born this way

One of my earliest yoga experiences was with a local man, who we’ll call Ed (why not) . Ed taught a Saturday morning donation (pay-what-you-can) class outside by the community pool at his condo. I’ve written before about how magical yoga felt to me in those early days– like falling in love, or coming home, or having a curtain pulled back and suddenly seeing the world in such a clear and lovely way.

As far as I was concerned, Ed was the Real Deal. He burned incense, he anointed our wrists with essential oils, he read from Meditations From the Mat, and, on special days, he even played guitar during Savasana. I mean. What more could you ask? (As you can probably tell, I fell a little bit in love with Ed, too, during that first yoga honeymoon phase).

I came to each class feeling a little bit brave (my social anxiety made any outing feel a little brave), but also a little bit like I was Doing Something Really Special. If you have ever been in love with yoga, then you know that feeling. I looked forward to it all week. I didn’t always understand the postures, or the yogic spiritual teachings that Ed thoughtfully shared, but I had a sense that something special was unfolding and I wanted more of it.

This was a phase I went through where I was trying to do the poses like BKS Iyengar in Light on Yoga.

The easiest way into yoga for many of us is through the physical postures– the asana. I brought all of my best work ethic to my mat. I pushed through the pain in Pigeon (oops), I held my leg up in front of me until it burned, I fell out of Crow pose over and over and over. It was the only way I knew to feel as though I could progress, or steep myself more in this practice that was transforming me and my life experience.

One day, Ed didn’t show up for class– instead, he sent a substitute teacher. Let’s call her Cassie. Cassie was tall and thin, with flowing hair and a breezy yoga outfit that looked as though she’d stepped off the cover of Yoga Journal magazine (which, let us not forget, largely features thin white women, so that’s not super surprising).

Cassie was also INCREDIBLY mobile. Her poses were effortless, with a range of motion that could easily have qualified her for Cirque du Soleil. She could do things that my body couldn’t, and for the first time I thought I saw where I wanted this yoga practice to take me.

After class, I approached her and asked, “How long will I have to do yoga before my body can do things like yours?”

Cassie looked at me, and laughed self-deprecatingly, even waving her hand a little bit in front of her as if to brush away the idea. “Oh, I was just born this way.”

I felt a little bit as though I had been running full-speed and encountered a clothesline– that was the force of my reaction to her response. I didn’t know what to say. Did this mean that I wouldn’t be able to do the things she could do? Would I never put my leg behind my head? Was I simply lacking the gift of mobility? Was my yoga practice all for nothing?

2015 photo of Laura with both legs behind her head, and Stanley the Pomeranian looking on in confusion

It would take me another decade to recognize that Cassie’s response was actually full of wisdom. During those ten years, I continued to work hard, undeterred. I knew that the physical practices of yoga were changing my body. I became stronger in many ways, and more mobile in others. I did indeed find a way to get not one, but both legs behind my head. I worked so well that I inevitably injured myself, and found that my practice wasn’t really as balanced or healthy as I’d thought it was– but that’s another story.

The truth is, though Cassie dropped it like an offhand remark, that there are some things that our bodies are just born with, and that we will not be able to change. There are poses that I struggle with and always will. I can’t change the shape or the length of my bones.

I didn’t yet recognize that the yoga postures were the least important thing about the practice. What changed my life wasn’t improved external hip rotation or the perfect arm balance, but the quality of awareness, vitality and presence that followed me from the mat into the rest of my life.

Cassie was born her way, and I was born mine. We’re all born this way– whatever “this way” means in your body/heart/mind. The practices of yoga (beyond the postures) allow us to witness the truth of our circumstances and to work skillfully with them.

Occasionally I get a question like the one I asked Cassie so many years ago. I understand the excitement and attraction of wanting to change our bodies, to make them do challenging things or to get out of pain, and I never want to take away from that experience– it’s how I got to be where I am, after all. So I tell them their bodies will probably change and be able to do different things, and they might feel better, but along the way each of us will have our own challenges and limitations. And– if they’re able to hear me– I tell them that they may come to find that the most important things they get from the yoga practice have nothing to do with their bodies at all.

HRV: when you can’t hear what your body’s saying, turn on the closed captions

Like many of you, I have a morning ritual. I wake up, feed the dogs, make my coffee, and sit down with my phone– not to start my social media scroll (that will come later)– but to take my heart rate variability (HRV) measurement.

HRV is a super easy way to take a look at how our bodies are handling stress. It measures the variability between heartbeats– that is, how quickly your heart rate recovers from beat to beat as it encounters stress. Remember that your system is designed to oscillate between activation and ease– you see a bear, your nervous system ramps up; you run away from the bear, and the nervous system settles again. Generally speaking, the higher your HRV, the better; we want to be able to recover quickly and shift easily from one state to another.

Your HRV is the only (practical, accessible) way that you can measure the activity of your autonomic nervous system (ANS). In a recent post, I talked about how important it is to understand and support the nervous system. We can learn to interpret the somatic language that our body speaks; in my body, I recognize the symptoms of overwhelm and can often adjust accordingly. Sometimes I miss the signs, or choose to override them. That’s where having a digital readout of the ANS can be extra helpful as an objective measurement.

I use a super simple app called HRV4Training. It’s inexpensive, easy to use (you just put your thumb over your phone’s camera and try not to move for a minute), and it gives me some quick information about how my body’s handling stress. The app allows me to put in additional information that it takes into consideration– how sore are my muscles? How stressful is my life right now? How much did I sleep last night? Then, it makes suggestions about how intense my training session should be that day.

You might remember from my last post that our systems are affected not just by the physical movement we do, but by all kinds of stress– even positive.

In this screenshot, you get an insider’s perspective into my HRV since September. You’ll notice that there are some peaks and valleys– that’s normal– and that the red bars indicate days where my HRV was exceptionally low. If you could zoom in, you would notice that one of them was November 4– US Election Day. My ANS was responding to the stress I’d been experiencing as it approached. Other low days might occur because I haven’t slept well; I’m fighting off some kind of illness; or if I had an exceptionally challenging day yesterday (perhaps I saw more clients than I could comfortably handle, or trained really hard). It might also be low because I had a really fun or exciting day– and that wore me out.

So, low HRV isn’t always a bad thing– it’s just an indication that my system needs a little more recovery time. Make sense?

An image that reads,"If you listen to your body when it whispers, you will never have to listen to it scream."

At its simplest, you can use an HRV readout as a tool to validate or explore what your felt sense of health is in your body. Many of us don’t have a really clear understanding of what our body is trying to say. Its signals feel confusing, or we may have been taught to push through or ignore them completely. Maybe you’ve seen that saying that goes, “If you listen to your body when it whispers, you will never have to listen to it scream.” That’s great advice, but if you’re having a hard time hearing the whisper, you’re not alone. When I first began measuring my HRV, I was often baffled by its readouts. I literally had no idea I was feeling so run down (or why I kept getting injured…!). For those of us who are still learning the language, HRV is like a closed caption that gives us a hint of what we might start to pay attention to.

Of course, it’s not always that simple to understand how and why HRV works, which is where having a tool like HRV4Training really helps. It analyzes long-term trends and correlates factors to help support my decisions about what kind of training to do. Right now, I am just coming out of a two-month stretch that was really challenging– on top of my election stress, I was going through some major changes in my work, and had very little time off, which taxed my system more. You can notice that my overall HRV (look at the black line) was higher in October than in November and December. This corresponds to my feeling more tired and achey than I was in October, so I’m taking it easier in my training right now to allow for fuller recovery. I’m also happy to report that much of the external stress has shifted, so I’m looking forward to training harder and feeling better again in the next couple of months!

I’m a big fan of HRV4Training (as you can probably tell– in fact, I’m an ambassador).It’s inexpensive, their customer service is great, and it’s really helped me to work better with my own system. The company is committed to research and communication about how HRV works! I am all in for simple tools that increase self-awareness and help us to function better, so I’m happy to endorse this product.

balancing the allostatic load

One of the things that brings me joy, that makes me feel alive, powerful, and free, is physical training. I love to sweat, to move, to swing heavy things. It helps me to complete the stress cycle, reinforces my sense of agency and strength, and (because I am often outside), gives me a chance to soak in nature.

Of course, I can’t do that every day. My muscles need a chance to rest and repair– and I also need to take into account everything else that I’ve done that day (training clients, filming classes, etc). That makes sense, right? Physically, there’s only so much the body can handle. If I tried to push through when my body wasn’t ready, I might not have the energy or ability, or I’d risk injury.

What’s often overlooked is that we need to take into account more than just the physical activities that we’re engaging in. Is work overwhelming? How many difficult conversations did you have today? Are you under financial stress? When’s the last time you were able to get out of the house and have fun? See your family? Get a hug from someone you love? Are you worried about your health? The electoral college? The environment?

Any kind of stress has a physical cost; we pay with our body’s energy stores. Our body responds to a stressor by preparing us to run: muscles tense, heartbeat goes up, endorphins flood our bloodstream. Every system in our body is PRIMED FOR ACTION. Yet for many of us, the stress doesn’t let up. We can’t run, we can’t fight, and unless we are actively doing something to complete the stress response, we are living with the effects of cumulative overwhelm in every system of our body. If you ever been under sustained stress, you know how exhausting that is.

(need a refresher on how the nervous system deals with stress? read this post).

The amount of stress our body (+brain, +nervous system) is under at any given moment is called allostatic load. When our allostatic load is too high, our health suffers. If (like me!) you’re someone who thrives on movement, or who craves physical activity to release stress and feel good, you may find that in times of greater stress (for example, 2020), you are not able to train as hard. Your system doesn’t know the difference between different types of stress, so we need to find ways to stress it less.This means that you may need to back off on the weight you’re lifting or the pace you’re keeping. You might need to train less frequency, or start incorporating other types of training instead.

How do you know when you’re in a state of allostatic overload? Physically or emotionally, you might feel drained. Your muscles might feel achy or sore, or you find old injuries cropping up. You might feel like you don’t want to move at all, or you might feel fidgety. Maybe your mind seems to be cycling endlessly through repetitive thoughts. Every system responds differently to stress, so you will have your own experience. But I bet you have some ideas already about what it feels like to you.

In my last post, I suggested that it’s really important to understand your nervous system, and to be able to support it. Recognizing your current allostatic load is a great start. When I am feeling exhausted from stress, I know that I still need to complete my stress cycle in order to reset my nervous system. I’m not able to take on a big sweaty training session, but I can take a long walk. Research shows that optic flow, which includes forward movement like walking, running or biking (not a treadmill/stationary bike– what your eyes take in has to match up with what your body is doing!), reduces anxiety. I know that’s true for me.

What about restorative or yin yoga, or sitting down for quiet meditation? For those of us whose allostatic load is running high, until we’ve discharged some of our stress energy, sitting and meditating, or stretching our hamstrings for five excruciating minutes is going to be pretty hard. Remember, your nervous system thinks it is under threat, so how is it going to just sit down and relax? A little movement first will go a long way. For those of us who aren’t able to do a lot of movement, a little chair dancing, balancing a ball on a book, or even just laughing with a friend over Facetime can be super helpful to help reset our nervous system.

One of the biggest lessons of this challenging year has been to learn to balance my allostatic load. I couldn’t control the pandemic, my financial situation, other people’s behavior, the elections, or the way my nervous system responded to any of it. What I could do was adjust my training to support, rather than stress, my nervous system.

your nervous system needs your support

Have you ever finished a long day of work sitting at a desk, and felt like you were too tired to move- even though you barely moved your body all day?

Do you struggle to stick with a “workout” program because it always ends in burnout or injury?

Have you ever tried to sit down and meditate, and immediately fallen asleep?

Or tried to sit down and meditate, and felt like you were going to jump out of your skin because it is SO HARD to sit still?

In all of these (really common!) scenarios, the missing link is often a lack of understanding about how our nervous system works, and how we can support it.

Training the body without an understanding of our nervous system is like driving a car without looking at the instrument panel. The car will move whether you’re paying attention to those dashboard lights or not— but you won’t know that the car isn’t running well until it leaves you stranded on the highway. 

When we’re reading the dials (so to speak), we can understand when we are operating in a state of overwhelm that needs to be addressed. We can use our bodies and minds together to discharge stress hormones, shake ourselves out of a freeze response, or find new ways to address recurring challenges. 

We also need to understand that our body is affected by more than just movement. Stress strains our body’s resources. That might be stress from work, ongoing trauma, relationship issues, or it could be the stress of not feeling cared for, not moving enough, not sleeping well or not getting proper nutrition. Training the body without respecting the nervous system can leave us frustrated, depleted, or, worse, injured or sick.

Training the mind without this understanding can lead to a profound disconnection of our somatic (body) wisdom. I’m reminded of one of my favorite meditation teachers, who says that “yoga people are too much in their bodies; meditators are too much in their heads.” Many meditators can get really, really good at using meditation to dissociate from their present experience; it’s difficult for them to connect to sensations or messages from their body.

If you struggle to sit quietly in meditation, or you find yourself frustrated by countless failed attempts to start an exercise program (injured or burnt-out yet again), an understanding of the nervous system may be what’s needed to bridge your mind’s desires with your body’s capabilities.

I know that on any given day, my nervous system determines how much I am physically and mentally able to handle, as well as the type of movement or work that is going to be most beneficial.

I adjust my training and meditation volume and input according to what else is going on in my life. Sometimes that means I don’t do very much at all– other times, it means I need to do a little dancing, or stretching, or take a long walk.

A good teacher, coach or trainer will help you learn to access those dashboard controls rather than mindless “encouragement” to push through pain (right now I’m looking at a “fitspo” Pinterest board that tells me to “Stop trying to skip the f*cking struggle,” “My body says no more, my mind screams two more!,” and “Show up when you’re tired, that’s discipline!”). That approach is neither sustainable nor does it produce the best results.  Instead, nervous system awareness and support provide the structure to train our bodies and minds to their safest and greatest capacity.

In our next installment, we’ll take a look at some of the ways that we can work mindfully with our nervous system for greater success in our movement and meditation practices– stay tuned!

so what does trauma-informed mean, anyway?

In my last post, I mentioned that trauma was a particularly tricky word to define. According to the US Veteran’s Administration, 7-8% of people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. PTSD, however, operates with a very limited definition, and does not include other common experiences such as developmental trauma, complex-PTSD, or racialized trauma (just to name a few). Trauma often goes undiagnosed, as other symptoms are addressed. If were were to go by the ACES study alone, 1 in 6 adults experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences (these include violence, abuse, and growing up in a family with mental health or substance use problems). 60% of adults reported having at least one of these. And that’s just childhood– not accounting for other types of traumatic experience that can occur to us as adults.

So, making our wellness culture more trauma-informed is a really positive step– why wouldn’t we want to make gyms, personal training, dance classes, yoga sessions, more accessible to folks who really need these services? In the past few years, I’ve observed a dramatic increase in the number of practitioners who are interested in being able to better serve their clients in this way. But “trauma-informed” isn’t a certification that’s governed by any entity, and there are no over-arching principles that we can point to to guide us. In the absence of any regulation or guidance, each practitioner can hop on the trauma-informed train any time they like (which has led some folks to feel that trauma-informed might not mean much at all, sadly).

Does everybody need a trauma-informed yoga class, or training session, or gym? Probably not. I do think that everyone can benefit from one. The brilliant Hala Khouri says, “Trauma informed yoga is people informed yoga,” and that feels just right to me. Trauma-informed movement isn’t super-serious, devoid of joy, or boring. I don’t always advertise myself as being trauma-informed, but if you’ve taken a class with me over the past three years, then you’ve taken a trauma-informed class.

We all deserve to be treated with respect. My definition of trauma-informed starts there. Let’s not forget that even someone is not working through traumatic stress, they’re probably dealing with the plain old overwhelming stress of living/working/relating to other humans. Keeping all of that in mind, it just makes sense to me to treat people in a way that respects their bodies, minds, and nervous systems.

Respecting People’s Bodies

Respecting people’s bodies means making all bodies feel welcome. This is more than just saying, “Everyone is welcome!”– it includes not only marketing, but the accessibility of the practice space (physically and financially), and the accessibility of the practice itself. It means using language that welcomes all physical experiences, by normalizing body diversity and by never suggesting that one type of body or physical outcome is superior to another. It means teaching or coaching in a way that expects variations (not calling them “modifications”), because diversity is the norm. It means offering cues that are explorational rather than directive; avoiding nocebic language, and giving space/time to stop and rest in a neutral shape.

It also means that we literally respect bodies by not touching them without permission; by being mindful of how we approach (being visible/audible, not surprising anyone unexpectedly from behind); making restrooms accessible; by allowing folks to care for their bodies in whatever ways they need to, even if it seems unusual.

Respecting People’s Minds

Respecting people’s minds means that we can be open to a wide variety of behavior and reactions. Some clients/students will need to learn visually and will need to see the teacher clearly. Others won’t be comfortable in certain yoga poses (including Savasana), so they may need to excuse themselves, or be invited to choose a different experience.

Respecting minds also means that each person can learn in their own way and on their own timeline; so, there’s no urgency or agenda, and there’s no expectation about what that learning will look like.

It also means that we don’t make assumptions about how something should feel in another person’s body– we respect the experience that they’re having, and we believe what they tell us about their experience.

Respecting People’s Nervous Systems

Respecting people’s nervous systems means that we do what we can to create a space that is safe(r) for them– knowing that for some bodies, safety may not be a possibility. For example, I always explain that the door is locked, but that they can open it to leave any time they need to; that it’s fine to use the restroom or step out of the room at any time; that it’s okay to say no or make a different choice about a pose or movement (although they may have to actually see that in action in order to believe it). Offering options that are clear and free of judgment (for example, “you can close your eyes, or keep them open; see what feels better to you right now”) are important. Suggesting that people simply “do what feels good” is not the most effective way to offer options, since many people aren’t able to access that kind of information in their body.

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list– these are just a few of the ways that a class or space might be “trauma-informed,” or “trauma-sensitive,” but most importantly (to me), trauma-informed means setting aside bias and judgment, and being open to seeing another human as they are. It means dropping expectations about how “good” yoga students or coaching clients look/behave, and understanding that the folks who have a hard time paying attention, or who talk when other people are quiet, or who may not want to engage with others at all, are likely to be operating in ways to protect and keep themselves safe.

Every individual deserves respect, dignity and a safer space to engage in self-care and wellness. While we don’t have a universal definition for trauma-informed movement, I think it’s a really good thing that more people are thinking, talking, and reading (thank you!) about why it matters.

a basic understanding of trauma

It seems like trauma is trending lately– we hear more about it in mainstream news, and it feels as though there’s much less stigma around mental health issues. Many people I know are comfortable talking about their own therapy, their past (and present) trauma, and many yoga teachers, personal trainers and movement coaches are learning how to make their work more trauma-informed. But what does that mean?

Let’s start with a simple working definition of trauma. It’s commonly said that trauma is caused by anything that is “too fast, too much, or too soon for our nervous system to handle.” Because each individual is different, what causes trauma for one person might not result in trauma for another.

The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) isn’t much help here– it lists only Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) under trauma-related “disorders” (I object to the use of the word “disorder”– what happens when our systems become overwhelmed by trauma is a completely natural response to a situation that we are unable to handle). Rather than thinking of trauma as something that can only happen after one big event (as in PTSD), we should recognize that trauma includes a broad spectrum of possibilities. Understanding that it includes anything that is overwhelming (too fast, too much, too soon)– then we can see that trauma can affect us all.

Almost all of us have been exposed to a traumatic event at some point in our lives. Remember that, just like non-human animals, each of us is equipped to be able to handle stressful events. However, there are some things that will always be too much– a situation that can’t be escaped, for example. When our defense systems are overwhelmed, we become “stuck” in a stress response. For a better understanding of how we are equipped to handle stress and what happens when our systems are overwhelmed, you can read more here.

Every one of us has our own unique trauma response. This might look like hyper-vigilance– always needing to be on-guard, “ready” for danger. It could present as heightened emotional reactivity. In other cases, trauma looks like depression, sluggishness, or an inability to move.

Our bodies, stuck in a trauma response, do not function optimally. Each of the body’s systems can be affected, resulting in countless variations of illness. The brain, too, is impacted, resulting in different behavioral patterns that can be confusing for others to understand. It’s impossible to overstate the effects of traumatic stress on the body, especially in developing children. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) shows how prevalent and impactful this can be.

image via The Hanna Institute, https://www.hannainstitute.org/research/aces-study/

Of course, we don’t get a sign to wear that explains our trauma history, or ongoing state of trauma, to other humans. A lot of the time, we’re not even aware that we’re operating through a trauma response. Our bodies and brains adapt. What starts out as adaptive behavior becomes a personality, and people in our lives adapt to that. And so we move around the world, bumping into other folks and their trauma with our own trauma and wondering why everyone doesn’t act the way we think they should.

So what does it mean, then, to be trauma-informed? A trauma-informed view of dealing with other humans takes into account the unseen challenges that individual may be facing. It recognizes that each of us has overcome countless obstacles simply to be alive right now. It can be more flexible in its understanding of what is “normal,” and accepts the other with an unconditional positive regard. In my next article, we’ll take a look at what that might mean with regard to teaching yoga or movement. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Of course, I am not a trauma expert. If you believe that you have experienced (or are experiencing) unresolved trauma, please look for a qualified mental health expert for assistance. The purpose of this article is to give a broader understanding of what trauma might be, and to start to consider the implications of that more inclusive definition.

understanding cultural appropriation

One of the challenges that we face in the contemporary wellness/healing/spiritual world is how to share, honor and celebrate the indigenous roots of the practices we love, without engaging in cultural appropriation.

The practice of yoga feels especially problematic. The long history of yoga has as many twists and turns as the story of India herself. However, what we call “yoga” today in the western world bears little resemblance to the original practices. It might be more accurate to call it, as Matthew Remski does, “modern postural yoga (MPY)” in order to differentiate it from its spiritual origins.

First, we should acknowledge that even a very physical practice of “modern postural yoga” can still be transformational, and a spiritual practice. When I started yoga, it was simply a form of exercise for me. I was lucky enough to find teachers and spaces who honored yoga’s roots, so that I learned to practice meditation and ethical behavior as part of the experience. Over time, yoga became something that was more about what I was doing off of the mat than on it; the physical postures (asana) were secondary. I now spend more time each week in meditation than I do practicing yoga postures.

But attempts to inject spirituality into a physical practice, while well-intentioned, can also run the risk of causing harm through cultural appropriation. Remember, intention is not the same as impact. We can have wonderful, loving intentions, and still accidentally cause harm. This doesn’t mean that we’re bad people– it just means that we didn’t know, and once we learn, we can make better choices. If you’re someone (like me) who has made some of the cultural appropriation missteps in this article, remember that this is just part of the learning experience.

So, what is cultural appropriation? Susanna Barkataki says it best:

“Cultural appropriation is when someone uses someone else’s culture, including practices, symbols, rituals, fashion, or other elements from a target or ‘minority’ culture, without considering the source, origins or people of that culture.

They may be using another culture for various reasons such as:

* to make a profit

* to ‘make a new trend’ 

* to look cool or be fashionable

* to be a cultural tourist or explore the ‘exotic’

* or for some other self-serving purpose without respecting or caring for the original culture or context.  

Cultural appropriation happens when a dominant group adopts, benefits from, shares and even exploits the customs, practices, ideas, social and spiritual knowledge of another, usually target or subordinate, society or people. 

Cultural appropriation clearly harms the source culture in a variety of ways

1. Material harm

2. Disrespect or disregard to the values, practices, social, religious or cultural norms

Often that harm can span social institutions and political, economic, social, spiritual, cultural worlds.”  

According to Barkataki, cultural appropriation always involves a power imbalance and harm. One example might be for a white person to wear a pair of yoga leggings with a Hindu deity printed on them. While this person may have good intentions– perhaps they know a little bit about the deity and like what it stands for– it may feel offensive to someone else to see their sacred images used in this way. That’s the harm piece of the equation. The power imbalance is that the white person is “allowed” to wear an image of a deity, while still being seen as white and part of the “norm,” the dominant culture. A brown-skinned person practicing their religion is more likely to be seen as “other–” different, or even dangerous.

Avoiding cultural appropriation means re-thinking how we approach our practice. It is a process of continual re-learning and questioning how we can honor both the history of the practice and, at the same time, uplift, support and create reparations for the folks whose ancestors created the practice– but never saw material benefit. In many cases, what we call “yoga” in the West has become a practice that is almost exclusively white. And in the case of shamanic healing or other indigenous practices, many Indigenous People, living under the impact of systematic oppression, can’t even afford to attend a weekend workshop on the modalities that are traditional to their ancestors.

So how can we engage in cultural appreciation, rather than cultural appropriation?

  • Get curious. Be willing to engage in inquiry and study in order to decide whether something is cultural appropriation or appreciation. Read and follow Susanna Barkataki, listen to the Yoga Is Dead podcast, check out Decolonizing Yoga.
  • Be aware of the indigenous roots and wisdom of the practices you are sharing. Teachers, explore the lineage and histories; share with your students/clients.Learn and cite correct cultural references. Students, ask for more information, or seek out teachers who share it.
  • Dehomogenize the practice. Teachers might offer scholarships or sliding scale pricing to BIPOC students, especially for teacher training programs. Studios and workshop organizers, seek out teachers of color and center their teaching.
  • Be respectful of symbols and iconography. As Barkataki says, “Make sure, if we are using images of deities or regalia such as statues, malas or bindis, that we know where they came from, what they mean, how to relate to them respectfully and have a sincere intention at heart.” 
  • Understand that Sanskrit is a critical part of the history of yoga and respect it as such. Consider how you are using “Namaste.” This is a sacred word that has been commercialized. “Namaslay,” or “Namastay right here” can feel like slander or trivialization of a word that has spiritual resonance.
  • As a non-Indigenous Person, using the words “tribe” or “spirit animal” is problematic. We’re co-opting a culture without taking on the burden of centuries of oppression and marginalization by colonizing culture. 

Understand that this sort of self-inquiry can be challenging and even confusing at times. There are often questions (for me) that defy easy answers. Can I call what I’m teaching yoga? Should a white woman be teaching yoga at all? As the conversation continues to evolve, we can remember that yoga’s ethical law of ahimsa tells us to do no harm. Asking ourselves, again and again, how we can do the least harm as we try to engage in healing practices, is a good start to understanding how to avoid cultural appropriation.

real safety is anti-fragility

If you’ve taken a yoga class over the past decade, you’ve probably heard some of the following cues:

  • “Never let your knee travel further than your ankle– you want to protect your knee.”
  • Brace your abdominals to protect your back.”
  • “Never roll up to stand from a forward fold, or you’ll cause damage to your spine.”
  • Don’t place your foot on your knee in Tree Pose or you’ll dislocate your knee.”
  • “Don’t let your head drop forward– we don’t want to reinforce ‘text neck’ posture!”

While all of these directions are well-intentioned (if not necessarily accurate), each of them has one element in common: they include a warning of potential danger or injury. This type of language is called nocebic; it creates anxiety, a negative expectation or fear in the mind that is often more detrimental than the potential danger.

Words matter. If we are told that something is dangerous or painful, our incredibly powerful mind is more likely to experience fear or pain. One fascinating example of this is demonstrated in a 2000 study, which followed the experience of patients being injected with radiographic dye. The results showed that the the more frequently doctors used words like ‘sting,’ ‘burn,’ ‘hurt,’ ‘bad’ and ‘pain’, the more discomfort was felt by patients.

It’s also important to understand what really is a potentially dangerous movement. Yoga teachers and even personal trainers do not necessarily have a strong foundation in anatomy, physiology or kinesiology. I have spent the better part of the last 5 years educating myself on topics that my initial teacher trainings just couldn’t cover during the time allotted. Much of my earlier teaching career was spent simply repeating cues (such as the ones listed at the beginning of this article) because I had heard someone else say them.

Our bodies are made to move. While there may be movements that aren’t right for someone’s body at a certain moment in time (they may need more strength or mobility, for example), I don’t think there are movements that are, as Jenni Rawlings says in this well-written blog, “inherently bad.”

In fact, we can create greater overall strength and range of motion by practicing movement in all kinds of ways, rather than sticking to a prescribed pattern. For example, if you slip and fall in your shower, how likely are you to fall into the perfect plank shape, which you’ve practiced so many times? Not very. If instead, we’ve learned to move and load (add weight to) our body in many different positions, we’re less likely to injure ourselves when we land in an awkward way.

As far as the cues that I listed at the beginning of this article? I don’t think they’re necessary for most people. For example, is it really problematic if a knee travels forward of the ankle in a lunge or Warrior pose? Every time we walk down stairs, the knee has to travel forward of the ankle, and for most of us, that’s not a problem!

Are there times, as coaches or teachers, where we need to guide someone out of a potentially dangerous movement? Absolutely, but I find it’s pretty easy to do this without fear-mongering. For example, we might just say, “Hey Bob, it looks like that’s feeling a little unsteady. What happens if you move your foot over here? Does that feel more supportive?” This keeps the power in Bob’s hands and lets him experience 1) his own ability to find strength and support and 2) a physical sense of safety in his own body.

Part of being safe is learning that we are strong, resilient, and that we can trust our body. For many folks, just showing up for a session or a class is scary enough. If they are in a non-normative body, have a history of trauma, have experienced an injury, or have an x-ray or MRI that demonstrates something isn’t “normal,” they may already feel that their body is a little bit untrustworthy, or even fragile.

As teachers and coaches, we can be of greater service by teaching progressively, from simpler poses to more complex, giving the body and nervous system time to adapt. Rather than giving rigid, nocebic rules about alignment or movement, we can encourage students to explore how movement feels in the body and what feels strong or supportive. Remember that words have power, and avoid telling people how anything “should” feel, especially if it reinforces a sense of fragilization. Instead, invite them to be curious about the experience. If something feels painful, uncomfortable or unsafe, that’s something to pay attention to. Learning to recognize and follow these self-guided cues creates a greater sense of self-trust that can lead to greater strength and resilience in the long-term. This is real safety, which comes from a felt sense of inner strength and adaptability– not externally-imposed rules and guidelines.

biophilia: a human longing to connect to nature

Here in South Florida, it’s not uncommon to spend summers avoiding as much of the outdoors as possible (with the exception of boating, beaching, and that kind of thing). It’s just so damn hot. I walk the dogs earlier in the morning and later at night to avoid the heat of the day, and even at 8 AM, when I step outside, I am struck by the heat. You’d think after 20 years of living here, I’d be ready for it, but it’s like a smack of humidity in the face every time.

But as the pandemic stretches on and our lives continue to reshape themselves to our new realities, many of us are spending more time outdoors. I have no plans to return to the gym– it just doesn’t feel right for me. The space inside my house is limited, and likely to have some kind of audience. So I’ve taken to doing almost everything outside: yoga practice, meditation, mobility, mace, and kettlebells.

My favorite time to work out is around 3 PM, which is also, unfortunately, a very hot, blazing-sun-overhead time of day. These sessions are sweaty and sometimes that’s not a lot of fun (it’s hard to get a good grip on a mace, and it makes Upward-Facing Bow pretty hazardous)– but I have loved the feeling of pushing through the heat to find new levels of strength or endurance.

One of the reasons is likely my biophilia, which is what biologist E.O. Wilson calls our hardwired instinct for spending time outdoors.

The etymology of biophilia is literally “love of life,” which is completely appropriate. Spending time outdoors, whether it is watching the seemingly endless ocean waves, hiking through the mountains, or just sitting on my back porch meditating with the squirrels and the bees, gives me an expansive, positive feeling that really does fill me with something like love. Actually, just writing this paragraph gives me a feeling of friendliness and joy that I feel ballooning in my chest.

“The human brain evolved in an environment that was defined by constant contact with and reliance on the natural world. The emotions that modern humans tend to feel in nature– awe, contentment, curiosity, wanderlust– contributed to early humans’ ability to thrive as a species that had to find its place in a complex and constantly changing landscape. These emotional responses to nature are still deeply ingrained in us, and the more frequently we experience them, the more fulfilled we are.”

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, The Joy of Movement

It makes sense that we human animals have a connection to the outdoors. After all, we evolved there, and it was only relatively recently in our history that we moved indoors and shut ourselves away from the natural world. In their 2012 research paper on the benefits of spending time outdoors, psychologists Holli-Anne Passmore and Andrew Howell write, “Connecting with nature embeds us more deeply into the existence of life beyond he course of our single lifetime.”

Being outdoors, witnessing the natural cycles of growth and decay, takes us out of our ruminating mind and brings us back into an engaged, mindful presence. It gives us a grounding and centering reminder of our essential wholeness and our right to belong to something greater than ourselves. Perhaps this is what Mary Oliver is speaking to in her popular poem Wild Geese:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Excerpt from Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

I never would have imagined that I would enjoy sweating outdoors as much as I do, but it has made me more durable in my body, and more joyful and expansive in my soul. Sun on my skin, breeze (barely) cooling the sweat, the green things growing and the small animals moving in their own rhythms: these are the joys of biophilia. I don’t plan to give it up anytime soon.

finding your footing in warrior 1

a long, nerdy post about alignment in this classic shape

Warrior 1: it sounds so fundamental, so simple, like, the most basic thing you could learn or do in a yoga class. So why do so many students struggle with it?

The truth is that for many of us, Virabhadrasana I isn’t really a simple pose at all. And many cues that you hear in a yoga class are confusing, contradictory, or downright painful to follow. In this post, we’ll look at how each of the elements of the pose is connected to another (your foot bone’s connected to your leg bone, etc), and why some cues may not make sense for some bodies. Let’s break down this pose and figure out the “right” alignment (for you)!

Here’s a stock photo picture of three women in Warrior 1 (Virabhadrasana 1 in Sanskrit). We’re going to look at the first two women (since it’s harder to see the third). Let’s call them Woman 1 and Woman 2.

Three women in Warrior 1: which stance is “right”?

heel to arch or heel to heel?

Have you ever been told to “line up your back heel with your front arch?” Or have you been directed to transition from Warrior 2 to Warrior 1 without moving your feet? In either of these cases, you’re going to end up with feet that are lined up with each other as the first two women’s are. While this might be just fine for them, it will not feel comfortable for many folks. If you feel as though you’re a little bit wobbly in the pose, I recommend trying to move your front foot out to the side (in this case, I would suggest moving the left foot a little bit to the left) to see how that feels.

If you’re transitioning from Warrior 2 to Warrior 1, it’s likely that you’ll want to move your feet to change your base of support. Warrior 2 tends to feel more comfortable in a “heel to arch” or “heel to heel” alignment, and its longer stance feels fine. When we move into a Warrior 1 shape, bringing the back hip forward into extension, suddenly it’s a whole different game. For that transition, I recommend widening and shortening the base by moving the front foot to the side and shortening the stance (stepping your back foot forward) until you feel stable and supported.

do what with my back foot?

Now, where should your back foot be pointing? If we look at the first two women in the picture above, you can see that Woman 1 has her back toes pointing more forward. Woman 2 has her back toes pointing out to the side. Which is right? Well, it depends. Many times (but not always), the foot position is dependent on what that hip is doing. Before we diagnose or lay out rules, we should ask, what is each of these women feeling? Woman 1 is able to have her back hip in a more neutral position here (a neutral hip is like what your hips do in Tadasana, Mountain Pose– they point straight forward), which means that her knee and foot are both able to point relatively forward. I would guess she’s experiencing a stretch through her front right hip. If you look closely, you can see that her back heel isn’t all the way on the floor (which is totally fine)! That might be because her front hip won’t allow her to stretch it that way, or her back foot doesn’t have the mobility to dorsiflex that much.

Woman 2’s back leg is externally rotated (external rotation is like what your bent leg does in tree pose; think about where your knee and foot point when you do tree pose, and you’ll see how what the hip does affects those two joints), which makes her back foot turn out. There are lots of reasons this might be happening– it’s not a random choice. If she isn’t able to dorsiflex (“flex”) her back foot due to lack of mobility, she may need to turn the foot out, and the knee/hip with it. Or, she may be restricted (“tight”) in her quadriceps or hip flexors. Turning the hip out to the side means she won’t have to feel a stretch in the front of that hip. None of these are bad reasons and it’s not a bad thing to do. In my own body, it doesn’t feel stable or good to have my back leg externally rotated that much. Woman 2 may have a very different experience than I do with that, so we can always ask her. She’s the expert on her body and what feels right for her.

should i square my hips?

Now, what if these women were given the cue to “square their hips to the front of the mat?” How would that feel in their bodies? Well, let’s look at Woman 2. With her right foot locked into place (let’s say she doesn’t move her foot at all), when she tries to pull her right hip forward, the movement is going to have to come from somewhere else– it might be the back knee, the back ankle, the SI joint, or the lumbar spine. For this reason, I don’t cue students to “square” their hips. If for some reason (and I would hope there’s a reason beyond aesthetics), we want to try to experience “square” hips here, I would have them lift the back heel, balancing on the ball of the back foot, in more of a Crescent Lunge shape. This takes some of the tension out of the back leg, so the hip is more free to move. For some students, this will be much less stable as they’re now having to use their muscles to hold them in place, rather than the joints themselves.

(By the way, when students report pain to me from Warrior 1– it’s almost always the back knee, the back ankle, the SI joint, or the lumbar spine. Many times they weren’t even aware that the pose shouldn’t be painful– they thought this was how it needed to be done!)

Let’s look at one more example of Warrior 1. In the picture below, you can see that this woman’s hips are relatively “squared” forward, making a more neutral hip. Her back heel is slightly lifted, which allows her some room to stretch the front of her left hip and/or her left calf and Achilles. Her front foot is more to the right than her left foot is, so she’s got a wider base for her legs. The stance is pretty long, which is going to put more demand on her body in the pose overall. If that feels good for her, then that’s great!

A woman outside in Warrior 1 pose. Keeping the back heel slightly lifted allows for a stretch in the back calf/Achilles, as well as the front hip.

oh, my aching back

Let’s take things just one step further in our Warrior 1 investigation: the backbend that occurs in the shape. The placement of the feet, combined with each individual’s anatomy– for example, a lack of extensibility (“tightness”) in the front of the hip and quadriceps muscles– can tilt the front of the pelvis forward and down into an anterior tilt. This is absolutely fine, unless it doesn’t feel good for that person’s body. Looking at all of the women in our photos, we can see some degree of anterior tilt in the pelvis, and a corresponding arch in the spine as they lift their torsos up toward a vertical position. Not familiar with anterior tilt? From a standing position, if you stick your butt out behind you, that’s an anterior tilt. If you tuck your tailbone under, you’re in a posterior tilt. Somewhere in between is your neutral.

What if that arch in the spine causes some lower back discomfort? How do we take out that pelvic tilt that’s pulling them into a backbend? If these women are told to lift their front hip points to try to reduce the pelvic tilt, they will be stuck. We can see that they are close to or already at their end range of motion, with the quads and hip flexors being pulled tight. In order to release the front of the hip to reduce the pelvic tilt, we’d need to either have the person lean forward more, i.e., not try to lift the chest up, or we can have them change the back leg by 1) lifting the heel (as Woman 1 and Outdoors Woman are doing); 2) shortening the stride by stepping the back foot forward; 3) changing the angle on the back hip by externally rotating it; or 4) un-“squaring” the back hip (letting it turn open more toward a Warrior 2 position) so that there’s less of a pull on the front of the hip. Any of these strategies can potentially reduce the torque on the front of the pelvis that causes spinal extension (the backbend)

what’s the right way for you to do the pose?

As we’ve seen, each of the models in our discussion is experiencing Warrior 1 in a different way. Some are getting a stretch through the front hip; others may be stretching their back calf. The backbend may be feeling good, or it may be feeling a bit crunchy.

The real question to ask is, why are we doing the pose and what would we like to accomplish? If our goal is simply to experience ourselves in an embodied way, then the physical alignment is secondary. If we’re looking for a stretch in the body, or to strengthen certain muscles, then we’ll want to emphasize those elements of the pose. And more than anything, I think it’s helpful to use our bodies wisely, avoiding pain in our practice. Beyond that, it becomes a matter of aesthetics, which is not a goal I pursue or teach. Rather than trying to fit our bodies into someone else’s idea of “good,” we can find ways to appreciate and enjoy our bodies for our own purposes, goals, and needs.