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The ‘Yoga Body’ Myth: the perils of poorly executed Natarajasana

#7 in my series on the myth of attaining perfection through yoga. Yoga is not a style of dance.

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Christy Turlington is gorgeous to behold. We all know that. And Natarajasana (dancer’s pose) is a really fancy pose. Put the two together and something exquisite should happen, right? Sadly, nope. Though blessed with hip sockets that open like a book, Christy exhibits a less than healthy Natarajasana (below). Check out her right hip hitched up like that – not good for her sacral or lumbar region. Yet people the world over see her as a perfect embodiment of yoga. She’s a super slim, wealthy, good-looking supermodel so if she does an advanced pose that way, others will follow blindly. But please don’t let that be you.

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Rotated hip position, twisted lumbar. Tension evident in her face. Rotated right shoulder and a passive back foot. 

This pose is typically very risky for the lumbar spine as it requires a deep back bend (spinal extension) in order to reach for the foot behind you. That in itself is not a problem if you have a natural affinity with such movements; long arms, open shoulders and flexible hip joints. Worryingly, what I often see is people with average bodies extending their lumbar and rotating it at the same time as load-bearing just to get into a pose vaguely resembling this one. That’s the equivalent of doing a back arch whilst twisting your hips to one side whilst doing the splits in the air. Most people will stop breathing when they have pushed their body too hard in a pose, or show tension in their face and neck.

The below image is from a website recommending yogis to, quote, “Kick kick kick!” the back foot up to your reaching hand before pulling it into the highest position you can. Dear reader, you can imagine the effect that those repeated kicks would have on the lower back and shoulder of the beginner. I can already hear the joints popping!

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   Very problematic rotation of lumbar spine and shoulders not to mention a very questionable, angled left foot.

This above image is so very far from a healthy embodiment of Natarajasana that my back hurts just looking at her. I’d really like to see if she can reach that back foot with shoulders facing to the front and hips level to the floor. Probably not, because it seems more important that she get a nice photo with lots of udana (the upward energy that dancer’s pose is best known for). Below is a great example of what can happen when udana is lacking… and also what happens when we do decide to do yoga in a David Jones change room. 

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This version is interesting….wrong arm on the back foot, lady! Not to mention thoracic and lumbar spines rotating in opposite directions. Ouch. 

But who am I to judge those photographed in their attempts at a difficult, yet strengthening pose? Perhaps their intention is not for healthy alignment, just a sense of achievement (ego-pleasing) or to look ‘active’ in a photogenic pose? Perhaps what looks very wrong to me is not wrong, but very right for them at this point. But it’s not them I’m really worried about, it’s you and others who go to a yoga class with ideas in your head. Ideas that lead to injury and a bad-mouthing of yoga when you get injured.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the pose as embodied with healthy alignment. These examples are of people making the good decision to work within their limits – not with the intention of creating wow-factor. I’m guessing they are practising for the feeling of yoga, not to create photogenic moments.

rightBeginner being bendy!

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Now that’s a great way to ensure hips stay level to the floor and the lumbar spine is in minimal extension. Weird toes though – that’s a foot straining to be let out of its bind. 

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An advanced yogi using her smarts to make adjustments. She is aligned and healthfully contained within the pose. Such strength!

 

In short, I recommend you leave this pose for the advanced practitioners only. It’s just not worth the risk of injury to the one body you will get in this life. In particular, the delicate tendons that criss-cross the sacro-iliac joint, holding it steadily nestled in the back of your pelvis. It’s not a joint you want to mess with in any way, least of all in a deep back bend you’re not ready for. And that’s just one of the joints affected by this pose – almost every major muscle group in your front and back body will need to be strong to support you in such a delicate standing balance. 

I won’t do this advanced pose myself , not even on the floor, and I can communicate the reasons why I won’t for the sake of my spine and hypermobile joints. Natarajasana is not for beginners, nor intermediates. It’s well and truly advanced and requires years of dedicated practise and/or a dancer’s anatomy. It is called ‘Lord of the Dance’ pose for a reason. So if you walk into a drop-in class and this pose comes up somewhere in the mix, run a mile. Better still, modify it by doing shallow backbends on the floor that you enjoy. Remember, hips parallel to the floor yogis!

 

The ‘Yoga Body’ Myth: Perfect poses and fancy forms ignore the reality of our uniquenesses

#6 in my series on the myth of attaining perfection through yoga. Throw out your textbooks, yogis!

A lot can happen in a week. First, I quit working for a woman who made it clear she didn’t appreciate what I do. I got a tattoo reminding myself to go gently through life and I went to an uplifting kirtan session after serendipitously bumping into an important person in my life. I spent a weekend expanding my study of anatomy and physiology, surrounding myself with yoginis for a third-eye-opening experience. I caught up with friends and I rested as much as I could. Work-life balance exemplified? Hardly. Just a week for some timely reflection.

Many people might be pretty surprised that yoga instructors study anatomy in-depth and that we apply this knowledge to our practise. It’s not all about chakras and auras! We learn the bones, joints, soft tissues and the 10 systems of the body and, most importantly…. uniqueness. The biggest lesson in anatomy training is always that no two bodies are alike. Most interesting are the significant differences in joint shapes and depths. Femurs and hip sockets determine so much about what a body will and won’t perform in yoga. Therefore, no pictorially-illuminated textbook is gonna give you the best guidance in yoga – only your body can do that. And if you need someone to assist your inquiry, find yourself a very good, well-informed yoga instructor, not a textbook. I particularly dislike BKS Iyengar’s ‘Light on Yoga’  (1965) and I threw out my copy as soon as my initial yoga teacher training was finished. The pictures show poses only achievable by this hyper-mobile Indian man who overcame significant joint laxity by dedicating every waking minute to building his considerable strength. Who else has time for that?

It’s maddening that yoga the way we have been doing it is often not healing, but harmful. The New York Times published an article I read recently, containing some alarming findings from a 2009 study conducted by Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. The study was a survey of yoga teachers around the world and asked them the most common and serious injuries they had seen related to yoga. They listed lower back, shoulder, knee and neck injuries as being not only persistent, but oftentimes disabling. Stroke was also listed along with four cases of brain damage that were caused by extreme back bending. Then there is the rather scary sounding “yoga foot drop” condition which specialists say results from deadened nerves in the feet and ankles after long periods of compression. Anyone out there sitting in varasana for just a bit too long, with pins and needles running through your legs? Stop it now! There is inherent risk in practising yoga like someone else does it or like a photo you’ve seen and admired. Before you begin yoga, it is useful to know your limits.

First of all, your bones are the foundation of your limitations. I bet you one free yoga class that my humorous is somewhat shorter than yours, despite me being of average height. Because of short arms, I’ll never be happy and elevated in bakasana (crow pose) and every single one of my sun salutes involves repositioning my hands in ways that many people don’t have to. I can’t even touch the ground in dandasana (L-sit) so it’s silly to try pushing myself up to bridge pose or to swing through from plank to dandasana, like our ‘teachers’ told us to in my initial yoga teacher training. Another pose they had my fellow trainees doing was unsupported headstand. I refused to because I have no intention of doing headstand on my short arms. My head and neck would be bunched up and I don’t have the core strength for it anyway. Better to stick to modified dolphin and good old down dog – those poses give me the same shoulder strengthening benefits in the form of a semi-inversion. Why follow Iyengar’s model and wreck my body when I can go all the way to my personalised edge and safely so for years, maybe even decades to come?

Which brings me to the biggest decision I made this week – I quit my job teaching yoga at a small, community health centre where the owner made it clear I was not only over-priced, I also didn’t fit her image of what a yoga teacher should look like. She’d always been a concerning employer for me as I knew we didn’t share a common vision for yoga. But the last straw was her threat to conduct a client satisfaction survey focussed on my teaching. There was suddenly a target on my head. But my saving grace was speaking to the teacher who worked there before me – she had a similarly frustrating experience and was disappointed to hear of mine. Together, we compared our experiences and checked our facts. We realised the owner had lied to both of us to suit herself. I handed in my notice that night. If you are a new yoga instructor, I recommend you don’t work for someone who is not a yoga practitioner themselves. If they haven’t felt yoga in their bodies, they just won’t get it. For them, yoga will be a concept and probably a money maker. 

So I’ve stopped wasting my time in a place that advertised my classes with stock photos of blonde, scantily-clad contortionists in bikinis. It was at this studio I spied some other unhelpful textbooks. One was poorly named, trying to promote body positivity but falling short of the mark. ‘Yoga for REAL women’ implies that some women aren’t real by comparison to those with a fuller figure. I guess I’m a synthetic woman if I don’t look like the prettily groomed, plus-sized women in the pictures. Woe is me for not looking like a supermodel either. Christy Turlington sits, long-limbed and peaceful on the cover of her yoga textbook, Living Yoga, her open hip-sockets and skinny thighs so open they rest fully on the mat. I won’t do what Christy does and I’m glad I’m getting better at communicating to anyone who asks why. My continued study of yoga and anatomy helps me to better explain why we’re all better off never striving to replicate others.

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Readers are probably wondering how can we free ourselves from the often damaging expectations we have of ourselves in yoga? I believe it’s about confidence and informed choice. Make a firm decision to self-care and do not waver from it when challenged. I’ve decided I won’t practice like a man, I won’t practise to look like a textbook or a Pinterest post and I certainly won’t practise over the top of a persistent injury. That injury is a message from my body and it will repeat itself until it is heard.

My ‘mat’s down’ time continues to be remedial in intention, incidental, quite intuitive and somatic (small, deliberate movements). Before I practise, I try to ask myself who I am today and what feels goooooood. I’m also informed enough to know my focus should be on using the deep muscles of my abdomen, stretching my left side quadratus lumborum and ‘containing’ my poses as much as possible to ensure I don’t go all hypermobile on the mat. Yoga is still an inquiry into what will put me at ease. I hope your own yoga teacher is still studying anatomy for healthy yoga, brushing up on their knowledge and encouraging a mindset of inquiry. Yoga can be fun and so much is possible!

And that tattoo? It says Go gently in cursive script, my own handwriting. They were the wisest words I could think to have etched permanently on my wrist. I’ve been proud of myself this week – of my self care, my learning, my decisions and my convictions. What have you learnt this week that surprised you or solidified your beliefs? Comments below are most welcome.

 

 

 

The ‘Yoga Body’ Myth: Authenticity

#5 In my series on the myth of attaining perfection through yoga. Finding authenticity in it all.

My recent ‘Yoga Body’ Myth posts have come about because of years of exposure to an industry gone mad with glamour and glitter, where yoga is considered fashionable and sexy. But three recent incidents were the straw that broke my camel pose and jettisoned me to get writing.

One occurred when I applied for a yoga instructor job at a city gym. They asked applicants not only for a resume and references but also a photo. Of ourselves. Granted, you can say a lot about a person by their smile, face and expression. So I sent a really good head shot. Not a photo of myself in a bikini ’embodying’ a really difficult, advanced asana. Nevertheless, they received from me a top resume and a nice photo of a talented, albeit fledgling yoga instructor. But I never heard from them, not even a thank you and good luck next time. And I’m glad not to have been chosen, really. They’re not my tribe. Who knows what they were looking for in the person they hired? Probably a six pack and a pert rack. Two things I am glad to not have to ‘maintain’ by way of leaping onto my mat for an intense, athletic practise at 5am daily.

I won’t be applying for any more yoga jobs that ask for a photo. I will remain authentic to my belief that yoga is what we feel…. in the moment of practising and afterwards, too. I continue to reject the notion that yoga looks a certain way. I know I am not alone in my conviction. It will serve me in the long run and longevity is what I am seeking in yoga, after all.

The second memorable event was when an acquaintance asked me in an accusing tone why I don’t have tonnes of hash-tagged yoga selfies on my Instagram*. She follows my photos of bushland and cafes, likes plenty of them but questions what sort of yogi and businesswoman I am without vinyasa sessions photographed at sunset on a beach?? Sorry, I don’t get in my expensive activewear with a professional photographer on hand just for your benefit. I don’t fit that mould and never will. I pondered what authentic yoga is to this acquaintance… almost certainly an image, not an experience.

More recently, I’ve been working for a very small, local holistic business catering to middle class, suburban Sydney types. The stock photos they’ve chosen for their Instagram and business page promote exactly the kind of yoga I don’t teach there – an image of extra difficult, sexed-up, scantily-clad yoga for slim white women in their 20’s. Aside from the inauthentic advertising, the owner’s unwillingness to include me in her vision for the business is concerning. Unsurprisingly, she is struggling to bolster numbers in the classes and so my days are numbered. That’s ok, I’ll soon move on to a studio that presents an authentic, holistic visual message to the eyes of its community (and values its staff). I am grateful to have learned so early on that advertising yoga the way my current employer does really turns people off. I’ve been told this by women who speak with an authentic voice and I believe them.

I’m glad those three things happened this year because they’ve inspired me to write. And the topics I’ve written about so far have been the catalyst for some great conversations with friends, colleagues and other yogis. But the best conversation was one had inside my head with one of my mentors. A woman I’ve never met but whose words encourage me and expand my thinking as I listen to her podcasts and online tutorials.

She reminded me that all yoga teachers are merely the vehicle through which yoga is brought to a community. We are only the water-bearers from a long, long line of water-bearers. I’d always suspected this was the case. This is the reason why I loathe the trendy-bendy types, the uber-gurus and the ‘yoga-lebrities’. Authentic yoga teachers are above all that. They acknowledge that yoga has history stretching centuries behind us and is ours to facilitate only for the shortest lifetime. Blink and you’ll miss it. Yoga does not even belong to us, but is handed down from teachers who learned from their teachers and they their own. Authentic yoga has lineage worthy of respect.

The role of teacher is hard to define, but tonight I give it shape by thinking of my role not as teacher at all, but as student. When you come in to my class, I am an attentive student of how yoga serves your body and your needs. First, I learn from you before we practise together. We can let yoga be an experience, a memory held in tomorrow’s body after the dance of today. Let’s recognise that yoga can be a beautiful chore…that’s ok, too. Let’s not stick to the plan. Let’s be authentic.

 

 

*She was also aghast at my lack of a Facebook business page.

The ‘Yoga Body’ Myth: Hypermobility

#4 In my series on the myth of attaining perfection through yoga. It’s not all about the rubber band bod.

Are you hesitant to start a yoga practice or revisit yours after a break because you have unrealistic, core beliefs about what yoga really is? For many people, the misunderstanding that yoga equals flexibility is a big barrier. New flash! Flexibility isn’t the most useful thing to go into a practice with – an open mindset will help you more. In fact, if you naturally have extra flexible joints (or are ‘hypermobile’, like me) you are actually worse off than others and more likely to sustain injury. With hypermobility comes extra-stretchy soft tissues and an increased risk of injury due to the assumption that your flexibility is endless. Or the misinformed belief that flexibility is all you need to do yoga. Wrong. What we need to sustain a yoga practice is considerable strength, balance (with proprioception) and, yes…. a bit of flexibility. But you only need enough to get you started. After that, yoga will do the rest.

So how do you know if you are hypermobile? Here’s a common test: do your knees or elbows bend backwards? Can you bend your fingers and/or wrist back or touch your toes with ease? Do you have fasciitis, muscle fatigue, poor posture, restless sleep or painful joints? Perhaps a massage therapist or other body work professional has commented on your natural flexibility. Or maybe you can relate to this; I had a 15min dental visit today and came away with a very sore neck. Why? My head was tipped-back in an unnatural position for a relatively short time, so my neck muscles decided to tense up into logs to compensate for the opening in my neck joints. Also, I can easily twist my torso almost 180 degrees to look behind me. Looks as weird as it sounds.

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Or do you find yourself drawn to yoga because you’re already flexible? Only about 5% of the population are hypermobile but in a yoga studio on any given day, something closer to 50% of participants will be hypermobile and many of them won’t even know they are. If you think you might be hypermobile, a little further research online will illuminate for you whether or not you have this condition. It runs in my family and it might in yours. If you think you have it, be aware that you have a greater risk of tearing the tendons that hold your joints together. This can happen by deeply over-stretching (in a yoga class, for example..) or from repetitive movements like swinging your leg up and over as you get on and off a bike. Tendon tearing in yoga often happens when practitioners don’t listen to their bodies, but instead push into deep poses in the hope of looking like an Instagram shot they saw that day. So let’s be realistic about range of movement and focus on how yoga feels, not how it looks.

In my experience, muscle pain is a constant feature of a hypermobile body – with loose joints come muscles that are ‘switched on’ at all times trying to compensate for loose tendons that don’t properly hold joints together. Muscles become fatigued in us hypermobiles in a way that firm-tissued, muscularly, athletic types don’t experience. Low-impact strengthening exercise, restorative sleep positions and avoidance of deep yoga stretches are a must to relieve the pain associated with being hypermobile. Really and fully letting go is also a remedy to the tension I feel almost constantly. Interestingly, hypermobility is also associated with anxiety and I am closely following new research being published on this.

Restorative and remedial types of yoga are the key to pain relief on the mat – training my muscles to let go instead of holding on for dear life all the time. But it’s regular remedial massage that brings me the greatest release. I leave it to the professionals to ease my muscle and joint pain because I’ve come to accept that yoga can only do so much.

Yoga and hypermobility are so interrelated it’s hard to tease them apart. When I see depictions of yoga poses embodied by hypermobile people, I cringe inside. They’re presenting to the public the idea that they are ‘good at yoga’ and everyone who’s less flexible than a rubber band isn’t. Extra flexible people receive a lot of praise online for holding seemingly extraordinary poses which they can probably do without much effort at all due to their natural proclivity for bending joints backwards. But dear reader, please know that contortionism is not part of yoga and many poseurs you see online aren’t even doing the asana right. They’re compromising their sacroiliac joint, overstretching tendons and risking injury. Sometimes I wonder if they were even breathing when the photo was taken.

It’s likely the practise of extreme benders has no longevity. It’s just for the photo and it’s just for now. Tomorrow or sometime soon their bodies will ache and they’ll need a cup of masala chai and a good lie down.

The ‘Yoga Body’ Myth: Yoga as the remedy

#3 In my series on the myth of attaining perfection through yoga. Perfection seems irrelevant when what many of us need is a good lie down.

Sustainability & Longevity….

Those are two words I associate with an authentic yoga practice. One that will be a remedy to the demands of life; work, relationships, transition, motherhood, grief, illness, ageing… the list goes on and often cycles back on itself. Sustainable yoga is a healthy, considered approach to the body that can respond to the highs and lows of daily human experience and isn’t interested in photogenic poses. If a practice designed for longevity sounds like your sort of thing, consider stepping away from the power vinyasa studio and into a Yoga Therapy, Remedial yoga or Restorative yoga class – I’m hoping you have one of these available nearby.

Yoga Therapy is an antidote to the high-intensity, athletic styles of yoga. It is small-scale, holistic and focused on the individual experience of yoga. You may be drawn to Yoga Therapy to address ongoing pain or dysfunction from an injury, to heal staid emotional pain, re-discover yoga after childbirth or just to learn more about your body. Yoga therapists are generally trained in healing people on a more traditional, often spiritual level as well – they may offer guidance for recovery from trauma, for example. Some will even diagnose for you your Ayurvedic dosha (your constitution) before designing a yoga, meditation and pranayama practise that helps you to maintain optimal health by remaining true to your prakruti (original, natural state).

I’ve learnt from an excellent yoga therapist how to address sciatic pain (salabhasana, utkatasana and modified tadasana) and I taught myself to avoid deep back bend asanas because they do not serve sciatica. I have such a loose sacrum that I once badly injured myself getting on and off a bicycle so I wouldn’t dare throw myself around like a gymnast these days. That means no full vinyasa practice for me, even though that was the style I trained in. Through yoga therapy I learnt not to over-stretch the tendons that hold my sacrum, but to instead strengthen the area by engaging my adductors, abdominals, lower back and pelvic stabilising muscles. From my Yoga Therapist I also gained a deeper appreciation of how to cool, not stoke up my pitta (fire) dosha, too. No heated studios for me!

These days, my home practice is more remedial than anything else. I would best describe it as being a pain-relieving session with my body as my teacher, noticing asymmetries or fatigued muscles and always respecting my limitations. It is an exercise in applied anatomy and is very effective at targeting areas of pain or limited function before working to relieve them. I don’t go into my ‘mat time’ with a plan any more – that doesn’t work for me. I reject the idea of having ‘yoga goals’ and I get a lot more out of my practice if it isn’t another chore on my to-do list.

Most often I am trying to self-massage with yoga. When my tight lower back needs attention, I warm up with a cat/cow-child’s pose-down dog sequence. I close my eyes to better sharpen my awareness before asking my spine to articulate and undulate in snake-like movement. Ahh….. that’s what I needed as an antidote to being sardined in a train seat for an hour. Slowly and carefully, I then move through asanas (poses) that isolate lower back muscles and I come back to them repeatedly throughout a gentle set of sun salutes or whatever my body wants. Whatever happens, happens. Janu sirsana, kindling/firelog pose and angled child’s pose give a great pull on the latissimus dorsi and erector spinae muscles. With repetition, choreographed breath and gentleness, I can usually tease my muscles out of their tender, constricted habits and return them to length and suppleness. That’s my home remedy.

Like with Yoga Therapy, you may be drawn to try a Remedial Yoga class to address ongoing pain or to recover from an injury. From there, you may be able to develop a home practice like I have. As a style, Remedial Yoga is becoming more popular and several studios are offering teacher training certificates for those who want to bring it to the community. Remedial Yoga is for teachers who believe that yoga works magic for the injured, elderly and less mobile members of the public (isn’t that about half of us?) So if Remedial Yoga is not available near you yet, I hope it will be soon.

Restorative Yoga also departs a fair bit from the traditional mode of a yoga class – it is far from a barrage of traditional poses strung together with fancy sounding sanskrit names. Fully letting go of tension is the aim of the game, tension that many of us almost constantly feel in our soft tissues, joints and in our minds too. Restorative Yoga is research-based and focusses on finding poses for profound rest. The teacher’s job is to support everyone in a really good, long, supported savasana experience (lying down supine) where blankets, bolsters and other props hold you so your muscles don’t have to.  Judith Lasater is the clever American yogi who has promoted the Restorative Yoga movement for decades and continues to pioneer the movement through online tutorials, teacher training (plus mentoring) and some very sensible writing. Of Restorative Yoga she says,

“We work very hard in our lives, and while we may sleep, we rarely take time to relax. Restorative yoga poses help us learn to rest deeply and completely.”

If I lived in the States*, I’d be signing up for her 21-day “Savasana Intensive” course. The title might sound like a contradiction in terms to some people, but absolute bliss to me.

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*Glad to not be living in Trump’s America though!  #yogatrumpshate

The ‘Yoga Body’ Myth: advertising  

#2 In my series on the myth of attaining perfection through yoga. In these current times, you’d be forgiven for thinking yoga was a sport, or worse… a body sculpting regime to get you ‘bikini ready’ for the Summer.

 

Power  

Athletic

Acrobatic   

Hot

These are four words I do not associate with my yoga practice, nor my body for that matter. Yet if you measured yourself by today’s assertive marketing lingo, many of us would fall short – asking ourselves if we are truly ‘yoga worthy’ just as we are. Am I athletic enough for the Hot Power Yoga class at my local or the Fierce Flow Yoga advertised at that new gym opening up? Nope. And I don’t particularly want to be either. My fear is about what these subtle and also blatant messages send so thoughtlessly to the community about an ancient practice that has never before been about aesthetics. The impossibly-perfect images are repellant to those with less-than-perfect bodies – sadly, they may see these images when they are most in need of yoga. For many people, including me, such images are a huge turn off and sadly indicative of how the West has commercialised a 5000-year-old practice. In all honesty, are you more or less likely to try yoga for the first time when faced with an image like the ones below? If they’re turning you off by making you feel inadequate, then you’re not alone.

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Anyone a fan of Photoshop?

Women and men see enough slick, unnatural advertising of ideal bodies everywhere from magazines to bus stops and many a Google search in between. I’d like to think a yoga studio could offer reprieve from advertising, from the overt messages of perfectionism that feed the anxieties of many. What happened to feminism if in yoga advertising we see no diversity of ethnicity, body shape, age, gender or ability? These days, I personally check all visual marketing of a studio before I attend a class or workshop. I look on their website, Facebook and Instagram for images that they feel best portray their studio. It’s important to me how they project to the public who they are and what they stand for. If I see a bunch of skinny white women, made up, blow dried and artfully lit as they hold impossibly pretzelly poses reminiscent of a Cirque Du Soleil performance, then I run a mile. I know what they’re about – aesthetics. They’re also about normalising a challenging, too-advanced practice that most bodies aren’t ready for. And god I hate it when the models in the photos are displaying asana incorrectly!

Did you train as a ballet dancer before yoga? No need to point your toes in yoga, ladies. 

 

However, if a studio is actively recruiting a diverse clientele through conscious advertising choices and they offer something other than advanced, heated vinyasa classes, then they’ve got my attention and my dollars. Studios with a conscience bring people in for what I consider the right reasons – ones that are long-lasting, like developing a personal practise is a safe, long-term antidote to a busy lifestyle.

Working in the industry as I do, I’m real concerned that the trend towards aesthetically-driven, intense and overly-heated yoga practice is somewhat counterintuitive, as well as fraught with danger for bodies that are not naturally athletic. I know people and I myself have sustained injuries from being pressured to perform beyond our limits in a class run by an over-zealous instructor who was more like a boot camp trainer. How confusing it is to be told militaristically to Push! Hold! Extend! Stand on your head! one minute and then practically shouted at when at the end of the class we can’t quite relax flat on our backs in a stuffy room full of sweaty bodies. Well, sorry… I find hard to lie still when my nervous system has been jolted around for the last ninety minutes and my core temperature has risen to the point of near-fainting. Can someone please open a window? A Sydney yoga therapist I know reports droves of clients coming to her after sustaining injuries in too-advanced vinyasa classes, only to spend months working with them retraining not only their bodies, but their minds to accept that yoga is not a competitive sport.

 

It’s not a ‘secret’… all bodies are yoga bodies

And don’t get me started on those Instagram accounts, ‘wellness blogs’ and other published rubbish that promote a so-called ‘Yoga Body’ as though only a certain, model-like aesthetic can claim that official title (see above). God help you if you are buying the idea that yoga’s purpose is to change the look of your body to something you prefer in a mini dress. That is a short-term goal if I ever I heard one. I prefer to champion the not-so-novel idea that everyone from every walk of life has the right to access the benefits of yoga with goals far removed from aesthetics; either on the mat with plenty of correctly-used props or modified in a chair, on grass, a hospital bed or in a thera-pool. Perhaps we continue to tow the line on this myth that yoga is only for certain bodies because it’s what we’re told so often we’ve forgotten to challenge that assertion. I say stop listening to the rubbish and focus on how yoga feels, never how it looks on a screen. True yoga promotes longevity, not Facebook ‘likes’.

Yogis and fans of yoga, please let’s get rid of the term ‘yoga bodies’ once and for all and continue to call them bodies. As I write this, I applaud the studios, bloggers and Instagrammers who align their vision of yoga with the principles of the Body Positivity movement. I’m with you and I continue to learn from you. Keep it up like legs up the wall!

The ‘Yoga Body’ Myth: my body

#1 In my series on the myth of attaining perfection through yoga.
I over share a bit about my ongoing relationship with Yoga.

I started practicing yoga in my mid teens when yoga was offered as an option for school sport. What an inspired, wise bunch of teachers we had to organise this alternative to competitive sports. I still recall the pungent odour of the unventilated space we were bussed to on Thursday afternoons – one of feet and rubber. It was a well-taught Iyengar class, heavy on the prop supplies and it was a positive introduction to the benefits of yoga because it changed me for the better. It was only after finishing school (and this weekly class) that I noticed tension in my shoulders for the first time in my young life. That was and still is where I store my tension… but yoga helps.

In fact, I’ve become pretty well acquainted with yoga over the years and doing yoga teacher training in 2015 deepened that relationship. I would never say it’s a friendship, but Yoga and I have an understanding of sorts. Each time I come to my mat, I imagine that Yoga and I are going for a walk together or even a run if we’re feeling energetic. Other days, Yoga and I only have enough fuel in the tank to take a slow stroll around the block and head back when it all gets a bit much. Yoga says that’s ok and I do too. Yoga always holds my hand. Still today, I am so glad to have met Yoga seventeen years ago and for my practice to have endured whilst my other fitness pursuits (gyms, personal trainers and bloody Les Mills) have fallen by the wayside.

Maybe you have a story of your own introduction to yoga – perhaps a friend brought you along to their favourite class, maybe a DVD or Youtube video got you started at home on the rug. Or, very likely, you saw a local class advertised and decided to give it a go. What I hope didn’t happen to you was this – you saw a stylised, sexed-up image of a young white female doing gymnastics (not recognisable, accessible yoga) either online somewhere or on a poster advertising a class. Then you went to the class and felt inadequate, fat and ugly. Those images (and plenty of videos too) entice people to spend money trying to attain perfection in the same way the beauty industry does; by affecting your emotional self. But these advertising strategies make huge mistakes. They make a shallow association between thinness and flexibility (oh so wrong!), sexiness and strength (not exactly feminist..) and skimpy outfits with success (…ergh, see below). Granted, not all yoga studios, magazines or websites promote themselves in this way. But the few that do pack quite a punch in the yoga industry and thoroughly ingrain into many people’s minds that there is a certain ‘yoga’ body type that you either have or you don’t and if you are lucky enough to have it ….well then it’s all due to the power of yoga.

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I really hope you had a really positive experience whatever your first time was and you keep coming back to yoga for good reasons. And that the teaching at your favourite studio is considered and sensitive enough not to leave you sore, exhausted or frustrated. Hopefully, you are drawn to a practice that inspires restfulness and the gentle elixir of balance, flexibility and strength work.

For me, it is the increased balance and strength that I seek most because I am already naturally flexible. Secondarily, the better sleep I enjoy and the body awareness I gain can be attributed to a quality, consistent practice. I notice micro changes in my body and am sensitive to what yoga sequences I can use to remedy the discomfort or altered range of movement I may have that day. Today I noticed that frequent practice has strengthened my chaturanga dandasana; transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis and obliques working in unison with my shoulder joint. Lately, my arms and legs are stronger for having endured sustained warrior poses, always within my limits.

But seriously, dear yoga industry, you’ve become far too trend-driven for my liking. Please stop pasting mandalas and random Sanskrit text on everything from muesli bars and mats to air purifiers and food diaries. It’s far from the authentic yogic experience… it’s tacky. But more about that in next week’s post…

 

Comment below if you’d like to share thoughts on your own yoga practice. Would love to hear how you and Yoga first met.

What mat is that?

The benefits of practising yoga on natural materials.

The Bhagavad Gita says of yoga…

Shuchau deshe pratishthaapya sthiramaasanamaatmanah;
Naatyucchritam naatineecham chailaajinakushottaram.

6/11. In a clean spot, having established a firm seat of his own, neither too high nor too low, made of a deer or tiger skin…seated in an easy posture…..placing the right palm on the left, holding the throat and head in the same line…facing the east or the north, the eyes fixed on the tip of the nose…

In ancient yogic texts, including detailed paintings, the deer or tiger skin (both were animals commonly found living near ashrams) is seen as an essential item in a yogi’s kit. Seated in lengthy contemplation on a forest floor, the yogi could find peace as the pungent odour of the tiger skin was likely to deter snakes and other creepy crawlies! So the tradition of having a dedicated space and surface on which to practise yoga and meditation is nothing new. Many yogis know well the comfort and joy of having a great yoga kit – high quality items that are reliable and a pleasure to use. The props themselves are reason enough to keep me coming back to my practice. But with tiger skins a rare commodity these days, we all have to make do with rubber and rope.

However, as a ‘greenie’, I’m increasingly concerned that too little thought is given to the kit we purchase to facilitate our yoga practice. If you’ve got a mat at home right now, chances are it’s made of synthetic rubber, PVC, TPE, EVA or some combination of acronyms. These are not biodegradable substances and I’m betting yours features a distinct, plasticky smell. Not enticing. Still, at least your mat is not a single-use item like drinking straws, plastic cutlery or styrofoam coffee cups. You’re getting many years of repeated use out of it ….right?

This week’s post is in part a response to my concern for the impact humans have on the environment; to ask readers to stop and question their consumption of yoga-related accoutrements, make better purchases and spread the word* about the earth-friendly alternatives available to us. It all started when a friend of mine pointed to my 100% recycled cork, fabulously stylish yoga blocks and asked quizzically “What are those?”. I laughed out loud! She’s known me a long time, we’ve practised yoga together and yet she’d never seen a yoga block other than the purple chunks of light-weight synthetic foam seen everywhere from Kmart and Lorna Jane to gyms and yoga studios. These innocent-looking little buggers are everywhere and they are not biodegradable. Worse, many of them are so cheaply produced that they don’t even do the job they’re sold for – they should offer a steadying, stabilising surface for your hands, to allow you to deepen, develop and assist your practice. Good blocks are heavy and solid enough to stay put! One studio I worked at was kitted out with such cheap blocks (and mats too…oh dear) that they couldn’t be used in their tallest position – they’d wobble out from under you. I stopped working there.

I don’t moonlight as an eco-warrior. You won’t see me wreaking Gaia’s vengeance on capitalism. Before I learned about Jade Yoga mats, I too owned $5.00 shockers from Kmart and quickly had to repurpose them as insulation under my heavy industrial sewing machines. That seemed the best use for these ‘crap mats’ after realising they were as smooth as a slippery dip when my palms got even a little bit sweaty. If you find your mat is predictably slippery, it’s highly likely that you’re not practising at your best. Sensing that you are slipping, your body will constantly adjust the push and pull of your muscles, tendons and ligaments to keep you from falling. Your position is probably out of correct alignment as a result. It affects your confidence too. When you know you’re gonna slip, you’re not even gonna try going deeper into that lunge. Some reviewers say Jade 100% natural rubber mats have saved their practice from this kind of frustration and I agree!

So we all know natural rubber is a sticky white sap ‘tapped’ from a tree, right? The rubber tree is native to India and lots of other hot and tropical places too. So when the mats themselves are made using a sustainably sourced, natural material and with natural colourings, they can go back to the earth when they have done their time. They really are ‘Nature’s best yoga mat’ as the website claims. I plan to use my mat until it wears thin or falls to pieces. I’ll then desiccate it for composting. Until then, I will enjoy its exceptionally good grip. The Jade mats are as high-performing as you can get – super spongy, firm, heavy or light-weight and satisfyingly solid. On a Jade mat, you immediately notice the incredible grip. It’s like no other mat I’ve seen, featuring a cross-hatched finish (on both sides) that pushes back against the ridges and wrinkles of your fingers and palms. You can surge into your practice safely, without fear of a slip.

As an added, guilt-free bonus, Jade Yoga off-set the production of their mats. What they take from Mother Earth they give back by planting a tree for a mat. To date, nearly 1.3 million trees have been planted to match their sales. But my favourite thing on their websites isn’t their mats, it’s their conscious advertising. You’ll see no predictable, bikini-clad, waif-thin blonde models on their Instagram or sales pages.  Jade market their product for its quality – not who looks hot sitting spread-eagled on it. Instead of style over substance or a ‘sex sells’ mentality, Jade market to a diverse range of consumers by promoting the diversity of the people who buy their mats – dancers, adventurers, mums, sportswomen and men, business people, artists and creatives. Even a few yoga teachers!

I am glad my much-loved, lusciously spongy, burnt orange Jade yoga mat will actively degrade right from under me. It has already begun to after two years of regular use. I don’t want the bloody thing to last forever – hopefully not even beyond my lifetime. I made a conscious decision to spend the extra cash and put the earth before convenience and I haven’t regretted that one bit. I am also mindful of the wisdom of the ancient yogis – seat yourself as close as possible to the earth. I have no desire to practice on an animal skin but I think natural rubber may be the next best thing to it. If you’re in need of a new yoga mat that will take you places you’ve never been to before (they have a travel-weight mat, too!) head to their sales page for a look*.

 

 

So coming back to those special little cork blocks my friend admired, I can say they work very nicely with my natural rubber mat. The foam alternative just wouldn’t do. Cork is renewable, recycled and, if sourced well, it is somewhat sustainable. The blocks are as solid as bricks, offering firmness far and above the rubber ones. They are solid and reliable, yet oh-so beautiful. Another option (for those who prefer the Scandinavian aesthetic) are the solid wood re-purposed timber blocks often found on eco-sensitive yoga prop websites. I prefer the soft texture of the cork, myself and I think they’re a little bit lighter to carry around to classes. These happy little guys are also available from Jade Yoga but I got mine from Stretch Now.

 

*not sponsored, just passionate!

 

Just and Should

Words that are two sides of the same coin -the coin we pay ourselves for judging others.

A few years ago, a teaching colleague of mine said something that I think of often. At a professional development course for teachers, she’d been asked to contemplate what alterations to her communication style would occur by eliminating the word ‘should’. Teachers have to be concise, yet considered with their words, after all. She brought this up in conversation with me and described how it made her re-think so much about the raising of her teenage boys. About how the use of the word reflected on her parenting style and potentially defined the course of her relationships. This revelation has stayed with me since, especially at times when I catch myself saying it as part of everyday conversation. I remind myself that words have power and are often unintentionally corrosive.

In law terms, ‘should’ is more associated with moral obligation and even as synonymous with words like ‘recommendation’. So how did it come to sound so forceful? I suspect it’s all context. Each time I catch myself saying ‘should’ in the classroom it’s usually in the hope of getting someone to do something I believe they are obliged to do. But it is not always teacherly to be didactic, to present parameters of rigid ‘shoulds’. Rarely can the effective, teacherly voice be found in such loaded words. And ‘should’ feels rather less flexible when spoken out loud by a teacher to a student.

“You should know this by now”  

– ‘If you worked on this, you could show others how to do it’ – 

“How should we show respect to our environment?”

– ‘Can you think of ways we have lessened our impact on the environment already? Where can we go from there?’ – 

“This remote should turn the air conditioner on”

………………….

Outside of the school setting, I find myself using ‘should’ more often with the intent of opinion-giving. When reaching peak frustration levels, I am convinced there is a certain way the world works best, that many people are wrong and stupidity is rife. The hard part in overcoming ‘shoulds’ therefore, has been in recognising that I surround myself with too many people who agree with me. When I begin a sentence with “People should just..” and my audience are nodding their heads, then I’m being enabled. Perhaps I should just go and make friends with Trump supporters. Easy fix, maybe?

‘Just’ is another very ugly word. It implies that the action you’re expected to do is nothing but a piece of cake. Like running a marathon or looking hot in active wear is a simple matter, accessible to everyone if only we’d ‘just do it’. Many times I’ve struggled with my workload, trying to balance another unnecessary admin task on top of the towering pile of jobs I am already expected to do, to be told it’s ‘just’ a small thing. It’ll practically do itself. I resent the implication that to grow my yoga business I ‘should’ ‘just’ synergise whatever social media I can so as to make an impact in the hyper-competitive market. But I just hate the words ‘social media’. And there’s no ‘just’ in getting on with the business of growing a yoga business. It comes from the heart, not from making myself into a buzz-worthy brand bot.

On a more tender note, it’s likely someone has made you feel small, incompetent or invalidated with a little word like ‘just’. Like it’s no big deal that you feel fear, vulnerability or shame. When someone says I should ‘just’ do the things I dread or ‘just’ get over the things that hurt still, there’s an arrogant kind of pride in that. How superior they must feel that they aren’t in my shoes. Not today anyway. I’ve been guilty of saying it myself, however. Perhaps it’s quite human to compare and contrast life experiences. How often do we find ourselves saying ‘just’ and ‘should’ to peers, colleagues…. friends even?

“She should just fix her habits”

– ‘She has some fairly significant reasons for this and she may change one day when she’s ready’

“She just shouldn’t let that kid have so much power over her”

– ‘The role of mother is a the toughest one humans go through. None of my business how she goes about it…’

“Well he should just get hearing aids fitted”

………………….

When we are forced to think of other things to say in place of ‘should’, a deeper sentiment forces its way through. I often catch myself saying opinionated things like, “Schools should offer relevant languages to learn; Mandarin, Indonesian and the local Aboriginal dialect instead of Japanese and German”.  But how impassioned do I actually sound? I’ve found that a gentle rephrasing often shows a more considered angle. “I wonder how our 21st century society might be different if, instead of learning the language of our World War II allies and enemies, we learned those of our neighbours and those of Australia’s first peoples?” 

My choice of words is a work in progress. How blessed are those whose default mode is not to say whatever comes into their mind first.  Passing judgement and ‘committing assumicide’ are foreign to some wonderful people who walk the earth alongside the fiery pitta doshas like myself. I have much to learn still.

But the most dangerous of all are the ‘shoulds’ and ‘justs’ we reserve for ourselves, often unchecked.

“I should lose weight by just eating less”

………………….

“I shouldn’t have gone down this career path”

………………….

“I should just have a crack at it”

………………….

India: Reflections 

#17 and the last in my India series. After a month immersed in the culture, I had only scratched the surface.

This is #17 and the last in my series on India.  If you are new to my blog and would like to start at the beginning, just follow the link below.
1. India: Impressions

This rainy Saturday night in Sydney I stay up late and write a collection of memories and reflections from my travels trough India. It’s the right time to light a chubby stick of hand-rolled incense that I pilfered from a Naga shrine. I’d stumbled across the site in a mango orchard where camphor balls and tiny naga statuettes littered the swept dirt floor. Keeping the nagas away from the orchard is an important business and shrine maintenance is a dawn ritual of chanting and incense-burning to keep them happy enough to stay away.

The smell of the incense takes me back to the foothills of the Animalai mountains in Pollachi. That was where it began – a week of a sattvic diet, weird and wonderful vedic therapies and the company of sixteen Australian women with me the youngest yogic representative. My fondest memories from that week are from my austere little room, snug under my kashmiri shawl in the cool pre-dawn air sparkling with the song of geckos, crickets and peacocks. Just the faintest crunch of footsteps on frosty grass outside. The ladies of the retreat rose early to switch off the night lights and start the day’s treatments.

“It’s real early morning
No-one is awake
I’m back at my cliff
Still throwing things off”  –Björk

The feeling of walking lighter on the Earth began here; the letting-go of a stressful few months in which a nascent and much longed-for relationship was thrown suddenly off a cliff shortly before a narrow escape from a threatening household. After a week at the vedic retreat, I left Pollachi full of anticipation for the rest of my trip. Recalling it all as I do now, I don’t want to be here in my living room alone. Can I travel back to the huts amongst those tall coconut trees in an instant please?

Next chapter and I was finally travelling solo in the stone streets of old city Jodhpur, with blue-hued havelis towering above me. My room’s balcony was strung with drying underpants and leggings and overlooked a long, narrow alley where boys gave long run-ups before bowling to an inexperienced batter. I recall the night I taught a game of handball to two girls under 10 I’d gifted with a giant bouncy-ball brought from home. The younger of the two was distracted and dragged me by the hand into the Hare Krishna temple across the lane where hypnotic, excessively amplified chanting filled the space (and the surrounding streets) with an urgency of devotional music. We sat awhile before resuming our game – high above their heads the ball bounced and the glee in their voices was music to my ears – children learning something new in sudden amazement. Tomorrow there would be a new traveller, a new game or toy in the lane with them. But that night the bouncy ball was spectacular compared to a concrete one they’d been playing with prior. The night I arrived, myself and another Australian guest were invited to this young girl’s birthday party at a restaurant where twenty small princesses danced, played musical chairs, ate huge quantities of cake and squealed. We were thoroughly questioned by the young men of the family; my first taste of opportune marriage-related inquiries.

I can still feel that feeling of riding in a tuk tuk by myself for the first time. Cliched wind in my hir, broad smile on my face and a firm grip on my rupees. Was it my imagination that the gorgeous, tall flight attendant had been eyeing me as I did him as we flew into Rajasthan? Memorable was an Udaipur evening under the stars and surrounded by tourists from all over the world – a feisty Spanish-speaking woman next to me fidgeted and commanded extra space. Packed like sardines, the audience were transfixed by the dance performers of the Bagor Ki Haveli. A puppet master raised the laughs and a live band set the pace. Three young women circle hypnotically with swishing skirts, dark eye make-up, bangles and bells up to their elbows. An older woman enters for a finale with metal bowls stacked atop her head. An attendant adds more and more bowls to the column as she dances on broken glass.

The Bagor Ki Haveli is a popular tourist nightspot for those in Udaipur because it feels relatively safe ot be out after dark there – even as a solo woman. After a sunset boatride out to a picturesque island where a big wedding had taken place the night before, I wandered into the expensive part of town. Rolls Royces and SUVs parked quayside in a semicircle in front of a magnificent hotel worthy of modern day Rajas and Ranis. Wishing I had a stack of cash to flash in this expensive hotel, I settled for a twilit cocktail beside the lake. There, a woman from Delhi with a moneyed-up look interrupted my reverie most innocently. Conversation quickly turned to her real intent; business. She was quick to insist she line up my accommodation and transport to Agra (her husband works in travel). I declined and explained that, actually, all was pre-arranged.. thank you very much. I got the bill and made my way back to a hotel room with bay windows and delicious, glassy neem soaps. It was then I realised I had drunk a cocktail with ice in it, but no digestional gymnastics for me. I had an iron stomach by then.

Another sunset view in Udaipur is worth remembering; that from the long-abandoned Monsoon Palace a short drive up in the hills. Tourists are joined by a harem of monkeys at the best time of day – they too like to sit in warm wonderment before the descent of the great sun god, Surya. It has been many decades since the palace was last occupied by the Udaipur royal fmaily who escaped the heavy rains by heading for higher ground each year. But it had a revival of sorts in the 1980s when the Bond film ‘Octopussy’ featured a pivotal scene filmed at the palace. Each night in town, most restaurants will play the film to dinner clientele. I still hven’t seen it.

I was in India for the first time and it had taken me half my lifetime to make that happen. I will certainly return before my days are up, next time for a longer trip and with a different resolve. A male companion would be most useful, allowing me to be out at nighttime and to explore the most tempting alleyways. There is a lot more of Rajasthan to see (and shop) and I’d love to study more yoga somewhere beachside like Goa. I want to smell the jasmine flower and tea fields of Madurai, walk the markets and visit the temples where fresh jasmine garlands are woven into ladies’ hair and draped over stone statues. My mind is made up to spend a night on a thatched Kerala houseboat, bunches of water hyacinths slapping at the hull all night. I want to walk mountain paths at the foot of the Himalayas, spend a night in the desert under costellations new to my southern eyes, see the burning ghats of Varanasi, take a sleeper train trip across the plains and, from a lakeside haveli, enjoy the sight-seeing of the Diwali and Holi festivals.

The incense has burnt to its end and if I concentrate, I can still smell the ripe waft of decomposing garbage mingling with faeces that permeates Indian cities. Why do so many Westerners feel drawn to make repeat trips to India in the face of all that is repulsive about the place? That is a question I will be forever re-answering. For me, I think it is a case of ‘better the devil you know’. Before I go again, I will have my stores of adrenaline set for the onslaught of sound, smell and visual pollution, the probable sight of dead bodies, injured animals, impoverished women with their dirt-smeared children and sneering men. But I go back for the exoticism, the aesthetic of one of the most strikingly beautiful cultures, not only remaining on Earth, but thriving and evolving. No-one drapes cloth like a humble Indian housewife, no other children around the world delight with expressive head wobbles quite the same way and few countries can boast the chaos and mishmash of religion that India does. It is an enchanting, frustrating, fascinating and dangerous place that lives in the past, dreams of the future and resides on another spiritual plane. Take me back there tomorrow so I may better understand it.

…And so I can get myself invited to an Indian wedding.

 

Naga – the snake god

Sattvic – a diet that is rich in prana (life force)