Passing Fancies & Becoming a Super Yogi

Unknown-2My life is filled with passing fancies.

When I wrote about my client Margaret and her experiences piloting military aircraft in World War II, I immersed myself so deeply in the history of the Women Airforce Service Pilots that I took my acrophobic self on a twenty minute flight in an open cockpit Stearman biplane. I remember waking up pre-dawn to write a fictional account of her story. I did that until I reached 180,000 words (give or take a few) and then moved on. Her story remains in a box under my bookshelf.

When I wanted to know everything I could know about anatomy for the yogi I took the journey all the way to Gil Hedley’s cadaver lab. I was cocky enough to consider myself more informed than the average yoga teacher on all things regarding attachments, insertions and bony prominences. I was wrong.

I’m telling you this because then I met Louis Jackson. Louis is a senior teacher at Samyama Yoga Center. He also is an integral part of our Dharma Path Teacher Training and co-teaches with John Berg our landmark course in beginning yoga, Building the Temple. When Louis found yoga, it wasn’t a passing fancy. That’s true for most teachers, of course, but Louis’s yogic path has risen so high and so far that he has become one of a handful of gifted and genuine master teachers I’ve met in thirty years of practice. I feel sometimes that while I skim the surface, Louis dives deep.

He would disagree, of course, but in my mind humility is the touchstone that keeps us learning and growing. Louis is a powerful and humble teacher.

This video is proof. Shot by the gifted Devin Begley, Louis takes two minutes to describe the beauty of the breath and gorgeousness of that marvelous dome of muscle we call the diaphragm.

Want to learn something new today?

The Hip Bone’s Connected to the…

Anterior Hip Muscles

Image via Wikipedia

Do yoga teachers need to study anatomy?

I recently heard a well-loved and respected teacher with decades of experience give this answer before a group of trainees: “in my opinion, no.”  He believes we learn everything we need to know about the body through a strong asana practice.

Is he right?  Maybe.

A finely tuned practice, after all, strengthens our understanding of how we move, how we function, our strengths and restrictions.  Why do we need to know the muscles used for breathing?  Why do we need to know how the bones join together at the knee?

Because when a new student enters our studio and tells us they’re a few months past a lumbar laminectomy, or that last year they had meniscus surgery, or they’ve recently been diagnosed with osteoporosis – we should know what that means and what the implications are for their yoga practice.

And so, in my opinion:  yes, yoga teachers should study anatomy.

The teacher continued with his points:

“You don’t want to take up class time explaining the muscles…”

He’s right.  I don’t use class time for anatomy lessons.  But when a student asks why they feel Ustrasana (camel pose) near their hip crease I can move beyond “it’s because you’re tight there” and explain the hip flexors and their function.  I can explain how they become shortened and other ways to lengthen them.

And when a student’s knees are no closer to the ground in Baddha Konasana (seated cobbler’s pose) than they were when they began their practice five years earlier I can explain how each skeleton is different.  I can reassure her that it has little to do with flexibility and more to do with how the femur sits in the acetabulum. Knowing I can do this – knowing I can guide my student toward an improved understanding of their body – increases my confidence as an instructor.

Furthermore, when a student needs help modifying a pose or if they’re unable to assume “correct” alignment my understanding of anatomy informs the choices I make to help the student – whether it’s a different verbal cue, using a different prop for support or suggesting a different asana.

Do I know the name of every muscle and bone?  Of course not.  But by studying anatomy I’ve been given an amazing gift – a sort of “x-ray vision.”

Every body is unique. Knowledge of anatomy helps us see these differences. And since we can’t step into our students’ bodies to experience an asana as they do, having a good understanding of the body – knowing that the rectus femoris is a two joint muscle and might explain why the front of the hip hurts when the knee is drawn back in Natarajasana (dancer’s pose) – well, if I can’t experience what my student’s feel first hand, then knowledge of anatomy is the next best thing.

You Want Me to Breathe Into My WHAT???

Heart and lungs

Image via Wikipedia

“Breathe into your back ribs.”


“Breath into the space around your kidneys.”


“Breathe into your big toe.”

Ok.  Now you’re just trying to be funny.

How many times have you been instructed to take your breath someplace considered physiologically impossible?  Yoga teachers give this instruction all the time, but it sounds pretty dumb, doesn’t it?  Our breath moves into our lungs.  Period.


No one takes the instruction to breathe into the soles of the feet literally.

Do they?

Because, the thing is – I’m one of those yoga instructors.  I’m one of those instructors who will ask you to breathe into places where the breath doesn’t travel.  But I’ve got my reasons.

When I provide the verbal cue to breathe into the back of the ribs I’m instructing my students to bring their awareness to a specific part of the body in a more efficient way than the cue “relax.”

Furthermore, by breathing into the back during a pose like Balasana (child’s pose), the student becomes attuned to the physiology of breathing.  They gain an awareness of the muscles involved.  The lungs may be the workhorse of breath, and the diaphragm our ‘third lung’, but there’s a whole lot more to consider.  Our intercostal muscles, for instance, extend and contract with each breath to move the ribcage.  Our internal obliques work in opposition to the contracting diaphragm.  The gift of breath – the art of breathing – is more than filling the lungs like a balloon.  It is a complex event with an interrelated team of muscles, organs and bones.

So if my verbal cue “breathe into your spine” sounds weird and maybe a bit ‘airy fairy’ – don’t laugh.  Go with it.  Like I said, I have my reasons.

Inner Space

The body is a holy and wondrous thing. Broken or healthy, it is a miracle. I know this to be true – but my belief is something I’ve cobbled together from books and good teachers – not from first hand experience.

In a few hours I’m boarding a train for San Francisco and will spend the week with fifteen or so other somanauts exploring the body’s inner space with Gil Hedley of the popular Fuzz Speech.  Tomorrow we’ll begin with the dermis and superficial fascia.

I will confess to being apprehensive.  Even this morning I ran through excuses that would keep me home. For a moment I convinced myself to head for the City, hide in the apartment I’m borrowing from clients, skip the workshop and treat myself to a week of isolation and stillness.  A silent retreat.  No one would know.

And then I came to my senses.  I would know.

Earlier today I wrote this to a friend:

Taking train to City today for cadaver week…to be able at last to see it all in front of me – to cut into it (which still seems to me such a violation)…I may be making too big a deal of this but I feel as though I’m stepping though a portal and will emerge in six days a different woman.

People ask me why I want to do this.  Some are incredulous.  Those who have worked with the cadaver are excited for me.  To answer their question “why?” I tell them about being a kid and flipping through the volume of Encyclopedia Britannia that had the transparencies of the human body.  Remember those?  You could flip from the circulatory system to the nervous system; you could see all the muscles and count all the bones.  I got lost for entire afternoons just looking, looking, looking. I was so curious.  I’m still curious.

And curiosity trumps apprehension any day.  I’ll see you in a week.

Reading for Pleasure

I read for pleasure yesterday.  Yes, that’s correct.  I read.  For pleasure.

The morning began like every other morning.  I woke, came down the stairs in the house where I’m taking care of Frodo the Magical Golden Retriever, and opened my notebook to check emails while the coffee brewed. (The dream I had last August of continuing the morning meditation and yoga practice begun during Yin Teacher Training has collapsed.  Old habits die hard – but that’s for another post.)

On this Saturday, my heart just wasn’t in the emails.  Or working on my novel The Growing Season.  I wanted more from the day than the same old routine.  And so I put down the laptop and picked up Gil Hedley’s Reconceiving My Body, cozied up on the couch, and opened to the first page.

Six hours later – with a few breaks for lunch and dog walking – I read the last sentence, “I truly appreciate your interest” and closed the book.

I’ve mentioned Gil Hedley before.  I’ve posted his “Fuzz Speech” online, as have many of my friends from Yin training.  I’ll be participating in a one-day anatomy intensive with Hedley in February and a one-week cadaver intensive in April.  Reading this book was the beginning of my preparation for these workshops.

The thing is, Gil Hedley is an odd duck.  Admittedly, so am I.

Reconceiving My Body is a love story.  Sort of.  It’s the story of how Hedley went from wanna-be-Priest to PhD to Tai Chi Guy to Rolfer to Somanaut to Husband to Father.  It’s a deeply personal story and yet the story he tells belongs to everyone.  Who hasn’t struggled with faith, with sexuality, with finding their path?  How many travel through life playing the role of the victim until we finally learn to take personal responsibility for our actions? Ultimately it is trust – not faith – that leads to redemption.

Good teachers are hard to find.  Based on what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard and now, what I’ve read – I found one.

(I know, I know…you’re heads are still wrapping around the idea of a “cadaver intensive.”  That’s all right.  So’s mine.)


Day Om…Land of Medicine Buddha

Do you remember that Superbowl commercial from 1984?  The one with the sledgehammer?  I feel a bit like that.

It turns out that somewhere along our yoga journey we became stuck on alignment.  How it happened doesn’t really matter.

For the past twenty years I’ve been turning my right foot out ninety degrees and turning my left foot in thirty for every triangle.  And so has each one of my students.   I believed the same alignment worked for everyone.  And I appreciated having rules to follow.  It felt good to know that if my feet were in set in one direction and my hands in another I was ‘doing it right’.  It didn’t hurt my average proportioned body – why would it hurt anyone else?

Besides, it’s nice putting poses into compartments: this is what Triangle looks like.  This is Half Moon.  Warrior goes like this.  And if our poses weren’t identical it wasn’t because we were breaking the Laws of Alignment – it was because we had a tight hip or a tense hamstring.  As soon as those muscles loosened up we’d be just fine.  Because we’re all the same.  Just like in that Superbowl commercial.

Well guess what?  Paul and Suzee Grilley have taken a sledgehammer to everything I thought I knew about yoga.

Here’s the thing:  It turns out we’re not all the same.

Sure, differences on the outside are easy to note:  hair color, eye color, body weight – they’re different on everyone.  But we forgot to consider the inside.  The closest most of us come to looking at bones are the plastic skeletons in high school biology class.  But those familiar plastic femurs drop off an assembly line, one after another. We don’t.  As the saying goes, “When God made you he broke the mold.” We’re one of kind.  Literally.

If you don’t believe me, look at this: bone photos

These past two weeks – which are coming to an end far too soon – have made me reconsider everything I thought I knew about yoga, about movement, about teaching.

I have loved my time here but I’m looking forward to coming home and being with all my students.  I’m looking forward to our transition – a slow unwinding – a letting go of the rules.  You won’t believe how liberating it feels.