(This is an updated post).
In my mid-twenties yoga was my life, so much so that after a few years of being a student, I felt compelled to take teacher training.
At that time there weren’t yoga schools everywhere like there are now, so I went to the institute my teachers had gone to. I can’t remember now how many intensives I had to take to qualify as a teacher, but I completed two of them. The first one was heavenly: I learned so much and it really solidified my practice, not to mention the thrill of travelling to an exotic location (it was the first time I ever travelled alone). I went back for the second course a year later expecting the same great experience but it turned out quite differently.
I’d heard some stories of course, but in my second intensive I experienced it myself: how much yoga practice was based on discipline and surrendering the will. I am going to use a generic yoga rather than the school I studied from because I believe (rightly or wrongly) that it was cultural and systematic.
Okay I need to be transparent here and tell you I have been unable to have much of a yoga practice for many years because in that second intensive I was injured and it effectively ended my envisioned yoga career. I was injured doing Baddha Konasana (Butterfly pose) of all things. The lesson in that particular teacher training class was on modifying the pose with support (blocks) under the heels to prepare for full lotus pose. Now, I have always had one hip that is tighter than the other, so I’ve been able to do lotus on one side but not the other. During the class, I felt comfortable with the pose I was in—until the teacher manipulated my heels into an even higher rotation through which I could feel my S.I. joint going into a spasm. Several minutes of discomfort later I released the pose but the spasm didn’t go away.
The Hyper-Mobile Yoga Student…uh oh!
For a long time I blamed the injury on this teacher who I thought should have had enough experience to avoid that sort of thing, and maybe if I was a regular student, maybe if I hadn’t just met him, he would have. I also made my wonderful hyper-flexible joints the bad guy. I could get into poses so easily that it looked like I wasn’t trying; ‘hanging out’ was what I heard continually. In reality I was already at my limits and looking like I was hanging out, and my teachers would then frequently adjust my pose, sometimes by using their own body weight to force my body into a deeper stretch. Really, getting an injury was just a matter of time. You may not be aware of this but hyper-flexibility is really about muscles that are so tight and/or under used that (quoting Katy Bowman here) “the body creates a hyper-mobile joint by relaxing ligaments to allow movement.” Read more about that here.
Feeling the Pain
I believe now, something much deeper was going on that was really about discipline. First, why force the body into a position it doesn’t want to go into? Second, why tolerate pain? The answer is basically because the teacher said so and I (we all) wanted to be good students. This attitude wasn’t limited to yoga. At that time you also heard in aerobics “feel the burn” – work through the pain – so we were all primed to think that pain was good. Pain mean progress. Pain meant surrender. But what if pain is just pain, with no meaning? Pain with a purpose is one thing: childbirth or menstrual cramps, while not good, at least reflect internal changes in the body. There is a reason and a purpose.
Pain experienced through stretching is something else. You never know if what you are doing is helping or causing more damage. There is anxiety and fear as well. We look to our teachers, the ‘experts’ to reassure us that we doing the right thing for our body. The conclusion I’ve come to in my reading is that embedded in the philosophy of yoga is the idea that accepting pain promotes spiritual growth, and western fitness teachers (initially) adopted without realizing what is behind it. I think (I hope) that this is changing. Anyway, I came home from that second intensive in pain and feeling disillusioned and had I known then how long it would take me to physically recover I would have also been devastated.
I was disillusioned because it appeared at the higher level of yoga training, the bigger the reputation and closer to the ‘source’, the meaner it got. Not every teacher (but many) used shame and humiliation as part of the lesson. One teacher – who had a reputation for hitting – slapped me on the head because I was a couple of seconds late in helping my partner come down come from a bridge pose. I felt I deserved it. Another instructor singled me out to demonstrate a pose and felt justified in making comments on my body that weren’t related to the pose we were learning. It was inappropriate – something about my ample thighs and buttocks – and it was humiliating. Someone, bless them, gasped in shock on my behalf, but I calmly and inwardly owned the remark. In good Yoga Etiquette that’s what you did.
Meanwhile, at home…
The teachers I worked with at home would never treat their students that way. Or would they? In hindsight I realize that all of the wonderful, caring and compassionate teachers I learned yoga from at home had gone through the same training, same system, and had seen far more. They were, in their own ways, spreading the same negative messages, at the very least by continuing the pain-is-gain mentality and teacher knows best philosophy.
My rebellion began in earnest. I morphed into a ‘bad’ student by speaking up when a pose hurt and questioning the wisdom of certain moves. I was told a variety of things in response: a) it was just my body realigning itself, or b) it was just my body detoxifying, or c) just work through the pain. All of which I’d heard before of course. It is fairly common for newbies to complain (bless them) until they either quit or got with the program of acceptance and silence.
What teachers are taught to say, passed down through generation and lineage of yogis, is especially difficult for the female western mind. I’m talking 1970s here. Just when we began to finally overthrow paternalism and stand on our own, this comes along, and not only from yoga but also eastern meditation and spiritual practice. In western culture we’d been told: don’t trust the signals from your body; shut up and do as we say; ‘doctor/teacher/father/boss’ knows best. You can insert any authority figure really. It just seems so ironic to me that the feminist movement gains of control over our bodies and minds in western culture were surrendered in an eastern culture of spiritual practice and movement. I guess it is all about finding a balance.
In the end one of those delightful, well-meaning yoga teachers finally made me pay attention to the medical advice I was getting. This teacher loved a particular quad stretch so much she insisted on doing it in every class: a kneeling position, shin pressed into the wall and with the weight on the knee. Forget the quad stretch, I couldn’t bear the weight on my knee and the only modification given was to pad it. And even though I spoke up, it still didn’t feel like an option to do an alternative pose because the teacher felt that because it hurt, it meant that I should be doing it. Now on top of S.I. pain, my knees became very unstable and chronically inflamed. Outside of class I began walking with a limp and was barely able to climb a set of stairs. For a good number of years I wondered if I would end up permanently disabled. It was bleak: I was doing chiropractic, physiotherapy and massage to try to recover and the advice given to me was I’d have to stop doing yoga to allow my body to rest and heal.
Standing on my Own
Well, I tried. I did stop going to yoga class but I turned around and started teaching my own brand of yoga: Restorative Yoga with props: blankets, bolsters, chairs, and guided meditation. I made the space as spa-like and inviting as I could by painting a forest on the walls. And I added music. As far as I know, I was a pioneer in putting music to yoga movement. I don’t know of anyone else using music in that way, at that time.
I guided my students through gentle supported stretches with mostly demonstration and verbal cues and minimal physical corrections. It made such a difference to how relaxed students felt. I knew it was a success when students began bringing their friends to class, and especially the day I had an amputee come and casually remove her artificial leg and settle on her mat. It worked because I emphasized ‘your energy, your way’, encouraged students to listen to their body for cues, to move slowly and do less. The best yoga teachers I met were those who used a soft touch to bring awareness to a place the student isn’t working: the student does the adjustment themselves and that was the model I based my classes on.
Your Energy, Your Way
I didn’t last long as a Restorative Yoga teacher. What I was doing was too new and too different and I misjudged how long it would take my new venture to begin paying the bills. I ran out of money and the studio closed. The silver lining from my experience as a yoga teacher is that I really learned ‘your energy, your way’. I have a firm belief that you are the expert of your own body and it means finding your voice.
My role as a fitness instructor is to create awareness of the sensation of movement in the body to allow you to tune into your body’s wisdom. It doesn’t mean never pushing yourself or extending beyond your abilities but that you can do so in a safe and nurturing way, while seeking pleasure as your guiding sensation. There is a stretch limit that simply feels delicious. That’s the sweet spot! In each class I emphasize the importance of listening to your body and adapting as necessary, to experience your energy your way. I give permission to adapt a move that feels uncomfortable or give the option to not do it at all.
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!
I didn’t see that I was absolutely on the right track and that I wasn’t as alone in my thinking as I thought. I started my Restorative Yoga classes right around the same time Nia Technique® was being born. I read about Nia in a magazine and I remember thinking how wonderful it sounded. It would take me 25 years to finally get a chance to take a class, and about six months into it I knew I wanted to teach it. Nia healed and strengthened my body and the yoga component was just enough to rekindle a flame of desire for more.
Then I discovered Restorative Exercise™ the goal of which (in my words) is to restore range of motion and muscle function which is turn has several benefits:
- Healthier joints as you age. Osteoarthritis and joint replacements aren’t inevitable outcomes of aging.
- It can restore your ability to do things like walk, squat, and balance on one leg.
- It dispels the notions about what we need to be in a physically healthy body.
I’m on the track to becoming an RES (Restorative Exercise Specialist) and you know there is an overlap with Restorative Yoga. A lot of the ‘exercises’ are similar, while the biggest difference is the goal. In yoga the goal is often seen as achieving the asana. You know, working towards that perfect lotus position. Whereas in an RE class the goal is more about sensation and awareness, but is also based on biomechanics and the scientific, official body alignment markers, of which there are 25. It is understood in Restorative Exercise that we are all ‘works in progress’, teachers and students alike with their own particular blend of alignment issues.