Sunday, October 14, 2012

My Life as a GPS

I started this post months ago and somehow never got around to finishing it... until now! Never mind that 6:35am flight out of Boston tomorrow morning. My blog needs some love! (And if you can guess where I'm flying to at such an ungodly hour, you're probably right, but more on that next week.)


Here's an interesting question: why do people sometimes hurt themselves in yoga class, and how can you prevent them from doing it? I'm not talking about students getting hurt in bad/weird yoga classes (which is a whole different subject) - I'm talking about times when the teacher does everything "right"
and somebody still manages to get hurt.

All of the teachers at my current studio - including myself - make a point of explaining that you need to listen to your body in class. One of my favorite reviews of the yoga studio (of course I stalk our reviews online) said something along the lines of: "All the teachers maintain the 'push yourself' attitude, but always with something about listening to your body." Perfect! You have to work hard in class, but you also have to take care of yourself. But in one of our staff meetings over the summer, our studio owner told us that she'd gotten complaints from students who said that they injured themselves in class because a teacher told them to "push through the pain"... which frankly just doesn't happen here. To quote my friend Brandi, we only use those words after the word "don't," as in, "DON'T push through the pain."

Now my immediate response to this problem is: "UGH!! Why doesn't anybody listen to me?!"

But the topic is totally worth discussing, so let's get into it a little bit. Because there are plenty of people in the world who legitimately have no idea how to "listen to their body." 

I'm going to operate under the assumption that the Bikram series is essentially safe and therapeutic, when executed properly. Or as Emmy likes to say: "The yoga is always innocent." Injuries tend to happen when a) the postures are done incorrectly - wrong alignment, misunderstanding of the posture, or b) the practitioner is over-aggressive, not fully in tune with his/her body. (There's also (c), the fluke accident, which can totally happen but is not terribly common in the beginner's series.)

It's the teacher's job to teach correct alignment and technique. Safest way for us to do that is by teaching with the dialogue - by using the words of the dialogue, and by understanding the words of the dialogue, so that we can correct the students and steer them in the right direction.

Let's assume that the teacher is doing all of that. (We are sure trying, anyway.) It is now your job, as a student, to follow along carefully and pay attention to your body as you do so.

My favorite analogy is that your teacher is your GPS - you know, that annoying gadget in your car that's always giving you directions. (For the sake of my analogy, you'll have to assume that the teacher is a pretty good and accurate GPS - not one a stupid one like mine that starts hollering "Perform U-turn immediately!" every time you turn it on. It's not a perfect analogy, but I like it.) Just like your GPS, the teacher has already calculated the route that will take you to your destination safely and efficiently.

But just because you are driving around with a GPS, that doesn't mean you can close your eyes and ignore the road. You still have to keep your eyes open to watch out for red lights, stop signs, potholes, pedestrians, and crazy people trying to cut you off. You don't want to end up like those Japanese tourists who were following their GPS when they drove straight into the Pacific a few months ago.

(True story! I am still laughing about it.)

Remember, the teacher is always giving instructions for the whole class, for the full posture. If you're going into a posture and you start to feel some pain, just back off a little bit. It doesn't mean the GPS is sending you the wrong way - it's just your body's equivalent of a red light. It means, "wait here for a little while." When the light turns green, then you can make your next move.

Unfortunately, it's not always easy for a person to distinguish between the red light and the green light. (Or the yellow light - slow down.) It gets complicated because some of the postures are super uncomfortable, so we do actually warn you that some of the postures are going to hurt - mainly so that the new students don't get scared when they do the postures for the first time. (Hell, that first backbend still hurts like a bitch some days, especially first thing in the morning.) But we also tell you, sometimes in the very next posture, "take it easy, you're not warmed up yet." So there is definitely a balancing act that happens in the class. You have to go to the point where you're uncomfortable - sometimes deeply uncomfortable! - but not causing pain. This takes practice!

And in practice, you make mistakes sometimes (because that's what practice means). That's part of why so many beginning students strain their hamstrings - little bit overaggressive, doing too much too fast, without quite understanding the technique.

So here's the million dollar question: how do you learn what's right?

Here's my very favorite answer: If it works, then it's right.

If the yoga is working, you might have some muscle soreness ("therapeutic discomfort") after class, but your body will generally feel better and better as you practice more. That means you're doing good. If you have an injury or problem that keeps getting worse and worse and worse the more you practice, that means you're driving right into the ocean. Get your foot off the gas and recalculate!

"Listening to your body" means keeping your eyes on the road - at all times! Best way to catch problems early. This isn't just for beginners - in fact, the more often you practice, the more important it is! I had a funny tweak in my knee for over a month that I couldn't figure out until Diane told me I was sitting a little too low in the second part of awkward pose. I came up about one inch, and the knee stopped hurting after two days. Crazy! One of my really good students came to me a few days ago saying that she'd started having a little pain in her knee - she usually noticed it in fixed firm. That same day, she figured out that the pain was starting in bow pose (the one right before fixed firm). We did a little problem-solving, she eased up on that pose, and her knee felt better in two days. Trouble-shooting. It's part of the practice!

Slight digression: It always cracks me up when people come into class, start making up completely different postures, and say, "Oh, I'm just listening to my body!" Noooo no no no no no no. This is not an interpretive dance class. For our purposes, "listening to your body" is not an airy-fairy thing; it's tangible. If you go in the wrong direction, your body will give you pain. "Hey, I don't like that!" If you fix yourself, your body will give you a nicer response. "That feels much better, thank you!"That's how the body talks.

I could talk about this all night, but I really do have to pack!

At the end of the day, it's all a cooperative effort between the teacher and the student. The teacher has the directions, but the student is in the driver's seat. I may be a great backseat driver (just ask anyone who's ever been on a road trip with me), but I can only do so much.

So please, watch out for that Pacific Ocean. Apparently it can sneak up on you.

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