Posts Tagged With: integration

Inhabiting Your Space.

Proprioception should be a less intimidating word, but when I say it to people, they give me that furrowed brow look that says “huh?”. Proprioception is the ability to know where your body is in space in relation to other objects. It’s what allows you to walk around a dark room at night and not bump into things. But I find so many people are in the dark about where their bodies are in space. I want to bring some light to this problem, and if I do you will have fewer stubbed toes, less bumped knees, knocked heads, bruises, and overall mishaps. And if you are one of those infamous close talkers, you might find you’ll have better conversations. I can’t tell you how many times I have backed away from a close talker because I felt my personal space is being compromised, possibly not allowing me to be as attentive as I would like.

We are all pretty aware of movement. Our arm just doesn’t move randomly and without our noticing, thank goodness, or we’d all be a bull in a China shop. For the most part, most of us have refined our movements to be able to look and move like everyone else. Until you put people in yoga poses, then the truth comes out. Most people are just touching the tip of the iceberg in their understanding of muscle movement.

I am choosing to link coordination and proprioception together. But let me be clear – I am not a scientist, at least not by degree. By personal interest, I am a scientist in behavior. I am constantly testing, experimenting, researching, analyzing and interpreting my abilities. I’ve read enough to be well informed of the limits of the human body, but I like to test what I have heard and read it through my own body. Figuring that as I go, I might find some contradictions, as well as some very clear affirmations. But at least I will have developed new skill sets along the way. With every new movement, I am gaining sensitivity. It is this sensitivity that is informing me towards more graceful and coordinated actions. This sensitivity allows me to know the difference between 1 inch and 1 foot of space between me and anything else I might come in contact with.

Interestingly, I was a long jumper in high school and I think that helped me refine my skill of proprioception. If your foot stepped over the launch line it was a scratched jump. Just like if a high jumper knocks the bar with their body when jumping, it’s no good. These spacial relationship’s are a great way to learn muscle movement and just how much it can be refined. So how is it that so many people show up on yoga mats across the country, year after year, and they don’t seem to be inhabiting their body. Some people wear their body like an over size suit, just flopping it around with out any life in their limbs, almost with a sense of bagginess. As if, if it weren’t for their bones they’d fall to the floor. Then there are those people that wear their body like a suit of armor, rigid and unpenatrable. Their movements have no fluidity and they seem expressionless and motionless.

Triangle pose, Trikonasana. Photo by Zsolt Haraszti

The one pose, as a yoga teacher, I endlessly become a bit saddened by is Triangle, or trikonasana. It is one of the trickiest poses for people to execute properly. As many times as I will physically place students in the best example of the pose, week after week, they still execute bad alignment. One of the easiest ways to fix this problem is to give people a reference point, something for their bodies to work with or against, that will help them  perceive their body position. What I do is put them up against a wall, and try and have them make themselves as flat as possible against that wall. (There is more to it then that, but for now I’ll leave the description of triangle brief as this isn’t about triangle). This always seems to work, but the moment you bring them off the wall back on their yoga mat the pose seems to just disintegrate.

It is that word that I want to focus on: disintegrate. Or better yet it’s direct opposite, integrate. Yoga is the practice of integrating muscle movements into our perception. Yoga is a great way to work on your body feedback system. The more feedback you become aware of, the more refined your movements will become. But how to make people listen to the feedback is the question? No matter how much information and physical support I provide some students still do not execute the pose well. Maybe it’s a laziness issue or a poor health issue. But whatever the case, I can’t teach people to want what I want for them, they must want it.

The yoga sutra’s talk about a list of obstacles that will effect your development in life, your ability to integrate your perception of yourself in space as well as in behavior. Sutra 1.30 Vyadhi styana samsaya pramada alasya avirati bhrantidarsana alabdhabhumikatva anavasthitavani citta viksepah te antarayah. Translated – The obstacles that distract the mind are illness, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, overindulgence, illusions about one’e self, lack of perseverance, and instability.  I have found you can’t really teach people to be less lazy or less careless. I have found that you can inspire caring and inspire effort, mostly by example.

This is why with my teaching style ,I will demonstrate yoga poses in a two pronged approach: I will first show them a bad example, and then start to integrate from that form right into a good example so they can see how I move my body onto different planes with different energies. I have found this to be a very useful teaching method, as more and more, I feel we are becoming a society that learns more through our eyes then we do through our ears. There are three available approaches to yoga teachers in informing their students. First is words, second should be example and third should be touch. I don’t start out with touch first, because all that sometimes happens is, I am moving them into the correct position. I’m the one doing the work, not them. When students constantly want to be adjusted it can be a sign of laziness, they want you to do the work. I will intervene only after they have tried. After they try and perceive where their body is, and what might be holding them back, then I can assist them with touch. This is where, if the student is interested, yoga will expose patterns of movement that are not always working. In this exposure, the student becomes enlightened. This enlightenment will give them greater perception, greater understanding of their body in space. which is ultimately going to lead to gracefulness, coordination, sensitivity, and integration.

This will happen on your yoga mat if you come to your practice with all the necessary tools available to you: health, alertness, confidence, concern, energy, moderation, truthfulness, perseverance, and stability. Now, if you do not have all these things at the start, then yoga’s journey should help you get all of these things. Your teacher should be inspiring and provide you with the best possible guidance. But remember, it doesn’t lie on the teachers shoulders. You must care. You must want more knowledge, more health, more energy, etc.. As my teacher says, “experience removes doubt”. The best way to get started is to get on your mat and experience inhabiting your body. Work to become more perceptive of the details, the things that aren’t always “in your face” obvious. Shine some light on what has become dull. The trade off will be fewer stubbed toes in the middle-of-the-night trip to the bathroom, or fewer bumped elbows on the corners of things, and better posture,  greater health, or overall a generally good feeling about your body and how you are inhabiting it.

You know that feeling when someone has put their yoga mat down too close to yours, when you feel like your space has been invaded. Well, what I want for you is to invade your body, to become more in it, and not of it, to be more connected, instead of disconnected. Proprioception is space invading instead of space evading. Avoidence is not the answer. As sutra 2.3 says Avidya asmita raga dvesa abhinivesah klesah. Translated – the causes of suffering are ignorance, egotism, excessive attachments, unreasonable aversions and fear. Being in the dark can be scary and dangerous. Use yoga to become enlightened, to reduce your suffering and to make you very perceptive. This inward perception that you will strengthen will also deepen your outward perception of the world around you. This is illuminating, it’s like turning the lights on inside your body.

Each room in your home has a light for you to navigate it, so do your muscles. Treat each muscle like a room. You have approximately 640 muscles in your body so it’s like living in a mansion. Take care of this body that is your home. Turn on the lights, open the windows and doors so that energy can flow through. Yoga is feng shui for your body. It’s time to create good Qi. The life force is within you, go find it.

Categories: For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stacking stones, stacking bones.

Moonlight beach, Encinitas, CA 2010

I have studied with my teacher, Tim Miller many times and in many different places. I have been to Mexico to study yoga under a thatched roof that is 20 yards away from the Carribean Sea and I have studied in his hometown of Encinitas, CA, where his studio is also just a stretch from the pacific ocean and here in my hometown of Charleston, SC, with many beaches available. My 1st  visit out West was to take his first series Ashtanga teacher training back in 2008. I remember going for my first walk on the beach and being challenged to shift my preconceived notions of what a beach is. I grew up having to travel to the east coast for some beach time, where the water is warm and sea shells are washing up on the beach everyday like individual precious reminders of the creation that’s going on under the sea. I would seek to collect memories amongst the vastness and variety of shells that would wash up on the beach. This was one of my favorite past times. Well, the Pacific isn’t anything like the Atlantic. The Pacific water is very cold. When I was there it was 54 degrees. It’s clearer than the east coast. You can see your feet getting bright red from the cold water, if your standing knee deep in the ocean. But the oddest thing to me was the lack of shells. Instead, what was scattered on the beach were stones – smooth stones, that varied in color and shape, but were all relatively similar in appearances. I was first disappointed, as I find it very meditative to walk a beach looking down at each step to see what washed up, artistically-crafted shell I can find. I can seem to do this for hours, peacefully. Since these stones were my only option I decided to start collecting them. Each one in my hand was different and when I stopped expecting them to be shells, I started to see the beauty in each one. The ocean had been rolling and polishing them to the smoothness and shape that made them each very individual. But, what was I going to do with a handful of stones?

There is a practice of stacking stones in Buddhist cultures, where the stones are stacked as prayers. The number of stones might correlate to the number of family members. These stone prayers were stacked around temples. Closer to home, when I was young I remember being taught about hiking safety in girl scouts. We were taught to mark out trails using sticks or  stones in the form of arrows to guide us safely back to where we began. You will see fancier renditions of this by some hikers who will opt to stack stones instead. I have hiked a few trails in my time and have come across these expressions. They always leave me wondering…How long had they been there? Who stacked these and why? How many other people had walked past and been intrigued by this natural art? So I decided to take a whirl at stacking stones, and it became a very interesting experience for me.

I started with the collecting process, which naturally made me feel like a little girl again collecting things from nature. Carrying them back in the hem of my shirt, excited to see my loot dropped in a pile at my feet. I knew since I wasn’t going to spend a day frolicking in that very cold ocean, this could be a fun way to spend a day at the beach. So as I started to make a stack of stones, I kind of figured I’d do one, and that my attempt to balance stones would be a passing interest. But after I stacked one, I began the second, and then the third, until I had 5 stacks of stones. I started to enjoy the challenge of pairing the stones. The effort it took in patience to find the stones perfect balance point and the delicacy required to stack stone number 6 on number 5 without affecting all the stones below. You might get to stone 4 and knock them all down while adding stone 5. This process was slowly forming a very quiet space in my mind. I had begun to appreciation each stone’s character points that were ultimately going to influence their balance point. I started to see the parallels that stone stacking had to the alignment process of my bones in all the asana’s I had traveled out here to learn from my teacher’s 30+ years of experience.

I remember a workshop I took within my first year of practicing yoga with Rodney Yee. I remember him demonstrating a pose called Trikonasana (three angled posture). He taught me a great lesson that day. It was the art of refinement. Small movements create a chain reaction in all areas of the posture’s alignment. Rodney Yee’s background was ballet. So he seemed to be demonstrating an impeccable understanding of his body and the ability to influence it’s alignment with a intelligent approach to movement, which was done without force. At the time, I am pretty sure that I was coming at my yoga practice with all braun and no grace. After seeing him make a few tiny movements and watching his posture go from what seemed disintegrated to integrated, it opened my eyes to a whole new approach to alignment. I had to find the balance point of each individual muscle and have the patience to allow all the muscles to work together with appropriate effort and sensitivity. Much like Patanjali’s yoga sutra 2:46 “Sthira Sukham Asanam” : Asana’s should have equal parts steadiness and ease.

As you build a yoga posture, it becomes just like stacking stones. First you have to have a good foundation, which is why it’s just standard to do yoga on a firm service. Then you have to start from the bottom and work your way up.  It begins in our feet, hands, arms or our sit bones (Ischial tuberosities). It really just depends on the asana that you are trying to build. It begins at the part of the body that will have the most contact with the floor. But what isn’t always paid attention to is that even once your foundation is set, the way you stack the rest of the stones/bones matters too. It’s the teeter totter principal. Too much weight in any one direction will throw off how the load is carried.

As I am looking at each rock and feeling its weight and character in my hands, I have to try and feel for it’s balance point. I would roll the rock around to feel where it was heavy and to try and find a flat, smooth point. We can do this to with our bones by contracting back and forth between the opposing muscles that make the bone move in a given direction. The size and strength of a muscle can influence the impact it has on the movement of the bone. So you start to look for misalignments, areas where there is not equal movement. We all get the same muscles but we don’t all develop the same. Some of us have stronger abductors then adductors, or quadriceps vs. hamstrings, or core vs. back strength. These disproportionate make up is bound to create bad mechanics in our movements. But yoga is the process of tuning us into these things with awareness being the tool. Training our sense’s to feel more intimately stress and strain on the joints and ligaments. Sometimes, one of the only ways you can know what balance feels like is by pulling your body out of balance in both directions. Then start refining your movements slowly to where the center point lies.

It’s the pendulum swing. Sometimes you have to try the good and the bad to find what is just right. It’s very much a Goldilocks approach to yoga. Is the porridge too hot, or too cold? Does my pose need more of this, or less? Looking for the greater then and less then symbol in each muscle to find the appropriate give and take to the movement you are trying to isolate. Give it a try: tilt your pelvis posteriorly, and then try and tip anteriorly, and then try and negotiate the neutral point, where there is no stress on the pelvis as it comfortably holds a neutral position.

There was an interesting scenario that happened a couple of times when I was trying to stack the stones. Even though 5 stones seemed perfectly balanced if I placed the 6th stone wrong it caused the other stones to misalign. This is what is going on in our bodies everyday, under our skin, beneath our muscles. There is disintegration instead of integration. My teacher, Tim, likes to talk a lot about integration. It’s a great word to describe a balanced yoga posture. If we pick up a bad pattern of movement in our hip, it can create a reaction outward from there. An example is, if the hip is not functioning optimally, then it may create a strain and weakness in the knee. Or, it can create a imbalance all the way up in to our shoulder eventually affecting our neck. You could relatively look at areas of the body as representations of each stone you are trying to stack. 1st stone – ankles, 2nd stone – knees, 3rd stone – hips, 4th stone – lumbar spine, 5th stone – thoracic spine, 6th stone – cervical spine, and 7th stone  – the head. It’s not only about the bottom stone/bone, it’s about how they all work together and distribute their weight on one another.

It took me about 2 hours to collect and balance 5 towers of stone. And in that time, I learned a lot about my level of patience. I learned that speed does not assist delicate things well, and that force will not create balance, and that center isn’t as it outwardly appears. Center is where things meet, they don’t compete and they seem harmonious. Can I describe yoga asana’s that way? I can now. During my attempts at asana’s, day in and day out, I am looking for a point of balance that I feel my way into patiently and gently. When I move this way the poses that I’m striving for comes surprisingly easy. So, I say : if your having a hard time with your asana development, then take a break and go stack some stones, and see what you can learn. Then go back and try and stack your bones with the same interest, sensitivity, kindness and maybe even a little prayer while you do it. Stacking stones on a hiking trail will always get you back to the beginning. Maybe reminding ourselves of how far we have come from that beginning by looking back down the trail for the markers will give us a greater appreciation for our progress and abilities. Stop on this yoga path every now and then and stack some stones so that you don’t lose your way by being clouded with frustration and lack of patience.  Pattabhi Jois said “Practice…and all is coming. ” Whatever it is we practice, stacking stones or stacking bones?

Successfully stacked stones!

Categories: Asana, For the beginner | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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