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.

Negative Space

I’m captivated by negative space.

The space that isn’t the thing:  the blue between the branches of a bare winter tree, the angles drawn by a box of pencils spilled atop a desk, the shapes that fall between the shadows of a picket fence on a summer sidewalk.  Negative space.  The space that isn’t the thing.  The space that connects.

Sometimes it happens that during our yoga practice the asana becomes a single intention.  A shape to hold in passive static until we decide – or someone decides for us – that it is time to move.

This can happen if we’re practicing a slow flow or lightening quick vinyasa.   The shape becomes the goal.  There’s a rhythm and a reason for our wanting to be there. When I arrive at my full expression of the asana I’m practicing I’ve arrived at someplace familiar.  Someplace balanced.  Home.

But what about the negative space?  What about the space between the shapes our bodies sketch? What about the movements we create as we shift toward trikonasana or sirsasana? And what about the breaths we draw around that movement?  Shouldn’t the journey we take to create the asana be considered, too?

As you practice this week notice the negative space.  Connect with the space that isn’t the thing.

And Now, a Quick Word from Our Sponsor: January Classes

I thought it was time for me to remind everyone where I teach, how to register and what to expect.  Currently I teach in two studios:  California Yoga Center and Avenidas Senior Center.  I work privately with individuals or small groups in the home and am also available to teach introductory classes and workshops at your school or office.

California Yoga Center

One of the first yoga studios on the Peninsula – and where so many of us were first introduced to yoga – CYC has locations in Palo Alto and Mountain View.   My classes are at 541 Cowper Street in Palo Alto between University Avenue and Hamilton.  I teach three classes at CYC.  They are on going.  Two are Iyengar-influenced “slow flow” style classes and the third is a Yin class taught in the Paul Grilley tradition.  If you’re still looking for a last minute gift you can purchase Gift Certificates for individual or a series of classes.  More information about purchasing gift certificates can be found on the CYC website.

Here’s what to expect from a class with Mimm:

Yin Yoga – Mondays 7:30 to 9:00 PM

Yin is a donation-based class.  Please pay what you can afford up to $17 (the regular drop-in fee).

The long-held stretches characteristic of Yin Yoga help to recover and maintain a full range of movement and flexibility in the joints and connective tissue.  The work is challenging but profoundly relaxing. While Yin should not be confused with Restorative style yoga on more than one occasion students have told me, “I have the best night’s sleep on Yin nights!”

I keep the studio very dark.  Soft futons and bolsters, blankets and pillows are used for support.  Sometimes I’ll use music to help set a tone.

Verbal instruction is kept to a minimum.  Nevertheless, enough suggestions and options are offered to create an environment that feels comfortable and safe.

All the work takes place on the floor and poses are held between 2 and 6 minutes.  For more information regarding Yin Yoga look here.

Iyengar-influenced Hatha and Slow Flow – Tuesdays or Fridays from 9:00 to 10:00 AM

The drop-in fee for these classes is $15.  A 4-week series is available for $52.  An 8-week series is available for $104.  Classes do not have to be taken consecutively and there is no expiration date (this applies to my classes only.  Other CYC instructors may have different policies).

In the beginning, there was Iyengar.  At least for me.  I loved the attention to alignment, the emphasis on safety and the slow, careful pace as we moved from one pose to another.  But things change.

I still love my Iyengar roots, but I also love moving with my breath from one shape to another.  We move at a pace that allows time to settle into the pose and to explore how it feels in the body.  I provide options for anyone not ready to take on the more challenging standing poses.

Both of these classes are Level I/II – suitable for beginning and intermediate students.

California Yoga Center has everything you need for a safe practice:  bolsters, straps, pillows, and blocks.  It’s recommended that you bring your own “sticky” mat.

Avenidas Center

It’s a misnomer to call Avenidas a “senior” center.  Yes, you have to be over the age of fifty to enroll in classes – but what’s a number?  Pre-registration is required, but you can enroll online or drop by the front desk at 450 Bryant Street (cross street University Avenue).  Classes are held in 10-week blocks.  Our winter session begins the week of January 9th, 2012.  There is no drop-in but anyone is welcome to visit and try out my yoga classes before enrolling.  The price for a ten-week session is $60 for Avenidas members and $70 for non-members.  Where are you going to find a one-hour class for $6.00 anywhere on the Peninsula?

I have three classes at Avenidas:

  • Mondays from 1:00-2:00
  • Fridays from 10:30 to 11:30
  • Fridays from 11:45 to 12:45

Because of student demographics these classes tend to lean toward the introductory level but everyone is encouraged to deepen into the work as their bodies allow.  Some students have had years of yoga experience and will have a more full expression of the pose we’re working in.  Others who are new to yoga are given modifications that help awaken the body.

All three classes begin with floor warm-ups, followed by a carefully planned standing sequence and then finishing with seated work and relaxation.  Because of the nature of my classes at Avenidas, it’s suggested that students be able to safely lower and then rise from the floor.  That being said, chairs are available to assist.

Unfortunately, equipment is limited at Avenidas. We have soft exercise mats but I recommend you bring a sticky mat and two bath towels that can be folded into mini-bolsters.  A strap is also handy – this can be a yoga strap or, if you’re on a budget, a man’s tie or belt.  Yoga blocks are helpful, too.

Individual Study

If you are recovering from illness or injury then I recommend two or three sessions of individual study.  Together we can see where you’re at in terms of strength and flexibility.  We can build a program that will support recovery instead of setting it back.

Some clients, of course, simply enjoy how individualized attention deepens their practice. You’ll discover the body responds to the work easily when hands on adjustments and personalized modifications are part of the program.

Monkey See, Monkey Do, Monkey Mind: Further Adventures in Meditation

Over the weekend some ill-timed and unkind words hurt the feelings of a dear friend. With a rare lack of consideration, I replied to a friend’s loving note with rude sarcasm.  When I realized my mistake it was, of course, too late.  I could not take back what I had written.

I am a kind person.  I am empathetic and accommodating.  This lapse in judgment was unusual for me and I continued to dwell on it until little Monkey Mind and her chattering little monkey friends cobbled together a story in my brain that my heart grabbed hold of like a dog with a bone.  Click here to read a great article about what the Buddha had to say about the monkey mind.

The result?  Monkey Mind’s got me.  She has a firm hold of my cerebral cortex and is giving it a real rattle.

You know Monkey Mind, don’t you?  She’s the uninvited guest who insinuates herself in many ways.  She’s our inner gossip.  She keeps our mind restless and unsettled; doubtful and confused.

I regret the choice of words I used with my friend but instead of acknowledging my lack of judgment and moving on Monkey Mind is making certain I stay stuck right at the moment when I pressed ‘send’.  I’ve no opportunity to push ‘pause’; no way to hit ‘delete’. Instead, my mind is set on instant replay so I can witness the fumble on a constant loop. I’ve seen the sequence of events in my mind’s eye enough times to rewrite several different, happier outcomes.  But of course those alternative outcomes will not be realized.

Monkey Mind is a trouble-making nuisance that serves no purpose.  She’s distracting. When Monkey Mind has the upper hand we lose concentration and focus.  Trying to meditate when Monkey Mind has us by the bal…er…brain is a little like trying to walk a straight path during an earthquake.

But guess what?  We should meditate anyway because a pint of comfort in the guise of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia washed down with a bottle of root beer will not settle Monkey Mind.

But meditation will.  I need to meditate.


And so I did.

I began with a thirty-minute asana practice that balanced a strong standing flow with calming forward folds.  Focusing on my breath redirected my awareness away from the chatter in my mind.

Nevertheless, when I took my seat and closed my eyes Monkey Mind was still poking at me.  But I knew a subtle shift away from Monkey Mind’s influence had begun.

As I settled into meditation, I did not force myself to ignore the chatter.  Instead, with detachment and non-judgment, I simply watched my thoughts as they rose, lingered and floated away.

I turned my awareness to the tip of my nose where I noticed the cool in-breath and the warm out-breath.  And when I felt suitably centered I began to silently repeat the mantra ‘so-hum’.

Thirty minutes later I blinked my eyes opened and took a gentle stretch.

I will not try to convince you that Monkey Mind disappeared after one asana and meditation practice.  What I can tell you is that Monkey Mind’s loud, distracting and overriding cackle has softened.  Once more I can thrive in the present.  And that sure beats obsessing about a future I’m unable to predict and a past that I unfortunately cannot change.



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.

Yoga is More than Skin Deep

When I began to practice yoga twenty-five years ago, the emphasis was on the physical.  In fact, it would be closer to the truth to say I wasn’t practicing yoga at all – I was practicing asana.  And while my early training included work on the philosophy and history of yoga, I listened about as carefully as I did during fifth-grade arithmetic (and my friends are all too aware that my ability to add and subtract leaves much to be desired). 

What was I afraid of?

I convinced myself that asana was enough.  But I was only swimming on the surface.  To me, deeper work meant something physical, nothing more than graduating from half to full lotus without damaging my fragile left knee. The thought of moving deeper spiritually was too uncomfortable.  My asana practice strengthened  but I failed to see beyond its gifts. Deeper examination meant diving into the unknown.  And I was uncertain of what I might find.

But twenty-five years after my first utthita trikonasana I now see awesome beauty in the unknown.  I’ve yet to reach center – do we ever?  But to paraphrase one of my teachers, I know that when I do find my center, freedom will be waiting for me.

Although I have no proof, I think it is reasonably safe to assume that most yoga practice in the West is asana-centric. There’s nothing wrong with that.  I mean, what’s not to love about asana practice? It brings us to a place where we feel balanced and alive.  It calms or energizes depending upon our needs and our sequencing.  And if we pay attention to the sensations we feel after our practice we’ll realize they are more than physical. More than skin deep.  Our asana practice influences our emotional state.  It influences how we perceive the world around us.

But this is just a tease.

When we broaden our yoga practice with elements of pranayama and  meditation we build a practice that is deeply integrated and holistic.  The physiological and spiritual sensations that asana practice hints at become intensified. We begin to dive beneath the surface.

The same teacher who taught me where to find freedom also offered a metaphor.  He suggested that our day-to-day lives, our random thoughts, our unconsidered reactions to the world around us are like the surface of the ocean: rough and unsettled with white caps and tides that rush in and just as quickly rush out.  But beneath the surface of the ocean there is calm.  If we can turn away from chaos and turn toward the calm found in a measured breath and silence then our spirits – and our asana practice – will be nourished.

Dharma: Look Before You Leap

The question of the day in the afternoon seminar I attended at the SYTAR (Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research) conference in Asilomar, Pacific Grove, California was, “how do we know the difference between dharma and wishful thinking?”  In Hinduism dharma refers to our personal obligations, callings and duties.  And wishful thinking?   Wishful thinking is…well…just that.

You’d think the answer would be pretty straightforward.  In fact when I sent the question via text to the friend I go to with all conundrums of the metaphysical sort his reply was  “If you have to ask…”

I suppose he’s right.  I shouldn’t have to ask.  I should know.

But here’s the thing:  how many times have I been swept up by an idea or an intention or a goal that I was convinced was my path?  My destiny. The reason for my existence.

And for a few weeks it is.  Until it isn’t.

So you can see why I’m a little hesitant to trust my instincts.

Then again, I’m one of those people who might on occasion leap before looking.  But when it comes to dharma blind leaping may not be such a good thing.

My friend has a point.  We probably shouldn’t have to ask if what we’re feeling is dharma calling or wishful thinking.  Instead of asking and then desperately grasping at any answer, perhaps it’s simple stillness that’s required.  A moment’s silence.  The space to meditate with a quiet spirit and a calm heart.  When we can temporarily vanquish the turbulence of life only then will we find the clarity to look our dharma in the eye.

Autumn Teaching Schedule

I love this time of year.  Summer is winding down and the last few weeks of August are rolling by slow and lazy.  Kids are anticipating the start of the new school year and so am I.

I’ve had a wonderful summer full of hikes, a trip to Point Reyes and a weekend with friends outside of Reno.  I’m ending my summer with four days at Asilomar for the Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR).  I’ve never been to Asilomar nor have I attended a SYTAR conference and I’m excited to be doing both.

The following weekend teacher training begins at Avalon Yoga Studio.  Although I’ve been teaching for almost twenty years I’ve decided to complete this six-month teacher training to add to my knowledge of yoga and to fill any gaps in my education.  I’m looking forward to the new vocabulary one gains with learning.

Of course a girl has to pay the rent and so while all this is going on I’ll still be teaching my usual schedule.  I hope you’ll join me.

California Yoga Center:

With the exception of the Monday night Yin class, which is a fantastic practice for anyone, my classes at California Yoga Center are considered Level I/II – most suitable for beginners and continuing beginners:

  • Monday evenings from 7:30 to 8:45 – Yin Yoga
  • Tuesday mornings from 9:00 to 10:00 – Iyengar Influenced Slow Flow
  • Friday mornings from 9:00 to 10:00 – Iyengar Influenced Slow Flow

You can find more information about these classes on my website or here.

Avenidas Senior Center:

As long as you are over the age of fifty you may register for classes at Avenidas.  The space is basic and we don’t have the same amenities as a yoga studio but you can’t beat the price.  You can find out more about Avenidas here.

  • Monday afternoons from 1:00 to 2:00 – Beginning Yoga
  • Tuesday afternoons from 5:00 to 6:00 – Improved Beginner
  • Friday mornings from 10:30 to 11:30 – Beginning Yoga
  • Friday mornings from 11:45 to 12:45 – Improved Beginner

I am also happy to work with you on a one to one basis from the comfort of your home.  This is a good choice if you’re recovering from illness or injury, new to yoga or simply can’t find the time to travel to and from the yoga studio.  Working one to one gives us the opportunity to design a program specific to your needs and goals.

Half Moons and Flying Dragons

I remember the evening twenty-five years ago when our teacher led us into Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose).  I had been attending Karl’s class for just a few weeks and it was my first Half Moon.  It wasn’t pretty. I distinctly remember thinking that night would be my last night at Yoga.  My standing leg was shaking, my extended leg’s hip was screaming and my brain was telling me “This is nuts. You can’t do this.  Just go home.”

But I didn’t go home.

To this day Ardha Chandrasana ranks as one of my favorite poses.  Several classes after that first attempt, when I smoothly transitioned into the pose from Triangle and felt the strength in my balancing leg and the openness in my hip, I was free.  I felt like a soaring bird.

And when I introduce Half Moon to a new class for the first time, teaching in the same studio where I was taught, I always stand in the spot where I attempted the pose for the first time and tell the class “Things change.”

These days I’m adding modifications to my Half Moon.  Sometimes, with limited success, I bring my fingers up from the floor to rest the hand on my heart chakra.  More often I’ll take the ankle of my extended leg and pull myself into something I’m certain has a proper name but I call Sideways Bow.

We grow.  We learn.  We fall down. We try again.  We grow.

It took a lot of prying to open my mind to a new way of thinking about Yoga.  My practice was firmly rooted in Iyengar.  There was no other way.

But things change.

While I will probably never, ever understand how I can further my Yoga practice while listening to rock music (please, someone, explain this trend to me), a few years ago I was encouraged to explore the possibility of a fluid, non-alignment based practice.

Enter Flying Dragon. Wait a minute, wasn’t that a Bruce Lee movie?

The truth is, I can be a little bit…ahem…rigid in my thinking.  I like having a place for everything and everything in its place.  Just like an Iyengar practice. I’m not saying Iyengar theory is rigid, only that it might appeal to someone with rigid thinking.

When Suzee Grilley introduced the Flying Dragon sequence to us on a summer morning at teacher training my brain was telling me, “You can’t do this.  This isn’t Yoga.  Give Up.  You’re too out of shape.”  My brain even said this, “You’re too old.”

Several mornings later and I was flying my dragon with joy.

Flying Dragon is the cure for my rigid thinking.  I can feel my soul open to the universe when I practice Flying Dragon.  It lifts my spirit.  It is a balm for the type of depression that feels heavy and leaden.

Different approaches to Yoga fill different needs. Right now I need less formal alignment and more fluid movement.

And for the past few weeks I’ve had this idea in my head that I can’t shake.  There’s a local park not far from my home, and I see myself there, teaching Flying Dragon to anyone who wants to learn.  When I mentioned this to a friend he suggested I was ‘giddy’.  I probably am.  But the thought of a Flying Dragon Flash Mob puts a big smile on my face.

So that’s what I’m going to do.  If you’d like to free your rigid mind – or just feel like flying your dragon – join me for a morning of Flying Dragon (with a few Golden Seeds thrown in for a nice warm up) this Saturday at 11:00 in the park on Homer Street in Palo Alto.

Update:  Four hours after I posted Half Moons and Flying Dragons the August (August?  Seriously?) issue of Yoga Journal arrived.  My “Sideways Bow” variation of Half Moon has a name:  Ardha Chandra Chapasana.  Whew.  Now I can sleep tonight.

The Healing Power of Yoga. Any Yoga.

I taught my first Yin Basics Workshop yesterday at the California Yoga Center, my home studio.  One hour of theory followed by an hour of practice.  Nine beautiful yogis joined me.

Teaching a workshop requires a different skill set to teaching a class.  I felt challenged by the task of explaining the theory and practice of Yin in sixty minutes and then further challenged by the questions raised by students coupled with my self-doubt.

It was a great afternoon.

And yet, this morning I’m convinced that despite the training I’ve completed, the workshops I’ve attended and the books I’ve read I really know nothing about Yoga.  After thirty years of practice, my knowledge only scratches the surface of everything there is to know about how Yoga affects the body on a spiritual and cellular level.

It was a wake-up call.

Meanwhile, labels are beginning to irk me.  I’m beginning to get the feeling that we’re all making it up as we go along.

During our workshop the question that is always asked was asked yet again:  What is the difference between Yin Yoga and Restorative Yoga?  I tried to answer by explaining my experience with the restorative class I attended two weeks ago (read about it here).  The student asking the question – who is a yogi for whom I have great admiration – replied:  “That wasn’t restorative.  In my restorative classes we do eight to ten poses in an hour and hold them like we’re holding them today.”

And yet, at the end of my Restorative Yoga experience two weeks ago, I felt restored.  So who’s to say it wasn’t restorative yoga?  And maybe what she’s calling Restorative is really Yin?  And does it really, really matter?

The truth is I want to feel restored at the end of any yoga practice.  I want to feel connected.  Grounded.  Free of doubt and fear.  I want to feel my blood moving and warm, living muscle tissue.  I want to experience an ease of movement in my body, my spirit and my soul – as though I’ve come home to something I longed for.

That’s how yoga heals.