Bibles and Bodies

Some people know the body chapter and verse. They’ll quote it for you any chance they get.

“My neck’s sore.”

“That right? You mean the SCM – your sternoclediomastoid? Or you talkin’ your traps or scalenes? Scalene posterior, I bet. Origin’s C4-C6, inserts down there on your second rib.”

I recognize that patter.

Once, I went to meet up with a piano player who gigged in a local church band. By accident, I stumbled into a Baptist congregation when I was meant to meet him at a non-denominational one.  Before leaving, I got to experience the preacher in action, calling out passages from the Gospels and from the Hebrew scriptures like an auctioneer collects bids. It was entertaining on some level. I wasn’t buying his theology but I was impressed by his dexterity.

I remembered what a friend once observed: “naming something’s not the same as knowing it.”

Rattling off chapter and verse – whether the text is one’s body, the Yoga Sutras or the Gospel of Matthew – is a skill. Whether it’s a laudable skill or not is in the eye of the beholder/memorizer.  I’m not saying you can’t learn from people who have this skill – I certainly have – but for me, I hope I don’t become a body-parts patterer.

The people I like working with are ‘open book’ teachers/learners. They don’t have all the answers memorized in their head but they have processes they rely on to search them out.  If they had it their way, all tests/quizes would be open book ones.

T.K.V. Desikachar seemed to be a teacher like that.

At a conference in Rhinebeck years ago, he asked a participant to explore something “simple” – like whether it felt easier to exhale on a forward bend or inhale during it.

Duh.  Those of us watching knew what the answer was going to be (exhale). How could Mr. Desikachar, heir to the great viniyoga tradition, not know this?

And yet, when the practitioner reported, “Exhale,” he seemed genuinely surprised.  He commented that others had reported similarly in the past and thanked her for her observations and for investigating that for herself.

Since meeting Mr. Desikachar, I’ve met other “world-renowned” researchers and educators. In the days leading up to my visits with some of them, I had anxiety-plagued nightmares, afraid of being called out for what I didn’t know.

When I actually met them, it was incredibly disarming and actually endearing to hear them admit, time and time again, “I don’t know.”

Of course, I’ve also experienced times when an “I don’t know,” offered up by an “expert” is completely unsatisfactory.

“You don’t know? How could you not know? It says so right here in the book that…”

“The” book on knee rehabilitation. “The” Bible. “The” Body. “The” protocol. As if there’s “one.” As if they’re not all texts, all with authors, all with points of view that are open to interpretation and debate. (Which, by the way, is not the same thing as saying “it’s all good” because multiple perspectives does not always mean there are multiple truths. There are many ways to represent 2 + 2 = 4 but that’s not going to make 2 + 2 = 5 any day soon.)

As much as I appreciate the open book learners/teachers I’ve met in my life, I know I still rely too much on my ‘get the right answer’ muscles (perhaps I’m not the only one who does that).  I always appreciate it when someone gives me permission to rest them.

A few weeks ago, I was co-teaching a workshop on pelvic floor biomechanics with a physical therapist friend. We included a slide that quoted a leading medical textbook which admitted that much was not known about what the pelvic floor muscles did, despite all the time and energy spent studying them. Everyone laughed. And then picked up their pencils to take notes on what little we had to offer them.

Finally, my colleague, a therapist for almost thirty years and one of the most skilled I have come across, observed:

“Don’t worry about memorizing this stuff.  I don’t remember it half the time myself.”

“For real?”

“Yeah, just know where to look for it and you’ll be fine.”

Amen, brother.

Wait: Muscles Don’t Activate Bones?

What I Meant to Say…

If you studied Yoga with me even as recently as 3 years ago you would have heard me give instructions predicated on the belief that muscles activated bone movement.

At various times, I may have asked you to draw in your belly button, contract your glutes, lift your pelvic floor, turn on your calves and quads and position your scapula “just so.” I thought I was helping you by asking you to consciously shorten certain muscles to achieve a particular effect or to create an isometric reaction in a static posture.


I was well-intentioned.  My heart was is in the right place.  But like many other movement professionals (personal trainers, physical therapists, osteopaths, Pilates teachers, and well, you name it), I was unknowingly passing along some outdated information.  Focusing on muscles activating bones was a mistake.

And the double whammy of my error was that it clouded your mind with a laundry list of bodily things to do. (In retrospect, that seems like an odd way to lead you towards an open field of attention.)

Of course, many times your muscles were compliant (so thanks for that) because muscles can be consciously activated. But I know now they didn’t necessarily like it. So I apologize for putting them through that.

And the reason they probably didn’t like it is because they’re not used to functioning that way.

I’ve had many “Oh crap” moments over the course of my studies in Yoga. I’ll be teaching something with vim and vigor for years and then all of a sudden I’ll bump into some new information that completely contradicts what I thought I knew. “Oh crap.”

Thankful for Understanding Students/Clients

Encountering and then integrating new information into my personal practice and my teaching is humbling. And confusing. And disorienting. And not without resistance, blaming, and panic. And despite the pounding my pride takes, what always makes the shift easier for me is seeing that this new, more discriminating awareness of breathing or moving is a gift for my body and for my clients’ bodies.

Applied Functional Science (AFS)

When I began studying Applied Functional Science (AFS), the huge paradigm shift for me was discovering that in function it wasn’t muscles that activated bones but rather it was bone movements that activated muscles:

  • Movement turns muscles on.
  • Gravity turns muscles on.
  • The resistance provided by ground reaction force turns muscles on.
  • Momentum turns muscles on.

Throughout my body and yours there are sensors which are constantly measuring the conditions in our fascia, muscles, tendons, ligaments, joint capsules and throughout the skin. Our body is continually integrating the data they collect to help determine the motion or positioning of our body in space and what, if anything, might need to be done about that.

If I feed my proprioceptors with movements that awaken them (each proprioceptor varies in how it gets stimulated) then I’m in business. If I don’t, I’m probably left with a laundry list of “contract this, squeeze that, and suck in thats.'”

Proprioceptors Don’t Care About Brand Affinity

What’s a big relief is that my body doesn’t search for what Mr. Iyengar thinks is the best response. Or what Mr. Desikachar would prefer. Or what Bikram or John Friend or Shiva Rea or anyone else thinks is best. My body could care less what side of the asana debate it comes down on so long as it’s coming down on the side of what my proprioceptors need.

So if I want to train my body (or help another practitioner) to experience a left-sided Utthita Trikonasana, I don’t need to memorize movement cues or consciously activate muscles, I just need to feed my proprioceptors the kinds of movement they crave.

Train the Component Parts of An Asana

Absent cues and contractions, I need to undertake movements (whether they have Sanskrit names attached to them or not) that will facilitate a left-hand, left lateral reach (as an asana) that I will initiate while standing in an abducted position with my right leg externally rotated 90 degrees.

I know that every fibre of my being will respond as best it can to decelerate that reach. But I don’t know that it will do so in a way that apes pictures I have seen of Utthita Trikonasana.

How “Basic” is Triangle?

Many people list Utthita Trikonasana as a basic posture. Perhaps it’s one that seems relatively easy to talk/will/assist people into but from a proprioceptive standpoint, it involves a lot of complexity and thoughtful preparation.

In fact before diving into ‘it,’ it’s probably wiser for me to know more about my body’s condition:

  • Do I have the mobility to laterally flex to the left on such a wide base? Exploring lateral flexion to the left and to the right on a smaller base may be a way to find my threshold.
  • Do I have the mobility to laterally flex to the left with my left leg externally rotated as much as 90 degrees? Whether and to what extent the left leg is externally rotated changes the dynamics of the movements into that position significantly.  “The posture” says 90 degrees of turnout. But what does my body say?  I’m listening to it.
  • Do I have the mobility to reach as low as my ankle? Leg length, arm length, and torso length are all factors in how low a person can reach. But so too is the body’s ability to set up this end-range left lateral reach by taking advantage of its ability to laterally flex right, to flex and extend and/or to rotate right and left out of this abducted stance.
  • If I have the mobility, do I have the stability to control that motion, either on the way in to the pose or on the way out of it?
  • If I have both the mobility and the stability, do I have the strength to maintain that directional movement for long?
  • And if I have the endurance to maintain that left lateral reach, am I resilient enough to do it several times (or several hundred or several thousand times in the course of my life)  or whether I will need to move in other ways to hedge against future complications?
  • And no matter the range of my reach or how long the duration of my stay in that position, what is the condition of my breathing? Is it revealing that my body is not at ease and/or that my mind is distracted?

The Person Reflected in the Pose

So encountering how my body dances with Utthita Trikonasana can be revelatory.  Especially if I don’t enter into that dance with my thumbs on the scale – determined to will my way into the position, activating muscles and commandeering bones as I go! And at first blush, it’s a lot more complex than the quickie introduction to teaching triangle than I was originally given. Except that the process for approaching one posture or sequence of movements is the same for approaching them all: identify the three-dimensional changes of direction required to arrive in a particular position and train your proprioceptors to move through them.

Of course, even with the benefit of studying the physical, biological and behavioral sciences that comprise Applied Functional Science, and even though I now bring a proprioceptor-centric approach to my practice, I’m not in the clear. I’m sure I can expect many more ‘Oh crap!” moments in the future.

I hope I remain inspired by what I don’t know and not beholden by what I think I might…

Practicing (Which is Different Than Following)

Recently, I watched a YouTube video of three teachers (each with several decades of teaching experience) demonstrating a sun salutation together.  One of them, a  warm, humble, thoughtful person, cued the other two through each part of the sequence, as if the two associates were encountering it for the first time.  Of course this is the norm; it’s how most, if not all of us, were taught to teach.   But for whatever reason, it struck me as odd and triggered two related memories.

The first took me back to the late 90s when I inadvertently annoyed a group of students who had been regularly attending a Sunday morning Yoga class I taught.  I asked them to complete three sun salutations by themselves, without me guiding them, and then I promised to pick up the proceedings from there.

Two students walked out (‘they didn’t come here for this’).  Those who remained begrudgingly went through the motions – or some of the motions.  Even though many of these students had been led through 100′s of sun salutations in their lifetime, more than half practiced hesitantly: repeating a left or a right side, skipping portions of the sequence and/or mixing up their breaths and their movements.

I hadn’t meant to offend anyone.  And I didn’t expect I’d mess up the flow of the class either. I figured everyone would have welcomed a 5-minute respite from me yakking at them and I didn’t think I wasn’t asking them to do something they couldn’t do.  Not wanting to hurt my all-important class numbers, I went back to teaching the ‘regular’ way: calling out the posture names and noting a few details about each one, regardless of whether the students in front of me were hearing that information for the first or the five hundredth time.

I also remembered encountering a similar situation a year or so  later. I joined two hundred other participants taking a workshop with T.K.V. Desikachar at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.  Some of my fellow retreatants had been students of Yoga for a few months but many were accomplished practitioners and teachers with years of study under their belts.

To kick off the first session, Mr. Desikachar drew a stick figure of dvipada pitham (bridge pose) and asked us to create a short practice using it.  Many went to work on the mini-assignment nonplussed but the reaction in the room also included a mix of panic, frustration, confusion, and annoyance (‘we didn’t come here for this.’)  The discontented faction tipped the agenda.  The assignment was scratched and for the remainder of the weekend Mr. Desikachar led us through group practices.

These days, it’s rare that I talk clients through postures, breathing or meditation techniques. I mostly work with individuals who want encouragement or guidance in crafting a personal practice. Together we create practices that the client will explore for days or weeks at a time. So, naturally, one of our objectives is to make sure they feel confident and safe working on their own. When we meet up again, they share their observations on their practice and sometimes show me sections that they have questions about or want feedback on. Their feedback, our discussion and whatever their current condition is, drives the next iteration of their practice.

But I don’t work exclusively with individuals.

In fact, moments after watching my colleague’s video, I popped into one of the two group classes I still teach. For the next hour I lead and they followed. I took this group (a group I have worked with for fifteen years) through various postures and breathing techniques that each of them already knew. In the process I probably repeated instructions or reminders they had heard hundreds of times.

In many respects, I think it’s a balanced, thoughtful class. I try to be smart about the movement palette we use (we liberally adapt classical postures to make them relevant for this diverse group whose ages range from 45 to 80 and who are tasked with sitting in chairs most of the day). I encourage them to maintain their focus on the quality of their attention and on the feel of their breathing. And I regularly receive feedback from the participants about how supported they feel and how appreciative they are that our class has continued for so many years.

So it’s a balanced, thoughtful class that tries to meet the participants where they are, is appreciated by them AND it all takes place within a context in which I lead and they follow.

Doesn’t that ‘I lead, you follow’ piece strike anyone else as weird? The more I’ve thought about why I was giving instructions to people who already knew what they were doing – and why they’d want me in that role – the more it makes me wonder why most group Yoga classes embrace this teaching structure. It’s a bizarre strategy that seems even stranger when applied to other contexts:

  • Imagine playing a round of golf with a teaching pro who talked you through every aspect of your address, backswing, downswing and follow-thru..  And can you imagine if she – or her teaching pro in training – did hands-on corrections to you during every putt?  What if ‘playing golf’ really meant ‘being talked through a round of golf’?
  • Or what if you and your friends took a baking class with a chef who directed ‘cracking the eggs,’ ‘opening the bottle of milk,’ ‘scooping out the flour’ and ‘sifting it into the bowl.’  Would you expect those kinds of instructions on day one?  Would you be surprised to be receiving more or less identical instructions three weeks, three months or three years later?  How confident would you feel making a birthday cake on your own?  Would you feel as confident using a recipe other than the one you were taught?

When my son learned the alphabet, there came a point when his teacher stopped saying the letters with him, when he and his classmates were left out there, all alone, with the task of identifying the letter that followed ‘K.’  Like all of us, he may have hesitated or fumbled at first, but eventually, he confidently arrived at ‘L’ and thus, was one step further on the path towards a lifetime of reading and writing.

True, some group exercise classes are also ‘led’ but in many other movement forms (dance and martial arts, e.g.) the teachers don’t provide, nor do the students ask for, such an extended period of verbal or visual codling.  Instead, those teachings are shared in environments that embrace ‘not-knowing’ as part of the process and that encourage their students’ bumbling along towards mastery.

And of course, I’m sure the language in most group Yoga classes embraces ‘not-knowing’ so what I’m wondering is whether the structure of the learning environment undercut those heartfelt words? With the exception of Mysore-style astangha classes where each student is tasked to work on (by herself) whatever part of the first, second or third series she is up to, every other group class I am familiar with features an instructor leading the students through a series of postures, breathing techniques and/or meditation instructions.

On the one hand, teachers tend to suggest that the students should feel free to tune out what they are saying and only take in whatever’s relevant. But do our preferences lie with ‘do what I say’ or on ‘pay attention to yourself’? When students liberally deviate from the given instructions for an extended period, what comes up in you (as the teacher or as a fellow practitioner)?  Is it really okay?  Or does it detract from the overall experience? If it was my expectation, as the teacher or as a practitioner, that we’d all be more or less working on the same things (with a little variation here) and then and someone broke into a flow practice in the midst of a restorative class, I’d be totally distracted.

But what if everybody coming together and doing their own thing – even if it was radically different mat to mat – was the expectation. What if that was the new norm of a group class.

In my 1-on-1 sessions with clients who expect to leave with homework, they don’t expect for us to have a ‘Yoga experience’ together. They expect they’ll emerge with things to work on for the days/weeks ahead. If they don’t leave with essential oils or sweat (or both) on their forehead or a post-savasana or post-meditative glow that’s fine with them because they can construct those experiences on their own (if they even want them).

What would happen if, instead of leading our next group class, we turned over more of the direction and flow of the class to the students and focused our energies on creating a supportive, safe and encouraging environment for them to begin developing an individualized practice?  What if the 7pm class was still wall-to-wall practitioners, but suppose each practitioner was there working on his or her own thing, in their own way.  The collective group could still draw support from one another’s energy and focus but instead of being a class where ‘they’ followed ‘us’ it would be one where individuals practiced together.

As teachers our preparation would need to be quite different from what it is now.  We would probably need to prepare jumping off points for class attendees, greeting each participant with a menu of options for them to practice. Or we might, as Mr. Desikachar attempted to do, post on the wall a posture, or a series of postures, and invite the attendees to construct and practice their own sequence for the next twenty minutes. Afterwards, everyone could reconvene and share what worked, what didn’t and what they might do differently the next time. Over time, clarity about what each person needed to include in her practice would emerge.

As practitioners, more would be asked of us, too.  Along with the freedom to practice what we wanted, would also come the responsibility to take closer care of our practice and of our attention during it. We wouldn’t be able to rely on someone else’s charisma, energy, shakti, or creativity to get us through.  We would, however, get to tap into and cultivate those very same qualities within us.  And I believe – and the clients I have worked with concur – that the benefits and the sense of empowerment that flow from crafting one’s own practice would far outpace the initial challenges.  I imagine that a room full of personal practitioners would be inspiring.

I’m not naive enough to imagine that it would eliminate Yoga-derived injuries or that it would prevent power imbalances between practitioners/teachers but perhaps a more collaborative model would give practitioners a greater voice in announcing why they are there and what their hopes are.

Of course, in shifting paradigms, I’m sure we’d annoy some people. I’m sure some would announce ‘they didn’t come here for this.’  But I bet many others would happily bumble along with us.