Lessons on the mat

Yoga has taught me many things over the years. This past year I learned yet another insightful nugget….it really, really matters how you do the pose.

In my 20’s came to yoga as a pretty flexible person and I viewed it as an athletic challenge. I liked feeling as though my body had been put through the ringer, though I was never interested in things like hot yoga or really extreme poses. I wanted to push myself to see what the fullest expression of a pose was for me, not realizing that because I was so flexible to start out with, and truthfully, not that strong, I was hanging out in my connective tissue…the stuff that was supposed to be like the emergency brakes for my joints.

I now know it was routine for me to go too far in a pose. Because I could. I wasn’t overly hypermobile to the naked eye and because I didn’t injure myself I just kept at it. It wasn’t until my personal practice took a backseat to life that issues came up. My back hurt from neck to tail. I had stayed strong enough when I had a really active yoga practice to keep pain at bay outside of an occasional hot spot between my shoulders, but I had been laying the foundation for all these issues.

However, I know how plastic our bodies are so I set out to see what I could do to right my ship. First, I tried strengthening my core recognizing that two pregnancies had taken their toll on my midsection. That left me in more pain. I tried physical therapy and left many visits in more pain than I started. I tried chiropractic care and found temporary relief, but every few weeks I was back to square one. It was at the end of the summer when I finally took a big step back and with the help of a very skilled woman, Dani Hemmat (www.moveyourbodybetter.com), examined just how my body was positioned on a regular basis –  pelvis thrust forward, ribs thrust forward, neck in the wrong place, and began to put the pieces together.

Those elements that appeared as flexibility allowed me to go far in hip openers. But, I always struggled with back bends like wheel pose. It not only put me in a bad mood to do it, but my back would feel wonky. In handstand I felt like my shoulders were not open enough because they were in the wrong position and were actually going too far. I felt my body being so off as I sat at the piano, misaligned and turned wrong to try and see students.

After one session with Dani I understood so much about what I had spent the last 16 years doing. This work comes from an amazing practice called restorative exercise developed by Katy Bowman. I also attended a yoga therapy training workshop run by Susi Hatley. That work helped me begin to see patterns in my movement that were problematic.

By reading, watching, listening and doing I’ve found a new way of doing yoga. It isn’t the big, full poses that you see in magazines or splashed across yoga retreat advertisements. It is smarter yoga. It is a practice that honors my body. I bring a new eye to my teaching, especially watching as young students who bring high levels of flexibility take their bodies too far over the edge and I bring them back. I also see some of them leaving my classes because they want that big practice. I wish I could fast forward to talk with their 40 year old selves and invite them back in to do a more mindful practice.

I don’t do lunge pose like this anymore:

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Now I do it like this – working my hip flexors while keeping my pelvis neutral and my ribcage dropped:

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It doesn’t look as glamorous, but oh, does it feel good.

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