March 3, 2016

Okay, so maybe I still teach yoga classes almost daily. But I am the first to admit that I am taking some real liberties in the use of that word -- yoga. I almost never make reference to the Yoga Sutras, never go on about Patanjali, only occasionally incorporate Pranayama (breathwork), and my classes are not always the devoted yogi's cup of matcha tea. I do love a nicely sequenced Vinyasa (sequence of postures) that moves dynamically, but the ones I happen to teach are pretty darn basic. And I never teach certain postures that committed practitioners may consider routine.


Thing is, when I was most actively practicing what is often referred to as "advanced yoga" postures, I was often doing way more harm than good. I was cranking my joints and spine into positions that, frankly, were beyond their full range of motion. I attended countless classes and workshops devoted to "opening the hips," but to what end? Every time I forced my hips into these deep stretches, there inevitably was pain waiting on the other side. Not the pain of a muscle releasing tension, either. For me, that pain was excrutiating lower back pain from a wildly unstable sacroilliac joint (the connection between the pelvis and lower spine) and almost no real core strength, and chronic knee pain from deeper and deeper rotation at the hip socket while my knees were intensely flexed. The opposite of the definition of flexibile, I was bending to the point of breaking.

Many are attracted to yoga because a well structured yoga class helps to keep muscle aches at bay. But the majority, in my experience, like yoga because they are already flexible and the movement feels natural. Or dare I say easy? People who are already fairly flexible and don't have issues with moving their joints or muscles through a full range of motion, I'd argue, have no real business focusing so intensely on a yoga asana (physical creation of and movement through postures or poses) practice. The meditiation, breathwork, philosophy and such, would certainly stand to benefit anyone, but the actual physical practice of bending, stretching, contorting? What is it all for?


One of my favourite yoga teachers has no physical practice. He is much more interested in the allegory to be found in the ancient texts and myths of the Hindu culture. When studying with him, I found sitting for a lesson a challenge -- not just because my back was in agony from the "advanced yoga" class I'd taken beforehand -- because he was never one to spoonfeed information. Studying with him required a lot of reflection and disernment over the facts of the story. The message was hidden and it was our job to find it.


To this day, I am inspired by this teaching method. I give enough cues (so many of the cues!) so that students understand where they are going, but once they are there I invite them to tap into what it is they are experiencing. What is a posture or movement creating in their body? What is it that is going to happen when they step away from their mat after having seriously, and sometimes strenuously, worked that last sequence or posture? After all, wouldn't it be pretty cool if a student learned that when 'this' happens, they can do 'that' to remedy it?


If my yoga studies have taught me anything, they have taught me to be a better student. Along the way, I have learned to look at problems and determine which solution will work best whilst posing the least amount of harm, injury or risk. Do I need to flatten muscles that need to be tensile to function fully? Do I really want to be flattened between two panes of glass (this is a horrible cue claustrophobes the world 'round are probably cringing through in so many classes where Trikonasana or triangle pose is being taught)? In what aspects of my daily life and movement patterns is this helping and that hindering? The result of this interrogation is a sequence of postures that help improve mobility, first and foremost.


When a friend's mother-in-law proudly demonstrated her youthfulness by bending straight-legged to touch her toes, I had to wonder what this had to do with longevity? Sure, not having as much pudge around a waistline to be able to fold at the hips is a good indication of health, but I am certainly not encouraging anyone to fold over straight-legged to do anything like tie their shoes or pick things up. But being able to balance on one leg is a good way to prevent slips and falls when taking a big step out of the bathtub. And having the mobility in one's back to twist into certain yoga postures gives a pretty sweet balance of mobility and strength in the sides of the body that make carrying heavy loads and catching oneself in the event of a fall easier. One of the most popular longevity tests out there requires a balance between flexiblity and strength, after all. You can have the longest, flattest ass hamstrings on the planet, but it means nothing when you lack the strength to pick them off the ground.


I'd considered branding my classes as "functional flow" or "remedial yoga," but decided against trying to place any sort of label. I'm a keep it simple sort of gal. I used to feel bad about the fact my classes were more "exercise-y" than the super woo yoga taught by colleagues of mine, but I have learned to accept that what I do works best for me and the students I am working with most regularly.


Keep what works. Leave the rest.



Disclaimer: Fit Club is not a medical doctor and the information contained herein should not be taken as medical advice. These are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any health problem. Recommendations by Fit Club are not intended to replace the advice of a physician or health professional. Please consult your physician or a health professional before beginning any diet or exercise program.

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