Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Work with the body you have

Yoga practitioners fall prey to 'body image' just as much as anyone else - practising asana does not exempt anyone from being human. Except the body image issues in yoga are often less about how one looks and more about how one executes the postures. Quite often you can hear people talking about getting postures 'right'. Occasionally when I give a verbal or physical adjustment to someone, they will say 'sorry' and I will always ask why - and the reason, of course, is that they think they've done something wrong. They haven't - I'm making the adjustment to hopefully make them feel more at ease - sukha - in the posture, not because the posture isn't perfect.

No posture is perfect, and all postures are perfect. No one's body in a posture is perfect - and they're all perfect. It is incredibly important when you are practising yoga postures to remember to work with the body that you have, not the body that you think you should have according to what you've seen in some yoga book or magazine, or that someone has told you that you should have.

The body you have is perfect for you. The postures can be adapted for you - you do not have to adapt to the postures. One of the many wonderful things about yoga asanas is that they can be modified in a seemingly infinite number of ways.

It is also very important to recognise what sort of body you have when you're practising asana. In her book The Feel Good Body, physiotherapist Anna-Louise Bouvier (writing with Jennifer Fleming) identifies three body types: floppies, stiffies and flippies. Floppies are, generally speaking, people with hypermobile joints and loose connective tissues; stiffies are, as you'd expect, people with tough connective tissue and not much joint mobility. Flippies are mostly floppy people with some stiff bits. I think we mainly see flippies in yoga, and quite a few floppies. Stiffies often don't come into yoga class because they think they're 'too stiff'.

As a teacher, it's important for me to work out which body type (out of these three) each student is, as I may need to adjust what I'm teaching to accommodate them. It's just as important for the student/practitioner to have this awareness about themselves so they don't attempt a practice that isn't suitable for them.

Floppy people are often attracted to yoga asana practice because they can just flop into postures - they'll hang in their joints, 'having a holiday', as my teacher would say. Eventually those joints will wear out, but in the meantime asana practice can feel quite easy for them, and to other, stiffer, people in the class these floppy people may look 'perfect' in the postures. But floppy people need to do more work on their core strength than anyone else - that's the price they pay for being floppy. Because their bodies are constantly trying to find where they are in space, their cores are not fixed and this can lead to back pain and, ultimately, sore knees, ankles, shoulders, elbows and wrists as the support work for the body is pushed outwards along the limbs. When teaching floppies, my job is to 'pull them back' - to not let them hang in their joints, to make them stop before they reach the end of their range of motion. They need to connect to their core-strength muscles much more than they need to flop into those joints.

Stiff people have the job of not getting any stiffer as they age. They should never look at a floppy person sitting in padmasana (lotus) and moan about how they'll never get into that posture. They're right - they won't, and they shouldn't even try. Instead they should work at keeping their hip joints as mobile as possible, while being happy with the fact that their cores are probably a lot stronger than those of the floppies. Stiffies should never try for dramatic hamstring stretches or extreme backbends. Instead, yoga asanas can help them maintain good health and mobility right now and into the future. This is obviously a very different practice to what is available to floppy people, but the yoga practice can accommodate both of these body types.

Flippies need to work out which of their body parts are stiff and not push them beyond the very real limitations that exist. For example, a flippy may have very mobile hip joints but their shoulders may be incredibly tight. The shoulder is already a very mobile joint, even in stiff people, so if there's a restriction in the joint it's very important to not push that joint too far. But a flippy person may think that everything is so loose in their body that they should attempt to go further in the shoulders. They shouldn't. They need to respect the body they have and not try to make it into a floppy body.

The biggest barrier to overcome for all of us when trying to work with the bodies we have is to let go of the idea that we 'should' have another type of body - typically, a super-floppy, hypermobile body that can fold itself into all the different asanas. As I'm fond of saying, there are no 'shoulds' in yoga. So if a student thinks she or he 'should' be able to get into a certain backbend when they're simply too locked into the lower back - well, they should not. There is a modification that will give them the same benefits as the classical posture and in which they will feel better. It is far more important to feel sthirra and sukha (steady and at ease) in the postures than it is to do the postures the way you've seen in books or on floppy people. The only way this is possible is to work with the body you have and not wish for another one. The body you have is perfect in its imperfections, and it will teach you a lot if you just let it. Apart from which, it is simply a waste of time and energy to wish for another body when the one you has is carrying you through each day, walking you around, digesting your food, breathing, pumping blood and so on. It's a perfectly good body - it just needs a bit of maintenance to stay that way.

- Sophie Hamley

Thursday, June 9, 2011

At the beginning, it's all about breath

It's been a while since I've taught a beginners class, and as I prepare to teach tonight - the first beginners class on a Thursday night at the co-op - I find that I'm really excited. Not necessarily to 'get back to the basics' because the basics are always there when I'm planning classes anyway. More, it's an opportunity to construct a different sort of class to the one I usually teach.

When you have familiar people in class, and you know which parts of their bodies move and which don't, that's a wonderful opportunity to play a little, to push beyond a few mental and perceived physical limitations. But the idea of a beginners class is that students come in, get comfortable and then, hopefully, move onto general classes. So I won't be as playful; I would rather focus on what unifies the practice across all styles and teachers.

Fundamentally, the one unifying element is breath. Breath can also be the hardest thing for new - and experienced - students to get their heads around. We all think we just breathe and that's that - no thought required. Yet how we breathe directly affects how we feel and move. If you're not breathing correctly, you're not going to feel great and your body won't be able to move freely. And, to be frank, in Western societies we're just not that good at breathing. We hunch our shoulders forwards and constrict our lungs; we breathe into our upper chests and never explore the 'scary' depths of the lower lungs. Then we wonder why we get headaches and feel tired and just have general malaise.

So I'm taking this beginners class still as an opportunity to play at little - but with breath. Moving meditations with breath. Sitting still with breath. Lying with breath. In between there will be some postures, of course. But mostly it will be about breath, and the deliciousness of breathing. At least, I hope that's how it will come across ...