know when to pull back rather than push through. You are taming the ego every time you resist the urge to show off your awesome yoga skills when the teacher calls out your favorite pose. If you opt for a rest in child's pose as the class whips through yet another vinyasa, you are practicing humility in caring for your own needs rather than following the crowd.

So what makes an intermediate practitioner? What does the Level 2 designation mean?

Many people would cite the extreme asana variations and long holds referenced in the NYT article. My take is a little different.

To me, Level 2 means maintaining the ujjayi pranayama, or victorious breath, throughout every single pose. It means more complex transitions between the poses as a way of developing greater concentration and balance; if you've ever moved from tree pose to half moon and then back again, you know that creative transitions amplify the intensity of any pose. It means working towards a deeper experience of a backbend (with the help of props or not), with constant reminders from your teacher to pay attention and stop if you find you are not breathing deeply or feel discomfort in the pose. Like anything else in yoga, Level 2 means different things to different people. In my opinion, the safest way to provide students with a challenge is to offer many ways to experience more intermediate poses. For example, if you were to look around the room (which, of course, you would never do because you are a yogi and do not compare yourself to other people!) during the practice of an arm balance such as side crow pose, you would find students working at a variety of levels in the pose: some with feet still firmly planted on the ground and others in full flight.

At Bloom, our take on Level 2 moves beyond the typical harder + faster = better equation. We believe there is a way to explore a physical and mental challenge on the mat without "wrecking" yourself; we encourage students to remember that the process of trying these more advanced pose variations is more important than the final shape of the pose any day.

Most of the time I keep my own practice simple, soft, and gentle. But as I've learned over the years, it can be incredibly valuable to shake up old habits, to get out of the rut of a comfort zone, to carefully go where you have not gone before. That's when I roll out the old yoga mat in a Level 2 class, and I'm grateful to have a dedicated, knowledgeable teacher to provide me with both a challenge and the requisite cautions and reminders to keep me healthy as I work.

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