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.

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 Happens in the Pelvis, Doesn’t Stay in the Pelvis

Recently I had the opportunity to lead a workshop on pelvic floor biomechanics with my good friend and physical therapist, Greg Hullstrung.

In my 17 years of teaching, I’ve had the good fortune to collaborate with physical therapists who specialize in pelvic floor dysfunction and study with some of the top movement educators in the country and I’ve learned that there’s a lot about the pelvic floor muscles that’s up for discussion.

Knowing What We Don’t Know

“Ideally speaking, one should describe the function of each component of the pelvic floor muscle individually; however no such information is available. Broadly, the pelvic floor muscles can be considered to have 2 important functions. They provide 1) support or “floor” to the pelvic viscera and 2) constrictor functions to the urethra, vagina and anal canal.” (V. Raizada MD, R. Mittal MD. Pelvic Floor Anatomy and Applied Physiology. Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 2008: September, 37(3); 493-vii.)

Naming the pelvic floor muscles has even proven to be tricky. While it’s agreed that the levator ani and the coccygeus muscles are the main muscles of the pelvic floor, naming the component parts of the levator ani is where the agreement breaks down (pubovisceral?, pubococcygeus?, puborectalis?, etc.)

Part of the challenge lies in the fact that the pelvic floor muscles are subtle and hard to study in living people. In cadaver studies, some of these muscles have been damaged due to pelvic floor traumas (this is especially true of some of the cadaver studies of women who gave birth).

But for movement professionals, and Yoga teachers in particular, there are 6 Key Concepts worth keeping in mind in both our own practice and as we work with our students/clients.

1. What Happens in the Pelvis, Doesn’t Stay in the Pelvis.  For starters, resist the temptation to isolate the pelvic floor from the rest of the body. The support that the pelvic floor provides (or does not) affects how the foot hits the ground, the stability of the knee, the condition of the hip, whether the low back gets chewed up, and it even impacts tension in the neck and shoulders.  Think locally but act globally.

2. It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know. In life and in the body, connections matter. Look no further than the obturator internus (a decelerator of hip internal rotation, hip adduction and hip flexion and whose fascia provides an origination for the levator ani) for proof of the pelvic floor’s connection to the lower body. Who else would seem to be an influencer/influenc-ee of the pelvic floor musculature?

3. What’s In a Name? Everything. Pelvic floor or pelvic core? Christina Christie and Rich Colosi are physical therapists based out of Chicago who suggest a great way to get your head out of the pelvis: assess and train the pelvic core. The abdominal muscles are the front of the pelvic core, the paraspinals provides the back, the respiratory diaphragm provides the top and the pelvic floor is the bottom. Does that shed more light on some of the bottom-up and top-down influencers?

4. Don’t Engage Your Pelvic Floor Unless You’ve Had a Really Long Courtship. In some cultures, it’s cool for one person to tell another, “Engage So-and-So” even though no relationship has been cultivated. And hey, sometimes that works out. Just like artificially engaging your pelvic floor muscles works out sometimes. Perhaps a better strategy is to ask those muscles: what turns you on? You know what we’ll hear: actions.  So if you suspect someone’s pelvic floor isn’t turning on, don’t yell at it (engage! activate! lift!), instead, learn what movement patterns turn those muscles on and then trace their movement patterns to see whether they’re getting those motions (or not).

5. Nobody Drives in Neutral. A lot of well-intentioned energy is spent helping people ‘find neutral’ as if positioning the spine in a neutral position is the end all, be all. While it’s nice to find neutral, remember that just as nobody drives their car in neutral (they pass through it to get to other gears), nobody functions in life with a neutral spine. Over-training a ‘neutral spine’ can remove the there-by-design, anterior (forward) tilt of the pelvis. Taking away the anterior tilt of the pelvis removes the bony support that the pubic bone provides the bladder, asking the pelvic floor muscles to pick up the slack. Literally.

6. The Final Word on The Pelvic Floor/Core… There is no final word on the pelvic floor/pelvic core. For that matter, this observation would hold for much of what is ‘known’ about the human body.  So as we apply this information – and gather more – in our best efforts to be of help to the clients/students we see, it’s always helpful to keep an asterisk handy and to get comfortable saying “I don’t know” and “it depends.”

Want to go deeper? Email Al Bingham (transform@transformationzoneyoga.com) for details on the Yoga Training for Teachers with Private Clients, a series of workshops to be held in Manhattan.

Yoga for Gardening

Recently while doing some work outside on the farmhouse property we are renting in the Hudson Valley, I was struck by the parallels between creating personal Yoga practices and gardening.

I put together a short video that captured those thoughts and which sets up a Yoga for Gardening practice that I’ve created.

What Kind of Practice Do You Want to Cultivate?

(If the video doesn’t play in your browser, try going directly to this link to it.)

A Multi-Dimensional Yoga for Gardening Practice
Here is the Illustrated Yoga for Gardening (PDF) practice that includes instructions for asana and for pranayama in asana, as well as a poem (“Garden Sanctuary”) that you can use to frame your reflections during the practice.

I look forward to your comments and encourage you to share this post with your Yoga and gardening enthusiast friends.

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.

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.

Whoops

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…

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.

How You Practice Informs What You Practice, Part I

There are different models of teaching and learning open to those who want to practice Yoga. Each one invites a particular kind of learning and requires a different skill set for the practitioner and (if there is one) for the teacher/facilitator.

In writing this and other blog posts, I can toggling between ‘visual’ and ‘html’ modes. The ‘visual’ is the pretty, end product mode. The ‘html’ is the behind the scenes innards of the page which is less sexy to look at but gives you access to the infrastructure that underpins the site.  This post will err on the un-sexy side; it will be more ‘html’ than ‘visual.’  In thinking about some of this ‘behind-the-scenes stuff’ I hope we can identify areas that we want to enhance, modify or augment.  We might also see more clearly the differences implied in each form of practice and identify ways to better help practitioners navigate from one practicing environment to the next.

I’m sure I’ll miss key aspects but hope that you’ll help me see that; together we can fill in the gaps.  Let’s dive in to the deconstructive deep end with the most prevalent format, led group classes.

Led Group Classes

Led group practices, which are more or less uniform practices, typically involve groups of 2 to 50 practitioners following the lead of a teacher.

Teacher’s responsibilities: Setting aside thoughts about the pre-requisites we might hope a teacher has completed before standing in front of a group of students (some  of which are implied in the list that follows), here are some of the responsibilities she has in a led group class:

  • assess the readiness and interests of the assembled practitioners,
  • select an intention for the practice,
  • develop a strategy for how she will lead the group towards her intention for them,
  • choose the elements for the practice (among and including body practices, breathing practices, attention practices) that will support her strategy,
  • create the sequencing of those elements,
  • cue the individual techniques,
  • demonstrate techniques as needed,
  • provide hands on assistance (when appropriate) to facilitate getting into/out of the various elements of the practice,
  • shape the practice environment (provide encouragement, provides a broader philosophical, historical, and/or practical context for the practice,
  • make decisions re: the sensual environment for the practice (eg, music or not, lighting or not, incense or not, etc.),
  • manage the flow of information shared and absorbed,
  • keep track of the time,
  • remind people why they are there and where attention ought to be directed, and
  • remain open to surprises, broken expectations, new directions and unintended learning/teaching opportunities.

If she can sneak in a joke or something sage without disrupting the flow of attention or drawing too much focus on herself, that is sometimes appreciated, too.

Practitioner’s responsibilities: Most importantly, a practitioner needs to show up. By showing up a few minutes ahead of class and intentionally shifting gears from whatever activity she has just concluded, a led class practitioner is ready to ‘show up’ for her moment-to-moment responsibilities as a member of the group which asks her to:

  • self-assess her overall condition and readiness to practice,
  • alert her teacher of anything that would hamper her ability to pay attention or to carry out the practice the teacher may have in mind,
  • share with the teacher any hopes, fears or requests she has for the practice,
  • accept the presence of others in the room with her,
  • establish intentions to be mindful of the teacher’s directions and to honor her own needs and condition,
  • pay attention to the verbal and visual cues of the instructor;
  • quickly translate those cues into kinesthetic responses that mirror (to the best of her ability) those verbal/visual suggestions,
  • attend to thoughts, emotions, sensations and her internal storyteller which in analyzing, reacting, responding or developing narratives will keep her from being present,
  • negotiate the other sensual stimuli present in the room (moving bodies, smells, sounds, lighting) which has the potential to both distract and sharpen her moment-to-moment awareness, and
  • accept the possibility that unintended learning opportunities will emerge throughout the experience.

This gives us a good-enough jumping off point to start looking at the various ways Yoga is taught and to reflect on what is needed in each environment and what is needed to transition between different models.  I look forward to your feedback and insight.

The Story of Gus the Blind Mule

When I practice by myself, I take comfort knowing that I may be practicing by myself but I’m not practicing alone. I can’t always see the other practitioners (like you) who comprise my personal practice community and who might be rolling out their mats at the same moment or who are midway through their sadhana, but I know that community is out there.

In the midst of an intense training program, the following story was shared with me and my fellow trainees.  This story comes by way of Pat Croce, who’s a jack of all trades (former physical therapist, athletic trainer, NBA owner, entrepeneur, etc.), from his book I Feel Great And You Will Too! (New York: Touchstone, 2001):

“A motorist was driving down a lonely road when he blew a tire, skidded into a ditch and flipped his car upside down. He managed to get out of the car but knew that he was in the middle of nowhere.

About the time he was ready to panic, a farmer came down the road in a cart pulled by a blind mule named Gus. The farmer offered to have Gus pull the car out of the ditch.

The man was very skeptical because Gus the blind mule looked very weak and frail but he agreed anyway as he had no other options to get his car back on the road.

The farmer hitched Gus the blind mule to the car, cracked his whip in the air and yelled…

“Yaaa there Sam! Pull! Pull!”
The mule did not move.
The farmer cracked his whip again and yelled out,
“Yaaa there Jake! Pull! Pull!”
The mule did not move.
Once more the farmer cracked his whip and shouted
“Yaaa there Pete! Pull! Pull!”
Still Gus did not move.
And then the farmer cracked his whip and shouted
“Yaaa there Gus! Pull! Pull!”

And at that moment, Gus dug in his scrawny hind legs, pushed through the dirt, and surged forward.

Soon enough the car turned right side up and came rolling out of the ditch and back onto the road. The motorist was shocked, appreciative, and curious. He asked the farmer why he called out all those other names.

The farmer simply replied that Gus is blind and if he thought it was just up to him alone to pull that car out of the ditch, he wouldn’t have even tried. But, when he thought he had the help and support of others, he was much stronger than he even knew he could be.”