The Best Class for Everybody

Sign up in advance for the New Year’s Day class at YogaYoga in Newhall at 10am, January 1st 2017. Go to their website All people are welcome of all levels of experience.

My own body is naturally stiff. Anyone who sees me first thing in the morning hesitates to believe I teach yoga for a living. How is this possible? Come evening my fluidity is apparent. Yoga works the liquefaction of my stubbornly turgid muscles with delightful success. For the student who is like me, relatively stiff, the benefit of yoga is stunningly obvious. Most people as unbendable as me, suffice after one session to commit to ongoing exploration. We stiff people are so pleasantly surprised. For us, the main challenge appears to be getting us in the door. “I can’t do yoga,” is the recalcitrant mantra. “I can’t touch my toes.” Stay home if you insist, but you won’t get more flexible by giving up movement.

Yup. Giving up movement fails to create a supple body.

You don’t get more flexible through immobility. Anyone who has ever been told “You better slow down. You’re getting old. Time to take it easy” had better like form better than action. This is very, very bad advice. Getting old is when the intelligent person must strategize for successful aging. The stiffness of my 50s is the direct result of that 20 year career in white collar employ. Aging didn’t make me inflexible. Chair sitting and commuting makes me stiff. Two decades of decreasing random exercise and spontaneous motion leaves a body disinterested in regular exercise, challenged by movement. If you, like me, spent years behind a desk for 8 hours a day – you did it to yourself. You stopped moving, now you won’t move. Where’s the sense in that?

Yet some people are naturally flexible.

These people can, without effort or pain, easily touch their toes, sit in lotus posture, perform back bends, drop downs, their own slinky version of downward facing dog. These people are not the majority of my class, but they do show up. When they do, they and the rest of the class tend to consider them “advanced.” If I could obliterate one myth of my choosing regarding yoga, I’d love to blow up the known touch-yer-toes-measuring-stick of a yogi. It’s not a “thing.” I insist acrobatic results are by-products, not the target. No prizes (of yet) for mere elasticity. The goals of post-modern yoga are body awareness, skill, grace, control. A flexible person who lacks body awareness has the same disadvantage as a stiff neophyte.

They are both ripe for injury – the stiff person likely to tear a muscle and the flexible person by destroying a joint.

There’s a tendency in yoga world to treat the combination of rigid and Gumby practitioners in a single class as “mixed-level.” How was I taught to navigate mixed levels? Give half the class a task to work on then attend to the other half. Or narrate several options. Or demonstrate with increasing flexibility the depth of a pose. Or reverse-thread demonstrate: start with the impossible version, in an attempt to stave off show-offs, and provide decreasingly difficult alternatives. To varying degrees I’ve experimented with all of these suggestions. My assessment? They miss the mark. Level of appreciation for yoga may make a true mixed level class, level of ability? Not so much. By treating the somatically unaware students as “advanced” I’m not doing them any favors.

When unaware people do yoga they court injury.

There’s three main ways yoga wrecks a body: repetitive misalignment, straining past ability and imbalance. All beginner students are vulnerable to repetitive misalignment. Flexie and Rigid alike. That’s why yoga schools spend hours and hours on discussion and debate of “correct” posturing. Unfortunately kind adjustments and unkind adjustments alike are based on the average person. No hands on adjustment training takes into account a person’s mental, physiological and historical reality. Meaning? For example the well-meaning yoga teacher who touches a Veteran in a sore spot triggering an episode of PTSD is in trouble. I’m not a fan of deciding how other people should be in a three-dimensional space.

Neatly enough body awareness solves for all three: misalignment, straining past ability and imbalance.

A self-aware person finds her own “sweet” spot without prompting, the place when tone and relaxation of agonist and antagonist musculature is balanced. Straining past ability can refer to myriad actions. Holding a pose too long for comfort. Repeating too many sun salutes. Working out for longer than a body is able. Pushing into a pose that the body rejects. You don’t get better at yoga by creating scar tissue. Pain is a message. If you hurt, you’re doing something wrong. Imbalance is when you fall and hurt yourself.

Thus the holy grail of yoga is body awareness.

Body awareness may sound as simple as recognizing my toe, my left toe. That’s not a bad place to start. Pushing down on my left toe allows me to sense connection from toe to left hip. This awareness reveals a reverse action also possible: moving my hip activates reaction in my feet. “Wake up!” the yogis say. Why? Because everything is connected. The muscles by contraction and relaxation create the body-house for organs like hearts and lungs. Being aware and in control of one’s heart and lungs can lead to all sorts of successful physiological change. Emotional change can also be effected if the yoga practitioner is willing to incorporate full consciousness to practice. “I feel better” has a double meaning to the advanced student.

Truly advanced students are rarely bored in a yoga class.

They are the ones paying the most attention to the cues. For even if they, like me, have a daily home practice – there’s a freshness to having external narration. Maybe I never think to pay attention to my shoulders in trikonasana, diverted by my own hamstrings. The recommendation is interesting, and brings fullness to my pose. I now find the spiraling musculature that exists between right shoulder and left hip. Moving one effects the other, and my chest-lung capacity. Interesting. Both the very stiff and the very flexible unaware students bring the same mistake to their triangle: speed. Both rushing in and rushing out diminish the experience, but rushing out is probably worse.

If you want to deepen and advance a practice the safest way is to start surfing the edges of duration.

Hanging out for twelve breaths longer is a hell of a lot less risk than repeating a pose twelve more times. Just sayin’. While I am on the subject of everything being connected, why not use yoga to parse the connection between stress and unhappiness, between ignorance and injury, or between depression and avoidance, or ? Our malfunctions in life tend to birth themselves in spaces where we are unaware of the roadblocks. The relationship between love and openness is self-evident in a body of free-flowing energy. The congestion of emotions, ideas, blood, fat or tears all signal channels that warrant attention. A well-rounded practice seeks to untie all possible knots for the purpose of greater freedom from illusion and deeper perception of reality. Thus any class that teaches considerable awareness is the best class for every body.

Now y’all play nice!

Sat Nam