Let’s Talk About Flex, Baby

Let’s talk about flex, baby. You know, Flexibility. All the good things. All the bad things.

If you’ve ever written a flyer about yoga or pitched a workshop or corporate classes, or tried convincing Aunt Sally or Uncle Phil to take up yoga, I bet you’ve touted ‘flexibility’ as one of the benefits of yoga. I know I have.

So let’s play the part of Uncle Phil for a second:

“Okay but so what if I can’t touch my toes. What’s the big deal anyways?”

Do you want to jump in – or do you want me to? I bet we both have our rap down pretty good correlating tight hamstrings and back aches and lost productivity. It’s then a quick hop, skip and a jump to slipping in Uncle Phil’s favorite activity and assuring him that yoga’d be great for that:

“You know Uncle Phil, a little more flexibility could mean the difference between you qualifying for sectionals in lawn bowling this year or not….”

Of course, we’re just backdooring Uncle Phil into the full experience of yoga via asana. We’ll get him chanting and doing meditation soon enough. He’ll learn flexibility of the mind and heart, too, and compassion and being present and all that. But first, we gotta get him limbered up.  Right?  Or… no?

Well. Maybe before we move past benefit number one (“flexibility”) we should clarify what it is. Maybe it’s not exactly what we’ve been saying it was.  Maybe it’s not some generic thing you either have or don’t have. Maybe Phil’s right: touching your toes proves nothing more than you can touch your toes.

Do you have 15 minutes? It’s a little bit of time, I know, but it’ll be totally worth your while, I promise.

In fact, come back later if you want, grab a friend or two, some chai lattes and make a mini-date of it.

The guy in the video – Gary Gray – is not a “yogi’ and he’s definitely not a guru. But movement professionals from around the world fly to his podunk town in Michigan to study with him because- well, I’ll let you figure out why. I dropped everything when I had the chance to do a year-long fellowship with him

What he has to say has HUGE implications for the Yoga community. At least, that’s what I think. How about you?

All the good things. All the bad things. You and me: let’s talk about flex.

Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?!

During the year I spent studying with Drs. Gary Gray and David Tiberio at The Gray Institute, I had the pleasure of meeting Gary’s son Brad, who shared this powerful story (credited to biblical historian Ray Vanderlaan) that has remained with me.

Below is my (hopefully not too bastardized) recollection of it:

One night a Rabbi was out walking, hoping the fresh air would help him clarify something he had been reading in the Torah earlier in the day. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, the Rabbi soon lost himself in prayer.

Suddenly, the rabbi was startled out of his prayerful reflection by someone shouting “Who you and what are you doing here?!”

Rather than stay on the path that would lead him back home, the Rabbi quickly realized he wandered into a Roman encampment.

The Roman centurion who called out before repeated his questions, “Who are you and what are you doing here?!”

Instead of responding directly, the Rabbi asked the guard, “What do you get paid for asking me these questions?”

Confused at first by the Rabbi’s response, the guard eventually replied tartly, “Three Denari a week!”

“Well, I will pay you double that if you’ll stand outside my house and ask me those questions every morning.”

Post-Graduate Yoga Teacher Training

Transformation Zone Yoga is excited to announce its private client-centered yoga training for graduates of 200- and 500-hour Yoga Teacher Training programs.

This training is unique in both content and scope:

  • Private client-centered focus sets it apart from group class-oriented programs;
  • Process-driven framework helps you devise personalized strategies to meet your clients’ needs;
  • Rooted in functional anatomy vs. cadaver anatomy of the:
    • Foot
    • Knee
    • Hip
    • Pelvis
    • Spine
    • Shoulder
    • Elbow
    • Wrist/Hand
  • Re-examine asana, breath work in asana, pranayama and meditation through a functional lens
  • Acquire strategies for defining, assessing, developing and restoring optimal movement
  • Dive deep on sequencing (both within a session and over time)
  • Explore strategies for adapting Yoga practices for developmental, therapeutic, sports specific and other practitioner-driven circumstances

Training Dates

Course material will feature in-person, hands-on training as well as supplemental assignments (outside reading, learning challenges and video reinforcement).

January 26 & 27
February 9 & 10
March 9 & 10
April 6 & 7

The Saturday sessions will run from 9-5:30pm.  The Sunday sessions will run from 9-2:30pm.

Cost: $1500 for all four weekends.  ($1300 – early bird discount if paid in full by December 31, 2013).

Prerequisite:  Applicants must have successfully completed a 200- or 500-hour teacher training.

Location:  Weekend sessions hosted at H&D Physical Therapy’s Midtown Clinic, 12 East 46th Street, 8th Floor in Manhattan.

Want More Information?

If you have any questions about the program, feel free to be in touch with Al Bingham by phone (347.644.9642) or by email (Al@TransformationZoneYoga.com).

Ready to Register

Register now for the Winter 2013 Post-Graduate Yoga Teacher Training.

What Makes a Movement an Asana?

  • Are ‘asana‘ movements we do with our body? Or, are they ways of being in our body?
  • Take sirsasana: is it ‘a headstand’? Or, is it a way of being in a headstand: ‘a headstand as an asana.

I believe asana are ways of being in the body and I view sirsasana as a way of being in a headstand.

The differences between ‘something’ as a movement and ‘something as an asana’ are subtle but significant. A deep knowledge of the principles of movement proves extraordinarily helpful when helping practitioners construct personalized practices.

It’s All About Intention
Intention differentiates a movement from an asana. To practice ‘something’ as an asana requires a heightened attention to the interior qualities of stability and ease (“sthira sukham asanam“).

Patanjali offers a two-fold strategy for realizing those qualities: economize your efforts (“prayatna shaithilya“) and bring an expansive orientation to what you’re doing (“ananta samapattibhyam“).

How Do You Cultivate Movement Quality?
It’s worth considering how and when a movement’s inner qualities should be cultivated.

  • From the beginning, regardless of the practitioner’s current mastery of a movement?
  • Later, once the practitioner has sketched out the rough edges of a particular posture?
  • Or, from the get-go but in a progressive way: breaking down the components of ‘something’ to gradually develop the practitioner’s mastery of them and their inner qualities.

Each approach has its merits, but I’m partial to the latter strategy. It’s never black and white, however.  One of the challenges about practicing ‘something’ as an asana, is needing first and foremost, to know how to do that ‘something.’

What am I Doing Here?
In order to do “headstand as an asana‘ or “standing as an asana” (tadasana) or “balancing on my hands and kicking my criss-crossed legs out to the side in order to create eight angles as an asana” (astavakrasana), I have to first learn to get on my head, or stand upright or balance in an eight-angled way.

Realistic Expectations
I think it’s unrealistic to expect practitioners to infuse stability and ease into something that extends them beyond their threshold of success; they’re in survival mode at that point. For that reason, I think it’s important, as teachers, to assess practitioners’ movement thresholds, and as practitioners, to include strategies of progressive complexity in our practices.

Anticipating Compensations
I think the ‘wait til later’ approach recognizes that certain movements are complex and require time to master but delaying the introduction of the sthirasukham concept has its own drawbacks. To say, “Okay, now that you’re upside down [e.g.], relax your efforts and rest your attention in your breathing and we’ll start turning this into an asana,” disregards the compensatory patterns that may have brought the practitioner into that position. Those likely will resist her attempts to relax, especially if she is at the end range of her abilities.

Thoughtful Preparation
Instead, I’ve come to appreciate the strategy of breaking down movements into their component parts. I have re-doubled my efforts to dive deeply into the art/science of progressive sequencing.

In seeking ways to help fellow practitioners  more effectively transform their movements into asana, I realized that required a lifetime of learning as much as I could about the principles of movement.

The Similarities Between A Movement & An Asana
For too many years, and perhaps distracted by talk of chakras, nadis and koshas, I lost sight of the reality that when I’m practicing Yoga it’s not like I’m stepping into another realm where a different set of rules apply.  In asana, pranayama and dhyanam something profoundly brilliant is occurring: movement.

Regardless of intention, the principles of movement reign:

  • movement is dynamic;
  • movement is individualistic;
  • movement is 3-dimensional;
  • movement is directed;
  • movement is driven (internally or externally or through a combination of both);
  • movement occurs within the context of gravity;
  • movement is impacted by mass, momentum and inertia;
  • movement actively triggers a subconscious chain reaction;
  • movement is complex; and
  • movement is variable, et al.

If I take the principles of movement seriously, then I’m contemplating…

  • dynamically moving
  • this uniquely individual
  • three-dimensional mass of mine
  • from a particular starting place (standing, sitting, kneeling, lying on my belly, lying on my back, side-lying or being inverted in a different way),
  • along a particular path,
  • using one or more body parts to drive my movements (hands, a leg/legs, head, my pelvis, my eyes or some combination thereof),
  • to generate neither too much, nor too little, but instead just the right amount of momentum to get me from ‘here’ to ‘there’ and to position me to go ‘somewhere else’ afterwards
  • in a way that gives my body the information it needs
  • to subconsciously respond
  • to the complexity in and around me that is beyond my conscious comprehension and
  • which is continually changing.

I know: it’d have been so much simpler if the principles of movement dictated that using 26 postures, two times apiece, was the answer for each and every one of us.  I wish it was that simple. (No, really, I do.)  And for some people it is. For a time. Sometimes for a long time.

Instead, reflecting on these movement principles has me continually reconsidering some of the strategies I’ve acquired over the years.

  • Can I really cue someone into proper form and alignment?
  • Is there even such a thing as ‘proper form and alignment?’
  • Can asana be achieved through self-practice alone – without cueing, hands-on assistance or anything else?
  • Are techniques I’ve picked up across the years universally applicable?
  • Can really I tell if someone is doing ‘something as an asana’ instead of just doing ‘something’?  Unless it’s me – does that matter?
But in addition to churning up doubts and pointing to areas I might make changes, reflecting on these movement principles has also been liberating.

They have pointed me towards developing three-dimensional asana matrices; they’ve taught me to pay attention to the vinyasa within the vinyasa (the chain of movements within each movement); and they’ve helped me experientially understand the flow of movement from its grosser extremes in asana to its more subtle aspects in pranayama and dhyanam. 

Most importantly, reflecting on these movement principles has helped me better serve to my existing client-practitioners and created opportunities for me to work with a more diverse group of new ones.

Even more encouraging is the network of colleagues (physical therapists, athletic trainers, personal trainers, osteopaths, massage therapists and chiropractors) I’ve discovered who are as passionate about applying these principles of movement to their fields as I am passionate about sharing them with you, and our Yoga community.

Much like the principles of Yoga, the principles of movement come from an ancient lineage.  They are what they are and they wait patiently as each succeeding generation takes up the question of how to understand, engage, apply and be transformed by the wisdom they offer.

There are millions of people practicing asana as part of their Yoga practice.  Each individuated, complex, three-dimensional, movement-loving meditator is going to arrive at a moment when a generic solution no longer creates the stability and ease she was seeking.

In that moment, I hope you will be there waiting for that person – with your full heart, a generous spirit, an expansive mind – to walk her through the valley of complexity to get to the mountaintop of simplicity.

Nude Beaches & Down Dog Quotas: How You Practice Informs What You Practice, Part II

Long hair and a touch of scoliosis made more visible by an on-shoot thoracic disk slippage. Beautiful backdrops and nude bathers off-camera.

Many moons ago I taught Yoga on a nude beach in Jamaica to pretend people who weren’t there. I was paid several hundred dollars, given a round trip ticket from New York to Mo’ Bay, received complimentary ground transportation and was put up in bartered accommodations at an all-inclusive resort. The videos and DVDs from that shoot (and ones filmed the next two years) generated millions of dollars in revenue for the distributor. I received no royalties, alas.

As a commercial venture they were deemed successful, but as teaching aids?

I was reminded of those shoulder season visits to Jamaica while visiting my parent’s house with my then 8-year old son. My mom played one of the DVDs, took out her Yoga mat and began practicing “with me” as my son and I watched the 14-years-younger version of me instruct her through cat posture. Before long, my son plopped down next to Nanny and tried following the instructions for downward-facing dog. The live version of me supplemented Al-the-younger’s efforts with some hands on assistance and additional verbal encouragement.

It was a weird split-screen: having memories of teaching pretend people while nude, overweight, sunburnt German tourists looked on and looking on this present moment as my mom and son watched  the younger me giving them instructions while the older me looked on.

My son thought the DVD was cool enough but his real interest was hearing more about the nude bathers (Could you see their butts and everything?). But my mom, God bless her, remains a big fan of those Yoga Zone videos.  I don’t think she’s just saying that because I’m her son (though that’s surely a part of it). She finds ‘just enough’ in them: they are the right physical challenge, the right time length and the commute to the family room sure beats the drive to the health club.

What’s interesting about pre-recorded led practices (for tv, the internet or mobile applications) is how much the medium drives the content. The other teachers who created practices and I were collectively on a downward-facing dog quota. Because it’s a position that requires a viewer’s head to be down (and thus away from the screen), the producers didn’t want us using that posture very often. If we taught it going into a commercial break and invited the home practitioners to maintain it through the break that would be all right

There were other postures that likewise were deemed not so great for tv because they either lacked visual appeal or they came across as too sexual. I seem to recall that reclined cobbler’s pose (supta baddha konasana) was ruled out because of that – or perhaps it was shot from a distance.

That I was tall helped me secure one of the teaching spots. But that I had a touch of scoliosis was deemed problematic. I was asked to sit in such a way that both of my shoulders appeared to be on the same level in order that I looked like ‘a proper Yogi.’ When, while demonstrating during another video, I was accidentally rotated a bit too far which knocked a thoracic vertebrae out of whack, the task of ‘covering up’ my postural imbalance was even more challenging.

Besides our physical presentation and the visual aesthetics of what we were teaching playing a role in the choice of content, how that content flowed was equally important. Just as a half hour sit-com is divided into acts, so too were the video tapes (which later became DVDs).  There was a formula to introducing the postures (sharing some details about them and adding a bit of personality and encouragement) and to how the flow was sequence.

On the one hand, that formula worked: while the videos never sold at Rodney Yee levels, they certainly sold well enough.   Or perhaps that formula didn’t work and all of the videos/DVDs that were purchased gathered dust in people’s media towers.  Or maybe the instructional videos and DVDs gave people ‘just enough’ to work with on their own. Maybe they served as a “good enough” substitution for group classes, or as a brain break from the responsibilities of creating and following their own self-guided practices.  Maybe some flipped off the tv and went out in search of a real, live instructor who gave them what they really needed.

In the years since, I have bumped into other teachers who were making their own DVDs or creating videos for their YouTube channels. Many seemed confident that their’s were going to be unique and/or different from the rest. I’m sure part of that confidence was rooted in the belief each had about the material s/he was going to share.

But I wonder, in retrospect, how each felt about the final product and about the trade-offs involved in sharing instruction in this way.  And I wonder what your experiences of practicing with or creating Yoga videos, DVDs and other recorded media has been. I look forward to hearing your stories.