Santosha

IMG_1827Several years ago a friend gave me a huge leather chair. It’s green and it has a matching hassock. The chair was her father’s, and you can see through the stains and the scratches that the chair was well loved. My friend’s father felt content in that chair. He read the paper or told bedtime stories to his children. I’m content in that chair, too. It’s soft and easy and wraps around my body. The chair has wide arms that I can stretch my legs across and I’ve filled it with pillows that support my back. But the contentment I feel in that giant green chair is not the same contentment that is asked of us when we embrace Patanjali’s second Niyama, Santosha. The contentment I feel when wrapped in that chair is easy to come by.

But how do we find contentment when we are standing in the eye of a storm, or when we brush up against discomfort? How do we find contentment then?

I believe we can find contentment simply by witnessing ‘what is‘. If we choose to release our anxiety about the past and the future and if we choose to release the stories we tell ourselves about how life should be it will create the space needed for contentment to take a foothold. If we release expectations and instead choose to center ourselves in the here and now contentment will find us.

Contentment is a choice, a promise and a practice. Some choices are difficult to make. Some promises are difficult to keep. And sometimes we don’t want to practice.

It’s important we continue our practice of contentment, however, so that when we brush up against the hard edges in life – when the chair is less than comfortable – we can still rest in a place of comfort and ease.

It’s important we continue our practice of contentment so that, as yoga therapists, we can live what we are trying to teach. Accepting the circumstances in which we find ourselves is the essence of finding contentment. This is why santosha is important in yoga therapy. Our clients are on a journey of acceptance. Santosha can hold space for that acceptance.


Patience is My Practice – Sometimes

IMG_0697Im not the most patient individual in the world.  Or universe.  I try.  Its part of my practice.  But at my weakest moments, when life is too full and I feel overwhelmed by it all, I can be an impatient, humorless and cantankerous grouch.

Case in point:  a recent any interaction with a nationwide cable company that shall remain nameless (Comcast).  During the move in February my beloved NCLP – a man of seemingly infinite patience without a cantankerous bone in his body – offered to deal with installing wireless in the new condo.  As it happened, I was present when our technician arrived.  A lovely, intelligent and engaging gentleman, he had the wireless up and running in minutes.  As the technician was leaving I kindly asked begged him to take with him two cable boxes (who needs a television when theres free Hulu?) and the modem that had just been replaced by its smaller and speedier cousin. He was sympathetic but could not help.  The equipment would stay with me.

A few days later, while standing in my storage unit determining how to stack the detritus of life from which Ive yet to find the courage to part, it hit me.  Literally.  Looking back, my reaction to being bonked by a cable box was extreme.  But I can tell you it felt great.

After letting loose with a few expletives and without taking a moment to consider the ramifications of my actions I picked up the box, walked the few yards to the garbage dumpster behind the Chinese restaurant, and threw the damn thing away.

And now, two months later, my impetuousness has come back to bite me in the tuckus.  The cable company would like their box back.   Theyve been calling repeatedly and until today Ive avoided admitting the pickle my lack of patience has created.  This morning I drove to the local Xfinity Emporium (ironically and with a healthy bit of snark I parked at the ATT shop next door).  I handed in the old modem.  I tried to return the new cable box but it was refused on the grounds that the box – all shiny silver and still shrink wrapped – is part of my bundle.  Dont ask.  Finally, the customer service rep (who was desperate with allergies but really a very nice woman) asked about the missing cable box.

I dont know where it is.

You should really try to find it.

I think it got lost in the move.

You should really try to find it because youre being charged for it.  Once you return it all that money will be credited to you.

Im not going to find it.  I couldnt quite summon the courage to confess to Comcast how their box met its end.  How much will I be charged?

One hundred sixty-two dollars.

Can I just pay for it now?

You should really try to find it.

She seemed so nice.  So certain that surely the cable box was in a closet somewhere and not littering a landfill.  I just didnt have the heart to tell her and so I thanked her and said goodbye.  Im down one modem but theres a cable box in the back of my car that I will not be throwing in a dumpster no matter how many times it falls on my head.  Its going right back into my storage unit.

As for the money my impatience has cost me?  I have a bucket full of change that Ill take over to the Coinstar machine at Mollie’s.  I was hoping to treat my NCLP to a nice dinner on California Avenue but I suspect there’re just enough quarters in that bucket to cover the cost of that poor cable box.

Patience is my practice, and there was a time in my life when I would have blamed the technician or the customer service rep before even considering that I am the one responsible for my actions and my reactions.  I’m grateful for that understanding.  I’m grateful that I can find humor in this latest adventure in Comcastland.  I’m even a bit grateful that it’s going to set me back one hundred and sixty-two dollars.  I’m not certain why.  

Maybe the next time I feel full and overwhelmed I’ll remember to step back and breathe.

 

 

 


How Do We Know How to Teach?

CIMG0701There are yoga teachers who prepare for each moment of each class with intention and crystalline clarity. These are the teachers who write a script and a set list of poses. They’ve chosen a pranayama practice, cued a playlist on their iPad and have bookmarked a Pema Chodron quote.

Being prepared for the roomful of students we are about to teach is absolutely necessary and this type of teacher is, if anything, prepared. But is that truly being present for your students? Or is it the means to an entertaining end? I don’t know the answer to that question. Perhaps it depends on the collective intentions of the individuals in the studio – the expectations we have for the practice.

I’ve just stepped into my third decade of teaching and there are still times when my confidence takes a hit. Perhaps my attendance has temporarily faltered or a student unfamiliar with my teaching style offers criticism. No matter. Out of some misguided belief that all good yoga teachers create detailed lesson plans, I will find myself writing a set list of asanas. I’ll maintain this routine for a few weeks before realizing that I am not that teacher. It’s not how my asanas roll.

It has been my experience that teaching from a script inevitably results – for me – a less successful class. While this won’t be true for all teachers, my scripted classes lack connection and the seamless organic flow that I enjoy and believe are a necessary component of all good yoga practices.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not prepared.

While I have a set of intentions for each and every class I teach, it’s not until I arrive at the studio and can feel the energy of the room, the energy of my students and the energy contained within me as the teacher do I decide on the direction the class will take and the sequence of poses.

My decision is based on intuition and instinct. The trust I have in my teaching intuition took time to manifest and it is something that I now value and hold near to my heart.

I don’t believe it is something that can be taught. The qualities of intuition and instinct we develop are nurtured through our successes and our failures as teachers. And I’ve had plenty of both.

But – and as teachers we know this – intuition and instinct or the ability to create a great playlist are not the only qualities on which we should rely. As long as we teach we are also and always students. As long as we teach we are also and always beginners.

 


The Sense of a Woman

          I’m like that kid in The Sixth Sense.  Except instead of seeing dead people, I smell cigarette smoke.  Now and again, even when the nearest smoldering cancer stick is miles away, I’ll feel the tease of a phantom, acrid odor.  When I mentioned this to my doctor during a routine wellness exam last November he paused, looked up from his computer screen and said, “Really?”

            And that’s how, a few weeks later, I ended up in the neurologist’s office on a Wednesday morning.  The following week I had a brain scan.  The week after that an EEG. Seven days later I returned to the neurologist’s office to find out if I had a brain tumor, epilepsy, chronic sinusitis or a rampant imagination. 

            The odds were on my overactive imagination.  My guess – as a graduate of Princeton Plainsboro under the tutelage of Dr. Gregory House with eight years of further study at Seattle Grace – was that my odd symptoms were nothing more than my body’s way of responding to stress and the hormonal fluctuations of menopause.  But what if I was wrong?  There’s nothing like a slight brush with mortality to jar you from a rut and encourage a yogi to take a good, close look at her practice.  When was the last time you stepped back for a moment to examine your yoga journey? 

            I sat in sukhasana for the first time in 1975. I was a 16-year-old junior at Northwestern Lehigh High School in rural Pennsylvania and my gym teacher Mrs. Carey was introducing the class  to some weird alternative stuff from California she called yoga.  My only goal in life at that time was to find my way to the edge of the Pacific Ocean.  And so, while most of the other girls in class sat slumped and bored, giggly and gossiping, I sat still and closed my eyes.  I knew, at that moment, that I had found my first real thing. A thing I loved. Yet it would be ten years before I sat in sukhasana again.

            I finally made my way to the edge of the Pacific in 1980 to my first real yoga class in a real yoga studio in 1984.  But it feels disingenuous to call the path I’ve walked the past three decades a ‘yoga journey’.  If I’m going to be honest with myself it has been an ‘asana journey’.  Asana. Asana. Asana.   For years layers of tradition were ignored so that I could collect asanas the way some folks collect stamps.  Why not?  It was fun and my body was hungry for it.  I knew it was there, waiting for me, but still I turned a blind eye to the beauty and gossamer depth of a rich yoga practice.  I knew I was taking the scenic route but when at last I began to crave more I was so entrenched in the asana practice my lineage offered that I simply didn’t know where to begin.

            That doesn’t mean I wasn’t trying.  I had all the right books.  The Gita and the Upanishads, the Sutras and the Pradipika.  They sat right next to Light on Yoga, a book that for years I carried with me as though it were the Holy Grail.  I was earnest and eager but on reflection it’s clear.  I wasn’t ready for the truth yoga teaches.  I wasn’t ready for the wisdom.

            Over the past five years, however, my intentions and thus my practice have changed.  I work harder to open my heart and my spirit than I do to open my hips.  My asana practice is still strong but my living practice – how I walk in the world – is stronger.  I am no longer a student of asana.  I am a student of yoga.  So.  Did my yoga practice prepare me for potential change?  Was I worried? I am grateful that over the past five years I have moved toward a deep and authentic practice.  I’m grateful that it has built a wonderful foundation for me when circumstances change and challenges arise.  Yet despite my practice there was a certain and constant low-grade anxiety with one deeply felt crying jag.  But I practice yoga.  I know hot to breathe.  I know how to remain present.  I know how to still my mind and how to move away from the storied chatter.  But that’s what I was doing.  I was writing a story.  I had no idea what news my doctor was going to present me and yet I chose to write a story about a fate I could not predict.

             At the end of the day, I’ll live to smell another day.  All my tests were negative.  My doctor isn’t quite ready to blame my rampant imagination. There’s a possibility of simple focal seizures, which sound more serious than they should.  But all’s well.  I have a fully functioning brain.  And I have an awesome yoga practice.

Different versions of this essay have appeared in Indian Currents and Yoga Living Magazine. 

I am very grateful to both publications for supporting my work.

             


How the Faux-Grinch Made Christmas All Her Own

yogaI’m not really a Grinch. I’m just one of those folks who love winter not for the shiny tinsel but because their’s nothing quite as cozy as a cold winter day burrowed under the blankets with a few good books and a hot toddy.

Too much burrowing, however, does not a festive yogi make.

This year I’ve decided to celebrate the season doing what I love. Yoga.

And I hope you’ll join me. Over the holidays I’ll be teaching these four classes at the California Yoga Center:

Monday 24 December – Christmas Eve

7:00 – 8:30’ish PM (please note earlier start time)

Yin Yoga

Donation Based

Tuesday 25 December – Christmas Day

9:00 – 10:30 AM (please note extra half hour)

Hatha Flow

$18 drop-in

Monday 31 December – New Year’s Eve

7:00 – 8:30’ish PM (please note earlier start time)

Yin Yoga

Donation Based

Tuesday 1 January – New Year’s Day

9:00 – 10:30 AM (please note extra half hour)

Hatha Flow

$18 drop-in

CYC Students – Please note the time change on the Yin Yoga class.  We’ll be starting at 7:00 and NOT 7:30.  Also note the extra half hour added to the morning classes.  

I think we deserve a longer savasana on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.  Don’t you?


The Pen Collector

Just a few of my several dozen pens.

Just a few of my several dozen pens.

The thing about tolerating a cold is that in between blowing the nose and hacking up phlegm balls, you have quite a bit of time for thinking.

On November 19th a cold took hold at 38,000 feet over the Pacific when a stranger a few rows behind let loose with a wet and righteous sneeze. At the time I remember calmly telling myself, “I’m going to get that.” Repeated slaps to the forehead while silently screaming “NO NO NO NO you idiot WHAT were you thinking?!?!” were not enough to talk my immune system down from the inevitable and, sure enough, on the evening of Tuesday the 20th while watching a DVD with my friend, I began to cough.

By the following morning I had a full-blown excuse for staying in bed with the duvet tucked tight for the next seven days.

But, like I said, it gave me time to think. Perhaps it was feverish delirium, but the one thing I thought most about were the two flowerpots full of pens I keep on the right hand corner of my desk next to the twelve spiral notebooks I keep stacked at attention in the event I should have just one brilliant thought worth noting (there at least a dozen more notebooks awaiting active duty in a dresser drawer). “Why on earth,” I muttered, “do I have so many pens and notebooks?”

I’m a pen snob. I prefer an ultra fine Pilot G2 gel point in black. They have good glide.

I’m not as picky about my spiral notebooks, although I prefer the 9 ½ by 7 inch Callbers. Yes, I have a couple of those fancy black notebooks – the one Hemingway preferred – but I’m afraid of them. They’re a bit too pretty. I wouldn’t dare deface them with my chicken scratch – even with a black inked ultra fine Pilot G2 gel point.

Yes, I recognize my obsession with notebooks and pens is a symptom of something more troubling.

When I recovered from my cold I took a good look around me. In my medicine cabinet were six different brands of hair ointment all promising to do the same thing for my curls. In my closet? Sixteen pairs of shoes. There are three more pairs in a basket by my front door. Four tubes of toothpaste. Five brands of antiperspirants. An assortment of travel sized bottles of shampoo, conditioner and moisturizer.

You see where I’m going with this. I feel a little New Year’s challenge coming on.

I’m going to try to survive 2013 without making any new purchases.

Before you think I’ve gone around the twist, here are the guidelines:

Obviously I will need to pay rent, purchase food, gas for my car, electricity. I will also be spending money on books and tuition this year as well as airfare for a trip back East.

What I won’t allow myself to buy is any item bought to replace an item that I already have and that is still in good working order. I can only replace personal care items like soap, shampoo, deodorant and moisturizer when what I have is within a use or two of running out.

No new pens or notebooks.

No new clothes or shoes – I have more than I need.

But what about entertainment? Meals out? The occasional over-priced coffee?

I’m not trying to live the life of an ascetic. I still want to live well and enjoy life fully. I will set a budget over the next few days to accommodate life’s little frills.

This is a simple exercise in mindfulness. Ours is a greedy and wasteful society. I want to pay better attention to how much I waste and what I truly need.

Anyone care to join me?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Samyama

 

The term samyama refers to the combined practice of dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (union). It is a technique we can utilize to cultivate deeper understanding of the qualities of an object or a person or a concept. It’s said that the yogi who successfully practices samyama will experience the lightness of being freed from the mental constructs – the kleshas – that bind us to the ‘real world’. In other words, samyama liberates us from obstacles, hindrances, troubles and suffering.

Samyama is also the name of the new yoga studio opening in Midtown, Palo Alto in October (just in time for Diwali).

Samyama isn’t your ordinary yoga studio. It’s one man’s vision manifested. To read the history of how Samyama began, click here.

Two months ago John Berg and I met for coffee at Philz – John’s office until the new one is built. The following week he invited me to teach at Samyama. I’ll be joining local yoga master Anirudh Shastri plus Louis Jackson, Annika Williams, Hillary Easom and Bethany Sala. One or two others have yet to be confirmed but the truth is John is keeping the teaching staff small for a reason – he’s not creating a yoga mini-mart with 48 available flavors . He’s creating a yoga home.

And I can’t wait to move in.

 


This Week: Opening the Heart

“We are all here for a single purpose:  to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better.  We can do this through losing as well as through winning, by having and by not having, by succeeding or by failing.  All we need to do is show up openhearted for class.”

The quote is from Rachel Remen’s book Kitchen Table Wisdom and it will be our theme for classes this week.  It’s a laid back week for me.  Classes at Avenidas are on break until July 9th and my class at Prajna Yoga and Healing Arts is taking a break on July 4th, but you can still join me for some heart opening practice at California Yoga Center, where I’ll be teaching the following classes:

 Yin:  Monday 2nd July from 7:30-9 PM
Slow Flow:  Tuesday 3rd July and Friday 6th July from 9-10 AM

See you there!


Start Where You Are – Building a Home Practice, One Step at a Time

You might think you have no time for yoga outside of your once-a-week studio class.  Think again.  I’ve broken down your yoga practice into three sections – “Wake Up”, “Focus” and “Relax.” The sections correspond to morning, mid-day and evening.  Each should take no more than five to ten minutes.  You don’t have to do every pose listed in the section – choose what resonates and what you have time for.  Choose what feels good.  Stop if it feels bad.  Don’t rush.

These routines are very, very simple and exclude classic standing asanas (we’ll save that for later).  Still, it’s  not for someone brand new to yoga.  You should have enough beginning experience to be familiar with the movements.  Take your time and take care.  And remember to breathe.

Equipment:  Yoga mat, bolster or a firmly rolled blanket, a strap.  Anything else you may need for support.

“Wake Up – The Morning Routine”

 Begin Supine on Floor

Pelvic Rolls:  Inhale the tailbone toward floor; exhale the tailbone toward the ceiling.  You can add arm movements after the fourth or fifth cycle simple by taking the arms up and back on the inhale and bringing them down by your side on the exhale.

Knees to Chest: Alternate one knee at a time, extending the opposite leg.  Hold for several breaths and switch sides two or three times.

Windshield Wipers: Knees are bent and the feet about hip distance apart.  Drop the legs gently from one side to another.

Both Knees to Chest:  Hold the knees toward your chest for a few breaths and then allow the knees to move with the breath.  You’ll find they move away as you breath in.  You can tuck them tighter on the out breath.

Supported Bridge:

  • Place the bolster under the hips – keep the knees bent and the feet flat on the floor
  • Stay in supported bridge for a few breaths
  • Extend the legs along the floor and take the arms behind you if it’s comfortable – if this bothers your lower back return to supported bridge
  • Extend the legs toward the ceiling for a bit of an inversion
  • Bring one foot down at a time

Reclining Twist:

  • Cross the right knee over the left knee
  • Shift your hips to the right a few inches
  • Drop your knees to the left
  • Allow the right shoulder to drift toward the floor
  • Repeat on the other side

Table Top/Hands and Knees

Cat/Cow:  On the in breath lift the tail bone and face; on the out breath tuck the chin and the tailbone.

Downward Facing Dog:

  • Come to table top
  • Walk the hands a hand length forward and take them about shoulder width apart
  • Tuck your toes
  • Inhale the hips up
  • Exhale the heels down toward the mat
  • After five breaths step forward to a standing forward bend and then curl up slowly to a standing position

 Finish with any standing stretches that feel right – your body will know what to do. And then standing breath awareness.  I love “pancaking” both hands over my heart to feel the beat of my heart and the warm of my hands meeting one another.

“Focus for the Afternoon”

We begin seated in a chair

Neck Stretches: Move slowlyand hold each position for several breaths.  ‘Tease’ the stretch a bit to find what I like to call the ‘sweet spot’.

  • Right ear to right shoulder
  • Right ear toward right shoulder blade
  • Right ear toward right armpit
  • Repeat on left side

Chin to chest:  Allow the chin to drop to stretch the back of the neck.  Don’t force the position.

Shoulder Shrug:  Shrug shoulders to earlobes and hold (but don’t forget to breath); count three and then drop the shoulders.  Repeat three or four times.

For Your Ankles and Feet:

  • Cross the right knee over the left
  • Circle  the ankle ten times in each direction
  • Point and flex the foot three or four times
  • Repeat on the left side

Piriformis Stretch:

  • Cross right ankle over left knee
  • Sit close to the edge of the chair
  • Hinge gently from the hip
  • The sensation should be in right hip
  • Repeat on left side

Seated Back Bend:

  • With your hips toward the edge of the chair place your hands on the seat of the chair behind the hips
  • Lift through the sternum
  • Think less about bending the lower back and more about opening the front of the body

Seated Twist:

  • Place your right hand on the left leg, left hand behind left hip, twisting to your left on the exhalation.
  • Breath in – lengthen the torso.
  • Exhale and settle into the twist.
  • Repeat on the other side.

Seated Forward Fold:

  • Sit toward the edge of the chair with your feet wide
  • Allow the spine to round forward until your upper torso is folded forward between your thighs
  • Hold for a few breaths and then inhale and curl up slowly

Standing

Standing Stretch with Flat Back:  Use the edge of your desk or the wall.  Stand about three feet away and hinge at the hips.  Let your hands rest on the desk, arms extended and legs perpendicular to the floor.

  • Bend right knee and drop right hip for stretch in left hip
  • Bend left knee and drop left hip for stretch in right hip

A standing stretch with a flat back is a great stretch for any time of day, anywhere. It’s particularly good if you’ve been standing all day – it brings a lightness to the feet and legs.

Wall Stretch:

  • Keep right foot about twelve inches from desk
  • Step left foot back about three feet
  • Hinge at hips, keeping hips level.
  • Allow your hands to rest on the desk or a wall for stability

With the right foot forward this will wake up the right hamstring and left calf.

Repeat on left side.

Shoulders:

  • Standing with feet hip distance and the arms by your side, turn the palms out and inhale the arms up.  Extend the fingers toward the ceiling and, if it’s comfortable for your neck, look up between the hands.
  • Turn the palms out and exhale the arms by your side.
  • Repeat three to five times.

Ideally the Focus practice ends with 5-minutes of seated meditation,

quiet reflection or breath awareness.

“Relax Yourself to Sleep”

 Seated on Floor in Easy Cross Legs

Seated Spine Stretch*:

  • Sit in easy cross legs with your hands on your knees.
  • Inhale – lift the chest toward the ceiling.
  • Exhale – hollow out the front of the body and round the spine to stretch between the shoulder blades
  • Inhale – lift the chest toward the ceiling
  • Exhale – fold forward

You can do this for as many cycles as you wish. I suggest beginning with at least three.

Seated Twist*:

  • Bring the right hand to the left knee
  • Place the left hand behind the left hip
  • Inhale – lengthen the torso
  • Exhale – twist to the left

Take a few breaths to move into your full expression of the pose and then settle into the twist for a bit. Avoid “cranking” into the twist by using your arm strength to pull the torso.  Repeat on the other side.

Lateral Stretch*:

  • Place the right hand on the floor next to the hip and then walk the fingers out until you begin to lean to the right.
  • You’ll notice the left hip is lifting from the floor.
  • Inhale – Bring the left arm up and over until it’s arching over the head.
  • Exhale – Press through the heel of the right hand in order to encourage the left hip to move toward the floor
  • Repeat on other side.

Forward Fold:

  • We want this to be as gentle as possible as this practice is supposed to a “winding down from the day” practice.
  • Sit with your legs in front of you, feet and knees slightly apart
  • Place the bolster underneath the knees
  • Round the torso forward
  • If you need to, use your hands to help support the torso but know that this forward fold is heavy and relaxed as opposed to a forced struggle.  Make it as gentle as possible and just trust that the spine is going to become more and more giving with each practice.

Supine on Floor

 Alternate the Knees in the Chest – just like you do in the morning practice

Hamstring/Hip Stretch– TAKE YOUR TIME WITH THIS!

  • Place a strap at the ball of the right foot.
  • Extend the leg toward the ceiling, opening the back of the knee and stretching through the heel.
  • Extend the left leg along the floor.  Stretch through the heel and point the toes toward the ceiling.
  • Take the strap in the right hand and drop the leg out to the right, rotating from the hip so the toes of the right foot point toward the floor.
  • Continue to work the foot toward the head to stretch the inner thigh.
  • Bring the leg back up and take the strap into the left hand.
  • Drop the leg a few inches toward the left to stretch the outside of the thigh.
  • Repeat with the left leg.

Knees to Chest and Windshield Wiper

Rest quietly in Savasana for ten minutes.

I need to thank teacher Kelly McGonigal for the Seated Spine Stretch, Seated Twist and Lateral Stretch in the “Relax Yourself to Sleep” section.  I first learned those movements from her at Avalon Yoga Center in Palo Alto, California.


Beware the YINJURY!

I couldn’t ignore the truth.  My hip was sore.  Real sore.  It was wince-inducing sore.  And while I limped in denial I began to hear stories similar to mine:  a recurring shoulder pain that increased after Yin practice; a wonky knee that ached the next day; a lower back that refused another forward fold.  All injuries reported by Yin Yoga students.

I refused to believe my beloved Yin was to blame.  It just had to be something else.  Yet, listening to these my students describe the course of events that led to their discomfort and considering my overstretched hip flexor with an objective mind the truth was obvious:  we had YINJURIES – the Yin equivalent to falling asleep in the tanning bed.  Sigh.

For a time the science of flexibility seemed to be changing like the wind.  When I trained as a sports massage therapist long held static stretches were all the rage.  Now the trend leans toward fast dynamic stretching.  I’m confused.  If science supports short and sharp stretches where does Yin fit in?  Does it hurt more than it helps?

I asked anatomist and philosopher Gil Hedley, circular strength training coach Michael Rook and personal trainer Steven Rice their opinion.

Gil offered this:

Virtually anything can be harmful or helpful.  That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to how you are feeling when you are doing something.  I’m no scientist, but I’ve overstretched and endured the consequences, and I’ve also relished the feeling of stretching and moving and enjoyed the benefits.  I personally believe that most anything you do over and over again represents a rut eventually, and like to change things up a bit myself.  While a practice is expanding you and your horizons, enjoy it.  When it becomes a tedium or mere repetition to satisfy a habit, move on.

There have been moments in my Yin practice when I’ve taken the poses almost ‘by rote’ – without thinking.  Without feeling.  Perhaps when we lose our mindfulness in the practice we open the door to injury?

Michael, who attended Paul Grilley Yin Teacher Training with me a few years ago, was frank in his opinion:

To be honest, I’m not surprised to hear about this.  The science is relatively clear that stretching before resistance training (some of my students attend Yin and then lift weights the following day) can harm performance and lead to injury.  Even more so before using kettle bells, I would say.  Personally, I don’t hold stretches for more than a minute (and it depends on the stretch).  There’s also a lot of deep flexion in many Yin poses that can play havoc with the lower back (if you’re posteriorly rotated).  Ultimately, all practices need to be tailored to the individual.

That sounds like obvious advice, but how often do teachers really attempt to do that?  In a large class that’s virtually impossible.  While it’s the instructor’s responsibility to guide the class safely, does it really come down to the individual listening to their body?

Michael then referred me to Charles Poliquin’s Blog and the Gymnastics Bodies website.

Finally, local trainer Steve “Mr. Science” Rice gave me this to chew on:

My understanding is that the ligaments should not be stretched as that will lead to joint laxity, and they don’t recover from that.  However it is also possible for the ligaments and capsule to get a bit glued together and need a bit of loosening.

Tendons of course are attached to muscles so I don’t know if they can be stretched separately.  A stretch will affect the tissue most willing to lengthen which is likely the muscle, and the length of a muscle is determined first of all by the brain. 

Traditional static stretching, like holding a yoga pose, has become depreciated in the sports world because it has been shown to decrease performance.  Current thinking emphasizes dynamic warm-up and mobility work.  End ROM (range of motion) positions are moved into and out of under control so the entire neuromuscular chain is engaged.  For example, instead of hanging in a forward bend with gravity pulling you down, walk and on each step do a high kick.  My stretches last no more than one or two seconds.

And then, just to inject a bit of controversy, Steven wrote:

Incidentally, Poliquin is a smart guy and leading fitness authority but also controversial in his interpretation of research.

So there you have it.  Static stretching out.  Dynamic stretching in.

Not so fast.  I love Yin not only for how it feels in my body but for how it soothes my spirit.  There’s no way I’m trading those five-minute dragonflies for some high kicks!  But here’s what I might do:

Offer my body more support in poses that are challenging for me.

  • Hold some poses for less time.
  • Avoid weight training for 24 hours after a Yin practice (I can assure you that won’t be a problem).
  • And then, more than anything, I’m going to listen.

Fitness trends emerge and fade, theories behind the science of flexibility change, our bodies cycle through movements that feel good and movements that don’t.

It seems that the only thing we can do is listen.