May 10, 2011

Are you a Superficial Yogi?

Are you a superficial teacher?

In my experience: not necessarily. But probably.

I’ve spent the last year traveling around North America, from Vancouver to Houston, LA to New York City, and everywhere in between. Literally. I’ve even been to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (the yogis there are fantastic).

The one thing I see most often in the yoga students and teachers that come to my workshops is their obvious superficiality.

That’s right–I find that yogis these days are overwhelmingly superficial.

I’m not talking about questions like “how are the bangs?” after a sweaty practice (oops—that’s me!), or the tendency to show up for class camera-ready, mascara to lips (also me). I’m saying that there’s a lack of depth to many people’s practices, physically, but also on every other level of being. If we’re not touching our cores on the mat, it’s likely that we’re challenged by issues of inner strength and stamina outside the studio too.

Many yoga practitioners are practicing from the outside in and the sky down, instead of the much more powerful directions of inside out and earth up. And I’m glad they are, at least when they come to me, because it’s so incredible to turn a pose inside out and watch people finally, and near-instantly begin to rock their Crow poses, handstands, Warriors and so much more.

It’s not that they want to exist more on the surface of poses, they just don’t have all the information about how to be a more profound teacher or student.

Full disclosure: I used to be superficial, too.

To get a student into a High Lunge, for example I’d offer what I now know as more disempowering instructions: telling them how their outer body should get there:

“From Down Dog, step your right foot forward, back heel grounds, come up into High Lunge!”

Once there, I’d watch as my students struggled to get the over-arch out of their spine, the shoulders to release, and that crunchy fist to stop gripping their lower backs. In this pose–you know the look–the “yogic” open heart, the tipped forward pelvis, the front hip joint was smashed, and the back one way too open as the tailbone flew up and away from the floor like baring a claw.

Or, Take Triangle Pose. Most teachers:

“From Warrior 2, straighten your front leg, then reeeeeeach out as far as you can, then tip into the pose!”

Now we’ve got a bunch of yogis with straight legs, and hunchbacks that look like they would be better suited to ringing the bell in Notre Dame. “Lengthen your ribs now”, is the  next plea, which only the most flexible among us can do. Even so, as I can attest, a Triangle done this way is still going to feel constricted around the hip joints and sacrum. Try it–you’ll see.

At this point, all the instructions in the world won’t help you or your students get to that dreamy, Mountain-Pose like openness and stability within the asanas. Once the expression is done, they’re more frozen into place.

Yet almost every class I go to, I’m told to express first, then work on the pose. And, simply put, that doesn’t work.

I taught this way because I was taught this way.

Once I realized that my knowledge of the inner body consisted mainly of the names of some muscles and bones, but no idea how they interplayed in movement. I went on an inner body mission.

I gathered a wide range of styles to understand how different master teachers viewed the asanas.  I then made a foray into the anatomy of yoga (Leslie Kaminoff) and the fascia/muscle meridians (Tom Myers). Pairing their understanding with my 16 years of practice and teaching caused a radical shift in my understanding of how to build the yoga postures (from the ground up) and from where we generate our greatest power (inside out).

This applies across all styles of yoga, but it’s really necessary for those of us who are vinyasa yogis, which can easily turn into something akin to the DotCom boom (crazy fun while it lasts, then carnage) if we’re not dancing from any discernible center. If you want to do yoga when you’re 90–or even in a year, you’ll be smart to stop relying on outer body muscles and your joints to do this practice.

Now, before I get snarky comments, know that I’m talking about the proverbial YOU–the you that’s reading this and has something to learn. I am in no way saying that every yogi is superficial. Yet, I still catch myself relying on externals here and there (hello shoulders in Chaturanga!). If it applies, use it. If not, toss it.

Sadie teaching a Core Strength training at Kripalu: photo by Nancy Alder

That said…

My main focus these days is to seek and destroy the knots of stress and tension we build up through a superficial yoga practice, and a life where we allow external people and things to knock us off center. Re-orienting back to your innermost core both on and off the mat is the hallmark of my teaching, and the most freeing place you’ll ever know.

Physically, we want to focus more on the Deep Front Line, or Deep Core Line discovered by Tom Myers in his fascinating dissection work. Our muscles, encased in a spiderwebbing of fascia, intercommunicate and interplay along connected lines from feet to head. Some of these lines are more or less effective for you in each pose. Knowing which is which, and using them to your advantage is a necessary skill to develop if you want to practice, break through, and progress for a lifetime.

I’ll write more on the subject in a series of upcoming posts, focusing more on specifics, but suffice it to say, when teaching or doing any pose, you can ponder two of my Core Strength Secrets: a few simple directions that can transform the way you practice, and with it, amplify your benefits immensely.

You’ll burn more calories (using more of the body), release outer body tensions that build up when you death grip your poses with the shoulders, jaw, lower back, hips, etc, and allow you to get much stronger and more flexible as your inner body fires up, and your external muscles become resilient.

2 of Sadie’s Core Strength Secrets:

  1. Refuse to Overuse: When in your pose, do not allow your outer body to harden. The more superficial muscles should support your inner strength, not take over for it. Talk about enabling!

As the Type A first layer releases more, you will have to recruit your deeper muscles instead. Swami Kripalu once talked about how when you release external coping, your internal light will be revealed by default. Same thing.

2.  Transitions Matter: What you do before you get into a pose is what actually dictates the quality of the pose. We often forget that, and rush into a posture in a breath, then start working to align it. Too late.

I instruct students through the Deep Core Line, taking as long to structure the transition as I do an asana (yes, sometimes I move faster and do it in 2-3 breaths, like a wave, but only after we know what we’re doing). In the process, I help student avoid the roadblocks of outer body overuse all the way from floor to pose. Here’s how:

Example: in that same High Lunge, try this instead: “From Down Dog, Inhale, lift your right leg high. Exhale, bring your knee into chest, round your back and hips high, and draw the front of your low back spine up into your body even more (Psoas activation instruction).

On your next exhale, step the right foot forward to the right thumb (foot & knee are now in line with the hip joint).

Inhale, lift your belly and wave length through your whole spine (makes space along the spine so you don’t come up short, literally).

Now, as you push your feet strongly into the floor, totally relax your arms and upper back. Even round your upper back a little. As you ground the feet, your hands will organically lift from the floor an inch. Now notice that the back body doesn’t actually want to arch you into this pose like Mary Lou Retton after a dismount.

If you get out of your own way with that pesky outer body, you’ll find that the Deep Core track lifts you in a wave, in the following order: Feet press, arches lift, inner thighs move up into the groins and out the sitting bones, low belly and front hip crests pull back and up, tailbone lengthens. Front spine draws in and up along low back, mid back. Sacrum and low back also pull in and up, though this is predominating already in the low lunge so best to focus more on the front spine.

Energy will rise up with the movement. When the wave hits the heart, and only then, let the arms and head float up. You should notice an immense lightness in the upper body, a grounded density below, and the gateways of the hip and shoulder joints open on all sides.

Then return the hands to the floor, and try it the old way if you need more context for what a difference it makes to move this way.


Of course, the direction is slightly different depending on what pose you’re in, but the inner to outer and ground up progressions remain the same.

Best of all, when you move in a more profound manner no matter what stage of a posture you’re in, that esoteric yoga thing we say: “Everything is found along the journey, not the destination” actually becomes tangible. You can start today receiving the full benefits of your yoga poses every second you’re on that mat and in so doing, spark greater endurance and attention to living with integrity off of it too.

Then, whenever something more external happens in your life which threatens to throw you off center, you’ll have built the skills of slowing down, re-orienting to yourself deeply, and coming back home–to the very core of who you need to be most of all.

Core Conversation:

So, tell us: Have you been superficial in your yoga practice? How has it affected your body? And what are you gonna do about it now that you know?

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