Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Posted by on in Yoga

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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Posted by on in Yoga

Over the past 15 years of teaching yoga, I’ve told my students thousands of times, in thousands of different ways to avoid creating discomfort with the practice. Physically I felt this was the key to guarding against overdoing, strain, and injury.

But a couple of weeks ago I took an Experiential Anatomy workshop with Judith Lasater, and since then discomfort has become my new normal. Judith presented a completely new way of looking at alignment through the lens of kinesiology, and the cognitive dissonance I experienced during the workshop was as unsettling as it was exciting. After 15 years of practicing mountain, triangle, and down dog one way, I’m now exploring what it would mean to do almost exactly the opposite.

Tadasana, mountain pose, my familiar friend, has become this new creature. The shifting of the pelvic alignment, the undoing of ‘sneaky tailbone tucking,’ has freed my belly and low back, requiring much less work while achieving greater stability. Relying more on my bone structure means not needing to do so much work in the poses.

As exciting as these discoveries were, I still wasn’t sure what to think. I felt like an absolute beginner again. While I’m not generally attached to my ability to achieve fancy poses and my practice looks more like a level 1 student’s these days anyway, I was still uncomfortable with this absolute throwback to beginnerdom.

I’m not used to being uncomfortable in any substantial way. Most of us in the US aren’t. I have adequate food, clothing, and shelter. I’m in good health and my yoga practice has been a constant comfort to me, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I’m used to knowing what’s what in my practice, but right now on the mat I’m caught in a dialogue between old habit and new. As I make my way into trikonasana with the new alignment cues, my muscle memory protests, ‘But this is NOT how triangle feels...’

At every point in the pose my mind tries to decide whether Judith’s way is good or bad, whether I like it or dislike it, and I can’t help debating whether or not she’s right. But as Judith reminded us, determining what’s ‘right’ demands identifying its opposite, and there’s really not room for ‘wrong’ in yoga practice. All these tiny alignment details teachers offer students are simply ways to encourage paying attention and moving consciously rather than from rote. The mental focus and awareness generated from such details helps you practice yoga rather than just asana.

What do most of us do when we feel discomfort? My tendency is to fill it up – over the years that tool has ranged from stuffing my face with chocolate, zoning out to bad TV shows, or losing myself in work or writing projects to avoid feeling the unease of not knowing. Unconsciously, I must believe that if I do something familiar (even something that causes other kinds of pain and discomfort, like an overfull belly, regret over wasted time, or exhaustion from staying up too late), the weird unfamiliarity will be quelled so I can go on about my nice little life without having to examine what the discomfort really means below the surface.

I’m ready to invite discomfort in for myself and for my students, to play with the balance between knowing and not knowing, between certainty and unfamiliarity. We often visited this world as kids because so many of our experiences were new and uncomfortable, but we were repeatedly told it was an important part of our growth and development.

As adults couldn’t embracing the discomfort of newness be useful in cultivating that same sort of growth?

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I’ve been refining my definitions. Yes, discomfort is a warning sign. But sometimes rather than a red light, it’s a flashing yellow. ‘Hey, you! Pay attention to this and decide – do you want to hit the brakes or proceed with caution?’

Discomfort and pain are distinct experiences on the mat. Discomfort is the unfamiliar, like when Judith asked me to shift my pelvis forward and down in triangle rather than trying to spin open as I have done so many times before. My body was confused, my muscle memory jostled, and I experienced emotional discomfort because I felt like a complete beginner again. On the other hand, some of the things Judith suggested did not quite feel right in my body and bordered on pain. In those cases I listened, pulled back, and asked for help. But for the most part, when I managed to stay with the unfamiliarity long enough to undo my habitual asana patterns, I experienced a new lightness, steadiness, and ease in the poses.

While I want to play with discomfort and encourage my students to do the same, I’m still a firm believer that pain does not belong on the yoga mat and you need not push through it to achieve a breakthrough. I also don’t feel I’ve unlocked the key to the one ‘right’ way to approach alignment, but rather have reinforced for myself that the value of asana practice lies in its ability to help us pay attention to small details and sensation. I look forward to inviting students to pay closer attention, undo habits, and explore their discomfort with newness in asana. And I hope that when they step off the mat and back into their day the exploration they’ve done will open them to the growth possibilities that exist within cognitive dissonance, with the questioning of patterns without need for determining ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’

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